Travel


While transferring at City Hall station this evening a guy I’ve never noticed before stands on the El platform next to a bucket of single pink and red roses. “A new day in America,” he repeats as a sales pitch, his eyes darting around for someone who might like to bring home a flower to a loved one.

After Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of the office of the presidency for the first time, cannons blasted mere yards away from me in the 21 gun salute common to the inauguration of every new president of the United States. The pageantry that often marks off a capital “H” Historic moment was loud and clear in my ears. The new president took a podium looking out over us 2 million onlookers and implored my generation and our seemingly cashed and failed preceding ones to give a chance to government and to give a chance to ourselves. A skeptic — wow, that’s an understatement — of presidential politics for my adolescent and young adult life under the Bush administration, I found myself willing to open myself to this new presidential figure if at least momentarily. To hear a United States president speak of our commitment to developing nations, acknowledge non-believers as equals in our national spiritual compass, and note, with bittersweet pride, the blood of slaves that was spent bringing him to this podium, rang true for me in a way unique to this new president. Even as his rhetoric occasionally echoed the words Bush used throughout his presidency, his tone indicated a more ambitious, less vengeful, more fundamentally decent understanding of the world. It was fitting, then, that both Rev. Joseph Lowery and poet Elizabeth Alexander both clung to “love” as the value to cherish under this presidency, something surely limited to the dregs of hippie-dom at most other times in modern political memory.

I, along with my girlfriend, clawed through crowds in the fabled purple ticket holders “line” to our obstructed view spot on the Capitol lawn beginning at 5:15 am, reaching a spot at about 11 am, and, like a vast majority of the country and much of the world witnessed the oath, the cannons’ blast and heard a speech that I found uniquely inspiring, particularly in its call for individual work and decency. These are not themes unique to Obama as far as inaugural speeches go, but in conjunction with my time on his presidential campaign, as well as my longtime following of his writings and career, I believe that his inclinations as a politician are uniquely geared towards rewarding the realization of those values.

What I had not considered was how much of this pageantry drove the days proceedings. The parade of former presidents had the assembled crowd display their relative affections for the respective aging politicians. I relished joining the rest of the crowd in showering Bush with boos and a rendition of “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” but by the time Obama had begun to impose his new sense of decency as presidential prerogative, I felt shamed into letting go of my urge to shame the thankfully former president. Then again, perhaps a little shaming was in order.

It is hard to fathom a crowd as large as that which assembled on Tuesday in Washington, DC, especially for the ones who were in it. Suffice to say, a willingness to give up personal space and physical well-being was a necessity. While I was legitimately inspired to witness the inauguration of the country’s first black president, it was clear that there was an aspect of perhaps less inspiring celebrity worship that permeated the events. This was especially true at the official Southern inaugural ball, where I worked as a volunteer escorting journalists around the floor of the DC Armory to interview ball attendees. A significant number of the 10,000 attendees arrived only to immediately stake out a spot in front of the podium where the VP and President would dance with their wives… for one verse each of a song. The scripted grace of both couples was great to see, though hilarious in its acknowledgment of how ridiculous some of this pageantry is. Can you imagine going to ten different dances in one night and asking thousands of random people, “How beautiful is my wife?” In any other world but that of the absurd official balls, you’d have to say Obama was just being a self-important horndog!

The city was packed with visitors for the inauguration at every turn. Even as we drove back to Philadelphia the next night, a rest stop in northeastern Maryland was packed with travelers donning their newest Obama buttons, hats and t-shirts. There are obviously people who aren’t on board the Obama train, even after all of this pomp, circumstance, and a bit of substance. But to not at least be willing to give it a chance as observers and participants in Obama’s calls for work, responsibility, decency, and opportunity would be the work of a cold heart indeed. In a world where those things are possible, I can still hold out even the slightest bit of hope for progressive, dare I say liberal change in this country. Or at least health care!

I’m not a big reader of travel writing, per se. Most of the books that I’ve read that are sold in such a section in bookstores are more like outsider or insider accounts of a given country or place rather than accounts of a specific trip through a specific geographic space. Books like Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul are two of my favorite “travel” books, but both of those authors actually live in the respective places about which they write. I mention those two examples because they write with a particular sense of understanding and empathy that marks the best travel writing — both books grab the reader and inspire an emotional connection to the place about which they write, warts and all.

When it comes to modern travel writing Paul Theroux is probably the biggest name by far. He travels all over the world, maybe just by train, maybe just by boat, and tells readers about literary and political luminaries wherever he lays down his head. My friend Alex gifted me his copy of Dark Star Safari, Theroux’s account of traveling through Africa earlier this decade. I was interested to get to this, as I had studied a number of accounts written by early Western explorers in Africa in Professor Timothy Burke‘s class called “Image of Africa.”

In Safari, Theroux meanders from Cairo to Cape Town, including stops in Sudan (pre-genocide), Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique. To many readers’ eyes, given Theroux’s narrative here, this trek is just a series of godforsaken hellholes. Corrupt government, dependent locals, and useless foreign aid workers are the characters that populate much of this text. While it is clearly no academic document, Theroux occasionally makes wry observations about foreign aid, but too often poisons it with his ubiquitous arrogance and lack of empathy. Beyond dispute is Theroux’s contention that foreign aid workers don’t necessarily help those in need to help themselves. Still, foreign aid workers have noble intentions, brave treacherous circumstances, and, at the end of the day, usually bring much needed aid (i.e. help). It seems — as some older South African relative who I may just be imagining might say — a little rich for Theroux to take on foreign aid workers while he goes across Africa writing an erotic novella and reading and rereading Heart of Darkness for inspiration.

For Theroux, Africa is a soapbox that he should realize has rather shaky foundations for the methods he uses to draw his conclusions. He notes not one positive cultural experience throughout the entire trip. No music. No African writers (beyond the South African Nobel-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer). I don’t necessarily blame him for his frustrations. Travel in any developing country is difficult, and there is no disputing that most African countries are in bad economic, and even societal straights. Still, to condemn these people to their destitution without a ray of hope in sight requires a more worthwhile approach to purely anecdotal observation.

Theroux suffers the fate of many a Western observer who aims for the crucible of Africa (like his beloved Conrad) — a loss of the capacity for empathy, and ultimate disgust. I picked up a free copy of Tim Butcher’s new book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart at WHYY. It might be hard for Butcher to avoid a similar sense of disgust, as Congo is once again in the news as one of the most messed up places on earth. Maybe he managed to catch a little soukous?

Does anyone know of a travelogue of anywhere in Africa that somehow avoids these pitfalls? Please let me know.