I flew out of Rwanda to Tanzania on Wednesday, spent two very dusty days on safari, and I’m now temporarily ensconced at a nice hotel in the middle of Moshi, which is not terribly nice. It is dirty and dusty and The Hustle is alive and well here.
I hate The Hustle, even though I understand why people do it. I took a very short walk – less than five minutes – to change a little money, and was ‘greeted’ by two different men, one who wanted to sell me ‘authentic wood carvings,’ and one who wanted to give me a guided tour around town. I was curt to the point of rudeness with both of them, and fled immediately back to the hotel the moment my errand was complete.
Part of it is that there is literally no possible way for me to not look like exactly what I am – a tourist, and a blindingly, glaringly white tourist at that. I do not blend. I am the opposite of blend, whatever that may be. And a blindingly white tourist wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap to guard against the noonday Tanzanian sun (while smelling of sunscreen) is a screaming, waving banner that you are not one of the rare expat Europeans living here, but an actual tourist, fresh in from the continent, or maybe Australia or the United States.
Which means you have money. You needed a lot of money just to get here, never mind to do whatever it is you’re doing here.
And they – comparatively – do not.
The fact that I am comparatively wealthy was hammered home again and again on this trip, as it so frequently is when I travel to developing countries. To be sure, I am not wealthy enough to buy a home in Bellingham, but compared to a young single mother with three kids surviving on a hillside in Rwanda through subsistence farming, I am Bill Gates.
And this makes it even harder when you are being asked to give. A young man in one of the villages asked, in good English, if I would help him pay for his schooling. I told him no. But, why?, he asked. I have no money to give, I replied, and felt mildly ill having said it.
Of course I have money to give. The real answer was, I have no money that I will choose to give in this way.
I think the discomfort of being wealthy in a poor country transmits itself to people in lots of different ways. Many tourists give small amounts of money to begging children; in more than one roadside stop children swarmed us with hands out, calling, “Money, give money!” We had collectively made the choice not to give money to children, but some members did give out lollipops and toy cars, which caused a minor riot in one small village that an elder had to break up with smacks to heads.
For some people, the discomfort is assuaged through shopping, particularly shopping that labels itself well. A cooperative sounds equitable and ethical; a women’s cooperative sounds equitable, ethical, and promoting the needs of women in a country struggling with gender equality. And above and beyond that, the price of everything is incredibly cheap. A little soapstone carving is 5,000Rwf, which is roughly $5.
And you can still aggressively haggle them down another whole dollar!
But for all the ‘unique’ goods sold in the markets, the cooperatives, and the shops in Kigali….my safari jeep stopped outside Tarangire National Park in Tanzania on our way out because we’d blown a tire. My guide – conveniently – left me at a roadside crafts shop where he knew the folks, and zipped off to get the tire fixed. And as a very polite and pleasant Hustle escorted me inside the shop, I saw, lining the shelves and hanging from the ceilings, the very same soapstone carvings, the very same wood-carved wildlife, the very same ‘African’ prints, that I had seen in Kigali just a few days before.
* * *
I think what I am coming to realize on this trip is that I am turning into That Which I Have Always Feared: a woman who just wants to be a tourist.
This is an extremely uncomfortable mantle to wear, because I always envisioned myself as Adventurous Martha, as Fearless Martha, as Martha who would walk the streets of Moshi, unafraid and completely at ease, learning about the local culture, eating the local foods, learning the language. Instead, I am most at ease sitting here by the pool, under a huge umbrella that blocks the sun, drinking Orange Fanta and eating french fries that I know won’t give me food poisoning.
I am coming to realize that aside from the few small and particular gifts I always get for my mother and father, I am not interested in acquiring things. I am uninterested in supporting the local economy through shopping. Nor am I interested in an agenda-less adventure. I don’t want to explore the town on my own – I have never felt safe doing so, and probably never will. Whether this is a deeply seated colonial mindset, a quiet unconscious racism, a baseless but intrinsic fear, or just the reality of being a woman traveling alone, I do not know, and I am not quite ready to unpack that heavy burden now.
Instead, I am slowly becoming a person who plans a trip, leaving some details in the hands of the experts, and shows up to be escorted along on an adventure. When the jeep picks me up, I hop in and we go. When the guide says, our hike starts here, I lace up my boots and I walk. And in the meantime, I can do my absolute and utmost to never, never be An Ugly American Tourist.
And if you have encountered us overseas, particularly in developing countries, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The waitresses, the housekeepers, the drivers, the shop owners – they are not here to serve me. They are not less than me. They are here to help me, because the universe surely knows that I absolutely and unquestionably require their help, here in their country, far from my home.
I try so hard not to be demanding. Not to be fussy. Not to be indignant or whiny when things aren’t exactly as they are back in the United States. I eat the food that’s given to me, drink what’s available, appreciate a bed when offered, and learn how to say “thank you” in the local language.
And then I say it a lot.
And I will put money back into the economy through my tourism. Through hiring guides and porters and drivers that are based locally, hire locally, live locally, and work ethically. Through leaving a very generous tip in the tip box at the front desk of the hotel. And occasionally by financial and volunteer support through a few (very) carefully chosen organizations.
It is not my place to change their world directly. I used to think it was. I think I was wrong.
But perhaps I can change their world indirectly, by simply showing up – and, interestingly enough – allowing the experience of it to change mine.
* * *
Rwanda is very beautiful. Mu Rwanda ni heza.
It truly is the land of a thousand hills. Any drive anywhere in the country is one of endless vistas, endless views across the rolling farmlands to the hills beyond. It was green and lush in the dry season; I can’t imagine how electrifying the colors must be during the rainy season.
The main roads are smooth and in good repair. Kigali is safe, well-lit, and growing enormously fast. The restaurants serve really good food, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of homemade ugali, then I recommend booking a flight immediately.
But life in Rwanda is also very hard. It is hard to survive on subsistence farming. I watched countless strong young men and women, two or three at a time, pushing an overloaded bicycle, tottering with bananas, vegetables, sugarcane, charcoal, up a long steep hill to the weekly market.
It is hard to survive when it costs nothing to ‘catch’ a child but costs more than nothing to feed and clothe them, and more again to send them to school.
It is hard to survive when you need to carry your water containers several kilometers to the well, wait in line, fill them, and then walk the heavy, bulky containers home again.
Out of Kigali we saw comparatively few personal cars. There were minibuses, completely overloaded. Motorcycles, almost always used as a taxi. But there were always endless lines of people, scattered along the verge, walking. Walking, walking, walking. Carrying loads on their heads. Carrying children wrapped tightly to their backs. But always on their feet, for how else do you do the things that need to be done to survive? To live? To try to thrive?
It was a gift to meet the people of the small villages where we installed the solar panels; they never knew we were coming and yet we were always greeted and welcome. It was a gift to be embraced by a family, to be herded into a common room and be offered a loud, chanting prayer, “Ahhhhmen-ah!” closing it out to a round of applause.
It was a humbling gift to see their lives, and to compare it to the one I get to return to in just a few short weeks.
* * *
The world is far too big, and carries far too many wonders, for me to explore it all in my lifetime. This was a terrible miscalculation on the part of the universe, to provide me with seven lifetimes of Things Incredible to try to squeeze into only one.
I often visit a place and wonder, on the flight home, if I’ll ever return there again. Many times I think I probably will not. Sometimes I am uncertain. And very rarely do I know, with assurance, that I will.
I have no doubt that I will return to Rwanda.
* * *
I’m heading off the grid for several days, so I’ll sign off:
A safe journey forward to you all.