Last fall I reviewed a collection of women’s travel writing in Egypt for the Journal of African History and it struck me afresh with the challenge of writing in an engaging and meaningful way about travel. When you travel to a place like Egypt, that has so much history, it can be easy to forget that it also has a modern existence. In the collection, I read narratives of women who expected to arrive in Alexandria and somehow access the experiences of Alexander the Great. There were trips along the Nile from Upper Egypt loaded with imagined pharaohs and their servants. While history is certainly engrained into the meaning of a place, our present day travels cannot expect to directly participate in some staid historical idea, out of sync with the location’s contemporary existence. History of a place — just like history of people — is best used when it informs our understanding but doesn’t fully define it. In turn, I have come to relish travel writing that opens up a sense of possibility rather than creating narrow, historically-derived blinders.
It would be hypocritical to leave my criticism there and not make my own attempt at the kind of travel writing I admire. To that end, I have decided to relate snippets of my own travel experiences in a way that might make a place appear in a new light. My goal is to focus on events that surprised me, caused me to ask important questions, or shed new light on the complexities of a location. When debating a topic for this first work in progress, I immediately recalled a woman I saw twice, but never talked to while in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last summer...
I am always impressed by women who look put together, organized, and professional while traveling. It is something I aspire to, but I’m not sure I ever quite achieve. I seem to have one bag too many, or my book in hand at the wrong moment. I am all the more impressed, then, when I see someone looking especially capable — as opposed to overwhelmed — while traveling to the developing world. When Stephen and I de-boarded our plane in Kigali, Rwanda one July night, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a woman I saw mingling with us among the baggage. She was white, with wavy brown hair that hung somewhere between her chin and shoulders, and was a bit disheveled, as I imagine we all were. If I recall correctly, she was speaking on a cell phone to someone in French. What drew my attention most, though, were her shoes. As she searched for her luggage she wore spiked high heels that added at least four inches to her height. How did she comfortably get around the airport — any airport — in those shoes, especially with luggage in tow? What brought this woman to Rwanda? I felt of mixture of awe and confusion.
We found our bags, as did she, and moved on. That night Stephen and I stayed at a guest house in Kigali, and the next morning we made the three hour drive to Goma, DRC. We stared out the window for most of morning as the driver took us through the rolling hills of Rwanda. The road was smooth and freshly paved — creating a positive sense of Rwanda growth. The scene outside appeared like a bucolic paradise as mineral-rich red soil gave way to green pastures.
Perhaps my positive impressions became all the more vivid because of the contrast between Rwanda and the Congo. Upon crossing the border the sense of possibility immediately faded. The eastern Congo has been devastated by war for 20 years. When we arrived fighting had just intensified as the United Nations began actively battling against the M-23 guerillas who had caused so much turmoil. We met our hosts at the border, and carefully made our way with all of Stephen’s camera gear into the Congo. A full explanation of the scene and our first ride through Goma will have to wait for another post...
To gain entry into the DRC we had to present a number of documents at the immigration counter, and were immediately indebted to our host Katavo as he translated for us and helped us with our bags. As we stood there waiting, I turned around to take in the scene. I could hardly believe it when walking up behind me was the same woman from the night before. Still in her high heels, this time she carried a large paper shopping bag full of books among several other pieces of luggage. As she made her way up the stairs to the immigration desk, her paper bag split open and half a dozen books spilled onto the ground. She gave a frustrated laugh as she attempted to pull her things together. Immediately two Congolese men proceeded to help her. In a single moment she looked completely out of her element, and yet I also felt that perhaps she had a much stronger command and understanding of what was going on around her than I did. After all, how could she make it this far without knowing what was expected of her. Rather than appearing vulnerable, she seemed to know precisely what she had to do. I couldn’t decide if she presented something to aspire to, or to avoid.
That was the last time I saw her. She made her way to the immigration desk, and we got our visas stamped and headed further into the city. The roads were cavernous compared to Rwanda, and the white woman in high heels faded from my concerns. How oddly trivial and strange that the simple detail of her footwear could make such a lasting impression. Perhaps because she at first appeared to embody every travel pitfall I tried to avoid, and yet she remained above it, undeterred, and oddly capable.