Africa, to Me

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An American writes about her love affair with a faraway continent and tells why travel there is so important

"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be." -- Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

The last cab driver I had was a Tanzanian named Onesmo. The soothing sound of his Swahili was enough to transport me, and as we sped through New York City's Central Park in the early morning hours near the sprawling green of the Great Lawn, I lowered my window, let my eyelids fall, and for about a minute and a half the birch became baobab, the Labradors leopards, and I was on safari again. If I don't touch down on African soil at least once a year, I panic. It has cost me a lot in vaccines and at the photo shop, plus a shattered laptop, and a nasty clash with customs over a pair of impala horns (which I found, darnit!), but I have, at last, owned up to my addiction: I am an Africa-holic. Somewhere across the years, at some intangible point, I have developed an obsession with the place; with the honest simplicity of its people, its wide-open spaces, and its vast herds of untamed creatures whose mere existence reminds us that there are still settings where the world lives quite peacefully without us. I suppose that I have, in a way, chosen Africa as my second home. And I have felt, with a sort of humble pride, that Africa has accepted and, in its inscrutable way, chosen me, too.

When our post-9/11 country asked, "What is safe?," Africa, a destination toward which Americans have historically looked askance, answered. For, as South Africa approaches the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid and Kenya welcomes its first new government in 40 years, Americans are visiting in record numbers. Despite current global problems, the World Tourism Organization forecasts that international tourist arrivals to the continent will more than double from 20 million in 1995 to 47 million by 2010.

So even in the face of poverty, corruption, and the AIDS epidemic (by 2010, there will be an estimated 20 million AIDS orphans on the continent), there is hope in Africa, and it is a hope worth witnessing. "I have never known anyone to return from my homeland unhappy," says Maggie Maranga, an African-born New Yorker who has sold safaris for over a decade. "Like any place, it has its issues, but it is striking and it is alive and its contrasts will seep through your skin and stay with you."

I had always been an animal lover and an outdoorsy type, but still I had concerns before my first trip to Africa. Would I fall prey to monster-size mosquitoes and be stricken with untreatable malaria? Would I be stalked by hungry lions with no Denys Finch Hatton in sight to save me? Or, worse, would I be gripped with grief by the preponderance of AIDS? Was I, in short, tough enough to hold out for weeks on end in-of all places-Africa?

My introduction involved a two-week immersion in the northern Serengeti. Here, I walked 15 miles a day, shadowing the wildebeest migration across the low hills with a Masai tracker, my Scottish guide, and a pair of Brits who had safaried some 30 times each. I was the baby Simba of the bunch, and they my hardened mentors. I learned how to fend off body odor with a leaf, brush my teeth with a twig, shower using just one (not two) buckets of water. At night, we lived by gaslight and by the campfire, and in the wee hours woke to the sound of branches being ripped from trees by the trunks of elephants, as well as to the occasional lion's roar. This was Africa at its wildest. You and the Big Five game and nothing but a piece of cloth in between. As it turns out, I more than survived; I reveled in it, and I have returned seven times since. Each visit reveals something new.

There is beauty in overnighting for a mere $10 in one of the campgrounds of the national parks, or in a five-course feast of Indian fare for eight for under $100. In addition to an excellent exchange rate for the U.S. dollar in almost every African country, the budget options will keep you closer to the ground, the people, and the culture. The tourist boards of many African nations now target consumers who want to travel on a shoestring.

Africa's issues come closer to being solved when tourist dollars are injected into local economies. The money that indigenous people earn from tourism-the responsible kind-helps alleviate poverty and enables them to maintain their way of life. These funds are also used for valuable wildlife research, for conservation, to build AIDS shelters, and to recruit qualified medical professionals. Wherever you can-in addition to your tips for guides-give something in exchange for your experience that will have a lasting impact both on you and on the destination.

Last year, I spent an afternoon assisting a team of conservationists in the Eastern Cape as they darted a leopard with tranquilizers and implanted a tracker in its belly (I held the legs during surgery!). The exercise was part of an ongoing project to restock the region with indigenous game that had been killed off by hunters. On my next journey, I'm toting a bag of books for a class of rural schoolchildren in Kenya, arranged through the Bring a Book Foundation, brainchild of former Peace Corps volunteer-turned-philanthropist Marcia Gordon. "It's a simple gesture, which becomes an unforgettable event for these children, many of whom have never owned a book," says Gordon.

During this insular time, when Americans are wary of taking the road less traveled, Africa is one road well worth taking. Anyone who visits this stark wonderland will likely discover, as I did, that they are overcome with an urgent longing not just to enjoy it but also to preserve it. As the pace of life hastens and the space for life recedes, we temporary tenants of Africa's wilderness are keenly aware of the privilege we enjoy.

Kristan Schiller is the former Africa editor at Travel Agent magazine.

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