"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I Left My Heart In Ouagadougou –The Seduction Of Foreign Travel

Bill Bailey was an international management consultant based in Washington, DC.  An MBA from Harvard, internship with McKinsey, proper New England pedigree; but despite his efforts and the considerable financial support of his parents, he chose foreign enterprise as his profession.  It was not that he felt the Third World would ever, at least in his lifetime, manage to rise to the level of a proper economic bar let alone exceed it.  It was that there was something appealing about places in disarray that appealed to him. 

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Angola, for example, had just emerged from a decades-long civil war when he arrived.  There were no hotel rooms to be had, car-jacking and kidnapping were routine, and the price of an ordinary meal was over $100.  It was a frightful, chaotic, shambles, run by a dictator who, realizing his good fortune to rule a country with vast oil deposits and diamonds to boot, consolidated his power, restricted access to opportunity, and was indifferent to rising poverty, violence, and civil mayhem.  Yet Bailey was happy there.

After making his way out of the city to the Peninsula, a narrow strip of land bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a calm, protected harbor on the other, he was at ease, at home, and in his element. The shrimp were jumbo and fresh, the Portuguese rosé dry and fruity, the breezes off the ocean and through the palm trees cooling and delightful, and the service impeccable.

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It took some doing to get from downtown Luanda to the peninsula – everyone jammed the corniche out , tired of nastiness, hungry, and impatient for soft sand, good care, and impeccable service – and it was always worth the traffic and the heat.  The breezes were indeed delightful, the shrimp and grouper impeccable, and the wine as good as advertised.

Bailey had spent a rough two weeks during his first visit, but by his second he had gotten the lay of the land.  He hired a fixer, an ex-combatant de guerre who had fought with Savimbi in the civil war, who had come out with more friends than enemies, and was agile, deft, and canny in his exploitation of a post-conflict country.  For $100 João met him at the door of the aircraft, shepherded him through immigration, health, and customs, and drove him to his hotel.  For another $500 he was Bill’s personal driver, security guard, and major domo for the entirety of his visit; and for a final $100, João  got him on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Given the traffic, he could only have two or three meetings per day, but his colleague with whom he shared the armored, guarded SUV was a young woman from Raleigh who was as indifferent to the challenge, risk, and threat of Luanda as he was.  Given the circumstances, the opportunity, and most importantly given the improbability of Angola, they became lovers and remained involved for the three week mission.

For anyone who has traveled to these unfamiliar and difficult places, such an affair would not be at all surprising.  Temporal love affairs have happened between secular and religious missionaries to far-flung places since time immemorial. It is almost de rigeur to share companionship. misery, and ultimately physical intimacy as an anodyne, an idyll, and above all an easy, uncomplicated, guilt-free remove from responsibilities back home.

There is something about the confines of threat which lubricate sexual interest.  Why not when the tontons macoute could break into the room or when the Salafist insurgents could take you hostage? Or when Ebola or fulminating River Fever could take one off?

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Otherwise respectful, and reasonable moral people throw convention to the winds in the worst parts of Africa. They easily disregard poverty and corruption, leaving it well behind the tropical sunsets and gracious service of the peninsula.  They just as easily enter into an uncomplicated, easy relationships which would be unlikely at home.  Both are different sides to the same coin.

Few travelers are immune from this particular tropical fever; but those who have not traveled where it is endemic cannot possibly understand it.  A friend and colleague of Bailey's, a woman of rectitude and fidelity traveling to Chad, was surprised and offended when she found out that the local director of a program to help eradicate river blindness, was having an affair with the daughter of the American Consul.  The daughter was sick and tired of life in the desert under the abominable control of her father; and the co-worker was desperate for any human kindness in this last outpost of the Foreign Legion.

Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham wrote best about love and intimacy in colonial outposts.  In Maugham's story, The Book Bag, a brother and sister living together on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, become secret lovers in a relationship that to all those who knew them was more complete, loving, and respectful than any other couple that had lived in the colony.  Hardy and his sister were inseparable.  When the brother brought a wife back from England, the sister could not believe his betrayal, deceit, and callousness.  She was so distraught and disconsolate, and alone that she kills herself.  Life in the insular colonial world, seemingly pleasant and convenient had been tolerable only because of her brother.  The idea of living in a world only of bridge, tennis, and tea was unthinkable.  It was this unreal life of social class and easy, uncomplicated relationships that had made their relationship possible and was the perfect environment for it to fail. 

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Scobie, the main character of Graham Greene's story, The Heart of the Matter, lives in a remote African colonial outpost in a loveless marriage.  Scobie, like Greene himself felt completely at home in West Africa, far more than he ever did at home in England.  Despite the climate, the intrigues, and complicated tribal politics, Scobie was untroubled, principled, and open to the sensuousness and openness of life in the bush.  For his wife Africa was a foreign, unforgiving place.  Her inflexible rectitude, her need for consistent intimacy, and her social ineptness made her desperately unhappy.  She was always dislocated, unarmed, and anxious and could never venture out.  Africa was a misery, a special purgatory made worse because of her husband's love of the place and his indifference to her suffering.

Both Greene and Maugham understood that African and Asian colonies were never neutral, never only places to serve and live comfortably and well.  The narrow, insular, rigidly class-conscious enclaves were as important in determining outcomes as the people who lived within them.

Joseph Conrad understood better than anyone how life in the jungle distorts human enterprise. When Kurtz utters his dying words, 'The horror...the horror', he was reflecting on how he had become as primitive as the natives but without their principles.  He had become a savage in a savage world. There was no love in Conrad's world, only confusion, struggle, and penance. 

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The world of the foreign interloper is no different.  There is something enticing and liberating about travel in foreign places.  Not only is one free from the responsibilities left at home, but free from constricting local conventions.  Foreigners are given a pass because they are too strange and uninitiated to be of any importance.  A traveler can pick and choose in a strangely tolerant environment.  Paul Theroux understood this unique sense of social and emotional liberation better than most.  Solitary travel was the most liberating.  The lone traveler could rely on no one to provide any reassuring social and cultural context.  Forced away from the familiar, one's personality and character were on their own.

Bill Bailey understood this; and life for him Africa and Asia was better than anything back home.  Returning to Washington after a long trip was always disorienting and disconcerting.  There was always a seduction about Africa and not only because of the easy sexual encounters between equally freed people, nor by the natural need for intimacy in a strange place; nor even by the excitement of foreignness itself but because of the moral hiatus of all travel.

Bill’s critics never let up.  His indifference to social justice, his lack of concern for the very people he was supposed to help, and his cavalier exploitation of his favored opportunity and good luck were nothing less than a capitulation and a dereliction of moral responsibility.

Bill of course disagreed.  He did not create the cultures in which he traveled. He did not invent the godchild of American idealism – the honored ‘noble savage’ of less-evolved cultures.  He was bequeathed them.  He was their beneficiary.  More importantly Africa had gotten to him just as it had Greene, Maugham, and Conrad - there is simply something seductive, often dangerously so - in the jungle.

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Every man wants what Bill Bailey had – a loving wife and children, secure heritage and inheritance, respect from his colleagues, friends and neighbors; but four months of the year when he was free from their yoke and the harness of respectability, honesty, and responsibility.  In most men’s eyes Bailey had it all.

There is much talk these days of sexual irrelevance.  That is, that sexual activity, when mediated through the filters of race, gender, and ethnicity loses its salience.  It is no longer the primal signifier of human relationships a la D.H.Lawrence , the essential, undeniable, fundamental characteristic of society.  We live, according to some post-modern observers, in a sexually neutral world, one characterized more about the implications of sex than sex itself.  Love in foreign countries is complicated by neither. There are never concerns about identity, sexual propriety, or ethics.  One is on one's own.  Nor does Lawrencian love exist - that peculiar, insistent search for sexual parallelism.

Bailey was not a deceitful man nor one sexually frustrated or angry. He simply caught that peculiar tropical disease which affects all single, solitary travelers and against which no one is immune.
He was not at fault if fault must be assigned.  Lay blame to the tropics, to Amin El-Saidi, to the Luanda peninsula, and to foreign lands in general.  It is simply too much to expect rectitude, fidelity, and honesty 5000 miles from home, on a tropical beach, in a refuge from the ordinary, the expected, and the predictable.

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