We went to Europe for a little family holiday last week. I was in London for about a week, then in Paris with my oldest brother for 3 days. By coincidence my entire family was all in England at the same time, and since I'm going to be in Africa for Christmas I decided to go up there and relax for a few days in the civilized world (thanks Dad). We did most of the pretty standard sightseeing: the Eye, some castle, Roman baths, Eiffel tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon’s tomb, parks, etc. For me that isn't even really the interesting part. After 6 months in semi-rural Africa, just being back in a big city and being nothing more than another white person in a sea of white people was just mind blowing.
The biggest things that I really just had trouble wrapping my mind around were probably traffic and transportation related. The fact that there were traffic lights everywhere was just too weird for me. It took me close to a week to be able to just cross the street and trust that I wouldn't get plastered onto the front of a boda boda. The walk signal was just hilarious to me, a little traffic light just for pedestrians.
Bikes kind of tripped me out. Everyone on bikes was either meandering along or racing about, as if they were on bikes just for recreation- rather than as a mode of transportation. I didn't see a single person in a suit on a bike or anyone on a bike holding a baby, it was shocking. Despite the striking obsolescence of bikes there, bikes had their own special roads. A little road just for bikes. Too weird.
Or how about little rickshaws just for babies. You will never see as many babies as you do in East Africa, but I have never ever seen a stroller. Everywhere up there you see little people just chillin’ and enjoying the scenery while their elder slaves away at the back of a little cart- for free.
And don't even get me started on mass transport. Mass transport in Uganda consists of cramming into an already full 1982 Chinese minibus. It's going somewhere, and if you're lucky that’s the direction you're trying to get. They don't necessarily have routes per se, but there is a guy leaning out the window shouting where the bus is headed. So needless to say the London Underground was the coolest thing ever. An underground city, just for trains. And if you get caught up talking to someone for even just 5 minutes, that thing will leave without you. A bus scheduled to leave at 4:47 won't even wait till 4:50. How rude.
And really, time is an entirely separate thing worth talking about. We have mentioned African Time extensively. Experiencing African Time as a white person in Africa is one thing, it's annoying, it's baffling, it's kind of quaint. It took a while but I adjusted, I even internalized it and learned to operate on it. I am now pretty fully on African time- which became a problem when I left Africa.
It turns out White Time (as it's called) is kind of stressful. Everyday all day its like be here, do this, go there, do that. I don't know how many times I said “wherever we have to be, it will still be there in an hour. Let’s take a break and chill out.” I think I was “late” to each and every engagement I had for the full week. Each time some series of small things came up, which to me felt unavoidable, but it was just normal daily life things that certainly didn’t stop me from being on time six months ago. It really makes it a lot harder to be mad at clients and friends here when they’re 45 minutes late for a 30 minute meeting, it’s just a different way of living. The enduring feeling from it was I really felt like I was being pushed around by time, like as a “white” we are really subordinate to time. In Africa on the other hand, time lives to serve you. This all came to a head when I was in Paris taking the subway to the airport. I was so stressed out by the whole thing that I gave myself like a 4 hour window, and was still panicked the whole way. I was sure I would meet some small obstacle and miss my flight. Time was a hostile force trying its hardest to ruin my day. No thanks.
Oddly enough when I got into a huge crisis and actually did run the risk of failing to make it (or so it seemed), the only person who had the time to stop and help me was… Not even joking, an African. All the Whites (or French as they’re also known) in the train station couldn’t be bothered to give 5 minutes to help their poor lost brother. I’m on the edge of losing it, and up walks this black dude with an African accent: “You look lost, do you need some help?” He literally led me to my train and sat with me to make sure I ended up ok. It was the same experience I’ve had before a zillion times here in Africa, people doing nice things because it’s the nice thing to do. Maybe it was just a coincidence; probably I’m making revisionist history, but whatever it’s my story I’ll tell it how I want. African Time may have significant downsides, but we really do lose something by valuing a clock over another human being.
And finally, I couldn’t fail to mention the mini panic attack the first time I sat down to a nice meal. I looked at the menu and saw so many things I wanted so badly, things I have literally had dreams about for six months. And it was too much, I had to close the menu and take a minute to relax and chill out. I finally settled on a nice steak and a green salad with prawns plus some fancy red wine (among several other things). No exaggeration, I think it was the most I have enjoyed a meal in my entire life.