Leaving the country is a lot like dying. At least, this is how people act when they learn that your destination will be a place where the dominant skin color isn’t white. As soon as you say you’re going, friends and family, even soon-to-be former co-workers, begin to mourn. And eventually you stop telling people about your destination because it only accelerates the grieving process.
It’s true: you might be going away for a long time, maybe for good. Still, it’s not the length of time that makes you seem terminally ill to your friends. It’s the destination. Your friends have all seen the same Hollywood films, the same highly mediated news footage, listened to the same spots on NPR that depict the countries of Africa as chaotic pits of destruction.
Stereotypical assumptions that go back at least as far as the 18th century suddenly begin to emerge in your friends, who are otherwise intelligent and sensitive people. Won’t you get a disease? Don’t they have insects there bigger than small dogs? Dirt floors? Burning cars? Dusty jeeps full of angry, heavily armed young men rolling through the streets? One in every six people dying of some kind of retrovirus? Beheadings? The tattoo of distant ritual drums in the night? No Wi-Fi?
Such questions run on ignorance like the worst hearsay-fourth-hand impressions founded largely on the unkind fictions that necessarily emerge when vast economic and geographic distances stand between cultures. It’s as if your friends stop hearing themselves, stop seeing (if they ever did) that such concerns are veiled only by an inherent legacy of racism that seeks to remain invisible at all times beneath worries about health, safety, and cultural backwardness.
In your last week at work, Jim pulls you aside and says, “Don’t bullshit me. You own a vest?”
“You know. Kevlar. For the bullets. Travelers can get them now.”
The bullets. The bullets constantly flying through the air between the disease-ridden mosquitos and crazed death threats.
“Got a Koran?” he says. “Seriously. You haven’t thought of this? Where’ve you been? Put it in your carry-on.”
“It’s a predominately Catholic country, Jim.”
Jim looks at you with a wide-eyed concern, his lower lip quivering. “I heard it’s hell on earth.”
“Really? Where, exactly, did you hear this?”
“What happened to you?” Jim says. “Normal people just do Xanax and a therapist. They don’t run off to Africa.”
You decide that your friends have also read the same books about death and loss. Everybody seems to understand that the denial phase is supposed to follow the bargaining phase for the terminally ill. And when you say positive things about “that place,” you’re obviously in denial.
You receive emails with subject lines like, We’ll Remember You Fondly and Concerned But That’s Life, Right? The mother of an ex from long ago sends you flowers with no card, just a wreath. People start unburdening themselves, explaining, clearing the air, making their peace. Several of them may have taken Xanax beforehand.
Nearly all of them mean well. Nearly all of them are uninformed and strangely proud of it. Yes, there are dangerous elements on that continent. Yes, you must take anti-malarials and get vaccinated for Yellow Fever and Typhoid. Yes, there is a history of abject poverty and political instability of some of the countries through which you will travel. And yes, most of these elements can be found elsewhere in the world as well. But never in such lethal concentrations, goes the objection. When you reference the malaria problems in Alaska, the glories of south central Los Angeles, or the entire catastrophe of Detroit, most objections of this sort stop.
The mundane logistics of going take up all your time, all your emotional energy, and you catch yourself thinking that maybe Sarah from admin is being extra passive-aggressive today. Then you realize: no, she’s just composing a potential eulogy, envisioning how she’ll redecorate your office as soon as you depart, as soon as you’re departed, dearly.
People wonder out loud if you’ve learned the language at your age, which is inconceivable since everyone knows only children can learn new languages and certainly not full-grown Americans who’ve lost their virginity, paid taxes, and had full-time jobs. You tell them you will be able to get by at first with what you’ve learned from Rosetta Stone and that you’re not worried about it because you’re a quick study with languages. No one believes you. They shake their heads in dismay or nod condescendingly: you are either crazy, stupid, naïve, or a secret genius-which they have already decided is the least likely option.
Instead, they ask about the hospitals, whether, you know, germ theory is understood by the “native doctors.” Those still capable of politeness take a more circumspect approach: This is so fascinating. Now, is western medicine very present there? You tell them that people drop dead on the street for no apparent reason, that the local hospitals practice leeching and diagnose through spirit communication. Everyone nods. That’s what they thought.
As JFK drops away beneath the plane, you listen to the hiss of the cabin air, the hydraulics of the landing gear being retracted. There are four connections and twenty-seven hours of flight time ahead of you. When you land in Bujumbura, Burundi, you will have moved one day into the future. You start a new page in your journal with this line: There is no way to truly know a thing unless you live it. Then you close the journal. The rest of the page will have to remain blank for the time being.