Changed by a journey to Africa

Travel Perspectives — By on October 2, 2006 at 12:54 pm

In the spring, I wrote about a contest sponsored by NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in which he decided to take a student with him on an African reporting trip.  Part of Kristof’s motivation was a belief that Americans don’t understand the rest of the world very well because they don’t travel enough or at least aren’t exposed enough to other cultures.  Kristof has now made his journey to Cameroon and the Central African Republic with the winning student, Casey Parks, who maintained a blog of her experiences for the nytimes.com.

Here are some of the thoughts she wrote down after returning to New York from Africa:

It’s so strange to be in New York, where outside my window, on one block, there is more electricity than most of the Central African Republic. I woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented. Outside my window it was still light. Does it stay light longer here, I wondered. No, it’s the lights of Times Square. It’s weird to take a shower and not worry that I’m wasting too many resources, that a hotel is using all of the energy it has to fund my hot shower. It’s weird to try to explain two weeks in a five-minute television segment.

The streets are lined with magazines. The streets of Cameroon are lined with cassava.

So, how have you changed?

It’s the question of the week.

Is there a direct, easy-to-say answer for this?

I can’t say we were poor anymore. We always had food. I had adequate medical care. Sometimes, on Sundays, we went to Western Sizzlin for the $5 steak tips.

I woke up in the middle of the night some time and turned on the television. CNN was airing a program about Africa. Two weeks ago, I would have flipped through. Last night, I watched. Any drinking water for the featured family was 20 kilometers away. Twenty kilometers. Now I know the distance of 20 kilometers: the heat that must be walked through, the rutted roads of red clay that keep your footsteps. That’s a day of work (more?) for water. And when you’ve reached home, how thirsty are you? Can you survive the walk? It was a grandmother of nine doing the walking. She often doesn’t eat or drink at all to save more for the kids.

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