I remember when I got back from my first trip to India when I was eighteen, the first thing a friend said to me was,
‘Did you find yourself?’
To which my knee jerk response was,
‘I didn’t know I was missing?’
I was thinking, while I was in Malawi, about that other great cliche that ‘Travel broadens the mind’. Essentially, as with all cliches there is a kernel of truth in this. If nothing more than the fact that travel, when done right, expands the reach of your experience, introduces you to people with cultures, traditions, habits, attitudes, beliefs that are like mirrors tilted at different angles to the ones you are accustomed to.
You can learn a great deal from this, mostly about yourself and a little bit about others. When you tilt the mirrors back to the way they were, life is different because of what you now more broadly know and is enriched by the experience.
Travel should be like taking in a great big inhalation of pure oxygen – expansive and heady – the mind broadening experience of the cliche.
But every great inhalation of fresh air requires some kind of subsequent exhalation of stale air. And it occurred to me how shrunken it is possible to become about places and people, especially amongst those who you could argue have just ‘stayed too long in a place’. The broadening of the mind becomes little more than a much larger library of sticky labels with which you can apply to people.
The funniest thing someone said to me on this trip was: ‘You know you’re being very British about this and actually also very Pakistani’.
Your catalogue of stereotyping stretches wider but your shutters can remain firmly locked down.
You risk becoming the person in the back of a Cairo taxi.
I worked in Cairo for a couple of years teaching at the British Council and each day I took a two pound taxi ride to work in the morning and a two pound taxi ride back home in the evening. Generally speaking taxi drivers were happy that this was the going rate, but every so often you would find yourself face to face with a hostile driver demanding double or even triple this amount.
One evening I got in a taxi for my journey home. The taxi driver was really friendly, asking me a lot of questions about my time in Egypt, my experiences in the place, welcoming me to his city. I was wary, to be honest. My experience had been that the friendlier the driver, the more likely there was to be a hideous confrontation at the end of the journey over money. So I was curt. Polite but disengaged in my responses, bracing myself for the fight that was likely to ensure.
When we reached my drop off point, I had my two pounds ready to hand over. But to my surprise and to my great shame, the driver refused to take any money from me. ‘You’re a guest in my country and I want you to know that you are very welcome here.’ My house was on his way home anyway and he didn’t want anything for the trip.
I felt utterly terrible. For having prejudged his kindness as a ruse, for having been so unresponsive and unengaged by a simple gesture of friendliness. This was the moment, in the back of that Cairo taxi, that I realised that it was probably time for me to leave Egypt.
When you find yourself exhaling rather than inhaling, that you’ve lost that sense of wonderment, then it’s probably time to move on. Africa, and more specifically Malawi, is still such an unknown and curious place that for me it is a two week gulp of neat oxygen – long may that continue.