The following photo essay is by Charles Hood, who, like my wife and I, teaches English at Antelope Valley College in Southern California. Unlike us, however, when Charles is between semesters he is not curled up on the sofa sipping hot spiced cider from a mug that says something clever like “Cup Carrying Member of the ACLU.” Instead, Charles is off his butt and possessed with strenuous world travel. His passports, with their stamps from every continent, look like they might belong to James Bond. In any event, he went to Africa in December and is in Antarctica as we speak. Yes, that Antarctica. Maybe I can persuade him (if he survives) to write an essay here on his experiences there. But before you read further, I must caution you: Charles’ writing and photos tend to be a goad to the conscience, drawing the reader to some overwhelming questions: “Am I living too cowardly a life? Are my ambitions too low? If this guy can seize each day so magnificently, why can’t I?” Charles lives his life as a Promethean unbound, indeed; a Prometheus-at-large. I think Nietzsche would have liked Charles. As would Hemingway. May his example be one for all of us.—Santi
Africa and the Search for Authenticity
by Charles Hood
I am writing this from California, after two trips to Africa recently, with another visit (my seventh) scheduled for spring.
Have I really been to Africa? Of course: here is a photo to prove it.
Not that you couldn’t get this shot in a zoo, and probably better lit. Point is, at least I got it. Bam, nailed it. Got my lion. As Sontag and so many others have said, we need the trophy to prove we made the kill, whether it’s a trip with the kids to the zoo or a multi-thousand dollar safari spanning five countries and fifty kinds of wild animals. And it’s a lion so it’s iconic even. This “is” Africa.
Of course, Africa has all kinds of animals. It doesn’t have to be a lion. What about this shot, which is of a very African toad? Does it count?
Maybe so, since Africa is about animals and a toad is a kind of animal. Sure, that might work. A bit quirky, sure, but okay, I can put it on my Facebook page. That’s getting a bit marginal to be African, but all right. So how about this picture from France? Is it authentic as well?
Did Monet paint here? Is this a site special to the Impressionists? Well, actually, no. This shot too is from Africa, from Northern Botswana, and is not far from where the lion cub and the toad shots were taken. But it feels wrong, somehow, as if somebody said yes I went to Africa but I stayed in a Hilton. The general feeling would be, oh no, the Hilton? That’s not authentic Africa. But why can’t it be? If a Hilton is built by an African construction company, staffed with African workers, lit by African electricity, can’t that be a “true” experience too? All of Africa is not grass huts and inter-tribal warfare. Millions of people watch television, drink Coke, pay taxes, use cell phones. In fact, on a previous trip, my guide in Uganda found that when monitoring bands of chimpanzee, it was easier to stay in touch with the other trackers by cell phone than it was via his army-issued walkie talkie. His phone got better reception.
And here’s one of the chimps:
Water lilies can be perfectly African, as African as lions. And it’s not as if France isn’t partly African itself, literally and metaphorically. For long stretches of some neighborhoods in Marseille, one hears North African Arabic, not French. And it’s not as if France is always baguettes and berets (though those do exist); plenty of France is mundane, even ugly.
But somehow we expect Africa to be exotic, France to be picturesque, Texas to be redneck, and England to be charming and green. (Better stay out of some parts of East London then.) We build up our visual vocabulary through postcards, jigsaw puzzles, movies like French Kiss (poor Meg Ryan, always looking the wrong way when the Eiffel Tower slides into view). No matter how sophisticated we are, I think almost all of us still expect most places outside of our home town to look the way they are “supposed” to. In fact, there’s probably some kind of radius in this: the closer we are to where we live, the less susceptible we are to expecting visual clichés. Conversely, if we go abroad, we go with ideas already pre-loaded for what “abroad” should look like. In Warsaw this accordionist was playing for tips in the old part of the city. Or rather, what used to be the old part: World War Two leveled it, and the Soviets rebuilt it to look old. The 18th century shops and cobblestones all date from the 1950s. Still, he was happy, even though it was about to snow, and I was glad to give him ten bucks in loose change.
Would this shot be better if there wasn’t a Toyota Camry in the background? Would it be more authentically Eastern European slash Travel Charming that way? For the Sunday papers, most editors would say yes, ditch the car. But I suppose maybe if I really wanted authentic I would show mass graves from this or that pogrom, or maybe somebody pounding on the public phone because the service was so poor. Would this accordion fellow be in any way less interesting if he had been playing riffs from Pearl Jam instead of the polkas my grandmother taught me? Hey pops, do you know “Stairway to Heaven”? It makes it easier when there are no contradictions but I’m not sure it’s any more authentic.
With travel photos it’s less a search for authenticity, when it comes down to it, than just picking up the shots that do their job in terms of punching the ticket. “Okay, I’ve got lion and giraffe, so next I just need a really good zebra shot.” If my African travel slides were really accurate they would show long waits at the airport, or me fussing with my pack to dig out some toilet paper as I sprint to the loo—not because of something I ate, but because I get so anxious before flying it manifests itself with the mad dash syndrome.
Reality is inherently contradictory. On my most recent African trip I drank gin and tonic on the banks of Zambezi. I ate fried caterpillars. I ate peanut stew with goat meat and vegetables I had never heard of. I flew in very expensive airplanes made by Airbus in France, but I also flew in American Cessnas so beat-up the dials on the dashboard were all worn smooth. You had to kick the tires and fiddle with the knobs to get these planes started. Once my bush pilot fell asleep mid-journey. Yet in the airport in Johannesburg I saw a diamond necklace for sale that cost $60,000. I rode a mountain bike made from bamboo, a truly indigenous product . . . indigenous if we exclude the fact that the epoxy that held it together was a resin imported from America, as had been the tires, the brakes, the seat, the derailleur—in fact, ALL the components. It was easily 80% non-African in origin. But it was marketed as a great solution to resource allocation. Was it in any way still an African bike? Was I having an African experience to ride on a bamboo bike if the bike had American tires, American shocks, and American-made seat?
It’s all contradictions. On this recent trip, I saw schools so grim they looked like prisons. I had somebody recite Shakespeare to me, and somebody else name all of the US presidents in reverse order. (I got a 5 on my AP history test, and even I had to scratch my head to keep up.) I went birdwatching protected by a man with a loaded elephant rifle. Getting dressed by candlelight one morning I put on my black underpants without looking closely enough and discovered after it was too late that they had become infested overnight with small, black, very fiercely biting ants. Just for the record, welts on one’s testicles can take a long time to heal. Termites filled our mouths, our ears, our breakfast orange juice. There were scorpions in the shower stalls. There was the best white wine I have ever had in my life for dinner. There were beggars and corrupt police. There were Turner sunrises and daily fits of laughter and hourly acts of astounding generosity.
Will somebody come and help me sort out my memories?
The authentic and the manufactured and the strange and the everyday all have become mixed up in my head.
I went to Africa last week and now that I am back, I still am trying to learn what it was I expected to see, and if I saw it or not.
Until then, if anybody wants to see a picture of a lion, just let me know. That I did get sorted out. As for the rest, that may take years to sort out. Wish me luck.