Africa's tests for the traveler

Be precise, flexible, and willing to be surprised

"Travel is fatal to prejudice," Mark Twain once observed.

As we prepare to cross from Africa into Europe, I wonder if this is true. Have I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of Africa and Africans?

Or am I secretly or even subconsciously glad to be headed toward the home of my ancestors, my culture? Have the sights, smells, and sounds of "the developing world" been too strange, a little scary, even offensive? Am I simply looking forward to the mundane comforts, the relative ease of communication, a greater sense of personal security? (Hot water I can count on, home cooking, high-speed Internet access.)

I don't think so. To me, everything we've seen and done so far has been highly stimulating - from the physical and mental challenges of long-distance flight in a light aircraft to the encounters with Africans at airfields and in the marketplace to the extraordinary view of Earth we get from our low, slow perch in the sky.

"You define good flight by negatives," travel writer Paul Theroux wrote in his book "The Old Patagonian Express." "You didn't get hijacked, you didn't crash, you didn't throw up, you weren't late, you weren't nauseated by the food. So you're grateful." I've always thought Theroux was a bit of a sourpuss, but there is a temptation to define travel in terms of negatives avoided.

I prefer to see travel as an impetus to thought, a means of self-examination, a sort of a test. Can I remain cheerful and enthusiastic - "willing to be surprised," as a friend puts it - in the face of strangeness and a bit of discomfort? It's also a great chance to see the connectedness of people and places.

I don't just mean the homogenization of global culture. The familiar soft drinks and fast-food. The English-language rap music coming out of market stalls in Mali and Morocco. The number of young people here with San Francisco 49ers and Georgetown Hoyas sweatshirts. Cellphones glued (it seems) to half the ears on the continent. The ubiquitous American brand names.

Instead, I'm thinking of the closeness of families and friends I've observed in the streets, the evident industriousness, the helpfulness we've experienced, the welcoming attitude pilot Arthur Hussey and I have so often encountered.

It sounds silly to say so, but there are no national or tribal boundaries visible from the air. Although our modes of transport are far different, I'm reminded of the first moonwalkers' response to their remarkable view of Earth, which resulted in a new affection for the planet and a unity that transcends divisions.

We're approaching the halfway mark in the trip. Maybe at this point in our travels, as wearying as they are invigorating, it's as Charles Dickens said: "Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wanderings." There's an impetus to accelerate, to leapfrog ahead toward home and family.

We're not exactly wandering, Arthur and I, as we ferry his Cessna from Africa to Alaska. This is a mission with an exact purpose and a plan that - like flying itself - has to be both precise and flexible, well thought-through as well as intuitive.

If you encounter an extremely stiff crosswind, you draw on everything you've learned in 10 years' flying to bring your Cessna to a safe landing (as Arthur did the other day coming into Casablanca, Morocco). If you need to change plans about which hotel or which city or even which country you'll be spending the night in, no big deal.

"The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page," wrote St. Augustine. I've already seen my library expand - if only a little - as we proceed north to Europe.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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