About 10 years ago, I had to go to Lagos, Nigeria on business. The moment I was told that I would need to travel there, I became tremendously excited: I had never been to Africa before, and this was to be my first time.
Then I made the mistake of telling my coworkers about my travel plans.
"Oh, God," they would cringe, "you're going to Nigeria? Just ... you know ... be careful." And then, without exception, each person told me some horror story related to his (or his friends', or even occasionally, his friends' distant acquaintances') ill-fated trip to Nigeria, involving dysentery, or malaria, or narrowly-missed bullets or anti-malaria-medicine-induced homicidal fantasies. If I believed everything I was told, it appeared that by visiting Nigeria, I was going into the bowels of hell itself. "I mean, probably nothing will happen to you," they'd trail off, weakly. And I would smile weakly back.
Needless to say, by the time I boarded the British Airways flight to Lagos, I was a right mess.
The flight landed in the early evening, and I made my way to the immigration desks, along with hundreds of passengers from the various flights that had landed at around the same time. In order to get to the immigration officers, after exiting the aircraft and leaving the gate area, you had to go down an escalator to the immigration area. The escalator wasn't working; but it was entirely likely that it had been turned off, because the line that formed from immigration started at the desks, went right out the door, and continued all the way up the stalled escalator.
It took about 45 minutes for me to make it to the bottom of the escalator, therefore, and by this point, my anxiety had peaked. As I stood there, trying to appear cool and calm, there was suddenly a commotion: someone at the top of the escalator had lost control of his roller bag, and I looked up in time to see it bouncing down the escalator, hitting and knocking people around as it made its way down to the bottom of the stairs.
The room, which had been buzzing with conversation, fell silent, and I waited with nervous apprehension. Would people help the man who had lost his bag? Would they yell at him? What was going to happen?
All of a sudden, a large woman in front of me -- about 6 feet tall, and wearing traditional Nigerian dress -- put her hands on her ample hips, as she glowered at the bag that had landed at her feet.
And then... then, my friends ... cutting through the heavy silence that was settling over the room, this magnificant woman steupsed.
If you have read up to this point of my story, those of you who are Trini (or have a Trini parent or spouse), have probably begun to laugh. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term "steups," it is a distinctive sound of disgust, made by, in effect, sucking your molars. It is a scientific fact that the level of derision expressed can be accurately measured by the length of time the steupser continues to make the sound without a break. Indeed, there were times in my childhood when my sister and I had so irritated my mother that she would start steupsing on a Tuesday afternoon, and the sound would continue right through to Thursday morning. It is a quintessentially Trinidadian quirk, and while it seems almost everyone in Trinidad & Tobago does it, it is a noise that I had virtually never heard outside of my home country.
Never, that is, until that evening, standing in Lagos' International Airport, behind this vibrantly irritated woman.
At that moment, and I am not kidding, every bit of apprehension that I had felt to that point completely melted away. I wanted to hug her. I realized that the noise -- the Almighty Steups -- must have crossed the Atlantic and landed in Trinidad during the slave trade centuries earlier, and had somehow survived all these years. Upon hearing that noise, as the rest of the crowd returned to their conversations (ignoring both the bag and the poor passenger who was trying to make his way down the escalator to retrieve it), I instantly felt, in a very strange way, like I had come home. And indeed, the rest of my visit to Nigeria confirmed this: everyone I met was incredibly warm and welcoming, the music I heard sounded exactly like the kaiso I've danced to all my life, even the beautiful batik fabrics worn by many reminded me of the shirts, dresses and even the tablecloths and place mats that were so popular back home (until then I'd thought batik was Trini!). My trip to Lagos was, frankly, wonderful, and one I'll never forget.
In many ways, Nigeria felt more same than different.
* * * * * * *
When Marcus and I decided to get married, one of the first things we tackled was picking a honeymoon destination. We knew that we wanted a tiny wedding, choosing instead to blow our money on a fabulous destination -- one that, preferably, we could scuba dive (for me) or surf (for him). We also wanted to go somewhere neither of us had ever been before, so it would feel like a true adventure.
After doing some research, we decided on Mauritius -- a tiny island nation just off the coast of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. Eagerly, we booked our honeymoon, and daydreamed about all the things we were going to experience on our new adventure together as husband and wife. We couldn't even imagine what we were going to see.
So you can imagine my shock when I got off the plane at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport and found myself in ... Trinidad & Tobago.
Seriously, the similarities between Trinidad and Mauritius were astonishing, to say the least. I mean, it's true that the official language in Mauritius is French and in Trinidad, it's English; however, in many respects, that's where the differences stop. Mauritius is tropical, just like Trinidad, full of coconut trees and tiny villages. Marcus and I drove through sugar cane fields, just like the ones I remember driving through as a child in south Trinidad. Each morning, children filled the sidewalks, walking to school in their proper uniforms, just like the ones I used to wear. The people of Mauritus are primarily of African, South Asian and Chinese descent -- not only is it the same in Trinidad, hell, I'm of African, South Asian and Chinese descent. The food is the same, even the folk dancing, sega, is exactly like Trinidadian folk dancing, bele. (Seriously, click on both of those links in that last sentence. Other than headdress and colour schemes, I defy you to tell me the difference.) If it weren't for the signs that were written in French and the stunning Indian Ocean (I've never seen water that blue in my life, either before or since), I would've sworn the pilot had taken a wrong turn somewhere. And I cannot imagine how two tiny islands located, literally, on opposite sides of the planet from each other could be so similar, but there it is.
Mauritius definitely felt more same than different.
* * * * * * *
In a little over two weeks from today, I'll be on my way to visit Kenya in East Africa, a country I've never visited before, with ONE.org. As I've begun to get ready for the trip, I'm realizing how little I know about Kenya. And so, as part of my preparation, I'm reading the book Unbowed, a memoir by Kenyan Wangari Maathai, founder of The Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman and first environmentalist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm only about halfway through the book, and I'm having a hard time putting it down; primarily because it's a good and easy read, but even more because of how familiar it seems: her childhood and education reminds me so much of the stories my father has told me about his. They're both around the same age. She grew up in rural Kenya, and my father grew up in rural Trinidad. She left her life behind and went away to boarding school during high school, my dad left his family to live in a city a good distance from his home to attend his high school. She marvels at the first time she saw snow fall when she went to the United States for university; one of my favourite photographs of my father is of him pointing in wonder to the snow on the ground when he was at university in England. In addition, I'm learning a lot about the history of Kenya reading her book (which, incidentally, was a British colony that gained its independence in the 1960's, just like Trinidad), and I'm getting the distinct impression that in some ways, Kenya will appear very familiar.
I could be wrong, of course -- I don't really know what to expect. Time will tell.
But right now, I have a sneaky suspicion that Kenya might feel more same than different.
* * * * * * *
"We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind. To do so effectively, the world needs a global ethic with values which give meaning to life experiences and, more than religious institutions and dogmas, sustain the non-material dimension of humanity. Mankind's universal values of love, compassion, solidarity, caring and tolerance should form the basis for this global ethic which should permeate culture, politics, trade, religion and philosophy."
~ Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize
Image: Photographed with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens. aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/200, ISO 320.