Her Story: Megan Williams

When I told my family and friends that my husband, August, and I were biking through Kenya and Tanzania over Christmas, their reactions were immediate and strong: "Are you absolutely nuts, isn't it dangerous? Hope you've updated your will and decided who gets your cats when you die." Everyone we knew seemed to think we'd contract an exotic, deadly disease or be attacked by a pack of wild animals or worse a warring tribe.

Overwhelmed, from that point on we began telling people we were going on an African safari, which conjured up reassuring images of the colonial experience -- the two of us reclining under a giant acacia tree, gin and tonics in-hand, after a long, dusty day of seeking out the "Big Five" from our comfortable seats in the Land Rover. "How Romantic," they'd exclaim swooning.

The problem with these images, however, was that they were not the experience I wanted. On a day-to-day level, I lead what I consider to be a fairly normal life; I wake up, drive to work, exercise, and fall into bed after watching television. In a good year, I will run the Boston Marathon or do an Ironman. I am challenged by this life, but am always looking for ways to challenge myself further both physically and mentally, which, recently, has translated into taking active trips around the world.

When I was 10 years old, I did a book report on zebras. While writing my report, I couldn't help but wonder about this land called Africa. Like Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, Isaak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, and countless others before me, I fantasized about visiting this magical place. At age 36, I was determined to make that dream a reality.

Burned out on running marathons, I'd begun cycling in my early 20s in preparation for my first triathlon. A few years later, August and I met while cycling. I asked him out and, of course, made the mistake of asking him to do a pool workout with me as our first date.

Don't ask me why I thought being in a bathing suit would be a good idea, but I figured I could at least get a good workout in if the date went sour. He neglected to tell me he was an all-American swimmer and completely trounced me in the pool. I was sunk and spent dinner after the workout wheezing.

Since, that day, we'd gone scuba diving in Roatan, Honduras and running in Beijing, and now, finally, it was time to conquer the myths about African travel.

A learning experience

We signed up with a New Zealand outfit called Escape Adventures to mountain bike from the capital of Kenya, to the capital of Tanzania: Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam. Two New Zealanders, John and Mandy, and Nash, a local Kenyan would guide our group of 10 as we biked down rural dirt roads, followed by a support vehicle named Sabrina the Bike Witch -- a bus fully equipped with a portable kitchen and the ability to hold the rotten stink of soiled bike clothes for days.

On the list of the things I expected to learn about myself, I would not have written "arrogance." But as we biked away from an ostrich farm after our first night of camping, I realized that perhaps, I'd been overconfident.

"I'm a good athlete. I run a 3:14 marathon," I assured myself through jitters on the plane from London to Nairobi. I'd never ridden a mountain bike before in my life, and had been too busy grading my students' final papers in the days before we'd left to start. "There's never really been anything you couldn't do physically. A bike is a bike," I thought. "Throw some muscle at it, and you 'll be fine."

And then I hit my first patch of African sand. See, there isn't much sand on the roads in Northern California. And African sand is a particularly difficult type of sand. Or at least that's what I told myself as I biked full tilt into a six-inch hole of the stuff, stuttered to a stop, and toppled onto my side, still clipped into my pedals. "Oh well," I promised myself as I brushed off. "That's the only time you'll fall this trip."

Not true. I got to be so good at falling that I actually managed, to the applause of the rest of the group, to fall onto my bike while I was standing next to it. It was predictably colonial of me to underestimate the African landscape.

Like many Westerners before me, I learned that the African landscape bites back, and I have the scrapes and bruises on my arms to prove it. By day three, I learned to live with the red sand, a cinnamon-colored dust so fine it would blow into our tents at night, covering us with a quarter inch of powder that stained everything it touched.

Beyond the animals

I don't know if it was unique to me, or endemic of all Americans, but as I packed, I worried more about finding large, hairy spiders and snakes in my sleeping bag than I did about my technical ability on the bike. Faced with the choice to worry about something I could control -- namely my biking skills -- and something I couldn't -- bugs and diseases -- I chose the latter.

According to John and Mandy, Americans, in general, were afraid of Africa, and therefore, few ever signed up for the trip. Only in the minds of Americans does Africa remain the "Dark Continent." And for all my worries, in the month we were there, we didn't see a single spider or snake.

When I spoke with Kenyans about how I'd always wanted to visit Africa, they looked somewhat bemused. "Yes, Kenya is very beautiful," they responded. "But where do you come from?" "San Francisco," I said. "Ah, America. It is very beautiful also?"

Just as Africa is one place to the Western imagination, America encompassed New York, Washington D.C., California, and South America to the villagers. For all our differences, it seems we all think in the blanket terms of continents.

While I learned a great deal about cultural preconceptions and my own arrogance on our trip, perhaps the most important thing I discovered in Kenya and Tanzania was the simplest: "Africa" is not only about animals. While I loved seeing the "Big Five," elephants, rhinoceros', leopards, lions and Cape buffalo, in Amboseli National Park or spotting a herd of giraffe heads peek at our bikes from above the trees, what I will remember the most about East Africa is the people.

Everywhere we went, children came running and chanting. We would hear the singsong voices of their English lessons as they ran up to us. "Hello. I am fine. How are you? Good morning," they would chorus as we pedaled through their villages at dusk. In one town, my husband turned around to find a small girl petting his arm with a wondrous expression. She had never before seen a redhead or someone who was so hairy.

Although most of these children were poor, they seemed very happy. And while Western culture holds more positives -- such as vaccines, education, and technology -- than we notice in our daily lives, never before have I seen a child smile as widely as they did in Kenya when they saw white people, with huge helmets approaching their village.

We biked primarily through Masai country, a landscape dotted with huts surrounded by thorn corrals to keep in the cattle. You can chart your distance from Nairobi by what the roofs are made of. If they are corrugated sheet metal, you are still within a day's car ride of Nairobi. If they are mud, sticks, and straw, you are far from any major city.

Crossing cultural boundaries

Before our trip, I could list what I knew about the Masai tribe on one hand from what I had learned in my Women's Studies program in college: Cattle are their currency. They eat a staple diet of cow's blood mixed with milk and make their huts from dung.

To become warriors, the men have to kill a lion by hand, and the culture as a whole believes in female circumcision and polygamy. These last two made me less than excited to stay in a Masai village. But to my surprise, after a few minutes of conversation with the village elders, I felt at ease.

Huddled around the fire against the chill that comes over the savannah in the evenings, Moses and Gideon, the two Masai elders in charge of protecting our camp from animals and curious villagers, did not look like the monsters I had expected. They chuckled and looked directly into our eyes when we asked them questions through Nash, our translator and Kenyan guide.

Our ability to talk revealed something to me about humanity's ability to communicate across insurmountable cultural boundaries. To them, I was most likely a profligate Westerner who did not have the good fortune to stay at home with multiple offspring. To me, they practiced acts of barbarism and violated my definition of marriage.

"But why have two or more wives," my friend Maria asked with typical bravado.

"They have their own huts, and I have mine," Gideon laughed. "When one is angry at me, I can go to the other one and then the one who is mad will get jealous and will forget to be angry with me and sometimes I want to escape them both."

Since I had spent that day fighting against my bike and my husband's newfound and exceedingly annoying habit of blurting out useless advice like "shift" and "pedal" to me just as I was free-falling off my bike, Gideon had a valid point.

"What is one thing you hope to do before you die," Maria continued.

"See the ocean," Moses interrupted without thinking. In the silence left by his answer, I was struck by how similar our dreams were. All my life I have lived next to the ocean, desiring more than anything to see the African savannah and desert.

In life, we travel to learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. Some days I can do this in my car on the way to work. Some vacations I can do this lying on a beach in the Caribbean. But this year the morning commute and the holidays had started to feel a bit stale. I had started to go through the motions of living.

Since I have returned from Africa, I've carried with me a basic belief that the internal landscapes, the dreamscapes, if you will, of people the world over are the same. Whether we are born in the desert or near the sea, we all dream of seeing something different. The ultimate irony of this desire is that by looking at difference, we might, in fact, recognize kinship.

Megan Williams is a marathoner and Ironman triathlete living in San Francisco. She teaches English at Santa Clara University. Routledge recently published her dissertation on nineteenth-century American Literature, and she has written for Contemporary Literature, Modern Drama, North Dakota Quarterly, and Alligator Juniper.

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