We live in a world of convenience. We can buy just about anything we need without leaving home. We’re increasingly interacting with people online. Heated debates over pints and packets of crisps are being replaced with rants on social media. And then occasionally, we’re reminded of the importance of real people and real experiences. In Zanzibar recently, I met Meshek (I hope that’s how he spells his name), a not-yet-but-soon-to-be 23-year-old who moved to the island from Tanga, a port city in northeast Tanzania, to start an enterprise that failed. Undaunted, he rerouted his dream and is now working at Zanzi Resort, adding to the Zanzibari experience for tourists from all over the world and enriching their lives one conversation at a time.
We’d gone to the jetty to watch the sunset. He was there setting a table for dinner. Two guests had opted to have their evening meal by the water. We’d ordered cocktails and were sitting watching him at work. We got chatting.
He got to talking about his grandfather, a man he looks up to. He’s 110 and still alive and well and holding court back in Tanga. Meshek was born Roman Catholic but crossed over to Lutheran (he describes himself as a son of Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German reformer) when he started living with his grandfather. His great-grandmother lived to be 128. Great ages, I thought, and perhaps a little fantastical. Bad on me. Back in 1982, a report from Dar es Salaam recounted the death of Kingamkono, a Tanzanian peasant who died at the age of 140.
Religion in this part of the world seems rather fluid with people moving between the various Christian orders with the ease of someone moving cities. Meshek told us stories about Machambo, stories about the stories he’d told him. He wondered at how different life is now than it was back in the early 1900s when his grandfather was born. And he spoke sadly of young people today:
This generation knows the internet more than they know how to live. They spend their lives sitting.
I was reminded of this during the week when sitting at my laptop and surfing Facebook, I came across a piece from A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut. In it, Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope:
“Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And I’ll ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is – we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And it’s like we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Justin Francis wrote a piece of travel and different types of travellers for The Independent a few years back entitled Does travel really broaden the mind? in which he talks about the need to ‘re-appraise our approach to strangers at home and on holiday’.
Back in reality after a few days in Tanzania, I’m grateful for having the wherewithal to travel, to meet new people, learn new things, see new places. These occasional ventures abroad and indeed opportunities to fart around at home, often lead to chance conversations with Meshek and others. Without fail, they give me new things to think about. And for this I’m grateful. As Mark Twain supposedly said, ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…’ and now, more than ever, we need to hit the road.