Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Why go all the way there?

By James M. Jackson

As those who follow me on Facebook know, last month I spent two and a half weeks in Africa. I flew in to South Africa, recovered from eight time zones of jet lag, before flying to Zimbabwe (where we passed through customs, drove twenty minutes, and then walked across the border into Zambia). We spent a couple of days in Zambia, then drove to Botswana, where we spent the rest of the visit.

When I posted on Facebook that I was about to board the plane from Newark, New Jersey to Johannesburg, South Africa for a 14.5 hour trip (16-hours coming back against the prevailing winds), someone I had known since high school asked (paraphrasing) why the hell would I want to go alllll the way to South Africa when there is soooooo much to see in this beautiful country of ours. Have you been to allllll the beautiful spots in America?

I was at the airport and responded that I had not been to ALL the beautiful spots in the US, but last I looked I could find not wild elephants, rhinos, lions, hyenas, etc.

That brief exchange has gnawed at me ever since.

I know that my friend was mostly yanking my chain, trying to get a reaction. But underneath every joke is truth we may not want to expose. For starters, what does “America” mean? To many in the United States, it means the United States. We are the Americans. Forget about those other two countries that make up North America, let alone all the countries in Central and South America. It’s insular thinking that allows us to claim the title “American” for our own.

I did it myself once. Years ago while traveling, someone asked what nationality I was. I admitted to being American, and his comeback was North or South? Ever since, I claim the United States as my home country, unless I’m in Canada, then I say, “The States.”

And to my friend’s point about not seeing every beautiful spot in the US, how could you? Especially as each spot changes minute by minute as the sun peeks out here, casts a shadow there, birds call or don’t, a coyote takes center stage then slips off into the brush. Sitting and standing provide two different perspectives of beauty. But I doubt that was the point. Underlying the question was: why spend all that time and money when there is so much to enjoy in our relative backyard?

To which my response is to gain new perspectives. It has always been important, but is even more so as people spend so much time in their social media/new media echo chambers. Gaining new experiences, ideas, and perspectives helps us break out of our bubbles. Of course I wanted to see the rhinos, elephants, giraffes, etc. in the wild. But I also visited the Apartheid museum, learning (and in many cases re-learning) of its roots, the defining moments, how power shifted, the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and how the economic shadow of Apartheid still casts a pall over the country.

With exactly zero prompting on my part, every one of my cab drivers wanted to speak about (1) their current president, and (2) Trump. In both cases, they were split on whether they were good guys or bad guys. One (who favored Trump) opined that his country needed a king. Why? To make decisions that benefited the people, not the politicians, because the king would be too rich to need to line his pockets. I pointed out that several other African nations with kings or dictators had not experienced what he wanted for South Africa. Oh no, he said, they’re different from us. Perhaps he needed to travel to see how much they are the same.

As the cabbies talked about current South African problems, they sounded oh so familiar: the well-to-do pulling children from public schools and then seeking to defund universal government programs; illegal immigrants working jobs at substandard wages and in substandard conditions because only the migrants are punished, not the business owners that employ them; white and middle-class black flight from central cities; and how the lack of infrastructure investment was holding back development (South Africa has for years experienced rolling blackouts because power generation did not keep up with growth. They call blackouts “load sharing.”) Of course, the private hospitals, schools, and resorts have generators to keep the lights on, but not the rest of the country. I will say this: South African drivers are extremely efficient navigating four-way intersections without traffic lights even when there are three lanes in each direction!

The photography trip I was on included three other members, one of whom was most excited by the prospect of seeing Victoria Falls. I grew up in Upstate New York, where Niagara Falls is a natural wonder. Victoria Falls was not my priority, but I was interested to see how it compared. Victoria Falls’ native name was "Mosi oa-Tunya" ("the smoke that thunders"). On the plane ride into Livingstone, Zimbabwe, we saw the mist rising from the falls.

The next day as we approached Victoria Falls, I was surprised by how little sound they made compared to Niagara Falls. And yet, as we walked along its edge, I realized it was twice as high as Niagara and twice as wide as the American and Horseshoe Falls combined. That explained the massive amounts of mist, but why the relatively dull roar? The difference is the flow: the Niagara River puts roughly twice as much water over its falls as the Zambezi River flows over Victoria. Given Victoria Falls’ combination of height and width means it produces the largest sheet of water of any falls in the world. Seeing is understanding why Victoria has all that mist with less noise.

And we also witnessed significantly different levels of economic well-being in Zambia compared to Botswana. Why, we wondered, given the two countries seemed to have similar natural resources? The short answer is Zambian policy allowed most of the value of those resources to flow to a small group with political power; Botswana invested in human and physical infrastructure. Reading statistics about economic and political policy is one thing; seeing it on the ground is another.

As was the difference in the resources available to prevent poaching. The white rhinos we saw in Zambia are guarded full time by a small group of men and women carrying single-shot, bolt-action, non-scoped rifles. I don’t know any US deer hunters without a more powerful weapon. A single white rhino horn will bring a poacher over $80,000 USD—this in a country with an average annual income of less than $4,000. As an aside, white rhinos got their name through a misunderstanding. The names comes from the Afrikaans word for wide (‘wyd’), referring to its wide, square lip (in contrast, black rhinos have a pointy upper lip). Early English explorers mistook this word for ‘white’ and consequently named this species ‘white’ rhino, and the other rhino species ‘black’ to differentiate.

And while learning from people was fascinating, we did have some terrific experiences with wild animals. Adult elephants mostly ignored us unless their group included young. Then, the adults positioned themselves between us and the kids and maintained that shield while steering the youngsters away from us. Of course, there was that one exception when the dominant female of a herd decided she needed to make a point and charged us! We had lions walk so close to our vehicle we could have reached out and petted them (if we wanted to donate an arm to their diet).

And we watched zebras spend the night on sandy expanses so lions couldn’t sneak up on them during the night. Then in the morning they walked back to the grasses in single file, the dominant male taking the lead because he’s responsible for avoiding predators. And who wouldn’t be excited to watch baby hyenas tumble over their mother before settling down for a good suckle? Plus, we watched a leopard hunt for an hour before it successfully brought down its prey. Sure, you can see all that stuff in documentaries, but it’s not the same.

You (and my friend) may decide all my fine words are nothing more than self-justification. Yet, those experiences shape the lens through which I understand the world. There is certainly much more I can learn through closer resources, but those will never replace what I have learned by traveling abroad.

Readers, share with us something that surprised or delighted you when you traveled away from home.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


  1. love the pix, particularly the birds.

  2. What glorious pictures! The rainbow is fabulous.

    What a wonderful blog, Jim. Thank you for taking us on this trip with you. Why did you have to walk over the border into Zambia? That intrigued me.

  3. Thanks, Margaret.

    Kait, we were driven in a van from the airport to the border, went through immigration, and then walked over the border, went through imigration, and then boarded another van supplied by the same company, but with different driver. That way the vans and the drivers did not need to cross the border.

  4. What an amazing journey. I so agree with you—travel heightens our understanding and tolerance, as well as uniting us with history and culture. I'm putting this trip on my bucket list.

  5. My daughter & I went to Tanzania. We flew into Dar es Salaam, and from the time we left until we returned in a bit over two weeks, we encountered lots of sights and animals (no rhinos, though) but no one outside our group & our guides who spoke English. The person who organized the tour, however, spoke fluent Swahili, so we got along. Then we took a ferry to Zanzibar for another week. A memorable trip.

    Thanks for sharing your photos.

  6. Lori -- It is a bucket-list-worthy trip.

    KM -- because everywhere we traveled had been part of the Brittish empire, English was widely spoken -- unless people didn't want us tourists to listen in, then they switched to one of a variety of other languages.

  7. World travel is so enlightening. Glad you had an enjoyable journey. Thanks for the fabulous photos.