“You’re nuts,” the attractive freckle-faced twenty-something brunette sitting next to me at the airport bar said, very matter-of-factly.
“Probably,” I said, taking a sip from my cocktail. “But I really want to go. I have to go really. To clear my head.”
“You’re going to Rwanda to clear your head?” She looked at me, taken aback, incredulous.
Then she continued, “Why not just stay and clear your head here, in the American Riviera, and be safe? They kill people over there. Nothing ever happens here.”
“I realize that,” I said. “I like those sorts of places though. I once was a plastics salesman in Beirut.”
She gave me a strange, puzzled look, shrugged her shoulders, and we both finished our respective cocktails without saying much more to one another. She her Screwdriver, me my Singapore Sling, and within an hour, I was on-board a flight to LAX, and then after a few stops in some strange lands, Rwanda.
This is an attitude I have encountered a lot over the years. I have a penchant for visiting “third-world” countries, most of which are ones with negative connotations that nobody wants to visit.
“You’re going to Beirut? They bombed the Marines there!” An overweight, walrus-looking car salesman once barked at me, before a trip to Lebanon, which I found to be an absolutely stunning, beautiful, wild, and friendly place. So I am used to hearing these sorts of remarks. They don’t deter me.
And after another long, strange trip, during which I slept in airports for literally a week, I got to Rwanda. Arriving, I didn’t know what to expect. Listening to reports, one would guess that every person in Rwanda had bones through their noses and chased tourists around with machetes in an effort to replay the genocide committed 20 years ago, only this time on unsuspecting muzungus (white people). And if the natives didn’t kill you, the lions and cheetahs and gorillas that undoubtedly lurked by every skip would show up in your backyard some morning while you were drinking dysentery-causing, virus-infested water and rip you limb from limb.
With all the horror stories propagated by the media, even I half-expected to find the idea of Africa that we have all come to know and love. You know the place; the land of starving, naked children begging and dying in the streets, the land of dirt roads, the land of corrugated tin shacks, and the land of rabid, desperate people ready and willing to painfully hack you apart with dull blades for no apparent reason aside from wanting the Grateful Dead T-shirt off your back.
But that wasn’t the case. The Rwanda I found was eerily similar to some of the affluent areas I have visited over the years, including Santa Barbara and West L.A. Beautifully landscaped yards, well-kept, tiled-roofed houses, wild nightclubs, and restaurants with the finest food and booze imaginable. On top of all that, I found the friendliest people in the world. Big grins and waves to you on the street, lots of laughing and good times. This certainly isn’t the Africa that is described in the news or on infomercials.
And then one calm morning while having coffee on a rooftop veranda, a headline on the television news, here in Rwanda, pierced my soul, “SIX DEAD IN SANTA BARBARA RAMPAGE.”
You all know the story, apparently a deranged geek went on a killing spree, furiously taking six people and himself out at once. I watched the report with African strangers, a report that showed some of my old haunts, transformed from a balmy funhouse, those carefree nights but a few weeks ago, to bloody crime scenes in the present day.
And yet, that was supposed to be the safe place. The place where that didn’t happen. The beacon of sanity and security.
I’m not going to speculate as to why the guy decided to go on his rampage, frankly because a lunatic like that needn’t be dignified with any sort of celebrity. He was a lunatic who killed innocent people, no different than a nondescript thug with a machete from the Rwandan horror story 20 years ago.
I ran into a woman there, who, by sheer, dumb luck, had avoided being blown up by fanatics at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 by 15 minutes. Her housekeeper called to tell her the movers, who weren’t supposed to be there, showed up, so she hurried home, leaving her office in the embassy to go fire her housekeeper for letting people in that weren’t supposed to be there. Within 10 minutes of her leaving, a truck bomb was detonated, killing everyone inside the office she worked with. If not for a disobeying maid, she would have found herself in one of those bloody body bags that littered the parking lot as officials attempted to sort out the carnage.
The point of this seemingly nonsensical rant is, though, that you can’t protect yourself from every possible thing that may go wrong or hide from the things that go bump in the night because they can strike at any point and at any time, so get out and explore the world. Don’t hide; appreciate the craziness of everything. Keep living. Don’t let the crazy fucks get you to cower from the fruits of life.
Go to the places that are “too dangerous,” the places that are “too crazy,” the places that are “too extreme,” because you never know what will happen. One day you might be walking through a sleepy little college town and find yourself the victim of some idiot’s frustration with the world around him, or on the business end of a genocide or a truck bomb at an embassy. It’s no use to hide, because sometimes the vicious, appalling underbelly of the world has a way of seeping into even the most unlikely of places, like sleepy little Isla Vista.