White sand beach, blue sky, palm trees, thick novel, suntan lotion, me. That about covers it, the real-life version of the glossy travel brochure. The only thing missing was the big, happy-go-lucky Hollywood grin on the lounging sun bather. It wasn’t there, it was more of a scowl.
I had been at peace for a whole twelve minutes when I spotted two boys walking towards me from the other end of the beach and any thoughts of a pleasant afternoon slithered away like a snake in the sand.
I was an experienced and devoted traveler, the kind who enjoys the journey more than the destination, but this journey was killing me. The never-ending scams, savvy salesmen who have the word “no” surgically removed from their vocabulary, “tour guides” who follow you, not guide you, through 45 minutes of your constant denial, bribery, violence, corruption—Africa was wearing me down. I had another few months to get down to South Africa from Malawi, a wonderful trip on a map, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to last another few minutes.
The boys were heading right for me, of course, as I was the only one on the beach. With big smiles, they’d either ask me to buy their woodcarvings or they’d start in on some elaborate story about how their school was raising funds for a special event and they needed my money and they needed it today. They’d lose their big smiles when I said no enough times, fourteen usually does it, and then they’d either knife me on the spot or just threaten to. It hadn’t happened yet, but I was pretty sure that it would.
I watched them approach out of the corner of my eye, hoping they’d turn away, leave me to my book, to my escape. They walked easily, lightly, their clothes were authentic, worn and tattered in places only possible after years of constant use; holes and tears in places where you wouldn’t think holes and tears happen, but I guess if you wear the clothes long enough, they do. One boy had a light blue T-shirt that looked something like a tie-dye, but it was only the way it had faded. The other had an old mechanic’s uniform, complete with name embroidered above the breast, ‘Mike.’ They had no shoes and I looked to my hiking boots sitting next to me and I might as well have been driving a shiny Rolls Royce in a bad neighborhood.
I closed my book as they reached me and I looked up for there was no pretending that I didn’t notice them. I took a deep breath and prepared for the latest scam, for my latest contact-without-connection meeting with Africa.
His soft voice lulled me with a beautiful sing song African melody poetically coupled with a fancy British accent, courtesy of the former colonists, “Excuse me, sir, could you help me with my mathematics assignment?”
Now this takes the cake, this guy is too much. Math homework. Sure, pal, whatever you say. They must have special academies for this, creative workshops in the art of the deal. I could imagine it all: the kids dressed in pristine prep school uniforms, strict professors with ridiculous German accents and round glasses drilling the basics into the cadets, ‘Ve must convins ze tourist zat ve are sincere. Sincirity is ze key to successvol negohsheeashon.’ In the dressing rooms, they’d take off their penny loafers and argyle socks and put on the torn T-shirts and cut-off trousers to begin a day of prosperous tourist swindling.
I was not in the mood for this. I had just come from the post office for the second time in one day. The first time it was “Oh my frend! That will be imPOSSible! That is a PACKage, not a PACKet!” Something about a packet being under one kilo and a package being over one kilo and I needed to have packets. How silly of me. I found some cardboard and spent a few hours tying together packages with threads from steel-belted radial tires, cut my hands, found a marker to write the address, only to then leave the second time to have some Australian ruffian backpacker interview me down the road. “Did you actually see them stamp your packet and then cancel the stamps?” “Uh, no,” came my reply. “Oh, bad luck, dude. That place is so corrupt that the postal workers sell the craftsmen their own goods out the back door. Sorry, dude.” Oh, sure, someday it would all be funny to look back on, but it wasn’t someday yet, it was still today.
The boy stood patiently in front of me and slowly reached into his small backpack; there was no need to unzip it as the zipper was long gone. He whispered something to his friend in Chichewa, the local language, probably something about going for reinforcements, and the friend walked off. He pulled out a textbook, kneeled on the sand and held the book in his two hands, an offering of sorts, I unconsciously reached for my back pocket for my wallet, but it was securely in the hut. He then opened up to a page that he had dog eared and he said, “The word problems, number four.” This guy even had authentic-looking props.
I looked deep into his eyes and found a sincerity only available to the young and not yet guilty. Still skeptical, I reached slowly for the book, a wild wolf taking meat from a human for the first time. My eyes locked in his, I took the book into my hands and turned it around so that I could read. He pointed at his question number four and I followed his finger to the page and I read slowly, “Find 2 consecutive whole numbers so that when the smaller number is multiplied by 4 and added to 6 times the larger number, the sum is 166. Hint: use x and x+1.” I looked up at him and in the time it took me to read, he didn’t have a machete in his hand or even a display of woodcarvings to sell. He only looked at me and asked, “What is x?” and shrugged his shoulders. He had the soft eyes of a puppy who didn’t understand. I knew those eyes.
He searched my face for an answer but I couldn’t quite move or speak. Losing faith, confidence, and even hope for Africa, I am rescued by the purity of a young boy. My reflexes against crime, corruption, and scams were on heightened alert, but I was rendered immediately defenseless by an armory of innocence and curiosity.
The hours drifted by as we solved word problems and calculated angles inside of polygons on a warm beach in Malawi in what they call the warm heart of Africa. Math is a science, but there is an art to loving it, caring for it, sharing it like good food. We were speaking the same language, numbers and angles and formulas. He was patient and polite, he listened well and was infinitely curious and images flashed before me of myself as a teacher, a mentor, even a father. My thoughts wandered to fond memories of home as a boy, back when I too was inquisitive and innocent, when my father sat next to me at the round wooden table in the living room and taught me everything I know and love about mathematics. I hope he knows I appreciated it. I do, Dad.
“WHERE are YOU from?” he asked at some point with intonations in such odd places that it didn’t sound like a question at all. I told him and asked him the same.
“I am from Nkhata Bay,” he said with such pride that it physically moved his chin up and his head back. The name of the town started with the letters N-K-H, but he made the consonant cluster sound like poetry and it rolled off his tongue again and again as I asked him more and more about his family, his school, even his dreams. His smile beamed with delight and a happiness more real than I knew existed. My fears, prejudices, and worries slowly evaporated into the setting Malawi sun as we relaxed and talked about algebra and geometry, shoes and boots, Africa and America.
As he walked away, back down the beach from where he came, he turned to wave and his face lit up in a huge smile. I had such a huge, goofy smile on my face you’d think my own son had won the Nobel Peace Prize. My eyes were getting a little watery. He treaded lightly and the sand under his feet turned a white like snow. He disappeared into the greenery and the color of the trees changed before my eyes into a dark green that only exists in the steamed spinach of Chinese restaurants. As if paint flowed from his body, he colored the world into a new shade of blue for the sky, turquoise for the water, and a warm brown for the rocks.
I don’t think I moved for another hour. Transformed from an annoyed tourist, an outside observer, to an invited guest, a participant, even something of a friend, I leaned back and let my toes play in the sand, laughed to myself, with myself, and even at myself and basked in my newfound joy as if I had discovered a buried treasure.
I remembered why I wanted to do this trip in the first place, to see something of the world, to see things I’d never seen and maybe would never see again, to learn things I didn’t know and teach things that I did, to do that with people I didn’t understand and who didn’t understand me. To share something of me with someone else. To go beyond a certain, invisible barrier, a hurdle, it takes time and energy and sometimes pain to get over the great divide between the tourist and the traveler. Or maybe it was just to get that smile back. It wasn’t the happy-go-lucky glossy brochure grin that I was looking for, I was looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place, it was the smile that I was looking for, my smile. I had lost it, or forgotten to bring it along. I found it.
Something was churning inside of me, a love of travel, a sleepy passion woken, a sense of the old me, woken from the world of the everyday. Instead of dreading the next bus ride I looked forward to it and in place of dreaming of where I wasn’t, for the first time in weeks I knew where I wanted to be and for the first time in a long time, it was where I already was.
Bradley Charbonneau is currently finishing a novel about other treasures found along the way through Africa and Asia. Based in San Francisco and a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, he has published several stories about travel, love, and the love of travel.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.