I was 16 years old and knew how to handle myself. I was fit, lean and had spent a lot of time in the gym. OK, I was skinny, maybe even scrawny and the gym workouts had likely done more for my ego than my physique, but… I had watched action movies ardently for the past, oh at least 3 years… the more violent and grotesque the better. I was primed for anything.
I had decided to spend the school holidays backpacking northwards from my then home country of South Africa, into Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. They all seemed like reasonable countries to visit. Mozambique was still littered with land mines, occasional roadside slaughters still took place, and well, time and money were both limited (a kid pushing trolleys at the supermarket doesn’t earn much) so those where the choices for better or worse.
I’d been saving for 2 years (working illegally… stupid age laws) and had saved enough to make the trip, albeit on a tight budget, and had managed to persuade my parents it was a grand idea.
The train from downtown JHB to Bulawayo proved to me that train transport in Southern Africa was the exclusive domain of those endowed with a much darker skin than I had picked up in the gene pool. I’d grown up in Africa, and people of another colour and race where naturally nothing new to me, however it’s an uncomfortable feeling when one finds oneself surrounded by people… any people of a different race, colour, language and customs… strange customs.
I’ve traveled extensively over the subsequent years, and let me tell you there exists some weird shit out there. Any 20-something backpacker from San Francisco, Surrey or Sydney will find the same sensory shock when roaming the streets of Sierra Leone at night.
The more you travel the less you allow these perceptions the amount of worry time they don’t deserve. You become accustomed to the new cultures, the fact that people look and act differently becomes a commonality to you, and you likely begin to act differently yourself too. You act differently because you begin to think differently. You begin to understand that much of your fear is purely a result of ignorance rather than anything that can and will truly do you harm. One day you turn around and look back on your previous thinking and life with despair. “Jeez what a bozo I was.” It’s why there never is any “going back,” as that would entail unwinding your experiences. Friendships and acquaintances change out of necessity. You’re now different, period.
Then there are the times when you incorrectly asses a situation and by the time you’ve realized this you’re wallowing neck deep, which brings me back to my backpacking trip. Incorrectly assessing a situation is infinitely easier when you’re 16, bulletproof, naive, and ignorant. All noteworthy virtues of youth.
After having spent some time in Zimbabwe and enjoyed the freedom of travelling sans parental guidance I found myself buying a ticket at the train station in Livingstone on the banks of the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria falls), destination – Lusaka. I had been followed by a group of men down the street when a motherly woman pulled me aside and in broken English asked me, “what the hell are you doing here?” explaining that I was traveling to Lusaka had zero effect on her, instead her mantra in half English and half Nyanja, or at least something I didn’t understand was, “too dangerous, you should not be here!” In those days white people drove their own personal cars, hired drivers or otherwise simply never took local transport. I thought I might be a curiosity, she thought I was going to be dinner!
I should have listened to her… or maybe not. I’m still around, and males, especially testosterone driven teenagers, learn by doing not listening. Plus, teenagers know everything anyway right?
After helping me find my cabin and evicting those who had already begun occupying the space, my new found friend, who was clearly upset with my proceeding against her wishes, told me to lock the door and not to come out until we rolled into Lusaka. She then disappeared and I never saw her again. I’m still grateful to her.
Now African trains are anything but fully functional, and unfortunately for me the cabin sliding door did not lock properly. I spent the entire night with my foot jammed on the door of my cabin and my back pressed against the torn vinyl bench seat. To an outside observer it probably would have looked quite relaxing, much like someone lounging on a pool chair. I assure you your leg tires very quickly when keeping up the pressure constantly at an elevated level.
Periodically through the night screw drivers and who knows what else would suddenly come poking through the lock mechanism as thugs attempted to break the lock (a lock that didn’t work anyway, and was held fast only by my spindly little legs). At least those gym workouts had trained me for this endurance test. I spent the night switching between standing and holding the door, lying back using my foot to hold it, swapping legs and making sure I didn’t fall asleep. The target was a white kid who would have cash, and valuables. As good a score as any you’re likely to find on a midnight train. I had to admit at that point to myself that I would have been better of with a group of mates aged 25. Easy target no longer would have applied.
When daylight arrived it was one of the most beautiful things to behold and I vividly remember it to this day. I was even more relieved when we finally pulled into Lusaka.
Feeling incredibly relieved at having daylight to provide me with some protection (maybe I won’t be robbed and beaten in broad daylight) I proceeded to the Lusaka central bus terminal in order to catch a bus eastwards.
While arguing with ticket sellers about price and conditions a skirmish broke out beside me. Lusaka bus station like any transport hub in Africa is home to many an entrepreneur selling everything from sunglasses, to apples, oranges or condoms. AK47’s were probably available too if you cared to ask.
The skirmish, between a vendor and I presume a customer, didn’t last long before one of the men involved simply ran off out of the station and disappeared. Turning to see who he had been arguing with I saw a vendor lying in a pool of blood on the floor clutching his chest. He’d been stabbed. Curiously he was very quite and some of his fellow vendors had come to his aid. He died within minutes right there in front of me. A car came shortly after and took him away. Business around me resumed. I didn’t know what to think or do so I carried on with my business.
Thousands of visitors will travel through Africa every year being swished briskly in air-conditioned land cruisers from their plush hotels to the various game reserves and sites, never to see the life on the streets or back alleys. This is where people live, work and breathe and sometimes die. It’s where the real economy takes place. Small business owners scratching out a living.
The swanky resorts, hotels and game reserves, as well as the street vendor who died that morning in Lusaka, are all part of the economy there. Ignoring one over the other is a mistake. The resort owner still deals with elements that you won’t find in countries with crumbling infrastructure, bribes, difficulties in sourcing sugar, salt and other basic commodities. You don’t get to see this side of things when sipping on your margarita, watching the sun set over the horizon, but it exists nonetheless.
Importantly though, it’s not to be viewed as a negative or positive but simply acknowledged and valued accordingly if investing. At the time I never considered the investment implications of anything much going on around me but I did begin to question things I’d never considered before. I’ve spoken about the value of voyeurism before and how you can benefit from viewing the world while you travel. If you haven’t read it go now and read it. Send it to anyone you know that is traveling somewhere new and ask them for their observations. It’ll provide you with colourful feedback. That level of questioning, digging and reasoning I believe has had something to do with the successes I’ve enjoyed… or maybe I’m just lucky!
Almost everything is worth doing at the right price, and as investors it’s our job to determine what that price should be. You can’t do this without understanding the whole economy, good and bad.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson