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Mango Elephants in the Sun by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera
Mango Elephants in the Sun by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera
Searching for nirvana in Ethiopia and Cameroon.
by Kristin Keith
Mango Elephants in the Sun
by Susana Herrera
Shambhala Publications, 270 p., $22.50
Eating the Flowers of Paradise
by Kevin Rushby
St. Martin’s Press, 310 p., $24.95
Tales of adventure and intrigue have emanated from Africa for thousands of years, so it’s hardly surprising that writers continue to return to the dark continent in search of mystery and truth. The authors of Mango Elephants in the Sun and Eating the Flowers of Paradise both venture into the wilds of the unknown, but each travelogue takes a distinctly different track.
In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby is an Indiana Jones traveler, pounding from Ethiopia to Yemen in a detailed thriller of adventure and drugs. Susana Herrera, an optimistic Peace Corps volunteer stationed in a small Cameroon village, takes a more intimate look at herself and her surroundings in Mango Elephants in the Sun, a meditation on meaning in life. Each writer seeks a kind of inner enlightenment while pushing the personal envelope. The difference comes in where they look for answers.
Rushby spins a classic travel narrative filled with history, epiphanies and the near-miss catastrophes expected in a journey across unknown lands. Beginning in Ethiopia, he intrepidly follows the ancient Qat Trail of Richard Burton and Arthur Rimbaud, moving north across the Red Sea through Yemen to the city of San’a. With Burton’s footprints as his only guide, he travels by train, bus, boat and foot through heat and unstable political climates, following the origins of the mysterious and pervasive chewing leaf called qat.
Milder than the coca leaf, qat is sacred in Ethiopia and Yemen, and Rushby, a qat fan from a previous trip to the region, joins a new qat session every night, picking up history and legends and enough information to get him safely to the next town. Unlike Richard Burton, Rushby travels without disguise. Yet, like Burton, he is a non-believer in Islam and narrowly escapes the fate of a German traveler who was shot in Dire Dowa, Ethiopia, the day before Rushby’s train arrived. While under the constant soothing influence of qat, Rushby outsmarts potential hit men, stumbles into a diamond smuggling ring, and nearly dies of thirst in the isolated and mountainous Yafa region of southern Yemen. He also compiles one of the most compelling histories of the qat leaf ever put into print.
Herrera hears the villagers talking about the Nasara, the white person, and does not want her experience to be defined by her skin.
Despite acknowledging the trip is about self-exploration, Rushby rarely brings himself into the richly detailed narrative. When he risks his life and stubbornly follows the dangerous path over and over again, there is an underlying sense of self-destructiveness masked by bravado. But Rushby is the type of person Paul Bowles anointed in his Moroccan desert classic, The Sheltering Sky. He is a traveler, not a tourist, and he takes the time to live where he wanders and to learn the local customs instead of retreating to the familiarity of the local Best Western.
In a yin-yang contrast to Rushby’s factual derring-do, Susana Herrera, the author of Mango Elephants in the Sun, stays put in a small village in Cameroon and takes us on a journey of heart and mind. Posted by the Peace Corps to Guidiguis, a small town in the northern part of politically war-torn Cameroon, Herrera’s journey speaks of self-discovery and self-reliance, living in one place without the luxury or danger of traveling into lands unknown. From the outset, Herrera’s poetry and short essays, some only a page or two, make it clear that this is not a traditional travelogue, but more of a diary of her personal observations. While her simpler style does not satisfy anthropological or historical curiosity like Rushby’s, she has a gentle way of telling her tale that is uniquely compelling and expressive.
Herrera arrives in Cameroon scared. She hears the villagers talking about the Nasara, the white person, and she adamantly does not want her experience to be defined by her skin. She’s paralyzed by the possibility of rejection and goes several days in her little house before building up the strength to step out to get water at the community well. It seems a miracle that this wistful young woman will eventually grow up, let alone grow strong enough to bike 20 miles across the desert alone, stave off the advances of the local king, and stand by her fellow teachers during a strike without losing her official neutrality. The miraculousness of her personal reinvention isn’t lost on her.
Herrera’s transformation and the openness of the villagers around her gives her the meaning behind the local question, "Are you in your skin?" As the Peace Corps worker grows comfortable with herself, she subtly shifts the world of the people around her, like when she teaches a young girl the taboo skill of riding a bike, or makes a batch of that mysterious substance ice cream.
It is frustrating to want more detailed information about Cameroon and the politics simmering constantly below the narrative, and the author’s initial self-degradation borders on whininess. But she has to have courage to write such an intimate narrative, and when her fear turns into a celebration of being alive, the Susana Herrera that returns to the States is a strong and formidable woman of the world.
Travel is about perception, and had Herrera visited Ethiopia, or Rushby stayed in Cameroon, their visions of the world around them still would not have been an even match. But both are successful on their chosen journeys, be it a physical or spiritual path.