Africa burns my eyes and sets my nerves on edge.
He tells me this is a country in which everything is out to hurt you, white man — the insects, the water, the Nigerian road marauders.
Nigerian road marauders? I ask the lodge owner.
Yes, they are out there in the night, he says.
Indeed, but even Jesus cannot save you from them, he says.
As tends to be the case with travel and memory, I remember this trip to Ghana only in flashes. Remember the country not as a smooth, continuous organism so much as beautiful bolts of cloth, conversations about antichrists, stone-faced stares, and the manic moods of playful children.
Arriving at the lodge I remember how opulent it seemed. I had prepared for much worse — have experienced much worse — and assumed we’d bathe by bucket and sleep under nets. Instead our car pulled up to a two-story threadbare villa. Like something taken out of the Italian countryside, but missing a few walls.
It was that first evening when the lodge owner sat down with us after dinner. We had just finished an excellently-prepared tilapia grilled with a coating of salt and curry powders and chili, eaten with our hands and served with rice. I fed fish bones to an emaciated calico stray as we spoke. Next to us was a half-finished swimming pool.
It was early evening on August 20th, 8 p.m. or so. The temperature was around twenty-five degrees centigrade, the clouds thin, and the breeze brisk. Of course I didn’t remember these details on my own. I know them only because Hi remembered them for me.
Hi is a tool I co-founded. We call it a “real-time storytelling” platform — a phrase of which you should be rightfully dubious. Hi lets you put virtual stakes in the ground to return to later, if you so wish. They can be snippets of text or photos bound to the location. These virtual stakes are placed on Hi in time with your experiences — live, rather than in retrospect.
And so as the lodge owner spoke of night dangers I snapped a photo and, holding my phone up high to glean the thinnest of 3G signals, placed a stake in my patch of ground on Hi.
Long ago I decided travel was to be a core part of my life. I’ve made a point to stick to that decision and as such have done more than my fair share — often on shoestring budgets, third-class tickets, sometimes sleeping atop sheetless beds or prison cots in small mountain huts. Loving most of it, certainly in remembrance if not always in the moment, time having softened the harder edges.
There are fever dreams of train rides stretching across the globe. I remember holding a girl’s hand as we dove under a parked train in central Greece, desperately trying to make a connection. Up we popped from below on the other side. I’ll never forget the horrified looks on the faces of the platform attendants as we emerged, dirt-covered and sweaty, clambering up from the tracks. Seconds later, the train left the station. Such a foolish thing to do. Worth it? Absolutely. Nobody died. And we wore two of the biggest smiles on that train as it made its way up to Meteora.
I remember sticking my head out of the window on a rickety Swiss train, filling my lungs with the crisp air like a dog, joyfully, as it snaked between the country’s interior mountains. I remember the wild morning music that played on a Vietnamese train as it pulled into Sapa having left Hanoi the previous night. And I remember snatches of time spent on trains between car rides in rural Japan as I hitchhiked the country a decade ago.
While I treasure these memories, they sit in my mind just a little bit too fuzzy for my liking, a bit too difficult to return to.
Martha Gellhorn writes in her memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, “The trouble is that experience is useless without memory.” And I’d add that it’s not about remembering everything (an impossibility), but it is about remembering the right things.
The vague memories of my travels live somewhere, certainly, in a shrouded part of my brain. But where in the countryside of Japan was that rickety train with the spectacular wood paneling? (And how spectacular, really, was the paneling?) Where, exactly, in Greece was the station of our foolish near-doom? I remember our toothy smiles thinking back on it now, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing a crucial emotion that could have been captured with a snippet of text or quick photo.
If experience is useless without memory, then what do we miss in our later travels having forgotten parts of the past? The more attuned we become to the idea of capturing moments — moments curious or shocking or insightful or hilarious — the more aware we are of them as they happen. And the more likely we are to find connections and deeper stories upon returning to them.
Yes, they are out there in the night, he says solemnly.
Indeed, but not even Jesus can save you from them, he says.
The conversation about road marauders is not, as it turns out, just about marauders. It’s a prelude to uncovering a prophet.
With that the lodge owner stands and takes his leave.
Sammy smiles wide and tells me not to worry.
He tells me he was a prophet once, that he wanted to become one so he did. He was young. There were churches. He attended a church. A church welcome to would-be prophets.
He tells me this straight on. Without caveat. These are things, it seems, sometimes said in Ghana.
I ask if he’s still a prophet and he says no, no longer.
So you don’t really know if we shouldn’t worry then, do you?
No, but I’ve gained wisdom in these few short years and that’s proven more valuable and reliable than being a prophet. I know we’ll be safe.
In this single moment lives so much of what makes Ghana fascinating: the presumed danger and mystery (the dark night complicated by the unknowingness non-Africa has placed upon “Africa” over the centuries), the Christianity underpinning so many conversations one has there, and the still-pervasive mysticism — no less mystical, one imagines, than when Ghana was a spiritual country of only Juju priests — now shrouded under the auspices of a supposedly “civilized” Christian framing.
As we conversed on that patio I knew I wanted to come back to all of this — the lodge owner and the unfinished pool, the evening air, the supposed marauders, prophets and unreferenced mysticisms. Holding my phone in the air, gleaning that tenuous cellular connection, watching the moment become captured in the system, I knew I could do just that.
It now lives online, here.
Does this virtual marker change the experience of the trip? Does this become a “truer” kind of memory? Will this inform my future travel? I don’t know. (Hi has only been around for a few months.) But I do know that it feels congruous with how I’ve traveled in the past and has become a natural part of how I travel now. I also know that part of me longs to go back (through time) to the Swiss mountains, northern Vietnam, central Japan — wherever I may have been — and place more markers. That’s impossible, of course. But the urge to do so makes me feel like something useful is emerging. That maybe this tool has value.
I went on to spend a few weeks with Sammy and nearly as much time at the lodge. The pool was slowly tiled by workers arriving early in the morning and working late into the night. The cat and I became good friends. We ate tilapia a half-dozen more times. We never did see any marauders (what do they look like, anyway?) but I did find myself wondering, at each village, who among the inhabitants were prophets and who among them were wise.