I arrive in Madrid from Dakar at five in the morning, whisk my way through customs, understand enough Spanish to discern that the Metro begins running at six, figure out the subway map like any good New Yorker, understanding I have to change trains twice to get to Puerta del Sol, put on the five layers of clothing necessary to step into the European winter dawn, arrive at my Metro stop in the empty still dark streets at seven, get a slice of pizza with Spanish prosciutto from one of the three twenty four hour a day pizza shops open in the square, check into my pre-booked hotel that early without extra charge, and am standing deliriously happy under a shower with unlimited hot water, in a bathroom without peeling paint or mold, with water that can get into my mouth without risk of disease, separated from a real functioning clean toilet by a glass door - what will they think of next - laughing and splashing with glee.
When I step out of my hotel into the plaza later that morning I am delighted by what I see, people walking with purpose in all directions across the broad expanse of the plaza, the absence of autos, the solid olden buildings. Bricks. The cleanliness is striking. I order and watch orange juice being freshly squeezed. The coffee is delicious. The bread and ham sandwich is delicious, delivered by a nice young man wearing thin plastic gloves, as opposed to the guy at the shop in Dakar, coughing, rubbing his nose, handling money older and more beaten up than Jesus, who cleans off the Sprite can he hands me as he gives me my sandwich by blowing on it.
I am shocked by the pleasure I take at being back in the West, by the relief that floods over me, a level of comfort and ease I didn’t recognize as being absent as I adapted so well to my circumstances in Africa. I love Madrid: the broad clean sidewalks, the throngs of people going about their business, piazzas and fountains with clean water flowing endlessly and sparkling forth from them, benches for people to sit on, lovers holding hands and kissing openly and affectionately, babies in forward facing strollers, dogs on leashes, women with red hair, some even green, coffee shops, taparias, no beggars, the few homeless people I pass anomalies, police who ignore me completely, whole crowds of people to whom I am no stranger, cinemas playing top line Hollywood movies, all of which I’ve been following on the Internet while in Africa and want to see - Django, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, the Life of Pi - but not dubbed in Spanish. Besides who goes to the movies when they have only forty-eight hours in Madrid and are worried about what they will do with all their time in America? Did I mention the broad avenues, the spectacular architecture, the sense of safety and invisibility? Starbucks?
I wander the streets of Madrid for hours and hours, loving that no one asks me for anything, and loving most of what I see (hate fur coats and cigarette smoking, could do without Big Macs and KFC) and being just stunned, really, stunned, at the differences between Europe and Africa … and, frankly, not fully understanding it, not “getting” the massive poverty and underdevelopment of Africa, and am left with only my very limited analyses, the history of colonial exploitation and enslavement being highest on the list, followed by the absence of an industrial history going back three centuries and any substantial infrastructure, particularly roads, rail, and manufacturing, followed by the immense disadvantage of trying to compete economically against those who are so far ahead of you to start with, almost like the phenomenon of the overwhelming majority of millions upon millions of Americans who tolerate the massive dysfunctional inequalities that we do, when the wealth that causes the suffering is really only concentrated in the hands of a few hundred corporations, a few thousand families at most, and we don’t know how, or don’t really want to, or can’t change it. And I know there are vast other factors at work - how the benefits of advanced corporate capitalism that do devolve to the citizenry are so pacifying and seductive, the desire to not rock the boat, the real benefits of our liberty and abundance, but still, Africa hurts.
I walk into a bookstore on Calle Princesa and buy Paul Theroux’s book Dark Star Safari, about his overland voyage from Cairo to Capetown a decade ago. I like his writing. I want to see how he approaches the entire subject. He says early in the book, “To be an African leader is to be a thief, but evangelists stole people's innocence, and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse. In reply, Africans dragged their feet or tried to emigrate, they begged, they pleaded, they demanded money and gifts with a rude, weird sense of entitlement. Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick, I got stranded, but I was never bored. In fact, my trip was a delight and a revelation.”
I am looking forward to the sharing of his story. In fact my trip was also a revelation. It will take me some time to process it.