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July 27, 2009

Africa travel advice: 'Be the backseat'

As a traveler there's no more chaotic city in Africa -- or maybe anywhere in the world -- than Lagos, Nigeria. On my only visit there, in 2006, I saw two fistfights break out along the side of the road and had a screaming Christian preacher thrust his Bible through my window asking if I wanted to be saved. And that was just the taxi ride from the airport. I think I witnessed more human struggle and emotion during those 45 minutes than in all the previous 25 years of my life.

So it was with great amusement that I read New Yorker writer Steve Coll's account of a recent car ride through Lagos. You see, Coll's car gets stuck in some horrendous and unexplained traffic jam late one night. The car doesn't move for 30 minutes. We've all been there, and most of us can't control our agitation. A veteran foreign correspondent, Coll's advice is simple: "leap past the first four stages of grief—denial, anger, etc.—straight to acceptance. Be the backseat."

The brief passages that follow offer a helpful litmus test for aspiring correspondents in the developing world. Forget the wars, refugee camps, dingy airports and byzantine bureaucracies; if you don't think you can handle car journeys like this without ripping out the wire from your reporter's notebook and strangling yourself with it, don't go to a place like Nigeria:

It has now been ninety minutes. I have not eaten since the morning; I buy some stale, chemical-tasting biscuits from a hawker. We have lurched forward about thirty yards. To prevent overheating, the air conditioning has been turned off. The driver is flipping the radio back and forth between Christian sermons and a raucous Friday night urban hip-hop program. Surely he is miserable, so I will not ask him to turn it off, but I will ask him to stick with the hip-hop. I pull out Richard Price’s “Lush Life” and try to read by the light of the Blackberry. I read a paragraph, and the Blackberry screen goes to sleep. I push it on, and read another paragraph; push it on, read another paragraph. Note to self: Get a flashlight, you dumb-ass tenderfoot.

Read Coll's entire post here and his other Africa-related posts here.


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howell clark

shashank if you ever get tired of covering africa for awhile, you could come to texas and give us a different perspective on us. think it would be fun.i'ma fixin to get so lets hear from ya.

Brenda Weiss

Your article stands as a piece of travel advice. It is a must to acquire travel advice before planning a trip.

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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