By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright ©1999, 2003 by Paul Vanderveen
Starting another writing project while working full-time had been frustratingly difficult, so I figured on leaving my job eventually, perhaps by year's end. A winter rental on Cape Cod might once again provide affordable solitude.
     That was when I met Jan. She was spending the summer in the States, but worked during the academic year at an international school in Dakar. We wrote many letters that fall and soon agreed that I could just as easily study and write on the other side of the Atlantic.
     Never having traveled overseas, I planned carefully. The tropics presented many health and safety risks, and telephone communication from Dakar was prohibitively expensive. Mail took ten days to three weeks each way. While many students at the school were children of diplomats, we were not "official" Americans ourselves, so could not count on special help from the American embassy. I dusted off my unused passport, obtained medical evacuation insurance and an international driver's license, settled accounts, asked a friend to sort my mail, sold what personal property I could and stored the rest, not knowing for how long.
     The doctor who gave overseas immunizations and health warnings asked, "Mid-life crisis?"
     More like mid-life opportunity, I thought, explaining that I had left regular employment on occasion to study and write before. Why not in an exotic setting this time? We both enjoyed traveling and would likely have many adventures.
     As it turned out, we stayed in Dakar, making it our base of operations for exploring the "developing world," for two and a half years. During many vacations, we checked out the Senegalese bush and traveled to other countries in Africa and Asia--climbing Saharan dunes in Morocco and Mauritania, journeying with local people down the Niger River to Timbuktu, hiking to an isolated animist village on the Dogon escarpment, camping on an island in the Zambezi River, traipsing through the steamy jungles of Malaysia and exploring many other areas, traveling once around the world.
     On occasional short trips to the States, we flew between lands of vastly different wealth and world views. During our first few days in the States on these trips, motorists seemed remarkably disciplined, driving at similar speeds and safe distances on beautiful highways. When I shopped in huge, well-lit supermarkets displaying a variety of reasonably priced goods, I browsed the wide aisles in awe, thinking how much Americans take for granted.
     On one flight from Johannesburg to New York City, the captain of the airliner, in his morning greeting, nicely captured an outsider's perspective. With the coastline coming into view, daylight catching up with us, he mentioned that we could see, out the left windows, the land "where everything works."
     Living and traveling in less developed regions, I learned new skills coping with novel situations and relating to people who differed greatly in outlook and life expectations. I enjoyed photographing a proliferation of wild animals, often in relatively undeveloped reserves, but my special interest was cultural--how people lived, what they expected of life and how they related to each other and to us. I constantly wondered what to do, as people acted in unfamiliar ways. I wondered about my own choices and responses and, in the process, began to appreciate just how exceptional, in many respects, was life in the United States.

  1. First Bribe  < Next
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau