Research Through Travel Experience

Alan with a friend in AfricaBy: Alan Cordle, PCC Faculty Librarian

May 7, 2012

I’d been to Canada once in the mid ’80s, as a surly teen on a long drive with parents. My father was on business and I thought of it a burden rather than my first international trip. Other than that, my travel experience was quite limited until 1996 when, upon graduation from North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Science, I treated myself to a trip off of the North American continent. Frugal, I flew Pakistan Air to Paris and hopped on a train to Languedoc-Roussillon. Ten days and nights with a rental car in and around Montpeyroux, France changed my life forever. I was 27 when I discovered our bigger world. The following year, I took my first trip to the west coast of the U.S., for an interview at Portland Community College.

My schedule as a PCC faculty librarian affords me the time to travel, flexibility I never had working full-time, year-round in North Carolina while attending graduate school part-time 150 miles away. In my first decade at PCC, I made it back to France for an entire month, visited Italy, Finland, England, Belgium, and a few places in the Caribbean. I took multiple trips to Mexico and ventured to Tahiti and Moorea.

The more I traveled the more confident I became. In each country, I tried to stay in homes and neighborhoods instead of hotels. I always learned a few basic phrases to demonstrate my respect for residents and interest in them as people, not tourist attractions. I trusted that seemingly difficult situations would always work out.

Although I took these trips on my own time, using my own money, I am lucky to work at PCC, where I can use these experiences on a daily basis.

Forward-thinking PCC administrators have long-championed study abroad opportunities for students, and later recognized the value of international travel as an important faculty and staff professional development activity.

At a recent event for PCC employees who have taken part or will soon participate in travel seminars, my colleague and friend, Torie Scott, challenged our thinking. She said that when her son was just seven, back in Portland, and she was traveling in Jordan and Israel, she gained new insights into our own students, who have big lives, important stories, and often families far from Portland. I can echo her realization: For example, when an ESOL class visits the library, I ask students their names and where they are from. If I am lucky, I’ve been there. If I’m really lucky, I can thank them in their native languages. Our international and first-generation American students are grateful when we take an interest in who they are. It is easy to make someone feel welcome.


In 2007, I proposed creating interactive library database tutorials based on knowledge I hoped to gain from a Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) seminar. I was thrilled when I was one of 18 PCC faculty, staff, and managers chosen to receive full funding for the seminar along with travel expenses to and from my international classrooms in Cape Verde and Senegal. One of our work-study students, Sane, taught me a few phrases in Wolof to complement my passable French. Michael Dembrow, a seasoned traveler to Africa, would be the only other PCC employee in my seminar, but then CIEE canceled it. Michael chose to go to Ghana instead, which appealed to me, but not as much as a CIEE offering in South Africa. I was somewhat afraid to travel so far on my own, especially as friends and colleagues increasingly blasted me with questions about murder rates there. I watched Tsotsi just before I left and vowed not to ride on top of a boxcar or inside a train either.

I would be taking part in a seminar entitled, “Building a multicultural, multiracial society.” In the 1980’s, my teen years, I thought MTV had taught me everything I needed to know about Apartheid. Someone had even sprayed “Free Nelson Mandela” on the front of my high school. The vice-principal investigated and announced that the red scrawling “couldn’t have been the act of a student” as none of us were that socially-aware. One of the perpetrators was my friend, the principal’s daughter, a secret I’ve kept until now.

South Africa

Another of my favorite PCC students, an Afrikaner named Stacy, gave a DVD to me with information about the safari company she owned while attending PCC. I wondered if I would ever return to Africa, so I decided to add an extra week at my own expense to go on safari. Any self-respecting librarian over-researches a trip, and I soon realized I could never afford Stacy’s company or any of the other outfitters. Then I stumbled across the website for the South African National Parks, and more importantly, a message board community of safari addicts. Few of them were going on packages. Most South Africans visit the parks in their own vehicles.

The life-changing CIEE seminar took me into the Townships, to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned, to a Colored family’s home, made of cinder blocks, to which they were forced to relocate during Apartheid. Colored people are one of the four racial distinctions in South Africa; genetic evidence shows they have “the highest levels of mixed ancestry on the globe, a blend of African, European, East Asian and South Indian.” My host family served what I think was mutton, and I ate half a chop, after ten years as a vegetarian. Their teen-aged grandkids likely spoke about my wasted food in Afrikaans. Quint, the grandson, confessed early on that he didn’t like White people and gave some compelling reasons why. We watched Mariah Carey in Glitter on a black and white TV. A few days later, I spotted a Sangoma’s sign on a wooden door, and remembered that my seminar colleague, Cynthia, an African-American sociology professor at NYU, researched traditional medicine. I stepped up into our bus and yelled, “Cynthia, I found a Sangoma!”

She practically pulled me off the bus as she pushed past me. “You’ve got to come with me. It’s inappropriate for a woman to go alone without a referral in from her village.”

“OK,” I said, leading her to the door.

Inside, the Sangoma threw bones for divination, while Cynthia asked questions like, “Where did you get your training?” I sat quietly, grateful for the moment.

Intrepid Traveler

In Portland, at the last minute, I had booked a round-trip flight from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga, a week in four different lodges throughout Kruger National Park, and a rental car, which turned out to be about half of the size of an adult elephant.

I believe most of my cumulative knowledge about librarianship comes from actual practice. And travel has taught me to learn on the road, and in this case, it was literal. The rental agent handed me the key and asked me the location of my first lodging. I had neglected to research one important factor: speed limits within the park are very low to protect both humans and animals. “You won’t make it to Satara before dark,” she assured me. “They lock the gates.”

I didn’t want to miss a single day of safari, nor lose my prepaid lodging and have to find a place to stay outside of the park. “Is there anything I can do?”

She pointed to a paper Avis map and marked roads outside of the park. “You can go this way, at faster speeds, and enter through this gate.” She marked an X. I hadn’t counted on relearning stick shift while driving on the left side of village roads. Kruger National Park is the size of Rhode Island.

“Thanks,” I said, pointing my car into a big and unfamiliar world. Within two hours, I got pulled over for the first time. I wondered if it was a real traffic stop.

A uniformed man asked for my license. He studied it for a moment and yelled to the uniformed woman in their police car, “United States!” Then he looked at me and said, “George Bush is your president.” Was he glaring?

I said, “He’s not my president,” prompting a big laugh.

“Thank you for coming to South Africa.”

“Thank you for not giving me a ticket.”

“We are merely tracking where park visitors live. You are the first this week from the U.S.”

Fifteen minutes later, not yet in park borders, I looked off the side of the road. Four elephants bathed in a stream. It suddenly occurred to me: the animals could never be fenced in; they were everywhere around me. I wondered what it would be like to live just outside of Kruger. Were there lions? Leopards? Children walking to school?

Just inside the entry gate for Kruger National Park, I stopped to pay a modest fee. “I just saw elephants!”

“Then you are very lucky,” the attendant said smiling, politely, as it occurred to me she must see them every day. “You need to hurry to get to camp in time, but do not speed.”

I promised. Within minutes, I spotted more elephants and had to stop. What if I wouldn’t see any more? Dusk. It is illegal to drive in the park at night. But there was a pair of rhino. I slowed and rolled the window down an inch to fit my camcorder through. They galloped away as I filmed. Up ahead, my car crept up on dark blobs in the road. Elephant poop? It was night by now and I was exhausted. I had to be imagining the piles starting to move in front of my headlights. Hundreds of baboons, some with babies holding on had picked what must have seemed the safest place to spend the night. They took their times moving out of my way and I pulled up to a locked gate. I’d have to sleep in my car.

A stern guard asked me where I was coming from and I said Johannesburg. I didn’t mention that part of my trip was a flight, the only passenger on a 20-seater. I had told a Colored man, who was my personal flight attendant that I was going on safari and he confessed he’d never been. Now I stared into the eyes of a Black South African, one of the majority, who seemed to be questioning who I was and why I was alone, late, in such a dangerous place.

He opened the gate and told me, “Be on time tomorrow.”

“Yes,” I promised.

The next day I noticed nearly every park employee was Black and every car passenger and driver was White. More than once, passing drivers pulled up next to me, rolled down the window, excited about an animal sighting ahead and spoke to me in Afrikaans. I looked like one of them. But I was an American – a librarian – in Africa. It was then, after only a decade of world travel, I realized that the best research is experience.

Library & Learning
Vol. 4 Issue 1 May 2012

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