At the time I didn’t realize it was a race. In my mind the canoe was simply a lazy way to enjoy the beaming sun as we waited for the border between South Africa and Botswana to open. And so the Orange river was my personal chauffer. I flung one long brown leg over the edge and perched my head on the opposite side. My sunglasses slipped down my nose from the sweat and my gray do-rag pulled my hair back from my face.

Lizzie was red-faced and rowing with dedicated strokes. In my world she was red from sun. Blond hair turning white in places from the intense sunlight, pale as fine porcelain- she refused to use sunscreen.  I’d long given up paddling, maybe I’d never started. With the exception of a prolonged stretch of river that proved so still and stagnant that black river flies attacked us mercilessly (I was eager to assist our accelerated departure) I was content to watch the shore drift by, scenery seemingly unchanging.

Other canoes drifted by. Sometimes I exchanged laugher or staccatoed conversation with the occupants before the current, or the people power inside a canoe, propelled a boat forward and toward that distant horizon.

There was no music on the river and my voice wasn’t meant for singing, but I often find myself singing anyway. That day maybe it was the sun bathing me in bright yellow light pleasantly hot on my skin, I’m not really sure, but something started me humming.

I don’t know what put Summertime in my head since I’d never seen the opera/musical  Porgy and Bess but there I was, first humming and then outright singing:

Summertime and the living is eas

Fish are jumping and the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich and your ma she’s good looking

Hush little baby, don’t you cry


It was soothing somehow; it was fitting.

Maybe if I’d done less singing I would have realized that Lizzie was red from exertion and not sun. In her world – she confided years later (still a hint of irritation in her voice)- that leisurely boat ride complete with my hand trailing through the water, was actually a race. Each canoe that passed us by with grinning and laughing travel mates, those were competitors.

Who knew?

Summertime became a kind of theme song. It happened slowly. Spread like refrigerated honey- it comes in its own time. First it was Lizzy. At the time she seemed the most obvious person – the least challenging to infect since she was my original canoe, seat, and tent mate. In retrospect I realize musical conversion was impressive given a lingering irritation about canoe “races” 10 years later.

After a few weeks b travel – it was pretty common for me to strike up Summertime during our long daytime drives over potted and pitted roads. I’d smile to myself and hum a bar or two and then break into song good and loud –I am, after all, the antithesis of quiet and shy. I’d start it but many of my travel mates would join me.

It wasn’t a Bollywood moment – or better – a Porgy and Bess moment. We weren’t well choreographed or even in key but we’d sing and laugh together – a hodge podge of foreigners (Germany, Ireland, England, Canada, US) doing a whirlwind touristed version of six sub-Saharan African countries. It could have been any song…but it wasn’t.

*this is part of a month-long Indie Travel series.

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