Before coming to Africa, it was my hope that I would gain many new insights and perspectives into the world and myself. After traveling in Africa for the better part of 3 months, I have definitely learned a few things. For example, you can’t trust everyone, packing is never fun, and there are a lot of really amazing things to see in the world. Of course these aren’t the only insights that I gained. It’s hard to capture exactly what new knowledge I have learned in my travels, but there are several key themes that I have noticed to be true on the journeys we have taken.
The first theme that I was so grateful for is the kindness, friendliness, and sense of family we got from so many people in Africa. The bright smiles of people are something I will always remember fondly. We were so shocked at the beginning of our trip when people would ask to take our picture because we were foreign. It was strange to be so novel, but the people were genuinely excited and curious about us. Even though Egypt was a very difficult country to be a tourist in, we were so humbled by the people who would stand up out of their chairs and offer them to us to join their families conversations. As we walked in the streets, people would yell, “Welcome to Egypt!” knowing that we were foreigners just from the look of us.
While this kindness of strangers was nice, we experienced a whole new level of acceptance, hospitality, and caring from many of our Couchsurfing hosts. These people invited us into their homes, gave us a bed to sleep in, invited us to eat with their families, and to meet their relatives – going as far as to call us part of the family. Ahmed, our host in Cairo, and his family were so welcoming. Ahmed’s cousin invited us into their home never having met us before and cooked us a meal. We spent the whole afternoon with them. They asked us questions about our culture and we learned about theirs. They seemed to be honored to have us come to their home which seemed so strange to us. I don’t know if I would have opened up my home so warmly to a foreigner I had never met, but after this experience, I couldn’t imagine not being just as accepting. It’s so nice to be welcomed into someone’s home when you’re in a foreign place.
Our host in Luxor, Said, was just as inviting. It blew my mind how willing our hosts were to go above and beyond for us strangers. He saved us from being kidnapped by a man impersonating him. He was so concerned about us, that he took a picture of us on the infamous kidnapping carriage ride, not even knowing if it was actually us, to ensure that he could identify who we were with. He then offered his Felucca boat for us to stay on, took us out on a river cruise, gave us a meal, and introduced us to his family. He was protective over us and took care of us like family when we were basically strangers. I was so inspired by his kindness, especially after telling us of the unrest in Egypt and how hard life was there.
Our hosts in Dar Es Salaam, Said and Zuhura, became our surrogate family while we were there. They brought us into their home, gave us a room, showed me how to cook, toured the town with us, and called us part of the family. The joy they got from hanging out with a couple of foreigners was shocking to me. But again, it was such a nice feeling to be not only accepted, but looked after as part of the family while being in a foreign country.
Our driver Rado, from Madagascar, had a little bit more of a stoic manner, but he also was very protective of us. When we would ask to venture out on our own, he would always be close behind making sure we were ok. He planned out our trip, took us to so many amazing sites, and safely got us to all of our destinations. When Jay got food poisoning, he apologized and felt so sorry for him. These people have shown us so much goodness in Africa, and I will always remember that when I think of our trip.
Another theme I noticed was the largely underrated beauty of Africa. The places here are stunning and so different than anything in the US. Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains took us through so many different climates and vegetation zones. One day you felt like you were in a Dr. Seuss book with all the incredible different plants and scenery. The next day, you were climbing over waterfalls, and the next scaling glaciers. It was amazing! To hike on trails that were just cleared in the 1990s was definitely an experience I won’t forget. Our guide Henry always said the Rwenzoris were his home away from home, and I understand his fondness of them no matter how difficult and steep the trails were or how muddy, tired, and wet we got.
Another inspiring experience was seeing the beauty of the animals in Kenya/Tanzania. The animals here are so novel to me as an American. To be driving down the road and see a zebra, a giraffe, or an elephant walking along the road was so crazy! These animals are huge and beautiful and scary at times. They definitely demand your respect. Each new animal we saw along the safari was impressive from warthogs to wilderbeasts to lions and cheetahs to rhinos. It was such a neat experience to be able to view such a wide variety of animals in the wild and just stare at them for half an hour as they lay in the grass without getting bored of watching them.
Zambia is full of untapped potential and beautiful sites with its adventure sports. From Victoria Falls to Devil’s Pool to white water rafting in the Zambezi River, this place was a fun filled site seeing adventure.
South Africa truly stole my heart with its beauty. Everywhere you looked, there were mountains, oceans, beaches, and stunning sites. I couldn’t get enough of how stunning the drives along the coast were.
Madagascar also has a unique beauty. The terraced rice fields look like something you would find in Vietnam. The unique beauty of Tsingy with its spiky rock formations were also impressive.
INGENUITY AND HELPING OTHERS
Across Africa, we’ve also seen the ingenuity of people who don’t have fancy machines or expensive equipment. We have seen each challenge be addressed with the most creative of solutions and helping hands from others.
Steve and Moffat, our guide and driver on safari in Kenya/Tanzania were constantly troubleshooting our behemoth of a vehicle Simba. When we got stuck in the mud, Steve and Moffat got to work. The Masai Mara people from all over also came out to help us get unstuck. They threw rocks and cut branches to stick under the wheels and rock us out. When the brakes caught fire, Steve put on his mechanic jumpsuit and fixed it. Here, there is no AAA to call and bail you out. Here, you help out your fellow man and find a solution to the problem.
In Zanzibar, Jay’s bike chain fell off and wedged in the gears. Almost immediately, two men came over and started helping us get it unstuck. When we couldn’t pull it out, they went and got their machetes and tried to pry it out. Jay was certain that it wasn’t going to work and even stopped trying. But the men persisted and got the chain unstuck.
People build their houses themselves, they fish and hunt for their food. They actually buy live chickens and kill, de-feather, and gut them themselves. I would guess most people in the US have never actually killed their dinner and prepared it. I certainly haven’t.
In Madagascar, Rado got a flat tired, and immediately all the other drivers came to help us change it. When the engine wouldn’t start, they helped us push start the car. When another driver’s car wouldn’t start, we happily took the passengers into our car, and Rado was happy to drive them to their hotel. People here help each other and have a sense of community and reliance on each other that is nice to see. Here, you help others because one day it might be your turn. This reciprocity was beautiful.
One of the most difficult parts of traveling in Africa was what I saw as desperation in many of the people. Many of the people here are very poor and often hungry. They often must work incredibly laborious jobs for little to no money. It seemed as if many of the people were just in survival mode. This is why I understood the lengths people would go to to get money. It didn’t make it any more pleasant, but I understood it.
Egypt was the worst example of this experience. Their economy relies on tourism and with the riots that happened due to political unrest, tourism dropped off dramatically. This left a huge supply of taxis, camel rides, curious, and tours with very little demand. Unfortunately, we were part of the few demanders who were hounded relentlessly with the supply. People resorted to lying to us – case in point, the man pretending to be our Couchsurfing host Said in Luxor. They also cheated us by inflating tourists prices to levels we could barely afford. We called this the “white tax.” Don’t get me wrong, I understand we are tourists visiting their country and don’t mind paying a little extra, but we heard stories of people being taken on 2 hour cab rides far out of the way of their destinations and not let out of the taxi until they paid in full. These schemes were ways to cheat tourists out of money.
Another low of our trip was when all of our money was stolen in Uganda after our trek in the Rwenzori Mountains. After entrusting the trekking company to keep our valuables safe while we were gone, the company broke protocol, did not inform us that there was a safe or that we should log the amount of money we were carrying. Consequently, we were robbed and then blamed by the company for not being “careful” with our money. Although the company did eventually pay us back, it was not until after a lengthy conversation with the owner and being accused of stealing from the Ugandans. Money is a powerful motivator and we saw it turn good people ugly very quickly.
The saddest part of this story is the children. In Madagascar, we saw children as young as probably 3 years old filling potholes in the roads and begging for money as cars drove past. The kids would also crowd around any car with foreigners begging for anything they could get. Our windows were smudged with the dirty fingerprints of so many children standing on their tiptoes and holding onto the glass of the window to look in the car and see what they could get. Kids would violently fight each other to get candies or other gifts thrown from tourist cars. Their clothes were often tattered, dirty, and torn. That is, if they had clothes at all. The kids in Madagascar frequently asked us for our clothes. Similarly, the children’s clothes at the orphanage in Kenya were tattered and dirty despite the orphanage owner saying they didn’t need anymore donated clothes because they had too many.
People went to great lengths to sell us things. Of course they did; this was their source of income and we understood that. But it became exhausting and distressing telling people over and over again that we didn’t want to buy what they were selling.
In Zambia, people in the shops would take you inside and stand in the doorway so that you could not leave until you bought something. They would make you feel guilty saying they had to feed their family or that you may be their only customer that day. I got to the point where it was just too much to take and stopped going in shops. You get hounded anywhere you go for taxis, boat rides, and curious. And in many countries, they were relentless. They wouldn’t stop hounding us despite our polite “no thank yous” in their languages. We had to resort to either ignoring them which felt dehumanizing or being more aggressive at telling them no. We learned the word “halas!” which means “It’s finished” in Arabic while in Egypt because it was the only way get the vendors to stop following us.
The people of Africa live a hard life. The conditions in which they live contribute to the hardships. The roads in nearly all of Africa, except South Africa, were very bad. There are burning trash heaps everywhere. People bath in the same rivers that they urinate and defecate in. People work laborious jobs where they may or may not get paid. Political unrest and corruption are commonplace, and diseases such as Ebola and malaria threaten their lives. I have learned from my travels that people do what they have to do to survive and that isn’t always pretty.
Despite all of this, African people are some of the happiest people I have met. The children play and dance and laugh. The people are so friendly. They always greeted us with a “salama” in Madagascar, a “jambo” in Kenya/Tanzania, or a “hakuna matata” in Zanzibar. The smiles, good natured conversation, and laughter that can be seen everywhere in Africa is a testament to the African people’s ability to live their best lives despite the challenges.
THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF:
As many people know, I tend to be a homebody and am quite introverted. So spending 3 months in Africa out of my comfort zone, meeting new people everyday, and not knowing anyone other than Jay was a little daunting to think about.
But, I was ready and excited for this trip. I have learned that I need to be pushed out of my comfort zone sometimes to grow as a person. So, I took this trip as an opportunity to do just that.
At first it was hard for me to constantly be meeting new people. We did a lot of Couchsurfing to save money which required staying in people’s houses. I felt uncomfortable at first encroaching on people’s lives. But, as we met more and more people and saw how nice and excited everyone was to have us staying with them, I started to really enjoy the unique cultural experiences we got from staying with the locals.
With time, I also felt like I started to find my own voice and place in our travels. Jay has much more international travel experience than I do, so often times, I take a backseat and let him lead the way. Don’t get me wrong, it is really nice to have my own travel agent as a boyfriend, and I am beyond grateful to have him take me along on his adventures. But, I think I started to gain some travel smarts myself. I started getting more comfortable with being in Africa. I started to try to navigate places, make more decisions, and lead the way a tiny bit. I started to feel a lot more confident in my ability to travel in a foreign country, but still had my protector, Jay, always there if I needed help. I even ventured out on my own several times while Jay did his own thing or was sick.
Pushing myself out of my comfort zone on this trip opened up so many opportunities to see and do things I would otherwise never have thought possible to do. I sailed a Felucca in Egypt, I did ice climbing and wore crampons for the first time in Uganda, I watched a pride of lions stalk a gazelle on safari in Kenya, I learned how to cook in Tanzania, I peered over Victoria Falls from Devil’s Pool in Zambia, I hiked out to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and I did a via feratta in Madagascar. And because we were always seeing and doing new amazing things, I didn’t get as homesick as I thought I would.
On another good note, I didn’t get as sick as I thought I would being in a foreign country. I am notorious for going on international trips and coming back with random illnesses and injuries. I herniated a disk in my back after our Thailand/Malaysia trip, and I got a parasite in Sicily which reappeared when we went to Mexico. But, this trip I faired much better than even Jay did. I had a cold in Greece, but that was it. Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself by saying that.
I also learned that Jay is a great travel companion. He tirelessly planned this entire trip, booked hotels, and activities, researched every place we were going, and made it a trip that I will never forget. I am so grateful to have gotten to be his plus one on this adventure.
He is patient with my ignorance of foreign travel. He always makes sure I’m doing ok. I always see him glancing behind himself to make sure I’m still there when I’m not walking next to him. He navigated through so many towns and figured out train, bus, and ferry schedules that I could barely read.
Before we left, we talked about how we would communicate to each other if we were getting too stressed out by the travel. I said that we needed a code word that we could say. We settled on the word “pineapple.” So, it has been our running joke that whenever we are stressed about something, we see how many pineapples we are at. Jay never let me get above 4 pineapples. When we were on the two day train ride down to Zambia and I was going stir crazy at 3.5 pineapples, he bought me beers and distracted me until I was feeling better. I have been so lucky to have him take me on this journey of a lifetime!
THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME:
-The cold weather-we were standing on a glacier on the equator
-People expecting you to just give them money because you are white
-How many languages everyone speaks
-How difficult it is for people in Africa to travel outside of their country because of the costs of passports and visas, etc.
-That some people will accept you unconditionally as part of their family and others will manipulate, cheat, and steal from you if you let them
-Avocados in Africa are huge and cheap and the fresh fruits taste better than anything from the supermarkets in the US
-The prevalence of solar panels
-You can fit six people and a sack of crops on a motorbike
THIGS THAT DIDN’T SURPRISE ME:
-People are very poor
-Roads are bad
-Life is hard in Africa
-There are amazing people and sites everywhere
-We had an amazing time here!