Thursday, January 8, 2009

Africa's not for sissies

Now that I'm back - and life is somewhat back to normal it seems like the right time to perhaps do some wrap up about our trip to Africa.

I used up all my favorite pix in this post. But here's one I
love and haven't yet posted.
A male waterbuck in Masai Mara.

Our tour guide in South Africa, Steve Thomas, who by the way was FANTASTIC - said those words to us while we were discussing the country and the continent as a whole: Africa's Not For Sissies. It became our mantra as we continued our travels through East Africa and dealt with lost luggage, heat & humidity, mosquitoes, dirt & dust, bad roads, no AC, pushy people selling trinkets, small planes, rodents, GI problems, slow internet... the list goes on.
These kids were looking at a picture of themselves on one of our cameras
But Africa was gorgeous. And opened my eyes to so many things. And yes, I realize saying something like "Africa was gorgeous" makes me sound like Sarah Palin; I do realize Africa is an entire continent and not just a country. But Americans see such a stereotypical Africa in the movies and on the news that before going, I truly did think the entire continent was well, roughly the same. But visiting the 3 countries we visited was, believe it or not, like visiting 3 very different countries!!
We took a "leisurely" paddle (which ended up being rather tiring)
Tudor Creek towards the Indian Ocean

Our "US" team was supplemented with some of the local paddlers
since we only brought 10 from the US. (Boats hold 18)

To back up a bit... I decided to go to Kenya when I was invited to participate in the first Kenyan International Dragon Boat Regatta. I have been a dragon boat paddlers for 8 years (though, last year was my last).  I met up with a small group of American paddlers for the entire portion of my time in Kenya but decided to tack on some of my own destinations to the front and back of the dragon boat portion. Therefore the trip looked roughly like this:
Cape Town, South Africa - 5 days

Mombasa, Kenya - 4 days

Overnight Train and Nairobi, Kenya - 2 days

Safari in Masai Mara, Kenya - 3 days

Zanzibar Island, Tanzania - 4 days

I have done my fair share of traveling all over Europe and Asia but was still fascinated and in awe of the things I learned and experienced all over Africa. As much as I hated traveling during my absolute favorite month of the year - I knew it would be worth it; and it was.

So, what surprised me the most you ask?

1) EVERYONE speaks English. Since so few of us Americans (stupid American education system) can speak another language well, I am always so relieved when I travel somewhere where I can converse with the locals. It allows you to learn and experience so much more.
These Masai girls definitely spoke English; they pressured
us to buy things from them after this!

2) Africa is not all sub-Saharan desert. In fact, as we drove out of Nairobi I was reminded of Vermont and New Hampshire; the landscape was so incredibly lush and green.
Downtown Nairobi was full of green - in fact, it
reminded me a bit of Los Angeles!

3) Africa isn't all un-safe. We had friends practically cowering as they warned us to stay away from "X", "Y" and "Z" because of things they'd read online or seen on the news. But when we asked Steve Thomas about just how unsafe Johannesburg was he compared it to a place like Chicago. He said "you're not entering a war-zone, it's just that there is violent crime there. I've been told by other travelers to never go to Chicago - but as an American, would you also suggest I not go?" Of course we wouldn't!
The narrow, mazelike streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar were very
charming during the day but were smart to avoid at night

4) Africa is not as cheap as you might think it is. However, South Africa is more cheap than you'd think. The dollar is so strong compared to the South African rand right now that it made the #2 spot in American travel based on buying power. Guess we're going to Iceland next! Meanwhile, comparable accommodations in Tanzania would have cost 3 times as much as our 4 star digs in South Africa.
These things aren't cheap - but I'm sure it's
mostly 'cuz we're tourists too...

5) Not everyone is black. I suppose my geography could have told me this, but I was surprised at how many ethnically Arab and Indian people lived in East Africa; and have for many generations. In fact, Indian-Africans own most of the businesses and hotels in Nairobi and the primary religion on East Africa is Muslim.
Not entirely supporting my statement, but I still loved this shot
of a half black, half white baby being held by his uncle

6) Kwanzaa is not widely celebrated or even known about. Here, I thought we'd finally really learn about Kwanzaa by visiting Africa during December. But not only did people not celebrate it - they had never heard of it. I asked different tour guides through South Africa and East Africa and they had to ask me to repeat the word before they would shake their head slowly with unfamiliarity. Christmas trees, on the other hand - were noted (sparsley) all around.
It didn't feel right in 90 degree weather and 80%
humidity but it was December 21st all the same

7) Cinnamon is bark from a tree; nutmeg and mace grow together in the same pod; and cacao beans are surrounded by a thin fruity membrane that tastes a bit like sour mango. As a cook and baker I absolutely L-O-V-E-D the spice and fruit tour we took while in Zanzibar. We saw cardamom, cloves, vanilla beans, lemongrass, peppercorns, chocolate, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, mangoes, jackfruit, pineapple, coconuts, bananas, starfruit and more growing before our eyes. We'd sample tastes after picking it off the tree or bush. It's so different to come back home and look at my spice rack knowing so much more about where these tastes come from.

-The red membrane is mace, surrounding the whole nutmeg
-Inside that thin, white, fruity layer is a cacao bean

8) Diamonds aren't really cheaper. Okay, this didn't exactly surprise me since I know all about De Beers. But I still thought perhaps I could upgrade my .5 carat studs at a discounted price. The only discount is what you get through the exchange rate and the return of Value Added Tax. Though we were told you JUST MIGHT be able to get cheaper diamonds by going directly to Kimberley. Which is basically where it all began...
We toured a famous jeweler in Cape Town and got a full
education to boot. Hers isn't too shabby, eh?

9) The animal that kills the most humans? The mosquito. I suppose I could have figured this out when I checked off that I had received my 5th required vaccination, prior to leaving the US but it's truly a reality. Forget about those hungry lions I saw hunting in Kenya. Deet can save your life.
This little guy will grow up to be less threatening
to your life than a mosquito would be!

10) Disney did not exaggerate. "Hakuna Matata" does truly mean "no problem" and it is used ALL OVER the Swahili speaking countries. I wish I had counted how many times I heard someone tell me "Hakuna Matata." I also wish I did not start humming The Lion King soundtrack inside my head all those times. "Hakuna matata, take your time - no hurry." "Hakuna matata no pressure, just look and if you want to buy, you tell me." "Hakuna matata, we will find your luggage..."
Truly though, Hakuna Matata...

I always thought I was a little bit of a sissy. I can't watch scary movies, spiders and mice will see me climb up on a table, I can't touch moldy food, wormy apples make me scream, if a movie is rated R for violence I skip it... But I've been to Africa and back. And I loved it. And I found myself planning to return before I'd even left. So maybe, just maybe... I'm not so much of a sissy afterall.


  1. i love that you traveled, you toughed it out, you enjoyed to your heart's content, and that you reflected throughout. such a wonderful thing to be allowed to peek into your latest adventures.

  2. Such a great trip! Lisa. Africa is on my list, I hope I can make it next year.
    BTW, for some reason, your post didn't show on the comment section (I don't know why). So I have to answer your question here that I'm working at LUCE. :)

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