Review of the Journey So Far - Part Three
On June 27 I flew from Egypt to Uganda. At that point, I'd been on the road for almost nine months, and I was feeling about as seasoned as a traveler can get. I had mastered the art of long-term drifting – of fitting into foreign places, making friends, feeling at home wherever I was – or so I thought.
Africa is a travel challenge unto its own. Like India, nothing can really prepare you for it. It yielded some of my all-time travel highs (gorilla trekking, chief-crowning ceremony) and also some major lows (loneliness, attempted mugging in Durban, long-haul bus rides in Mozambique).
Here's a summary of my time in East and Southern Africa.
When you think of equatorial Africa you think heat. Blazing, sticky, stifling heat. But the temperature in much of mountainous Uganda is mild and, at times, downright chilly.
Kampala, the capital, has 1.5 million residents, but it felt bigger and more congested than it should have. On my inaugural walk around town I felt conspicuous and unable to get my bearings; the Ugandans I met seemed cool and disinterested; I became convinced that the matatus, or public minibuses, were trying to knock me down when I crossed the road. I bought a gorilla trekking permit from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office and then fled the city in one of the most crowded and dilapidated busses I've ever squeezed into.
Ssesse Islanders Mr. Andronico and a lovely girl named Claire helped me see that what I'd perceived as disinterest in Ugandans was in fact modesty and reserve. Most Ugandans waited for me to make the first move but, once I did, were among the most genial and generous people I've met.
Relatively few tourists come to Uganda, making my experiences seem more essential and unique. But it also made for a lonely visit. Finding rides between smaller cities was extremely difficult as well.
In spite of the hardships (maybe because of them), Uganda was my favorite country in East Africa. As always, it comes down to the people and, as far as I'm concerned, you can't find a more interesting or accommodating bunch. Uganda is a special place. Dealt severe blows over past decades, the country has rebounded and the spirit of her people inspires.
I traveled from Kampala, Uganda to Mwanza, Tanzania on a Lake Victoria cargo ferry and, although the journey was only 16 hours, the contrast between the two countries was profound. Even the coastlines looked radically different. Where Uganda was all mist and green mountains, Tanzania was scorched, scrubby hills and dramatic khaki planes. The people looked different too – lighter skinned and more varied in appearance. Swahili is Tanzania's official language; few people speak English.
Upon entering the country, a customs official tried to swindle me, but I fought the power.
From Mwanza I took a three-day, two-night train to Dar es Salaam. Built by the Germans in the 1920's, it was the slowest train ride I've ever taken, and also the most spectacular. We passed through dramatic scenery – vast grassy planes dotted with acacia and baobab trees, craggy mountains with rocky outcrops, thick
My safari in Serengeti National Park was the highpoint of my trip to Tanzania.
Zanzibar had beautiful beaches and the highest concentration of tourists I'd seen in months. The ferry ride back to the mainland was so rough that the main passenger cabin morphed into a vomitorium.
Malawians are some of the friendliest people on earth. They're also among the poorest.
Throughout my year abroad, whenever anyone told me that they wanted to move to America, I responded with the following:
Lake Malawi is the most beautiful, sea-like lake I've ever seen. I snorkeled every day I was in Nkhata Bay and did a nice freshwater dive too. Then I took a three-day cruise on the Illala, and old converted steamer, with a group of people I'd met at a hotel.
"How is Mozambique different from Malawi?" I asked Edgar, a Mozambiquan student whom I'd met at the border.
"Well, jobs are easier to find in Mozambique, and they pay more," Edgar said. "Also, the food is much better. People in Malawi don't know how to cook properly."
In most former colonies, the colonial language is used as a common second language – a bridge between tribes and ethnic groups. But in Mozambique, Portuguese seemed to be most people's first language. Out of all the countries I've visited, English was least widely spoken here. I'm sure my fumbling Spanish was an embarrassment to both Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but it helped.
Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, has style. It sits on a hill overlooking Maputo Bay, has a beautiful tropical climate, and is packed with old colonial buildings, including two designed by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). Maputo is also home to some of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. My two weeks in the city were all about live jazz music, outdoor cafes, fresh seafood, and nightclubs.
In hindsight, I would have allocated more time to Mozambique and explored the north, especially Ilha de Moçambique.
Of all the countries I visited, I knew the least about Swaziland before entering. Initially, the shopping malls, BMWs, and dog walkers in Mbabane shocked me, but outside the city I met some of the most charismatic and unique people in all of Africa.
Progressive when it comes to business and the environment, Swaziland is extremely traditional in terms of their culture and monarchy. The country is divided into chiefdoms, with Chiefs acting as representatives of the King. Polygamy is legal; King Mswati has nine wives; his father, King Sobhuza II, married 70 women and sired 210 children. During the Ncwala, or first fruit ceremony, members of the King's regiment kill a bull with their bare hands.
Weeks later I realized that you can have "authentic" experiences anywhere you go, regardless of how touristy or developed a place is. It all depends on your approach. Also, most of South Africa is rural and undeveloped.
When you see the physical beauty of South Africa it's easy to understand why so many people were willing to fight for it. Gentle green hills roll down from dramatic rocky mountains, rivers carve deep gorges though the interior, empty beaches sprawl, and endless skies shift and sulk. To take in as much of the country as possible, I rented a car with a Dutch girl named Jackie and drove from East London to Cape Town.
Apart from that, I was in perfect health throughout my time in Africa.
I was finally able to get off doxycycline (an anti-malarial) in South Africa. I took doxy for 350 days without any apparent side effects. And I never contracted malaria.
I returned home with all the equipment I set out with; nothing was stolen, lost, or discarded. The key? Discretion and a PacSafe (for locking stuff up in hotel rooms while I was out).
I kept the video camera locked up most of the time in Africa. It often felt dangerous and slightly piggish (techno-gluttony?) to bring it out in public.
The equipment held up beautifully; there were no accidents, breakdowns, or power failures – remarkable considering the beatings I administered.
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You can live on next to nothing in East Africa, but if you want to go on safari, climb mountains, run rapids, or do just about anything else, it'll cost you. I opted for some pricey trips ($600 safari in Tanzania, $250 gorilla trek, $150 shark dive) and spent an average of $40 a day – still under my $50/day budget.
For the entire trip, I averaged around $35 per day including transportation, meals, entertainment – everything. $35 x 365 days = $12,775. That's cheaper than a year at most colleges, less than the cost of an average American wedding, and a third as much as a sport utility vehicle.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. It was the best decision I've made in my life.