Thoughts on leaving Africa 17.02.2013

It’s funny to look back at my first hours in Africa, how paranoid I was. I guess I had read too many reports about tourists being robbed on the airport to hotel transfer that it distorted my perception. Wandering around Kisutu late at night in the most oppressive heat I had ever experienced I was sure that the taxi driver was going to rob us when all he wanted to do was help us find a room. Being able to surf the web and find everything is fantastic but in between all that travel advice are the alarming horror stories from unlucky travellers which add alot of unnecessary `What if……´

It didn’t help that in hotel rooms were posters warning women to be careful when walking due to drive by bag snatching. Shopkeepers kept waving there hands in the air trying to warn me too. This again distorted my perception of Africa as a dangerous place when it fact it isn’t more dangerous that anywhere else. The reason shop keepers and hotel staff were so padantic in their warnings was because a Greek woman had been dragged to her death a few days before I arrived – her handbag was snatched from a moving car and somehow she ended up under the wheels – it was the week´s headline. Walking in Dar es Salaam I was hyper paranoid about traffic but after a while I figured it out. Always stick to the sidewalk and always walk towards the direction of the traffic. Never walk on the side of the street with your back towards the flow of traffic. Be aware of people on motorbikes especially if they are driving on to the sidewalk and stay alert when crossing roads. Once I figured this out I wasn’t worried anymore and could start to enjoy myself.

Africa was interesting, often jaw dropping and always hard work. I never did get that wow factor that I experienced daily while travelling in India. I think it might be because I love ancient architecture and temples which Africa lacks. Africa is more about experiencing daily life, walking through markets, looking at animals and landscapes which for me got repetitive after a while. I noticed that most of the tourists in Africa are over 60’s which was quite surprising considering how uncomfortable travelling around the region is.

indian ocean pirogueA pirogue on the Indian Ocean

The people of Tanzania and Kenya. The most polite people I have ever met in my life. I always imagine myself well mannered but believe me compared to the inhabitants of East Africa i’m a savage. I, ofcourse, met a number of individuals who were rude to the extreme like a customs officer at Namanga who singled us out and made us lug our backpacks into an office to be checked – this man oozed racist out of every pore of his being. His colleagues did apologize though and so did the other people on the bus. On the way back to Tanzania when we passed through Namanga again we never even bothered to declare the things we had and no one came on the bus to check the luggage anyway. Oh, and how could I forget the street hawker who spat through the window at me in Korogwe. He was just a nutter I guess. I never did figure out why East Africans don’t like being filmed. Regarding photography sometimes I felt like a walking ATM machine when people wanted cash on return for their photo being taken – but hey I was in the developing world so I didn’t mind.

maasai1Fake Maasai women trying to sell trinkets to unsuspecting tourists somewhere in the Rift Valley

Another thing about Africa is that everything is possible. Why bother trying to find a safari on the internet when a guy who worked in our hotel arranged a tailor-made safari for us at a fraction of the price as what they ask online. Just tell people what you want and they will make it possible. It was the same with car hire which we arranged through the Tayodea Organization in Lushoto – with no restriction or limits which you might otherwise find with global companies. People are honest and want to show their nations in their best light and try to make your stay there as comfortable as possible. When you book into a hotel tell them you want their best room and they will honestly give you the best one they have.

If you find yourself in a scary or dangerous situation as I experienced don´t freak out but ask people for help. They will help and everything will probably be okay. Don´t worry about Police Checkpoints either as we passed many and never once did an officer board the bus. When travelling overland if the company tell you it will take 6 hours to the destination then just double it and you´ll never be disappointed. Take food on journeys as drivers hardly make reststops. There is no point worrying about reputations of bus companies, they all looked the same and travelling with a reputable name still won´t guarantee you that there won´t be an accident, as I always say ´If something is going to happen then it will happen, there is no point worrying

usambara children2Children in the Usambara Mountains

Another thing I want to mention is the reputation of Nairobi. It is a fantastic city and I felt far safer there than in Dar es Salaam or Arusha. My advice is not to just transit through Nairobi but to stick around for a few days, it’s really cosmopolitan with excellent places to eat. On the other hand it was impossible to enjoy Dar es Salaam due to the heat – someone mentioned that even for Africans Dar is just too darn hot. There wasn’t that much to see in Dar es Salaam either i.e. I was bored! Most days were spent there chartering an air conditioned taxi to drive us around or staying in our airco hotel room. If you want to taste the most amazing veggie burgers go to Al Basha on Bridge Street, another good place to eat was Chef’s Place on Chagga Street but apart from those two places eating out was a let down.

bagamoyo customs houseBagamoyo Customs House

bagamoyo street Typical street in Bagamoyo

bagamoyo road The road between Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo

Will I return to East Africa? I don’t think so. It was beautiful to see and i´m grateful I experienced it but I didn’t have the fun factor that I had in India. It might also have had something to do with taking the anti-malarial tablets Malarone which made me feel down all the time plus the equatorial sun just evaporated any life I had in me. In India I just needed 1 shot of Electrolite to rehydrate me while on this trip I was having to drink ORS everyday.

Why am I writing this? Probably to let people know that Africa is not scary or dangerous but is something that everyone should try to experience at least once in their lives. I do want to go back to Africa – but to West Africa where street life seems far more vibrant. They say ´Go to East Africa for the animals and to West Africa for the people´- I hope they are right!


Lushoto, Tanzania October 2012

Lushoto was a place I instantly loved. Set in a valley surrounded on all  sides by steep hills covered in banana trees and rainforest and the vibe relaxed. As soon as we stepped off the bus some touts surrounded us trying to take us to the best hotels but as soon as we explained we were tired and hungry they left us alone…well, except one. The Rough Guide recommended Safari Inn for food but it was awful and no one spoke English so the tout took us to The Tumaini Hostel. Their restaurant was clean and presentable so we decided to eat there. While my boyfriend went off to smoke a cigarette I asked the girl behind the counter if she had any rooms vacant, I thought we may as well take a look at their rooms before heading to a lodge where we were planning on staying. She told me to go out the back door of the restaurant and cross the courtyard to the other building and ask there. I crossed the most amazing courtyard, it had palm trees and orchids and other exotic flowers. A boy was behind the desk and I asked him for the most beautiful room he had. I wasn’t going to settle for just okay while in Lushoto. He led me to room 118 and that was it, I was in love with Lushoto and instantly decided to stay the whole week. The room was amazing with its own balcony looking towards the hills, everything was perfect.

boy in red

Through the week I did see the other places to stay in Lushoto which were listed in the guidebook and none came anywhere near the perfection of Tumaini. It is also central while the other places seemed either run down or too far out of Lushoto.

lukoziChildren outside a house in a roadside village

So that was it, the start of the most amazing week we had in Africa surrounded by mountains and cool air. We hired a jeep as there was no way we were ever going to step inside an African bus again if we could help it. We were interested in two organizations who ran Cultural Tourism Programmes in the mountains. One was a posh organization with a glossy brochure and the other was a badly photocopied A4 bit of paper by an organization called Tayodea  – run by unemployed youths. Ofcourse we chose Tayodea, anything to help unemployed kids. Our guide was called Amani, a really nice soft spoken guy whose job it was to sit in the jeep and tell us which roads to take to the villages we wanted to see. The mountain people are the sweetest most polite people I have ever met, they seem shy. I’m very impressed with the people of Tanzania, they are proud of their country and want to show off it’s best features and they are aware that they all are ambassadors for their nation. I love the Usambara Mountains and the Shambaa peoples who live there.

Savannah to Rainforest, Kenya & Tanzania 2012

I had been too ambitious in my plans to cover vast swathes of eastern Africa with limited time. Nobody told me that travelling in Africa is exhausting. Firstly you have to be at bus stations at 6am which means waking up at 5am on travel days. For some reason intercity buses only leave at 6am or if your lucky 7am. So there you are lugging around a backpack in a scary bus station trying to find the right man to sell the bus ticket, don’t even think about trying to eat breakfast or even get a coffee. The freakiest place of all was in Arusha. A guy we met in Nairobi called Nelson arranged our travel back to Tanzania but it kind of felt as if we had been kidnapped.

town in tanzaniaTypical street scene in Tanzania

rickshaw tanzania

We were met from bus stations by men with our names printed out on A4 sheets of paper who would insist we got in unmarked cars where other men were sitting shouting to each other in Swahili. It was really confusing and I kept mentioning that they should at least invest in something as simple as a name badge with company logo as it was impossible to know who was who. Anyway, I didn’t like Arusha at all, there were too many touts and the place had quite a sinister rundown feel to it so we just spent the night there. I was too wrecked to try and find a place to stay but remembered the name Arusha Backpackers from my guide book so we told the kidnappers to take us there. The rooms were nothing special but the roof terrace we amazing and so was the food – I was in heaven talking to French people, the first westerners we saw since arriving in Africa. The men who had “kidnapped” us even went and arranged our onward journey to Lushoto, the 6am Fasaha V.I.P. Executive Travel.

African savannahThe savannah

I have to laugh now when I think of it. I imagined reclining chairs and maybe someone who brought around drinks and snacks on the bus. It was H-E-L-L. An old over crowded battered bus with narrow chairs and tiny windows which no one would be able to crawl out if anything happened. I realise things now about travel in Africa. There is a driver who smokes and chats on his phone while going way over the speed limit and he is surrounded by a gang of men who you could see as the mob. Once we are out in the middle of no where it’s as if they think they are gods. In the 8 hour bus journey from Arusha to Lushoto they only stopped once for 5 mins in some bushes where we were expected to go to the toilet. Every now and they they’ll let on a group of people who are selling snacks, the mob can take which ever snack they want for free as payment. Public transport is about money and speed.

eafrica maasai villahe

The bus was crammed, at times I had elbows in my face, it was horrible as i’m claustrophobic. Somewhere half way I could feel a panic attack coming on and all I could do was cry quietly to myself while looking out the window while we raced through bush fires, deserts and some of the most harrowing poverty you could ever imagine. Avoid Fasaha if you can. Another bus company called Chokito also leave for Lushoto from Arusha and their buses looked slightly better although not much. The lowest point of the bus trip and infact the lowest point of the whole trip to Africa was on that Fasaha bus in the middle of no where when I was sitting in tears as the middle aisle was crammed full of people and people were banging on the glass from outside trying to sell you things you would ever need. It was horrible – the heat and chaos – the thing that made me snap was someone getting on the bus with a double mattrass which was then passed along across the heads of everyone to the back of the bus.

tanga villageTypical rural Tanzania

I was fuming and I must say I hated Africa in that moment and never wanted to come back EVER!!!!!! Every now and then the police stopped the bus for over speeding but what is the point of traffic police when you can just get rid of them with a bribe?

kilimanjaroLast glimpse of Kilimanjaro

Then again I was in one of the world’s poorest countries so what was I expecting The Orient Express? I thought it was just us suffering but I noticed a woman getting off the bus in Soni who collapsed onto the ground in tears so it was hell for everyone. Once we got into the Usambara Mountains my spirits lifted, the driver put on music which I’m guessing was the music of the mountain peoples and everything got amazing. Gorgeous mountain villages with the women dressed in vibrantly coloured kangals, views that went on for miles, waterfalls, rainforests, monkeys, cooler climates, no dust. After the hell of being in Arusha and the hell of travelling across the Masai Steppe in a bone shaker it was like arriving in paradise!

An African Safari. October 2012

So the day had come to experience wild Africa. My fascination with Africa revolves around the people, the culture, the food, the traditions, the architecture, the history and the idea of stalking animals is way down on my list. I’ve went on safari drives in Europe where you drive around a park and animals come and wreck the car windscreen wipers. I’ve saw an elephant before, and zebras too. So what motivates people to fly to Africa and then go camping for days on end hoping to see an elephant? Couldn’t you just go to a zoo in your local town? Call me mad but I just don’t get it.

 My best safari photo, the summit of Kilimanjaro is in the background.

I sat up for nights on end watching Animal Planet, forcing myself to feel some sort of addiction to animals in the wild but it never happened. There was no click.

The morning of the safari was a disaster. We had to wake up at 3.30am as our driver was picking us up at 5.30am. The bizarre thing about our hotel was that you have electricity during the day but as soon as night falls bam! electricity blackout. Optimistically I tried the light switch at 3.30am but there was nothing. I stumbled around in the dark. When there is no electricty there is no hot water. Amazingly I managed to get dressed, packed luggage and even put a bit of makeup on. Anxiously I checked myself in the mirror at dawn and I looked just fine.

safari boyThe son of our Safari driver

We drove for hours. Our driver couldn’t find petrol. He told us the gas stations have fuel but they don’t sell it. A shortage of fuel means the government can charge more. It seemed ironic. I thought governments want their countries to be economically successful, the more fuel you sell the more tax you can deduct…but not in Kenya.  Comparing Kenya to Tanzania there are alot more modern looking buildings in Kenya and the people seem amazingly streetwise but Kenya seems alot rougher too. Tanzania is more rural and the people far gentler.

So the safari. There was a rush of excitement seeing the first elephant, a lesser rush of excitement seeing the second then repeat unil you can’t be bothered looking at elephants anymore. The zebras were…well zebras. The giraffes were something else though. Majestic, different. The most bizarre thing on the road was seeing an ugly black European crow in a cage at the side of a village road. I wonder if they think our boring birds are exotic while we find their giraffes awe inspiring. The grass is always greener.

That was that. The safari, animals walking around while eating grass or bathing in mud pools. I’m glad I can say I went on safari. Between elephants in fields or monkeys and exotic birds in rainforests i’d chose the rainforests anyday.

Visiting a Maasai tribe. October 2012

The color that I will remember most from Kenya is gold. Golden Sand. Miles of it going on as far as the eye can see. The grass when you see it seems to be golden too, withering away in the drought. Then there are the majestic giraffes that stand at the side of the main highway linking Nairobi to Mombasa, lions too. Everything a shade of gold.

The heat was intense as we made our way along potholed dirt roads, the constant shaking of the car making me feel nauseous. I announced to my boyfriend that there was a lake on the horizon and how we should risk entering the food chain to be able to swim – anything to escape the heat that was evaporating all life that I had left it me. It turned out there was nothing there, just more sand…the first time I ever experienced seeing a mirage. The landscape was hostile, you could stay in the car and fry or step outside to be swamped by flies. I had been feeling wrecked for days blaming the equatorial sun and the exhaustion of travelling in Africa which i’m sure is all exaggerated by the side effects of Malarone, the anti-malarial pills I had been taking. Whenever I felt weakest my boyfriend would remind me that we could vacation in Benidorm, our idea of hell on Earth. That was always the motivation to remind myself that in these moments my life was a dream. I was in Africa.

This is the endless landscape, sand covered by volcanic rock from a time when Kilimanjaro was erupting.

There was something else about this landscape, something enchanting and utterly beautiful. The closer you looked you could see the highest free standing mountain in the world, the summit topped off by snow. Snow on the equator. Infront of Kilimanjaro dust devils like mini tornados dancing across the landscape. Then there was the sound, the sound of nothing, just the car engine and the endless void of nothing.

Looking into the bush sometimes you would see them, the tall photogenic Maasai warriors carrying spears searching for something, the Maasai a Nilotic semi-nomadic ethnic group. This was the East Africa of legend, the images that have been stuck in the minds of generations and seeing this you realised you could never let it go. In this part of the world you are witnessing something so naturally perfect that it could almost be the center of the world. Here animals roam free in the shadow of one of the worlds most beautiful mountains and man’s pollution on the earth non-existant.

Some Maasai men were sitting under a tree and we stopped to take a photo. They started to run towards us and knowing how much East Africans hate being photographed I imagined we were in for an ugly incident – but they were friendly. They invited us to visit their village! It was surreal sitting in the car taking directions from the Maasai who were carrying spears.

 The moment I took this photo was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. I thought just being the two of us would never merit such effort as a welcome song but how wrong I was. They even danced for us, it was incredible with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background and dust devils working their way across the horizon. Somehow the guttaral tone of the song reminded me of the Aboriginals in Australia. Afterwards everyone knelt down on one knee and prayed.

 The Maasai homes are made from sticks and the waterproof plaster is elephant dung. We went inside one of the houses. At first it was pitch black and the heat was overpowering but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I noticed I was sitting on a bed, the mattrass made of cow skin. There was a small fire lit in the middle of the room, the windows were tiny little circles about 10cm across. This made me feel claustrophobic.

We were told that when a member of their tribe dies there is very little ceremony. The body is just laid out in the open for scavengers. If the body is somehow rejected by scavengers it can bring shame on the tribe so often the body is smeared in ox blood and fat.

 It is a myth that Maasai boys have to kill a lion to become a man. In the past this was the case but now killing lions is illegal.

 Right above the girl’s hand you can see a window!


 More Maasai tribe taken somewhere in southern Kenya. Within cities in East Africa like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam the simple red clothes  called Shúkà (pictured above) is what they wear. It’s quite startling to see Maasai dressed like this sipping a macchiato in an internet cafe!

Nairobi, Kenya 08.10.2012

I knew this was going to happen years ago, I just knew it. Growing up on an industrial island some mornings the sun was blocked out by the toxic smoke of coal fires, the mist dragging the blackness  down to street level. To make this lethal cocktail complete everyone was made to wear grey uniforms while we were all slowly brainwashed about how wonderful it was that our island had conquered the world. Life was dull and my only form of escapism was to the local library where I could absorb myself in books. I bided my time until the day would come when I would be able to breakout from the island. I didn’t care about fiction or music or fashion, I just wanted pygmies and Ganesha. I wanted to know about the tribes of PNG and about the temples recently found in the forests of far off places like Mexico. That was my adventure, in those books I was free.

Somewhere on my journey through those pages particular photos stood out. One of them was the skyline of Nairobi and the Kenyatta building.

The Nairobi Skyline from Uhuru Park

Not that it was an especially beautiful skyline. It just stood out almost as if part off me knew that one day I would walk there. Why would I go to Nairobi? It’s known as a dangerous place and it’s not like it’s a historical gem either, it’s only about a hundred years old. So why do I remember that photo of Nairobi so vividly? Could it have been that I felt fate for one moment before that image was put to the back of my mind until I would remember it decades later? Think about Buenos Aires, it isn’t known for much except tango and Eva Peron but I know that one day I will go there too.

The largest mosque in Nairobi

Anyway here I was the first morning in Nairobi, the city that fate was always going to bring me too. We stepped out of the hotel into the bright sunlight and for once it felt nice. Nice that it wasn’t a humid shower as Dar es Salaam is, or as an arid yellow dust bowl like the interior of Tanzania where I got sunburnt in less than ten minutes.

nairobeansPeople in downtown Nairobi

We wandered through the City Center, the atmosphere was amazingly relaxed. We found a designer-ish breakfast bar just off Koinange Street where the menu was so exciting that Amsterdam seemed provincial in comparison. After breakfast we wandered further. I had left the hotel with my hand firmly attached to my handbag ready for the bag snatch which was surely guaranteed to happen. As the day went on the less I worried about Nairobi’s reputation. Somewhere around midday I realised I was actually enjoying myself, the Nairobeans confident and quick to make us laugh.

The symbol of Nairobi – the Kenyatta Conference Center

 Statue of the first President of Kenya

 Downtown Nairobi

I ended up in City Market where I bought the ugliest mask I could find, it has a couple of camel teeth stuck in it. Then we were on the roof of the Kenyatta Building, this skyscraper the symbol of Nairobi. We had met Peter at the entrance who told us he has the best office in the city and we were invited. Moments later we were in his office, the helicopter landing pad on the roof where Nairobi was at our feet! He showed us the Ngong Hills, the location of the new American Embassy and told us about the history of his wonderful city. The optimism echoed in his voice as he explained to us his vision as Kenya a powerhouse in a few years time.

The next day we went to the Memorial Garden of the Embassy Bombings. It was hard to believe a building had once stood there which had collapsed in the blast. Scanning the names of the victims it was obvious most were Africans. Peter told us that he had been on the roof of the Kenyatta Building showing a group of Poles around when the explosion occured and for miles around it had rained glass injuring people who weren’t anywhere near the epicenter.

My perception of Nairobi has changed drastically. It won’t win any prizes in beauty contests or for being enviromentally friendly the traffic jams seem to go on all day. Nairobi has endless confidence and it’s not hard to see why when you think a hundred years ago all of this was nothing more than malaria infested swamp. Don’t believe the guide books horror stories about muggings and carjackings. Go to Nairobi, you’ll be glad you did!

Into Africa 16.09.2012

So, summer 2012 and things have been really hectic with my work and living in such a crazy city as Amsterdam. I’ve been having alot of fun going to art exhibitions and discovering new places to eat although it kinda sucks that I haven’t been able to travel as much as i’d like to. Reality bites I guess. The good news is i’m in the minority who can say that they love their job and sometimes working is more amazing than what the rest of reality has on offer. Find something you love doing and then find a way to get paid doing it!

Africa Africa. I can’t go through life without ever visiting. I had planned to go back to India but my boyfriend put a stop to that saying we should go visit other regions and not go back to Asia for a while. Uhmmmm, ok. Perception is a funny thing – throw two people into the same situation and they’ll both have completely different experiences. My boyfriend chose Africa.

I’ve always wanted to go there myself so it worked out for both of us. We were naturally drawn to Mali and Burkina Faso. We both agreed that for us those countries seemed to fulfill our ideas of Africa….sandy towns, mosques made of mud, the Dogon and Bozo tribes, vibrant markets, canoes on the Niger River. It just seemed right. I watched a (sometimes boring) film called “The Sheltering Sky” where some of it was filmed on location in the Sahel. Wow!…. then everything came crashing down as people fled Timbuktu and fighting broke out on the streets of Bamako. We scanned the rest of the continent. Senegal seemed like a dream…but only if you were fluent in French and was way over priced. Guinea Bissau had a coup. Amazing stories about the landscapes of Guinea but a nightmare logistically – add to that Liberia and Sierra Leone. One of my ancestors is buried in Sierra Leone, he died of Malaria in the 19th Century so that was somewhere with an emotional connection. The reviews about Ghana were equally as enticing until you read the requirements to get a travel visa – that killed it instantly for us. Nigeria seemed unstable. Cameroon again paradise on Earth but far too expensive for an extended trip. Ethiopia…how could you ever not want to go experience the Lower Omo Valley with it´s Mursi and Hamer tribes? Until you realise to get there involves renting a jeep and a ranger with a rifle from a number of companies who have a monopoly. $2200 per person per week? I think not.

Then came the southern African countries. South Africa, we had to decide long about this country. I’m not attracted to it at all as it seems far too western but it does have stunning landscapes and tribal villages and there are the nearby mysterious countries of Swaziland and Lesotho. Some of the photos of Johannesburg  just looked like London on a rainy day. Mozambique again fascinating with it´s Portugese looking towns but difficult logistically.

In the end we chose Malawi and East Africa. The attraction being the Rift Valley, the biodiversity, the transport infrastructure and the wildlife. The major cities don’t seem visually appealing but the people definetly are. Travel visas were easy to get and it’s possible to re-enter Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya on a single entry visa – that is if you are coming from one of those three countries mentioned. Another attraction will be the contrast between the fusion of the African-Arab Swahili coast and the journey towards the more Central African Christian regions. I will add videos and photos when I get back. I might update this blog from an internet cafe along the route, you never know. Until then…upendo maisha!