Oh, Africa. I don’t even know where to begin…
But I know that no matter what I put down here, it’ll be hard to convey just how amazing, challenging, beautiful, frustrating, enchanting, and crazy Africa (the little I saw of it, anyhow) is and how enriching, moving, and satisfying my experiences traveling through here were.
My journey from Cape Town to Cairo actually began in Johannesburg.
I landed in Africa after a quick visit to LA. 11 hours after leaving the U.S., I had a brief stop in Paris, where I came close to missing my flight on account of trying to find the red door from Taken and the RER shutting down. But my very particular set of skills, and a pricey Uber, got me there an hour before scheduled departure. Whew.
204 days after making it to Jo’burg, I left Cairo, following a journey that crossed through 10 other nations, mostly overland.
It wasn’t supposed to happen, actually. But I fell in love…with South Africa when I traveled to the Rainbow Nation for the 2010 World Cup, and I always wanted to go back.
As the most developed and bio-diverse country on the continent, this place has it all. Moving around was easy and I had a tiny rental car most of the time. I love ZA, spent the most time there, and could talk/write about it for days. Or for a few posts.
Some of my most memorable outdoors experiences happened here at their incredible parks. And I was lucky to meet some fantastic American diplomats and embassy personnel with whom I explored the land. Unexpectedly, they planted a seed that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was also a place for reflection, which was emotional and difficult at the Apartheid and District Six museums, and in speaking with locals.
In so many ways, South Africa is Africa Lite (which makes it an amazing destination for first-timers! Put it on your list…and take me with you).
Of course, you seldom appreciate what you have until it’s gone. And this was no exception.
As I moved north, the little things which were commonplace became luxuries. Hot water. Soap in bathrooms. Bigger markets where tuna isn’t 5 USD a can, a box of cereal 9 USD, and sun block 22 USD. Good roads and respectful drivers. A frickin’ can of isobutane for my camping stove (something I was only able to find in Kenya). No tourist gouging on public transportation, at restaurants, or national parks. The list goes on.
Traveling through Africa for nearly 7 months, mostly on public transportation, teaches you a lot. It assaults your senses, fills you with perspective, raises your eyebrows, and lowers your expectations. At different points, and sometimes simultaneously, you feel fortunate and loved and abused and disrespected and fearful and fearless and moved and thrilled and angry and cheated and happy and lucky and aware and very much alive.
It massively expands your world view, puts some of the most humble, kind, beautiful people (with unforgettable names like Champion, Gift, Fortune, Miracle, and Cherish) in your path, and reminds you to look both ways twice every time you cross the street. Africa gives you daily dose of the best and worst of humanity, how we treat each other, and how we treat our planet.
It turns you into a more resourceful, adaptable, perseverant problem-solver, and sharpens your listening and negotiation skills (happy to explain, future employer). This place forcibly instills in you enough patience and understanding to be canonized. It makes you smile often, cry at times, and leaves you in awe almost every day.
It’s a place where life consistently kicks you in the ass and reminds you that you’ve got it damn good in the western world, and are privileged, even in the worst of times.
It means hot, dusty minibuses with questionable safety records packed beyond belief. Load shedding (power outages) at inopportune times. Relentless mosquitoes. The adhan blasting at 4 am. Terribly aggressive, carelessly dangerous drivers. Corrupt, lazy, ineffective, and at times, inebriated cops. And fun weather extremes that test your packing prowess and preparedness (there were some hot, sweaty nights and some sleepless, freezing nights in my tent, for sure).
But you slowly begin to embrace the hurdles, learn from them, smile through them (I smiled the most in Ethiopia). And you realize that all these inconveniences for a traveler (ill-timed, and quite crappy, on occasion) are every day realities for a citizen.
I was passing through; privileged to be on the trip of a lifetime, and would eventually head back to a developed nation. I had it easy. It’s something I tried to consider every time I questioned conditions or thought about complaining (even internally), especially as I type this.
Of course, that’s not all Africa entails; my travel style simply exposed me to one extreme more often. Yes, poverty is prevalent, infrastructure lacks, and major imbalances exist. But so do universities, development, entrepreneurship, progress, modernity, wealth, brilliant, capable people, and hope. Africa is contradictory and complex. It’s full of young nations hampered by the legacy of colonialism, and still in the grips of constant exploitation, corruption, and mismanagement.
But the joys of traveling through here are absolutely incomparable. It’s a place where beautiful, enriching, unforgettable places and experiences abound, and – borrowing from Sherlock Holmes here – makes you feel small with your petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of Nature. Especially elephants. And honey badgers, hyenas, possums, and other animals sniffing around your tent.
South Africa had the best “nice” restaurants, where incredible value (hello, 12 USD/500 gram filets and 3 USD espresso martinis) left me with less dollars and more pounds. Uganda brought street food back into the fold with their delicious Rolex (rolled eggs) and the pork joints were legit. Ethiopia had the best ethnic food and coffee, and Egypt’s street food is the unrivaled, undefeated continental champion.
As far as local poisons go, South Africa was unquestionably the best, with a legit craft beer scene. The DRC and Rwanda surprised with a few quality beers like Peak 7,7 and Virunga Mist. Guinness Foreign Extra was a consistent go-to in central Africa, and Zimbabwe’s Zambezi was the best of the cheap local lagers. Amarula often found its way into my coffee in South Africa and Konyagi was trouble in Tanzania.
To be honest, I often felt guilt during my journey.
I was always hesitant to reveal the true extent of my travels to locals I met along the way. Mostly, I shortened the scope to a more conventional duration that wouldn’t make me come off as a privileged prick. Perhaps it was misplaced, but I had a hard time talking about quitting my job on purpose and spending money exclusively on travel while people in every country I was in were working their asses off and still struggling to put food on the table and living in poverty.
With one exception in Uganda, only westerners knew what I have been up to these last 16 months.
I never bought a local SIM card. I switched to T-Mobile before I left to capitalize on their great international plan. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so great in Africa, so my cell spent a lot of time on airplane mode here. Especially after a couple of pricey, accidental butt-dials to the US.
Update: Like a bitter lover, T-Mobile is dumping me because I travel too much.
While traveling through here, my accounts got locked out a ridiculous number of times. It always seemed suspicious to Chase, Facebook, Capital One, and especially Outlook.com that I’d be logging in from random African places. Only once did Charles Schwab question a purchase or withdrawal and put a hold on my card. And they refunded every single ATM fee along the way. I’ve been with them a long time and can’t recommend them enough.
My journey through Africa began with rhinos and ended with pharaohs.
It also ended in a few tears, mostly of joy, as I sat and stared at the great pyramid of Khufu. Surprisingly left alone, I reflected on all the things that happened on the nearly 15,000 miles I traveled by land (plus whatever mileage I covered on two planes) to get from Johannesburg to Cairo via Cape Town the long, winding, fun, and unforgettable way.
I crossed Africa south to north, by myself, though not alone. Along the way I connected with many wonderful locals and terrific travelers. I was lucky to experience a variety of cultures, languages, foods, beliefs, and wildlife.
There was a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and growth. Of having gained a greater appreciation of the beauty and complexity of our big spinning rock space rock. Of leaving completely convinced that the things that unite us as human beings are far greater than any cultural, philosophical, political, religious, or melaninic differences.
I gained a whole lot more from the experience than I was able to give back; I failed to volunteer as I had hoped while here.
It was a bittersweet goodbye. Physically and emotionally, I was ready for some developed world action. But I knew I’d miss the hell out of the continent. And I do.
However, as dusk arrived and the pyramids lit up, I savored the culminating moment and thought of one of my favorite quotes. It’s a maxim that is good to live, and travel, by.
“I choose not to spend my time here wishing I didn’t have to leave so soon.”
Before sunrise the next day, Mohammed, my awesome AirBnB host, dropped me off at the airport. The excitement of more experiences in foreign lands made me smile as I checked in to my flight.
I was going on an adventure. I was going to New Zealand!
Some favorites from Africa below.