The day slipped away from the Valley of the Kings, the last rays of sun passing over the tombs of ancient kings.
We rushed down the street to the two restaurants that fought for our business, trying to out wager each other with offers of free fruit juice, appetizers, desserts. We picked the one with the better kebabs, tender and juicy. Earlier in the day we had taken a feluca ride on the Nile; then spent the hottest hours of the afternoon splashing at the pool in our hotel, a luxury that came with our $7 rooms. Our trip through Egypt was reaching its last days, but before we returned to Cairo, we had one last stop: Hurghada and snorkeling in the Red Sea.
Until this trip to Egypt in June 2004, my international travels had been restricted to Europe—to high-speed rail and rental cars, sidewalk cafes and art museums. Egypt was a revelation. It was mad in a way that made me fall in love with it, all if it, even the incessantly honking traffic and the men who offered Jeff camels in exchange for me and the shop owners guaranteeing that whatever I wanted, they had. Every experience felt new, even ordinary things like bus rides.
Our bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada was to be the first long-distance bus of our Egyptian travels—we’d taken the train south from Cairo—and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the unmarked station—a mere parking lot, really—I asked and asked and then asked again which bus was ours, none of them seeming to indicate any sort of destination. Upon gaining a consensus answer, I handed over our luggage and then boarded the bus, my friends Kate and Ben behind me, Jeff and my brothers Gregory and Mark in front of me. I’m impressed with what I see. It’s clean. The seats look comfortable (and more importantly, are only required to hold the number for which they were built and not two, three, or four extra people). And best of all, there’s a TV. Hooray for entertainment, I thought. It was, after all, going to be a long bus ride in the dark, meaning there would be nothing to look at.
I hear you laughing now. I hear you laughing at the young, naive version of me, the eager traveler who had no idea what she was about to experience. I expected airplane-style entertainment: a movie, that while not awesome, would by at least mildly entertaining, and, of course, headphones or perhaps minimal volume with subtitles. (Okay, up off the floor. Dry your eyes.)
The bus began to roll—out of the station, out of the city, and into the desert that lay between Luxor and Hurghada. The wheels squeaked on the rode. The low rumble of conversation filled the bus. A kid vomited his lunch into the aisle. And then a deafening wail filled the bus. Movie time. Bollywood time to be exact. Three-hour Bollywood madness at maximum volume to be perfectly clear.
I exchanged glances with Jeff, with my brothers, with Kate and Ben. We craned our necks, waiting for the bus attendant to come back and adjust the obviously too-loud television. We waited in vain. (Seriously, enough with the laughing, Mr./Ms. Experienced Traveler.) For three hours, we endured an epic Bollywood film that seemed to combine Snow White and the Wizard of Oz and then inject it with bloodcurdling screams. It was impossible to talk, to sleep—even to think, except to think about ripping your eyes and ears from your head as a means of saving yourself. When the bus finally pulled into Hurghada—late, as all buses are—I nearly fell to my knees in thanks, if not exhaustion. I had been delivered.
But as every traveler knows, the delivery is only momentary. There is always another bus, another TV, another bad movie played at deafening volume. Sometimes for fun (yes, bus torture does distort your idea of fun) I think back about the bad movies I’ve endured on buses and try to rank them, try to determine which one was really the worst. The Egypt one has certainly stuck with me, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was so bad (though yes, very bad) as it was shocking. I mean, can it compare to the time I was forced to watch License to Wed on never-ending repeat? Or the marathon of five back-to-back Jean Claude Van Damme movies, each different from the other only in regards to what country the bad guys came from? Or the fact that more than one bus thought The Condemned (yes, the WWE film) was quality viewing? I’m not sure. All were terrible in their own very special way—a way that has allowed these bus rides to remain clear in my mind while memories of the precious movie-less rides drift away from me like sands on a dune. That’s the funny thing about travel, isn’t it? In the end, it’s not what’s good or what’s bad that makes a trip; it’s simply what’s memorable.
What about you? What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen on a bus?
When we talk about our next trip—not the upcoming birthday trip to Hawaii or the beach vacation with my family, but our next big trip—we talk about Africa. We talk about Ethiopa, about the Masai Mara, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, about Rwanda, and about Zambia beyond Victoria Falls. We talk about exploring the parts of East Africa that we were unable to squeeze into our three months in Africa. And we imagine ourselves doing it in a 4WD, the open road unfurling in front of us, our plans unhindered by bus schedules or tour operators.
During the weeks we spent traveling through South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, we had our own car—an orange Kia that was decidedly not 4WD or fancy but that managed to get us everywhere we wanted to go.
Thanks to the car, we were able to go on do-it-yourself safaris in Kruger and Etosha and smaller parks in-between, where our encounters with lions and cheetahs were enabled by good fortune and sharp eyes rather than radio calls that have every safari truck in range surrounding one animal. We were able to detour to Tsodilo Hills and take the ferry to the Okavango Polers Trust for an affordable mokoro safari, places that would have been difficult to reach via public transportation. Thanks to the fact that we had our own car, we were able to stop on the side of the road along the Caprivi Strip and browse carved animal figurines while chatting with kids from a traditional village, people who would have been only passing images from the window of a bus. Having a car opened roads, destinations, and experiences up to us. It presented us with possibilities and gave us the freedom to change our mind at any moment. It allowed us to choose our own music instead of being forced to listen to the same song on repeat for four hours. It gave us the freedom to depart the second we chose rather than being forced to sit in a bus that was going “now” but not “now now” for long mindless stretches. These are the things I think of when I picture us in our own 4WD.
But then I think of our travels through Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania, when we took buses and minibuses and trains and pick-up trucks and even a motorcycle or two.
There were some long days, where we did nothing but sit on buses, waiting for them to leave, enduring endless stops and starts, waiting out flat tries or overheated transmissions, bracing ourselves through pothole after pothole. We took buses that were so full we had to stand for the entire ride. We took minivans that held double or triple their intended number. We were often hot. We were usually uncomfortable. Yet somehow we still had fun. We met many people who wanted to talk to us, who were amazed to have us sitting right next to them in an overcrowded matutu. We met people who wanted to touch my blonde hair, people who asked us to hold their babies while they dug for their fares, people who shared their bags of fruits or nuts with us. When our buses or trains broke down, we stood on the side of the road with everyone else and traded sighs and stories. We learned Swahili from kids who would emerge from the village where we broke down, and we’d share a plastic table at the roadside restaurant selling chicken and fries. From our seats aboard Africa’s public transportation, we not only saw Africa but we also experienced it in the same way that most Africans do. Taking public transportation gave us perspective on what it is like to live in Africa, not just visit it. It allowed us to get intimately acquainted with people we would not have met otherwise. By paying the same fare and sharing the same small space, we became more approachable and less “the other.”
So when I settle in to my fantasies about my return visit to Africa, I find myself conflicted. Would I want to have my own means of transportation or would that only keep me sealed off, viewing a sterile Africa through my own narrow windshield? Or would I want to opt for public transportation and open myself up to Africa but perhaps close myself off to destinations too far off the matutu route? I think the answer lies somewhere in between, in a combination of a 4WD on an open road and a matutu stuck in a traffic jam. Because as I see it, that is Africa, a place of opposites and extremes that combine in the most mesmerizing way.
Have we mentioned before how interesting it was to be abroad when Obama was elected President of the U.S. and to continue traveling through much of his first year in his office? Have you heard our stories about the Obama grocery stores, the Obama kangas, and the baby gorilla named Obama? Have you wondered at all what it was like to be an American abroad in the midst of Obama-mania?
An article I wrote about the “Obama effect” on travel has just been published in the May edition of Perceptive Travel. Please go check it out and let me know what you think. And while you’re there, take a look at the other articles in this month’s edition as well as previous editions. If, like me, you’ve grown tired of travel magazines and websites that are nothing more than Top 10 lists and service articles, you’ll want to bookmark Perceptive Travel as it features the kind of stories that just don’t make it to print anymore in our short-attention-span society.
P.S. Thanks to my sister-in-law Paulina, who spent last summer in Uganda and helped me out with photos for the article.
Recently, as part of the Tripbase Blog Tag game, we were tagged by Lisa of LLWorldTour to share our top three travel secrets with the blog-reading universe. I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week now, because honestly I just don’t know what to share. Do I share a place, a restaurant, a hotel, a person, a moment, an idea, a tip? And is it possible there is anything secret I have left, anything I haven’t yet shared? Yes, I have a tendency to over think things. So, before I change my mind again about what to post, here it is, our top (for the moment at least) three travel secrets.
1. Take Trains…And Not Just in Europe
I love trains. I love the hustle and bustle of rail stations. I love the constantly changing arrivals and departures board that makes it seem you could go anywhere. I love the way that trains force you to slow down, sit back, and enjoy the scenery. So whenever we found a train, we opted to take it, even if that sometimes met hanging around a town a day or two longer than we had planned in order to align our schedule with the train schedule. And in exchange for going the old fashioned way, for taking the time to take a train, we were rewarded with authentic travel experiences that stuck with us far more than any flight ever has. On a train from Mbeya, Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam, we were treated to an impromptu safari as the tracks traversed Selous Game Reserve, allowing us to spot zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and more from our bunks. And as we made our way from Hanoi to Hoi An, we made fast friends with the family sharing our cabin, learning from them all the places we had to go, gaining insight into local life, and tasting all kinds of food we’d never seen before but that they’d brought with them and insisted on sharing. This happened over and over, on every train trip we took. And that’s why I like trains. It’s slow travel. Travel that gives you a more intimate look at a place and its people. Travel that is as much about the journey as the destination.
2. You Can Go On Safari on a Budget
Safaris have a reputation for being expensive, primarily because the industry has somehow tricked us into thinking that the only way to go on safari is on a fully catered operation. But that’s not true. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you can do it on your own. In fact, almost all the parks in southern Africa–from South Africa’s Kruger to Namibia’s Etosha–allow for self-catered safaris. Rent your own car, pack your own tent, and bring your own food (or eat in the very nice park restaurants) and a safari can in fact be quite inexpensive. And don’t even begin to worry whether you’ll be able to spot any animals without a guide. From our tiny little Kia (not even a 4WD), we spotted lions, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants (they’re pretty hard to miss!), giraffes, hyenas, and all sorts of other amazing creatures. Heck, more than once, we even had the guided safaris pulling up to where our lone car was trying to figure out just what we had found. I resisted requesting a finder’s fee 🙂 And if you’ve always wanted to do an Okavango Delta safari, the most notoriously expensive of all African safaris, don’t fret, that too can be arranged. Just get yourself to the village of Seronga, in the far northwest corner of Botswana (accessible by rental car from Namibia), and hook up with the Okavango Polers Trust, a co-op of local mokoro polers who will guide you on an overnight or multi-day delta safari at backpacker prices.
3.Skip the Bus and the Boat and Hike into Torres del Paine
Most information about hiking Torres del Paine will tell you that there are two options for getting to a starting point at Torres del Paine: you can take the bus to the lodge at the end of the W closest to the Torres, or you can take the boat to Paine Grande. There is, in fact, a third option, and this is the one you should take: get dropped off at the Administration Building and hike the 17 km to Paine Grande. Though this may sound a bit crazy, considering you’re going to already be hiking 80 km to complete the W (and much more if you plan to do the full loop), it is the absolute best introduction to the park. The hike is relatively flat, and the views are stunning. Spread out in front of you is the entirety of the park, allowing you to take in the awesome grandeur of the place that you will soon mainly be seeing in macro. Though there are splendid views throughout the park and the hike, only on the 17 km hike in will you get the panorama, and that alone makes the walk worth it. Plus, being relatively flat, it’s a good warm up for the hiking to come.
In the remaining twilight, we survey our surroundings. We don’t see people. We don’t see houses. No one is going to find us if we stay here. We have three choices. We can go south, toward the end of the island, but we’re practically there already, and we’re not convinced we’ll find much life that way. We can go east, further inland, but we’re afraid that we might get lost and just wander aimlessly if we do that. Plus there are a few too many poisonous snakes on the island for much shoeless wandering. Our final option, and the one we choose, is to go north. That’s the direction of our lodge, and so we know that there is life that way. Plus by staying along the shoreline, we’ll at least have a guideline, a way to know that we’re continuously moving in the right direction. And so we pull ourselves up from the rocks and start moving before darkness completely overtakes us. It’s no walk on the beach but is instead a clamber up and over boulder after boulder. We each take a paddle and use it like a blind person uses a walking stick, poking it out in front of us and feeling our way forward.
Jeff falls first, slipping into a crevasse between rocks. There is no light anymore (not even moonlight), so we can only make out the vaguest outlines of shapes. Each step is a guess. Jeff guesses wrong. I scramble to his side, wondering what the heck I am supposed to do. What if he broke something? I certainly can’t carry him. I’d have to leave him. Try to find help on my own. Luckily it doesn’t come to that. Jeff gets up, scratched and bleeding but okay, and we continue on.
I fall next, stepping on a rock that rolls and then flips over onto my leg when I fall. I’m pinned down, and I’m not sure the state of my leg under the rock. Jeff hurries back and removes the rock. I take stock of my state. Like Jeff, I’m just bloody and bruised. We’re lucky. But we’re beyond frustrated. Our progress is so slow, and at this rate, one of us will end up good and hurt. It doesn’t seem there’s anything we can do but keep pressing on through the darkness that makes it nearly impossible for me to even see Jeff directly ahead of me.
But then, my brain unfogs for a minute. I remember that I saved the daypack. I grab it from Jeff and feel my way through it.
Though one Nalgene bottle floated away when our boat sank, there is still one in our backpack, and if I remember correctly it’s the one I want. Once upon a time Jeff bought a Nalgene lid that with a press of a button illuminates a light and turns your Nalgene into a lantern. I made fun of him for it then. But now, I swear to take it all back if only the light will still turn on after its long dip in Lake Malawi.
I find the bottle. I press the button. For a moment, nothing happens. But then it flickers on. It works! The glow it casts is small, but it’s enough. We can see where we’re stepping. Slowly, slowly, we continue on, our feet cut up, our bodies exhausted. We stumble where we shouldn’t, our coordination not up to par.
I also remember that my whistle, the one I take with me when hiking, is attached to the front of my backpack. I grab it and begin blowing, hoping that someone will hear it and come investigate. At one point, I think I see a light, and I start yelling like crazy. No one responds. Turns out it’s just a glowing plant. I keep whistling, but no help comes.
We walk for an hour. At least. It feels like forever. And then finally we see a flicker of light ahead, which we soon realize is a fire. We move with renewed energy. The boulders give way to beach. We hurry through the sand to the fire, around which a group of men is gathered. When we approach, they all stare, jaws unhinged. In front of them stand two white people, soaking wet, dripping blood, and carrying paddles though there’s no boat in sight.
Jeff takes charge, asking if anyone speaks English. No on answers. He repeats the question. No answer. We don’t have another language to fall back on, so we just speak, slowly, clearly, trying to explain our situation. Blank stares are what we get in return. We gesture toward their boats, all still lined up on the beach. “Fishing tonight?” we ask, casting out imaginary lines. Every other night we’ve seen the lights of boats blinking from the lake. “Can you take us?” we ask. “Motor us back to our lodge. We’ll pay,” we say. Finally, a man steps forward. In broken English he says, “No fishing tonight. Lake too rough.” We should have known.
On to plan B. “Does anyone have a phone?” we ask, pantomiming calling someone. They exchange glances. Then one of the men runs off, returning shortly with another man, who speaks better English and has a phone. He hands it to us. We stare at it. Theoretically it should be of help, but we don’t have any numbers. Who are we going to call? We ask if anyone knows the number to Mango Drift. Silence is the response.
I am completely exhausted at this point, my body wrecked. I am also being stared at as if I am an alien, as if I just shot down from a hovering spacecraft. I collapse into the sand. I sob. I am overwhelmed, uncertain how we’re going to make it back, but mainly I’m overwhelmed by the realization that we’re okay, that that we’re going to be okay.
The people are trying their best to help us, but they don’t know much more than we do. “You should just stay here tonight,” they suggest, gesturing toward my cuts, still dripping blood. “You’re tired. You can sleep here with us, and then we’ll take you back in the morning.” I thank them. I try to smile. They are warmhearted and generous. But we can’t stay here. We have to get back. They’re expecting us back. They expected us long before the sun set.
We return to the phone. There has to be someone we can call who can help us. “The police,” I suggest. “Ask them to call the police.” Jeff hands the phone back to the owner and asks him to call the police for us. He dials.Â We wait. He hangs up. “No one answered,” he says.
Shit. Now who? I rack my brain. “Call the hospital,” I suggest. There’s a British-run hospital on the island, and we had met some of the workers earlier in the week. “They speak English,” I say to Jeff, relaying my chain of thought, “and can call the lodge.” The man with the phone dials the hospital. Again the phone rings and rings, but no one answers.
There’s no one else we can call at this point. We stare at each other, blank, not knowing what to do. Finally, we ask if they know where the hospital is. In chorus, they shake their heads yes, and point in a general direction. “Will you lead us there?” we ask, and again receive a chorus of nods. It’s not close, a couple of kilometers, but closer than the lodge. We also don’t have shoes. It’s going to be a long, painful journey. But at this point, we don’t see what choice we have. We start walking.
But we only make it about 200 meters before our guide stops and enters a house. He returns, then gestures for us to follow him in. I have no idea what’s going on. I hope he’s not trying to get us to stay there for the night. We can’t.
Jeff and I look around at the house—a very nice one for the island with couch and TV, a dining table, separate bedrooms—and try to figure out what’s going on. Then a man, nicely dressed and speaking excellent English, addresses us. He’s the mayor of Likoma Island. We’re in the mayor’s house. I feel like Dorothy when she finally makes it to see the wizard. I only hope that there’s no curtain.
He immediately tells Jeff that he knows Mango Drift, that he goes there often for a beer, and that he’ll call them as soon as the man who was leading us returns with a card for his phone. It’s low on money. Then he begs me to have a seat. I decline. I’m still wet, blood’s dripping from my elbow. I don’t want to sully his furniture. He insists until finally I relent. Then he offers me dinner, asks us to eat with him and his wife. I look at the steaming bowl of cassava and know that there’s no way I can stomach it right now. I decline. When I agree to eat a banana and have some tea, he accepts this. He asks what happened, listens to our story, tells us that we are lucky, so, so lucky, that so many people have died on the lake when the weather suddenly turned.
Then the man is back, and suddenly Jeff is on the phone with Josh and Becky, the managers at Mango Drift. In ten minutes, Josh is at the door, laden down with blankets, chocolates, cookies. He keeps saying how happy he is to see us. How they’d kept watching and watching the water waiting for us to return. How when the sun set and we weren’t back they called to the lodge on Chizimulu to see if perhaps, if hopefully, we’d decided to stay there for the night. How they’d called everyone they knew on the island, asking if they’d seen a kayak, if they’d seen two white people. How they were sending out the rescue crew just as we called. We express relief that we caught them before they pulled out the big guns, say how happy we are to see them too.This adventure gone wrong, oh so wrong, is over.
I snuggle close to Jeff in the car as we ride back to the lodge. My mind keeps replaying the events of that afternoon. But already the day has become grainy. Already it’s become unreal. Already it’s become nothing but a good story.
Ferries and other passenger ships in the developing world have a terrible habit of sinking. Far too often, reports of such ships show up in the international news. In fact, while we were on Zanzibar, a ferry from Dar Es Salaam sunk just outside the harbor, resulting in the death of many passengers. So every time Jeff and I boarded a boat, I paid close attention to the safety briefing (if there was one), scouted out my exits, and snagged a life jacket (if there were any). I was prepared for an incident that though not likely wasn’t improbable. Where I failed was in considering the possibility that a boat I myself was piloting could be the one that sank.
On our third day on Likoma Island–a place we wrote about earlier in regards to its warm, friendly people–the sun rises bright and clear, and after a big breakfast at Mango Drift, the backpacker lodge where we are staying, we push one of the lodge’s kayaks through the sand and into the warm, deep waters of Lake Malawi. Our destination is the island of Chizimulu, 13 kilometers away. According to the lodge managers, no other guests have made the trip during the few months they’ve been there, but they see no reason why we can’t.
The trip starts out as nearly all of our kayaking trips start. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. I don’t like taking orders, and when you’re the person in the front of the kayak, as I always am when I’m with Jeff, that’s what you have to do. I eventually get over it, and we find a rhythm and have a good time.
But about 20 minutes into this trip, I pull my oar into the boat and turn to Jeff. I’m feeling uncertain about continuing on. Though we still have about 2 hours of paddling left in front of us, I’m already feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just us and a lot of water. It’s a little bit scary. And I’m starting to think that maybe we ought to have life jackets, a thought I share with Jeff. He reminds me that this is Africa, that life jackets aren’t standard equipment, that people who can’t even swim go out in boats every day without life jackets, but he also offers to turn around, either for good or to inquire about life jackets. I turn down his offer. I’m not a quitter. And if we go back, I’ll probably end up staying. Paddling 13 kilometers across Lake Malawi is freaking hard.
We forge on. The sun beats down, and we roll gently with the bobbing of the lake, which at 26,900 square kilometers might as well be the ocean. I paddle 100 strokes and then I break. There’s no hurry, and after about two hours of paddling, we land on the shores of Chizimulu. A coalition of cute kids greets us, and then they lead us to the island’s only tourist lodge, where we grab lunch, snorkel, and relax.
Around 2:30 p.m., we’re back in our boat. The African sun sets at 6 p.m.. It took us two hours to get across. To be safe, we’re giving ourselves an extra hour and a half to get back. More than enough time, we think.
But anyone who’s spent any time in nature knows that it’s not always predictable, not always willing to adhere to your time schedule. When we get outside of the sheltered area near the island, we find the water to be a bit choppier than it was on our way in. By the time we we get a few kilometers out, when we’re afloat in the no-man’s land between the islands, where going back or continuing forward will take approximately the same amount of time and effort., things get flat out rough. The wind picks up. Whitecaps surround us. It really is as if we’re in the ocean. In a kayak that’s meant for tranquil lake waters.
We know from rafting through the Grand Canyon in an inflatable kayak that you’re most likely to flip when a wave hits you on the side, so we turn the kayak ever so slightly so as to head directly into the waves while still aiming for our lodge, a landmark we can’t see yet but know thanks to the cell tower behind it.In order to keep the boat oriented properly, Jeff must paddle only on the left side, a balance to the wind. Soon, I too must join him. Paddling properly is futile. We’re not kayaking anymore, we’re fighting.
We can’t take a break. We just paddle, ignoring the burning muscles. We paddle and paddle and paddle. I scream with each stroke, angrily yelling at the wind and the water. Jeff, usually the optimist, starts talking about how we’re not getting anywhere, that we’ll never make it. I yell at him too. I’m the pessimist, not him. That’s my job, not his. And in this situation, I need positive. I am celebrating every meter, every missed wave.
Unfortunately, for each missed wave, there’s a wave that gets us. I’m soaking wet. There’s a few inches of lake water in the bottom of the boat. At one point, I try to bail, but it’s futile. I have no bucket; with a snorkeling mask, I can toss out a cup or so, but without me helping to hold the line, more water comes in than I can get out. There’s nothing to do but keep on paddling. The sun certainly isn’t holding still; it’s continuing its westward arc, and we’re now racing it.
Eventually, we find ourselves about 1 km from shore. We can make out the lodge, swear that we can even see a few people. It looks like we’re going to win this fight, this race.
Ha, nature responds. It’s not giving up so easily. Instead it ups its game. The wind comes harder. The waves break more frequently. With land in sight, we give up the battle to land straight up on the beach at our lodge, and aim just to get to land, period. I’ll drag the kayak back if I have to. We have to focus our energy.
The wind pushes us harder and faster than we’d imagined. In no time at all, we’ve been pushed nearly the entire 8 kilometer length of the island. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re not a whole lot closer to land. Time after time, we’ve spotted a great landing area, pushed with all our might, and then watched as we were swept right past it. We’re going nowhere, and I don’t understand why.
But Jeff’s got it figured out. Over the wind he calls to me to turn around. Though there’s only a few inches of water around my feet, in the back of the boat, behind Jeff, the water has nearly filled the boat. We’re too heavy to go anywhere. We must bail. It’s the only way we have a chance. And so we both drop our paddles and furiously throw water overboard. The lake returns the favor by throwing it right back in. We’re in a losing battle.
And at that moment, for the first time, we both realize that we’ll never make it to shore in the boat. Jeff looks at me and says “What should we do?”. I, with a calmness that surprises me, say “Well, I guess we better swim.”
With that, we roll out of the boat and into the lake. I again wish we had life jackets. This is fresh water; we’re not buoyant. And the wind and waves mean the water is regularly going over our heads. Plus the sun, well it’s about to touch the lake. In a matter of minutes, it will be gone.
I grab the small daypack we took with us and try to hold it over my head. I lunge for one of my flip-flops, as the other along with a water bottle, floats away. I take a quick survey of the sun’s position. Not good.
I kick hard to stay above water. Jeff meanwhile dives under.
“What are you doing? I yell to him.
“I’m trying to right the kayak,” he yells. I think we both thought we’d slide out, flip the boat over, and then hold on to it and kick into shore, but the kayak has other ideas. It’s gone Titanic. The front points straight up, the back straight toward the bottom of the lake.
“Screw the boat,” I yell. “There’s too much water. You’ll never get it up.”
He agrees. But then goes underwater again.
“What are you doing?” I yell again.
“I lost my sunglasses,” he replies.
“Screw your sunglasses,” I answer, thinking that he’s lost his mind. It’s nearly dark now, and we’re still a few hundred meters from shore. We have to start swimming. And most importantly, we have to stay together. If we’re still in the water when it gets dark, we’ll never find each other if we’re separated. Staying together is number one on the importance list. Getting to shore is number two. Luckily, while evacuating the boat, I had the good sense to hold tight to the paddles, the only slightly buoyant items we have, and so I thrust the a kayak paddle toward Jeff. He grabs ahold of one end, I cling to the other, and together we start kicking.
Fortunately, we’re both good swimmers. But still we struggle. It’s not easy.
Fortunately, we also both keep our heads. Our boat is gone. We’re in an angry lake that is hundreds of meters deep right up until you reach shore. We’re on the cusp of darkness. But we know what we have to do: swim. We know that’s the only thing there is to do. We know it’s the one thing we can’t stop doing. We’re focused.
My life doesn’t flash before my eyes; I think only of how it would kill my mom if I drowned here in Lake Malawai. I’m not brave; I’m just determined. In fact, I say more than once to Jeff, “I’m scared,” but always calmly, detached, as a statement of fact not emotion. Jeff has left his pessimism behind with the boat and is only reassuring: “We’re almost there. We’ve made it one rock (referencing a peninsula we could still see further down). We’ve made it two rocks.”
And then, after what seems like the longest swim of my life, there’s solid ground under our feet. We pull ourselves up onto the big boulders lining the shore and take big gasping breaths. Our kayak is gone. And with it, the light. Darkness has come to Likoma Island. And though we’ve made it on to land, we’re nowhere near any signs of life. The nightmarish adventure isn’t over yet. We still have to make our way back to the lodge.
Did you watch any of the BCS Bowl Games this year? If so, did you see the commercials asking you to donate $10 toward providing mosquito nets for Africa? If you did, did you donate?
I hope not.
That’s probably not what you were expecting me to say, so I’ll repeat it. I hope not.*
Wow, I must be meaner than you thought. How could I be opposed to providing mosquito nets to Africans, people I talk about with much fondness? Am I not in support of ending malaria, the deadliest disease in Africa?
Well, it’s not that simple. Of course I am in favor of ending malaria, and yes, I think that using mosquito nets is an effective method of prevention. But I don’t believe that handing them out for free is the answer.
As we traveled around the world, we encountered many different types of aid, and what we witnessed over and over is that as an everyday form of charity, handouts don’t work.** Sometimes what is being given is not what the people most need. Sometimes what is being given might work for us but doesn’t work within the recipients’ set of values and beliefs or with their lifestyles. And sometimes what is being given is taken not because it’s wanted, but because it’s free.
Come on, admit it, you do the same thing. Free stuff is hard to resist.
But when you receive something for free, it has no value to you. You didn’t have to give up anything to get it, you didn’t have to decide that that item was worth the price or the sacrifice of getting it. So if it’s lost or broken,Â if it crumbles to the ground, if it sits around and is never used, it’s no sweat off your back.
Also, sometimes when you get enough free stuff, you begin to expect that you’ll continue to get free stuff. You start to believe that you don’t have to work hard to get what you need and want, that you don’t have to hold those who are actually supposed to be providing for you (i.e. family, government institutions, etc.) responsible for delivering on their promises, but instead you just have to put your hand out at the right time.
Time and again in Africa, we encountered the case of the free mosquito net. In theory, it sounds like a great idea. In practice, it doesn’t work. Rarely was the free mosquito net being used properly; most of the time, it was actually being used as a net for catching fish, birds, or other animals that could be turned into dinner. I’m not saying that’s a completely invalid use; I’m just saying that using the net in such a way doesn’t help prevent malaria. And as far as I’m aware, that’s what all these charities giving away the nets are trying to do.
So what’s the answer then? Should we deny people the simple protection they need to prevent an often fatal disease? Should we demand that people with little money pay a hefty portion of it for a net?
No and no. What we need to offer people in cases such as this is the skills and knowledge that they might not currently have but once acquired can put to good use themselves (for instance, in regards to the mosquito nets, knowledge about what malaria is, how it’s transmitted, and how it can be prevented). We can also offer them stuff, things that they need but cannot for whatever reason get, but we shouldn’t give it away for free. That doesn’t mean it has to cost much, or even anything. But, those in want or need of the item should have to “pay” for it, whether with money or through barter of goods or services. This means that the “purchaser” will truly want whatever it is on offer and thus be more likely to put it to good use. It also means that they will feel like a valuable person; someone who has something to give, not just someone who takes. I think most of us want to feel this way.
You might now be wondering if this works, if people are willing to pay for things that some charities give away for free. I can tell you that yes, it does work. I’ve seen it firsthand.
One of the most outstanding aid outfits we saw while on our trip was the Bwindi Community Hospital, a place we were invited to tour while staying in Bwindi to trek with the mountain gorillas. Here, a British couple run an Anglican-sponsored hospital for locals (and by local, I mean people who can walk to the hospital in a couple of days). They take in a few foreign volunteers each year, but other than that, all staff is Ugandan–nurses, doctors, janitors, secretaries, AIDS counselors, etc. This hospital is vested in the community. (The couple running the hospital are even drawing up plans to eventually remove themselves from their roles.) And though they offer excellent mendical services–a maternity ward that allows women to stay for their entire third trimester, preventing multi-day walks to and from the hospital; x-ray and surgery facilities; health workers who go out into the community and seek out those in need of treatment–what they’re most proud of, and rightfully so, is their education program.
The “Small Families are Rich Families” campaign has helped lower the birth rate in a country with one of the highest, by educating men on the benefits of having a small family they can take care of and by providing women with access to birth control (which is often literally a lifesaver).Â The Village Health Promoter program means that each of 200 villages in the area has at least one trained resident teaching his/her neighbors basic health care practices, thus helping lower the number of cases of easily preventable diseases like dysentery. The Community Garden program teaches mothers not only how to grow food that is nutritious but also how to cook food that is healthy. And the sale of mosquito nets has translated into 15,000 children protected from the disease.
While we were touring the hospital, I specifically asked how the mosquito nets were sold, finding it interesting that they weren’t given away for free. What I learned is that the nets have a set price, a small amount less than $1 that people can pay for them, but that if even that small amount is too much, they can offer whatever it is that they have that they feel is worth the set price. I was laughingly told that they have an entire closet of carved masks and animals that they have accepted as payment. It’s not money; but it is an item of value. They could, after all, probably sell those carved goods to gorilla trekking tourists for much more than $1.
When we left the hospital, I felt uplifted. This, I thought, is how aid is supposed to work. It is supposed to promote empowerment, rather than dependence, to create systems that works whether the aid workers remain or go, to ultimately render itself unnecessary. So many times, we’d seen the remains of projects that simply didn’t work; it felt good to now see one that not only worked but worked well.
Aid is a tricky issue. What works one in one time and place doesn’t always work in another. And for those of us wanting to give, trying to determine what organizations are doing work that works can be nearly impossible. If you’ve been thinking about giving to a new organization this year, or if that mosquito net campaign from the BCS bowl games got you pondering how you could really make a difference, may I suggest Bwindi Community Hospital? There are lots of aid organizations doing good work, but this is one I’ve witnessed firsthand. For more information, or to make a donation that will help the hospital to help others, please visit their website.
*If you did give, good for you. It’s not that giving mosquito nets away for free is bad; it’s just that I think there are more effective ways of providing aid.
**I’m not referring here to the giving of aid during one-time disasters such as the current one in Haiti, but to prolonged aid efforts.
Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.
1. Hiking Torres del Paine
Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.
2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.
3. Cruising the Galapagos
This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.
4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires
An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.
5. Going on Safari in southern Africa
We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.
6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia
Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.
7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island
Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.
8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.
9. Learning to Scuba Dive
Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.
10. Exploring Rajasthan
India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.
For all those who are curious about how much it costs to travel through Africa, we’ve posted country budgets for all of the countries we visited: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Victoria Falls, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Just click on the tab at the top that says “Country Budgets,” and you can explore to your hearts content. For those who just like to know the big number, in our three months in Africa we spent $9,922.31.