Now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on my trip to Central/Eastern Africa (Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda) and Ethiopia, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I learned.
Here’s my top 10 list of the things that will always stay with me from Africa, indelibly etched in my memory:
- Don’t like coffee? Sorry, too bad. You will be required to consume at least 2 cups of coffee every day that you’re in Ethiopia at the request of your hosts, friendly strangers, and curious villagers (who invite you into their homes). You will learn to appreciate the intricate ritual of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, performed carefully and respectfully with fresh cut grass, incense and a jebena.
- Don’t like being pulled into cultural dances? Sorry, this is also too bad. You will always become part of the exhibit with increasing likelihood the less you want to participate. It’s a combination of the locals laughing with you and at you, and sharing (or trying to share) the culture and tradition that’s steeped in them since birth. Of course the outcome is an utter spectacle. Alcohol helps with the shame. (I became part of this performance too a few minutes later. The more you drink the better I dance. There is a theoretical video tape of me doing the Ethiopian shoulder dance and the phrase “white girls can’t dance” comes to mind. Hopefully my cousin does not let this video see the light of day, ever).
- Thinking of a leisurely mountain drive? Don’t let this happen to you.Always make sure that before rolling your vehicle over a cliff, you check to see whether there’s a hut conveniently placed on the other side of the cliff to brace your fall towards an otherwise certain death.
- Mosquito nets are like gravity. They’re not just a good idea, they’re the law of the land. Even though you can’t see the mosquitoes, they’re there, and you’ll discover this tomorrow. You just hope that the nets aren’t so soaked in mosquito repellent chemicals that you get sick, not from the mosquitoes, but from the mosquito prevention.
- When in Rome, act like a Roman. This is especially true with cuisine. You will be offered many things that don’t look particularly appetizing. Never turn them down. If you do, you will miss out on eating strips of high-quality raw meat (kurt), lengalenga (actually quite good, similar to collard greens), ugali (Rwandan polenta), and Tej (Ethiopian honey wine, pictured here).
- People are very friendly. While it’s easy to be skeptical, question people’s motives, and generally distrust people you meet (especially when you’re a single female traveling alone), it’s much more fun, and way more interesting, to take what people say at face value and see where the adventure leads. If you’re asked by two Ethiopian women on Christmas Day (Jan 7) to give them a ride in your rickshaw, oblige, and you will be rewarded. You will get countless invitations into people’s home to share basic meals and beverages, also getting a rare view into the daily lives of people who, on the surface, seem so different than us (but they aren’t). You will also meet lots of young adults and children who are both curious as well as hopeful that you might be able to help their situation. You may even encounter someone with a machete. In that case, run.
- Never pass up a chance to drink the local beer. It will end up being the best part of your day. I particularly enjoyed Primus in Burundi, and Dashen and St. George in Ethiopia.
- Remember that life is outside. There’s lots of old historical and religious stuff around you, including remnants of colonialism, which all get tiresome after a while. Sure, it’s pretty, and historic – some of the old castles and churches we visited were stunning. But you can easily get lost in all this “old stuff” and never interact with the people that really make these ancient places tick. Walking around with no particular motive is highly recommended, because you’ll never know what you’ll tumble in to, and who you’ll meet along the way.
- Did I mention the wildlife?
- Finally, never underestimate the value of a beautiful sunset to end a perfect day.
Travel constantly reminds me of the importance of a simple life filled with human interaction – friendship, hospitality, respect, and love. Most of the developing countries I’ve visited value these traits much more than we do here in the U.S. The irony ceases to be lost on me, considering how much “harder” these people supposedly have it than we do in the West. Leading a life of sheer existence, 100% engulfed in figuring out ways to subsist day to day – you’d think this kind of life would lead to a sort of anarchy in personal relationships. A breakdown of morality. A breakdown of human kindness. Selfishness over altruism. Harsh conditions in life, one would think, could easily strip us of our humanity, relegating us to a place no better than animals. Yes, the people I met in these war-torn, unequal, corrupt, violent, poor, uneducated countries displayed qualities – hospitality, humility, humanity, curiosity, and love – overflowing from a place unknown to me whence it came, but evident nonetheless of a silent courage, even a mournful hope, that flew in the face of reason and examined our very existence. That, without these qualities, these characteristics that make us human, we completely lose ourselves.
I left a lot of things in Africa. I left a flashlight and a watch with a local boy in a rural village in Ethiopia. I left American clothing, books, and gifts with my cousins in Addis Ababa. I left my mark as a travel blogger and photographer, assiduously documenting my journey along the way – from dining to hotel reviews (for example, at a wonderful new place I stayed at in Lalibela, the Panoramic View Hotel) – trading my skills for donations, in particular to a small women’s soccer club in Lalibela that needed uniforms and equipment. I even left my mark on a local tour guide, who I helped build out an English website to increase his business. I miss being in a place that lived so much in the moment, so much in today, that for the first time in two years (since I was living in India) I felt that I was truly living in the present moment. My cares, my worries, my troubles, and my stress melted away as I enjoyed the wonder of the day to day. The miracle of the unnoticed, organized chaos of both environment and society that hung in a balance somewhere beyond good and evil, beyond judgement, beyond consciousness to the very core of existence. There are many things I left behind in Africa, yes, and many things I will miss. But I will not miss the fear and doubt that plagued my mind prior to my trip. Travel, above all, reminds me that everything will work out, because it always does. So just stop worrying and enjoy today.