Trip Start Nov 05, 2006
182Trip End Jan 14, 2008
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Topography - Africa has everything and it isn't what you've probably seen in the movies! For starters, even though we spent most of our trip near the equator, it was cold! Granted, it was the middle of winter, but so was SE Asia. The big difference in the weather was probably due to the topography and its' effect on weather patterns. From our start in Kenya to our initial move East, we covered rain forests, arid plains and lush high mountains. As we headed South from Kenya into Tanzania and further down to Malawi, things did flatten out a bit with long stretches of unchanging scenery where green hills switched to dry open plains, scrub brush, termite mounds and baobab trees. The natural beauty can't be overstated. As a vacation destination, you could tailor a trip for any palate. I would guess that most visits to Africa are either South Africa, or the game parks in Kenya and Tanzania. Any one of these destinations really only scratches the surface of what is available. In our two months we covered a good stretch of East and South Africa, but that is still less than 20% of the continent!
Safety - We were on an overland truck so our perception of safety in Africa has some sugar coating. That said, it wasn't much different from any other developing group of developing countries. There were definitely areas in some towns were people in our group were being followed by dodgy characters, but the same thing would happen in San Francisco if you wandered down the wrong street. People were generally friendly and crime was limited to petty theft and deceptive crimes from what we saw. We did hear of more heinous crimes, particularly some bad rape stories, but never encountered anything like that first hand. It's really like everywhere else you go, just don't be stupid and you'll probably be o.k. Johannesburg may be the biggest exception. A guest at Laura's hostel was robbed in the middle of the day, and friends of mine who grew up there advised against walking the streets alone.
Food & Drink - This is one of the reasons each country didn't get its own entry. Africa isn't a destination for those craving a sophisticated culinary experience. Outside of the cities, what you eat is driven by local agriculture and seasons. Corn is a staple as is casava (a.k.a. manioch or yam) and aside from that it's what the local produce markets have to offer. Goat is widely eaten, but I don't think any animal is beyond consideration for the dinner table in Africa. Sometimes the produce markets would have a huge variety, other times it was only tomatoes and peppers. This did make meal planning a little difficult. We all lost weight, despite the beer intake.
Culture - There were slight variations from country to country and in all cases, a Western influence was becoming visible. Families live in a single room house, but the kids want all things Western. Western countries are a mythical paradise to the locals. They really believed that life was like the music videos they've seen. Africa is still primarily agrarian and sustenance farming was a dominating feature throughout our route. My favorite cultural holdout is the Masai tribe which spanned three countries their clothing and way of life seemed less affected by modern conveniences than other places. They did readily swap their weapons for my watch and sunglasses, but the majority of the Masai still live as they have for generations. If you're planning to see Africa, I would recommend going soon. I would estimate that within the next twenty years, most of the traditional way of life will have evolved into a Western way of life.
Cleanliness - Basically with a few exceptions, drinking the water is out! Like most of the developing countries we've visited, Africa had problems with litter in the countryside as well as the towns. Public restrooms are a nightmare. Africa is also still struggling with diseases that have been eradicated from the Western world for generations. We met people who were polio survivors just nine years ago. We encountered villages where taxes were collected for trash disposal and the local government officials kept the money. Aids is also everywhere in Africa. Some of our border crossings offered condoms to try and curtail this, but we heard one statistic from a local that 80% of sexually active adults in Botswana were HIV positive. If you go there, have evacuation insurance because you definitely don't want to end up in the hospital and need blood.
Cost- People live in Africa for pennies a day, but visiting Africa and experiencing its wonders is expensive. The cost of our overland truck was around $45 a day each, but that just included a ride and basic meals and our truck was the cheapest so we paid for that in other ways. With the added cost of activities and excursions, Africa is probably the most expensive destination of our trip. A better overland company would probably run at least $65 a day but that extra money would eliminate some of the problems of our experience.
Manners - Manners are really a different standard in Africa. For example, you eat with your hands and there are no napkins available to wipe your mouth. Practicality usurps the Western manners conventions. Africans were almost always friendly and welcoming. There was a bit of "Egypt" in Zanzibar and hissing at you is a common way of getting your attention, but for the most part I can't say I was ever offended. Unwanted physical contact was never a problem.
Urban Design - The single story mud huts are amazing. However, since our truck skipped out on the two biggest urban stops, I can't comment too much on urban design. Laura will add more about South Africa later.
Fashion and Shopping - If you're looking for vintage t-shirts, go to Africa. They are all there because we sent them there! I saw shirts from the eighties for the first Stones farewell tour. The opportunity for buying wood carvings and paintings is probably not better anywhere else. I'll let Laura comment on this for the other clothing buys.