Posted by: Anna | February 18, 2011

Goodbye to Southern Africa

It feels strange to leave Africa. I feel that I have incorporated some of the rhythm of African travel, if not African life, into me. I know the lingo, the hotspots, and the major sights without a guidebook. I have a fairly clear picture of the type of traveler you are likely to meet in Southern Africa. They were generally interesting, in their
mid-twenties to thirties, educated, and more affluent that your typical
backpacker. The other travelers are a comfortable fit for us – like us in many ways, enjoyable and yet less challenging than being faced with trying to bond with travelers very different from us.

From our time in Southern Africa, I know that budget travel in the region is challenging. The lack of well-developed public transportation, coupled with safety issues (both from armed criminals and wildlife like lions) creates barriers to easily moving from place to place, or around within one place. Southern Africa has a tourist infrastructure, but it is extremely limited compared to my previous experiences, both as a study abroad student in Europe and as a traveler in Russia, Israel, and Egypt. South Africa is the exception, with a well developed route for backpackers. The ease of travel is countered by the omnipresent security issues, requiring you to follow a myriad of safety precautions and live with a level of paranoia I find intolerable for extended periods of time. I had nightmares every night during our first week in South Africa, and the warnings from locals (don’t stop at red lights after 8 PM, etc) never ceased to make me feel constantly uneasy.

Southern Africa is the birthplace of humanity, and to me, the place where I can most feel how animal instincts and genetics play a huge role in what it means to be a human, both in pre-historic times and today. I sense the struggle to survive in the face of incredible barriers – incredibly high propensity to deadly disease (due to climate and topography, not to mention modern-day HIV), dangerous animals that routinely do kill humans (including the most deadly in Southern Africa – the mosquito – see disease), poor land for farming, incredible natural resources worth fighting and killing over…When I reflect on the obstacles, human life in Southern Africa seems rather unlikely, and if I were going to select a place for human life to evolve from the places I have visited in the world, I would have never guessed Southern Africa. I am not a scientist, and this is not a scientific thought. But – why Southern Africa, a place where the reminder that we are animals is ever present? It is not an easy place to live. Perhaps that says something about life – that human life evolved in the most difficult of circumstances, not the easiest. Perhaps the difficult circumstances allowed us to develop the only defense mechanism we have against the elements of disease, predators, and the lack of reliable food sources that faced those first humans – our powerful brains.

Reflecting on how my expectations compared with the reality we experienced, I find I learn more about myself and the source of the information in my brain than I do about Africa. And really, isn’t that one of the reasons travel is alluring? The surprising opportunity to know yourself better in the most unexpected ways – offering you the rare glimpses of seeing yourself from a new perspective rather than from your own limited viewpoint looking out into the world.

I expected to be faced with shocking poverty, and although I know that the average wage in the countries we visited is low and that unemployment is high, it does not stare you in the face as you might expect from Save the Children ads on tv. When I am being honest, I know that those ads shaped my perceptions of Africa more than I really like to admit before we went. I realize that I want to expand how I experience the world at home. My other “as seen on tv” perceptions were met: fantastic, wild animal sightings in scenic, stunning landscapes. Sunsets and stars amazed us at every turn, just like in the beautiful coffee table books I have read.

Cape Town and Namibia will definitely appear on a plane ticket in my future. Tommy sees the Kalahari in Botswana, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and Kruger National Park in South Africa in his future. He cemented his love of tracking and watching wild animals in Southern Africa; he fell in love with safari. Perhaps it is some male “hunter” genetic wiring that he cannot overcome; although I enjoyed our safaris, I do not have the same abiding passion for it he does.

I will miss Africa, and miss the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of her. Familiarity creates the opportunity for understanding beyond first impressions and photographs. On the other hand, novelty thrills. There is no feeling to me like
arriving in a strange place and realizing (again) that humanity is
incredibly varied, that many of my basic expectations about life are not
the same as someone else’s, and that discovery and intellectual
challenge await me in a way I had forgotten since the last time. The
novelty of discovering a new place is why I want to travel. We are in India now, and the novelty is back along with a new burst of enthusiasm and curiosity.

We only scratched the surface of what there is to experience in the countries we visited, not to mention the ones we did not make it to at all. There are infinite ways to design a trip for a year: visit one country and know her well, follow one passion around the world, choose a region or a continent, follow your whims with no plan at all – all completely valid methods for designing an interesting trip. Now that we have traveled for four months, I can better define the method we selected: taste many places while knowing none completely – a varied, broad, and yet only surface-skimming experience. For me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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