To many, the African continent is a large elephant-ear shaped mass of political and social turmoil stickered with innumerable travel warnings and discouragements. All throughout historical and contemporary popular culture, Africa has been unjustly depicted as a place of dictators, cannibals, hyenas and starvation. Yet travelling through this vast continent one quickly discovers that this can be the most enriching and hospitable experiences any vagabonding adventurer can possibly dream of. Here are five things that will help make a backpacking trip anywhere from Cape Town to Cairo the best life experience you will ever have:
1. Make up your OWN mind.
Everyone is always full of advice and world-weary knowledge. Take opinions about Africa as just that: ‘opinions’ (many of which are themselves second-hand and ill-informed). The worst thing you can do is give credence to any preconceived ideas you might have about travelling in Africa (especially since there seems to be a prevailing sense of jaded pessimism about the continent). Africa is a vast and infinitely divergent continent and each country, culture, town or person you meet will be wholly different from the last. No one can sum that experience up for you, least of all movie screens or media reels. Even within Africa itself, no country’s citizens will be able to give you an accurate impression of even their own neighboring country. Best thing for you to do is to go find out for yourself!
2. Get off the beaten path.
To fully immerse yourself in any cultural experience, you need to step away from the familiar. In terms of travelling in Africa, this means that you must try and avoid staying at backpackers hostels as much as possible. The backpackers hostel is usually a foreign run enclave for other foreigners. If you wanted to sit around and get drunk with fellow Europeans or Americans, you could just as well have stayed at home. Moreover, local hotels are exponentially cheaper and more often than not you will make friends with people you’d never get to see inside the confines of the backpackers hostel’s bar. The same goes for the use of public transport as opposed to tourist charter companies or overland package trips.
3. Don’t get taken for a sucker.
You want to be a traveler, not a tourist. Tourists pay in dollars without ever checking prices. Travelers want to be treated like the locals treat each other, with a sense of familiarity and respect. More often than not you will be overcharged- be it for a taxi or a Coca-Cola- merely because you are a foreigner. Don’t stand for it (don’t get angry either, though). Find out from other locals what the real prices are or how they go about things and next time someone charges you double you can jovially inform them that, that is not the real price. People are not overcharging you because they are xenophobic or malevolent, but because they see an opportunity for an extra buck from an easily beguiled tourist. Usually you’ll make a new friend if you start haggling for the right price.
4. Remember to enjoy it!
This is a general tip. Travel, be it in South Africa or South East Asia, is difficult and challenging. Often pure willpower will be what drives you forward. You’ll be dirty for days on end, stuck in 12 hour long uncomfortable bus journeys and sometimes find yourself sleeping on a train platform rather than in a bed. Despite all your prospective hardships, you must remember to every now and then take stock of where you are and what a profound experience it all is. While it is often the most grueling experiences that make the best stories in retrospect, you must also remember to soak in the pure strangeness and magic of each new place you discover. And don’t live through your camera lens, always thinking about how you will impressively narrate this particular snapshot to your friends and family back home.
5. Always travel with a smile!
This might seem like a corny commonsense thing to say, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It is the minority of Africans who are warlords, pirates or thugs. The majority of the continent is filled with people just like you, only from another place and culture. Throughout my travels I have been astounded by the overwhelming hospitality and friendliness of most of the people you meet. Without second-thought people will invite you into their homes, make room for you at their table, or eagerly and excitedly show you their town with beaming pride. If you smile at people, they will smile back at you. The greatest thing about travelling is not the sights you see or the activities you partake in, it is the people you meet and that shared sense of humanity with someone you would never have met, had you rather stayed at home.