I was very lucky, preparing for my trip to Africa with Sharing the Rough jewelry documentary, to have expert guidance from Roger Dery. Roger has been to Africa something like nineteen times, and has assembled extremely helpful information, learned, I suspect, from some trial and error in his own travels. Now that I’ve been to Africa myself, here is some firsthand information I can share with you.
I outlined earlier the rather undignified battery of needles and pills needed for exotic or antique diseases in preparation for Africa. In addition to that, roughly half of my regular carryon suitcase was a virtual apothecary’s chest of medications and potions that I MIGHT need.
As a traveler to Africa (or any developing nation) you have to be constantly vigilant about ingested pathogens. Just in case you open your mouth in the shower, accidently run your toothbrush under the tap (wide-eyed in horror at your mistake), succumb to the temptation to eat salad despite the consequences, or something was lurking in the street food you bought by the open sewer (don’t ask), your physician will likely insist you bring an antibiotic. This is a good idea.
Then, somewhat conversely, if the fact that you are NOT eating the aforementioned salad and fruit leaves your system with the opposite problem, you might need Senekot. If the mosquitoes and ungodly time difference leave you wide awake at 2:00am, then you should have Ambien packed. Add in your regular medications, Pepto chewables that you should be popping prophylactically to coat your stomach (a little trick I learned so as not to get Bali-belly while I was there), plus some vile green stuff to be stirred into bottled water each morning, and you have nearly your regulation carryon weight just in pills. BUT–and this is important–BECAUSE YOU HAVE THEM, YOU WILL NOT NEED THEM.
Nearly half of my suitcase was food: energy bars, packets of nuts and dried fruit. This could save your life, especially in the bush or during several hour border crossings. And whatever you don’t eat you leave for the locals and fill the space with souvenirs.
The rest of my suitcase was a few pieces of clothing that would work in the heat and extreme conditions I was going in to, without hopefully being hideous. Have you seen the clothes in travel catalogs? That was what I was up against. I still felt like a game park warden some of the time, but tried for a balance of fashion AND practicality.
And then, for reasons mostly unknown, the remaining precious room in my carryon was dedicated to 4-inch platform wedges. Don’t ask why. My husband will tell you that line of questioning is a fruitless endeavor. I did wear them, the last night, for a few hours. Sometimes feeling fabulous is all the reason you need.
Packing my suitcase.
BYOTP: Bring Your Own Toilet Paper
I could dedicate a whole post just to bathrooms, or the lack thereof, in Africa. I am not joking when I say that the logistics of a day revolved around where we would have—or not have, as the case frequently was—access to facilities.
Let me be very clear about this: if you only packed one thing in your carryon, please, for the love of God, make it toilet paper.
When we made the death-march car trip from Voi to the Nairobi airport, there was ONE, and I mean one, stop we could make in 6 and ½ hours that had a bathroom. If you are imagining a land of rest areas, turnpike oases, and convenience stores, oh my friend, you need to think again. This is not that land.
Consider this: even when presented with indoor plumbing, it may be so horrifying you may choose the bush—literally.
I became very familiar with one particular outdoor rest area we frequented no fewer than four times, to and from mines in the Kabanga region. I was growing quite fond of my outside facility by the final visit, and was a little nostalgic about it being the last time. As I picked my way through underbrush, looking for the least-prickly patch, I heard a friendly and inquisitive “Jamboooo! How are YOUoooooo!” float to my location. I froze, waved and smiled indiscriminately in the general direction of that congenial voice, and promptly crashed further into the bush.
As prepared as you think you are mentally and physically, once you get to Africa you realize that it requires a complete shift. You just have roll with it. Everywhere, all the time. I realized this early on, when, about thirty minutes after I landed in Tanzania, I broke a nail trying to open the windows on the Land Rover in the dark. Just sheared it clean off. And I thought to myself “See, I’m adventurous. And flexible: I didn’t even swear in front of all my new friends.”
Speaking of Land Rovers, they might not start, and require seven or eight strong men to push and pop the clutch. And you might be in the middle of nowhere when this happens.
Border crossings–covering only a couple of kilometers in actual distance–might take a couple of hours, even though all your paperwork is in order and your guide may or may not have greased someone’s palm to make it easier. And, to further highlight a land of contradictions, there will be random power outages as you use high tech retinal and finger print scanners to be admitted into and out of Kenya and Tanzania.
The “African Talc” as our driver Archie (whom I affectionately dubbed “The Mayor of Voi” since he knew literally everyone in Kenya) called the ubiquitous red dirt, will imbed itself in your pores and clothes and come home with you.
By now, you should know that electricity, wifi and cell service are completely optional, and should be celebrated as the luxury they are when you have it. And when the electricity goes out on a perfectly lovely, non-stormy night? Well, you just bring a couple of flashlights and enjoy the flattering low light.
There are benefits to this new-found flexibility. You can stop looking at your phone spastically every three minutes, because it just simply does not work and no amount of checking will make it talk to you. Just turn it off.
Then you can look at the spectacularly beautiful people and scenery around you.
And you might just fall in love.