Reflections on southern Africa

Before I left, people told me I was going on a trip of a lifetime. It’s strange hearing that phrase: trip of a lifetime. Every one of my trips should be a trip of a lifetime. Why limit myself to just one? Traveling, domestic or international, will always be a priority for me.

Thinking back, I don’t even know what my expectations were before going into this Dragoman trip. I did very little research, outside of what my parents told me about Namibia, on any of the countries. I like going into a new country without any preconceived notions, besides the stereotypes I’ve unknowingly picked up from Western media.

The thing that makes these trips memorable is always the people. The characters you travel with and the locals, guides, and owners that you end up talking to are who have the most impact.

Reflections on countries

It’s hard to describe an entire country in a couple of words. I hope these impressions give you just a small taste as to what I experienced in each country.

Zimbabwe

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

I didn’t have enough time in this beautiful country. There was turmoil that I was protected from in my tourist bubble. There was a tension clouding the country because of the upcoming election. We were told not to speak to any local about anything political in nature.

Zimbabweans are incredibly proud. At the border crossing, they would smile and ask, “This was the best country ever, right?” Because of their currency crisis, US dollars were accepted. The food was a little expensive, granted we were in Victoria Falls. We paid $3 for one can of chickpeas! Oh yes, we were living large. 

I do have to say Zimbabwe held my best wildlife experience with the rhino walk and getting to meet the most incredible tour guide in Africa, Ian Harmer.

Botswana

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Chobe National Park, Botswana

The people are very friendly. I think back to that Botswanan who walked us to a currency exchange store in the middle of his workday. Our conversation with Lesh also provided much more insight into Botswanan life. Strangely enough, my conversations with Batswanan reminded me of the conversations I had with Bhutanese locals.

The country itself has incredible wildlife. I’ve never seen so many elephants in my life, which is a testament to the country’s ingrained belief in conservation. The country is also incredibly well put together. A very happy country, their priorities are in place: free education and free land for all of their people. It’s easy to see that the government cares about its citizens.

Botswana is known as Africa’s shiny example of proper development. They have proven themselves as an incredibly friendly country, and one I highly recommend everyone visit.

Namibia

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Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Driving through Namibia was kind of unreal just because you can see the landscape shift so dramatically in a mere couple of hours.

There was an obvious German influence, especially in Swakopmund. I did have my truest experience of what it’s like to live in Africa through the township tour. I also got to meet an incredible Namibian who shared with me her cultural heritage while still connecting as millennials do – on social media.

I also got to meet the people who I studied back at Purdue in Namibia. The San people were incredibly inspiring and being able to connect with a people without the use of language was a good reminder that we are all one in the same. I truly believe its important for everyone to understand where we come from and what’s really important. The San value earth and community over material things. These kinds of values are the ones I can’t be reminded of enough.

South Africa

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Cape Town, South Africa

The most developed country we visited, the transition across the border from Namibia to South Africa was the most stark. Its green mountainous landscape and built-up towns were almost like walking back into the United States. Sophie and I thank South Africa for letting us *finally* indulge in our our popcorn obsession.

Cape Town felt like a cross between San Francisco and Berlin. Locals were very friendly and always willing to help. That mentality of always looking out for each other stems from the pain of going through apartheid. The community values the individual. Locals watch out for tourists, because they want us to have an incredible experience. It’s almost like every person worked for the tourism board and wanted us to feel welcomed.

I experienced a town where people value humans regardless of race, gender, religion, or any other defining feature. I felt embraced by the community and renewed sense of appreciation for the love for and resilience of humanity.

Sure, I saw the big five and it was incredible. But what really sticks with me long after the photos have been buried in their folders are the conversations I attempted to capture in this blog.

A tour group with all the personalities

I hope by writing down my memories, these little notes will take me back to a day on the safari or a campfire riddle session. So one of the things I haven’t touched on is the people that made this trip so special for me. So I introduce the people I spent 24/7 with for over three weeks. My truck mates, if I may.

Sophie – best travel buddy

My sister and my best friend, she was always there for me with long conversations on life to get through those days on the road to always saying yes to new experiences with me. She is my rock and I am so grateful that I was able to spend four weeks with her. She has a curiosity and passion for traveling that brings out the same in me. Every time I spend time with her, I am inspired to be a better person. I can’t wait for our next adventure together, whether that be in Carmel, Denver, or some new country.

Big Ben – most likely to win the Hunger Games

Also known as Sugarbear, Ben was our fantastic Dragoman tour leader. PMA, positive mental attitude, is how he lives his life. Always on top of things, he is an incredible tour guide, with a curiosity for everything around him. He loves showing people the world and that’s why he does what he does. Not to travel for himself but to allow other people to experience something new.

Little Ben – most likely to be a heartbreaker

A 19-year-old from Cambridge, little Ben is going to study zoology. He has some mad soccer skills, but I’ll really remember him as a sweetheart. Probably not the word he’d like for me to use to describe him, but it’s the truth! He was so incredibly respectful and considerate to everyone throughout the entire trip. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to give the sass either, so you better watch yourself, ladies, if you ever find yourself in a texting battle with him.

Cathy – most likely to have a portable potty

Cathy is a UK ex-lawyer who openly admits that she probably had the least experience camping. I’ll always remember our conversation about auras juxtaposed with the revelation of her extensive portable potty collection. Cathy is endearing, warm, and easy to talk to. I already miss our conversations.

Cynthia – most generous

A Canadian who used to live in New Zealand, she is now voluntarily homeless to travel the world. I’ll always remember her willingness to help and her never-ending supply of mints that she passed around every day on the truck, sometimes twice a day if it was a long truck day. She was the longest traveler on the road, living on the truck for three months by the time we said goodbye in Cape Town.

Evgenia – most likely to become your best friend

Evgenia got along with everyone. Of Russian heritage but also considers herself Finnish, she has a knack for getting to know people. She always knows what questions to ask to get someone to open up. She epitomized PMA and was always down for an adventure. No matter what, she never said no to a new experience. She was also incredibly generous with her time, her money, her food, and her friendliness.

Helen – most likable

Helen is a Welsh cardiac nurse but left her managerial position in a hospital to travel the world with Jon. Their blog is Off Around the World, and I can’t wait to keep following their adventures. Helen had the biggest heart and a great listening ear. She also was one of two people (the other being little Ben) to join Sophie and I for one of our workouts. I hope one day that our paths will cross again since our time together was cut a little short.

Jian – most independent

Jian has Chinese heritage but currently lives in the UK. She may seem quiet at first glance, but she speaks up when she has something to say. And every time she shares something, it’s always valuable. I think back to when she challenged Ian on his belief of the use of Rhino horn in Chinese culture. She also loves sweets and always found the best local delicacies.

Jim – best stargazing buddy

A passionate professor of astrology and geology from Connecticut, Jim was an encyclopedia of knowledge. He also won the award for most photos taken on the trip. At almost 70, he was spritely and never let his age stop him from seeing anything. I’ll never forget his Indiana Jones hat or his story of a months-long Canadian hiking trip in his youth.

Jon – best photographer

Jon mirrored Helen, and Helen mirrored Jon in the best way. As the nicest person on the truck, I don’t think anyone could ever have bad will towards Jon. He was always willing to lend a hand and solve your problems. An excellent photographer, he somehow managed to get better photos of animals from the exact same position with his point and shoot! He’s also incredibly observant and very caring. I have a feeling we’ll be running into each other somewhere around the world again.

Kelly – best laugh

Of Jamaican heritage, Kelly grew up in the UK and now is a teacher at an international school in Shanghai. She was so vivacious and bubbly with the most infectious laugh. She brought life to the truck and was always up for an adventure. The truck would definitely feel much emptier without her big personality to lighten a situation.

Kingston – most likely to be awarded a Michelin star

We were so incredibly fortunate to have “the king” on board with us. A quiet-at-first Zimbabwean, he has mastered the art of cooking. He was incredibly observant, noticing what every person ate and then making sure everyone had something that they wanted. He slept on the truck and never complained, even when someone locked him in the truck overnight and he had to climb out of the window. He is an incredible, hardworking individual and we were all so lucky to have met him.

Kirsten – biggest badass

Kirsten is a professor at Boise State with more accreditations than I have. She’s a serial traveler and kayaker. She’s spunky and always tells it like it is. She always pulled the weight when others were slacking off, because of her ‘get shit done’ mentality. She was always the last to put up her tent to make sure she has a quiet corner to herself. She’s incredibly caring and I can’t wait to catch up again soon in Denver!

Mo – most bundled up

An ex-criminal lawyer from LA, Mo packed up her bags to travel around the world. I don’t know if she ever got used to the cold as she was always the last one to take off her hat and scarf. She was extra prepared and had all the things… but still managed to pack light. She is fiercely independent and knows what she likes and who she is. She has a confidence that inspires.

Paarth – most likely to get an upgrade

A UK consultant for PwC, Parth was adventurous… last I heard of him he went shark cave diving. I assume he made it out okay, but it’s unconfirmed. Affectionately named Princess Parth, he was the first to sign up for a room, as camping was not always his cup of tea. He had a curiosity for new things that I very much appreciated.

Paul – most likely to beat up a honey badger

Paul is a UK pilot trained on some plane that only around 80 people in the world know how to fly. He’s been living in Saudi Arabia over the past two years. An incredible storyteller and even better book recommender, he convinced me to read Shantaram, a book from the truck, that I have been telling everyone to read. Paul was always the first one to help out, incredibly very well-traveled, and always asked the best questions.

Pauline – best face when eating local food

Pauline is a spunky retired occupational therapist who dragged her husband on this trip. She was always ready to lend fun facts about animals. She also came very well-prepared and well-read for the trip. I’ll always appreciate her willingness to share facts about the various animals we saw on the trip. She is also a geographic wizard, who with Tony, got 9/9 correct on the geography section of the trivia game!

Tahin – most likely to get kicked out of a club

One of the biggest personalities on the truck, Tahin is a 19-year-old from Cambridge of Bangladesh descent. With his 40,000 Instagram followers… oh wait make that 400, he is never afraid to let you know what he thought of you. Confidence makes him the life of the truck. That being said, he always did a really good job of including everyone by getting them involved. I guess that means there’s still hope for him yet.

Tony – most kissable lips

Pauline’s other half, Tony is also retired and a very proud father of two. Besides always lending his excellent binoculars, I’ll remember Tony for one special story that Pauline shared with us at dinner on their anniversary at Fish River Canyon. Apparently Pauline had heard about Tony before she met him at a club in their twenties. There were rumors swirling that he was a good kisser. So good in fact that he was dubbed Velvet Lips by the ladies. A great personality, he was so easy-going and I really enjoyed getting to know him.

Samson – most flirtatious

The sassiest Kenyan I ever did meet, Samson was never without a cheeky comment or his box of wine. He was our driver and always got us from point A to point B. But beyond that, he was also our navigator since he’s done this tour for the past five years. I’ll never forget his kindness or his charm… for he always knew how to turn it up for the ladies to get what he wanted.

A closing thought

I just have one more thing to say. Thank you to all of those people I met in each country and the people who traveled with me. You truly did make it a trip I hope to remember for a lifetime.

If you’d like to consider my trip, visit Dragoman’s website. My trip was called Africa East and South: Victoria Falls to Cape Town. They generally have sales where you can get a certain percentage of the full price of the tour (never on the kitty, of course).

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