Friday, October 28, 2011

Eastern and Southern Africa Generalities

Note: These are some of Jeanette’s observations from her first time traveling around the continent.

One thing about Africa that I’ve noticed, and this is true everywhere we’ve been except maybe parts of Namibia, is just the sheer number of people always milling about.  In daylight hours the streets and sidewalks are packed with people, some selling their wares, some walking, and many just kind of standing around.  Walking down a sidewalk is a bit like an obstacle course – you have to dodge people, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, giant holes, fruit stalls, blankets laid out with sunglasses, wallets, used clothing, shoes, etc.  This continent is packed with people.  Even when we are on buses in what seems like the middle of nowhere, there is always a village tucked in somewhere and people are walking, biking, or herding their livestock up and down the streets everywhere.

Everyone and their grandmother now have cell phones in Africa.  Upon arrival in Johannesburg we bought the cheapest one we could and it will never be stolen because everyone has a nicer one than we do, even some of Anne’s friends in the village.  It’s been incredibly convenient having a cell phone and service has been better than you’d expect in most places.  There is no real cell phone etiquette though.  People will talk really loudly on their phones at restaurants, on buses, working at kiosks, anywhere.  The worst is when you have paid for a guide and they spend more time texting or making calls than sharing information with you.  It’s become quite a joke with us when we have to wait for our guide to catch up with us because they were on the phone.
Skeleton keys are used virtually everywhere we’ve been on this continent except Ethiopia.  And I have to say I don’t love them.  With more keys than not there is a quirk to opening the door and I’ve spent many a minute standing outside one of our doors completely perplexed as to how to make the key work.  Sometime we take turns trying until one of us figures out the trick, sometimes there is no trick and it just doesn’t work properly.  This is significantly less frustrating when the room is en suite.

The majority of people we’ve encountered wear used clothing and it has been relatively easy to find; the easiest being Tanzania.  Sometimes you will look through a pile of clothes and see a tag still on them from Value Village or Salvation Army.  I’m not sure how the process works exactly, but somehow used clothing is bought in bulk and then sold on the streets for fairly cheap.  I always derive great amusement from looking at all the random t-shirts people wear.   It’s fun to recognize a sport’s team or city I know.  My absolute favorite was seeing a 50-something year old man pushing a cart wearing a New Kids on the Block t-shirt that I think I owned 20 years ago.

One thing I have been thoroughly impressed with is how harmonious people of varying religions here live together side by side.  In eastern Africa Islam and Christianity are the most common religions and there seems to be no judgment of the other religion from either side.  Considering a lot of the anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. following 9-11 I find it really refreshing how religion is not a divisive issue here.  The only exception was some murmurings of a small group that wants to institute sharia, or Islamic law, in Dar es Salaam. Most disagree, but we didn’t see much evidence of conflict over the issue. Many people, especially in the villages, also mix Christianity or Islam with a modicum of witchcraft involving things such as curses and genies in Kenya and Tanzania or warding off the evil eye in Ethiopia. City streets all over East Africa are dotted with posters offering services of local witch doctors that can mix you up a love potion or create something to help you succeed in business. Unlike in the western world, for most people these beliefs aren’t seen as being in conflict with major religions.  It’s also been really interesting learning about the spread of Islam from Arab traders on the coast or Christianity from colonial occupation.

We get asked all the time where we are from and as soon as we say the United States I have been surprised by how many people eagerly reply “Obama” or “Obamaland”.  He seems beloved by this entire continent, and it’s been so nice to have a positive reception as an American as opposed to the rare encounter where we are asked why America is systematically trying to attack and destroy all Muslim nations.  In Tanzania, Malawi, and Kenya there is Obama paraphernalia everywhere – t-shirts, backpacks, shoulder bags, khangas, belts and belt buckles, chewing gum, flashlights, key chains, bottle openers, and even underwear (move over Calvin Kline!).  I have to admit, it’s pretty awesome to see it everywhere.  We met a traveler recently who said there is a town in western Kenya we will pass through where we can meet Obama’s grandmother.  I’m considering it.

One thing about Africa that tends to drive me crazy is how slow everyone walks.  There is a certain kind of slow saunter that most people adopt, and it adds to the obstacle course of sidewalks because there is little fluidity to the pedestrian traffic.  It’s a silly little pet peeve of mine that I need to get over but also a factor in me knowing that I could never live here.  Walking slowly is a just a way of life here and I have to accept that.

We made some fairly major changes to our original game plan since the beginning of the trip.  Flights to Madagascar were more expensive than we anticipated so a couple of months ago we decided not to go.  We could have made it work, but it would have meant scrimping on every penny and ultimately we decided to make sure we were able to see what we wanted to see in the places we went.  Also, you can get to Madagascar from Hong Kong or Paris for the same price that it was from Nairobi so we have it penciled into our itinerary for when we travel through Southeast Asia next.   We also decided against going to Egypt due to the political protests going on.  Our original timing would have put us there in late November after Ethiopia and we would have had to fly between the two as Sudan is kind of off limits for us.  Since the elections in Egypt were moved to late November we didn’t want to buy tickets now and then have problems going there if trouble erupted.  Instead, after a month in Ethiopia we fly back to Nairobi then head to Uganda where we will meets Anne’s mom for our last two weeks.  We already bought tickets back to the States for December 14 in time for the holidays.  We fly from Uganda via, ironically, Cairo where the layover is too short to take a quick peek at the pyramids.  Next time.

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