I met Jess in my first year at the University of Exeter – we both studied English and we were in the same seminar group. When I met her on the first day a few things ran through my mind – “wow what a beautiful girl” was one of them, “she is incredibly well read” was another, I did not for a second think “we will probably chill out together in South Africa sometime” but guess what? Yup, you guessed it – she came to South Africa and we chilled out together!
Jess had the most amazing journey that you could imagine. While most people taking a post-university gap year end up travelling to Australia and Thailand, or even America – Jess decided to explore Africa… BY HERSELF. I still cannot get over how incredibly brave this girl is! Here is her account of being a Local Tourist as a British girl in Africa:
I was lying on the beach in Zanzibar when I sent Saxony a facebook message, asking for some tips about South Africa – where to go, where to eat etc etc. Well, 3 months later and there I was, sitting in Saxony’s front room and unloading my grubby back-pack whilst she was explaining this blog and the inspiration behind it. I was instantly intrigued by the concept of “being a local tourist” and was keen to be a part of such a unique online project.
For the past 5 months, I have been back-packing through East Africa on my own. I started my journey in Uganda, where I lived in the small rural village of Bufuka, on Lake Bunyonyi. Bunyonyi is also renowned for its beauty; small islands are dotted here and there and locals glide across the lake in dug-out wooden canoes. It could easily be mistaken for a scene from Pocahontas. This makes the lake a great stop-off point for any traveller, especially those who are heading to the Impenetrable Forest to see the mountain gorillas.
But, for me, Lake Bunyonyi was not a stop-off point, it was my home. Well, temporarily. I spent two months living in Bufuka and working for an NGO called Edirisa (which develops sustainable projects in education and tourism to provide Ugandans with skills, jobs and incomes). I quickly adapted to life as a local and instantly felt like part of the community. Like everyone else, I paddled my canoe to get around and bought my groceries in the local market. I lived off a diet of rice and peanuts, learnt Rutchiga (the local language) and, jumped into the lake whenever I needed to wash. It was easy to forget my life in England and live like a Ugandan. Nonetheless, as a blonde 22 year old muzungoo (white) girl, I clearly didn’t look like a Ugandan. The local children would greet me by jumping up and down, pointing and shouting ‘muzungo, muzungo, muzungo ‘ow are you muzungo yesca?!’ This was a constant reminder that I was not a local, nor a tourist; I was both, I was a local tourist.
That’s not to say that I felt unwelcomed or out of place. I truly believe that, as a local tourist, I had the best of both worlds. I had the privilege of settling in one place and really getting to know its culture and people on a personal level. Everyone in the village welcomed me with open arms and shared stories about the region’s history (stories of Punishment Island), current affairs (the Kenyan elections and Rwanda-Uganda relations) and, of course, village gossip (who was getting married next). I felt safe and settled and at the same time, I was always excited by my new environment and didn’t take anything for granted. I hiked mountains and visited nearby villages, which many of the locals were reluctant to do because, for them, it was just the mundane and the norm. I really felt what it was like to be “home and away” and, after months of back-packing, I found this was the most rewarding and memorable part of my trip.
Once I left Uganda, I lived like a typical back-packer which undoubtedly, has its perks. I travelled through Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa by hailing any vehicle heading in my direction. I jumped on buses and trains, trucks and planes and despite some journeys being uncomfortable and exhausting, I loved passing through the different landscapes and seeing the true beauty of Africa. I dragged my back-pack across the Namib Desert, tasted new cuisines (Zanzibar night market in Stone Town) and got lost in some very dodgy neighbourhoods (never again will I get in a Dar es Salaam taxi). I didn’t stay in one place for longer than a week and I moved on whenever I felt like it. Travelling in this way was so exciting because I was seeing everything for the first time: every country had its own atmosphere, and it was exhilarating to visit places, as an anonymous and fascinated out-sider. I have been asked loads of questions about my trip, most of them the same: Was it really dangerous? Were you really scared? Did you see a lion? Yes, I did see a lion and yes, at points, I was scared. Travelling alone (especially as a blonde girl) meant there was always a strong chance that I could have been mugged, kidnapped…or worse. And, I must stress that I purposefully avoided some areas in Africa for those reasons. Countries like Sudan and Somalia were crossed of my ‘to do list’, due to political and social unrest and I took local advice very seriously, even in places that are deemed ‘safe’.
It is a shame that so many people deem the whole of Africa a ‘no-go zone’. It has so much to offer. Not only does it have the most amazing wildlife and breath-taking landscapes but it is home to the most kind-hearted, hard-working, gentle and welcoming people I have ever met. When I hitch-hiked into Rwanda, I took a leap of faith and trusted the driver (Mr Simon, a 36 year old, father of 2, who had a car boot full of artificial flowers) based on his wide smile, friendly hand shake and opening line ‘you help us, so I help you’. Mr Simon, like so many other Africans, was proud to show me the reality, beauty and resilience of his country, no matter how harrowing it was. We took a few de-tours through the mountains and stopped in two rural villages which are still recovering from the 1994 genocide and constant influx of Congolese rebel fighters. Mr Simon then found me a place to stay in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and dropped me at the front door. He proved that whilst there are dangers of travelling in Africa, it is the people that make it safe.
There is also an element of surprise and uncertainty that makes Africa so special – you never really know where you’re going or end up, or how long it will take you! When I finally arrived in Cape Town, I immediately fell in love with the city and could see why Sax loves it too. There is an energy and magic about the place which is infectious and there is always something exciting to do; whether you’re watching the beautiful sunsets over Table Mountain or seeing bands perform in a Long Street bar. It was great to have Saxony, the ultimate local tourist, at my side. We hit the usual hotspots – ate at the V&A Waterfront, climbed Table Mountain and posed for photos with the Boulder’s Beach Penguins and at Cape Point. But, Sax also knew the secrets of the city and things you couldn’t find in a Lonely Planet guide or TripAdvisor search. She knew where to go for the best sunsets (Signal Hill), Coffee and Cake (Haas), markets (Hout Bay), breakfast/brunch (Melissa’s on Kloof Street), Plus, and this is a HUGE plus, Sax proved to me that Cape Town has THE BEST sushi I have ever tasted – (trust me, I am a sushi slore and became a regular at Takumi and Willoughby’s). Sax had set up her life there and yet, she was still keen to find new adventures round the corner. Surely this is the best way to live? I left South Africa feeling very lucky and extremely grateful to Sax, and all her friends, for showing me how awesome Cape Town is.
At this point, I must admit that I have been very bad at writing this blog – it has taken me soooooooo loooonnnnngggg to sit down and actually finish this thing. I started writing back in June, on the day that I left South Africa and, after a few more months travelling around South America, I am FINALLY finishing this paragraph back in England. In fact, I am writing this sitting in an office, at my desk, on a typical Monday morning. Having dragged myself out of bed, battled my way through traffic and driven down roads that I know like the back of my hand, I have never felt more like a local. This, in a way, encapsulates one of my points: that you can be a local, a tourist or, a local tourist, at any point in your life. Everyone can feel like a stranger in a new place and everyone has one place they call home. But, what is most exhilarating, is finding the middle ground. You do not need to live abroad for months to have this experience. Go to a cafe you’ve never been to before, visit a museum you walk past but have never been in, discover a new restaurant in your home town and, you’ll appreciate being a local tourist for the very first time.
Recommendations: Books – Whilst I was travelling, I was engrossed in “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts – I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the concept of “being a local tourist”. Shantaram follows the life and struggles of a foreign fugitive as he sets up a new home in India. The novel develops ideas of belonging, international identity and a sense of an ever-changing self which, I believe, are themes that are evoked in Saxony’s blog. Beware – it is long and it is addictive.