East Africa Travel Advice: how to normalize

Learn to squat for hole-in-the-ground toilets, and always carry toilet paper.

Exercise patience (people talk and work very slowly), and learn to talk and do things slowly yourself.

If you’re going to Tanzania or Kenya, learn some Swahili. If you’re going to Burundi, Congo or Rwanda, learn a lot of French.

People speak quietly, unintelligibly even, so practice focused listening, and never yell or raise your voice to be better understood.

Expect variations on the English words used in different countires. For example, public tansport can be called either taxi, bus, matatu, or special car, but they all refer to slightly different things, ie. A mini-bus, a coach bus, a local bus or a private car. A hotel can refer to a bar, restaurant, or an actual hotel, and I haven’t quite worked out what hostel refers to since there’s lots of them, but the most hostel-looking hostels are usually called guesthouses or backpackers.

Be grammatically flexible: prepare for misspellings, ie. You’ll stay at a ‘resourt’ and buy meat at the ‘butcer,’ get used to different pronunciations, ie. Bon-shuu for bonjour, and some phrases like “hello” are often replied with wrong responses like “fine.” The internet is called “network,” as well as cell phone service, and  you won’t have either “network” in many places outside of urban areas. When you do have network, you’ll realize how much you took for granted the fast internet connections we’ve grown used to.

Bring a book to stay away from your ipod, and buy an unlocked cell phone from 2004 to avoid standing out with a fancy smart phone.

Passerby, independent travelers aren’t the norm yet; people will as where you live or work since East Africa is full of expats, so be prepared to explain your story of why you wanted to backpack through East Africa.

Be prepared for missionaries and their prophecies; many will ask if you are Christian, so either say you are with some evidence to back it up, or learn to enjoy spontaneous bible lessons. These can come from white, American Missionaries from Kentucky, or your bus driver from the Serengeti. Even the most indigenous tribes are often Christian, and Masai’s are often renamed at baptism, so get used to meeting a lot of James’ and John’s.

Throw your East Africa Lonely Planet out the window. The Africa shoestring book as more pages on the Congo and Burundi than the East African book (7 pages on Burundi, and 5 pages on the Congo, a country 40 times the size of Rwanda). My East Africa journey was the first solo-trip I’ve ever done without a guide, and although Frommers and Bradt may be ok, Id still say throw you guidebook out the window – facts and things are so variable and dynamic that by the time anything is published on prices or times or places, they’ve most likely changed, and one person’s recommendation for how, where, when or why to do anything is always different from anothers.

Embrace the beauty of chaos and revel in the disorganization of freedom. You can talk your way in or out of almost anything, remember that no never means no, and become friends with the hard working African mindset that anything can be done, either with enough time or money.

Get used to walking between countries, and always crossing two borders to get across. One to leave the country you’re in, and one to enter the county you’re going to, that will have a $25-100 visa payable only in US dollars.

For Rwanda, most countries need to preapply online for a visa, atleast 24 hours before you arrive. NOTE: this may only be true for a little while, or only true of some borders, but there is no way for me to confirm or deny what the real truth is since the transmission of knowledge seems to act like a skipping stone – only some are privy to the truth, others can only speculate what the next skip is as they sink out of sight. Most visas are around $50, and you can only pay with fresh, new US dollar bills. It’s a different year for each country, but I remember cut off mint dates being 2000, 2004 and 2006.

There’s supposed to be agreement between Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya to offer an informal East African Visa, but Ugandan authorities don’t seem to know anything about it and it only dismisses you from paying a single entry visa more than once while not having to preapply for a multi-entry visa when moving between Tanzania and Kenya. There is still rumor about an actual East Africa Visa among all the Lake Victoria bordering countries, but who knows if and when that will be available.

US Dollars in denominations of $5, $10 or $20 get worse exchange rates, about 25% less, than bills of $50 or $100. ATM’s often give you about 5% less than a cash exchange rate, so come with a lot of US cash, especially since ATMs aren’t so common anywhere but large towns or capital cities.

The entire country of Burundi is off the international banking grid, so no ATMs exist and you cannot use any type of debit or credit card.

I still cant remember straight, but some East African countries drive on the left, others on the right, and both right and left-hand drive cars are used in both environments so it gets very confusing if and when you’re on the wrong side of the road.

You can skip the malarone and other slightly-anti-malarial pills, but sleeping without a mosquito net is not ok- so bring your own for the hotels and homes you stay in that don’t have one. It won’t protect you from the sound of creepy, heavy crawlies around or under your bed, but it will keep small bugs from buzzing around your ears all night and biting up your forehead.

Theft is unusual, if there’s any chance of being caught, since stealing is a big deal, even punishable by death. There was an incidence where a farmer in Tanzania walked to Burundi and stole some cows, and 3 days later, had been found by the Burundian farmers and hacked to pieces with machetes, and another where a young man stole a motorbike, and once caught, was doused in fuel and burned to death, right in the middle of the street.

The buses will always say their leaving soon, but they aren’t. They’ll leave the engine idling so you believe they are, and despite high fuel costs, they make the sacrifice as a tactic to try and get the next passengers onboard, which will make their bus filled first, and thus, their bus leave first. If you ask how long a bus takes, seven people will tell you different times, and all will be telling you driving hours not including stops, or they’ll tell you the distance. Knowing the kilometers unfortunately doesn’t tell you anything, because it depends on the road quality, weather, type of car, and if they have to fill up on fuel or wait for a paid passenger after leaving the bus station.

You’ll miss mzungus, and at the sight of one, stop yourself from pointing/waving and yelling “MZUNGU!” like everyone else does to you since you start to think this is a normal reaction. Then when you do see one, you’ll feel strangely intruded, wondering “what are they doing here?” Other times youll feel relieved, have someone to talk to at a more familiar level.

Know you’ll be experience such intense sensory overload that you actually start becoming desensitized. One may also call this a normalization: Normality shifts, time slows, your reactions mellow, your hygiene standards vanish, your comfort boundary expands, and your tolerance for everything and anything increases. One may also call this transformation a rite of passage, since this is the one piece of advice that you can only really understand after having travelled through East Africa yourself.



London: Reverse Culture Shock

My reverse culture shock began as soon as I arrived at Entebbe airport in Uganda. The British Airways flight I was on had more Westerners than I had seen all month, and the duty free shops were full of over-consumptive, unnecessary and overpriced goods. The 9 hour flight to London had a confusing selection of food, drink and entertainment, but having my own seat to sit on was nice, plus a pillow and blanket to put me to sleep.

Getting into Heathrow and maneuvering the underground to Victoria station and onward to Chelmsford was more chaotic. The price I paid to get to my cousins house would have paid for a week of day-long buses, so I started immediately to miss the price of things in East Africa. All the people I passed never made eye contact, and if they did, would look away immediately, never sharing a smile or a “hello how are you.” The Londoners all had somewhere to be, or just valued their time such that walking was like a race. Perhaps that’s in all train stations, but it was impressive to see the business women in heels speed-walking, zooming past myself, a little dazed and lost. I noticed everyone’s heightened sense of fashion – matching shoes and purses, shiny leather work bags, brand name scarves and beautifully painted faces and hair-do’s.

I finally found my way to platform 6, and boarded my train due north-east. I was still covered in a layer of red-dust and my backpack had become permanently dirty, so I met a few strange, side-wards glances but no one asked any questions. My cousin met me at Chelmsford station, after waiting for an hour on the other side of the tracks from where I was also waiting an hour. It was only 11 degrees, grey and rainy, an atypical summer day but somehow a perfect London day. After finally being reunited, we gossiped about family, drank some bubbly and ate butter chicken. For desert we had hookah, and finally crashed at 12:30am.

At 3 am, when I was dead asleep, I started having this dream that someone was breaking into my room. I was sleeping upstairs, in my cousins’ daughter’s room, and remember looking around in the pitch black trying to remember where I was. Africa? No. England? Yes. Hotel? Nope. Safe house in a quiet suburb? Yes. Convinced I was having a nightmare, I blinked several times to make out the two arms wailing around, trying to pull themselves in through the open window. As my heart beat shot up, I realized I was awake, and that this was really happening. 6 weeks in Africa without a single robbery, break-in, rape, nada, and my first and only night in England someone is actually trying to destroy my clean record. At this point, a minute had passed and he was about to make it all the way in, and frozen in freight I decided to cough to announce my conscious presence. He had been mumbling to someone else or himself and fell silent, pulled his arms back out, and disappeared.

I fumbled to the door, to my cousin and her daughter sharing the other room, and whispered “Marisa, there’s someone trying to break in through my window.” She shot up like a lightning bolt, ran into the room, turned the lights on, pulled up the blinds, and stuck her head out the open window. Maybe not the way I would have reacted, but thankfully they were long gone. We called the cops anyway, made a report and had them check the perimeter of the house. At 5 am we finally crawled back to bed, and somehow I still fell asleep, still kind of pretending it was all just a bad dream.


What I miss most about East Africa

The kronur may be cheaper than it once was, but I still miss the prices of things. A pound for a hostel bed, a euro for a bus ride, a dollar for a beer, and 25 cents for a coffee. Its nice when the coffee is fresh, local coffee, but more often than not it was instant Nescafe. You have to order your beer warm or cold, and though they cost the same, only the tourists or elitists order it cold (though it warms up very quickly) since locals are used to drinking beer warm.

I miss the feeling of the equatorial sun heating my back and browning my face, accompanied by the endless sweat dripping from my forehead. Then the dust and grime in all public places collects on your sticky skin and every shower I take ends up in brown water running down me and forming a muddy pool at my feet.I miss the humidity of the air, keeping your skin moisturized and the nights warm.

I miss the gratitude I felt for shade, to get out of the sun for some relief from the heat, and the lottery I felt I won when sitting on an all-day bus on the non-sunny side. None of the buses were air conditioned, so I miss the bus routes, stopping every 500 metres, that speed up to go again, creating the most wonderful breeze through the open windows. I miss the risk factor of every bus, taking the one which looked least likely to break down, and checking out the driver who would soon have your life in his hands.

I miss the coziness of the buses, filled with twice as many passengers as they’re supposed to be, and each passenger carrying a bucket of flour, a jug of water, a live chicken, or an infant child on their lap. The convenience of never having to get off the bus to shop for whatever you needed was a lazy luxury – bottles of water, grilled corn, meat brochettes, gigantic avocados, the redest tomatoes or bananas of all sizes would show up at your window every time the bus stopped, for sale for a few cents.

The frequent lightning storms made the weather exciting; I miss the sight of electrifying blue lightning bolts with a hundred arms visible from miles away in the midday grey or lighting up the dead of night, and the awe of thunder so loud it shakes the building you’re in.

I strangely miss the bugs – the constant buzzing and cooing of hundreds of insects, mostly at night. The sign of life everywhere you look, even the cockroaches in the filthiest of corners. Little flies often shared my beer, drowning in glory in the foamy, alcoholic bubbles. One hotel room I went to look at in Mbale seemed to be ok from the outside, and the hallway leading up the room was newly painted, but upon opening the door to my room, a massive spider scurried past. The woman showing me the room put her slipper on it nonchalantly, and when a cockroach scurried past she did nothing, since he would be my roommate. Two more cockroaches inhabiting the bathroom made me decide I’d rather not intrude so they kept the room to themselves.

I miss the taste of street food, the little bits of grit you feel between your teeth as you chew gristly meat and under-ripe corn on the cob. Watching the transformation of fresh planted veggies into a delicious vegetarian dishes, and silky roosters slit, plucked and cooked into tough, chewy chicken. However, I have to admit I don’t miss the smell of freshly plucked chickens, or the chicken poo they sit in waiting, tied up, for their death sentence.

I do miss the general assortment of smells, the strength of stenches that ensure you your sense of smell is working just fine, and make you appreciate when you’re not surrounded by the stink of urine or the smoggy traffic exhaust that leaves you gasping for oxygen.

I loved how the tourism industry was East Africa’s Hollywood – everyone who made a job with tourists would presumably become rich, and meet foreign friends and possible spouses who could take them to their country to visit or work, even live forever. The kindness of people may have been because of my light skin or the type of passport I held, but I miss the people, their bright smiles and friendly hello’s, and how everyone calls me ‘sister.’ I miss the moral inclinations towards Christianity, everyone spreading Gods word for his love to shower those with nothing.

Freewaters Article – an update from Kenya's water project

A blog update from Projectfreewaters after my visit to Tulwet, Kenya, where they have their first major water-well digging project happening. Find out more information at http://www.projectfreewaters.org , or buy some sandals to support the cause at http://www.freewaters.com

Katrin Sif Einarsdottir, Freewaters Ambassador, visits Projectfreewaters


Katrin Sif Einarsdottir, Freewaters Ambassador and Product Tester, visited Projectfreewaters last week on her way through Africa.

Well, this pretty much sums it up: Katrin wearing our Vezpa sandals, standing on a new well apron in Kenya! The circle is complete!

Here you can see how the concrete apron directs surface water away from the pump head, ensuring that the clean ground water is never contaminated.

Kenyan team Leaders Barnabus and Franco demonstrate to Katrin how the well works.

This borehole is a typical example of where local families used to get their water. Because it is exposed to surface water, they are quickly contaminated and lead to a handful of water born diseases.

Locals report to our team that infant and senior mortality from water borne disease has virtually disappeared since ProjectFreewaters started back in December. Additionally, the distance for these families to walk to draw water has been reduced to 1km.

Katrin is a world travel blogger and a Freewaters Ambassador and Product Tester. Katrin, thank you and safe travels!! Check out her blog: katrin.dohop.com

see the full article: http://projectfreewaters.org/?p=207

Freewaters Project in Tulwet, Kenya

Leaving Masai Mara turned out not to be as difficult as getting to it, but the only obstacle was meeting up with Jon from Kigali in Kisumu before heading to North-western Kenya. Jon took off a couple weeks from work and decided to join me for the tail-end of my journey, and bring me back safely and sanely to Kampala where I had only just booked my return flight home from.

Barnabus showing me the first well

We both arrived at the chaotic bus station in Kisumu around 8pm, but apparently it’s a hoppin place to be so every hotel but the last we tried was full. We ate some tough chicken and Tusker lager for dinner, and the following day set off for Tulwet. The bus we chose told us they were leaving in 20 minutes and pulled out 50 minutes later, and then took 4 hours instead of the quoted “3,” but this was all very good according to East African terrestrial travel standard.

We were greeted in Kitale, the nearest town to Tulwet, by Maina, a project organizer for Freewaters. He works for a Kenyan company called Love Mercy Drilling, and they helped facilitate the bore-hole drilling.The Freewaters Kenyan team leaders Barnabus and Franco took me and Jon out to the field, into the heart of Tulwet village. We drove along mud-red roads meant for bare-footed people, so the old range rover barely scraped through the narrow trails to each of the 6 wells we would visit.

They were scattered around the rural village, spread out so that no family would have to walk more than a kilometer to fetch fresh water. We also visited one dry well, and at the drop of a rock discovered it was full of water, making the Freewaters project 7 wells strong.

this mother shared her gratitude for the wells with lots of smiles and laughs and a tow of children who may or may not all have belonged to her

The villagers, especially the numerous children, always ran out to greet us, watching intrigued at our examination of every well. They admired silently, but once in a while peeped out a smile or word of thanks. They looked at me as the personification of their Freewaters gift, and wanted to hold my hand and thank me over and over for the clean water they now have, and all the healthy children and seniors who have stopped dying from contaminated water and water-borne diseases. They asked for more wells and more visits, yet had no idea how the shoes I was wearing were the reason behind the project.

my Vezpa shoes on the well, with some usual miniature spectators


Becoming a Masai Princess


my masai garb

There is a road from Serengeti, Tanzania, to the Masai Mara, Kenya, since these two parks are essentially the same national park within two country borders. Google maps shows this road, and it was once possible to cross the border within the park. Its unclear to me whether its closed only to tourists, but the pitiful thing for me was I now had to get to Masai Mara in the most indirect, complicated way possible.

It took me an entire day to travel back out of Serengeti, west all the way to

me and "Wilderness Willy"

Lake Victoria, then north to the border town of Sirare. It took another day to drive with Kenya back east to the Masai Mara, along a flooded, pot-holed road at an average speed of 30km an hour in my friend’s Land Rover. I was visiting two Masai friends I had made at the Tourism Conference in Kampala earlier this month, and made the mistake of offering to pay fuel which turned out to be $180US. I would have paid three times more for the treatment I received, since both friends gave me an unforgettable experience in the national park they call home.

For the two days I was with them, I wore the most beautiful Masai dress. It was bright red, covered in beads, and my ankles, wrists and head were adorned in more colourful jewelry. I was treated as a Masai by all we met, with utmost respect and attempts at communicating in the Masai language. I did not pay for my tour-guided game drive, park fees, meals or accomodation because of their generous hospitality.

a cheetah!!

I had dreamed of seeing a leopard or a cheetah, and within an hour of entering the park I saw both, as well as a pride of lions and a herd of elephants. Masai Mara national park was so different from Serengeti – it was a vast, flat plain, with single, isolated trees once every square kilometer. The grass was so well-grazed that you could see the horizon curve, the ground just a uniform, green carpet.

the lionesses and cubs

the lion king

As you approach the park from the west, the road drops down a huge cliff, into the valley of the Masai’s. The Masai people are still living in and around the park, in the same way they have for hundreds of year. They are one of the few tribes in Kenya that maintains a long history of culture, resisting ‘development’ and ‘westernization’ by keeping their mud huts and colourful dress. They live side by side with the wilderness of the park, boys as young as 13 killing lions with a spear, and men spending years of their lives nomadically grazing cows. They wander freely between countries, indifferent about the political notion of a ‘border’, their Masai culture irrespective of whether their brothers are from Tanzania or Kenya.

My friend James, attending grad school in South Carolina, told me that the thing he misses most when in the US is being with his cows. One cowboy will spend weeks alone with his cows, knows exactly how each and every cow is, and forms incredible bonds with his herd. Their sole purpose is to stay with the them, live off their milk, and at all costs protect their lives from the free-roaming lions, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards constantly posing a threat.

a leopard feasting on a buffalo kill, which could very well have been an unlucky cow

One of the most beautiful yet paradoxical sights I saw while in the Masai was a herd of cows and zebra grazing together. My ‘western’ notion of an African Safari or National Park, the ideology of a conservation area full of wild animals, doesn’t allow me to picture zebras grazing alongside livestock. The idea that domesticated animals, their farmers, and all the stars from the Lion King live harmoniously in a lawless land is still something I can’t get my head around.