On this frigid winter day in Ontario, I’m enjoying looking at photos of exotic (i.e. warmer) places I’ve been to (and wish I was at right now) .
Border crossings in foreign countries are always interesting (and an exercise in patience). Probably the most fun we’ve ever had was the crossing from Peru to Bolivia at Desaguadero, a scruffy little town on the road from Puno on Lake Titicaca in Peru to the ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.
The scene can best be described as chaotic – there are all kinds of vehicles transporting all kinds of cargo down a dusty street lined with funky stores, with two lines of street stalls down the middle selling everything from household supplies to raw meat, interspersed with moneychangers who wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas apart from their traditional Andean clothing. Everyone jostles for space in the street before or after lining up to move slowly through the Customs office.
As our tour bus arrived, amidst many other buses, we were told by our tour leader to hide anything that looked valuable, as the border agents are given to asking for bribes if they see something interesting, but none of our group of about 30 people encountered any issues.
The free show outside the building was the best entertainment as we got back on the bus and crawled slowly between foot traffic, vehicles, animals, crates, sacks of potatoes, people having lunch on the side of the road… This photo captures the feel of the traffic, with this man trying to move an older woman along on his bike surrounded by the huge tour buses – a wonderful juxtaposition of cultures in the middle of the Andes.
I love photographing primates. Their behavior is so much like ours — affection, maternal love, play, grumpiness, exasperation… I can watch them for hours; they’re the entertainers of the African bush! This is a photo of vervet monkeys in the Moremi Reserve of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Because of the grizzled face on the adult female, she’s likely the grandmother or an older aunt of the youngster; they often take on babysitting duties. Primates have very strong family bonds, so it’s really common to see hugs like this, but it never gets old.
My travel sources have lately been reporting a surge in people looking for an “authentic” experience in places like Africa.
Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest obstacles for finding something ‘authentic’ is a traveller’s preconceptions. If you’re looking for a time capsule, you’re not going to find it – there are very few places untouched by modern civilization.
Trying to plan something authentic actually to some extent defeats the purpose. You can’t stage-manage this type of experience; you can arrange for a tribal visit, for example, but you must proceed on it with an open mind and no expectations about what might or might not happen.
A case in point is a visit to a native Samburu village that our safari group enjoyed in Kenya a couple of years ago. It wasn’t on our scheduled itinerary, but our guide suggested it and we were all immediately on board.
Just the fact that the tribe lives in a village is a change from their traditional way of existence – the Samburu were originally nomadic, but a few years ago this tribe received a schoolhouse so that their children could be educated and they’ve had to stop moving around in order to be close to the school.
In many ways the tribe still lives very traditionally, though. The village consists of huts with a frame of tree branches held together with mud and covered in whatever materials they can scavenge – old cardboard and paper, bits of cloth… The huts are an extraordinary sight, surrounded by a thick ‘hedge’ of thorny tree branches that’s too wide and dense for predators to penetrate. During the day the tribe opens up the hedge to go in and out, and at night all the animals (mainly cows) are brought inside and the gaps are closed.
The villagers dress in colourful robes and jewellery for visitors, but we did see women down at the dry bed of the Ewaso Nyiro River doing laundry in t-shirts and loose skirts. Near the Masai Mara reserve, we saw Masai people dressed in a mix of traditional and modern, often incorporating bits of modern clothing, such as pants and tops with a brightly-coloured cloth as a shawl. Regardless of how much of the Samburu robes were for our benefit, it was a joy to see the wonderful clothing that remains from ancient times.
Bits of modernity have crept in as a result of the tribe staying in one place: the villagers offer tours and sell crafts to bring in money, and our guide had a cell phone to communicate outside the village.
The visit was a fascinating experience, though – the villagers demonstrated some native dances and how they made fire, we sat on benches under a tree where they hold their village meetings, and we sat inside one of their huts to see how they live on a daily basis. The Samburu are known for their elaborate beaded jewellery, and I treasure a necklace that I bought from the hands of the woman who made it. My husband bought a great spear from one of the men – the spear with the tufted leather guard on the blade in the photo below.
Yes, we paid for the tour and were hit up for donations to the school, but if I’d known in advance that the tour would be available I would have likely brought school supplies as a donation anyway.
As we finished the tour we were steered down a path lined with villagers selling their crafts, and they were a bit aggressive, but they were just being entrepreneurs. Obviously the tribe is aware that visitors like to buy jewellery and spears, and we were happy to buy something on location as opposed to in a shop in Nairobi.
Authentic experiences require interacting with local people in however they live their normal lives, not expecting a historical moment frozen in time. This usually means getting a bit down and dirty, so to speak – avoiding luxury accommodations and getting out into the streets to walk around.
If you truly want a real African safari, e.g., go camping in the bush! I’ve stayed in luxury lodges as well, and while they are lovely, save that for a couple of days at the end of the trip as a treat after roughing it. There’s nothing like being immersed in the African bush for a week or so, as in the days of early safaris. With a good safari operator, you’ll be quite safe, and you’ll experience the magic of sitting under the great African sky at night listening to the sounds of animals settling down for sleep, sleeping yourself snuggled under duvets while the chilly night air fills your tent, waking up to the raucous call of birds, and eating delicious meals cooked over wood fires. It’s an amazingly exciting and peaceful experience at the same time.
When we were in Egypt many years ago, for the first couple of days in Cairo we felt like we were in a fishbowl riding around from sight to sight in our tour bus. It wasn’t until we had some free time and walked to the museum and the market from our hotel on the Nile that we really began to feel a connection to the people and their culture. Never fill your leisure time on a tour with back-to-back excursions – leave some time to just walk about, sit in a sidewalk café or restaurant, and watch the ebb and flow of life around you.
One of the best experiences we’ve ever had took place on our last day on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. We were flying out that night, so we arranged with our resort to have a driver guide take us on a tour of some of the island before we headed for the airport. We visited the botanical gardens, some wonderful Hindu temples, a sacred lake, a jungle waterfall, the Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel (naturally coloured sands), and ate fresh guavas handpicked for us by our guide Roger. Since our flight wasn’t until late, we inquired about somewhere to eat dinner other than at the airport, so he took us to a little place he knew on the side of the road across the street from the ocean. We sat out on the front porch and had a fantastic spicy chicken curry with rice while we watched the traffic go by and were waved at by the passersby. It was the perfect way to end that trip.
If you want authentic experiences, you need to get away from the luxury spots and obvious tourist traps and truly interact with the locals – walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and genuinely engage them in conversation. See how they really live, not how you’d like them to. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about the world by accepting it for what it is.
I’ve come across a fun participatory photo blog called ‘Cee’s Which Way Challenge’, where the challenge is to post a photo with a directional subject – roads, bridges, walkways, paths, etc. Here’s my first contribution.
This is one of my favourite all-time photos. I took it in Botswana in 2007 on my very first safari. It was a mobile camping safari visiting 4 camps in 4 different parts of the country. Our first camp was located in the Okavango Delta, a world-famous wetland that we’d gone specifically to see.
The Delta is formed by the Okavango River draining directly into the hot, dry sands of the Kalahari Desert. These waters, unlike with most rivers, never reach the ocean, instead spreading across the sands and forming a permanent wetland around islands created by the higher spots. The waters fluctuate seasonally, with the biggest influx of water taking place in spring as the January & February rains in Angola swell the river waters and wash about 1,200 km southeast into Botswana.
Doing a safari in the Delta is an adventure! Some of the islands are fairly large and dry, with deep sandy roads weaving between towering termite mounds, tall date palms and short wide fan palms, and the pungent salty scent of wild sage. Others may be tiny islands just big enough to land on if you’re out on a mokoro ride (a dugout canoe that has long been a traditional form of transportation in the Delta).
There are bridges across the shallower waters between some of the islands, like the one in this photo. It was close to being flooded over, though – the approach to the bridge was already swamped. I took a shot out the back of the safari vehicle as another vehicle approached to give perspective – if Indiana Jones had ever visited southern Africa, this log bridge should have been in the movie!
The cold winter months here in southern Ontario always make me long for exotic, warm places!