Finding that authentic experience

Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way - photo by E Jurus
Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way – photo by E Jurus

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.

Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge - photo by E Jurus
Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge – photo by E Jurus

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.

Traditional Samburu dances - photo by E Jurus
Traditional Samburu dances – photo by E Jurus

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.

Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E Jurus

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.

The new Samburu village school - photo by E Jurus
The new Samburu village school – photo by E Jurus
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