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

Cee’s Which Way Challenge – bridge in the Okavango Delta

Log bridge in the Okavango Delta - photo by E Jurus
Log bridge in the Okavango Delta – photo by E Jurus

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 Which-Way-Banner1rivers, 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!

A compassionate world in the making

The spectacular Okavango Delta in Botswana, where islands are linked by the paths of creatures who travel back and forth, sharing the ecosystem in harmony - photo by E Jurus
The spectacular Okavango Delta in Botswana, where islands are linked by the paths of creatures who travel back and forth, sharing the ecosystem in harmony – photo by E Jurus

I’ve met many people who are reluctant to travel to Africa, largely because the news media feature just outbreaks of violence and other ongoing issues in some of the countries.

But that’s not all of what Africa is, so I was very pleased to read today in the Charter for Compassion newsletter that Botswana has become the first country as a whole to join the Charter.  

Earlier this month, the chair of Botswana’s National Vision Council signed the Botho Declaration, which outlines the ‘seven Pillars’ of the country’s strategy to continue to create a “competitive, winning and prosperous nation”.

The Pillars of the strategy would serve any country in the world well –

  • An Educated, Informed Nation
  • An Open, Democratic and Accountable Nation
  • A Moral and Tolerant Nation
  • A United and Proud Nation
  • A Safe and Secure Nation
  • A Prosperous, Productive and Innovative Nation
  • A Compassionate, Just and Caring Nation

Details are available on the Vision 2016 website .

Having been to Botswana twice and having met/worked with many of its lovely people, I’m not surprised at all that the country is the first in the world to have dedicated itself to the cause of global compassion, but I think it’s highly ironic that a nation on a continent that many people fear to visit has joined the Charter before countries in North America or Europe.

The Charter for Compassion organization supports the ideal of having all nations follow the Golden Rule, something I support personally and have posted about on this blog. What a great vision to spread this concept around the globe!

You can read much more about the Charter on its website, and you can sign up yourself as an individual, or a group/organization that you belong to if you also believe that we can create a compassionate world. The website also features numerous resources for exploring.

At this time of year, when it’s important for those of us who have much to be compassionate to those who don’t, I hope this website will inspire you to think of ways to bring more compassion to your own life. Be kind to relatives as well as strangers, don’t look away from the homeless, help animals, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself as well.

Help everyone to have a safe holiday

Yesterday we got word that our friend’s 21-year-old stepson was killed in a car accident. A life unfulfilled, a family destroyed in just a few moments of someone’s careless or reckless driving.

I don’t know the details about how the accident happened, but in our area there seem to be serious accidents on almost a daily basis, and watching how badly people drive I can understand why.

Today I spotted a woman in an SUV leaving the parking lot of one of our malls who ran every stop sign, and at a very busy intersection she sped through a light that had already turned red. It was frightening to watch her.

Another driver, a parent dropping their child off at school, pulled into the property right across my front bumper, even though there wasn’t another vehicle behind me for several blocks. All they had to do was wait for 5 seconds. I don’t know whether the driver was an idiot or just not paying attention – neither was a good scenario.

People, your vehicle is a 2-ton killing machine! If you’re not driving properly, what on earth makes you think your fellow drivers are?

If you’re doing any of the following things while you drive, you’re a danger on the roads:

  • Not even slowing down for stop signs; bottom line is that you should be stopping
  • Running red lights
  • Texting
  • Fixing your hair
  • Passing someone on the on-ramp to the highway
  • Changing lanes without warning or checking if there’s room for you to move over: YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY when moving into another lane!
  • Not signaling turns or lane changes
  • Not checking the speed of the traffic coming along in the lane you want to turn into
  • Tailgating – if I can’t see your headlights in my rearview mirror, you’re too close! This is especially bad if there’s water or snow on the roads, as your stopping time will be significantly reduced if the vehicle in front of you has to jam on the brakes or loses control
  • Dodging in and out of traffic
  • Breezing past a long line of cars and forcing your way into that lane
  • Moving across more than one lane of traffic at the last minute to get to your exit
  • Driving with your pet on your lap
  • Not cleaning the snow/ice off all of your windows – how are you going to see a 3-ton van that’s lost control and is heading straight for you?
  • Not cleaning the snow/ice off your roof – your snow is blowing off into the face of the driver behind you
  • Sliding: if your car is sliding on a snowy road, YOU’RE GOING TOO FAST FOR THE CONDITIONS
  • Paying attention to something other than the road

Driving is a cooperative activity – we all have to drive properly for it to be safe on the roads. If you decide you’re going to cheat, some day you’re going to deprive a family of one or more of its loved ones, and you’ll have to live with that for the rest of your life – if you’re still alive yourself.

The holiday spirit

Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya - photo by E Jurus
Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya – photo by E Jurus

The Christmas season can be challenging. Visions of dysfunctional family get-togethers, guilt-laden commercials asking for donations, neighbours who don’t know what Christmas-light overkill is, shopping mall craziness and sad songs that make me cry dance through my head.

I think anyone who gets giddy over the holiday season hasn’t yet experienced it after a deeply personal loss, or suffered through years of tense family occasions, and I envy them. For the rest of us though, there are strategies to cope.

Losing a loved one, whether human or pet, can wipe out whatever Christmas spirit you might have had. For those of you who may be scoffing at being so sad after losing a pet, get over it! Pets become an integral part of a family, and are loved and taken care of just like any other family member, so losing a pet is devastating.

For our first Christmas without our male dog, who’d been with us since he was a puppy, I couldn’t stomach anything glittery in the house – it seemed like too much of a celebratory atmosphere, and we certainly weren’t celebrating anything that year. We also dispensed with a standard Christmas tree; I just put a few white branches in a pot and a minimal amount of ornaments. Keeping everything low-key helped, and we got through it. The following year we lost our female dog as well, but in recent years we’ve been able to return to a fairly normal Christmas. It’s never been quite the same, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.

Sometimes we’re in a position to help others through a similar crisis.

One November, after many years of Christmas meals where the interpersonal tensions among some family members were thick enough to cut with a knife, if they even showed up, Mike and I decided we were tired of it.

We were on the same wavelength that year. I’d been watching a great old Hepburn and Tracy movie called Desk Set, and the scenes of Christmas merriment at Hepburn’s office really struck me – I hadn’t experienced that kind of celebration for years. When I mentioned it to Mike, he said he’d been feeling the same way, and he suggested that we do something revolutionary: hold Christmas dinner and invite everyone, regardless of who was speaking to whom. Everyone would be welcome!

I agreed, and we started planning. After some thought, we decided to have a brunch, which tends to be a more relaxed occasion than any other type of meal, in an open-house format to allow everyone with extended families a good window of time to drop in. Hot food would be out on the buffet table from noon to 4pm, and people could come and go as they needed.

We were just going to start making phone calls to everyone when the unthinkable happened – at the beginning of December one of our uncles died riding in the car with his wife. He’d had heart issues for years, but no one knew that anything was imminent. We debated what to do, and decided that we would go ahead with our meal, and that because time was short we needed to extend the invitations while we could catch everyone during the funeral weekend. It was a difficult choice to make, but it worked out – the idea seemed to be a bright spot in everyone’s mind.

We didn’t ask people to rsvp, just to come if they could, even if it would only be to share a holiday beverage. The only comment I made to Mike ahead of time was that if anyone brought trouble into the house I’d throw them out, and I meant it. This was to be a Christmas of harmony, even if only for a day.

Several days ahead of the big day I began cooking a selection of dishes I thought would sit well in warming pans for four hours, and then I kept cooking and cooking. My brother, who stayed with us on Christmas Eve and offered to help, asked me what the heck I was going, and I remember replying that I couldn’t seem to stop making food!

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny. By 11:30am everything was on the buffet table and we waited with baited breath to see if anyone would actually show up to help us eat the huge amount of food I’d made!

We must have struck a chord with people that year, because people began to show up with smiles and much more good cheer than we expected. The warming pans worked brilliantly and I didn’t have to do anything other than relax and enjoy myself for the rest of the day.

It turned out that the buffet concept was a great idea – people who weren’t on good terms could just politely wish each other a Merry Christmas and then sit anywhere in the house (no room for big tables, so all the food was manageable on a lap plate).

Everyone was intrigued by the food and kept returning to the table to try out something else – turkey tenderloin in a cider cream gravy, cheese blintzes with cherry sauce, honey-mustard sausage bites, sour cream & onion bread are a few of the dishes I recall now.

There was a very benevolent and peaceful atmosphere that day, and we saw people who hadn’t really spoken in years having actual conversations together. Perhaps the best part was that it turned out to be a decent Christmas even for our newly-widowed aunt: she spent it with all her sisters together for the first time in quite a while, and without a formal table seating I think it wasn’t so painfully obvious that her husband wasn’t there.

No one came and went – everyone stayed for the entire afternoon and into the evening, eventually trickling out in good spirits. It felt like a Christmas miracle, and although I can’t tell you that everyone made up and lived happily ever after with each other, for that one Christmas (and a few afterward) everyone genuinely had the holiday spirit.

When you’re planning your holiday meals, remember that the spirit of Christmas is generosity – a genuine welcome for everyone. Forget putting on a grand show or trying to make everything perfect – what really means something to your guests is how welcome you make them feel. Without that, you may as well not bother.

Memories of travel food

Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana – photo by E Jurus

One of my favourite things about travel is the cultural immersion, and a large part of that consists of the food we enjoy in different countries. What we’ve consumed has provided some of my most powerful memories over the years.

I can’t tell you much about the 400-year-old pub we had lunch at in Stratford-upon-Avon many years ago, apart from the creaky floors that dipped alarmingly on the second floor where the washrooms were, but I can recall in great detail the incredible chocolate cake we had – three layers of intense dark chocolate goodness piled with a velvety chocolate frosting, and drenched in rich pale-yellow pouring cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

In Egypt, on chilly nights on the top deck of our boat on the Nile, after dinner the crew would bring out an enormous battered steel kettle of steaming hot tea, which they served with hot frothy milk and lots of sugar. There was nothing better than being bundled up in our blankets, sipping this wonderful tea and eating digestive cookies at the end of an amazing day of sightseeing.

On the island of Bali, we hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the rice terraces that were currently under cultivation – a spectacular experience, like being inside a giant emerald – and after a long day of touring with still over an hour to get back to our resort in Denpasar we asked him to find us a place to stop for dinner. He asked us what we like to eat, and then after a few minutes he pulled up in a tiny town at a place that looked like an old mechanic’s garage. We were a bit startled, but Wayan assured us that the kitchen was clean and the food was safe to eat. We decided that it wouldn’t be beneficial to him to kill off his customers, so we went in with him and let him order for us. We were the only non-Indonesians in the joint, which had only one big table where we were slowly joined by a few men from town who trickled in. We had a very spicy vegetable stew, rice and some bottles of pop. The men from town paid us some attention, but mostly chatted amongst themselves. At one point Wayan stepped out to buy a live chicken caged in chicken wire, which he put in the back of his small van. The entire meal for all three of us cost $8. The mother who was cooking and her daughter came out to meet us, so we asked Wayan to tell her how delicious everything was, which earned us a big smile.

Our camp cooks in Africa have been able to produce some of the most amazing food on a tiny stove rigged up on top of pop cans over an open fire way out in the bush. We’ve had everything from cheddar and bacon pizza to steak to pears poached in red wine with chocolate cake. Eating out in the open, under the African stars, with the sound of hippos bellowing in the distance, is an incredible experience.

You can’t plan for experiences like this – you stumble upon them, and they stay with you forever. They represent an entire culture on a plate. Forget tracking down a MacDonald’s or something that reminds you of home; that’s not why you’re there. Enjoy a memory that will make you smile on a cold winter day when you need some cheering up, and even better, bring home the recipe from that distant land and make it that day!