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

A slow boat up the Nile

Our first view of the Valley of the Kings - photo on slide by E Jurus
Our first view of the Valley of the Kings – photo on slide by E Jurus

Have you ever had one of those days where you wished you were somewhere else, doing something wonderfully exciting instead of sitting at your desk? Today was one of those days for me. I found myself dreaming of being back in Egypt, on a slow boat chugging up the Nile River. I’m not sure what made that pop into my head today, but I tend to wax nostalgic about trips I’ve been on during the months that they took place, and in November 1989 I was in Egypt.

That trip was the first big adventure that my hubby Mike and I undertook, and it was quite a journey. Our tour company, Transglobal, gave us a lot of information ahead of time about what conditions would be like, how to pack, etc., but we still had no idea what to expect about actually being there.

Cairo was chaotic, noisy and fun. To see King Tutankhamen’s famous gold mask in the Egyptian Museum was like a dream. We spent a day out on the Giza Plateau — touring the very first pyramid at Sakkara, gazing at the enigmatic face of the Sphinx, frog-walking up the Grand Gallery inside the Great Pyramid and wondering what all those strange passageways were designed for – and then visited a papyrus-making enterprise, where Mike and I bought one painted with the statue of Anubis just like the one we’d seen in the museum.

We rented striped cloth shoe-covers to explore the magnificent mosque at the Citadel, overlooking the jumbled rooftops of Cairo, and had lunch in a dim restaurant where the smoke from huge frying pans of falafel patties wafted upwards to form clouds on the ceiling.

We had a day to wander around by ourselves, so Ron from Holland joined us to explore the crazy, exotic Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar, up and down the dusty stone-floored passages filled with spices, coloured skeins of wool, perfume, leather goods… Mike and I bargained over bottles of pop (sharing a beverage with the owner was an essential part of bargaining in Cairo) for a brass hookah in a murky shop at the end of a lane – then had to try to find our way back out of the maze of streets again.

But it wasn’t until we stepped onto our small boat on the Nile that we felt we were slipping the bonds of time and voyaging through history. We watched scenery that seemed unchanged from thousands of years ago pass by along the river – boys leading donkeys laden with bundles of reeds along the sandy banks, men casting fishing nets from shallow canoes, thin stretches of palm trees beyond which the endless rolling dunes of the Sahara stretched away toward the horizon.

After lazy hours of chugging up the river, we’d pull over, tie up and visit an ancient temple, or a camel market. At night we’d enjoy dinner on the open top deck, wrapped up in blankets against the night chill, and attempt stick-dancing with our crew. One night we sat around a fire on the beach and sang songs under the stars with a local farmer. It was a truly magical experience.

Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan - photo on slide, property of E Jurus
Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan – photo on slide, property of E Jurus

We did many more incredible things on that trip – seeing the hills of Valley of the Kings for the first time was breathtaking, and we watched the rising sun gild the massive statues of Ramses II that guard the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel. We rode a camel out to a long-abandoned monastery in the desert at Aswan and held on for dear life, laughing hysterically, when our  mount decided to charge back down the sand dunes to the waterfront.

Going to Egypt was our first taste of real adventure, and we’ve been hooked ever since. On days when I’m stuck doing paperwork, I remember that amazing journey and travel back there in my mind for a little while.