Who I am
Greetings global citizens, I am Judy Meyer. That sounded so formal; like I am an evil genius about to announce her diabolical plan to the world (which is what it sounded like after telling my mother I was going to Africa for an entire month). Did I mention I am an African living in Africa? So you understand how weird that sounds.
South Africa, or more affectionately known as Mzanzi, is considered “Africa Lite” because of the strong economy, world class infrastructure, and stable political environment compared to its counterparts. A lot of Africans from other countries come to South Africa looking for economic opportunities and according to a recent report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than a million asylum seekers in South Africa (figures are debatable). Basically, that is a lot of foreigners who are downtrodden. Combine that with the fact that a shocking number of black South Africans have never travelled outside their borders, let alone own a passport, gives you a recipe for a myriad of negative stereotypes that South Africans have about other Africans and the countries they come from.
I woke up one morning after two years of working day in and day out, singlehandedly trying to get a startup off the ground, with what they call chronic fatigue. I was drained emotionally, physically and spiritually. In laymans terms, “I was tiyaaad fam.” After clicking through countless Youtube motivational videos trying to figure out why I was so uninspired by life, I came across Shonda Rhymes’s Ted Talk about her year of saying yes to get her hum back.
To put this into perspective, I had been asked by a friend to join her on a trip to Zanzibar. As appealing as that sounded, I was stuck between “I have worked so hard” and “every cent should be re-invested back into your business.” Fast forward two months later, waking up in the same funk, and read the quote “We have all devalued our personal life; I am taking my life back. I say yes to less work and more play,” by Shonda Rhimes. Something clicked. If Shonda–with her bad ass self–was saying yes to more play, why was I being so hard on myself? I made the decision to take the trip by myself. But instead of flying straight to Zanzibar, I would see every other country from South Africa to Tanzania and only fly back. I coined it my “African Eat Pray Love,” because I wanted more out of it than just a vacation. I needed to learn to live again.
I did not plan my trip. The reason honestly being: I wanted to back out at the last minute. And I did…twice…before getting on the bus to Botswana, where I had been every year since I was 16. Because I am so used to Botswana and I speak the language fluently, it doesn’t even feel like a foreign country. I called my friend to fetch me from the bus station where she too asked, “But where are you really going? Who do you know there?” I started to think maybe my mom was not old fashioned for asking me the same thing. Perhaps it really is uncommon for a woman to travel solo halfway across the continent for no apparent reason.
The next day I took the train to Francistown in northern Botswana. The last stop is the Kazungula border between Botswana and Zambia. I arrived at 05:00 in the morning and this is where my journey really began.
The only preparation I did for my Zambian trip was learning how to say “Hello,” “How much,” “Too expensive,” and “Thank you” (because I am always grateful after slaying a negotiation) in the dominant language of iciBemba and Swahili. (Those are the most important phrases in any language because I don’t like to spend money.)
The border crossing was a smooth process, even though I had to walk and take a ferry to the Zambian side where there were hoardes of Zambian men offering to exchange your Botswana pulas to their Zambian kwacha’s at their black market rates (don’t do it), others were selling SIM cards and airtime, but the ones I was most interested in were the taxi drivers. I wanted to go to Livingston to see Victoria Falls, and that trip was a 45 minute drive.
After getting to Livingston, I realized activities have been overwhelmingly inflated and there is just NO WAY around this as they are predetermined rates that are used across the board. You have options of walking with lions or cheetahs for $120, walk around Victoria Falls Park for $20 (I was too tired for this), or you can go bungee jumping (I would not be caught dead being tied to a rope and pushed off a bridge). I ended up doing the guided tour of Victoria Falls and swimming in the Devil’s Pool which was a whopping $98. But I consoled myself with the fact that it included breakfast.
Once I arrived, I was taken aback by the majestic falls. The force with which the water hits the ground is so tremendous that it creates a cloud of white mist that rises back up to the surface. I could literally sit there the entire day and just watch the water… falling, there was something calming about the sight. Little did I know that things would go from zero to one hundred real quick.
The Devil’s Pool
I was in a group with three guys from Australia who were staying on the Zimbabwe side and talked about how they where the only white people in the town. (The president of Zimbabwe chased out 90% of white people from the country, the other 8% left on their own accord, and the remaining 2% are a rare sight.) My statistics are alternative facts but what I am saying is A LOT of white people left the country. Before taking us into the Devil’s Pool, the lifeguard issued a disclaimer that because it was high tide, they were not letting anyone who couldn’t swim into the Devil’s Pool. He proceeded to ask if there was anyone who couldn’t swim. Everyone turned to fucking look at me. What the entire fuck? Instead of losing my composure, I also turned around to find the person who could not swim.
After thousands of years of erosion, many rock pools have formed and one of them has formed right on the very edge of the falls forming the ultimate infinity pool. During low tide, It takes a rocky walk and swim in the river to reach the pool.
For the rest of the year, anyone foolish enough to enter the waters would be instantly swept to their deaths.The view from the edge is totally exhilarating as you feel the force of the Zambezi flowing past you and crashing down over the precipice; a hundred meter drop.
There I was, stepping over the rocks, making my way to the pool in single file behind the other tourists as the water level rose to my waist. I started to feel the force of the current sway me and began to calculate the distance between where I stood (point A) and the distance to the edge of the cliff (which I refer to as imminent peril or point B). Standing there, I didn’t realize everyone had already swam and were all waiting for me.
“Is there a problem?” I could hear the lifeguard ask.
“There is no problem, I have just never had to swim against such a violent current before,” I responded, feeling the collective eye-roll of the entire group.
Just swim diagonally, they said. It will be easy they said. I started swimming, but could feel my body going in the opposite direction and knew that I was heading to point B. I was gripped with immense fear that squeezed my chest and made me feel like I was already drowning. I lost all coordination and waged war with the water until I felt a hand grip my arm and the lifeguard was swimming with me on his back.
I was humbled in life that day. The Devil’s Pool itself was calm, but there were fish inside that nibble on your skin. I had enough excitement for the day without thinking I was now an extra in the movie “Piranha” and honestly just wanted to go. While waiting for everyone to finish getting their pictures taken in the Devil’s Pool, one of the Aussies uttered how he has never met an African who knew how to swim. I was too exhausted to fight back, I was just looking forward to the breakfast. It ended up being one of those where you had more plate than food. The outrages I suffered that morning shall never be forgotten.
I returned to my room to rest before deciding where to party for New Years Eve when I realized that $200 had been stolen from my wallet at the Devil’s Pool while I was trying not to drown in the Zambezi river. Needless to say, I was just defeated. I had the option of wallowing alone in self pity, or just taking the final L of 2016 and resolving to slay 2017. I took the L. The town was full of peace corps volunteers, there was also a heavy presence of Canadian and Brazilian tourists (all young people ) so the vibe was very festive and just before midnight, I had a bit of liquid libation to ease the frustration and my New Years Eve ended up being lit.
Livingston is a tourist town so prices are also inflated. Because I was already $200 in the red, I had to eat the cheapest food, which was traditional cuisine “Nshima” a dish of maize meal and “carpenta fish” with veggies. The portions were so generous I could save some for dinner later. Under normal circumstances, I would never eat street food… ANYWHERE, but because I was now at the mercy of my new environment, I had to leave my snobbish ways behind and embrace my new normal.
I booked a bus to Lusaka the next day and was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting poor infrastructure, poverty, an economy characterized by informal enterprises and undeveloped industries. Instead I found an urban metropolitan city with world class shopping malls, a thriving economy, and a healthy middle class population where you will find most of the Joneses brunching in boutique hotels and trendy millennials in buzzing nightclubs on a Friday. I felt right at home.
The rest of my stay in Lusaka involved me being out and about enjoying the city and nightlife, but mostly sampling the local cuisine. I am honestly not one for the club and like to be comfortably dressed in jeans and a dress shirt without being judged by local THOTS, so my internet search on ‘hotspots’ was geared more toward grown folk vibes. That’s how I found Misty Jazz Lounge. They had me at live jazz band, lol. Also eating at Chicago’s, a popular steakhouse among the locals, had me unzipping my jeans with barbecue sauce running down my wrists. If pork ribs don’t make your eyes roll back at least once, they weren’t good pork ribs, and mine were all the way back.
I had to prepare for my long trip to Dar es Salaam the next day, so I tried to get a full nights rest. Nothing could have prepared me for that bus ride.
There is a bus that leaves from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam everyday except Friday, and it leaves at 4am. Well, it’s supposed to leave at 4am. I was still waiting at the bus station at 6am during which time I realized my seat didn’t recline and the guy sitting next to me didn’t speak a word of English. 10 hours into the bus ride and we hadn’t even crossed the border, my ankles were swollen, and I felt like if it wasn’t for the stops I would have suffocated.
When we eventually got to the border, the Zambian side was pretty smooth, but there are hustlers on the Tanzanian side who will try offer you shillings at black market rates. I didn’t risk it. However, that meant I was unable to buy any food or drinks for the whole Tanzania leg of the trip. Luckily, on the bus they give you one complimentary soft drink and one muffin. I refrained from using the restrooms at every stop in Tanzania cause you had to squat on the floor (and if you have ever seen restrooms at filling stations on long road trips you can just imagine what these ones looked like).
The only comfort I had during this trip was my book “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho, my favourite author in the world, and my playlist. Good thing about the bus, they have electric sockets on the side of the bus for you to charge your phone. I would have killed myself if my battery died and my music cut off. 24 hours later we were still on the road and I was regretting the decision to take the bus. I asked to switch seats with the guy sitting next to me using sign language just so that I can open the window and put my head out to breathe.
There is a place called Tonga, in the mountains where the bus passes through a road built into the mountains on the way to Morogoro. There are no barriers on the side of the road and it literally felt like the bus driver had decided that 100km/hr was a reasonable speed at which to descend down a mountain with sharp twists and turns. I had never prayed so hard in my life.
After that ordeal was over, I was actually starting to appreciate the lush green countryside, with giant palm trees lining the road. I saw real massai mara herding cattle and Swahili women weaving baskets on the side of the road. The bus passes through the national park, where I was able to zoom in and spot giraffe, elephants and even zebra. This distracted me momentarily from my pity party and just as I was about to start positive thinking, I realized that I was not going to make my ferry to Zanzibar and panic set in. Luckily, the bus driver could speak English and I was able to ask to borrow his phone to call the hotel and ask them to move my stay to the next day. I then had to figure out where I was going to sleep in Dar Es Salaam as the estimated time of arrival was 10PM.
The bus stops at the Taqwa offices in Dar Es Salaam and in the next street, there is a hotel which charges $10 a night for your own room. I organized a chauffeur to drive me around the city to see the area before going to catch my ferry to Zanzibar the next day. However, the hotel didn’t tell me that my driver did not speak a word of English.
Dar Es Salaam
When I got into the cab, I initiated light conversation to which he politely smiled and nodded. While stuck in traffic, I watched the boda-boda’s (scooters) zoom passed, one with a woman, her two children, a suitcase, the driver AND a live chicken being transported. I commented about how I would be so scared to go on one, which raised a puzzled looked on his face, which told me he didn’t understand anything I was saying. I tried to explain the word ‘scared’ several times, even gasping with my hand on my chest to show the emotion of being scared. After gasping 5 times and feeling lightheaded, I abandoned the whole exercise altogether and started wondering why I was even speaking English in the first place. This man speaks Swahili and I speak Setswana, the two have no similarities. But from that moment, our dialogue changed. It felt like the African in me recognized the African in him and we spoke in our own languages until we got to the museum.
I believe he was instructed to wait in the car for me while I was in the museum, but I invited him in; wondering if he had ever been inside the National Museum and House of Culture. The light in his eyes as we went through the museum is one that can only be described as a strong love for where you come from. I could sense a strong level of patriotism as he spoke to me about each president as we passed their pictures framed on the wall (even though I could read the descriptions on each photo). From there we headed to the ferry port where I took his number and asked if he could pick me up when I came back for the airport in 4 days.
The ferry to Zanzibar costs $35, and is two hours long. If you are lucky you might see dolphins along the way. But I slept through it (head bobbing and all), because the fatigue of travelling was starting to wear me out. When you get to the ferry port, there will be porters who want to help with your luggage for a fee. I mean, if you can’t carry your own bags that’s great, but if you aggressively tell them NO then there shouldn’t be any problems. One actually grabbed my bag and I thought he was going to steal it. I dove for him screaming “thief!” LOL, I laugh, but I was shit scared. I negotiated a cab for $30 and asked the driver to stop in Stonetown before going to the hotel.
Stonetown is like no place I have ever been. The architecture dates back to the 19th century and reflects the diverse influences underlying Swahili culture. It is a mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian, and European elements. To see people still selling and bartering in the markets, the locals still living in the old buildings, the smell of the spices, and the children running home from school was such a phenomenal experience. It was almost as though I could travel through time and feel the town come alive–except the part with the slave trade.
Oh yes, there was that. Zanzibar was at the forefront of slavery during its peak in the 19th century. Malindi in Zanzibar city was the Swahili coast’s main port for the slave trade in the Middle East. As many as 50,000 slaves passed through the port. It is, however, better known for its spices with the main islands being called Spice Islands.
I imagined what it was like to be a local, seeing all these foreigners day in and day out with their weird, colourful accents, and their different looks and features. Then it actually dawned on me that that is the soul of Stonetown. This is what the town has seen since the 14th century. It has been a cultural melting pot and probably one of the only places in the world where a mosque, a church, and a temple are within yards of each other. People were incredibly polite and actually celebrated (not tolerated) their differences.
My tour guide Mudi, was incredibly enthusiastic about his job. He was knowledgeable about facts that I didn’t care for, like talking about a tree used for henna powder. However, he was also knowledgeable on the alleyways since it is literally a maze full of motorbikes. My mood changed for the better after finally sitting down and having the best chicken curry I had ever tasted. Here I learned that the majority of people in Zanzibar are now employed directly or indirectly by the tourism sector or government.
The hour long drive to Bwejuu was largely eventless and the fatigue now had a chokehold on me. I felt safe enough to fall asleep in a cab in a foreign country until I was woken upon arrival at the hotel. I passed out in my clothes on the bed without so much as a care in the world about how I had been sweating the entire day.
I woke up to the most beautiful day. (I guess that’s the feeling you get when you sleep with the sound of the ocean outside of your window.) After filling myself with breakfast, I was a little confused about what I was seeing on the beach. For one there was no water. (The receptionist explained that the tide recedes and comes back later in the afternoon. Yes I actually went to demand to know where the water was.) The water did eventually come and so did all the Massai on the beach.
The Massai men came to sell beads and other accessories to tourists to earn an income. They will also tell you stories about their village back in Tanzania mainland and let you take photos with them. I don’t know, something about them seemed commercialized; like they were props placed within close proximity to tourists in order to add the culture element to the whole experience. Something seemed inauthentic, but I could be wrong. I recall seeing a Massai in Stonetown sitting on a chair outside of a hotel. He didn’t even need to speak. He just had a look in his eyes that was so intense, it was like I could see the strength of 10,000 warriors and the lions they had slain through him. The guys on the beach…not so much. I honestly just wanted to spend my day just lying on the beach and reading my book. I was, after all, on a pilgrimage, and needed to find time to introspect. The beach Massai were starting to annoy me.
My mind up to that point was tired and I finally felt like this was the one place I didn’t want to explore, that I didn’t want to be out and about, that I didn’t want to experience anything. I just wanted the quiet, the waves crashing, and my peace. I spent two days on the beach just lying under the shade, reading, and sleeping. I know most people would feel like this is a waste of a holiday, but at this point I felt like it was only then that I was enjoying myself. It was supposed to be an African Eat Pray Love but had been more eating street food and praying for no food poisoning.
The days I spent bumming on the beach were absolute gold, I was not even thinking, it was like my mind checked out for 4 days. Before I knew it, it was time for me to head back. It had been three weeks already and I didn’t know where the days went. I remember being so sad to leave. Everything at that point said no, I hadn’t experienced anything. That my journey was only about to get better. There were still so many places to see. I believe they call that the travel bug.
Catching the Travel Bug
The flight home had me already planning my next vacation. I had seen a lot, but it just showed me how little I knew. For one, I want to stay long enough in a place to be able to fully immerse myself in the culture. I stayed at a backpackers inn, which I don’t think I would have ever done in my life. However, it was an incredibly enriching experience and you simply do not meet friendlier people anywhere else. I took buses and cabs in a country where I didn’t even understand the language. I started my journey comparing South Africa, my home, to the countries I would be visiting, but I see now how wrong that was. Every place has its own merits and it would be like comparing apples with bananas. I had no experience and my entrepreneurial nature was already assessing each place in terms of doing business and the opportunities available for investment.
So, where to next? I want to see as much of this glorious continent as possible, but travelling in Africa is incredibly expensive. This trip has inspired me to explore the barriers that keep the average African from being a tourist, and facilitating intra-continental trade. So, until the next time…
Follow Judith’s adventures on Instagram at @_judithmeyer