African mishaps and my somewhat random top 10 travel tips.

Full time travel might sound fantastic, but in all honesty, my last few weeks have not been that great. Nothing really bad has happened, but a few mishaps screwed up my plans. After completing a rather boring overland tour that I complained about too much already, I flew from Livingstone, Zambia, to Nelspruit, South Africa, went to the Avis counter to pick-up my rental car, and my credit card was denied. A $20 roaming call later, I learned it had been copied in Nairobi (AKA Nairobbery), and cancelled by MasterCard.

I had easy access to money through bank cards, but without a credit card, I could not rent a car. My plans were to drive to nearby Swaziland at the crack of dawn to witness the famous (and slightly infamous) Umhlanga dance festival. The yearly event is a very unique cultural demonstration in this enigmatic mini-country and I had also missed it last year, for scheduling reasons. The fact that the festival involves tens of thousands of topless women is a little disturbing, but I was confident I could get over it. Unfortunately with no planning done, having landed in South Africa late the day before, travelling by public transportation on a major National Holiday, without a hotel booking, the trip was simply not realistic. Because it is such a tiny country, I was just planning to drive to the festival and if I couldn’t find a room, drive to a different city at the end of the afternoon, or even back to South Africa, but that was obviously impossible without a car.

I was then planning to either go to Kruger National Park for yet another game drive, or more likely do something completely different and drive to Sun City (described as South Africa’s Las Vegas). But every time I have been in South Africa I have had a car. Truly, it’s a car place (although you can easily get by in Cape Town without one).

I cancelled everything and, with the help of the extremely helpful owner of Casa Marcello, who drove me into town and back twice, I got a Mozambique visa from the consulate in Nelspruit and took a bus to Maputo after relaxing at the guesthouse for a few days.

The bus was such a pleasure, and a shock. I remembered how corrupt South Africa could be, but I had forgotten how efficient, good valued, and overall not like the rest of Africa it was.

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Although they do have strange advertisements. Dr. Kevin anyone?

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The bus was a double decker with air con, a toilet, a super helpful attendant and it wasn’t full to 150% of capacity. I don’t know if it was because I was in a bus, but the South African Police did not ask me for bribe money to get out of the country, which they had previously done to me at land borders one time out of two. And then I was in Mozambique, but that’s another story.

So, for the travel tips, I figure that after a year on the road I might have a few pointers, although I suppose most are self-evident and some are subjective. A lot is also irrelevant if you are travelling to Liechtenstein or staying in a fenced-off resort in Jamaica. The only advice I had given so far was on Facebook:

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“If you are going to get drunk on a $1.50 bottle of Myanmar rum, make sure your tubes of toothpaste and insect repellent don’t look too much alike.” It was a bit of a joke, I never rubbed toothpaste on my neck, but I did pick up and uncapped the repellent before realizing it was not the toothpaste!

So, top 10, starting with three I learned the hard way:

1 – Travel with two credit cards, obviously. Even if you have tons of cash, you can’t rent a car without one, you can’t book a hotel online and some of your bills back home, if applicable, will go unpaid until you get a replacement card (for me, storage unit rent, Skype and international phone accounts). Related point, especially in Africa, look at the logos at the back of your bank cards. If it’s MasterCard’s Maestro, it will not work on ATMs exclusively connected to the Visa network. You need a card with a Plus logo. Again, Africa (especially East and West), is where this is often a problem.

2 – Have change. This may seem rather unimportant, but it has become one of my most strictly followed rules. When you get to Elbonia and the bank machines hands out up to 5000 Blings, don’t get 5000 Blings. Get 4950, or 4900, or 4500, or whatever the machine will allow. This will give you the most valuable thing you can get in poor countries: change. If you don’t follow that advice, you will take a tuk-tuk to your hotel; it will cost 20 Blings, and you will try to pay with a 1000 Bling note. Guess how that will go. In a big hotel, shop or restaurant, always try to pay with the biggest note you have. Also, when in doubt, get more. The conversion commission you will pay at the border or the airport to get rid of your extra $200 equivalent of Blings is rarely as much as the bank fee for an international withdrawal, and the trouble of having to change money is usually less annoying than the trouble of running out of cash.

3 – Make a checklist for important things. I have a short one and I never leave a hotel, plane, train, etc, without reading it and physically touching or seeing 8 things I carry with me (passport, wallet, phone, computer, etc). Once I forgot – and lost – a small camera somewhere, but I probably thought to get my shampoo out of the shower. Checklists work; that’s why after a difficult de-icing on an overbooked, delayed flight out of Heathrow, pilots still check the fuel gauge, because it’s on the checklist.

4 – Don’t be politically correct. This may be controversial, but when you are in need of something abroad, prejudice can be your friend. My take on it:

a) In every country in the world, it is the same demographic group that commits most crimes, by far: young men. Of course that doesn’t mean all young men are out to rob you, or that bar girls in Nairobi are safe, but I think it’s a good rule. In a country known for annoying touts or petty criminals, I would never ask a man for directions if there are women around I can talk to. The odds they will try to send me to their uncle’s carpet store are a lot lower. If you are a women in a country where women have, let’s say a somewhat lower social status, even more so; the local women may get worried and take you under their wing. Especially if you are unmarried and childless, despite having reached the ripe old age of 26. Then they will help you out of pity.

b) Scamming comes with experience and most people don’t do it. Taxi drivers, touts and other people often in contact with tourists are much more likely to have some sort of scam in mind than their fellow citizens. You wonder if there is a shuttle to the airport? Ask the pharmacist when you go buy sunscreen; he probably knows, he probably speaks English and he probably won’t say no and call his buddy the “taxi driver”.

c) I found that in countries with few tourists, people like to talk to you (assuming it’s possible, language wise). So talk to people, you’ll learn tons, but do keep something in mind. The people you make the effort to go and talk to are at least a hundred times less likely to have some scam in mind than people who come to talk to you. If it’s someone who comes to talk to you as you are walking in the street, make that 10,000 times less likely. I talked to all sorts of interesting people in Rwanda, but of the two people who clearly made a deliberate effort to sit next to me on the bus, one wanted me to bring diamonds into Canada and the other wanted me to bring her into Canada!

5 – Don’t look like a victim. Walk with confidence, don’t look at a map right in the middle of a major intersection, try to know where you are going when you are carrying all your luggage, etc. Criminals have tons of victims to chose from and they will always pick an easy target over a hard one.

6 – Airport transfer. Airport taxi drivers are rarely out to commit major crimes, but they are possibly the most likely to scam you in some way. If you don’t know how transportation works where you just landed (your first mistake), ignore the first people who solicit you. Go in a quiet corner of the airport to check online, read your travel guide, have a coffee and ask people, or just curl up in a corner and cry. You might find out about that $2 shuttle straight to downtown, or at least, when you go back to the taxi stand, the most aggressive scammers will have picked other victims from your flight, and you will get the little old man who isn’t pushy enough and may just overcharge you a bit. If money is not a big concern, book a hotel transfer in dodgy countries instead of taking a taxi; it’s usually more expensive, but they will take you to your hotel (ask THEM who they are picking up, never volunteer your name, unless they have it on a sign).

7 – Food safety. If you travel one week every five years, do what Government health warnings tell you to do. Boil, peel, don’t drink this and that, etc. It’s not worth risking being sick for 3 days if that’s 40% of your trip. If you are gone for months, relax, you might get a little sick at first, but unless you have some health issue, you’ll most likely get used to it. If non-destitute locals eat it, it’s probably safe. I only got really sick once, but I deserved it. If you must know: steak tartare. In Syria.

8 – If you’re going to get drunk, think about TRANSPORTATION. It’s so much easier and safer to pick that bar in front of the hotel. Never mind the risk of crime, sexual violence (or sexual bad decisions), getting home drunk can be physically dangerous, especially in undeveloped countries. Cars may not stop for pedestrians, you may forget to look right in countries where they drive on the left, the sewer system may not have manhole covers everywhere, the sidewalks may not be straight, or they may not exist, that excavation work in the street may not be fenced off, the streets may not be lit and, most likely than any other, you may very well get lost. So, now it’s late and you are lost and drunk. See rule number 5.

Notwithstanding physical dangers, you may not even know how to get back. I once left a bar with a girlfriend in London around 1 or 2 am on a week-end night. The Tube is closed and getting a taxi is IMPOSSIBLE. Without a map or phone app, figuring out which night bus to take is not exactly easy. The locals want to help, but since it is 2 am on a Saturday and they are British, their severely inebriated state renders their efforts vain.

9 – Don’t forget the safe. I read this on some web site and found it smart. If you think you might forget the contents of your hotel safe, put a shoe in it, or your travel toothbrush. Highly improbable you’ll forget that in the morning. I never do, because rule number 3 has become second nature.

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Also, if you are the kind of person who conducts a detailed search of a hotel room before leaving, you can look under the bed and inspect all the drawers, but remember this is the 21st century: check the plugs!

10 – Don’t win the best clerk award. Finally, immigration forms. Often in less busy airports, you get them on arrival. There is nobody waiting at immigration, but you have to answer all these questions first, and if you are too slow, the line-up will build. Do it fast, the best you can, but don’t waste time putting in the all exact information. Hotel address? Cairo. Home phone number? Exactly how many days will you stay in the country? How much you plan to spend? Who cares? They never check these things and if they do; you made an innocent mistake after a tiresome flight.

And that’s the top 10 I could think of after #1 ruined my early September plans. Hope you find one or two useful.

Disclaimer: if something bad happens to you, it cannot possibly be my fault, in any way. Seriously, apply common sense. If you just got a multiple organ transplant after several rounds of chemiotherapy, take it easy on the local food. And if you go to North Korea, fill the immigration form properly.

CORRECTION (NOV 2013): I have now been to North Korea and you can forget the disclaimer; they don’t read the immigration forms there either!

8 thoughts on “African mishaps and my somewhat random top 10 travel tips.

  1. HI Colin – your travelogue is incredible! I can’t imagine all the adventurous things that you have experienced. The blogs are so well done that I seem to be travelling right along with you. The pictures are winners in there own right but you have captured
    some awesome scenes of animal life, still life, party life, it’s all there – even the rafting!

    I just had to let you know much I am enjoying each of the Blogs that you send.
    Be careful!

    • That’s it; you’ve made me blush! Thank you very much for the nice comments, I am glad to know you are enjoying it. Perhaps one day I will post that video I made of the strange doughnut making machine at Charlottetown’s market!

      I’m always careful (well, almost). All my best,

      Colin

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