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Anxious Adventuring: Balkan Dogs

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Anxious Adventuring: Balkan Dogs

H. Bradford

5/23/19


While many places in the world have stray dog populations, it seems that Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia had more stray dogs that other places that I have visited.  These stray dogs, with tags in their ears, would laze about in the shade of statues or sniff the pavement in search of scraps. While there were many of them, nothing about them seemed threatening or worth noting.  I didn’t bother taking any photos of them, as I didn’t think that they would play any role in my travel memories. I regret this, as I wish I had photo evidence of the mangy mayhem I experienced. They were simply canine background characters in my adventures.  Even after a few guides warned me about them, I didn’t really think much about the warning. I thought that the guides were being overprotective or over concerned. I was wrong. This guy is finishing up an ice cream cone someone bought him

A dog eating an ice cream cone in Skopje: Image from: http://www.presentlynavigatinglife.com/skopje


My first warning about the Skopje dogs came from the leader of a walking tour.  As the group of walkers wandered around the statues of Macedonia Square, she casually cautioned that several people had been attacked by dogs in Skopje.  At the time, I wasn’t particularly concerned since the dogs seemed mostly disinterested in people. They meandered around the statues, minding their own business for the most part.  However, the threat is real.  While I don’t know the full extent of this problem, I did find a reference to a 67 year old man who was attacked by a dog in December, 2018 while walking in a park.  A 55 year old woman was attacked in October, 2018 while walking downtown.  Earlier in the year, a 17 year old girl had drowned in the Vardar River in the city of Gostivar while trying to escape a pack of dogs (A man and a woman attacked by wild dogs in Skopje, 2018).  In the town of Kicevo, about 112 KM from Skopje in western Macedonia, a four year old boy was killed by stray dogs in 2017.  His death unleashed a wave of vigilante poisonings of stray dogs, which prompted concerned animal rights activists to protest (Hundreds of protesters gathered to fight a spate of mysterious stray dog poisonings in Macedonia, 2017).  In 2018, over 1,000 bite incidents were reported in Skopje alone (Macedonia pledges action after girl drowns fleeing dog pack, 2018). While I could not find more recent data, the 2014 stray dog population of Skopje was estimated to be between 2000- 2400 animals. The 2014 population was down 25% from 2010, which may be due to efforts to euthanize or spay/neuter animals (Terzievski, 2014).


A man and a woman attacked by wild dogs in Skopje

Image from: https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/a-man-and-a-woman-attacked-by-wild-dogs-in-skopje/


My second warning regarding Macedonian dogs occurred on the way to Lake Ohrid at a stop at the sunken Church of Saint Nikolas.  The church was partially submerged in Lake Mavrovo and was abandoned to the lake after the construction of the Radika Dam in 1953.   This time, a guide warned of a dangerous dog that lived along the shore.   A muscular, black Rottweiler snoozed in some soft grass, but hardly looked like a threat.  I remained skeptical that the dogs were the problem that the guides were making them out to be.   It seemed like the sort of things that tourists were warned against by guides who were trying to show concern and be good hosts.  Later, I asked another guide why exactly there were so many stray dogs.  That particular guide was a dog enthusiast who owned several pets and who had once entered his pet dogs in shows.  He was happy to speak about the topic, and blamed the dog problem on irresponsible owners who released their pets to the street once they could no longer care for them.  This story matches the narrative of a Veterinary blog which also blames the problem on pet owners, but also that pet owners do not know proper pet care before buying a pet. The blog also blames the government, which does not enforce laws which fine pet owners for abandoning their pets and that Skopje only has one animal shelter.  Vardarishte, the only shelter in the capital, is a kill shelter that euthanizes the animals if they are not adopted in two weeks. Conditions in the shelter are poor, with 5-6 dogs kenneled together in unhygienic conditions.   The shelter also tags, vaccinates, and neuters animals for release.  Animal rights activists have organized against the conditions of Vardarishte and for control of their own animal shelter (The stray dogs in Skopje, Macedonia, 2018).  In April 2019, the shelter closed for 30 days after failing an inspection.  The shelter put a moratorium on capturing stray dogs while they were closed, taking in only dogs that had bitten someone (Main Skopje animal shelter closed for 30 days, 2019).  It should be noted that North Macedonia is not a wealthy country, so dealing with the stray dog problem may be beyond the budget priorities of the government.  Appropriate pet care may also be challenged by an unemployment rate of about 18-20% in late 2018 and the average monthly salary in 2017 was under $450.


Main Skopje animal shelter closed for 30 days: stray dogs will be left on the streets until they attack somebody Retrieved from https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/main-skopje-animal-shelter-closed-for-30-days-stray-dogs-will-be-left-on-the-streets-until-they-attack-somebody/


Despite the warnings about dogs, I really didn’t think much of them until the morning that I left Skopje.  I didn’t want to spend money on an expensive taxi to the airport and instead decided to take the airport bus.  However, my hostel was about 2 KM from the nearest airport bus stop. I didn’t think that walking a little over a mile before 6am was too big of a hassle, especially if it saved me over $20.  So, I set out with my bags into the early morning, determined to save some money and take a few photos of Macedonia Square. All was well until I arrived in the square, where dogs were still quietly snoozing.  It was a lovely morning and all very enjoyable until the sound of my small rolling suitcase awoke the dogs from their sleep. As I moved along, I was suddenly followed by an amassing pack of hungry dogs. The pitiful animals that had moved about the statues and tourists by day, now suddenly seemed far more menacing.  More joined them. They snapped and growled at each other. One nipped at my hand. The parade of dogs behind me and beside me might have been comical, except that I was alone and they were markedly unfriendly. I wanted to take a few final photos, but instead, I kept my face ahead, focused on the path along the Vardar river.  I passed by shops and cafes, where more dogs awoke from their slumber on the sidewalk. I moved head, dogs all around me. I ignored them, keeping a brisk and determined pace, but not daring to look at them lest they attack. In my head, I wondered what I would do if they attacked. A shaggy golden retriever looking dog seemed to be the head of the pack.  That was the one that snapped at my hand and growled the most at the others. I thought that if one dog made any sort of attack, they might start fighting each other in the chaos or commotion. I thought about kicking them or if I could swing my suitcase at them if they attacked. I hoped that maybe another human would appear and draw some of the dogs away.  But, no one else materialized and all of the shops were closed.


In the end, I arrived at the bus stop.  I loathed the idea of waiting there with a pack of dogs, but once I arrived at the bus stop, the dogs actually dispersed.  There was enough trash in the weeds and adjacent parking lot that the dogs could scout out their breakfast. I was no longer of any concern to them.   The whole thing seems rather unbelievable. It seems bizarre. But, in the moment it was very real and scary. I really thought that I was going to be attacked by dogs and that I might have to fight them.  It also changed how I felt about dogs. While those dogs had likely been pets at one time, in that moment, they acted like wild animals. They were not friendly pets or “dogs” in the way that I had always imagined and thought of dogs.  In the absence of human companionship and regular food, they behaved like unfamiliar predators. So, the gauntlet of dogs remains a scary memory, but in the end, nothing bad happened. An important lesson is that I should not have been as skeptical about the threat of dogs.  Thankfully, I wasn’t attacked, though in retrospect, I am not sure if I would have changed anything other than to try to be more prepared.


To avoid incidents with dogs, the CDC recommends never running from dogs, staying calm, avoiding loud noises, avoiding directly facing the dog, keeping a purse or bag between yourself and the animal, and curling up into a ball while protecting your ears and neck with your hands if attacked (Preventing dog attacks, n.d).  Other tips include avoiding eye contact with the dog, standing still in the face of unfamiliar dogs, telling the dog to go away in a commanding voice, and giving the animal a jacket or shirt to chew on if they attack (Cicetti, 2010).  In the United States, 60% of people attacked by dogs are children, followed by elderly people.  Each year, 800,000 people seek medical care from dog bites, so the threat of dogs is not simply a Macedonian problem (Cicetti, 2010). A 52 year old woman from Dallas was mauled to death by dogs and suffered over 100 bites.  There are 8700 stray dogs in South Dallas, which is more than four times the estimate for Skopje.  Rabies vaccinations are recommended for tourists to Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Slovenia and Turkey. Rabies is almost 100% fatal in humans (Problems Posed By Stray Dogs or Street Dogs Include Attacks and Bites, 2017).  However, the vaccine is expensive. I had asked for a rabies vaccination, but was told that it was over $3000 and that it was better for me to simply avoid animals. Getting a rabies vaccine is certainly a good preventative measure, if a person has the money for it! Though, the largest carrier of rabies in the Balkans are foxes, so the threat of rabid dogs may not be that high, especially since many stray dogs are vaccinated and tagged.  Tourists could avoid problems by getting vaccinated, listening to the advice of guides, not walking alone (as I had), spending more money on a taxi rather than walking at strange hours, and following some of the advice offered by the CDC.  I was fortunate that nothing bad happened, but I think it is something that tourists should take seriously.

The stray dogs in Skopje, Macedonia

From: https://iloveveterinary.com/blog/the-stray-dogs-in-skopje-macedonia/


 

Sources:

A man and a woman attacked by wild dogs in Skopje. (2018, December 24). Retrieved from https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/a-man-and-a-woman-attacked-by-wild-dogs-in-skopje

Cicetti, F. (2010, August 30). How to Avoid Being Attacked By a Dog. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/8525-avoid-attacked-dog.html

Hundreds of protesters gathered to fight a spate of mysterious stray dog poisonings in Macedonia. (2017, April 10). Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/stray-dog-posionings-macedonia-protest-skopje-animal-welfare-radmila-pesheva-anima-mundi-a7676236.html

Macedonia pledges action after girl drowns fleeing dog pack. (2018, November 06). Retrieved from https://www.apnews.com/766046e998f34c59bb583798fc04d8e1

Main Skopje animal shelter closed for 30 days: Stray dogs will be left on the streets until they attack somebody. (2019, April 06). Retrieved from https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/main-skopje-animal-shelter-closed-for-30-days-stray-dogs-will-be-left-on-the-streets-until-they-attack-somebody/

Preventing Dog Bites | Features | CDC. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/dog-bite-prevention/index.html

Problems Posed By Stray Dogs or Street Dogs Include Attacks and Bites. (2017, June 19). Retrieved from https://dogbitesohio.com/problems-posed-by-stray-dogs/

Terzievski, D. (2014, June). PDF. Bucharest: OIE Platform for Animal Welfare In Europe.

https://oldrpawe.oie.int/fileadmin/doc/eng/SDB_1/Country_Report_-_FYR_of_Macedonia.pdf

The stray dogs in Skopje, Macedonia. (2018, November 12). Retrieved from https://iloveveterinary.com/blog/the-stray-dogs-in-skopje-macedonia/

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Of Communists and Kings: Rules for Feeling History in Romania

romania

Of Communists and Kings:

Rules for Feeling History In Romania

H. Bradford
12.21.18


One of the most interesting things to observe when I travel to “dark” places is how people behave.  Of course, almost everything in the world has “dark” history, but there are some places in which the dark histories are well known and less contested.  Some examples that come to mind are Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, etc.  These are places that most of mainstream society would view as having dark histories.  Interpretations of these histories may vary, but most U.S. citizens, for instance, would feel the need to be reverent or well-behaved while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial.  Indeed, while visiting this memorial, I found that the the mood was sober and quiet among American tourists.  The tourists were more subdued in ritualistic thoughtfulness.  So too, tourists at Auschwitz were generally quiet, subdued, and again, ritually thoughtful.  Tourists who deviate from this norm are sometimes shamed, as in the case of Yolocaust, a photography project wherein Jewish artist Shahak Shapira altered tourist selfie photos, placing them in historical Holocaust images.  Holocaust history is certainly contested, but at least in mainstream Western society it is acknowledged as real and horrific, even if specific Western complicity in persecution of Jews or failure to act against these atrocities may not be part of that narrative.  In both of these examples, most tourists follow social scripts of how to behave and express emotion.  These norms are called “feeling rules” a sociological concept developed by Arlie Hochschild.  There are socially prescribed ways to express feelings at work, school, weddings, funerals, parties, and the many other facets of life.  Tourists also follow unwritten social guidelines of how to express emotion.  The variation in these rules offers some insight to how history is interpreted.  For instance, in September I paid a visit to Primaverii Palace, a residence of the Ceausescu family. The following day, I visited two Romanian castles, Bran Castle and Peles Castle.  The tourists acted very differently at each of these sites.

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An image from the Yolocaust photo series, which was used to draw attention to tourist behaviors at Holocaust memorials/historical sites.  The site was later taken down and tourists featured in the images often removed their selfies and apologized after being shamed by the project.


Primaverii Palace was one of over 80 residences of the Ceausescu family.  The house contains the bedrooms of the Ceausescu children, gifts from foreign dignitaries, a sauna, indoor swimming pool, articles of clothing, a private movie theater, and family photographs.  Tourists were very quiet in the house and there was a marked absence of laughter, joking, admiration of the tilework or decor, or anything that might come off as overtly positive. Why? Well, the house belonged to a dead communist dictator who lived well while the people of Romania were cold and hungry.  The house is not meant to be admired, it is meant to be a symbol of the contradictions and failures of communism, wherein those connected to state power enjoyed luxury while the masses lived leanly. The house represents the dark history of oppression. Of course, the mansion itself is fairly modest, as far as mansions go.  I have visited many larger, more ornate mansions belonging to capitalists. However, these mansions are de-politicized. The inequality associated with capitalism is normal and expected. Therefore, visitors to THOSE mansions do not have to be quiet and respectful.  They can be wowed by the woodwork or the gardens. Any Western visitor to the Ceausescu mansion  with an inkling of Romanian history and iota of respect for the suffering of others, will probably behave respectfully at the mansion. The mansion is political. There are many reasons for this. One, Romania’s experience with communism is not “old” history. It happened within the lifetime and memory of many visitors, who like myself, may have seen images such as emaciated Romanian orphans on the news after the collapse of Romanian communism.  Two, communist dictatorship is almost incontestably viewed as bad. There are few Western sympathizers with Ceausescu. I myself am a revolutionary socialists and while I can explain why things went so awry in the Soviet Union and subsequent communist countries, I have no affinity or apology for the Ceausescus. Communist Romania, like North Korea or Cambodia under Pol-Pot, is a country with what Goffman called a spoiled identity. In Goffman’s case, the term was applied to stigmatized individuals, but I would extend this concept to the notion that an entire countries can be stigmatized by the brutality of their government and resulting ostracism and isolation from the West.  For political reasons, communist labelled countries are more stigmatized than similarly brutal of regimes that were supported by capitalist powers. A person who supports a particularly brutal regime, even critically, faces the risk of having their own identity spoiled by associating themselves with human rights violations and state repression. Thus, the feeling rules while visiting the home of a communist leader dictate that one should treat the visit with the respect owed to those who suffered under communism. Failure to do so might imply support of state repression or insensitivity to victims of communism, both of which threaten to spoil a tourist’s identity in the eyes of other tourists.

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Primaverii Palace


This respect and quiet were not expected at the two castles that I visited.  Peles Castle was an expansive estate tucked in the Carpathian Mountains. It was shrouded in a misty forest of dark pines.  The immediate reaction of the tourists is that it looked like a fairy tale. Inside, the castle was richly decorated with gold leaf and walnut, for a rustic look.  The castles contains 30 toilets and 170 rooms. In contrast, Ceausescu’s palace contained 80 rooms. The castle was built by Carol I, though really it was “built” by nameless laborers who made the furniture, rugs, rooms, stairways, gardens, plumbing, electricity, and so on.  The grandeur of a castle is not framed as an expression of the oppression of others. The castle is apolitical. Yet, visitors could be quiet and thoughtful as they consider the inequality of wealth under feudalism and capitalism or the thousands of workers whose labor is rendered invisible in the splendor of the castle.  How did Romanians live under the rule of Carol I and his successors? What wars were they sent to fight in? For what purpose? Where did all of Carol I’s wealth come from? A king should very well be as loathed as any communist dictator. Kings represent a system of benefits based upon heredity. Carol I was from the German Hohenzollern family and when he came to power in Romania in 1866, 38% of the arable land was owned by 2000 individual landowners.  Serfdom was abolished in 1746 in Wallachia and 1749 in Moldavia. In Transylvania in 1848, landlords tried to privatize wood, which had been traditionally an item of the commons which peasants could use for building, fires, charcoal, barrels, etc. In this sense, Romania was in a process of transitioning to capitalism, though still mostly rural and agrarian. Under Carol I’s rule, Romania was a constitutional monarchy, but the king maintained the power to dissolve the parliament, controlled the military, make treaties, appoint ministers and government personnel, approve laws, etc.  There is nothing progressive about monarchy, which concentrates state power among wealthy men whose qualification to rule is hereditary. Yet, on Trip Advisor, the castle is described as charming, wonderful, historic, a gem, fabulous, and beautiful. It could just as easily be described as an icon for the oppression of women (who were not allowed to be monarchical rulers and even ruling class women were breeders at best) or an atrocious waste of resources that could have gone towards the benefit of Romanian peasants. The castle itself was built by 400 workers, by some accounts (it seems that a cursory internet search doesn’t yield a wealth of information on the actual working conditions or workers who built the castle) and that these workers spoke up to 14 languages.  Workers included some imported skilled laborers, but also Albanians, Turks, and Romani who were presumably less skilled or at least not noted as skilled in the scant descriptions of the workers. Considering the long history of oppression and marginalization in Romanian society, it is hard to imagine that Romani workers were anything but hyper-exploited. Slavery was abolished in Romania between the 1840s and 1850s and Roma made up the vast majority of Romanian slaves. In 1859 there were 250,000 emancipated slaves in Romania. Thus, when construction of Peles castle began in 1873, Roma laborers would have less than two decades of freedom from six hundred years of slavery. The castle, therefore, might also be looked upon as a monument to the oppression of Roma. Of course, tourists do not see this when they see the castle.  There are no feeling rules that dictate quiet contemplation or soberness. Monarchy is taken for granted unless notoriously cruel (such as King Leopold II of Belgium) and there is a sense that monarchs can be good, bad, or neutral unlike communist dictators which tend to be framed as some shade of bad. Perhaps these feeling rules would be different in a different era wherein the struggle against monarchy or the spread of capitalism was still in its infancy or this history was more contemporary. Unfortunately, monarchy is depoliticized, so visitors to Peles or that matter Versailles or Russia’s Winter Palace, are unlikely to seethe with anger at the excesses of monarchs, take joy in the violent mass uprisings against such inequalities, or quietly reflect on the lot of peasants or those less fortunate.

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Peles Castle


Finally, I visited Bran Castle.  The mood here was different from Peles castle and from the Ceausescu mansion.  It was one of whim, fantasy, and dubious history. Although Bran castle has little to do with the history of Vlad the Impaler or vampires, it was marketed as Dracula’s castle, where one could purchase an array of Dracula themed souvenirs and foods.  A tourist could even take a Dracula tour or attend a large Halloween party hosted there each year. The castle is famous because it is similar to the castle described by Bram Stoker in Dracula. While the story of Carol I is made bland by the slow taming of monarchy, Vlad the Impaler was a thoroughly brutal ruler who by some historical accounts killed 90% of the boyars to replace them by a new ruling class that would be loyal to him, abused and murdered his mistresses, and impaled over 20,000 Turks at the Night Attack at Targoviste.  It is debatable if his cruelty was uniquely terrible by the moral standards of monarchs of the 1400s. Because his atrocities are several hundred years old, he is a character that can be looked upon with dark fascination or even historical neutrality. Unlike Ceausescu, who is very real, Vlad the Impaler, although historical, is mythological in his association with vampirism. Thus, a visit to Bran Castle (which was not associated with him) is not governed by feeling rules that require respect for death and suffering.  In contrast, the castle is marketed to celebrate death, the supernatural, and spookiness. If anything, the castle is disappointingly normal in that it really doesn’t have a particularly dark history, as far as castles go. Again, the celebration of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler represents an extreme depoliticization of the excesses of monarchy. One of the only overtly political marker in the castle is the story of various Romanian monarchs and how the castle was appropriated by the communist state. After the collapse of communism, Bran castle was returned to the Romanian royal family (who had been exiled in 1948).  This is supposed to be viewed as right and just. The right of monarchs to the property is not questioned and is simply a matter of the order of things. The remnant Hapsburgs who own the castle have since refurbished it and opened it to the public. Their generosity and stewardship is to be celebrated.

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Image may contain: Heather Bradford, sky, outdoor and nature


In a world where tourists should feel reflective and subdued in the face of communist atrocities, I feel that the same standards should be applied to those of feudalism and capitalism.  The double standard seems disingenuous, as if suffering matters, then all suffering is worth consideration. The world is imbued with inequality, injustice, and pain. In some cases, this is obvious to a tourist.  This has to do with how history is understood and felt. The rules of feeling and understanding history are political. I have visited many castles, but in almost all of them, the suffering is invisible and there is no questioning of inequality or wealth.  A castle is often nothing more than a pretty object to be stunned by. When it isn’t, it is perhaps a ruin or a damp remnant of some fantastic and distant time. Politics should be returned to these buildings so that tourists can remain alert for the contradictions and misery making inequalities of the world.  Excess and luxury should be fought against, whether it is the excess of communist rulers or the excess of kings. Both represent the theft of wealth from the land and from labor and lives of ordinary people. Almost everything should make us angry, disgusted, or sad. At the very least, feeling rules should be considered as they indicate norms of historical interpretation.

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An Overview of Overland Travel

An Overview of Overland Travel

H. Bradford


This past summer I went on an overland trip through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe through Nomad Overland Adventure Tours.  I chose Nomad because they included The Great Zimbabwe complex on their itinerary, they were reasonably priced compared to other companies, they had good reviews, and their website looked appealing.  The tour that I chose was “Four Country Trek” which involved 25 Days of camping…in southern Africa.  I had never actually gone camping in my life!  So, this is the review of a novice camper.  Because it was my first time camping, I did have some misgivings.  I feared that I was not be up for the adventure.  My brother tried to talk me out of it, or at least talk some sense into me.  However, there are plenty of people who go to Africa on overland camping trips.  I am sure I am not the weakest or least adventurous of this lot.  Am I?  Well, maybe I am.  Who knows. dscf3967


The Flight:  I flew from Duluth, Mn to Cape Town, South Africa.  This in itself was an adventure, since it involved a flight to Amsterdam followed by a flight to Cape Town.  This resulted in over 20 hours of flying time.  It was pretty amazing to fly over ALL of Africa.  I arrived in Cape Town at 11 pm and was glad that I purchased a transfer to my hotel, or for that matter, a hotel.  While I try to be a frugal person when I travel, I have found that it is nice to stay in a hotel when I first arrive somewhere, rather than a hostel.  This allows my body and mind time to adjust to my new environment rather than being immediately thrust into the discomfort of hostels.  I was happy to have a hotel for my first two nights.


Cape Town: I spent the next day exploring Cape Town, which was the most beautiful city that I have ever seen.  It is hemmed by cloudy mountains, strange forests, and the meeting point of two oceans.  My solo adventures in the city involved visiting Robben Island, going on a Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour, a visit to the top of the table mountain, and wandering around the waterfront.  It also involved a 45 minute frantic jog back to my hotel through darkened streets after a man grabbed me by the arm.  That is another story for another blog post.  I will only say that Cape Town was wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed seeing a hyrax (a rodent like mountain animal which is related to the elephant) and a variety of unique plants (the Cape is one of several plant regions, which families of plants found nowhere in the world).   Oh, our tour guide at Robben Island was once a prisoner on the island and was once part of the Black Consciousness movement. dscn0186 dscn0110


Registration and the Truck:

The next morning, I went to Nomad’s office to sign in for the trip.  This is where I first met the people who would be traveling with me, the guides, and the truck.  Our overland truck was named Ottis.  Ottis could fit 24 passengers.  We were each allowed a soft duffel bag or soft backpack with a daypack and assigned our own locker on Ottis.  Ottis contained all of our tents, cooking equipment, a freezer, electrical outlets, food supplies, a water tank, and basically everything we would need for our camping journey through southern Africa.  Ottis was a sturdy truck with the capacity to take on the worst bumpy and dirt roads on our trek.

dscf3584

The People:

There were about 24 people on our trip, so Ottis was packed!  We were squeezed onto the truck pretty tightly.  The passengers came from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Canada, France, United States, Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Switzerland, and Japan!  I was one of three Americans on the trip.  As a whole, it seemed that Netherlands and Dutch speaking Belgians made up the majority of those on the trip.  This is perhaps owing to the fact that South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch and Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch.  Just as there was a wide spread of nationalities, there was a wide range of ages.  Most of the people on the trip were in their 20s, but there were a few people in their 30s, as well as some adults who were in their 50s and 60s.  It can generally be said that everyone was well traveled and had a spirit of adventure.  It can also be said that everyone was at least somewhat athletic, with several individuals who had trekked up mountains or hiked extensively.  Many of the travelers enjoyed pursuits such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, skiing, biking, hiking, skydiving, etc.  Compared to the others, I was definitely on the lower end of fitness and propensity for adventure.


The Guides: Both of our guides were from Zimbabwe, which was great since I was most excited for my time in Zimbabwe.  The driver, Dingi, was a little older and generally had a good sense of humor.  Dingi was patient and never lost his cool as we faced long, arduous days on dusty roads.  Prince was younger and had spent some time working and living in the United States.  Prince did more of the cooking than Dingi and was a fabulous cook!  We all helped to prepare meals by washing and chopping vegetables, cleaning dishes, or otherwise helping as needed.  Prince worked his magic over the rudimentary burners and campfire to create flavorful southern Africa meals.  Both of them worked from before 5am to after 10 pm each night.  They did not get breaks between tours, so they worked non-stop from early spring to December.   They both tried to have a good attitude about it, as even the hyper-exploitative conditions paid better than jobs that they might find or not find in Zimbabwe.  Their low wage is bolstered by the tips they receive at the end of the trip.  So, as a note to fellow travelers: be sure to budget tip money.


The Camping:

My introduction to camping was my first night in the Cederberg region of South Africa.  We stayed at a campsite that was adjacent to a farm/vineyard.  A burly Boer regaled us with tales of leopards that pass through the farm.  I went to bed feeling giddy with my new adventure.  However, that night it rained very hard and became chilly.  My tent got wet inside.  I got wet.  I was miserable as I had to take apart my tent in the rain, pack it up, becoming covered in mud.  This was not the best introduction to camping.  This was one of the worst nights.  I will note that camping was much colder than I had prepared for.  I thought that it would be warmer…after all, it was Africa.  I come from Minnesota, where winter can involve 110 inches of snow and weeks of below zero temperatures.  I could not believe that winter in Africa could possibly be cold.  I was wrong.  There were nights that were near freezing, especially in desert areas.  I did not prepare myself well enough.  My sleeping bag was not up to the task.  So, there were some miserable, shivering nights.  However, there was also a sense of accomplishment and adventure.  Each day we had to get up early and take apart the tents.  Each day we had to put them back up.  It ended up being more work than it sounds like.  Also, because it was winter, the sun set early.  We were always putting up and taking down tents in the darkness of winter.  We chopped vegetables and did dishes in the dark, coldness of desert night.  It was fun, challenging, and beautiful all at once.  I never felt demoralized, but I also counted the days to my next warm shower and bed.  Thankfully, our longest stretch of camping was about five days.  Then, we had a reprieve in a city, where we stayed in a hotel.  This would be followed by another stretch of camping, with the eventual reward of a stay in a city.

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Showers and Bathrooms: The shower and bathroom situation was better than expected.  To be fair, I expected that I would probably be digging a hole and burying my pooh.  I also expected no showers or only cold showers.  In actuality, the bathroom situation was pretty good in South Africa and Namibia, which public restrooms at gas stations (which could be accessed for a fee).  The camp grounds featured flush toilets.  Showers tended to be either extremely cold or burning hot, with no way to moderate the heat.  This made showering a challenge, but since I was always extremely dirty it was worth the challenge.  Showers often did not have any lights, which meant showering with a flashlight or headlamp.  We did “bush camp” in Namibia for one night, which meant there were no showers and only an outhouse.  Really, I don’t mind outhouses.  In Botswana, the toilet situation took a turn for the worst.  The gas stations no longer had public toilets or running water.  I remember at one point, I had to use the toilet, but there was no toilet.  So, I had to trek away from Ottis, our bus, to find a secluded area to do my business.  However, ALL of the trees were variations of acacias.  Each tree was covered in terrible sharp spikes!   I squatted by this not very concealing, thorn covered tree…which jabbed by butt with a nasty thorn.  I pulled up my pants in disgust!  I was so angry that I couldn’t even answer nature’s call.  I felt angry at nature…angry at these mean trees that were neither concealing nor kind.  There was also a public restroom in Zimbabwe which was basically a tennis ball sized hole in a cement floor.  Despite some minor challenges along the way, I had access to flush toilets for most of the trip and a temperature controlled shower at least once a week. dscf3896


The Food:

The food was far better than I expected.  Each day that we camped, we started the day with a modest breakfast.  The breakfast consisted of cereal, tea, instant coffee, toast made over the campfire, fruit, and granola.  Sometimes the guides would make us bacon or eggs, but I never had these since I don’t eat meat and I prefer a light breakfast.  Each morning, I basically ate toast, fruit, and tea.  Our lunch was usually taken very quickly at a rest stop.  So, this usually consisted of cold sandwiches.  I ate a lot of cucumber, cheese, and tomato sandwiches on the road.  Since we made bathroom stops every few hours, there were opportunities to buy snacks and drinks.  Dinner was more of a production.  Once the tents were set up, we helped prepare dinner by cutting vegetables, setting the table, washing, or whatever else was needed.  Prince tried to make traditional foods, but also catered to my vegetarian diet.  I was the only vegetarian and didn’t ask for any special treatment.  Despite my protests, he always made me something special.  Our evening meals consisted of cooked squash, sweet potatoes, mealie pap, chakalaka stew, game meats, fish, pasta, curry vegetables, etc.  The food always tasted fresh and delicious.  There were always plenty of vegetable dishes and I never felt hungry.  Also, I usually get sick when I travel.  However, I did not become ill the whole time!  So, my digestive system handled the food very well. dscf3691

 

 

Health:

Before I went on the trip, I visited a travel health clinic.  Actually, it was my first time doing this, as usually I have not been too worried about my health while traveling.  I was given a variety of vaccinations, including yellow fever, meningitis, Hepatitis A/B, and typhoid.  I was also given malarial pills and anti-diarrhea pills.  I was told to take the malarial pills before beginning the trip.  Really, I was the only person on Ottis who was taking malaria pills (until Botswana).  Oh well, at least I gave my body a long time to get used to the malaria pills. I had no symptoms from the malarial pills other than vivid dreams.  I took them at night with my dinner, rather than at breakfast, since I did notice they gave me a little diarrhea and it was easier to deal with diarrhea at night rather than during the day while on a truck.  Otherwise, I had no major health issues during the trip.  Because it was winter during the trip, I really didn’t see any mosquitoes.  I had a few bites on my hands (since the spray was washed off), but mosquitoes were not very active.  Winter was also useful because snakes, scorpions, and insects in general were dormant during the trip.


The Days:

The days were usually long and involved a lot of driving.  There were places where the roads were extremely bumpy and dusty, resulting in hours of a slow slog through clouds of red dust.  At one point, the vibrations from the bumpy roads caused one of the windows to shatter into thousands of pieces.  We used a mattress to cover the window until it could be repaired.  I usually awoke before 5am, however I rose early to make sure I had enough time to shower and take down my tent.  I never wanted to make people wait for me.  Usually, we were sleeping by around 10 pm.  On days when we were not driving, we usually ended up in a vehicle …as we did wildlife drives to see animals!


The Excursions: Many of the activities were covered in the activity package I purchased.  However, many of the stops had the option for some optional excursions.  Many people did not partake in these optional excursions due to the price or the fact they wanted to relax after spending time on the road.  I went on several optional excursions, which I found to be fun, but not necessary.  For instance, I went canoeing on the Orange River.  I thought this was a good activity because I wanted some exercise after being cooped up in the truck.  While I Swakopmund, I went on a tour of the Cape Seal Colony via a boat ride.  This was also well worth the money, since when are you going to see hundreds of seals on a beach and in the water?  The land was dotted with the swarm of dark bodies.  I also went on a night wildlife drive at Etosha National Park.  Once again this wasn’t necessary, as we had a drive earlier in the day.  However, it offered me the opportunity to see nocturnal animals such as hyenas and an aardwolf.   This tour was freezing cold, as we were in an open jeep.  However, a group of hyenas brushed by our vehicle, a few feet away from us.  I also went on a helicopter ride over Victoria falls.  This was spendy, but worth it, because I had never been in a helicopter before and it offered the full view of Victoria falls.  Nevertheless,  a person could be perfectly satisfied without spending any money on extra excursions- as there was plenty to see and do without these excursions. dscn1225 Money: On a day to day basis, I didn’t spend much money.  I don’t drink alcohol, which was popular with other passengers.  I also tried to limit my snacks, as I didn’t want to gain weight (from the sedentary days on the truck).  Most days did not have optional excursions, as there were included activities such as walks, wildlife drives, or city tours.  My main expenses were water, soft drinks, and supplemental snacks.  This made me feel less guilty when I splurged on a helicopter ride.  I don’t like buying souvenirs, so I waited until the end to pick up a few small items.  In the end, I had money left over in my budget as I had not spent as much as I thought.


Highlights:

  1. Seeing rhinos and elephants acting aggressively towards each other at a watering hole.
  2. The Great Zimbabwe Ruins
  3. Climbing Dune 45
  4. Seeing the Cape Seal Colony
  5. Visiting Robben Island
  6. Taking the cable car up the Table Mountain
  7. Sitting a few feet away from lions eating a giraffe (in an open vehicle)
  8. Squatting in the grass a few feet away from a wild white rhino!
  9. Seeing 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants
  10. Sitting in a canoe- watching hippos in the Okavango Delta
  11. A helicopter ride over Victoria falls
  12. Star gazing in the Southern Hemisphere
  13. Visiting Cecil Rhodes grave
  14. Spotting a leopard!
  15. Spotting all of the Big Five: Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino, elephant
  16. Seeing my first elephant, first lion…first zebra…first….etc.
  17. Scurrying across the border to Zambia..by myself
  18. Seeing both sides of Victoria Falls
  19. Meeting lion researchers in Okavango delta
  20. Surviving!

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Overall:

Overland camping involves long days in a crowded truck on bumpy roads.  In the winter, it was uncomfortably cold with late sunrises and sunsets.  I was covered in dirt and my skin became extremely dry.  However, it was still less challenging than I thought it would be.  It involved early mornings, effort, and cooperation.  Nevertheless, I think that anyone with a positive attitude, patience, and open mind could enjoy this kind of trip.  The reward for sleeping in a tent, is waking up to fresh, brisk mornings and nights under the expansive and exotic sky of the Southern hemisphere.  The group effort and shared discomforts builds camaraderie.  There is also something nice about sitting in a circle around a campfire with people from around the world.  They all have stories about where they have been and what they have done.  It is inspiring.  The days on the truck are also rewarded with sights of birds and animals that you would otherwise only see in the zoo.  There is something wonderful about seeing these animals in nature, behaving as they would naturally (eating one another, fighting, or showing indifference to each other).  Each day I saw or experienced something completely unique and fascinating.  It enlivened my curiosity and made me feel like a child.  With that said, I highly recommend overland camping!

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