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One hot and extra humid day I was sitting in my damp co-working space in Canggu, Bali feeling restless. Overtourism coupled with the inevitable tourist-phobia that comes with it, had me itching to flap my wings out of Bali as soon as possible. But where to? My apartment had been subleted for the next few months, so not home. Just then, an online friend who I’d met earlier that year invited me on her road trip through different Southern African countries from Mozambique to Namibia. Psshhh, I immediately rushed to book my flights via miles to South Africa.
Upon arrival in Johannesburg, my friend took me to its outskirts: Centurion. Which I’d soon find out from a social activist South African friend was the “belly of the beast” in terms of white vs. black in Johannesburg, along with Pretoria where there is a problematic monument/museum (in)directly praising white nationalism.
As we drove around Centurion I noticed only white people enjoying the privileges of nice restaurants and other amenities. While black people were serving them: working as garbage men, cleaners, maids, waiters. I grimaced feeling a pang of pain in my heart. I know racial stratification exists around the world. But this was a whole new level I’d only seen in the movies about the past. The division kept smacking me in the face. I asked my friend about it who went on to tell me something along the lines of: “actually, black people have it easier here because they have affirmative action. White people have it the hardest here. They’re just not hiring white people for jobs anymore!”
My mood, heart, and soul dropped to my stomach then below my seat and down onto the road as the car we were driving in ran over it. She was barely considering the devastating effects of apartheid which ended less than 15 years ago, to name one of a million things. Having a multiracial family who never let me forget my whiter privilege in this world had given me a deeper sense of the complexities of these issues that go unnoticed when you’re blinded by your privilege. But her perspective was also just blatantly dismissive of glaring facts.
Soon after, I found out that many white South Africans actually refuse to take those jobs because they find them humiliating. And after more conversation, I realized I was in the midst of someone whose values not only clashed with mine, they… emotionally crushed me. As a woman of color, I felt unheard and personally offended by the commentary. I wasn’t South African. I didn’t know all the details to everything. But I did know that I couldn’t drive around Africa for 5+ weeks with someone whose beliefs were hurtful and detrimental to my mental health.
But now, I’d made it all the way to South Africa… to travel alone? A Dominican-American nerd with big glasses and curly colorful hair, awkwardly standing out as I traveled around countries I knew nothing about except for what the media portrayed as scary and unsafe? I was confused and paralyzed in fear and doubt.
Another online friend of hers joined us on the trip. “We must understand why it is that white people are racist in the first place… look my aunt…[insert a racist story]” her friend asserted on the third night over our campfire in Kruger National Park. Now it was two white feminist woman blinded by their white privilege and me: a half mulatta and half mestiza, whiter passing Dominican who I guess they thought would be cool hearing all this problematic BS.
When we got to Zimbabwe, I finally mustered up the courage and took the plunge. I asked to be dropped off in Bulawayo. I decided, it’s better to be alone than in bad company. It was better to slowly travel alone than to suffer and resent every step of the way. It wasn’t fair to them to be with someone who didn’t feel good and it wasn’t fair to me to be with people who didn’t make me feel good.
There are educational conversations and listening to local perspectives and then there are toxic/emotionally detrimental spaces one shouldn’t bother trying to remedy.
We hugged each other goodbye at the foot of my hostel as I honestly wished them a good trip. And that was the last I saw of them as they drove off in their dented car from having hit a kudu days before because they wouldn’t listen when I pleaded that we shouldn’t be driving at night in a park full of animals. Man, I was so out of sync with them, I thought feeling relieved… but scared as hell.
And now, I was beginning to feel in full sync with myself again but in a totally unknown place. And I admit, I knew nothing about Zimbabwe, it’s infrastructure, history, culture. Nada. But today, I giggle thinking back to how scared I felt because it turned out to be one of the safest, most revelational, enlightening, and fulfilling trips of my 40+ country travels.
I ended up spending almost two weeks in Zimbabwe: making Zimbabwean friends (many of whom are also avid travelers like me), getting work done, exploring the city and immersing myself in the local culture. Everyone spoke English so I did what I love to do best: connect with locals. Listen to their stories, share ideas, and learn from each other. All things, I wouldn’t have done with my prior travel mates who preferred to stare out of a window for hours searching for wild animals and then speed to the next location, skipping that cultural connection which I yearn for when I travel as a multicultural Bronx Dominican. I fell into a better rhythm of travel. A few days later, I’d meet several other solo travelers who I’d coalesce with beautifully to discover more of Bulawayo.
When I felt more ready, I jetted up to Victoria Falls, then Zambia, through Botswana, and landed in Namibia. Often, I wasn’t alone in being alone. But sometimes, there were nights in the vastness of the African steppes where I felt alone but whole. The solitude forced me to connect with myself the way my first scary solo travel to Cuba did. It changed me and it pushed me. I cried. I laughed; and ultimately, I grew stronger and more fulfilled.
To my shock, these countries were also incredible safe (with the exception of South Africa). Locals often looked out for and kindly took care of me refusing to accept a penny in return. And many Botswanans, Zimbabweans, Namibians, and Zambians are very similar to us Americans: with their eyes glued to their smartphones, enjoying similar TV shows, shopping, eating out with friends, addicted to hamburgers, discussing comparative politics with each other and trying to better their communities, just like the rest of the world. I’d love to see some movies about Africa showing more of this…
Oh! They also get winter just in the U.S.! I’ve never seen people in Africa wearing hats and coats in movies/TV shows… Hanging out with each other listening to covers of the Beatles over glasses of rose. Gah, I get teary-eyed thinking about how amazing it was to feel it all out for myself.
When I reached Namibia, I linked up with 3 other solo travelers and we ended up renting a car, food, and tent for 10 days. They were incredible. They were my kind of travel peeps. Had I stuck around with the wrong travelers, I wouldn’t have met and made these news friends whose travel style matched beautifully with mine. We grew with each other during those intense travels, car slips, baboon battles, desert dune hikes, tuna can dinners, and star gazing nights.
Even though I was terrified, I carefully and cautiously but bravely paved my own path. And I found my own connection to these special Southern African countries… and to myself and my Afro-Latina roots.
I look back at that time (from the point I began the Africa journey alone) so nostalgically it almost feels like homesickness. The alone time wasn’t always easy but it was revolutionary for my soul and ended in profound connections and experiences.
And that’s why I traveled along through Africa. Porque mejor sola que mal acompanada. Because you can do it too, just like many others have and are doing right now. Because it is safe. And because it can definitely be done affordably.
For more information on how to travel alone as a woman (or man minus the fears that come with having a vagina) through Africa, check out my logistical guide: Solo Backpacking Travel Guide through Africa: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, & South Africa. It includes tips on budget, accommodation, transportation, how to meet others, and more.
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