I’m going to start this story in December 2010, as I am just landing in Johannesburg, South Africa. I start here because although I knew this was a once-in-a-life-time trip, I had no idea it was a life-changing one.
The type of event that doesn’t just give you life long memories, but that totally alters the trajectory of your life.
Johannesburg, South Africa. This is probably not the hottest I’ve ever felt the air, but definitely miserable anyways. 100 degrees here is no where near the same feel as it is in Colorado. The humidity is stifling.
30 hours ago I had been in the December snow in Denver, and gotten on the plane when the outside temperature was -10 degrees F. I had the longest flight of my life to get to London, a 7 hour layover in Heathrow, and then another longest flight of my life to Jo’Berg.
When I stepped out of that airport with my heavy coat, long underwear and Colorado flannel, I thought I was going to have a heat stroke.
The wall thermometer at the airport said it was 110 degrees outside, meaning i had gone through a 120 degree temperature change in a day.
When the exit door to the air conditioned airport opened, the stifling heat wave hit me hard, reminding me I’m not in Kansas any more. Or Colorado. Or America for that matter.
Though soaked in sweat immediately, I had never been so excited.
Besides a short stent to the ultra touristy and completely Americanized Costa Rica, I had hardly never been outside of the USA. So when I hit London and the crowds on that layover, I had to sit down and people-watch for a good 4 hours.
In Costa Rica, which was my sole venture to date outside of USA, everywhere you look there are Americans and familiar things. nothing too shocking at least. But on that layover in London, I was in complete culture shock without even leaving the airport.
Like a kid straight off the farm, I am sure I just sat there like a bafoone staring at everything around me. The USA might be a melting pot, as they say, but Colorado certainly is not, especially the small town of Grand Junction where I am from.
What I was seeing were Arabs and Africans in full tribal dress with giant entourages, huge groups of what I could only guess where Chinese, following their leader who held up a flag so no one in the group lost him.
I had never seen ninja-looking dudes covered head to toe in all black and carrying machine guns in menacing looking groups. That kind of airport security doesn’t exist in Grand Junction airport, or anywhere else in town.
Crosslegged monks were waiting for their flights next to long bearded Indians with ash white faces and robes. A Swedish woman volleyball team speaking in the most unintelligible language ever, lounged at the gate in a sea of blond hair and short shorts.
I had never seen a single one of these things in my 24 years of existence except for in movies, but in just this short time I saw all that and much more. I was hooked, and I hadn’t even arrived yet. I was in my own movie.
Why has this dumb redneck come to Africa in this first place?
18 months ago I hated my life, and wanted to do something completely different. That short trip to Costa Rica had showed me a tiny bit of what was out there, and I wanted to see more.
But for a country kid sheltered from the rest of the world, and whose entire family and friends are just as sheltered and content with their situations, traveling the world is a unreachable pipe dream.
It seemed that way until one day I found out that our local university had just started an outdoor program, run by Professor Chad Thatcher, that would be offering accredited international trips, with scholarships available.
I applied the next day.
A few months later I was already accepted and starting classes. I loved school, even though I was usually the oldest in my classes, but my mission was to get on just ONE of those international trips.
A year later, I finally got the financial aid to join on one of their trips, which was to Southern Africa.
Southern Africa, or more precise, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, weren’t exactly my first choice (actually, never even heard of some of those), but I was NOT turning down a trip to ANYWHERE.
Now I am here finally. Realizing my dream, and anxious to see where it will lead me.
Now I am in a truck with my friend and classmate Joel, who had arrived a couple days before the rest of the students, and came to pick me up at the airport.
I am one of the oldest of this group of students on the trip, and technically I am one of the most traveled of the bunch (I’ve been to 2 countries don’t you know!), so as we drive down the wrong side of the road in the taxi/truck towards our hostel I try to not act too excited, though inside I’m about to burst.
It takes everything in me not to start gushing out the window like a golden retriever. I felt like I had just been released from prison after 24 years of solitary confinement, to a whole new world of wonders.
I was fully aware that I look like the stereotypical American tourist from hell, with my winter clothes, giant backpack and a fishing pole case. Yes, I brought my fishing pole to Africa. All that was missing was a visor and flip shades and giant map.
We were staying at a backpackers hostel, which would be one of my many firsts, and I was one of the last of our group to arrive.
We had basically booked the cheapest place we could find, because this whole trip was going to be about budget style travel and full immersion into new cultures. The goal for Professor Chad was to show us how to travel independently, and self-reliantly.
Its hard for some people to imagine, but even just figuring out public transportation in these massive cities was alien to us. Where we come from, public transportation was non existent.
Everyone had at least one vehicle of their own. Only just recently had Grand Junction just got its first little public bus system, called the Grand Valley Transit, and there was probably 10 taxis in the whole city, usually only seen at the few bar areas at night.
So even simple things like catching trains to the right locations, or shared collective vans and the like would be new. And that was the agenda for the trip, to learn how the rest of the world works, and to create independent travelers out of us.
Our one giant room in the hostel had rows of bunkbeds for all 11 of us, which felt strange, and felt like the greatest and most adventurous sleep-over of all time.
I had never really shared a room with a bunch of strangers, and now I was 10 feet or less from a bunch of them, snoring and all. We were also sharing one grungy bathroom, with towels borrowed from reception with a $5 deposit.
And it wasn’t just our group in the dorm-style room, but a few other random people from other countries. We were also issued paddle locks, and our own little locker under the beds. I highly doubt any of us slept that first night from all the excitement, jet lag or not.
For our first day, we took off to go check out the old house that Nelson Mandela grew up in, in nearby Soweto. This is one of those cases where the journey was much more interesting than the destination, even though it wasn’t a long one.
This was our first crash course in budget, local style travel, and Johannesburg is one crazy place to learn for 10 green, unexperienced babies fresh out of the safety of the American womb.
Before we left we talked about pickpockets and thieves, and made sure we only used zipper or velcro-closed pockets with our stuff in them, and our backpacks worn backwards (uh, front packs?).
As a group we walked through what must have been the poorest ghetto in the city with our backpacks strapped backwards on our chests, seeing so many people laying on the sidewalks and streets everywhere, or playing dice or cards.
Every single eye was on us, freaking some of us out more than a little bit. It was by far the most dangerous, dirty and scary place I had ever been. I even caught a skinny, scarred, shirtless dude try to pickpocket me, with one mean look in his eye.
It was a rush walking through those crowds, and that was just to get to the nearest bus stop. More than ever I was fully self conscious about how much we stood out.
For context, just imagine a park with thousands of homeless or poverty stricken black people, some wearing rags for clothes, and a group of 11 well dressed blond hair white people working our way through the park in a line, dodging and weaving around little shelters or cardboard beds on sidewalks.
Just one of our backpacks, empty, costed more than an entire family’s world possessions, and that fact was not lost on me. Even though I was trying to put on a cool demeanor, I was pretty nervous and on edge.
Some of theses people might have never seen an American before, and this group was just waltzing on through as if part of the scene. You’ve never been so self aware and vulnerable until you have 1000 hostile eyes on you, 5000 miles from safety.
But to be clear, the hostile part of that last sentence was a figment of my over-active, inexperienced and adrenalized imagination.
After the experiences of just walking through the city, finding crowded shared mini busses, figuring out how to pay the driver (and how much), and things like that, Mandela’s house and museum was underwhelming and forgettable. The rest was not.
The next day we repeated the trials by fire, to visit the Apartheid Museum and other monuments of historical significants.
I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because I am a history lover and major and really wanted to visit these museums and monuments initially, but I could really think about was exploring the city and taking in all the strange stuff we were seeing.
Every single thing we saw was new and weird and amazing. I love learning and the occasional museum, but I quickly got museum-ed out. Besides, everything around was a learning experience.
Even the most simple things like trying to figure out how and when to pay the shared collective taxis, was something new to figure out. So I quickly got bored of the museums we visited, and wandered around outside where there was always a bunch or people selling cool carvings and souvenirs.
I learned more in that short time in Jo’Berg about the world, then a lifetime in a classroom could do. Not one moment was uneventful.
Even the skylines and buildings were weird. Maybe not completely foreign or surprising when it comes to architecture, but the interchanging back and forth of rich and poor.
We would be leaving the ghettos of Soweto, and then there is the huge and expensive stadium they were building for the World Cup, but would probably never use again. Then a little down the road it would turn into a slum again, crowded shoulder to shoulder with barefoot beggars.
I had never seen giant nuclear cooling towers like the ones in Jo’Berg, and the street art on it, and everywhere else, was fascinating.
Nothing was uninteresting.
I think to me as fascinating as it was there, it was also completely surprising because it did not feel like Africa at all, or at least compared to my preconceptions. Jo’Berg is a giant, filthy, fascinating, dangerous, hot and crazy concrete jungle. And I love it.
But it’s not Nat Geo Africa. It’s a kind of Africa I never knew existed. Somehow a first world and third world mixed together with countless contrasts and contradictions. Not to mention a history you won’t get from school books.
On our third night it started raining harder than I have ever seen in my life. Its impossible to explain how much water was falling out of the sky, but the closest I can describe it is if you were standing under a olympic size swimming pool, and someone snatched the bottom away.
And it didn’t stop for days.
In those days there was more rain than an entire year in Colorado. Maybe more than a couple years.
In my mind this was a phenomenon they weren’t use to, and we would all be swept away. To the hostel staff, it was a regular Wednesday.
There wasn’t an inch in-between the drops in the air. I once watched a backpacker in the community kitchen, put an empty 5 gallon bucket in the rain, and it was filled within a minute. He used it to wash dishes.
There are a few key happenings that help to change my life in a big way. Things that happened that made significant life changes for me.
The First: Being caught in a fire at my oilfield job. If I hadn’t been hurt and hospitalized, I would never have quit such a high paying job to travel.
The Second: Getting a passport and going on vacation to Costa Rica. That really started to show me whats out there, and what I’m missing.
The Third: Meeting Professor Chad Thatcher, who turned out to be the perfect mentor at the perfect time, changing my mindset and broadening my dreams.
The Fourth: Meeting Dave
Because of all that rain, we spent our last day in Jo’Berg inside the hostel. Thats when I met Dave, and had a long and mind blowing talk, hovered over maps and drawings and photos on the hostel kitchen table.
Here is some of Dave’s story.
Dave was from Israel, and 18 months before we met, he had ended his mandatory military service, gotten a few bucks together, and hit the road south.
He explained to me that it is practically an Israeli custom to hit the road after the military and do some travel, no matter how little money they may have. It was no different for Dave.
He didn’t have a whole lot of money, but decided to travel over land from Israel to Cape Town without flying. When he told me this, half of me was very skeptical, thinking that it was impossible for so many reasons, but the other half of me was completely intrigued.
I had so many questions as he told me the story of his overland journey.
Isn’t it very dangerous in these countries?
There are trains all the way from Northern Africa to Southern?
What about crossing borders, especially in places like Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia etc?
Was it expensive? Are you rich?
How did you make more money on the road to keep going?
One by one he answered these questions and more, while I sat there completely in shock. Shock isn’t even a strong enough word. amazed. Transfixed. bewildered. He had my full and complete mouth gaping attention for this learning session.
He wasn’t just giving me information, he was showing me things that I never even considered as a possibility. I feel like a huge curtain raised in front of my eyes, revealing so many possibilities.
If I could do this, I could do that. If this is possible here, then its possible there. My mind was literally blown. Right then and there my horizons were expanded exponentially. I could not believe what I was hearing, and that it was possible for anyone.
One reason I was so intrigued, was that he was basically telling me that my dreams were possible. You know how when you have a very ambitious dream, but something inside you gets you down because you know that its nearly impossible?
Now he was taking away all that doubt and fear, and replacing it with a literal road map. Professor Chad was looking over my shoulder during our chat, and when I looked over he simply said “You have to do this”.
Besides giving me hard information on bus and train routes, visa and border information, and much more.
He spent the day giving me 18 months of solo travel stories. He had taken boats through Egypt, buses and hitchhiked through Sudan, took trains across all of Tanzania, a ship down Lake Malawi, safaris in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and South Africa, worked in hostels and bars along the way for accommodations and spending money.
He gave me a giant East Africa Lonely Planet guide book, that he had used during his whole journey, with tons of notes in the pages and hostels circled and recommendations and more.
For months after, I could be found reading that guide book from cover to cover, along with his notes, completely engrossed.
Dave’s stories and gift of the old ratty Lonely Planet, kept me up at night for a long time after that. A real long time.
He made me realize what was really possible in the world, which really meant that he convinced me that chasing my dreams was not only doable, but was being done by millions of other people less privileged then me.
I realized that the only difference between me and him, was a mind-set. His mind was the sort that knew he could do what ever he wanted, while mine didn’t even know the options existed. That night my mind changed.
Because this trip was between semesters on Christmas break, and we didn’t have a ton of time, our group wanted to move on from Jo’Berg as soon as possible; none of us were in love with it.
I did love being there, I was enamored with the experience, but with my new found epiphany, I was like a kid in a candy store and ready to head out into the world.
Part of the agenda for this trip was that us students had to plan our travels, mostly last minute. Besides this first hostel, we had made no set plans or reservations ahead of time for any of the trip.
We decided in that hostel, that our next stop was going to be Cape Town, to see some penguins and great white sharks, then we would probably fly to Zambia to see Victoria falls.
After some exploring around Zambia, we would probably fly to Mozambique for Christmas, where we would all get scuba certified, and explore our last days.
On our last night we decided that the cheapest way to get to Cape Town, was the long train southwest. The train wasn’t a ton cheaper than just flying, but we all agreed it would be a lot more fun to cross the country overland.
We were right.
As we headed out the next day to the train station, fully laden with backpacks, the rain had stopped and there were hundreds of drowned giant centipedes in the hostel pool.
Never saw a centipede outside the pet store before.
I realize that this chapter has not really been about my trip, yet. I didn’t get into too much detail about the experiences, yet, because I wanted to give a little context, as well as show you where this was headed. The rest of the book will be about the travels, but this first chapter was meant to just give you a glimpse into my mindset, and what type of travels I’ll be getting into. Stay tuned.