Traveling Safe

High accident zone, high fatality rates, car jacking, mugging. These words stabbed articles in books and on the internet about a place we were choosing to travel: South Africa. As I researched our trip, searching the internet became a scary endeavor. I found myself stumbling on blogs and forums where random stories grabbed me by surprise.

I shut the computer off and walked away; I closed the book and took a deep breath. I was terrified but focused on the positive and heeded the following advice as we traveled in South Africa.

  • Dress inconspicuously. We left the skinny jeans and stylish clothes at home, much to my teenage daughter’s dismay. She and I wore no jewelry. We dressed simply in layers, in earth tones and blue jeans, in t-shirts and fleece, in long shorts and capris.
  • Keep the money minimal and out of sight. We carried our passports, extra money, and memory cards in money belts under our clothes. We carried a $50 bill in our shoes. We divvied up the credit cards among the four of us, only carrying small bills in our pockets or change purse.
  • Hide the valuables. If you can’t leave them at home, keep them hidden whenever possible, even while driving in the car. I stowed my camera and other personal items in a large purse-looking camera bag. The rest of my family hid their compact cameras in their pockets and used small backpacks to carry their water bottles, books or jackets. As we drove through small towns, my camera was hidden beneath my feet.
  • Consider the cameras. Although I wanted a telephoto lens to capture animals on safari, I was leery of traveling with a big camera and wanted to be as incognito as possible. I chose to purchase a lens with a zoom from 18 to 270 mm giving me zoom options in a relatively compact lens.
  • Travel with a cell phone. We bought an inexpensive cell phone in Cape Town and used it to communicate with our friends in Durban and our future lodging hosts. Carrying a cell phone also acted as a security blanket.
  • Travel during the day.  Friends and books told us not to travel at night. Animals and people edge the big highways and small rural roads during the day as well as at night. Lights may or may not warn of erratic drunken drivers zigzagging across the roads. So we didn’t. We planned our trips accordingly.
  • Stay inside at night. Although a challenge in the winter, when daylight hours end at 6 p.m., we chose to rise with the sun, getting an early start to each day. We ate dinner early too, often cooking for ourselves or bringing takeout back to our lodging.
  • Keep the gas tank full. We fueled up whenever possible and traveled with emergency phone numbers and a GPS.
  • Know where you’re going. Travel with maps, research your trip before you set out, avoid looking unsure and vulnerable. If you become lost, know that people may be happy to help you but will likely not know the way themselves.
  • Keep things in perspective. Be prepared to walk away and not try to fight or to hold onto anything. Give up your camera, your car, your purse. Remember nothing is more valuable than your life.
  • Know what to do if something should happen. We each carried a laminated card with emergency phone numbers: our friends’ in Durban, the Automobile Association, the American Consulate, a relative in the U.S.

During our trip, we saw high accident zone signs and crazy drivers. We heard stories of car jackings, drunk drivers, and mauling hyenas. We half listened, changing the subject as quickly as possible, and throughout our trip, from airport to airport, we were ever vigilant: aware of our surroundings and our belongings, taking nothing for granted, watching each other and others. After 4 weeks of travel to a land half way across the world, we arrived home safe and sound.

Why Did We Go?

When I told people we were going to South Africa, I often met with blank stares or pauses on the phone. “Why did you decide to go there?” Many asked. Even those who love to travel, who’ve explored the U.S. and Europe, would ask, “Why South Africa?”

Why would anyone want to go to Africa? Why did we go? And why South Africa?  Besides the opportunity to visit another continent and see animals we’ve only seen in the zoo, we were motivated by the desire to teach our children about other cultures, specifically those living in a third world country; the opportunity to meet our sponsored child in Lesotho, and the security and comfort of close friends living in South Africa, who could show us the way.

Ever since my husband spent a semester in Kenya, he’s wanted to go back; if not to Kenya then to the continent. The time he spent in Africa was a special time in his life which he has talked about since I’ve known him. We have masks and baskets and kikoys around the house. And when our children were toddlers he began saying good night to them in Swahili, “Lala salama.”

In 2005, we began sponsoring a child in Lesotho, a very small and very poor country located within the country of South Africa. We send and receive letters to and from a girl named Nthabeleng, now 13 years old, the same age as my daughter.

Then last winter, we received a holiday letter from college friends living in South Africa. They were staying, at least for another year. That letter was the final impetus for an amazing 4-week trip our family experienced in the summer of 2011.

Seven months later we were traveling to South Africa, visiting cities and villages, upscale malls and townships. We met Africans and Afrikaans, hiked in the mountains, ate ostrich, and photographed lions and rhinos. We experienced cultures different from our own, learned a few words in another language and even met people who had never heard of the United States.

So for those who wondered why, and for other travelers or those just curious about our trip, this blog is for you. Keep reading and happy traveling!