Vetting of the items in my backpack (police commissioners?)

At the end of 2013, Kenya witnessed an intense vetting process of police commissioners. Whether one believes the process was successful or flawed, we all collectively agree it was quite intense, difficult questions were raised and in certain instances, several skeletons came crashing out of the various closets we chose to look in.

As I prepare to leave on any backpacking trip, I toy with the idea of applying an equally rigorous vetting process for all the clothes and other items that I will be lugging on my back for those 1-2 months....and so it goes....

The Kenyan Explorer: White shirt, can you explain why you think you are the perfect candidate to make it to the short list of tops in the backpack

White shirt: (clearing throat)..Well, The Kenyan Explorer, I have 10 years of relevant experience in a similar field

The Kenyan Explorer: Please elaborate....

White shirt: Well, there was that one time you wore me to climb Mt. Longonot, and I did not disappoint

The Kenyan Explorer: Would you have me believe that based on that one experience you are fit to take on a 2 month trip? The Andes is not Mt. Longonot. Is it not also true that on that same day you proceeded to get soaked in sweat and did not have the decency to hide it?

White shirt: (stuttering)....Well, it wasn't my fault. I am a white shirt after all. I don't absorb heat as much as the black shirt, but of course I will get dirty and sweat will be noticeable

The Kenyan Explorer: Hush! Are you trying to cast blame on your fellow contenders?

The Kenyan Explorer: Moving on! I am done with you white shirt! Brown socks, it states here that you have a thread count of 1000. Could you explain to all those present, how you came to amass such a high thread count?

Brown socks: Well, I got it from my previous position

The Kenyan Explorer: Really? It states here that you started out at your previous position with a thread count of 100. 

Brown socks: (nervous giggle), well, I also had some side hustles

The Kenyan Explorer: Can you elaborate

Brown socks: I did some odd jobs at my previous station and I was able to earn additional thread count

The Kenyan Explorer: So, the rumors are true. Did you or did you not earn your wealth by sabotaging cream and black socks?

Brown socks: (Clearing his throat): That is not true. I earned it fair and square

The Kenyan Explorer: From what we have heard, you made a job out of destroying your peers and taking on their thread count! You are a traitor!

Brown socks: Please, please let me explain

The Kenyan Explorer: No, your time is done. Let me move on to the next candidate - "super pretty bra with the metal wire that occasionally pokes the wearer." "Super pretty bra with the metal wire that occasionally pokes the wearer", what are you doing here today? I believe we kicked you out at the previous round

"Super pretty bra with the metal wire that occasionally pokes the wearer": Well,, I am here to defend my case. I feel that my name has been muddied by evil elements in the closet

The Kenyan Explorer: Please elaborate

"Super pretty bra with the metal wire that occasionally pokes the wearer": I have served for decades in this position and there has never been any issues raised against me. In the past years, though seeds of discontent have been sown by my enemies. In particular I will point out "Super ugly bra that offers maximum support", "Super pretty bra that offers no support" and "push up bra of unknown comfort levels". These newcomers have come in to usurp my position. They know I have served well. 

(Screams in the background from the named bras): Haki yetu! Haki yetu! Down with the old, in with the new. Kazi kwa vijana, pesa kwa wazee! (We demand our rights, Down with the old, in with the new. Work for the young, while money goes to the old?)

The Kenyan Explorer: We do not need this drama. Moving on to the next. "Holey sock", what are you doing here?

Holey sock: A lot of negative things have been said about me, but I want to let you know that this wardrobe was built on my sweat. I was here when the closet was full of threadbare shirts. I have earned these holes.

The Kenyan Explorer: This job requires a sock that can stand both high and low temperatures and effectively protect the wearer. Are we to believe that you are up to this job?

Holey sock: I believe I have. My years of experience make me perfect for this job. My holes also do not prevent me from doing a great job. At the last review, there were only two major holes, and they are at the unimportant toes. I also represent an under-represented group. Red mid-calf socks with my type of experience are in short supply.

The Kenyan Explorer: Oh, look who we have here. "Pretty silk top" what is your value proposition for this job

Pretty silk top: (sashaying to the table): I am extremely unique in that I combine functionality and class. In this new territory, you will need an item that helps you in certain types of classy situations

(Angry voices from the crowd): Did you hear her? She thinks we are not classy? She thinks us we are for being worn at the bar, and she is the one for dinners?

The Kenyan Explorer: Quiet! Quiet! Let "pretty silk top" finish talking

Pretty silk top: Yes, as I was saying before this riff raff jumped in, I am the perfect item to carry with you for those lovely dinners, exquisite parties and so on.

The Kenyan Explorer: Would you have us believe that the stories are not true? Is it not true that you do not really work well with the other commissioners? That you are always demanding more? Did you not once say, "I cannot go to work without being ironed?"

Pretty silk top: That was taken out of context. I was just saying that I need different terms to work well. 

(Angry voices from the crowd): Drama queen! Drama queen!

Pretty silk top: (shouting): Can you bunch of torn, tattered, wrinkled clothes shut up!

The Kenyan Explorer: We cannot have this. Whoever comes on this trip has to be a team player. We cannot have items that need preferential treatment. On this trip, "all clothes are created equal and none is more equal than the others." 

The Kenyan Explorer: Yes, lipstick and nail polish, I see you have come in a bit late. Tell us why you should make it into the backpack

Lipstick and nail polish: I think we speak for our fellow comrades - the other lipsticks and nail polishes - when we say that we are the single most important item for this trip.

The Kenyan Explorer: I agree with you. Let me put you in the backpack right now. 




South America Itinerary (part 1)

I was lucky enough to talk to a Kenyan last year who had once backpacked through South America. She is the one who convinced me that this was a great idea, and that it could be done easily and affordably even by someone who has little if any experience in the region. She also saved me from making one major mistake I made when planning the 2012 Eurotrip - being overambitious. In the 6 weeks we spent in Europe, we went to 14 cities in 12 countries. It was madness. Sometimes I would wake up so exhausted and have to remember what country I was in. Is this Czech Republic? Hungary? We would get off trains, rush into the city to see the main attractions, eat as we walked, head back to the hostels to quickly shower and change - go out and party like maniacs, and very likely go straight from the club via the hostel to catch our next train. Madness, I tell you.

I feel like my South American trip will be slightly less chaotic from a time standpoint, but probably more chaotic from an everything else standpoint given that I have traveled quite a bit through Europe, speak English and German, but have never been to South America, and I know only a few words and phrases in Spanish.

So what does my itinerary look like? I leave Nairobi for Rio via Dubai this Monday. I get to Rio on Tuesday afternoon. I will thankfully be staying with a friend, which is pretty great given I don't know any all. I will be in Rio for 8 nights experiencing the sights and sounds, and more importantly going for Carnival:-) I have no words to explain how excited I feel when I say "I am going for Carnival." I instantly hear music playing, see people in exciting costumes and imagine all the fun we are going to have. Sigh...After that I somehow get to Salvador in Bahia - which is way on the other end of the country. When I am in Brazil, I will figure out whether the best option is to take a really long bus there or to fly. I heard I can get some pretty cheap flights if I look in the right places. You are probably wondering where Bahia is and why it is in my itinerary. Before 2004, I had no idea about Bahia.One day I was listening to my friend's Anjelique Kidjo CD "Black Ivory Soul" and the first song was titled "Bahia." It fascinated me and I started reading up on Bahia.

Bahia is the most African state in Brazil. It was the center of the early Brazilian slave trade and close to 80% of its current population has black ancestry. Yoruba derived traditional religions are still followed in some parts. It is the home of capoeira - a unique dance that consists of martial arts and minimal body contact (someone recently told me that the reason the dancers don't touch is because historically slaves could do capoeira only on Sundays and they wore white on Sundays. One had to avoid getting dirty..) Bahia is also the home of Samba and is also said to have one of the best cuisines in Brazil.

After Bahia, I will travel to Peru. This is the part I have little clarity on. I am sure the journey will entail something along the lines of a 24-48 hour bus ride and a 2-3 day boat ride on the Amazon river. I love traveling and I can sleep anywhere so I am not particularly worried about it. I am sure I will figure it all out once in Brazil. In Peru, I am most excited about going to Machu Picchu. I will be in the country for 8 nights so I am sure I will get to see loads. I have not booked any housing in Peru as I can't really predict when I will get there and what exact places I will be. I am toying with the idea of couchsurfing rather than staying in hostels when there.

After Peru, I will go to Ecuador. There is lots to see in Ecuador, but I am most fascinated with going to the Galapagos Islands where Darwin conducted quite a bit of his research on evolutionary theory.

That covers the first half of the trip, but I am sure reality will be more exciting than the plan. The one thing I keep reminding myself is that the best laid plans of mice of and men often go awry, but as long as I am enjoying the journey it doesn't really matter to me if I am not sticking to my itinerary.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and suggestions.

So I am compiling a list of some of the questions that keep coming up every time I say I am going to South America backpacking alone. 

  1. Aren't you scared? Well, honestly I am a bit nervous, but I wouldn't really use the word scared. In fact my biggest worry is that I will not be able to pick up Spanish as quickly as I wish and I will be that person at the table who just smiles and nods.....because they don't understand anything. My other worries are more mundane - how do I actually get from Brazil to Ecuador? How will I make sure my gadgets (phone, samsung galaxy tab, kindle etc) don't get wet as I sleep on a hammock on the amazon river for three days? What is the longest I will have to go without wifi? What will life be like without whatsapp when I am offline?
  2. Make sure you don't end up being given drugs to transport! While many have inadvertently become drug mules I think I am one of the least likely options. Seriously who thinks giving the lone African girl with dreadlocks and a funny accent your very expensive drugs is a good idea? I am sure I will be under close scrutiny at all entry points - if for nothing else, for kind of sticking out:-) I do however assure all that I will be extremely cautious. "No, I cannot carry your cute little bunny to Bolivia to give to your long lost niece." I will also ensure that my backpack is sufficiently disorganized so as to deter anyone from sneaking in drugs in there - for fear that they will surely disappear
  3. Wow! South America! I hear the men are hot - like the ones on those shows on TV! I will have to report back on this. My previous experience abroad always makes me a bit wary of trusting TV. If we believe everything we see on TV then the average person on the streets in the US should look like Morris Chestnut or Angeline Jolie....
  4. Your mum gave you permission to go? Yep, she's cool like that. I also don't like to think of it as "permission" but more of "her blessings" to go on with the trip. 
  5. Bolivia? Why? Lots of reasons to go to Bolivia. First, it is the highest altitude country in the world. Rumor has it that I will need to take altitude sickness meds when there or have headaches and nausea. Apparently Bolivia has a terrible football team, but they always defeat other countries in their home territory.....cause they can't breathe:-) Second, it has the largest salt flat in the world (think Lake Magadi on steroids). Third, it is really really cheap - a consequence of being the poorest country in South America. Fourth, it has the largest indigenous population of any South American country with 60% indigenous population and over 30 ethnic groups (I guess in some books I am referred to as "native" and we have 42 tribes in I can dig for my other indigenous people! Wooop wooop! 
  6. Was it easy getting visas? No, not at all. It was a serious pain in the butt actually - and I only needed three of the six. There was one particular embassy I went to at least 7 times. I almost gave up when they asked for my great-great-grandmother's palm print.....just kidding, but really it was a process and a half for one of the countries while the other two were quite quick to get. I can't imagine if I had needed all 6 of them. Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador don't have embassies in Kenya so you get your visas on arrival.
  7. Will you wear one of those Brazilian bikinis and tiny clothes people wear at Carnival? In public? Ngai, I wish:-) I have African parents though, I live here in Nairobi and I have a serious job too when I am not globe-trotting. I will have to live vicariously through the other revelers. Maybe I will wear thong sandals:-)
  8. South America? Are there any black people there? Loads actually, but most did not get there on their own volition. 
  9. Do you speak Spanish? Well, it really depends on what you mean by speak. I know stuff like "Hasta la vista baby", "Tengo la camisa negra", "living la vida loca" etc. I am listening to a few CDs and trying to pick up some basics in the mean time. I worry though since my first country will be Portuguese speaking Brazil. Will all these words and phrases I am cramming into my mind really survive through the two weeks of disuse? Only time will tell.
  10. Wow, South America? You might even come back with a husband! A rich one with a huge cattle ranch in Argentina! No comment. 
  11. I wish I could do a similar trip! You can. I am hoping that through this trip, I can show loads of people (especially Kenyans) that such trips are possible on a shoestring budget. Backpacking culture hasn't yet taken off here and so people always think that such trips are only for the wealthy. I will be staying in hostels (not hotels) and also possibly couchsurf in some of the countries. I will be using public transportation to get around, eat at the most local places (everyone knows that's where the good food is found anyway), drink the local drinks and ensure that I do not get charged "tourist prices" anywhere. I will bargain in my limited Spanish. I will walk, I will hike, I will travel on small boats........and you can too.