Why backpack through Africa? by Valerie Bowden

Stepping off the airplane in Cape Town International Airport, my excitement builds as each step brings me closer into the city. After an exhausting twelve hour flight I may not have been the only one relieved to land, but most certainly had anticipated this moment for longer than any other passenger.

For exactly one year now, I have worked at a job with the intent of saving enough money to backpack from Capetown to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With my bags packed, a one way ticket booked, and a promise to my parents I would be home by Christmas, I said goodbye to seat 26A and a big hello to my long awaited African adventure.

This is not my first solo trip though. Back in 2010 I boarded a plane to Ethiopia and stayed in Addis Ababa for three months. To be honest, although I had a general idea where Ethiopia was, if someone told me to point to it on an unmarked map, my finger would have embarrassingly landed inches away.

Prior to my trip, Africa had been unknown territory to me. A group of countries I too often lumped together and only heard about on the news - when death, disaster, disease and despair were mentioned.

After arriving in Ethiopia, I realized quickly my ideas were misguided, completely skewed even. For nowhere had I heard about the remarkable beauty of the land and the people - extraordinarily hospitable, intelligent, capable, and remarkable. With a Master degree in social work I became fascinated by the evolving African story - growing economies and increasingly innovative social and environmental solutions.

My insatiable desire to better understand these amazing countries, so often short-sided by the media, could not be filled by just reading about them.

I needed to go back.

My journey begins

After spending some time in Capetown, I have begun slowly traveling down the coast and will eventually continue on through Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia where from there I will configure the rest of my route for my remaining time.

My intent is to gather a greater understanding of what is happening in each of these countries, their challenges and their potential, including their unique vibrancy and special character.

One side

Admittedly my first few days in Cape Town astonished me. After leaving a snowy Chicago and arriving in warm sunshine, the smell of the ocean, and towering mountains I quickly became enamored. Capetown is more than just a 2010 host city! Walking down the streets in a place so far from my own I already feel comfortable and at ease. Staying at a backpackers resort close to the Greenpoint stadium, I set off to explore the nearby area.

Following the spacious sidewalks lined with palm trees down a hill, I discover a joggers paradise as I turn and begin walking directly beside the sea. Passing playful children in the parks and a group of families playing Putt Putt Golf, I chuckle that some back home feared so much for my comfort and safety. Continuing down the road I am in awe of the impressively clean streets as my eyes strained to spot even one piece of misplaced garbage.

After a day of wandering around and checking out chic new bistros and cozy cafes I am convinced that Capetown offers some of the best international cuisine available anywhere. Even later that night after visiting the infamous Long Street and walking back to my place, I feel strongly that individuals from anywhere in the world would feel not only incredibly safe but also warmly welcomed here.

Awakening the next morning I am overwhelmed with all the city offers. Narrowing down the options is like eliminating either coffee or chocolate from my diet, neither of which I am willing to give up. The choices have to be made, however, and I decide to gather a broader idea of what the overall city looks like while also stopping at some main key points. When I began driving around I was not expecting to pass so many beautifully intriguing statues and structures. In my previous travels I became accustomed to expecting such artistic creations in European cities, but was pleasantly surprised to see such added ambiance here as well.

The other side

After a full day of seeing the sights, I am unbelievably in awe of the vast amount to do. The city is a mecca for the adventurous backpacker, family focused, or business-minded individual. One thing that struck me as surprising throughout the day though was when I entered one of the townships. After viewing the Cape's most proud amusements, I then walk though a shanty neighborhood crammed with nearly 25,000 people living in tin shacks. Confused that the city would even offer a tour through this area, yet oddly curious I wandered through the dirt paths.

Although valid arguments against the township tours undoubtedly exist ('poverty tourism' as some will have it), I did find it admirable that South Africa does not try to hide these areas from outside visitors. Instead of detouring tourists down 'posh' streets they offer an open invitation to 'poor' streets. Although poverty prevails in these neighborhoods, the most outstanding feature foreigners are sure to find are people with smiling faces and young children reading books in the local library. When I asked the guide if those living here feel there is a way out and an opportunity to join the rest of the country's positive growth trend, he replied without hesitation. Stating firmly, "People are living with hope. Believe that. Hope makes people live."

My side

As I headed home, invigorated with the experiences and memories of the day, I thought about what the guide said. I could not help but agree. For I too have hope in South Africa's continual growth and the role it will play in creating international solutions, products, and ideas. I also have hope for my trip. A firm and confident belief that I will personally witness and attest to the undeniable truth that South Africa, along with the several other African countries, are capable, resourceful, and innovative global leaders.

Chat again soon!