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Saturday, 31 October 2015

How to Travel Alone in a Developing Country

Written by Meredith Chait
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Sitting in traffic, I looked out the open rickshaw vehicle. It was pitch black on our drive to the restaurant. I could make out the shadows of the many people milling around the streets. The mob of people was so close they could touch me through the open side of the rickshaw. People huddled around small wooden tables with candles lighting the merchandise down the sides of the streets. 

Sitting in that car, I realized, I was in Africa. I was halfway around the world from my home. I did not go out at night unless I was with other people. As a woman traveling alone in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I had to be savvier than others might have to be. Some people see a woman alone as an easy target for crime or to take advantage of when negotiating prices. 

“Wow, you went by yourself. That’s brave. I wouldn’t do that,” said many people I came across during my travels. 

But just because no one I knew wanted or could go with me, why would I let that stop me from going? I have wanted to go to East Africa for the last five years, since I started studying Swahili at university. I wanted to practice my Swahili and learn about a different African culture (I had already been to Southern Africa). 

I went to Tanzania to volunteer at an elementary school for children who are deaf.  For that story click here

But even knowing the local language, Swahili, I also knew that I had to be aware of my surroundings as I was stepping into a new situation. 

People stared at me while I walked down the street; I was the only white person in the area. Even if it meant dripping in sweat, I dressed conservatively, in long pants and loose t- shirts since it is a Muslim country and modesty is valued. I wore shorts two days out of two months; I was stared at even more on those days. I saw women and men look me up and down and stare at my legs. 

When some men became interested in me, I told them my boyfriend was meeting me soon. I felt safer having these men think I was not alone in this country. Some taxi drivers did not respect my negotiating skills since I was a woman. When men negotiated for me, they often got a much better deal. I had to act confident wherever I was going or doing, even if I was lost or out of money and walking to find an ATM. I did not want to come across as helpless. 

There were also situations when I said I was from Canada. Sometimes it was just easier to say that than to say I was American and then have to explain American foreign policy or be looked at sideways and asked why Americans hate Muslims. 

Most people were extremely friendly and helpful. Many people asked how my day was and were actually interested in my answer. Once when I was lost and standing on the side of the dirt road, a man called two of his friends to ask them directions for me. 


 

One of the activities I enjoyed the most was riding the local buses. The buses were more like big vans and as many people as possible squeezed in, often getting on as the bus was in motion. The buses had a starting and ending spot written on them but the route they took to get to those places could differ. I was once on a bus that made a U-turn because of traffic and went down a different road. 

On the bus, I was an equal. No one cared what color my skin was, if I was male or female, or where I was going. All they cared about was whether I paid the bus fare and if I could squeeze on the bus with all the other sweaty people in the heat of the day. (There was no air conditioning on the buses and often I did not get a seat, much less one by the window). The bus drivers called me “dada,” or sister in Swahili, just like all the other women on the bus. 

While I was scared that time we drove to the restaurant in the open vehicle thinking someone could reach in and grab me, I would never change the experience I had in Tanzania. I learned about another culture firsthand. For example, I learned that Tanzanians love their morning tea, which I was offered many times each morning. Most Tanzanians I met were very proud of their peaceful country, a legacy of their first president Julius Nyerere, who must people in the country remember. 

While in Tanzania, I also learned about myself and my limits. For example, brushing my teeth with bottled water can get very tedious after doing it for a few weeks. But, I would not trade that one annoying activity for all of the friendly people I met and experiences I had. I will never forget watching older women full of wrinkles bending down to sweep the dirt on their property with a little brush to get their house clean for the day. Brushing my teeth with bottled water is not something to complain about anymore. 

As long as women have an open mind about other cultures, understand the situation they are in, and are somewhat adventurous, any trip to a developing country will be a learning experience and enjoyable. As I was told many times in Tanzania, “be free.” Women should be free, and not scared, to travel to developing countries, as long as they are smart about it. 

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© Meredith Chait

Last modified on Sunday, 01 November 2015