Parched Isn’t a Cool Way to Die

This is the first of my “East African Travel Tips for Dummies by a Dummy” series.
This colleague looks at me like I’m some kind of senile old woman peeing on my pants.  The sight of water droplets trickling from the edge of the chair to the floor obviously beats his understanding. Not that I can blame him. You see, he looks all fresh and comfortable while I melt gradually and shrink into a human prune right before his baffled Sudanese eyes.
It is not funny being in the middle of an African savannah where the temperatures spike up to 41 degrees on a daily basis and ignite everything on its path—whether it’s one’s temper or the dry grasses outside. In fact, as of this writing, there is a bushfire just a few meters away. Nothing to worry about. It’s normal in this part of the world, until it burns your house.

So yeah, I’ve been getting e-mails from some people who were gracious enough to drop by my blog, asking me to give them a few tips about traveling in Africa. I’m not really a seasoned traveler and I’ve only set foot in East Africa, but I guess I can give a tip or two to prepare you for the trip that you’ve probably dreamed of all your life, if you’re like me.
As I’m writing this, the damn heat is frying my brain, which brings me to the first topic of my “East African Travel Tips for Dummies by a Dummy” series—keeping cool (and healthy) under the African sun.
Africa has varied climate patterns. In South Sudan, where I am now, it is the peak of the dry season, and saying that the sun is “scorching” would be an understatement. Some parts of East Africa are a bit cooler (by cooler, I mean more bearable heat during the dry season) like Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Nairobi in Kenya, and Kampala in Uganda. I had to specify because other areas in those countries might also be as hot or even hotter than South Sudan—like the eastern part of Ethiopia, northern Uganda probably, and northern Kenya. You get the picture.
So to fully enjoy the authentic African experience, here are a few tips, if you may call them that.
  • Water is life!
Hydrate! Hydrate! And yes, hydrate! You know that seemingly overpriced thermos bottle that you skipped on your travel shopping list and dismissed as impractical could actually save your life! It keeps whatever liquid inside cool. Can you drink anything from your trusty Nature’s Spring plastic bottle if it has molded itself into a rock formation with molting lava inside? Probably not.  If you’ve not lived in a desert since birth, it might be worth shelling out a few more pesos for that thermos bottle. Even tropical creatures like me won’t stand a chance in this heat!
You don’t want to end up like this poor thing. Photo credit: CRSP
  •  Light Clothes, Not Sheer
Light-colored cotton blouses or tank tops with linen trousers or flowy maxi skirts would do you good. You won’t only look and feel fresh, you won’t also scandalize the locals. Yes, it’s okay to wear a sheer blouse under that tenee wenee string bikiny with decent shorts if you’re lounging under the Zanzibar or Mombasa sun. But when you’re walking in the middle of Kampala or riding a matatu in Nairobi, save the innocent locals from committing sins of the imagination. Or better yet, save yourself from humiliation. The boda-boda drivers might not find your mzungu (white person) legs attractive and will just throw insults at you. So a friendly advice: no matter how perfectly shaped your mom thinks your legs are, you may keep them to yourself for now.

I’ve covered myself appropriately, the soldiers behind me didn’t even bat an eyelash.

If you’re going on safari, you may consider wearing khaki-colored linen trousers, so it won’t be too obvious that you’re covered in red dust.

  •  Accessorize!
If you can afford one, buy real UV-filtering sunglasses if you don’t want a cornea transplant when you get back home. Needless to say, the harsh sun is just too harsh for our sensitive eyes. Try getting a snail out of its shell, put it under the sun, and imagine it’s your eyes. Okay, maybe not a very good analogy. But you get my point.

A hat is must. The wider the brim, the better. If you don’t fancy looking like one of those ancient women during the colonial times, you can get either a safari or a fisherman’s hat that’s wide enough to cover your face and back of the neck. If you’re a baseball-cap person, you would probably need to slather sunblock lotion on your nape and ears every thirty minutes or so—and miss a good photo of the rare leopard. So I suggest, dish the cap.

Make the pashmina scarf your best friend—yes, even you, my hunky buddy. You can use it to cover your head, your hair, your face, your nape, your cleavage, your shoulders, your arms, and every other body part you can think of. Unless you want an instant dust-matted dread locks, forget pashmina and let the breeze engulf you in its dusty splendor.
Know thy audience. 🙂
Wear sturdy sandals or flip flops when exploring the cities, but better stick to closed shoes (a pair of socks an added bonus) when trekking in bushy areas such as on a safari. This is not to scare you or anything, but Africa has its fair share of some of the world’s deadliest snakes. It’s also home to scorpions that often come out from wherever they’re hiding during the dry season and sting like hell. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it was one of the most excruciating eight hours of my life.
  •  Spell SPF by heart
Believe it or not, SPF actually works if you get the kind that’s not made from chalk and other whitish stuff (hopefully not bird droppings), or something like that. So take time to get one that suits your skin. The spray types are usually so much better than the lotion form, as they absorb quickly and don’t melt.  Some beauties with oily skin may find themselves looking like a cooking-oil factory after, or some might look like they’ve been inside a bakery. Not cool, but still better than sunburn, the peeling kind. 

You don’t have to go overboard with the sunscreen, though. I’ve read somewhere it’s more effective to apply it in moderate amounts more often, than applying half of the bottle once a day.

Use sunblock in moderation. 
  •  Don’t Fall Out with Your Doctor
Keep your doctor’s mobile number with you at all times, just in case you panic and don’t know what to do when you or one of your travel buddies get heat stroke or got bitten by a mamba (God forbid). Better yet, get the contact of a local clinic or the IAA (International Air Ambulance), just in case. Sure your first aid skills or superhero powers might help, but there are things that are better left to the professionals.
There! There’s nothing new really. I’m sure you’ve read this type of advice a hundred of times already. But well, a reminder doesn’t hurt, right?
So stay cool and safe and healthy. If you come by South Sudan or Uganda, drop me a line or two. Would love to hit the road with you—I’m serious.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and shove myself inside the fridge. More “tips” to come!
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5 Comment

  1. AJ says: Reply

    Ok I'll keep a mental note of this till I make it to your neck of the woods…or dune of the desert. Take from the South Sudan expert, indeed! Bushfire, dang that sounds worse than crab lice infestation. 😉

    Pashmina, I'm totally cool with that. I've always wanted to wear one, but there never was a valid excuse. One reason to go to Somalia!

    Snakes and scorpions? Ok I'm wearing boots! Two of my hatest creatures, like ever.

    LOL'd at the last photo! I just might do that when the weather forecast is 41 degrees with a chance of bushfire.

    Way to go, Reiza. Love the African perspective you bring to the blogging plate. 🙂

  2. admin says: Reply

    Haha! AJ, I felt so stupid for having panicked during the first bushfire. While my adrenalin was pumping, and while I ran back and forth to find the water hose,the men in my compound were just drinking tea and looking so calmly at the blazing fire! So hmmm . . . I'd rather have bush fire than crab live infestation. 🙂

    You will totally look cool with pashmina. Most Arab men pull it off. And you don't have to go to Somalia. Unless you fancy pirates. 🙂

    I'm with you on the anti-snake and anti-scorpion group. So far, I've only seen a green mamba and some grey snakes, and been bitten by a scorpion. Some bragging rights there! 🙂

    Thanks for dropping, AJ. Your comments always make my day.

  3. You'd be the perfect travel companion!

  4. Reiza, I think I might want to hire you as my stay-out-of-Stupid-Trouble guide. Everything you write makes so much sense, but would I actually think of it/ Prolly not.

    Then again, I'm not planning a trip to exotic parts in the forseeable future.

  5. great tips… going to Africa is indeed in my bucket list… i just wish i can stand the heat 🙂

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