Since my return from Uganda, I’ve had some time to reflect upon a lot about my travels here in Africa. I was thinking it might be useful if I came up with a sort of “advice column” blog just this once in case anyone is hoping to travel to East Africa at any point in the future.
First, I call this “My list of practical things that you should bring.”
- Mosquito nets are a must-have. If you think you will not be bitten while you are asleep you are terribly mistaken, no matter how much mosquito repellent you use. And on that note, do take malaria pills. I recommend Malerone because I haven’t had any issues with it thus far, and some of the other ones come with concerns such as making people psychotic and causing crazy dreams. Even if you plan to sleep under a net still take the pills because the mosquitoes will find you! I have slept under a net in a bed coated with bug spray with all of the windows closed and I still woke up with bites.
- Related to that, bring anti-itch cream. And bring the good stuff because the generic brands probably will not suffice. Actually, bring two. God, I hate mosquitos.
- If you are a woman I recommend bringing tampons. You can’t buy them here. And related to that, if you know what a go-girl is then invest in one! I don’t have one but they’re awesome because they allow you to pee like men, which is rather useful in those icky squatting toilets with bugs all buzzing around.
- Wear comfortable shoes. But don’t bring shoes that you don’t want to get dirty or wet. I brought a pair of Keen sandals that have been super useful for me. You do a lot of walking here, so comfort is more important than style! (I know I say that and don’t always adhere to it…but it’s the thought that counts, right?)
- I suggest bringing snacks such as power bars or granola bars. I personally did not do this, but a few people in my group did and they have been very useful. People eat meals at different times here so a quick American snack is nice every once in a while. Also, comfort food is never overrated. I spend more money on chocolate than I probably should. If you like chocolate, bring plenty.
- Make sure you have more than one adaptor! You will probably lose one if you plan to stay for a while. Also, some are better than others so it’s never bad to have options.
- Make sure you have hand sanitizer!! Random children WILL come up and grab your hands. And babies put their mouths all over the seats in the public buses, so make sure you sanitize often.
- Have extra hair ties and hair pins if you have long hair. It’s Africa; it’s hot. You will not want hair in your face. If you don’t mind shaving your head, that’s not a bad idea either. That way you don’t have to pack as much shampoo! Win-win. Actually, that’s a really good idea. Go bald to Africa- way easier.
- A rain coat and an umbrella are necessary, especially if you will be visiting during the rainy season. And travel with both on you at all times, because it will always rain on the day you don’t have your raincoat. This is a proven fact.
Next, I call this list “The stupid stuff that I brought and definitely didn’t need.”
- My hair dryer and hair straightener. Who the hell does their hair in Africa? Why would you straighten your hair when the heat will make it curly in an hour? And you’ll likely blow out a fuse if you use a hair dryer with an adaptor. Stupid idea. Waste of weight and space.
- I brought a lot of nail polish to Rwanda. While I don’t entirely regret this, bringing five different options probably wasn’t really necessary. Two would have been sufficient. For normal people, none is probably plenty.
- I brought iodine drops for water in case I needed it. While this isn’t a terrible idea, I still haven’t used it at all. I think buying bottled water is safer all around and it’s very easy and cheap to get. Definitely a better option.
Here’s my final list. I like to call this the “Stuff that everyone told me was stupid but were actually awesome ideas” list.
- MY SNUGGIE WAS THE SINGLE GREATEST THING I PACKED. No lie. I use it every night and it is perfect for the nighttime weather here. If nothing else, it will spark up a really interesting conversation with the Africans you meet about American stupidity and materialism. And they will have a good laugh when you show them how to wear it. (“No, I swear it’s not a robe! Don’t you see? You wear it the other way!”)
- Thirty pairs of underwear. No one likes washing clothes by hand. So why not wait a month to do it? Okay…yeah, I see the flaw in this argument…but it works for me.
Now for some basic advice:
- When a child comes up to you and forcefully says “give me money,” you really shouldn’t give them money. They are likely asking for one of two reasons. 1) It’s the only phrase they know in English and they don’t actually need money at all. 2) They are actually begging for money, but any money you give them will not go to the right place. If you have food or stickers or something that will be fun for them that is a far better option.
- Do NOT be alarmed when giant swarms of children chase after you shouting “ABAZUNGU!!!!!!!!” They’re just excited. In all likelihood they do not intend to attack you.
- If you walk past a pack of people and you hear the word “mzungu” and/or people start laughing, it’s true – they are definitely laughing and talking about you. Don’t be offended. You’re white and likely confused. It’s funny.
- Try your best not to look confused. If you look confused, everyone will notice, and they will try harder to rip you off. I once had the money collector on the bus try to rip me off by 200 rwf because I looked like I didn’t know where I was going, and those are supposed to be fixed prices.
- You better like rice and bananas. Because that is all you will eat here.
- If your bag is overweight you probably don’t need half the crap you packed. You don’t need to learn that the hard way because I already did for you.
I suppose that’s it for advice. If anyone plans on traveling here I assure you this information is useful even though it sounds ridiculous. I would have laughed at anyone that told me half of these things before coming here, but you’ve got to trust me on this one. Seriously, bring a snuggie. You’ll thank me. Don’t own one? Get one.