This is not just a collection of stories – it is the story: a chronicle of my life’s adventures and those of my parents, who imbued in me a curiosity for the world. Over the course of the next however long it takes, I shall be delivering this story to you piece by piece, in succulent little bite-sized hors d’oevres of adventure and awesomeness. There will also be tales of occasional idiocy and human flaw, for travel holds a mirror up to our inner selves and reveals both the beauty and the ugly.
I grew up in a family who liked to travel. My parents had met in South Africa and weren’t married for more than a few hours before they boarded a Union Castle Line vessel – a working mail boat – bound for the United Kingdom that would take them far away from the meddlesome influences of my truly insufferable paternal grandmother. They subsequently spent the next two decades bouncing from one continent to the other, budget travelling harder than Syrian refugees. When necessary, they would drop anchor, get a job, and earn a little money, only to get itchy a year or two later and set sail for the next adventure.
My mother has a beautiful silver bracelet, which she has adorned with charms purchased in almost every new city or country she has visited. The damn thing just about weighs a pound, which just goes to show how well traveled my folks are. Its tinkling would also announce her impending arrival long before she entered a room, which saved my ass from trouble many times during childhood. Australia, Belize, Cambodia, Denmark, El Salvador, Fuji, Germany, Honduras, Italy…for every letter of the alphabet,they can name a country and at least a handful of cities they’ve seen. And so, my brother and I were raised on an intellectual diet of travel anecdotes, geography, and world history.
My parents are walking tomes of travel knowledge, which I have had the extraordinary privilege of tapping into my whole life, not only for the purpose of cracking High School geography but also for my own adventures. My father is particularly fond of recounting old travel anecdotes that end either in a comedic punch line or with someone getting diarrhea, and often both. My mother, on the other hand, loves to thoroughly research a country before visiting and so could just about bore you to death with a sweeping account of its history and culture.
To this very day, my parents speak fondly of five decades of travels as though they have just come back home from the airport. I can’t even get my dad to remember how to work WhatsApp properly and yet, he can tell you in exquisite detail all about their adventures in South America, camping out in the Amazon jungle, escaping political coups in Columbia, and visiting the lost city of the Incas in Peru, all the while dodging cases of “Montezuma’s revenge” and refusing offers of cocaine around communal camping fires. Moreover, he speaks as fondly of these harrowing experiences as one might of a long-loved, yet long-dead family cat.
With two brave, intrepid explorers for parents, I grew up with a particular vulnerability to travel bug infection, which was made fatal when they took my brother and I on our first international holiday.
Singapore and Malaysia
Having kids did little to interfere with my parents’ love of travel and in 1994, when I was nine, we were whisked off to Singapore and Malaysia on an epic three-week adventure of which I have a collection of faded snapshot memories. Starting in Singapore, I remember the cloying heat and humidity, it’s vegetal tropical smell, impeccably clean streets, the delicious coolness of its sleek, air-conditioned public transport system, and skyline of chrome-and-glass skyscrapers.
I remember waffles for breakfast at McDonalds, a spectacular waterfront area guarded by the mythical half lion, half mermaid (Merlion) statue, and spending a day at a waterpark. It was here that I fell completely in love with Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” orchestral suite, which was played as a soundtrack for one of the fun rides. It’s funny the silly things we remember as kids.
Then, moving on to Malaysia, I remember sinister-looking komodo dragons sprawled out on a beach we visited, the awful smell of stinky dugong fruits in the open-air markets, and the enchantment I felt at watching amphibious fish called “mudhoppers” skip across the fetid mudflats.
I remember being chased by cantankerous temple-dwelling monkeys, ordering apple juice off a restaurant menu and receiving a glass of chunky, pulverized apple, and, on a rickety bus ride somewhere, watching an old Malaysian gentleman eat some kind of cream bun and thinking, man that looks delicious. I remember relieving myself in the hole in the floor that was the bathroom of the island-hopping boat we had hired for the day and feeling terribly distressed that I had ruined the beautiful turquoise waters with a monstrous turd, the kind of which only back-to-back days of hard travel and strange food can concoct. I agonized over whether or not to tell my family to vacate the water but embarrassment won the day.
P.S. I was a kid – I stopped pooping the minute I became a lady.
My early travels with my family are a collection of these sorts of snapshots: multi-faceted compositions of colour, sound, smell, visuals, and remembered emotion.
Travels in Southern Africa
About a year later, in 1995, our family and my parents’ friends embarked upon a safari style trip to Zimbabwe, catching a two-night train from Cape Town all the way to Bulawayo, a major city in southwest Zimbabwe. From here, we toured the country’s largest game reserve, Hwange National Park, and drifted for a few days in a houseboat on Lake Kariba. We hiked the Matobo Hills and took in the breathtaking Victoria Falls, even walking across the bridge to visit Zambia for a fleeting moment.
I have a lasting impression of each place – again, all sensory compositions that are difficult to craft actual narratives around. I remember being young and feverishly excited by nature. I kept a list of all the birds and animals and would shriek in excitement every time we saw something new. I imagine my parents’ friends wanted to garrotte me on those lengthy game drives but my parents were nothing but patient; grateful to have a child who was enthusiastic about nature and travel. It’s rarer than you would think.
In 2000, I simultaneously embarked upon a journey through puberty and Botwana’s Okavango Delta, an oasis of waterways, lush vegetation, and sprawling savannah in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. We travelled with a guide and his elderly chain-smoking lady friend who drove us around in a weathered safari vehicle, cooked dinner over a fire each night, and told us the most spectacular stories about past adventures in the bush. We journeyed through a spectrum of landscapes and witnessed a staggering diversity of wild animals and birdlife, from African fish eagles and great eagle owls to little bee-eaters, crimson shrikes, and lilac-breasted rollers.
We explored the delta’s intricate network of waterways by mokoro, a Botswana dugout canoe, and were treated to a flight over the region in a 6-seater propeller plane. How I wish I had discovered the joys of photography early on, for then my souvenirs of these magical places would be more than just a collection of memories, obscured by my inexorably advancing age and perhaps just a little tequila-induced memory loss.
I remember the acute sense of freedom I felt at being out in the bush with absolutely no fences to keep the wildlife out of our camp. At the time, I was also in a particularly cloying relationship with a boy who was excessively protective and quick to get angry if I didn’t pander to his insecurities.
To illustrate, he once showed up at my door on a night he was supposed to go out. When I asked why he wasn’t out partying with his friends – privately grumbling that my night of toenail clipping, series bingeing, and popcorn hoovering had been ruined – he told me that he couldn’t trust himself to behave so he decided to do the gentlemanly thing. I think he expected me to be grateful or proud of him for not cheating on me. Instead, I shat all over his head and sent him home. He stormed out the house, furious, which lasted about a minute before he came back knocking on the door to engage in further heated debate. I was 15 at the time and even though he was my first real-ish boyfriend, I knew bullshit when I smelled it.
The point is, going away to the Okavango Delta got me away from the noise and discomfort of a suffocating relationship and into the bush, where the distractions on offer invigorated and awakened my soul. Travel gave me such a healthy perspective on life, my problems, and the way forward, and it still does. Even though the spiders in Botswana are the size of cats, our campsite was routinely marauded by baboons, and a hornbill voided its bowels into my eye – not even exaggerating on that one – I absolutely loved it and will definitely make my pilgrimage back there before I kick the bucket.