travel, portugal

Some Things I Like (About Travel)


Lisbon, Portugal. Saturday afternoon, somewhere far from the city center.

I like this cafe, edged in fading sunlight, that flanks a nondescript park.

I like sitting by myself and soaking in unknown smells that will soon be memories.

I like following conversation like it’s music, unaware of any meaning beyond what I can discern from the melody.

I like sitting on the metro and not understanding a word anyone says.

I like struggling to understand basic signage.

I like not being sure whether the sign on the door says “push” or “pull.”

I like ordering from a menu at random.

I like not being sure which way to look before crossing the street…and then checking both ways twice, just to be safe.

I like when buildings surprise me by speaking, and streets by staying silent.

I like uneven cobblestones, and I like parts of cities no one tells you to go to because they are boring.

I like when a bus ride is an adventure; a walk around the block a quest.

I like feeling out of place.

I like blending in and feeling like I’ve gotten away with something.

I like when it’s not too easy.

I like when nothing can be taken for granted.

Most of all, I like getting lost in the unfamiliar, which renders humility not a choice, but an inevitable outcome.

It is good to be back here.

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Africa, Culture

My 9 Favorite South African Words & Phrases (so far)

This guy knows what I’m talking about.

Just a short one for today, as I want to spend the remainder of my day off out there in the sunshine!

South African English has proven to be full of delightful expressions that are just too good not to pick up. If you hear me using these in everyday speech, now you’ll know what the heck I’m talking about. Spend enough time here, and I bet you’ll find yourself using these words too!
Without further ado…

My 9 Favorite South African Words & Phrases (so far):

1. Lekker
    (Nice, great, good. Can be used to describe just about anything. From the Dutch word.)

2. Robots
    (Traffic Lights. I have no clue why they’re called robots.)

3. Isit? 
    (Is that so? Really? Oh yeah? Response to just about anything. Hard not to use once you start.)

4. Braai
    (Barbecue, both the verb and the noun. But somehow way more fun to talk about.)

5. Boet (5b. Bru)
    (A bro, “bru” then being the term boets would use to address one another… as I understand it.)

6. Yoh!
    (An exclamation of surprise, like “wow!” Pronounced with an aspiration on the “Y.”)

7. Aswell 
    (Me too. Emphasis on the “as.”)

8. Now now
    (Expresses immediate action—kind of. This should be #1, as it’s my new favorite expression.)*

9. Shebeen 
    (An illegal shop/drinking establishment. I haven’t been yet, but I can’t wait to go so I can use this word more frequently.)**

Well, there you have it. Come visit me in Cape Town—and you won’t be entirely lost in the verbaiage.

South African friends? Feel free to correct me if I got something wrong. Or share your favorite words, and I’ll add them to the list!


*The precise meanings of “now now” and its close counterpart, “just now” are quite nuanced and difficult to describe succinctly. Suffice it to say that neither of these actually promise imminent action.
**Update: Shebeens are no longer illegal, it would seem, and now hold licenses like any other store/restaurant in Cape Town… though it seems likely that illegal shebeens still exist!
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Africa, Culture

“Hakuna Matata”

Photo Credit: Flickr

“Hakuna Matata! It means no worries…”

I’m sure everyone can finish that sentence–especially those who, like me, grew up on The Lion King and other Disney movies.

Except, did you know “hakuna matata” actually does mean “no worries” in Ki-Swahili? Maybe I’m the odd one out, but I didn’t!

Hakuna, “there are no,” matata, “problems” (or worries, colloquially).

Incidentally, Simba, our favorite main character’s name, means “lion,” Rafiki, our favorite supporting monkey, means “friend,” and Nala means “gift.” The list actually goes on and on, fatally crushing my (totally baseless) childhood assumption that Disney had made it all up. That I can recall, no credit was given. Classic.

What I find really fascinating is the way the phrase “Hakuna Matata” has come to define tourism along the Swahili Coast in many ways.

The following are my observations and hypotheses only, and in no way represent a comprehensive study or survey of tourism in the region. With that caveat in mind, I think we have some good old-fashioned Orientalism at play here.

Very briefly put, “Orientalism” describes a process (first laid out by Edward Said in his 1978 book by the same name) by which Western, largely fictional accounts of an exotic, Eastern “Other” serve to reinforce existing cultural stereotypes. This “knowledge” is then internalized by those “Others” when they observe themselves through Western lenses and reflected back to Western observers as reality. The original sense of Orientalism was limited to academia and a particular corner of the globe; however, the concept can have far-reaching applications.

When it comes to the phrase “Hakuna Matata,” Disney’s The Lion King effectively fed generations of Americans (and others) a heavily fictionalized and distorted portrait of Swahili culture without our realizing it.

Now, in the parts of Tanzania and Kenya I have visited, it’s a catchphrase for rastas on the beach, shopkeepers, souvenirs (T-shirts, pottery, paintings, postcards, keychains, sarongs, and every form of kitsch) and tourism.

Photo Credit: The Hunt

It has managed to insinuate itself into the most mundane of daily interactions between tourists and locals: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine.” “Everything good? Hakuna Matata?” Or: “Coconut oil? Bracelet? Sister, you want something?” “No, thank you brother, I’m okay.” “Okay. Hakuna matata.”

And even in intrusive non-interactions: “Wei (You)! Where are you going? Just walking? Very good, Hakuna Matata.” Or muttered, half-interactions: “Helloooo.” “Hi.” “Jambooo. Helooo. Hakuna Matata…”

I don’t know what role those words played pre-Lion King and multi-million dollar tourism industry, but I doubt they were quite so widespread. Now, for the tourist world and the people that cater to it, those words are everything. I’ve started thinking of this as the “Hakuna Matata Complex,” though perhaps that’s undeserved.

My point is, whatever the initial impetus (did tourists’ expectations start the trend? did an enterprising salesman realize the opportunity for profit? I don’t know.), Hakuna Matata has become more than a catchy phrase to print on souvenirs.

It’s an identity and a brand. The East African coast seems to be turning into a caricature of itself—or, at least the face it presents to tourists is:

The carefree, “no worries” attitudes of the young men who roam the beach offering boat rides, bracelets and (sometimes) romantic flings. The escapist, happy-go-lucky language covering hotel brochures and tourism websites. The one-dimensional, highly stereotypical idea of a culture that is packaged, sold and summed up in two words: Hakuna Matata.

Most interesting are the many manners in which our favorite Swahili-turned-Disney slogan is used. Sometimes there is irony, and a look that I interpret as, “I am making a lot of money off your daft willingness to believe my culture boils down to two silly words, so I’ll follow the script.” Sometimes I read eagerness and sincerity: “Welcome to the land of Hakuna Matata. Really.” And sometimes I perceive something like resentment, which, considering the veritable flood of foreigners, would be understandable.

Sometimes, when I’ve heard “Hakuna Matata” for the thirtieth time that day, I want to tear someone’s Hakuna Matata T-shirt to shreds. I don’t. I just file it away in the Hakuna Matata compartment in my brain and keep walking… at some point, I will open that box and sort out what I’ve collected there. (This is a first attempt.)

I wonder: How many tourists go home thinking, “This is East Africa”?

I don’t know.

How many of the young men on the beach present this idea of themselves with sincerity, and genuinely identify with the Hakuna Matata Africa of brochures and T-shirts?

I don’t know. If they do, though, then these old and tired cultural stereotypes have triumphed, and indeed a limiting caricature has been made reality.

Or. Or maybe the joke is on us. Maybe there is more self-awareness and agency than I can observe from my position as an outsider. Maybe it’s not tourist demand driving Hakuna Matata supply, but a cheeky, ironic or simply pragmatic internal effort to determine how and by whose terms outsiders may experience Swahili culture.

I draw no conclusions as of yet, and only offer my working theories as food for thought. If anyone has been to this region and has a different perspective to share, I would love to hear it.

One thing is certain: It’s a wonderful phrase!

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Culture, Travel Advice

The Difference A Word Makes

[Greetings from Nungwi, Zanzibar, my new home-for-the-moment! It was a tough choice, but I decided to switch tracks and will now be living here and teaching yoga for the summer. Come visit. J]


Considering I will be here for so long, and mostly on my own, I decided my favorite method of dealing with unwanted attention and attempted sales—the “ignore and conquer” tactic—may not be my best option here. After all, I don’t really want to be that rude muzungu lady who never talks to anyone for three months (even if, secretly, I would be totally happy to have three reclusive months free of dealing with strangers).
Instead, I’ve decided, I will engage. Stop to chat with, or at least greet, everyone. Practice my increasingly passable Ki-Swahili.
And it’s amazing the difference a few words make. Knowing that “poa” is the response to “mambo,” the most common greeting. Even better, greeting with “mambo vipi,” a more colloquial version, rarely used by tourists.
Five basic words of greeting are all it takes to distance myself from foreigners “fresh off the Zanzibar ferry.” The fact that I can hold an introductory conversation and explain that I am here to live and work, all in (broken) Ki-Swahili? Just icing.
Being able to decline, politely, in Ki-Swahili when offered goods and services means I usually only need to say “no” once, rather than six or seven times. Already, I think I have probably avoided hours of pointless sales pitches for jet-skiing, fishing trips and spice tours.
It is truly incredible to observe the difference a word or two makes. Some seem to appreciate my effort, smiling or laughing with good-natured surprise. Others just respond in English, but my language skills are far too rudimentary for me to take offense at that. Overall, the response has convinced me to share my experience here.
To those traveling or living abroad who are tired of being treated as wallets (or breasts) with legs, try learning a few words of the local language. You’ll still stand out (and women, you’ll still be harassed), but you’ll also stand out from other tourists.
You don’t have to be fluent—no one expects you to be—even ten words will often make a huge difference.

Have you ever experienced the difference a word makes? What was it like?
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