WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (1) / by Mariam Harraz

I want to tell you my story. When I think back on it I can only hope someone will benefit from it. 

From a perspective of a muslim women, I questioned going on this trip many times. I wondered whether it would be harder for me on the road. How would I shower, swim, would it affect my prayers? And of course for some people it’s just the challenges that comes with being a woman. But for me and my family that didn’t matter

I was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and by the second year I was in remission. It's true you do become a different person when you're challenged by life. Before this I hardly had any passion to travel or explore. I was stuck on things that did not matter. It affected my work at university, my project ideas were just not captivating. I couldn't open my eyes to see the bigger picture. I struggled. A lot. 

After two months into my chemotherapy my father decided to take me away to Vienna before my third round and to get away from London for a bit. It was wonderful. Not only was it my first time travelling with my father by ourselves but it was the first time in a long time feeling the desire and need to explore. I can't describe it yet what I know is I won back that spark I had with life, and as cliche as it sounds - why it's worth living. 

So it began. Every opportunity I found from then on to travel, as I went through my treatment, I grabbed zealously. At times even the minute my chemotherapy session was over, I would run to grab my bag and head off. I started dreaming again and it felt exhilarating. My dream at the time was to attend a animation course at Harvard university in America. And I did it.

After that I returned home to London to complete my final year at university. I came back stronger and more open to new things. It wasn’t enough though. The more research I did and worked on my projects the more I itched to travel again. This time it wasn't around Europe, my eyes were set on Africa. A continent I am from but haven't lived in or can relate to. I spent every break I took from work to watch movies and documentaries on travel, women hiking to see the world seeking peace (is that what you meant?) or just pushing to get out of their comfort zone. 

One day I confessed to a friend "when I finish university I want to go travelling. I just yearn for it and miss the feeling of it." Luckily she replied saying that's what she wanted to do too. We decided to plan to travel together to Asia. Yet it didn’t feel quite right. I realised my focus was on something else, something different and something more meaningful to me. I need to go to Africa. Shockingly every time I mentioned it to anyone they would say, "what why? Why Africa? Aren’t u scared?” or “Oh my god that's scary going to Africa, you're alone on this one.” Still I was resolved to go. My mind was made up. 

When the time came to tell my parents, I was nervous. It felt slightly surreal and I can’t quite remember how I broke the news to them but I started off by carefully mentioning it. My initial plan was to travel around the continent for six months. Considering I had only recently completed my chemo treatment, my parents were instantly alarmed. It took a lot of negotiation and some serious compromise. I got two months in the end. Only Arabs negotiate. 

Only now I was facing another problem; no one was willing to travel to Africa with me. A friend pointed out to me a friend of hers had faced the same dilemma. She decided to post on as many websites as possible looking for a travel partner and a few days later a girl, who lived in the same city, got in touch with her. They ended up travelling together and became close friends. It gave me hope. I poured over books and sites spending countless hours looking for a travel partner who was not only keen to travel around Africa but on the same dates too. Every response I got was from a man, whom of course I have never met before, and it wasn't something I was eager to do. Then finally I came across a travel agency who plan tours all around the world. I took my sister and we headed there to discuss the options they offer.

I was giddy with excitement. It was exactly what I had been looking for. But my high quickly dropped to a low. The cost of the trip made my knees weak. It wasn’t just that though I was concerned about the group I would be travelling with, which I will only meet when I get there. What if they are not easy to get along with? This could ruin my entire experience. 

Also it was the idea of spending two months non-stop camping and being on the road. Would I be able to do it? I searched for other options, possibly just backpacking across this gorgeous continent on my own. 
I can't even begin to explain to you the extreme indecisiveness that followed. All I unquestionably knew was I had to go. I needed to pick up my old love for photography which I had left behind for so many years. What better chance did I have then now and in Africa. 

Living in London almost became painful for me. I associated everything with the hospital and my previous illness. It felt cluster-phobic in the city. A city that most people around the world want to visit. It was a necessity to leave, for a little while at least. 

Finally six weeks before making having to make a decision to go or stay. My thoughts flipped through my fears: fear of insects, my hate for the uncomfortable heat, my bad experience in the past with camping and my motion sickness when travelling by road. Suddenly it all seemed it did not matter as much anymore and it certainly didn't get in the way of booking my ticket. I wasn't going to let it stop me. I was going to do this means I was going to do it. Yes it will completely be out of my comfort zone and yes I had no idea who I was travelling with as well as how that would affect me. It also felt it was the biggest risk I was taking in my life (even riskier than signing my chemotherapy papers stating the side effects of it was death). I booked it. 

The day I picked up my luggage at the airport and stepped out in Cape Town, South Africa was the day that lump in my throat disappeared. I almost instantly felt peaceful and in the most content state I have ever found myself in.

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9372768.html?m=true&ncid=tweetlnkarhpmg00000001