I'm Kevin Perry, 52 years, grew up in Portland, Oregon, but now living in Seattle. I’ve had the urge to see the world and travel as long as I remember. As a child, we were too poor to do anything more than camping trips to the Oregon coast, but I was determined to get out and about as soon as possible, so when I turned eighteen I took the money I’d been saving for college my entire childhood, and jumped on a Greyhound bus to Miami instead, with the hope of crewing on a sailboat in the Caribbean. That particular dream didn’t work out, but I had an adventurous winter in Miami Beach (working for a mafia-owned hotel, there are stories, but this isn’t the venue), and then spent three months riding a bicycle across the country back to Portland the following summer.
I managed several long trips over the next few years as I worked first through college and then with street kids in Seattle, until about 15 years ago when I took a more corporate job. Taking on a 9-5 job could have killed my chances for taking the long trips that I enjoy so much, but I was extremely lucky in that my coworkers and managers have loved to travel vicariously through me. Together we have conspired for me to be able to take 6-7 weeks off every winter for the last 15 years; which is long enough to go pretty much anywhere in the world.
What interests you most about traveling?
I love the experience of dropping down into a completely unfamiliar culture, entirely on my own, and just figuring out how things are done, and how to manage for myself. I’m definitely primarily a cultural traveler, in that I’m most attracted to places and cultures that are the most different from my own, so that I can experience how things are the same, and how things are different. I always travel on a pretty low budget, both because part of the way I get so much time off is by taking unpaid leave, but also because staying in simple local hotels and taking public transport connects you more directly to the normal day-to-day life of a place. Public transport particularly can be the great leveler, especially in places where there is a vast economic gap between any traveler and most local people. On a long uncomfortable bus ride, you’re just another passenger trying to get through a grueling experience, and in fact the connections made in those conditions can lead you in entirely unexpected, sometimes magical directions.
For the past several years, you have spent a significant amount of time traveling through Africa, going everywhere from Sierra Leone to Madagascar. What have been some of your experiences?
Different destinations in Africa have often fit my criteria, particularly these last ten years. My ideal is to be able to just throw myself out in a general direction, by motorcycle, boat or some other transport, with no real firm idea of where I’ll be staying each night, but having a pretty good level of confidence that things will work out. The Turtle Islands in Sierra Leone were like that. I wasn’t certain which Island I was going to end up on, and I was prepared to sleep on the beach. But when I arrived on Baki Island, I discovered the village had just refurbished the ruins of a freshman’s house into a communally owned guest house. It was perfect and a little slice of heaven for a few days.
Sailing down the coast of Madagascar was the same sort of experience. I hired Gilbert and Terry off the beach in Morondava along with their out-rigger canoe, initially for just the first leg of the trip to Tulear, thinking that I would hire other Vezo boatmen as I needed to move on. We got along so well that I ended up hiring them for the whole ten days I was there. We were never certain how far the winds would take us each day, so we were prepared to sleep on the beach, but ended up making it to small fishing villages each night. The whole experience was an incredible glimpse into the Vezo way of life on the sea. Hitchhiking offers a similar sort of experience, and was the only affordable way to get across Northern Uganda to Kidepo National Park, or from Dogon country in Mali down into Burkina Faso, both experiences which were grueling at times, but absolutely magical overall.
What are surprised you most about some of the African nations you visited?
The most pleasant surprise for me, particularly about travel in rural Africa, is that you can be completely whimsical in your plans. In places like Sierra Leone or Burkina Faso, you can hitch-hike or hire a motorbike and head out into the bush with only the vaguest of notions of where you'll be spending the night, and things will work themselves out. You'll end up staying in a village where the people are surprised and delighted to have you as a guest. The sometimes difficult logistics of transport are also one of the greatest charms of African travel; you will find yourself in completely unpredictable, sometimes physically uncomfortable, but ultimately delightful situations.
How would you describe your culinary experiences during your travels within Africa?
The most memorable food experiences I have are from the night street-stalls that pop up in most small African towns after dark; whether it's fried plantains or roasted goat. Being willing to eat the street food (and join in the drinking at the beer shacks) will greatly enhance your understanding of the local cultures.
Do you have a favorite memory that stands out from your many trips throughout Africa?
The favorite memory of this last trip to Madagascar was the morning on the trip down the coast where we had to depart at 3 AM to catch the high tide required to get out of the lagoon. The sea was dead calm as we paddled out, and the water was thick with phosphorescence that swirled behind us with each paddle stroke. The Milky Way and southern-cross were brilliant overhead, and the sky was streaked with meteors every ten or twenty seconds. Just as I was thinking that things couldn’t really be any more perfect of beautiful, the sun began to paint the sky as it rose. It was just one of those awe-inspiring times where you can’t really believe the world can be so beautiful.
What advice do you have for individuals that want to start travelling within Africa, but are intimidated?
Travel within Africa is no big deal. I think many folks who have never been are intimidated, but the truth is that it's easy to do, mostly because of the generally warmly hospitable reception you will get. My biggest recommendation to future travelers would be to give yourself time and don't try to do too much. The joys of African travel often come in the unexpected, and that takes flexibility built into your schedule. Choose an area that interests you, and spend some unstructured time there. It’s the unexpected/unplanned things (often when plans have gone awry) that end up being the most satisfying and memorable.
What’s next for you?
I’m headed to Bangladesh and quite excited about it. I will be in Dhaka for the Bishwa Ijtema, an Islamic gathering of 6-7 million pilgrims, which promises to have some interesting visuals. I’m also hoping to get access to some of the ship-breaking yards outside of Chittagong, because their scale has always captured my imagination. I’m also already contemplating next year’s trip, and leaning pretty heavily towards the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, but that decision is a few months out.
To see more of Kevin's outstanding photography, be sure to follow him @Ventureforthphoto on Instagram
Images Courtesy of Kevin Perry