I’ll never forget the day I checked in for my flight to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was at South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport and had been waiting in line forever. When I finally reached the counter, the agent took one look at my ticket and asked why I was going to the DRC. When I replied, “For vacation,” he laughed.
I admit, my vacation choices aren’t always conventional. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in an actual hotel—the kind with hot running water, fluffy towels, or any real amenities aside from a can of bug spray next to the bed. During a recent trip to Chad, I didn’t have a room. I spent 19 days sleeping in the great outdoors—and going to the loo there, too—while crossing the Sahara Desert. I showered twice in 21 days: the morning I left the capital city of N’Djamena, and the afternoon I returned. For the first five days on the road, I didn’t have soap to wash my hands with. A novice at camping, it never even occurred to me to bring any.
But none of that mattered. I loved every single minute of the trip, and was desperately sad when it came to an end. True, having a mixture of sheep, goat, and donkey poo splashed all over the pants I was wearing—one of only two pairs I’d brought with me and would have to continue wearing for another week—was not awesome. But that was a small price to pay for the chance to experience the vast, eerily beautiful nothingness of the Sahara, or hold a 370-million-year-old fossil in my hands, or a tool carved from stone that connected me through time directly back to the person who created it, some 7,000 years ago.
I went for a week without showering when gorilla tracking with pygmies in the Noubalé-Ndoki National Park. But unlike in Chad, in this pristine, two-million-square-mile rain forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was given a bucket of water to wash with each night. I also used this same bucket as my en-suite toilet in the small hours of the night, not because I didn’t want to walk alone through a forest filled with wild animals, but because of my abject fear of the outhouse filled with maggots and large flying insects.
I travel to far-flung places of my own volition, for the same reason a chicken crosses the road. If you want to see the world, you have to put up with in whatever digs the world has to offer.