I must admit, I have been fortunate to meet a huge number of friendly and welcoming people on my various travels over the years, but the choice for this category is actually quite an easy one. With a very honourable mention for the people of Egypt, where we had such an amazing welcome two years ago, and discounting the Canadians and New Zealanders (some the most consistently polite, helpful and friendly people I have encountered) as I have never actually been to their countries, my selection is Zimbabwe.
I spent two months backpacking there during my student days in 1995, one of the best experiences of my life. Wherever I went in the country (and I covered quite a bit of it) the people were almost universally hospitable, generous and good humoured. The instances of people helping me out, with information or lifts when hitchhiking, and simply offering a warm welcome and sharing a drink with a lone traveller in their country are too numerous to list. And what impressed me most of all was that, in a country of huge social and economic inequality, the tremendous friendliness and generosity was across the board. To give just two examples of what I mean…
In the first week of the trip, I met a family while camping at Lake Kariba. After spending several wonderful days in their company, they invited me to stay at their house in Harare at the end of my trip. Taking them up on their offer, I rounded off my tour of the country with almost a week at their house – with a bar, pool room, outdoor swimming pool – and was treated to delicious meals, taken out for dinner and to the races and was never allowed to put my hand in my pocket once.
A few weeks previously, I had been camping in the Matopos National Park, where I got to know some of the park rangers. They invited me to their evening social gathering at one of the park camps, where I joined them for a superb evening of beer, chat and laughter. The next day, I was talking again to two of them at lunchtime, when one of them asked if I would like to join them in the lunch his wife had prepared for the pair. Accepting the invitation, we began to eat, but I quickly noticed that the one who made the offer was not having anything, and I realised he had offered me his own share. Expressing my gratitude, I insisted he join in too, and the three of us ate a very simple, traditional African meal with our hands, out of a tupperware dish, sitting on the ground in the sunshine.
Very different recollections, but for me a great demonstration of what I found throughout Zimbabwe – no matter how much or little the people had, they were always willing to share it with you, and to give their time, a smile and a friendly chat to a visitor to their country.
As I have read and seen on TV the things that have happened in Zimbabwe over the years since then, I think often of all the wonderful people I met there, and the tragedy of such a great country suffering such misery through the excesses of corrupt government. My hope is that the spirit of the people will help them to get through the tough times, as they deserve a peaceful, happy and prosperous future.