Lessons from the Bartender

I remember walking onto the beach to take this picture and feeling absolutely nothing. Low tide had sucked away almost all of the sky blue water, leaving a fleet of fishing boats anchored to an ocean that wasn’t there. If I had come a few months earlier, I would have been in awe. On that day, I could not have cared less. I took the picture so I’d have something to put on my blog.

That’s when I knew I needed to stop. After seven months of traveling through southern Africa, enduring day long bus rides in cramped coaches, camping in unreasonable heat and chilling colds, and feeling like I was always packing up as soon as I’d unpacked, I was tired. The novelty of travel had ebbed away.

So for a month, I worked as a bartender in a small tourist town on the coast of Mozambique. I was in the middle of the travel circuit between southern and northern Mozambique, trading stories with other travelers over cold beers on warm nights.

Here’s what I learned:

Open Your Eyes


The hostel I worked in had been open for about three years, but it was not in any guidebook. It was located on the same street, not more than a three minute walk away from a more popular hostel that was in every guidebook.

Although the accommodation at the hostel I worked in was sub-par, the dinner was locally inspired, always fresh, and significantly cheaper than any other restaurants in the area. We ate fresh calamari, crab, and curries almost every night. And it was good. The owner even had this neat little trick where he’d wait until he saw that everyone was full and satisfied, and then bring out second helpings of everything, and we’d watch people’s eyes almost pop out of their heads. Everyone who came there once came back again.

Despite the huge signs in front of his hostel (honestly, you might be able to see this guy’s signs from a nearby island), most travelers who walked by looked straight past them. When I’d invite travelers to eat at the restaurant, they’d look around as though it had been built that day. Most of the time, we only see what we’re looking for.

Even the most seasoned travelers are guilty of this. We know what we’re looking for, and we’re single-minded in our search for it. But it’s important to remember that travel includes as many big adventures – going to a new country or city – as small adventures, like finding a new place to eat.

Learn the art of bartering


In the West, we’re used to a cash exchange economy. If you give me a certain amount of a service, I’ll give you a certain amount of money.

It’s somewhat different in many small towns I’ve visited in Africa (although I haven’t traveled much elsewhere, I think similar principles apply). Many businesses barter: no cash is exchanged, but services are.

I made a deal with the owner of the bar that, in exchange for working in the bar every night, I’d receive free accommodation and dinner. Most days, I ate free lunch, too. Because accommodation and food are a traveler’s two biggest daily expenses, I saved a ton of money.

Many, many travelers make these types of deals. I met a couple of art students who painted the kitchen and cleaned the refrigerator at a hostel in exchange for free accommodation. In Zambia, I heard about a massage therapist who gave the owners of a hostel free massages in exchange for a few days of accommodation. (I’m aware that some people believe I’ve taken a job away from a local person. I understand that argument, but I think every case is different. Sometimes the owner of a facility doesn’t have the cash to pay for the job they want done, or they haven’t found someone they think can do the job. My best advice is to use your discretion.)

Lastly, think outside the box when you’re considering the skills you offer. I had never been a bartender before, but I can count, I’m generally friendly, and I can make a drinkable rum and coke. Maybe you can update someone’s website or Facebook page (or start it if they don’t have one; many hostels haven’t figured out how to use social media yet). You can offer to cut the grass. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to offer your help and make a deal. You’ll lengthen your trip because of the money you save.

Don’t be afraid to stop


I was supposed to spend three days in this town. I could have soldiered on, fought through the fatigue and disinterest, and headed north as I’d planned. But I knew that would’ve been the wrong decision. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was complaining all the time. Travel was joyless, and I knew that if I continued, I’d just be going through the motions.

Spending a month in that town helped me rediscover the beauty of travel, but in a slightly different way. I was in awe of the everyday things. It was nice to go to the same market woman every day and buy tomatoes and onions, ask her what she was doing that night, and listen to her make fun of my Portuguese. It was nice to run into the street tailor on my way to the market and shout our greetings in bad Jamaican accents. It was nice to play soccer in the street and hear the kids yell “Americano, over here, pass me the ball!” It was nice to learn how to tell when a thunderstorm was coming so I could get my laundry off of the line in time. It was nice having the same stray dog sleep outside my tent every night and swim with me in the Indian ocean every morning. It was nice, for a change, to get depth, and not just breadth.

This, I hope, is the perfect tonic for the fatigued traveler: one part persistent curiosity, one part focused creativity and a touch of flexibility. Don’t forget to tip…

Want to know what it’s like to spend a year wandering around Africa? Check out my blog Gym Socks and Minibuses for more stories and photos!

Photo credits: PD Photos, PublicDomainPictures, PublicDomainPictures

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