A different kind of a roadtrip

When you say the word roadtrip, most people start visualizing images of never-ending North American highways, identical Burger Kings, and soulless roadside motels.

But the kind of roadtrip I have taken over the past few months through West Africa has been a world apart from its Yankee cousin.

It’s taken me through four countries, one occupied territory, a no-man’s land full of landmines, past countless herds of camels and cows and sheeps, through 30 hours of pure Saharan desert scenery, past more than 20 police checkpoints, into lush tropical greenery and a world of white sand beaches.

I started my trip in Morocco back in January and have over the past three months made my way through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau on a quiet, leisurely pace.

My modes of transport have consisted of shared Mercedes Benz bush taxis, colorful ramshackle minibuses, converted Chevy “Sept-Place” cars on the verge of a breakdown, a horse-drawn cart, a pirogue (a shaky little fisherman’s boat), big ferries, comfy buses, motorbikes and my own two feet.

At times I’ve been feeling totally out of place, surrounded only by men wearing a boubou, the Mauritanian version of a Moroccan jilaba

Other times I’ve felt right at home.


It’s been quite the adventure, and I’m sorry I haven’t  kept you updated all that well. Every day here in West Africa seems to be so full of adventure that each would warrant its own blog post, but that’s exactly why it’s hard to find the time to sit by the computer on a regular basis. Not a week goes by that I don’t feel a little guilty for not writing more, especially as my head is full of topics I’d love to discuss with you.

One of them is how Africa surely has the best children in the world. Never in my travels of 50+ countries have I encountered such happy, smiling, positive kids, without fail. I haven’t met a single teenager with attitude problems in West Africa nor a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the street.

Instead, I’ve met lovely boys like Makhtar, who smiled so radiantly on the beach in St. Louis, Senegal, that I just had to go say hello. I was so happy to learn his name, as it’s also the name of my favorite little boy in Mauritania.

And I’ve met beautiful girls like Jatou, who was my neighbor in Guinea-Bissau’s capital of Bissau for four days.

And I met tens of smiling kids in the rural village of Bouyouye in Casamance, Senegal.

How can you not feel overwhelming happiness when you look at these joyous faces? These guys and gals were my neighbors for a week in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

So again, I’m sorry for not including you in my everyday African life a little better. You certainly would have deserved it. But actually rather than a day-by-day count of my travels, I see this blog as being a place where I can share some particular snippets from the road and some observations I’ve made along the way. At least I say that to make myself feel better about it. 😛

If you have any particular questions about the logistics of traveling long-term, please don’t hesitate to ask. Just because it’s not in the blog, it doesn’t mean it’s a topic I am avoiding as I’d definitely love to help out with any info I may have. It’s just difficult to cover it all – especially while trying to also live in the moment, getting to know new cultures, learning new languages, and working as a professional  journalist all along.

Despite my lack of details, I hope this blog will still inspire some of you to take more unconventional roadtrips in the future. During my trans-Saharan trip I barely ran into any other travelers though there are certainly plenty of wonders to be discovered in this part of the world (and on six other continents!).

So please don’t be afraid to venture beyond those well-known vacation destinations, or to look for paths less beaten in those popular countries. At least for me this is the most rewarding way  to travel,  though it’s certainly not always easy or relaxing. In fact, after three months in West Africa, I’m ready for a vacation!

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My article about Morocco in Helsingin Sanomat

Yesterday my first article that I reported from the African continent was published in Finland. It’s a hotel review of sorts that I wrote for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper (that I modestly like to call “our New York Times“). I contribute pretty frequently for the travel section of HS, often about New York but sometimes about other places around the world as well.

This most recent article was part of a series called “A One Night Test”, where the writer spends a night in a unique hotel  and reviews the experience. I wrote about the dreamy desert oasis hotel of Ait Isfoul in Morocco, where I actually spent a whole week, as you may remember reading earlier.  This was not a story that I pitched myself, but instead one of my editors read my blog post and thought that a write-up of this sand castle would fit well within the “One Night Test” series. And here’s the result:


Unfortunately the print is tiny so it’s impossible to read the article online, and it is also in Finnish, which might be a small problem for some of you. 🙂

But since the article is not too long, I quickly did a rough translation of it for you. Those of you that prefer to read it in Finnish can find the original Finnish version pasted after the English one.

So here you go:

In the sand castle hotel, you’ll even be dreaming of sand

MOROCCO. Even in the pitch-black darkness you notice it. The hotel is like a carefully crafted sandcastle.

The fine sand of the Sahara crunches under our feet and smells in the air when we step out of the desert hotel owner’s black BMW. Millions of stars shine above us – the sky is even brighter than in Finland in the dead of winter. The temperature has gone down to zero. (I’m talking about Celcius here – that is -32 Fahrenheit.)

The main building’s high towers poking in the sky are reminiscent of the palace in Nintendo’s Mario Brothers game where the evil demon is holding the princess hostage. But here it’s not a princess who is held in captivity, but a price of sorts. Kamal Yassine, 26, has inherited the hotel and runs it with four of his friends.

My room is in the annex building. Cold air seeps in through the windows. All three blankets come into good use.

IN THE MORNING the donkey’s hollow cry welcomes the new day. Rays of sunshine light up the room. The walls are made of clay, there’s a blue-orange rag carpet on the floor. The window of the bathroom has been tucked shut with thin pieces of wood and scraps of plastic. Still,  the overnight sandstorm has caused sand to pile up on the floor.

Outside, an unreal view awaits: there are wave-like sand dunes  as far as the eye can see. They start right underneath the window as gentle ripples and grow into 30-meter tsunamis further out.

The breakfast consists of white bread, jam and overly-sugary tea. Our host Yassine has traded his black leather coat for a traditional North African outfit, a mossy green turban and an ankle-length jilaba jacket.

“I didn’t wan’t to scare you with these clothes last night. Maybe then you would have been too afraid to get into my car,” he laughs.

THE DESERT HOTEL stay includes a full board. A room for two costs 15 euro per person, or 30 euro per person with your own bathroom.

In the winter season the hotel is quiet and the host has time to entertain his guests. We go camel riding, admire the sunset from the dunes and listen to Berber songs by the bonfire.

www.aitisfoul.com

AND THE SAME THING IN FINNISH:

Hiekka tulee uniinkin hiekkalinnahotellissa

MAROKKO. Säkkipimeässäkin sen huomaa. Hotelli on kuin taidokkaasti taputeltu hiekkalinna.

Saharan hienojakoinen hiekkaa narskuu jalkojen alla ja tuoksuu ilmassa, kun astumme ulos Ait Isfoulin aavikkohotellin omistajan mustasta bemarista. Yläpuolella loistavat miljoonat tähdet – taivas on säihkyvämpi kuin Suomessa sydäntalvella. Lämpötila on laskenut nollaan.

Päärakennuksen korkeuksiin sojottavat sahalaitaiset tornit tuovat mieleen Nintendon Mario Brothers -pelistä tutun palatsin, jonne ilkeä örkki on vanginnut prinsessan. Mutta täällä ei ole vankina prinsessaa vaan pikemminkin prinssi. Kamal Yassine, 26, on perinyt hotellin ja pitää sitä nyt pystyssä yhdessä neljän ystävänsä kanssa.

Majoitun sivurakennukseen. Viima tunkee sisään ikkunoista. Kaikki kolme huopaa tulevat tarpeeseen.

AAMULLA aasin ontto kiljunta herättää uuteen päivään. Auringonsäteet valaisevat huoneen. Seinät ovat savea, lattiaa koristaa sinioranssi räsymatto. Kylpyhuoneen ikkuna on tikattu umpeen ohuilla puilla ja muovinsuikaleilla. Santaa on silti lentänyt lattialle öisen hiekkamyrskyn jäljiltä.

Ulkona odottaa epätodellinen näky: meren lailla lainehtivia hiekkadyynejä silmänkantamattomiin. Ne alkavat ikkunan alta loivina liplatuksina, kasvaen kauempana kolmekymmenmetrisiksi hyökyaalloiksi.

Aamupalaksi tarjotaan vaaleaa leipää ja hilloa, sekä ylisokeroitua teetä. Isäntämme Yassine on vaihtanut mustan nahkatakkinsa perinteiseen pohjoisafrikkalaiseen asuun, sammaleenvihreään turbaaniin ja nilkkoihin ulottuvaan jilabatakkiin.

”En viitsinyt säikäyttää teitä vielä eilisiltana näillä vaatteilla. Ties vaikka ette olisi uskaltautuneet autoni kyytiin ollenkaan”,
hän nauraa.

AAVIKKOHOTELLISSA on täysi ylläpito. Kahden hengen huone maksaa 15 euroa henkilöltä, oma WC nostaa hinnan
30 euroon.

Talvikaudella hotellissa on hiljaista ja isännällä on aikaa viihdyttää vieraitaan. Ratsastamme kameleilla, ihailemme auringonlaskua dyyneillä ja kuuntelemme berberiheimon lauluja leiritulella.

www.aitisfoul.com