Want to be a travel writer?

Are you an aspiring travel writer or would you just like to know what life is like when the whole world is your office? Click here to read the article I wrote about the ins and outs of travel writing for 219 Magazine, published by my alma mater CUNY (The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism).

The article can also be read in a different format on Medium.com.

Hope you like it and find it useful!

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Favela Life in Brazil

With the World Cup mania going on full speed, everyone’s eyes are now on Brazil. This has gotten me to think about my most recent trip to the sunny country and about one of my most memorable experiences there – the week I spent staying in the favela of Pavao near the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

While I was immersed in the colorful life of the favela – a slum for lack of a better word in English – I was bombarded with questions from foreigners and Brazilians alike: what’s it like to stay in a favela? Is it dangerous? Scary? How do you move around there? How do the locals react when they see you?

That’s why I decided to do this video that shows me making my way from our home on top of the favela down to the street level and back – a full 400 steps each way, navigating the narrow labyrinth-like pathways. The round trip generally takes about 15 minutes. Imagine if you had to climb up 400 steps just to get home! Insanity. But it definitely keeps the residents in good shape.

If you are still wondering what exactly a favela is, check out this good article that explains why no English-language word really characterizes it perfectly:

Why We Should Call them Favelas

And if this video convinced you that you really want to stay in a favela yourself on your next Rio trip, that’s easily done. Just book a room from Fiona, Pavao’s lone Brit: https://www.airbnb.com.br/rooms/841135

 

 

 

 

10 weird things to know about Brazil

Happy New Year everyone! I know, I know, I’m a little late to the game but this is my first post in 2014. Yikes! Here’s a picture from the wild NYE celebrations I took part in Tel Aviv. That place can party! My friend and I danced at this underground club The Cat and Dog until 7 a.m., but turned down all the offers of drugs and bathroom hook-ups. 😛

NYE

What a crazy year it has been so far, and we are only in mid-February. Over the last seven weeks I’ve taken nine flights and set foot on eight countries on three continents. I’ve gone from dark wintery Finland to spring-like Israel, made pit stops in Istanbul and Berlin, and taken a painful 18-hour train ride through Bulgaria. In late January I got into a car crash with a motorcycle in the Dominican Republic and yet danced bachata afterward for a week in a beach festival. I suffered through a few New York snowstorms in February but escaped to Brazil just before the 14th one. I’m now under the hot Brazilian sun in Rio de Janeiro and loving it! And this was supposed to be my year of taking it easy and not traveling as much… only a few months ago I was happy to be living a somewhat stable life in NYC and was trying to convince more digital nomads to move there.

But alas, such is a traveler’s life. It changes in a New York minute. 🙂

So now that I’ve suddenly found myself back in the only Portuguese-speaking country on the South American continent, it might be a good time to share some of my thoughts about this land that’s known for samba, sun, beaches, favela shantytowns (one of which I’m currently staying in – and the view is lovely!) and of course the impending World Cup. These oddities appeared in my old blog, written in 2008 during my first trip to Brazil, but I’ve found that they still hold true.

Turano

10 WEIRD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BRAZIL

1) Brazilians LOOOOOOVE meat!! There’s always a barbeque party (or a churrascu, as it’s called in Portuguese) coming up, and nope, they do not grill any tofu or tomatoes or tofu sausages here. It’s all about meat: steaks, ribs, chicken wings, chicken hearts (yep!), sausages…. maybe a bit of fish, too.

Rodizio

2) Salt is DEFINITELY a favorite among the Brazilians…. they use so much of it on everything that I’m surprised they aren’t having tons of heart attacks (or maybe they are… not sure about the stats..).

3) This is definitely the promised land of all-you-can-eat buffets, and “food by the kilo” buffets (where you pay according to the weight of your plate). They’ve even got this cool thing called “rodizio,” a buffet that comes to you! All you need to do is sit down at a table, and the meat/pizza/sushi just appears on your plate. The waiters bring the food around every few minutes, and you can choose what you want and have as much as you’d like. Yummy!

4) Brazilian houses (the upper-class ones anyway) tend to have several toilets. One for each room is not uncommon, I hear. Therefore a medium-size house can even have six toilets. Wow! No more waiting for your turn outside the door 🙂

5) Many of the bathrooms have a bidet bowl next to the toilet. It kind of looks like a cross between a sink and a men’s urinal. No one seems to know what to do with it. It’s just tradition to have one. I guess previously it was used for washing yourself up, but nowadays it seems to be just an expensive laundry basket!

6) Brazilians love all things made of manioc/yucca/cassava, the traditional root that tastes slightly like potato. Mandioca is eaten in soups, as mashed (like potato), as fried (like french fries) and even used as flour to dip your meat in… and probably in many more ways.

7) Brazilians also love their national booze, cachaça aka pinga, the main ingredient of caipirinhas. They think it’s the greatest thing ever invented. Taste-wise it’s not my favorite, but I gotta say it’s not the worst beach drink… (here as a mango version).

Mango caipirinha

8) Brazil is definitely NOT the right place for someone who has bacteria phobia! The locals love to share everything with their friends: beer, coke, water, pinga, not to mention food. If you buy a tapioca (sort of like a taco) or a sweet corn cob, you’ll need to offer bites to all of your pals. So you may even be sharing your drink or food with up to 10 people. But hey, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! 😉 The Brazilian immune systems surely must be strong from all this sharing.

9) It’s fairly easy to become a true Paulista (FYI, a Paulista is a person from Sao Paulo. Carioca = Rio resident). All you need to do is spot a local “celebrity” called Fofäo on the city streets (well, more like a local loonie bin). Hahaa. 🙂 Fofäo is a scary-looking man who has injected tons of silicone into his cheeks… he got his nickname from a cartoon character who looks the same way.

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Why this guy has done that to himself, nobody knows. My Sao Paulo friends said he is a transvestite who was trying to be transformed into a woman. When that failed, he just became a weird-looking man who had done tons of operations to himself. Other people are scared of him, others just feel sorry… some say he can be violent too, so better keep your distance I guess. Fofäo works odd jobs around the city of Sao Paulo and can be spotted here and there by any lucky people walking around town… or unlucky, as he looks very scary! Legend says you can have a heart attack if you see him in the dark. As for me, I saw him twice during my 2008 visit to Sao Paulo. Once he had crazy make up on his face, neon colors all over. I guess that was to promote some flyers he was distributing. Scaaaaary….. I walked past him stiff as a stick… So yeah, you would think that in a city with 16 million people you wouldn’t see the same person twice but apparently you cannot avoid seeing Fofäo. Unless you are a Carioca for life… 🙂

10) Brazil has a reputation of being a somewhat dangerous place. However, the main thing that reminds you of the unsafe nature of the country are Brazilians themselves and the way they guard their possessions (those that have them, naturally). Most of my friends here have high fences around their houses, alarm systems, a scary barking dog in the backyard and some even have a paid guard patrolling their street. When going out in the city, my friends park their cars in guarded parking garages, as the risk of the car being robbed is supposedly high. Apartment buildings often have a guard downstairs who checks who is coming in and out. Sometimes my friends will ask me to walk fast as “this is not a safe area.” But I’ve seen a lot of proof that Brazil is not as dangerous of a place than what the locals make it out to be. For example, it’s customary here that if you are left without a seat in the bus, someone who has a seat will hold your purse so that you have two free hands to hang on to the strap rather than just one. WOOOOOW! I wouldn’t trust my purse to a stranger even in Finland! But here people don’t even think twice about it. How cute! 🙂

Iguassu

So yeah, Brazil is great and well worth a visit even outside of the World Cup! (For which I’m not sticking around, by the way… I’m not a fan of sports crowds.) People here are really friendly and even if you just met them, they will probably invite you to stay in their house for a few days, or to come for a barbeque.  And they always have a friend in another city, and “you can call them when you are there and they will help you out with everything!” 🙂

Travel Inspiration: Pablo Garcia cycles around the world for 14+ years

As you probably figured out from my post that talked about the Helsinki Airport Book Swap, I was back in the homeland for the summer again. My two months in Finland went by fast, much in the same fashion as my previous year’s summer break in the Great White North.

But now I’m in New York again, ready for new adventures and mind-opening encounters. I already had one of those on Sunday at Union Square, when I spotted Pablo Garcia, the Argentine man behind the World By Bike project. He has been cycling around the world since 1999!

Pablo 1

Pablo was at the square with his trusty bicycle and a banner explaining his journey that has taken him through 82 countries. He was selling doll pins for $5 and a $15 DVD documentary of his travels, which is how he finances his trip (along with sponsorships). The final stage of his round-the-world trip, biking back to Argentina, is expected to take about two years. By that point he will have cycled for 16 years, and visited every continent sans Antarctica (makes my own travels in 60+ countries by public transportation seem measly by comparison!).

I had just seen the “World By Bike” documentary the day before as my friend had bought it from Pablo at Union Square, so it was great meeting its star in real life. While the quality of the film isn’t quite on par with National Geographic documentaries and the like, it’s pretty good considering the challenging shooting surroundings (like the extremely hot Himalayan mountains and mosquito-filled Yukon territory of Canada). The story itself is truly fascinating and keeps you glued to the set for the whole 48-minute duration. An integral part of the doc is a bittersweet love story with an Italian girl Clara who comes along for a year of cycling but then decides life on the road is too much for her.

If you are interested in buying the documentary and supporting Pablo’s amazing travels, you can do so here.

Here’s the trailer of the documentary, one that Pablo told me is just the beginning. Once back in Argentina, he plans to do a whole series of films about his epic journey. Looking forward to seeing them!

Central American Dreams

While many of you were freezing in the Northern Hemisphere this winter and dreaming of tropical places like Central America, my friend Mira and I were dreaming in Central America. Well, at least Mira was. I was busy snapping photos of her taking naps in random locations around Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras over our three-month trip. And wow, this girl sure can sleep! She is hands down the most relaxed travel buddy I’ve ever had. 🙂

So if you are looking for inspiration for your next relaxing holiday, take a look at this video. You just might see a destination or two where you’d like to take a snooze yourself.

Have you ever gone on vacation where you spent a lot of time sleeping? What’s your favorite place to take a nap?

A case study of Guyana: When a country just feels right

If you have been keeping up with me on Facebook or Twitter (@mirva08), you may have noticed I’m currently in Nicaragua, my country number 62. After a brief 10-day stint in Costa Rica, I’ve now spent about five weeks exploring the “Unique and Original” Nicaragua, as the tourism authority’s new slogan goes. My friend Mira and I even managed to get ourselves featured in a local online magazine promoting Big Corn Island as a tourist destination. See how cozy I look in that hammock?

Big Corn

Being back on the Central American isthmus has got me thinking about quite a few things – including the last time I was here on these latitudes, in 2011. Back then I did a 3-month tour of the Caribbean and Central America, starting from the wild carnival in Trinidad and Tobago (which is actually going on right now!), and continuing onto Guyana, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

While I had some fun times in all of those countries, I felt a closer connection with only a couple of them. I have since then wondered many times why some places “click” with you so well and just feel right, while others don’t.

That brings me to a case in point – Guyana. This is a country that  made a lasting impact on me and was definitely a place I was sad to leave behind. To see the beauty of this land, check out the photos of this “Forgotten Guyana” article I wrote for Helsingin Sanomat (and if you are not Finnish-challenged, you can even read the article here):

Guyana HS

I first became intrigued by Guyana when I traveled around South America in 2008. At some point during my 5-month trip I looked at the map and saw this relatively small country next to Venezuela that I realized I knew nothing about! I asked other travelers I met along the way if they had been to Guyana, or were planning on going. The answer was always no.

Nobody seemed to know anything about this place, and even the Lonely Planet has no guidebook for the country. It was obvious that I needed to go check out whether Guyana actually exists and what goes on there.

My opportunity to visit came up pretty unexpectedly in 2011. Once carnival in Trinidad was over, I was trying to figure out where to continue next. I then noticed that I could buy a one-way ticket from Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, for $160 on Caribbean Airlines. Not bad! I found the ticket at 10 p.m. and the departure was at 6 a.m. the next day. I figured that if I skipped sleep for that night, I could do laundry, pack up my bags and be ready to head for the airport at 4 a.m. Sold!

As soon as I boarded the one-hour flight from Trinidad to Guyana, I knew I had stepped off the beaten path. The plane was only about a third full. Most people on the plane seemed to be locals, and were of Indian descent. Some 60 percent of Guyanese people, I later learned, have their roots in East India. Their ancestors were brought to Guyana as indentured servants back in the 1800’s when the English ruled the country. The rest of the Guyanese people are a mix of black people (40 percent), white folks, Native Americans (called Amerindians there) and something in between. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, though the English there is of the Caribbean variety and very hard to understand (at least for me…).

On the plane I struck up conversation with a Guyanese man living in Canada, and got lots of good advice on where to go and what to do. He also offered to give me a ride to the center of Georgetown as his wife was about to pick him up at the airport. Sweet!

Beach Guyana

Much to my dismay, my arrival into the country wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped for. Having bought my ticket at such short notice, I didn’t have a plane ticket out of Guyana yet. And I didn’t know if I even wanted to buy one, as the man on the plane had told me I could take a bus to Suriname or to Brazil, and go from there to Venezuela.

But Guyanese immigration officials didn’t think that I should have the luxury of deciding my travel route on a later date. The serious and strict-looking ladies told me that I had to buy a ticket out of the country right then and there, or I was going to be flown back to Trinidad & Tobago. Blaah. Where’s your carnival spirit, people?

With immigration officials giving me a bad first impression of the country, I quickly decided to just stay for 8 days. I figured that if Guyana was as unwelcoming as its immigration officials, I didn’t want to waste too many of my precious travel days there. So on a whim, I bought a $300 ticket to Jamaica for the following week (a semi-random choice: I was heading to Cuba and figured that Jamaica was on the way).

After finally clearing customs I was lucky enough to run into the man from the plane who had offered me a ride to town. He was still waiting for his wife to come pick him up. That was great news for me, because it turned out my ATM card didn’t work in the airport’s cash machine and I couldn’t get any cash out (always a nice feeling in a foreign country, eh!). Catching a cab to the center of Georgetown would have thus been a challenge.

So my week in Guyana started with the friendly couple dropping me off at Hotel Tropicana in the center of Georgetown, and it ended up being quite an interesting eight days. The time actually felt more like three weeks, and included a lot of highs and lows.

The lows were mostly due to feeling pretty lonely at times: it turned out I was the only guest at my hotel and that there were barely any other travelers in the whole country. Guyana receives only about 100,000 international visitors per year (compared with Jamaica’s 600,000), and of those only 5 percent are coming strictly for tourism purposes. The great majority come for business conferences, to do volunteer work with NGOs or to visit family or friends. Thus I got stared at a whole lot wherever I went, whether it was onboard a river boat crossing the Essequibo, South America’s third largest river, or visiting the local market in Georgetown.

Riverboat

Walking around Georgetown and looking at the white wooden Victorian houses, surprisingly many of which were beautifully renovated, I felt like I had been tossed back to the 1800s. I was in this country that everyone had forgotten existed. There were at times more donkeys on the street than people. No wonder I had never met anybody that had traveled to Guyana. The place was empty! At least this was the case on a Sunday afternoon.  On Monday the city’s pace picked up a bit, but it was by no means a buzzing metropolis.

The highlights of the week were plentiful, though. Through some contacts from the traveler’s networking site Couchsurfing.org I got to know plenty of locals, and got to witness a Hindu ceremony and an Indian wake (referring to the night before a funeral. The deceased person’s friends all get together to eat, chat and play Dominos).

Ceremony

Some of my new pals organized for us to go visit an Amerindian village nearby Lake Mashabo, which was an incredibly beautiful lake with palm trees growing out of it! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Can trees grow out of water? I hadn’t thought so… And later on I heard it was actually an artificial lake and that the trees were dying little by little. Boohoo.

Palmtrees

Over the week I got invited to stay in local houses in the town of Bartica and the Essequibo Coast and tried various traditional Guyanese-Indian foods. My favorite was smashed pumpkin with roti, the fluffy Indian flatbread. I also tasted some really tasty chicken curry. One of my favorite meals was lunch at Coalpot, a small restaurant in Georgetown where you could pick and choose your favorites from a selection of Indian and African dishes, with mashed potatoes and macaroni pie thrown into the mix. The total price for the meal came to about $4.

Overall Guyana isn’t a cheap traveling country though, even if it is the poorest in South America: accommodation starts from $15-20 for a basic room. But considering all the offers I had to stay with my new local friends, the price of accommodation wasn’t really an issue. A bigger problem was the price of doing excursions and sightseeing. Now THAT is expensive in Guyana, mostly because there aren’t that many tourists and thus there’s no competition between travel agencies. Day trips to the Amerindian villages and nearby monasteries start at $150 per person, and a tour to the Kaieteur waterfall, one of the world’s biggest single-drop waterfalls, costs a minimum of $195. That’s because it’s located in the middle of the country in the dense tropical rainforest, and you have to fly there on a small plane. Going by land would mean driving a couple of days on bumpy roads, and then trekking for three days through the woods.

Since seeing Kaieteur was one of my biggest incentives for traveling to Guyana, I decided to splurge on the plane ride. But I soon found out that the price of the trip wasn’t the only problem: another one was the scheduling of it. None of the tour companies knew whether they’d have a trip going all week. It would all depend on whether other tourist would show up and sign up for the flight. Considering I hadn’t seen any other travelers during my time in Georgetown, I didn’t have high hopes of this happening.

In the end they did get a group of 9 together (comprised of people working with NGOs or visiting friends in the country), but it wasn’t until my last day in Guyana and the price was $270 instead of $195. This was because the tour also included a visit to another smaller waterfall in Southern Guyana, near the border of Brazil.

I decided to go for it anyway, even though this meant largely missing out on the colorful Indian Holi celebrations that were the same day (or Phagwa, as it’s called in Guyana). And I’m super happy that I went for it! It just might have been the best $270 I ever spent.

The whole day was pretty surreal, but the most amazing sight was flying over the solid green rainforest for an hour and suddenly seeing the huge Kaieteur waterfall pop up in middle of it all.

Kaieteur

Our little 10-seater plane (where I got to be the co-pilot!) circled above it for a few minutes, and we could see the masses of water falling down to the bottom of the valley far underneath. Whoa! The drop is a whopping 7000 feet. Venezuela’s Angel Falls is of course higher, but that one is actually several waterfalls falling down simultaneously on top of one another. So as far as single waterfalls go, Kaieteur is the king. We landed on its tiny airstrip and went to admire it from several viewpoints.

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Next we flew  to visit (and to take a shower in!) the other more humble waterfall, Oruinduik, near the border of Brazil. There we got to meet some Amerindian kids. Apparently they always paddle over from the Brazilian side by kayaks when they see a small plane like ours arriving (which the guide said happens about once a week. Kaieteur gets more visitors than that, but most people don’t bother paying for the Oruinduik leg of the trip). The kids come over mostly for the joy of seeing some new faces in their isolated surroundings, but also in hopes of candy, food or some change. There were about six or seven kids, along with an older woman who was holding a baby. They stared at us in a shy but friendly manner. The girls all had long black hair, one of the boys had almond-shaped eyes. All had small holes and stains in their clothes, but were otherwise looking pretty sharp considering they live hours away from the nearest big town.

I took some photos of the kids and gave them some small bills for a couple of US dollars’ worth. Not knowing if they understood English, I slowly asked one of them “what-is- your-name?” He quickly answered with the confidence of an army soldier: “Kevin! Kevin Peter!”

So go figure. Even a Native American child who lives hundreds of miles from civilization has a name much easier than mine. Hah! 🙂

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Needless to say, my time in Guyana was truly memorable and still brings a smile on my face. After just a few days there, I could tell this was a place where I felt right at home, though it looks nothing like my home country on the outside. There’s just something about Guyana that clicked with me.

 

Do you remember visiting a country that just felt right to you? What do you think it was that made you feel this way?

Fancy a timeout in the Sahara?

Guys, it’s that time of the year again – the time to sign up for the Road Junky Sahara Retreat in the Sahara Desert in Morocco! If you could only do one cool thing in your life, this one would be a pretty strong contender if you ask me.

As you may remember, this past February I was one of the 24 lucky ducks who managed to take a week off from the modern world and surround themselves with nothing but sand, dunes and bypassing camels.

And what a week it was, as you may have read from my post back in March. The next retreat will take place sooner than you think, from Jan. 27 – Feb. 2, 2013, so jot down the dates in your calendar and dust off those dune shoes (just kidding, there’s no need for that – it’s much easier to walk up and down slippery sand slides without shoes!).

So what can you expect to get in return for you 295 euro attendance fee? In a nutshell: unreal desert scenery, interesting classes such as yoga and aikido, simple but tasty local food, accommodation in shared Berber-style tents, travel stories shared under the full moon by the bonfire and lots of new friends. Most people come to the retreat by themselves, so don’t be afraid to do the same.

Transportation to the meet-up spot in Merzouga is not included though, so you’ll need to find your own way to Morocco (I flew with the superb low-fares airline Norwegian Air but you could also check out Ryanair. In February their flight from London to Morocco was 25 euro – you can’t beat that). Most Sahara Retreat participants fly to Marrakech, and embark on the 10-hour bus ride to Merzouga together as a group the day before the camp starts.

And what exactly goes on during the week? Nothing much and a whole lot at the same time. Quoting myself, “unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.”

“Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.”

If you have questions about the retreat, feel free to ask me! Or check if your concerns were already answered here, such as these very crucial questions:

Will there be broadband internet connectivity? Can I get a banana milkshake in the shade? What if the guides belong to Al-Qaeda?

(Answer: The Road Junky Retreat is probably not for you.)

(Photos courtesy of various members of our Sahara group. Thank you for all the fun times!)

PS. If you think you might want to go but are not sure yet, don’t worry. Last time I signed up about two weeks before the starting date and that was fine! But of course if you want a spot for sure, you might want to get cracking on this one.

Yes, I got robbed in West Africa. But I’m sure you won’t.

I probably should have seen it coming. After all, just three weeks earlier I had received an email from my dad that said:

“Be careful. If you keep on traveling, one of these days you will get robbed.”

I guess to him and most other people it seemed inconceivable that I had been roaming the globe for nearly 12 years without encountering any major problems. To me, it seemed perfectly normal and I expected to be able to continue  at least another dozen years without a hitch. After all, I found the world to generally be a safe place and I had my wits about me.

But sure enough, shortly after my dad’s email I got robbed on a quaint tropical island in Guinea-Bissau, namely the tiny town of Bubaque in the Bijagos Islands. And not just robbed – properly punched in the face.

It happened back in March when a big guy attacked me from behind as I passed him at night on a quiet street. The strange thing was that it had only been about three minutes since I had told my friends that I felt totally safe walking home alone.

Since I didn’t want to give up my purse without a fight, the robber decided to let his fist talk to my mouth a bit. Feeling the impact of the hit on my teeth, I fell back and thus the straps of my purse broke.

Off the guy ran with my dear belongings: my brand new camera, an iPod full of comfort music, spare memory cards and worst of all, my journal with two months of travel memories carefully jotted down for future personal and professional reference. What a sad sight that was, seeing him run down toward the beach and being able to do nothing about it. Though the physical and mental wounds have pretty much healed by now, I still mourn the loss of that diary.

While most of my friends were truly shocked by what happened, some people have not been so understanding.

“C’me on, you were traveling in Africa by yourself as a female. You were clearly asking for trouble!”

Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Yes only because it probably isn’t the smartest thing to walk alone on an eerie street at 10 p.m. anywhere in the world by yourself. That I admit. But Bubaque seemed like the safest place on earth, so I really didn’t think anything of it.

And no because believe it or not, I found West Africa to be a really safe region to travel around as a solo female. Much safer than most of the 50+ countries I’d visited before. This is for a number of reasons.

The first is that unlike in countries of Latin America, for example, there’s hardly any criminal gang activity in West Africa. In the words of my American friend who lives in Dakar, “Nothing in well-organized in Africa, not even crime.”

Secondly, as this is one of the poorest regions of the world, most people couldn’t own guns even if they wanted to. Their priority is to put food on the table on a daily basis, not to buy ammunition for their imaginary AK-47s.

Thirdly, West Africa just does not have a tradition of robbing or being violent with tourists. I don’t know if it’s because of religion – Islam, the main religion in the area, orders Muslims to take good care of visitors- or if it’s because of some other cultural traits.

African life is generally very community-oriented and criminal behavior isn’t tolerated well. In fact, it’s a surefire way to isolate yourself and to turn into an outcast. Who would want that?

So for the most part I only met people who were incredibly friendly, hospitable and nice. Rather making an enemy out of me the locals wanted to be my friend – inviting me to their homes to stay, teaching me their languages and showing me around town.

Sure, some folks only saw me as a rich foreigner and expected me to shower them with  lavish gifts or help them get visas for Europe, so of course there were some subtle efforts to take advantage of my presence. But not once did anyone try to reach for my wallet in a pick-pocketing effort.

In fact, of all the foreigners that I met over my time in Africa, not a single one had been mugged and only one managed to get his camera nicked from his pocket in the busy border post of Rosso between Mauritania and Senegal.

After my robbery, Titi, the Senegalese manager of my guest house Chez Titi, tried to console me: “You know, you are not the first person this has happened to. Six years ago a French lady also got robbed here.” Geez, SIX years ago?! So what are the odds that this would happen to me? I should play the lottery more often…

In his 20 years of living in the Bijagos Islands, Titi recalled hearing of three robberies before my case. THREE.

Comparing this to the stories of travelers in Latin America where you’ll hardly meet a person who has not been robbed or mugged, the difference was staggering. (Though despite traveling in Latin America for more than eight months in total, I’ve never been robbed there. In Guatemala City I had a close call last year but managed to run away.)

So go on guys and especially gals – travel to West Africa if you are interested in the region and don’t be afraid of going at it alone. At least not from a safety perspective.

(Surely this cute chimp from The Gambia’s Baboon Island agrees!)

You are more likely to be mugged or robbed at home than to encounter the kind of a rotten apple  that I did. And even I could have probably avoided my uncomfortable fate by asking my friends to walk me back to my guesthouse that night.

So no, I was not asking for trouble by traveling to Africa alone. But since I did find it – who knows, maybe it was just my time to get mugged, in honor of my 12-year globetrotting anniversary. So unless you’ve got the same celebration coming up, I’d say you’re fine!

My Weekend with Senegalese Subsistence Farmers

“So how was Africa??”

Ever since flying out of Senegal in May, not a week has gone by that I haven’t heard this question and soon been retelling my African roadtrip stories to some friend or acquaintance. Nowadays I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record since I already know what memories I want to share and what aspects of the experience I’ll focus on. Not that it’s been easy narrowing my four months down to a few short tales, quite the contrary!

Still, one of my favorite stories to tell is how I spent a weekend visiting a tiny rural village in Senegal’s Casamance region – a town that did not have a single toilet, not even of the hole-in-the-ground variety. Instead there was a tree behind which you had to go in times of need, and little piglets roaming around eating the leftovers. Magically it was one of the cleanest toilet arrangements I encountered on the continent.

The most memorable part of the weekend in Bouyouye was going oyster fishing with a few of the village ladies. 

The trip made such an impression on me that I even wrote a story about it for Passblue.com, the same website that recently published my article about the new Cabral museum in Guinea-Bissau. Should you want to learn more about life in rural Senegal, check out this link:

http://passblue.com/2012/07/25/in-rural-senegal-oyster-fishing-is-not-a-hobby/

But even if you are not in the mood for reading the longish piece, don’t miss out on watching this video of a dance party that took place in the village on my last night there. There was really no special occasion for the fiesta nor was it planned at all- one of the guys just started playing his kora (a small guitar-like African instrument) and suddenly the whole village came out to jam. It was quite the scene and this is what went on for hours:

Wow! I was looking at the goings-on with a mix of awe, amazement and a hint of jealousy. If only I had such rhythm in my blood! Unfortunately my efforts to copy these ladies’ styles looked pretty pathetic, so I left myself out of the video. 😛

Altogether if I had to choose one weekend that has had the most profound effect on me this year, this just might be it. While in Bouyouye, I started thinking about what’s really important in this life and questioning our modern world where nobody has time for an impromptu dance party anymore.

Visiting the village made me want to simplify my life even more, and to make time for meaningful human interactions. And it made me less understanding of people who choose to work a 70-hour work week just to make more money to buy more useless material things. I’ve never seen houses more bare than the ones in Bouyouye, but I’ve also never seen happier people. Somehow I feel like there must be a connection… don’t you think?

Have you ever visited this type of a rural village? Did it have as profound of an effect on you as my visit to Bouyouye did on me?