Weekly Wednesday Video: A visit to a nursery school in The Gambia

About a month ago I posted a video from crossing the Sahara in Mauritania, inspired by fellow globetrotter Francis Tapon’s 3-year Africa trip. Well, now that Francis is about to enter the The Gambia, it’s only fitting to reminisce about my own visit to the tiny English-speaking sliver of land in West Africa. The country was the fifth and last destination on my West Africa tour last year (not counting my return to Senegal thereafter).

Gambia school

The Gambia is dubbed “The Smiling Coast,” which is funny since it only has about 35 kilometers (20 miles) of coast line. It’s Africa’s smallest nation, shaped like a crooked finger that protrudes into Senegal. Teeny it may be, but it’s still a crowd favorite: this year’s visitor numbers may amount to 180,000. Europeans flock to the Gambian beaches especially from November to March.

Initially I was hesitant to go to The Gambia – I had heard an awful lot about its reputation as a hotspot for female sex tourism. I thought I would need to fight off potential suitors with a stick, and as a solo female traveler, would be a prime target for the bumsters looking for a sugar momma.

Luckily the reality on the ground was much better than I feared. I visited in the off-season, so tourist hassle was at a minimum. Also, for most of my two weeks, I was Couchsurfing with locals and expats. I thus ended up having a pretty different experience to most tourists.

The highlight of my Gambia visit was getting to hang out at St. David Nursery School in Serrekunda, a private school for 3-6-year-olds. The father from my Gambian host family, Abdul, is the principal there, and his daughter Bintou is one of the professors. Bintou brought me along to school with her on three consecutive days, so I got to spend a lot of time in the company of the super energetic students. Whenever the kids saw me,  they exclaimed “Toubab!” (white person) and ran over to hug me. I felt like a movie star. 🙂

This week’s video shows the students going through their morning ritual and studying in math class. With 120 children in three rooms, the noise level at the small school was through the roof. I have no idea how the kids manage to learn anything in that environment, but they all seemed really smart and enthusiastic. Despite not having the best facilities, the were such happy campers. It was quite humbling.

If you’d like to donate money to the school, click here to learn more. The website is run by a German lady who sponsors St. David Nursery.

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Weekly Wednesday Video: Crossing the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

This week’s video is very short and simple – just 30 seconds of scenery from Mauritania, a little-known nation I visited last year on my West Africa Tour. Some 75 percent of the country is desert, as is obvious from this video that was shot from inside a shared taxi.

Mauritania has been on my mind lately as a fellow travel writer, Francis Tapon, just spent three weeks there. I’ve been eagerly keeping up with his Facebook and Twitter updates to hear about his adventures. Francis is working on a documentary called The Unseen Africa and plans to spend three years touring the continent. That’s quite the plan!

Francis has his own car, but I mostly got around West Africa with public transportation. In Mauritania that includes the bush taxis, which are usually of the Mercedes make (while in Senegal they prefer Peugeot station wagons and call them by the name Sept-place). The shared taxis take off for their destination when enough people have showed up to fill the car, or when the driver figures he has a good change of picking up the missing number of people along the way.

Shared taxis are a pretty handy and cheap way to get around, and observing the locals’ wardrobe choices is an interesting way to pass the time.

Those of you that speak Finnish can read more about my adventures in Mauritania and the Sahara Desert in this article titled “The Sahara isn’t easy on the tourist” that was published by Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last year. Among other places, I visited Cap Blanc, known as the largest graveyard of shipwrecks. By February last year, some of the 300 ships had already been hauled away by the European Union, but quite a few could still be seen in the horizon. This one on the beach is the Moroccan ship United Malika that crashed in 2003. This shipwreck bay was definitely one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life.

Picture 1

Have you been to Mauritania or tried out the shared taxis elsewhere in Africa? 

Weekly Wednesday Video: West African Dance Party

I woke up today convinced it was Tuesday. But would you believe it – turns out it’s Wednesday! Again! Wasn’t it just Wednesday?

Well, who I am to fight it. It’s time for my Weekly Wednesday Video! So let’s travel virtually to Senegal’s Casamance region where I witnessed a wild dance party during my West African roadtrip last year. The fiesta took place in Oussouye, a small town that loves to bust a move. This particular time the celebration was in honor of someone’s birthday, I was told. Who wants to do the same for my birthday next month??

Casamance has in fact been on my mind for a number of reasons lately. One is that I just wrote an article for The InterDependent about how the United Nations is starting a sanitation campaign to build more toilets. As you may remember, in Casamance I visited a family that lived in a tiny town without a single toilet.

Yeah, that was quite an experience. I had been in Bouyouye for a couple of hours by the time I discovered the situation. I had looked into every nook of the little clay house I was staying in, and poked around the yard’s various corners. I just couldn’t see it.

“Where’s the toilet?” I finally asked my weekend’s host, Jeannette Diatta, 40. The cheerful mother of six school-age children pointed at the sky-reaching Fromager tree in front of me.

“Just go behind there. Nobody will bother you.” She handed me a bucket on water for cleansing, as is the local custom.

So off I went, climbing over the wide roots of the so-called elephant tree and wading through piles of brown leaves in search of my own makeshift latrine. Finally I found a spot where I could comfortably go about my business while leaning on the trunk of the tree for support. I tried to be careful not to step into other people’s leftovers, should there be some, but luckily I didn’t see any.

Later on that day I realized why – there were rows of happy little piglets running all over the town that is the full-time home of about 300 people. A human’s dump is a piggy’s treasure. I secretly felt relieved the Diatta household wasn’t serving pork that day for dinner.

During my travels in more than sixty countries on six continents, I have come across many types of latrines: the low porcelain squat toilets of India, a hole in the wooden floor a’la Mongolia, the no-wall group stalls of old Beijing and the high-tech Japanese toilets that give you an automated butt rinse.  But my visit to West Africa last year was the first time that I came across people without access to any kind of a toilet. In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos Islands, I even saw locals nonchalantly pooping on the side of the road.

Little did I know how typical these folks actually were: According to the UN, there are 1.1 billion people in the world still defecating out in the open, some 15 percent of the world’s population. To read my piece on what the UN is doing to change this, click on the photo below.

Picture 17

While West Africans may not all have toilets, they’ve sure got the moves. What did you think about my video of the Casamance dance party?

The Worst Interview of My Life

As you may have read from the last post, I spent more than three weeks in tiny Guinea-Bissau during my Great West African Tour of 2012 (four months, five countries, two occupied territories – surely the name of my trip is not much of an exaggeration?). 🙂

Besides liking Guinea-Bissau a whole lot, one of the reasons I stayed there for some extra time was that I was reporting on a new museum that is opening up soon. It’ll honor freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral, Africa’s “Che Guevara,” who fought for the independence of his home countries of Guinea-Bissau and Capo Verde in the 1970s. The museum is housed in Cabral’s childhood home in the town of Bafata, which was recently renovated by UNESCO.

I visited the museum and wrote the story for Passblue.com, a website that reports on issues related to the United Nations. The article can be read here and I’d love for all of you to check it out! After all, this piece was very challenging to complete, so please show it some looooove. ❤

Why was it so hard, you may ask… Well, mostly because I don’t speak Portuguese Creole, the official language of Guinea-Bissau. And people there don’t speak much English. So there was a bit of a communication barrier…

But one language I do speak fairly well is Spanish, and many Bissau-Guineans can also communicate in Portuguese. So rather than spending time (and money) looking for a translator, I decided to try to somehow manage on my own.

So I traveled to the town of Bafata, organized some interviews, went over to meet the people of UNESCO, called the governor of Bafata, and dug up some relatives of Cabral and thought everything would just be smooth sailing from there on…

And boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that speaking Spanish does not equal understanding Portuguese, no matter how closely related the two languages supposedly are. And understanding Portuguese Creole is next to impossible, as at times it sounds nothing like the language it’s based on.

This was painfully evident during my interview with Amilcar Cabral’s niece, Iva Helena Gomes. I’d ask her a question in Spanish and then she’d give a great, long-winded answer in Portuguese (and/or Portuguese Creole), detailing the complex life story of her uncle… and I’d understand about 1/10 of each sentence, if even.

Every time the friendly lady spoke, it felt like a knife was being twisted in my stomach.

“This is the worst interview I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” I thought to myself as she went on in a language that might as well have been Chinese. I was totally lost, no matter how much I tried to search for familiar words. I have never left less in control of an interview.

In the end I had scribbled down just a few words out of the entire 30-minute interview. It was a sad, sad day. I left Gomes’ house without any spring in my step. Only a bit of panic in my heart. (“How can I write this story without any good quotes??”)

My interview with Bafata Governor Adriano Gomes Ferreira was also not the greatest of all times. Despite knowing Spanish, he would occasionally shift to Portuguese without even realizing it.

It was only during a lunch meeting in the governor’s house that the conversation got a bit easier. I think at that point the guv and his wife finally realized the limits of my Portuguese… Well, better late than never. 🙂

Luckily my other interviews went better, as they were conducted in proper Spanish and one even in English. So at least I learned I feel comfortable reporting in Spanish, but that I already knew from last year when I covered an HIV march in Guatemala City.

In the end the Cabral article turned out fine and I managed to work around my limited quotes. The editor of Passblue.com, Dulcie Leimbach, certainly seemed to like the outcome based on her email.

“I’m impressed you could use your Spanish so well in a Portuguese country. You deserve a Pulitzer!”

Well, thanks Dulcie but I’d hold off on the Pulitzer Prize for now. 😉

And while I did okay, I can’t help but wonder how nice would it have been to be able to choose from 20 great quotes instead of using the only two I understood?

So note to self: Next time I am in a Portuguese-speaking country, I should definitely hire a translator! Spanish is not the same as Portuguese. 😛

The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…