Weekly Wednesday Video: Mongolian talent show

And…. I’m back! Yep, the little break I took for my birthday ended up turning into two weeks due various time suckers occupying my days in New York, but now it’s time to go on with the Weekly Wednesday Video series.

Today I’d like to take you all to Mongolia, a vast and isolated Asian country I got to visit with my dad during the Trans-Siberian train trip last fall. Unfortunately our time there was reduced to just five days due to China’s Golden Week celebrations messing up train schedules, but we did get to experience a few cool things. One of those was the 55-minute performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble. The entertaining talent show features typical Mongolian throat singing, wildly twisting contortionists, folk dancing and funky masks.

The show was highly recommended to us by the Sun Path Hostel‘s manager Doljmaa (pronounced “Deutsch-ma”), so we couldn’t miss it – even though we almost did. We only had about ten minutes until show time when we hopped into a taxi outside the guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. Despite encountering major language issues, we got our point across to the driver and magically made it to the theater just in time.

And I’m glad we did! The show was definitely one to remember. Here’s a short recap of what to expect if you ever get to attend a Mongolian talent show.

Have you been to Mongolia? Any interest in going?

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.

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

Weekly Wednesday Video: Eating Live Octopus in South Korea

Hmm, somehow this blog has changed into one big Weekly Wednesday Video series. It seems like I never find the time to write an actual post, even though my head is full of ideas and stories I want to share. But whoops – AGAIN a week has gone by and it’s time to post my weekly video. And that is a whole process in and of itself (as I have to scroll through tens of videos from tens of countries to choose my favorite).

In honor of completing my first four weeks of the Weekly Wednesday Video series, I am taking you all back to South Korea (whose cat cafes I showed in my first weekly video). Initially my plan was not to feature the same countries too often, but this time I’ll have to make an exception. That’s just because this particular video kept popping up today, as if begging to be seen.

What is it about, you may ask…. Well, it’s about eating live octopus. Yep. That’s exactly what a fellow traveler, Shai from Israel, wanted to do as we toured around Seoul together last October. This bizarre dish, called Sannakji, is common in Korea and is believed to make you healthier. It’s really quite simple to whip together – as Sarah Shaw wrote for Mappingwords.com, the meal consists of “fresh, wriggling pieces of live baby octopus, drizzled with sesame oil. After minimal preparation, it is served immediately.”

So here we go! Bon appetit!

Initially I was a bit grossed out, but finally ended up popping a few pieces into my mouth, as you’ll see in the end of the video. And I was pleasantly surprised! The moving tentacles felt really funny, and the suction cups kept latching onto my tongue and mouth. The raw octopus didn’t have much of a taste. The worst part was having to crush the wandering tentacles with my teeth. It felt pretty cruel. 😦

While this plate was just a little appetizer, I came across another video on YouTube that shows a more elaborate live octopus dinner, in case anyone is interested.

Have you tried live octopus? If not, would you like to? 

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.

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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?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Speedboating in Nicaragua

As I promised last week, I’ve started a new Weekly Wednesday Video series and today just happens to be… Wednesday! Yay. 🙂

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This week’s video is from Nicaragua, where I spent six weeks this winter with my friend (who was very sleepy). While most of my time there I was trying to catch up with overdue work, relax and enjoy the beaches, I also cranked out an article about Nicaragua’s sky-high teenage pregnancy rate for Passblue.com, a site focused on all things related to the United Nations. Would you believe that half the Nica youth have babies before they turn 20? That’s the record rate for all of Latin America.

This was yet another piece that I reported in Spanish, which is obviously more difficult for me than English or Finnish but still about ten times easier than doing the same in Portuguese Creole (as was detailed in my post last year, titled: The Worst Interview of My Life). So yeah, in the end all went well and the article turned out fine and dandy.

Anyhow, one of the coolest – and often only – ways to move around Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is with a panga – a commuter speedboat. This video footage was shot on two separate trips from Bluefields to Pearl Lagoon and vice versa. The ride lasted about an hour and cost $5. And boy was it fun! Those things go fast. I felt like my cheeks were wobbling in the wind the whole time! If you don’t believe me, take a look at this week’s video (accompanied by music from my very talented brother Erkka).

If anyone is planning on traveling to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, I highly recommend checking out the RightSide Guide website, a survival guide for the wild west that awaits you. And make sure to travel with as many pangas as possible!

Have you been to Nicaragua and/or tried out the speedboats there? What did you think?

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 Jamaica: Yeah man – it’s not for me

Last time I wrote about how some countries are a good match for you, for reasons you often cannot explain. You just feel some kind of a connection with the place and its people. Luckily it happens quite often for me. I’m currently in El Salvador and whoa, this place was love at first sight! The ever-present Latin music, the ubiquitous street food vendors (love the delicious pupusas!) , the beautiful beaches and waterfalls, the outgoing friendly people… what’s not to like??

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But this time I’m actually here to tell you what it’s like when the opposite is true and you cannot get into the swing of things at all. For me this has occurred in a couple of countries, but most strongly in Jamaica. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

You see, Jamaica is one of those places whose mystical name conjures up images of good times and paradise beaches. It’s a country that (it seems) almost everyone dreams of visiting at some point – everyone except for me.

playa I never had any particular interest in Jamaican culture, and I just might be the only non-Bob Marley fan left in the world.

stuffNot that I ever had anything in particular against Jamaica, it just wasn’t very high on my list of places to visit. Maybe somewhere below Angola, right above the Canary Islands (where I’ve actually already been as a kid and I think that was enough…).

And yet I found myself in this island nation famous for rastafaris and reggae a couple of years ago, after the Guyanese immigration forced me to buy an onward flight ticket at the Georgetown airport. During the five minutes that I had time to think about what to do, Jamaica seemed the most logical place to fly to, as I was on my way to Cuba. (My initial plan was to take a bus from Guyana to Brazil and go from there to Venezuela, from where I could have flown to Cuba for pretty cheaply. Thanks to Guyanese immigration insisting on seeing an onward a flight ticket, that was not an option…).

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Arriving at the Kingston airport in Jamaica, I was a little less than excited. Kingston doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a friendly and safe city, quite the opposite. Before arriving in the country I happened to read an article about how armed robbers were constantly attacking the city’s hospital, in broad daylight. Police was begging for them to stop, as now the hospital staff was afraid to come to work out of fear of getting held at gunpoint. Nice. Nothing like this type of news to get you excited about arriving someplace new.

I wish I could say that I wandered around Kingston for a couple of days, and it turned out the rumors about it being dangerous were entirely wrong. But I didn’t actually stay there long enough to find out. Pretty soon after arriving I decided to head out to safer areas of the country, and only spent a couple of hours in Kingston, switching buses. From what I saw, the city definitely seemed interesting (I saw bustling markets and many street vendors) but it also seemed worthy of its bad reputation. (I spotted quite a few shady looking characters, and some guys who had clearly indulged in something stronger than the herbal essence that’s every rastafaris favorite past time. Kingston is also the first place where I actually resorted to hiding some cash in my shoes, in case I got robbed. Luckily I didn’t. That only happened later in my travels, once I got to West Africa).

As for my verdict for the rest of Jamaica – naah. Still not my favorite country. That might be because I ended up spending my week in the most touristy spots – Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. They were just way too Americanized for my taste. I felt like I was in Florida but with more rastas around. At the same time I was afraid to venture too far out due to security concerns.

beach Granted, Jamaica did have beautiful beaches, with Negril’s white-sand beach with its turquoise water being my favorite. But I have traveled to enough countries where a nice playa just doesn’t cut it anymore (as much as I am a self-proclaimed beach-o-holic…). The place needs to have something more than that, some kind of character, culture or soul. And Jamaica just didn’t have it, or if it did, I simply couldn’t find it.

That might be because locals are often effectively banned from being on the same beaches with visitors. It also didn’t help that most of the Jamaicans I managed to meet in the touristy areas were “rent-a-rastas”, i.e. young dreadlock-donning guys looking for a Western sugar momma. Turning them down every five minutes got to be pretty boring after the first hour. Their aggressive responses were also not too uplifting (“Why, you don’t like black people?!”). All this made me feel like I just needed to get out.

But of course it’s not Jamaica’s fault that I got stuck in the touristy spots that hardly show the best side of any country. Had I allotted more time for sightseeing, I could have explored the mountainous region surrounding Kingston or gone volunteering on an ecofriendly farm run by real followers of the Rastafari religion, not rent-a-rastas, like one traveler I met. I probably would have had an entirely different experience then.

And naturally my week wasn’t terrible. I did eventually meet some nice,  chilled-out locals on the Negril beach and spent hours with their adorable puppy.
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I also cannot deny the beauty of the country, from mountains to rainforests to beaches. Even my Dunn’s River Falls waterfall experience improved tremendously after the tour group of about 200 Americans finally left the area. The sight of all of these folks holding hands and shouting “Yeah man!” together with their Jamaican guide just didn’t do justice to the waterfall that has been dubbed the world’s most beautiful. (In my opinion it was nice but didn’t even come close to Guyana’s Kaieuteur, and many others I have seen.) tourists

All this said, it would be okay to go back to Jamaica if I had some local friends or Couchsurfers to show me the ropes or if I simply wanted to lie on a pretty beach for a week. But it’s not the best place to travel to independently if you are looking to get to know the culture while staying relatively safe.

Either way, I can’t go back to Jamaica before I get my visit to Angola out of the way (which might take a while, considering how expensive that country is!)…

Have you ever visited a country that you didn’t care for much? Why was it that you felt this way? Would you be willing to give the place a second try?

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!