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!

Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.

Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛

I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.

Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.

And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.

So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:

(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)

Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:

1) Saving Money

You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.

2) Peace of Mind

Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.

3) Increased Feeling of Security

Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!

4) More Room for Spontaneity

This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…

5) Saving Time

A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!

Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!

So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.

Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?