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!

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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. 😛

You know you have been in Guinea-Bissau for too long when….

Guinea-Bissau, a tiny country on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, is one of those places where days easily turn to weeks and before you know it, you have practically become a local.

15 signs you have been in Guinea-Bissau for too long:

1) You treat power cuts as a normal part of everyday life. When the all the lights in the house suddenly turn off sometime between 7-11 p.m., you’ll just casually flick the switch of the flashlight that is permanently glued to your hand, and go on with your business like nothing happened. You know perfectly well that the lights will come back in an hour or two, or by the next day for sure. And a power cut is really just a good excuse to go out for a caipirinha!

2) When someone asks you what goes into a caipirinha, you automatically say it’s made of the Guinea-Bissauan spirit of “cana” and is a local classic. (I have personally dubbed Guinea-Bissau as mini-Brazil!). Also, “Baileys” now refers to a mix of fuel-tasting cana, condensed milk and coffee, poured into a 1.5-liter water bottle and drank nicely luke-warm because nobody has a fridge.

3) You think it’s totally normal for freshly-roasted cashew nuts to be sold straight out of the vendor’s hand into yours. While a few thousand germs do switch owners in the process, not much money does: 200 CFA ($0.50) gives you about two palm-fulls of yummy, if slightly sandy, cashews.

(You can also buy fresh cashew fruit and make juice out of it! The nut part comes from the roasted the stub of the fruit.)

4) When someone offers you wine with lunch, you know better than to ask “is it red or white?” Cashew wine only comes in one color: gray. At least the taste varies from fresh and sugary to overly-fermented sourness.

5) In one sentence you’ll use words from Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Creole. You also feel bad about not speaking fluent Portuguese creole, a language you didn’t even know existed before setting foot into Guinea-Bissau.

6) When the phrase “hit song” automatically refers to the catchy slow tunes of local pop star Americo Gomes:

7) You come to realize the bars you frequent are all located within a two-block radius of each other, meaning that Bissau is not at all the metropolis it seemed to be during the first day.

8) You drink your water out of small plastic bags that you buy in the corner shop. You also know the perfect technique: bite a small hole in the corner and squeeze hard.

9) You think it is totally normal for the airport bar to be a little shack by the road, crowded by people with suitcases, and for the check-in time to be whenever you see the plane arriving on the runway.

10) All the expats you speak with have had malaria or are currently fighting the latest bout of it. Most people seem to think it’s just an extreme case of the feverish flu and don’t even bother with mosquito nets.

11) You no longer wonder how it’s possible that you are in one of the world’s poorest countries, and yet bridges and roads are in great shape, people wear nice clothes and there are fancy mansions sprouting up all over. That’s just how it is. (Surely it has nothing to do with the Latin American drug lords using Guinea-Bissau as a transfer point, right?)

12)  You know better than to buy the 5th ticket to a “Sept Place”, one of the converted Peugeot station wagons that serve as Guinea-Bissau’s only mode of public transportation. While these rickety cars do somehow seat seven people, the fifth person ends up sitting on top of the back wheel, crouching uncomfortably the whole way.

13) You have abandoned all your long sleeves and ankle-length skirts – way too conservative for Guinea-Bissau! Here the look is more along the lines of tank tops and miniskirts, especially in the buzzing nightlife scene of the capital city Bissau.

14) You have learned to take a nap before going out dancing at the local hotspots like Bambu or Sabura, as it will surely be another long night. You know that Bissau is called a “24-hour party place” for a good reason – the fun never ends (before 6 a.m. anyway).

15) You have lived through a coup d’etat or two – Guinea-Bissau is famous for not having a single president complete a full term since 1994.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: After spending nearly a month in Guinea-Bissau, I finally left a week before the latest coup – clearly too early! I’ll take that as a sign that I need to go back some day. 🙂

A different kind of a roadtrip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other times I’ve felt right at home.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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