Monday, Dec. 21
On my way home
Six months is up already?! Here are answers to a bunch of questions I’ve been asked about my trip. Some are reflections, others address logistics, designed to help you make a similar journey if you so choose.
What countries did you end up visiting?
Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa and Madagascar.
Would you do it again?
Certainly. And I plan to. First, I want to learn Spanish.
What was your favorite country?
Madagascar. I had awesome experiences and met wonderful people in every country, but overall Madagascar took the cake. It proved to give the most bang for my buck; that is, both financially — it was the cheapest country I visited — and in terms of reward for effort.
Madagascar has it all for travelers: fabulous scenery, unique wildlife and interesting culture. It’s different enough from home to hold my attention, but similar enough that I felt I could relate to the people here, connect with them in a way that was sometimes difficult in West Africa. Plus I’ve become entirely taken by the beautiful music here.
Your least favorite place?
Northwest Ghana was pretty crappy. Dakar wasn’t my scene.
The most beautiful?
Kribi, Cameroon. That beach still comes out on top.
Were there times when you felt uncomfortable traveling alone as a woman?
Of course. Lots of nights when I was nervous in my room, hoping the wrong men hadn’t seen me go in alone. But I was careful and used common sense to keep myself safe. And by traveling on my own — alone but not lonely — I met far more people than I would have in a pair or a group. Plus I loved the flexibility of traveling solo, the ability to change my plans on a whim or fit into one available seat in a bush taxi.
How’d you buy your flights?
Plenty of travelers purchase air tickets as they travel, but I bought mine ahead of time, as a package, because I believed it would be cheaper that way, particularly since I planned to visit two destinations that are expensive to reach, Cameroon and Madagascar. I used Airtreks, which allows travelers to paste together lots of one-way legs. I recommend the company.
I did, however, purchase several domestic flights during the trip, since it wasn’t until then that I solidified plans within specific countries. From Cameroon I bought a flight within South Africa so I could spend my time there in Cape Town. And once I arrived in Madagascar, I bought two domestic tickets that would allow me to bypass parts of the country with poor roads.
What about health insurance?
Since I lost coverage when I left my job, I signed onto insurance provided by New York State to residents (technically I live at my parents’ residence in Albany) in case I needed to return to the States for care. I also bought emergency insurance for abroad that came with my flight package, plus evacuation coverage.
Did you ever get really sick?
If I had, you would have heard about it. Lots of migraines, colds and stomach bugs, which I treated with Cipro. Nothing that compared to the bout of malaria I suffered during my first trip to Cameroon.
How much did this six-month trip cost you?
About $13,000. That includes $5,000 for flights, plus travel insurance and health insurance state-side. I made a few thousand back freelancing.
I spent about $1,000 a month, trying to keep it to $35 a day, not including one-time costs like visas. But my expenditures depended on the country. West African countries that use the CFA currency were far more expensive than Ghana, which relies on the cedi, and Madagascar, with its ariary.
Did you bring a cell phone?
Yes, though I rarely used it. My phone from home wasn’t compatible abroad, so I bought a used mobile on E-Bay that allowed me to switch SIM cards in each country. SIM cards, which provide a local number and access to the local network, are cheap and easy to find.
Did you get homesick?
Not really. I missed my family, friends and American food. I was nostalgic for Houston, which had become my home more than I realized — I missed my running routes, reading the paper at my favorite cafe on Sundays, lunch with friends from the newsroom. But I had so many new distractions, so much to see and experience, that I never wanted to go home.
Was there anything you didn’t bring that you wish you had?
Small, portable speakers; I bought some in South Africa. A rain cover for my backpack. More U.S. dollars, which are far easier to change than traveler’s cheques. More bug spray. Peanut butter, which Mom sent to me in a package — it lasts forever, can be paired with bread for a cheap meal and satisfies a sweet craving. Small solar power system. Headset to Skype.
Anything you brought that you wished you hadn’t?
Lots. I ditched my hiking boots and sleeping bag in the first month. I carried my water filter this entire trip and barely used it since bottled water is available almost everywhere. For my next trip, I’ll invest in a smaller backpack.
What was the most useful thing you packed?
A stand-alone mosquito net. Most travelers I met had mozzie nets that had to be tied to the ceiling, and they were always having trouble. But I had packed a tent-like net, one that came with poles to hold it up, and it worked beautifully.
Luggage locks came in handy on many occasions. So did the small extra bag I squished into a corner of my backpack. A lightweight bowl and hiker’s knife. Headlamp.
What was the most frustrating part?
Blogging. It was worth it to me, because writing about and sharing my experiences helps me reflect on what I’ve learned, gained and lost. But getting posts up on this blog was far more difficult than I expected, solely for technical reasons. It took a lot of time, and money, too, paying for access in cafes.
Got any other questions? Post here and I’ll answer them.
To read the Q&A I wrote before leaving for Africa, which answers more logistical questions, click here.