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.


Sunday, Oct. 26
Limbe, Cameroon

The man working behind me at the Internet cafe confused me.

He looked African and he spoke Pidgin, one of the local languages here, with the owner of the shop. But when he conversed in English — we were in one of Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces — he sounded American.

I wanted to know his story. And I didn’t have to look hard for a reason to talk to him; the two of us were the only clients working in a small, unventilated room designated for laptops when the power went out in the cafe. We sat there together in the dark, both of our computers glowing with battery power but no Internet connection.

“Guess that’s it for my work,” I said. And then, “So, where are you from?”

He was Cameroonian, he explained, born in the English-speaking northwest province, but went to high school in Scotland and university in the States, in Maine. Now as he spoke I could detect a bit of a Scottish accent.

But wait… backtrack. “Maine?!” I exclaimed. “I went to Colby!” I knew he would be familiar with my alma mater since he had spent time in the state. He had graduated, he told me, from the University of Maine.

And so I had found another Mainer. Mathew and I left the pitch-black cafe together, feeling our way along the walls to find the door, and crossed the street for a drink at a bar. Even without electricity, it was open for business.

There we reminisced about New England and talked about my experiences in Cameroon. It was odd, conversing with someone who sounded American, who understood American culture, who didn’t invite me for a beer solely because of the color of my skin, but who also understood the nuances of Cameroon. He had a unique perspective of his country and was happy to share it with me.

When I told him about the news story I’m writing on polygamy, he responded with tales of growing up in a two-wife household, explaining that even two women didn’t satisfy his father. The man also had two girlfriends outside the home.

Lexi and Mathews eldest daughter.

Lexi and Mathew's eldest daughter.

Mathew and I parted ways that night, but met up again in the morning so I could meet his wife and daughters and explore his side of town. It was one of my last days in Cameroon, and we spent it well.

First we drove to took to one of Limbe’s beautiful black-sand beaches to complete a fun errand, collecting rocks for a friend of Mathew who was building a garden. He had requested stones from Limbe specifically for two reasons: they’re a beautiful dark color because of a long-ago volcanic eruption, and they’re wonderfully smooth from the pounding of the waves.

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach.


Monday, Sept. 1
Cape Coast, Ghana

I’ve made it to Ghana’s coast!

Thanks to a fabulous friend, I can now share with you my route, all the way from Dakar, Senegal, to the south of Ghana. I’m calling this my MattyMap, in honor of its creator!

Check out the MattyMap here.

Friday, July 18
Nioro, Senegal

Whenever I tell anyone here that I’m traveling to Mali over land, they tell me one of two things: that it’s hot in Mali — hotter than Senegal, apparently — or that the unkept road to Mali makes for a terribly uncomfortable ride.

I’ll embark on that road tomorrow. I’m planning to leave Nioro early morning and make my way back to Kaolack, then head east toward Tambacounda, a dusty city that will serve as a stop-over point on my way to Mali.

I’ve been looking for an online map that allows me to illustrate my route so you can see the places I’ve been and the roads I’ve traveled. This Google map is my best attempt so far. Let me know if you have a better idea!

Click here to see my route.

I’m about to embark on a personal journey: a six-month trip to West Africa and Madagascar.

I’m leaving my job as medical reporter at the Houston Chronicle and selling most of my belongings. A month from now, I’ll fly to Senegal, where my adventure begins.

I have always loved to travel, so I’m taking this opportunity to see some of the world, improve my French and try my hand at freelancing from abroad before life’s responsibilities get in the way.

Here’s the itinerary — for now. It’s a flexible plan that may change depending on where I feel like going and when. That’s the beauty of this trip!

West African jaunt: Travel overland through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
July – Aug.

On the map: Senegal is at the most western part of West Africa, colored light orange. Go east and you’ll hit Mali, yellow, and Burkina Faso, brown, then Ghana, pink, to the south.

Cameroon: A trip back to the country where I studied abroad during college, including a visit to the polygamous family I stayed with there.
Sept. – Oct.

On the map: Cameroon also is on
the west coast, but further south.
It’s colored bright orange.Map of Africa

Madagascar: After a week-long detour in South Africa, I’ll fly to the fourth-largest island in the world.
Nov. – Dec.

On the map: It’s the large island off the east coast of Africa, colored bright orange.

UPDATE: This Google map, created by a friend, offers an up-close look at the countries I’ll be visiting.