Preparation


Planning a long-term trip? Here are a handful of resources that helped me make logistical decisions, as well as a few that offered inspiration.

The Practical Nomad: How to travel around the world, by Edward Hasbrouck — Of all the how-to guides for around-the-world travel that I got my hands on, this book was by far the best. Advice for independent travelers ranges from how to buy your airfare to figuring out your budget. (The author also posts advice on his Web site.)

A Journey of One’s Own: Uncommon advice for the independent woman traveler, by Thalia ZepatosĀ  —The book offers advice, tips and ideas for female travelers.

Gutsy Women: More travel tips and wisdom for the Road, by MaryBeth Bond — Part of the travelers’ tales series, this book is a combo of advice and inspiration for the woman traveler.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert — The New York Times bestseller is a memoir about how a woman recovers from a divorce through travel.

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at large in the world, by Rita Golden Gelman — Another travel memoir, an inspiring one about a woman who follows her whims.

Coming soon: online resources.

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It’s been a while since I’ve lived out of my backpack. More than three years, actually. The last time I stuffed my life into this bag when was I worked at a newspaper in New Zealand for a semester during journalism school in 2004.

As I prepare for this trip — T minus three days now — I’m feeling nervous not about the flight, not about the time away from home, not about the language, the food, the change of cultures. What’s giving me anxiety is fitting everything into my pack.

Here’s the packing list. I’ll take a daypack and a small shoulder bag, too.

Sleeping accessories: sleeping bag, mosquito net, sheet

Shoes (they get their own category because they take up so much room): sandals, hiking boots, running sneakers

Keep-me-healthy supplies: water filter, Nalgene bottle, daily malaria pills, headlamp

Techie equipment (I should call this group “begging to be stolen”): mini computer and extra battery, power converter, digital camera, global cell phone, iPod

Personal items: toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush and the like, contact supplies to last six months, ditto on tampons (both likely will be hard to find when I’m outside of major cities), six months worth of my daily medications, plus a collection of remedies to fight any stomach bugs I pick up along the way, sunblock and bug spray

Books: Lonely Planet guides to West Africa and Madagascar, a fun-read paperback, copies of important documents, a notebook, small photo album of family and friends to share

Gifts: Stickers for kids (the lightest toy around)

Does that leave any room for clothes? Not much. But I’m also hoping to fit a few skirts, capris and shirts in there, plus a fleece jacket and a rain slicker.

Then there’s the all-essential money belt, which will hold my passport, paper airline tickets (apparently some airlines still use those), debit card, back-up traveler’s checks and U.S. dollars.

Since I’ve left Houston and have turned my parents’ house in Albany, NY, into Packing Headquarters, these two weeks of preparation are doubling as quality time with my family. That includes using my mom for the mosquito net test run:

Mom tries my mosquito net

Am I forgetting anything? Please say no. I don’t think it will fit in my bag.

The UPS man just arrived at the door of my parents’ house in Albany, NY, where I’m staying until I depart on my trip, and I ran to meet him. He didn’t disappoint. He handed me — with a smile — an envelope from the Embassy of Mali, and I promptly tore it open.

(No, this isn’t a television commercial for UPS. This is my life.)

I’ve been approved by Mali for a visit! Another visa in my passport, another passport page full… And I’m wondering whether I should have added more pages to my passport before I left. Too late now.

This visa business is costly! Note to self: When planning to travel to a myriad of countries, budget plenty of cash — and patience — for visas. Oh, and dozens of passport photos.

Since my departure is just a week and a half away, it looks like I’ll be leaving with two visas in hand: Mali and Madagascar. I’ll have to obtain the rest en route. Here’s what I’ve scribbled in my notes:

Senegal — No visa required for U.S. citizens.
Mali — Got it! $131. Multiple entry.
Burkina Faso — Need it. $100.
Ghana — Need it. $50. And four (FOUR!) passport photos.
Cameroon — Need it. $50. Usually issue only one-month visas to tourists, but with my recommendation letter I should be able to swing a two-month pass.
South Africa — No visa required for U.S. citizens.
Madagascar — Got it! $80.

So I’ll have to get my B. Faso visa while in Mali… And my Ghana visa while in B. Faso… and my Cameroon visa while in Ghana…

I’ve had my first African experience, and I haven’t even left the States.

To obtain a three-month tourist visa for Cameroon, I need a letter of recommendation from a Cameroonian. Without the letter, I’m eligible only for a one-month visa, a detail I learned after I had booked flights in and out of the country two months apart.

So I asked a Cameroonian journalist, one I met by fate several months ago at a health journalism conference, to sponsor me. We already had planned to meet up in the country’s capital so he could show me around the state-sponsored newspaper where he works.

He agreed, promptly sending me the following letter, which drips of grandiose Cameroonian culture. Reading it reminded me what I learned six years ago when I first visited the country: almost everything is exaggerated. I quite like the person I am in Martin’s letter.

To Whom it May Concern:

I hereby write to recommend Alexis Grant as a committed tourist, who loves Cameroon so dearly. Alexis visited Cameroon in 2002, and impressed many local communities by rapidly speaking their tribal languages, adapting to the taste of their traditional dishes and working hard on their rice and cocoyam farms. She also rapidly acquired the skills to write and speak French, a quality which gave her easy access to several spheres of Cameroon life.

Alexis’ next visit in September 2008 will not only stir great excitement in her former communities in the West and North provinces, but would also take her to other touristically vibrant communities in the North West and South West provinces. I would personally guide her to the great lakes, seasides, reserve forests and traditional palaces of the North West and South West provinces.

To discover this second phase of Cameroon’s touristic haven, Alexis Grant needs a tourist visa lasting for at least two months. We strongly appeal to the consular office to grant her over two months to enjoy a facinating summer holiday in Cameroon.

Who could say no to THAT? (And what’s a cocoyam?)

Since I announced my departure, I’ve been asked the same questions again and again. Here’s my attempt to answer them.

Q: Why Africa?

A: Because it’s different than my home. I like pushing myself outside my comfort zone; it’s those experiences that make the best stories. I also want to improve my French, and what more exciting place to do it than West Africa?

Q: Still… Africa! Are you crazy?

A: Maybe a little. But I’m also adventurous. I spent some time in West Africa several years ago, four months in Cameroon, so I understand the countries I plan to visit suffer from poverty, crime and disease. They also have fabulous culture!

Q: Are you going alone?

A: Yes. And yes, I’m going alone by choice.

Traveling on my own means I get to go where I want when I want. It makes me more open to meeting people because otherwise I’ll have no one to talk to. And although I’ll start out alone, I’m hoping to meet up with other backpackers, journalists, friends of friends, and of course, people who live in the countries I’m visiting.

Q: Have you traveled alone before?

A: A bit, but nothing this extensive. I’ve been on my own for weeks in Cameroon and New Zealand, and for days in France and Germany.

Q: Do you speak French?

A: Yes, but not fluently. It’s been a while since I’ve visited a Francophone country, so I’ve been brushing up on my language skills for the past year at Rice University.

Q: What about your job? And your apartment?

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