Friday, Jan. 16
Back in the States

50,000 hits!

In just six months, the blog has gained 50,000 hits, thanks to all of you readers!

Wednesday, Jan. 14
Back in the States

When I travel, I walk. A lot. It’s the best way to explore new places.

But when I explored by foot in Africa during these last six months, my knee hurt, although I wasn’t sure why. It pained me enough that I gave up running for the duration of my trip, hoping rest would help me recover.

I skipped out on climbing Mount Cameroon, which I had considered one of the highlights of my trip.  And I popped pain pills even for light hikes.

So one of the first things I did when I got home was see a knee doctor. (Looking back, I should have visited the doctor before leaving for Africa, since even then I was suffering from knee pain. I had hoped it was temporary.)

Two visits and an MRI later, I know why I’ve been in such pain: I have a torn meniscus and a cyst. That meniscus, or cartiledge on the inner knee that allows for movement, is pretty necessary for an active 20-something like me.

To fix it, I need minor surgery. I’ve scheduled it for the end of the month.

Of course the idea of surgery is less than thrilling. But to be honest, I feel relieved to find out what’s been ailing me all these months, ever since I ran a series of trail races in Houston in April. If this surgery will help me get back into running again, I’m up for it.

In fact, I even feel lucky. Not lucky to have an injury, but lucky to have the means to fix it. Africa has a way of doing that — making me feel lucky for everything.

Imagine if Africa was my home instead of a place to visit, if I was a villager in any one of the countries I just explored. I’d be in the same pain, probably working out in the fields every day, cultivating crops to feed my family. Yet I’d likely never have the chance to visit a knee doctor or undergo surgery to fix the injury. I’d be forced to live with the pain.

But I’m an American! I’ve got access to a doctor, a surgery and health insurance to pay for most of it. (Thanks to Dad, who forced me to buy health insurance before I left.)

So I’ll gratefully go under the knife. Two months later I should be able to run again.

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Monday, Jan. 12
Back in the States

Now that I’m home with a fast WiFi connection, I’m uploading hundreds of photos and videos I took during my trip. Thought you might want to see a few of my favorites that didn’t make it onto the blog already. Turn on your sound!

A video of the sandstorm my travel companions and I hit in Timbuktu:

Here, my Cameroonian village family celebrates after I delivered more than $1,000, contributed by readers of this blog, to pay school fees. Those moving lights are glow-in-the-dark bracelets worn by people who are dancing. The sounds? Singing and cheering.

This Malagasy man showed me the process of creating silk, which later is used to weave scarves, from silkworms’ coocons. Here, he hangs the coocons out to dry.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Kumasi’s open-air market is, I believe, the biggest one in West Africa. I walked around it for hours just watching the scene and the people.

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Tuesday, Jan. 6
At home — Albany, NY

I hate saying goodbye and dread writing conclusions.

That’s the real reason why I haven’t ended the blog. I wanted to do it before Christmas, but I allowed myself to get distracted by everything that makes returning to the States wonderful: lovely company, tasty food and quality hygiene.

I’ve written half a dozen “last post” drafts, but none of them satisfied me. How do I sum up so much I’ve gained during the last six months?

Today, though, a reprieve arrived in my inbox: a note from Benoit Ndi Wamba, the son in my Cameroonian village family who helped me use money raised by readers of this blog to pay school fees for all the school-age children in his poor family.

Did I mention he was serious about school? Those who donated money can know it went to good use with Benoit at the wheel, that he’s keeping close tabs on his studying siblings: he sent grades earned by each child during the first three months of this year. A report card for the Ndi Wamba family!

The grades itself mean nothing since I don’t understand the system well (in general, higher is better). But that’s not what matters.

What matters is that because of this gift of school tuition and books — more than $1,000 donated — the Ndi Wamba kids not only get to go to school, they’re also being encouraged to do well. Their marks count for something. They’re being pushed to succeed.

So I’m not going to end the blog today. Instead, I’m sending along the Ndi Wamba report card, so you know what a difference you’ve made. Thank you.

This comes directly from Benoit!

Resultats: first trimestre
*Moyenne = average

1. Mbeuguia tsekeng, Jean. Classe: première. *Moyenne: 11,16.

2. Mbeuguia fofack, Sylvain. Classe: première. Moyenne: 10,92.

3. Mbeuguia dadem, Janvier. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,24.

4. Mbouadia kenfack, Regine. Classe: seconde. Moyenne: 08,63.

5. Mbouadia, Nathalie Alice. Classe: 5eme. Moyenne: 09,87.

6. Mbouadia djoumessi, Duplex. Classe: 4eme. Moyenne: 11,00.

7. Mbeuguia nguefack, Lydie. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,47 .

8. Mbouadia zonfack, Stéphane. Classe: élementaire first year. Moyenne: 11.02.

9. Temgoua mbeuguia, Maurice. Classe: premiere. Moyenne: 07,52.

10. Folefack, Jean Racel. Classe: terminal. Moyenne: 09,00.

11. Djoufack kenfack, Mirabelle. Classe: seconde. Moyenne: 09,00.

12. Alomo, Stéphanie Blanche. Classe: 4eme. Moyenne: 08,79.

13. Sonfack, Christelle Cédiane. Classe: 5eme. Moyenne: 08,00.

14. Soufac ngossa, Franklin. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,00.

15. Mbassibi wamba, Boniface. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,00.

16. Soufack tchoufack wamba, Canis. Classe: 3eme. Moyenne: 08,21.

17. For mine, we begin in February (Benoit).

Monday, Dec. 22
On my way home

When I started this journey, I purposely planned nothing for my return.

I left my job. I moved out of my apartment. I got rid of everything, including my beloved piano, that had the potential to tie me down. I created an entirely blank slate for myself, not knowing where I’d live, how I’d make money, what I would do with my days when I got back.

Of course, it would have been nearly impossible to secure a job ahead of time in the field of journalism, but I had another reason for avoiding that: I wanted to be free after my travels to do whatever I wanted, no roadblocks, even the kind that can give peace of mind.

I thought travel, free time and introspection might change my next step. Perhaps I’d want to stay in one of the countries I visited, take a job with a non-profit or extend my trip. Delve into something different.

Instead, it made my vision even clearer, put a spotlight on my desire to continue working as a reporter, despite a journalism job market that looks grim at best and a newspaper industry that’s even shakier than when I left.

After the many job cuts at newspapers across the country, I would venture to say it’s even a bit irresponsible of me to return to journalism, when I could stake out a better-paying job I’m sure still will be around in the next few years.

But I’m going to take that risk. I’ll look for a reporting position, either somewhere in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C. — close to my family on the East Coast — or move back to Houston, a city I’ve craved during the last six months, and hope my editors missed me as much as I missed them.

The job hunt is going to have to wait a while, though. First I plan to work on a writing project, a conglomeration of my travel experiences, tying together stories I blogged about with those that are still in my notebook, waiting to be told. (There’s more, you say? Oh, yes. Just you wait.) In my wildest dream — one I’m almost afraid to write here for fear I’ll jinx it — I’ll publish a travel memoir.

Even if that doesn’t work out, I’ve gotten out of this trip what I had hoped. I feel satisfied, learned, reinvigorated, ready to get back to the grind of the life I was lucky enough to be born into. Ready to get back home!

“Yes, we’ll dance
Dance our way through our lives.”
— Pat Green

Monday, Dec. 22
On my way home

I’ve left Madagascar, but since I have a fabulous Internet connection in the Jo-Burg airport, I wanted to share a few last photos from Tana, the capital.

The Christmas season isn’t in your face there like it is at home, but every once in a while I noticed something that reminds me it’s gift and snow time in Albany.

Occasionally one of the cell-phone chain stores would blast Christmas music — the same tunes as chez moi but not in English. And I passed several Christmas-tree sellers in the market:

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Holiday flash.

Holiday flash.

Just for fun, here are two other photos:

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

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.

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Sunday, Dec. 21
Leaving Tana, Madagascar

Today I begin the trip home!

That’s right; I’ve caught up on the blog, so you’re reading this in real time. Today, Sunday, marks the beginning of my two-day journey back to the States.

I inched my way to Madagascar, but I’m heading home in one swoop, which makes me realize just how far away the country really is from America.

My first flight is to Johannesburg, where I’ll have an overnight layover. It’s not until Monday afternoon that I’ll board a red-eye that will take me to Washington, D.C., by way of Dakar — a 19-hour flight.

Tuesday morning I’ll arrive in D.C., hopefully just in time to catch my last flight, a short one, to Albany.

How do I feel? Excited! Very excited to see my family and friends, to spend Christmas at home, to begin the next leg of life. But I’m sad, too, that this trip has come to an end.

The last time I returned home from Africa, after a college semester in Cameroon, the luxury of life in the States hit me like a slap in the face. I was happy to return to that luxury, of course, particularly American food in all its variety, but other aspects made me feel uncomfortable.

One of my first tasks that spring was to buy a new pair of running shoes, since I had left my previous pair in Cameroon. But when I stood before the zillions of pairs that were available in just one store, I became totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the choice — in Africa, you take what you can get — but I found it difficult to imagine spending $80 on a pair of sneakers when that much money could have helped clothe, feed and send to school children in my village family.

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Tuesday, Dec. 16
Andasibe, Madagascar

The piercing howls woke me from my sleep.

I fumbled for my watch — 1 a.m. — and then let my head fall back onto my pillow to listen.

The high-pitched sounds resembled something between a car alarm and whale calls, several whines overlapping. Nestled in a bed in a chilly bungalow just outside Andasibe National Park (park #5 for me here!), I knew immediately what I had heard: the cries of the Indri lemur.

Mama Indri with baby on her back.

Mama Indri with baby on her back.

The Indri, at around three feet tall, are the largest of the nearly 60 lemur species that still exist in Madagascar, and, well, anywhere on earth, since lemurs don’t live anywhere else.

They’re also, I would argue, the most human. In addition to being the size of a child, they’re the only lemurs with short tails and also the only ones to give birth to just one baby instead of several at once.

While some lemurs resemble squirrels, rats or other rodents, running on all fours across tree branches, Indri jump from an upright position, like monkeys, as far as 10 meters.

The mammals are a must-see in Madagascar, I’d been told by travelers and locals alike. So on my way back to the capital, as I completed the eastern part of my loop around northern Madagascar, with just five days left in country, I detoured to see the Indri.

It didn’t take our guide long to spot them in the forest on account of the low hum the family was producing early this morning. After we stood for a while on the ground beneath them , craning our necks to see the mother carrying a baby on her back, they began marking their territory with those crazy howls. It was so loud I wanted to cover my ears. Instead, I took this video; it’s the audio, not the visual, that’s interesting:

We also glimpsed several other species of lemurs, including the diademed sifaka, which exists not only just in Madagascar, but also only in this one part of the country.

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Friday, Dec. 12
Tamatave, Madagascar

It ain’t easy to leave Maroantsetra.

I arrived there via plane from the north. Since there’s no road, my only other option was to hike in, several days worth of walking from the nearest town.

Most visitors depart the same way, flying out of the tiny airport they flew into. But I decided to take my chances with ground transport, since there was something resembling a road that headed south. I could weather one more bush taxi ride on unpaved road, I told myself.

The trip was about 180 miles. It took two days. Thirty hours! Plus a few hours when we stopped to sleep.

Even considering all the horrible roads I’ve taken during this trip, one stretch of this route in particular was the worst I’ve ever experienced. It was more like a monster-truck obstacle course, with our four-by-four bush taxi — basically a 4×4 15-passenger van; who knew they existed? — climbing slowly over boulders, piles of rocks, sometimes tilted so far to one side that I worried we would tip over.

Indeed, we passed one vehicle that had done just that, and our driver joined a crowd of people, mostly the truck’s passengers, as they worked to push the vehicle right-side up.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

Much of the path was marked by two deep ditches, tracks from vehicles that had passed before us in the mud. We were lucky: it hadn’t rained for days, so those tracks had hardened, and we rolled slowly over them. Had the road been wet from rain, I doubt we would have been able to pass at all.

Yet the trip, if the roughest I’ve completed, was far from the most uncomfortable. For it’s not only the road that determines one’s comfort level, but also a host of other factors, mainly where you’re sitting and how many people are sitting on top of you.

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