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.


Tuesday, Nov. 4
Antananarivo, Madagascar

I stayed in my hostel bed on my first morning in Madagascar long after I woke up, partly because my stomach was rumbling in the sorry way that usually foreshadows sickness. But I also had another reason to keep my eyes closed: someone was showering in my room.

It was a dorm room, with four beds, and a shower and sink just feet from the bunks, so it wasn’t unusual that I had a roommate. But I hadn’t met the traveler, since the person was already asleep in the top bunk when I climbed into my bed the night before. I only realized it was a man when I heard him clearing his throat that morning in the shower, and so I kept my position, facing the wall, to offer some privacy.

When I figured he had had enough time to dress himself, I turned, thinking I might meet a new friend, perhaps another 20-something backpacker who would explore the island with me. It’s in these hostel dorm rooms that I often meet other frugal travelers.

Instead, I was shocked to see a skinny old man, wearing only shorts, his wrinkled chest bare, rinsing his hands at the sink.

I smiled to myself, and asked where he was from.

“Born in Italy, but now living in Malaysia,” he responded. “You?”

“United States,” I said.

“Oh, well we can switch to English then,” he said, transitioning out of French.

The man, who had lived most of his life in various east African countries, had just returned to the capital after six weeks of traveling the country. Since that was similar to my time frame here, I inquired about his route. Looking at my guidebook earlier, I hadn’t noticed an obvious one, and I still wasn’t sure how I would go about seeing the island.

“They say you can’t do a loop around the country,” he said, “but I managed to do just that.”

We paged through my guidebook to find a map, and indeed, it looked impossible to loop around Madagascar. Most of the main roads start in the center of the country, in Antananarivo, the capital that goes by “Tana” for obvious reasons. The roads radiate outward, kind of like a subway station that has one center point and lots of lines that never connect.