5 Lessons to Learn when traveling in West Africa

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1.) There are three questions you should never ask:
-how long does it take?
-where is an atm?
-where can I buy wine?
First of all, no one has any idea (or respect) of time, so 3 African hours can easily equal 6 normal hours, and you have better luck asking how many kilometers are left, although that still doesn’t help you guess how long until you’ll reach your destination. The roads are pretty terrible, and none of the stops along the way seem to be planned or timed. But Bon voyage anyway 🙂

Secondly, no one here seems to use banks, and almost no one I met has ever needed to use an atm. The idea of using a machine to make money appear out of thin air is another reality for them, and when they’ve never had to do it, they have no idea what kind of place your looking for. Most times we ended up at a cell phone credit recharge place, since that’s the most common way people share money, or a western union, which is one place they know cash can magically be wired to someone in Africa. I ran into one cleaning lady who had been sent to an atm to withdraw cash for her boss, and she needed my help to insert the card and type 80,000, since both were feats she couldn’t imagine doing herself.

Thirdly, in a majority Islamic culture, wine and beer aren’t sold just anywhere. And where it is sold, the sellers aren’t advertising it. So the shop right beside will have no idea to send you next door, and will usually send you instead to the nearest big city, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away. In St. Louis, we bought the alcohol from the city distributors, who supply the hotels, since we never found an actual store. So better yet, don’t plan to drink anything but dirty water and warm soft-drinks.

2.) Bring a lot if passport photos, atleast two per country, and expect to spend most of your budget on visas and random border or security check-point bribes. And try to get a visa for the next country as soon a you arrive in the neighboring country – sometimes it takes a few days and weekends don’t count.

3.) If you have time, you can save money, but if you have money, you can buy a lot of time. Transport is slow, hot and uncomfortable, but domestic flights are sometimes more expensive than a flight to Europe. So stick do the crappy roads, just remember not to ask “how long does it take.”

4.) If someone stares at you, especially if he does it for a long time with a serious face, all you have to do is say “Bonjour, ca va?” And his face will quickly break into a smile as he replies “bonjour ca va bien” and looks away shyly. But don’t ask too much more or else you’ll have a shadow following you for the next kilometer expecting more conversation, money or food.

5.) Always carry small bills and lots of coins with you, even if it weighs down both your pockets. Few vendors or taxis have change, or are willing to make change, and they’ll take ages to break your bills, asking every other vendor or driver around for change they also don’t have.

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