The Ivory Coast

The west coast of Africa was a notorious trading ground for European colonizers – once they arrived, they started to claim and divide the land according to what resources interested them. They drew borders around their claims and called them accordingly, ie. Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and Grain Coast (Liberia). Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t have many elephants left, and that’s probably because their tusks had all tuned into the fittings of European piano keys, but it’s the only country still referred to by it’s colonized name. Apparently the French used the coast of Côte d’Ivoire to access the sub-Saharan interior, gaining favour and support of local chiefs on the way, and for this reason were able to colonize so much of West Africa.

my couch surfing hosts in Abidjan

my couch surfing hosts in Abidjan

The French here is easy to understand, because they speak it slowly and tend to use vocabulary I understand. I speak just bad enough French that people think that if they talk quickly I won’t understand, but I can always understand when they’re talking about me right in front of me, since what I can say in French isn’t the same as what I understand in French (a blessing and a curse of speaking languages you don’t practice enough). I don’t try to convince them I’m fluent, since I’ve always said I cant carry on a discussion on politics, but then I spent an afternoon discussing why Burkinabé people are more peaceful due to a stable government.

I loved being in Abidjan. I spent nearly a week living with an Ivorian family just outside the city in a small, pedestrian village. It was called Trois Rouges, in the “police city”, and I became a local celebrity on my first morning there after giving out 20 toothbrushes and 20 pens to the neighbours kids. The next few days were spent shaking the hands of all the parents and grandparents who wanted to thank me. I wondered why it’s not this easy to make 100 new friends elsewhere with a few pens and toothbrushes, and became even happier to be where I was. I started getting used to the idea that family life is social and your private life is public. They wanted to know my love life history and entire family tree, and since food is such an important part of the day, they needed to know when I had eaten, what it was, and also when it was ready to come out so I could have the toilet and shower shared by 9 ready for me. They catered to my western needs by always following me to the toilet with toilet paper (I still haven’t figured out the plastic kettle system ) and buying singular Nescafé instant coffee packets every morning so I could have my caffeine fix.

the hammock in our front yard

the hammock in our front yard

My daily routine was not busy or stressful; I laid around in a hammock reading books on tourism and war in Côte d’Ivoire, and anytime I wanted to take a walk through the villages, I was followed by an entourage of 5-8 young men. They respected me as a sister, but begged me to ring them some big and sexy white women back for them later. Or atleast change the visa system in Europe and North America so they could go and find one themselves.

5 Lessons to Learn when traveling in West Africa


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.

Transit to Guinea-Bissau


I have been in West Africa for only a week, but it feels like a month has already passed. I can’t even remember the sensation of sleeping under a blanket, and it seems my throat is having an allergic reaction after sleeping in an air-conditioned room last night. The AC only brings the temperature down to about 25 degrees, and you don’t really notice or appreciate the difference until you step back outside into the humid, sticky, reality of the outside temperature. The make-it or break-it of the 35 degree days isn’t necessarily the temperature, but the humidity level, whether or not there’s a breeze, and if the sun rays bare down on you directly or not. Shade is a luxurious commodity, and the coming of nightfall is always a welcomed relief.

When it rains it pours, and makes things slightly cooler, since a breeze usually accompanies the rain. The rain washes away the stagnant smell of old water pools, but brings more humidity and new mosquito-breeding puddles. Showering is a fun surprise from day to day and place to place. Most “showers” are big buckets filled with water, and a little bucket you’re meant to throw water over your body with. It’s the same bucket you might use to flush the toilet, if there’s a toilet, since it’s almost never connected to running water, but only a hole in the ground. Toilet paper is a rare discovery, and I still haven’t figured out what women do when they have their period.

In Bissau, electricity is also hard to find, and the city turns into a loud grumble around 6 or 7 pm when all the generators start up. It cuts out regularly, and most of the mid-town area stands in dark silence. On the way here, our bus took nearly 8 hours to drive the 110km between Ziguinchor, Senegal, and Bissau, the whole time with the gas light warning lit up. I think he only bought 7L, so I’m still not sure how we got here. The duck and chicken crossings may have slowed us down a bit (chickens are faster to cross the road FYI), but more so the livestock crossings (cows and goats are a little more chillaxed), and a crocodile even crossed the road twice without getting run over (I didn’t know they could move that fast).

Mostly it’s the check points and all sorts of customs officers that slow us down. I counted more than 10 check points, half of which required us all to get out of the car, walk an arbitrary 50m, then pile back into the sweaty, stuffed seats like sardines again. Despite all these delays, the local villages still think it’s a good idea to put huge logs in the middle of the road to deter our speed… As if we really needed speed bumps.

Traveling by land has been really interesting, as we reach these places I’ve heard of or seen marked on maps, but they’re more like non-places, rusted signs on the side of the street marking a place where some people may live discreetly. It’s hard to come to a place you’ve never hear of before, imagining it a certain way based on the last place you where at, but it never quite reaches your expectations for a cleaner, more organized, or civilized city. The concept of city is just something I’ve thrown away, since African cities are never everything you hoped for, and today we were lucky to find a bank in Bissau that we could actually withdraw money.

We’ve been traversing not only borders, but colonial histories and different languages. Though many people in Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau speak some common local languages, they’re educated as children in some “official” language – so far, it’s been either English, French, or Portugese. It’s very strange to hear the Brazilian flare in people’s greetings, but the official language thing isn’t really holding up. Many children don’t go to school, and those who do never use the “official” language at home or with friends, so these European languages are just insignificant rules for those who want to get a job in government or tourism. Otherwise, they see no use with them, but it’s definitely a relief for me.

The one thing that’s kind of remained consistent is the blend of religion. It’s been majority Muslim so far, with the 5 daily calls to prayers and Arabic schools and writing splattered around from here to there. But all of West Africa has seemed a little bit like West Indies déjà vu. The dreadlocked Rastas and reggae music is one and the same, while the curvaceous and well-endowed women know how to shake what they’re mama gave them. The palm tree beaches could easily be a Caribbean island, with the smoke of Mary Janes a common scent every evening. They suck their teeth to express discontent, and do that super irritating “psssssst” to get your attention. The Caribbean islands should really be called the West Africa’s, the faces of both places resembling eachother perfectly, but the biggest thing that separates them is religion. And the Christian West Indies also drink more beer.


Goodbye Reykjavik, til 2014

I think this is the first year I’ve really appreciated Icelandic autumn, and I’m not sure if it’s because it was an exceptionally warm and beautiful one, or if it’s because I knew I was leaving before winter started. Whether or not if was because fall was good or I didn’t have to worry about dreading winter, I have been looking forward to leaving on a jet plane to West Africa ever since I booked it in midsummer. The sunny beaches and lush forests are starting to call my name.

I am going to travel with my cousin Villi, who is a strong, tall Viking man but looks a little bit more like a Colombian drug dealer with his shaved head, tattoo and dark skin (he is also half Guyanese). So I’m banking on him to protect me and pretend to be my husband when the appropriate situation calls for me to be married. The Gambia is 90% Muslim but supposedly very safe and tourist friendly, so he may be more handy in Mali or Guniea-Bissau.

This trip will be one of the first I take with company for so long, and also the first without a computer so I’ll be blogging from my iPhone. Not sure how that will work out but whateves. I would much prefer to go old school and carry around some pen and paper to handwrite about my journey, but then I wouldn’t be able to share it online and assure my mother I’m still alive. But that got me thinking, why does no one write anymore? Will the next generation just grow up learning how to type on screens? Even so, people write and type less, I feel like. Maybe writing is more stressful because people don’t want their thoughts to be permanent or reread or personal to themselves. And then half the things we think we don’t even feel comfortable sharing in the first place, so writing it down makes us scared of everyone judging us all the time for the crazy things we think. I say screw them and think whatever you think, you’re the one deciding to read this. Now I should probably say something brilliant I’ve been thinking, but instead I’m going to go back to what I was talking about before my rant.

I’m leaving for The Gambia, we need to get to Senegal, but first I fly through Paris and Barcelona. I only have 6 hours in Barcelona, where I plan to walk down the Las Ramblas, drink Sangria, and find Villi at the airport. I have 2 nights in Paris to meet a handful of amazing people, both new and old friends, and drink a lot of good wine. I’m not sure I’ll miss Iceland too much while that is all going on, but maybe the heat, Mosquitos and water in West Africa will stir a few homesick strings in me.