A Travellerspoint blog

Do I Want to go Home?

Doubt is a natural part of travel - well, of life, really... And having been on the road for a while I might have had enough.

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Taking a break

Taking a break

Am I done? Having used more than a week not travelling, I can’t figure out if I want to go back on the road or not. The comfortable expat life is getting to me. The simple fact that I’ve stopped travelling for a while have made me wonder if it might be time to end this trip for good and go home.

Bumping around in one of the wettest regions of the world – in the rainy season – doesn’t help either. Nothing, me included, really dry down here. Both the inside of my backpack and one of my wallets are becoming mouldy. Mould! Heavy showers keep everything wet, and the humidity here keeps me wet unless there are 30 minutes of the sunshine that can dry me off before the next shower. By now I can barely enter a dry room without making everything in it damp by my mere presence.

In Central Asia

In Central Asia

I have also just passed six months on the road. The longest I’ve been out on previous trips was seven months when I went to Central Asia in 2013. Back then, my return date was set in stone as I had to go back to my studies. I remember thinking a few times during the latter part of that trip that I was ready to go home. Having set a date for my return somehow helped keep those thoughts in check.

Now, I have no set date. Nothing that I absolutely need to go back to on a given date. That makes it difficult to see an end to the travelling life. Sure, I’m probably going to run out of money during the first three months of 2017… maybe, but so far I’ve been spending less than expected.

Summit of Mount Bintumani

Summit of Mount Bintumani

Then again. Nothing stops me from going home either. Or going somewhere else, where it’s easier to travel. Hell, I could just jump on a flight to Southeast Asia, if I wanted to. Nothing, except the profound feeling of failure I would feel if I cut this trip short, stops me.
But I’ve decided that it’s probably just a matter of feeling a bit homesick. Haven gotten out of the travel routine, I’ve also lost all those beautiful experiences that come with travelling. I’m going to head out of Freetown, climb the biggest mountain between Morocco and Cameroon (which is going to be a five-day round-trip, at least) and then re-evaluate.

To pull a little bit in the other direction, I’m also going to begin to apply for jobs. After all, I did just finish a master’s in Global Studies before I started this trip. In that way, if I should receive some fantastic opportunity to start a career somewhere exciting it would give me a valid reason for cutting this adventure short.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:07 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged travel country travelling tired west_africa comfort sierra_leone expat_life living_standards hardship_ Comments (0)

Expatriate Life

Changing lifestyle for a while...

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It’s unlikely that you will enter Sierra Leone by road. It bears the dubious distinction of being bordered by arguably the only two West African countries that are in a worse state – Guinea and Liberia.

Freetown

Freetown

Thanks for nothing, Bradt Guides.

I have made my way from Conakry in Guinea to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Almost surprisingly, I’ve only been asked for a bribe once. Unfortunately, that was the guy stamping me into Sierra Leone. The fact that I didn’t want to pay him then resulted in him only allowing me to stay in the country for nine days. I’ll have to go to the immigration office in Freetown and buy an extension of my stay, as he told me. Luckily, he was pretty sloppy when he wrote the date into my passport, and I’ve been able to rewrite the date afterwards, granting myself another extra ten days.

A real house(!)

A real house(!)

To my surprise, after the last few days, I’m beginning to realise that nineteen days might not be enough here. For the last week, I’ve been couchsurfing with a German expat and lived the life of the expatriate – a jobless expat, but nonetheless an expat.

To the ones who need clarification, are expatriates – expats for short – defined as someone who is stationed abroad. Think of aid workers, diplomats, private institution teachers and the like. Stationing people abroad is usually no cheap enterprise and whether we’re talking about North Americans, Europeans or Chinese in Africa (or Africans in Europe). The paychecks tend to be larger than they would otherwise be in the expat’s country of origin. Perks like a paid house or car is also often part of expat luxury.

Hardship Country?

Hardship Country?

Whenever there’s a significant drop in living standards, say from a European to an African country, the paycheck goes up further. Every international organisation divides countries into “hardship” categories based on how dangerous, undeveloped, etc. the country is.
Sierra Leone is such a country. Frankly, most of the places I travel are considered “hardship countries”. And more frankly, there’s a lot more difficulty involved in budget travelling than being stationed somewhere, with excellent perks and top salary. Long time travelling – especially in Africa – is not a particularly comfortable lifestyle, and having just reached six months on the road, I needed a break. A pause from the cheap, semi-dirty rooms. A break from eating rice for 90 per cent of my meals. A break from crowded transportation. And a break from that self-imposed ambitious of not wasting time as many travellers have.

Travel Living Standards

Travel Living Standards

I think I need to elaborate on the unwillingness to waste time. Travelling somewhere new, just to sit and do nothing is not why we travel. It’s not a vacation. It’s, for me, a year of seeing a region of the world I don’t know much about. Not exploring it would be a waste of time. Also, having a limited time – or rather having a limited wallet – means that I have a rough idea about how long time I can spend in each country in other to get all the way to Nigeria. Those plans go out the window often but nonetheless do I have to keep a little bit track of thinks.
Those factors create pressure. At least in my mind. I need to get everything I want to do done so that I can move on. During that without wasting too much time is a very demanding way of travelling, and can only be done for so long before any traveller wears him/herself out. Arriving in Freetown, I’ve just about worn myself out during the past six months.

Lobster Lunch

Lobster Lunch

Since my host is living in a rather nice three-bedroom house, I’ve spend a lot of time – a lot of days actually – taking a vacation from all the travelling. To be honest, I’ve spend more time on the couch than anywhere else. We have ordered pizza and beers three days in a row for dinner and used the evenings to watch football.
I even burned money on joining my host and two other aid workers on an extended weekend in a small guesthouse on the exotically named Banana Islands. Lying in a hammock all day, enjoying gorgeous beaches and eating lobster at $10 apiece. We even went spear fishing. We also joked a lot about the fact that Sierra Leone is a “hardship country.”

Expatriate Guide

Expatriate Guide

However, in other aspects of life, it surely is. It took my host six months to get running water installed. Something that just happened. My first week here he only had bucket showers. My computer didn’t survive the trip between Conakry and Freetown either; trying to fix it seems almost impossible to do down here. I’ve instead bought a used tablet with an add-on keyboard. Buying electronics down here costs about the double of what it would do in Scandinavia – and this used tablet have set me back about the same as a new one would have done back home.
So there are definitely reasons as to why West Africa, in general, is considered “hardship” for expats too. To recover from this, and to see if it will be at all possible to recover what’s on my old hard drive, I think I’ll have to spend a few more days on the couch…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 07:32 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged travel country travelling west_africa comfort sierra_leone expat_life living_standards banana_islands hardship_ Comments (0)

How to Deal with Bribery Attempts

Many in Africa see white people as money bags, this is especially true of Guinean officers

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“All tourists must carry their Tourist Identity Card on them, at all times, or go to jail,” the soldier told me. This was the essential part of the conversation. This was what they needed me to believe was true. Not necessarily to convince me fully, the slightest tremor of doubt would be enough. However, they were unarmed, and I was buying none of it.

Not everybody are this friendlya

Not everybody are this friendlya

Bribery attempts often rely on two factors. First, the officials take advantage of the fact that you, as a visitor, is not familiar with local laws. This can lead to rather amusing accusations like “your passport is not valid at night” or “travelling alone on this road isn't allowed.” Secondly, that the threat they are making scares you enough for you to pay up. Threats of big(ger) fines, jail or dragging you to the police station are typical favourites.
Needless to say, it's a lot harder for your wallet to escape unharmed if you have actually broken the law. Though most officials prefer to do as little paperwork as possible - if any paperwork is required in said country, that is - so if your crime is small enough it can be possible to get away with minor offences simply by being a foreigner.

Kids playing in the streets

Kids playing in the streets

On this particular day, the sun was shining. A rarity in Conakry. Guinea’s capital is one of the wettest in the world. I was strolling along the garbage littered streets, doing what little sightseeing the city offer. Like many other African capitals, there isn't very much to see regarding “typical” sights. Mostly, it comes down to massive government buildings and independence monuments. Conakry doesn't even have an Independence Square - just to illustrate how few places of interest there are here.

Strolling past the Presidential Palace, I made sure to keep my camera out of sight. Photographing strategically important buildings is begging for trouble in most developing countries - like throwing eggs at a police car back home. The guards were hanging out at a small guard house behind a movable paling - like the ones lining the streets at a cycling race to keep spectators off the road. As they notice me, one starts to shout for me to move away from the gate and walk over to the opposite sidewalk. Another waves me over to the low fence. A third is simply lounging on a small wooden bench. Typically, not even in front of the Presidential Palace are the soldiers well enough trained to act with any accordance to professional principles. I walk over to them to figure out whether or not I'm allowed to use this sidewalk as the locals around seemingly doesn't care too much about which side of the road they are using.

Presidential Palace gate

Presidential Palace gate

The guy who told me to switch sidewalks leaves immediately for some reason, while the other two invite me behind the palings for a chat. This effectively traps me between the soldiers, their guard house, a wall and the palings. Realise my mistake instantly, I initially go for a very friendly approach. A method that includes introducing myself, shaking hands, talk a lot about football and smiling excessively. It only kind of works.

The soldiers ask for my papers. As my passport is at the Mali embassy for visa procedures, so I offer them a curled up photocopy of my passport’s identification page and my Guinea visa. This doesn't go down well with the soldiers, but I manage to explain to them that the embassies wouldn't be allowed to keep my documents overnight is the law states that I should have my original passport on me at all times. This logic is enough to make them accept the photocopies. It's not sufficient to make them happy about it. They then dismiss my enquiry into how excited they are for the Spanish Football League’s opening matches the coming weekend.

Conakry's only tourist attraction

Conakry's only tourist attraction

They then ask for what is the centrepiece of their bribery attempt: my local identification card. I don't have one.
“But everyone living here has one,” they say.
“But I'm not a resident, I'm a tourist, so I don't have a resident’s card,” I reply. They are unimpressed.
“All tourists must carry their Tourist Identity Card on them, at all times, or go to jail” they retort.

At this point, it's clear they want a bribe to let me back out into the street. We discuss the imaginary ID card for a bit. Me telling them I know there is no such thing as a Tourist Identity Card, they insist that I have to go to jail if I don't have such a card.

Tourists are staying away

Tourists are staying away

This time, it's my turn to be unimpressed. No chance in hell such a card exists. Driving through numerous checkpoints upcountry and encountering other tourists here in Conakry, talks about such a card have never come up. The jail talk is essentially just a scare tactic that all bribery attempts need. Something worse than paying the “fine” upfront. However, the soldiers can't leave their post, and all their friends around the gate are wholly uninterested in our little discussion.

I decide that I can't be bothered. I decide to leave. Normally, in these cases, that is relatively easy. I just say I firm “Goodbye” and walk off. Usually, this comes as a profound surprise to the people who are bothering me. Usually, I get far enough away before they can do nothing more than shout angrily after me as I leave them behind. This wasn't one of those usual times.

Edging my way through the palings, one of the soldiers grabs me and keeps me from leaving. I'm bigger than him, and he is unarmed. So is his buddy. But getting into a struggle with the soldiers could probably get me into some real trouble. I decide to walk back.

At this point, the soldiers make it clear to me that I can't leave before I've paid them. Finally, we're past the point of non-existing ID cards and not-going-to-happen jail sentences.

With independence came corruption

With independence came corruption

I tell them it's corruption.
They assure me that it's not - it's simply an “arrangement.”
I repeat that it's corruption and that I'm not going to pay them anything.
They repeat that then I can't leave.

I shrug. This is fine by me. I don't need to be anywhere and eventually - even if it isn't before the end of their shift - they will get into trouble for having let a tourist inside the barriers. I sit down on one of their benches, lean back on their guard house and put my feet up on another bench. Once comfortable, I only tell them, “Fine; I can wait” and slide my hat down in front of my eyes ready to take a nap, Indiana Jones style.

Conakry selfies to celebrate freedom

Conakry selfies to celebrate freedom

At this point, it takes less than three seconds for them to give up. “Okay, you can go” is all they mutter. I leave quickly, resisting the urge to look back at them to show the big, smug smile that is growing on my face. I'd won. Once again I'd won and avoided contributing to a system already ridden with corruption. 83 countries travelled: 0 bribes paid.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:34 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel police africa travelling guinea west_africa corruption officers corrupt officials bribery Comments (1)

Should I stay or should I go?

Taking My Hardest (Travel) Decision So Far

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I’ll admit it right off the bat: This is a case of traveller’s first world problem. The fact that this is my hardest decision I’ve had to take as a traveller just shows how easy, convenient and possible it is to travel – even in challenging places such as West Africa – once you’ve got used to living out of your backpack despite all the uncertainties that follow this particular lifestyle.

The Ride

The Ride

Dan, the Australian overlander who I’ve been driving around with for the past two weeks have given me an offer that’s hard to refuse. He’d offered me to join him all the way down to South Africa. I wouldn’t even have to pay half of the costs of gas, just pitch in whatever I would be able to. Saying “no, thanks” to that sure is difficult.

Central Africa

Central Africa

The dilemma is that I would probably have to rush through some of the countries here in West Africa. That is, I would have to give up how I’m currently visiting West Africa – the region I came down here to experience in the first place. The point of spending a year in an area many other travellers blast through in three months would slip my grip. This, to see Central and some of Southern Africa – regions that I’m confident that I would otherwise come back to on a later date anyway.

The choice I’m facing is – in other words – between giving up my current style of travel. Abandoning the hope of seeing and experience everything I came down here for, versus getting more countries under my belt and visiting Central Africa in a way that would be far cheaper and more convenient than I could ever hope for.

Guinean Public Transport

Guinean Public Transport

There are other pros and cons to this offer, of course. I would not only have to give up the pace of m my travels. I would have to change for moving around with locals in public transportation to driving a new fancy jeep. I would have to become part of a team, instead of travelling solo as I prefer. Also, rushing down the through Central Africa, will probably make it less likely that I return in my pace. Simply because I would prefer to visit new places rather than semi-known locations.

I would have to take out around €2,000 to finance extending my trip another three months. But that isn’t something I worry too much about. Having completed my master's, I would come home to “grown-up money” while still having the expenses of a student/traveller. In order words, it would be relatively quick to pay off the loan.

I'll just keep doing my thing

I'll just keep doing my thing

Instead, we’ve postponed the entire decision. Dan and I have parted ways for a while now. I’m heading into Sierra Leone and Liberia, while he’s going to spend a month working on his car, relaxing and taking a break from travelling for about a month. This means that, for the time being, I can continue to move at my own pace. We’ve then agreed that come December we’ll see how far we have travelled. We both expect to have reached Ghana at that point. However, depending on my progress, I’d possibly still visit Ghana before Burkina Faso. If that’s the case, Dan would go east and then south towards South Africa, while I would continue my own trip and head north to Burkina Faso at the end of December.

So my plan right now basically comes down to hoping that Dan slows the fuck down, get stuck somewhere or simply begins to travel slower than he’s previously done. At least so slow, that I don’t have to rush anything to catch up with him. Because if we both are ready to leave Ghana at about the same time, I’m hopping on a jeep to South Africa…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 13:48 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel public_transport africa travelling guinea west_africa overlanding decisions central_africa Comments (0)

A Surprising Land of Waterfalls and Natural Wonders

Sometimes Africa does offer some wonderful surprises

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Go see it yourself

Go see it yourself

Mostly know for Ebola, civil war and corruption, Guinea have shown a very different side of itself during my first ten days here.

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know much about Guinea before I arrived here. Other than the usual news stories, what I’ve heard was that the locals are very friendly (even for West Africa) and that the corruption, terrible roads and crazy humidity often make up for that. That is also why, when travellers talk about West Africa being one of the hardest regions in the world to travel in, they often think of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, I do thrive on poor reputations, and the fundamental reason for all my weird and uncommon destinations is an innate need to “go and see unknown places for myself” – especially countries that have been unlucky enough to get a ride in the circle of bad news stories.

Fouta Djalon Valley

Fouta Djalon Valley

Due to my lack of information, and the not-too-encouraging snip-bits I did know, imagine my surprise when Dan (my Jeep-driving ride) and I suddenly found ourselves in an adventure land of mountainous rainforest, rocky plateaus, endless waterfalls and world class hiking. Dan had flashbacks of Bolivia and, to be honest, I have found one of those rare places that doesn't remind me of anywhere I’ve been before. We had arrived in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon region.

Chute de Ditinn

Chute de Ditinn

Granted, the Fouta Djallon region only comprises a quarter of Guinea, so other parts could be less fantastic (the capital Conakry sure has a poor reputation). Granted, the horror stories about ridiculously bad roads, an endless number of officials wanting “cadeau” and a rainy season where Guinea gets more rain in August than London gets in a year are all true. But right now the travelling life seems to be trouble free.

Don't Slip

Don't Slip

We have spent a week, driving from one 60+ metre high waterfall to the next, and the excitement of exploring nature here is next to nothing. There are no guides to tell you where it’s safe to put your feet. No marked trails to follow. Safety railings is a thing of the colonial past. And there has been nothing stopping us from plummeting dramatically to our deaths, should we slip on the wet rocks atop of the falls. When the wet rocks have not been out to get us, rickety swing bridges have kept our hearts pumping and legs trembling.

Testing the Ropes

Testing the Ropes

When our poor souls need a break from the excitement, it’s possible to spot monkeys from our campsites, swing in vines and lianas in the rain forests, or climbing rocky hills for sweeping panorama views of the region's valleys. Best of all, we got it all to ourselves. The one campsite that does do official guided hikes, yes there is only one, is based in a small, isolated village in the top of a cliff offering sweeping views over the Fouta Valley. On the ‘Coca-Cola Scale of Isolation’ it’s so remote that here are neither products, commercials or merchandise for that otherwise ever-present evil empire – sorry, I meant fresh drinks company. Exploration here feels as being part of an Indiana Jones movie (the hat’s finally home) scrambling through dark caves, climbing up vertical cliff sides on liana ladders, and crawling through dense jungle.

Climbing Vines

Climbing Vines

Having no other visitors around might be a blessing for us. But for the locals, it’s hurting an already weak economy. Guinea picked up tourists interest back 2005. A small private tourist office, which was also running a campement (campground with associated small huts), had its statistic posted. More than 1300 visitors in a little village out in nowhere back in 2008. A coup-attempt in late 2009 and the presidents following crackdown scared a lot of visitors away. Recently Ebola have gotten rid of the rest. Only 28 people visited last year, and Dan and I were visitor number 21 and 22, respectively, this year. In another campement that also kept a record, only six people had stayed there in 2016 before our arrival.

Tourist Statistic

Tourist Statistic

This is too bad for a destination that offers such prime natural wonders. While corruption (not a big problem if you aren’t driving your own vehicle) and poor infrastructure will keep many from going, for those who find themselves in the neighbourhood, a visit to Guinea will – surprisingly – offer great rewards!

Both Dan and I know that we can’t stay here in Fouta Djallon forever, though we’d like to. I have to get down to dreadful Conakry to arrange visas and Dan need to continue east. But right now, we really don’t want to, and we are certainly not in any hurry to get out of here.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:55 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls mountains rainforest hiking travel adventure africa guinea hikes west_africa adventure_travel guided_tours guinea_conakry fouta_djalon doucki Comments (0)

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