A Travellerspoint blog

Tourists In the Way

Sometimes, we should probably just let locals be locals and stay out of their way...

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No Photos, Please

No Photos, Please

Some places like tourists, some places need tourist. And some places resent tourists. This is, of course, a generalisation. Areas are made up of individuals. Persons who have vastly different opinions about tourists. Some people make a lot of money from tourists. Others are proud of their cultural heritage and happy to show it to visitors. Others again think the influx of foreigners and money is altering their community for the worse or too fast, and sometimes it’s simply fairly annoying that people come and insist on taking people’s photo, while they are just trying to go about their daily business. But somehow, the sentiments that tend to be domination a given community tend to be in either one or the other end of the scale.

Tea time in the desert

Tea time in the desert

I’ve been visiting just about every type of place on this trip, and there are just about two general rules of thumb. The fewer visitors to a place, the happier will the local population be to see you. And the more the local individuals are part of the attraction, the less happy will they be to see you. I don’t blame them. Loads of tourists and travellers invade certain small areas of this world on a daily basis. Imagine being treated more like an attraction than a human being. Whether that is being a Maya Indian, a Tibetan monk or an African villager still living the traditional life.

Jumping on to a boat

Jumping on to a boat

Travellers and tourists (or the tour companies) make a load of money and social capital on these people. Granted – I make little money from my photos, though I do make some. But I do make a shit load of social capital projecting myself to the world as an experience and hardcore bad-ass traveller who goes where no-one else dares to venture... or… At least that’s what I like to think I do.

We – travellers and tourists – do so, without any form of appreciation to the people we often snap photos of. Way too many of us don’t even bother chatting to people before taking their picture. Too many of us don’t even ask if it’s all right with the people we’re snapping away at. It shouldn’t surprise that people in touristy places – particularly when the tourists are a lot richer than the locals – are asking for money if their picture is taken.

Village kid, Liberia

Village kid, Liberia

In general, I’ve been received everywhere with a mix of positive shock, open arms and a lot of offers to buy all sorts of crap. No exceptions. But some people and places just stand out as exceptionally friendly. The old man in upcountry Liberia who led me sleep in his village house when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The young guy in northern Burkina Faso who ended up paying my guesthouse bill for two nights. Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as a whole.

Sahara Trek

Sahara Trek

Then there were the places that used to have a lot of tourism, but where it have all but disappeared because of political instability in the Sahel. In Mauritania’s desert region, a man invited me to stay with him for free and pay nothing for the three meals a day I received (except a few voluntary contributions). His hospitality paid off as I used him as my middleman in setting up a five-day Sahara Desert trek. Obviously, it’s possible to question whether his hospitality was genuine, but it was a win-win situation, with both of us coming out on the other side happy.

Dogon Country

Dogon Country

On another five-day trek, in Mali’s Dogon Country, I got to experience a place where a lot of people had been sceptical towards tourists when we first showed up. But as tourism suddenly dried up, they had realised how much it meant for the local economy. The Dogon’s are very conservative and traditional people, and they had had tiny contact with the outside world as late as the 1970’s. So the massive influx of tourists that began in the early 2000’s was received with some unease.

Dogon hunter

Dogon hunter

However, every hostel is locally owned, and there’s a small fee to be paid to every village visited. For a population who live off farming, primarily onions, the extra income counted for a lot. Plenty of people told me how happy they were to see me, and hoped that more tourists would return soon – even though they hadn’t been euphoric about them previously. The reason was simply. Tourists had a major impact on standards of living and had turned out to be of rather uninfluential on their traditional culture.

Stilt village of Ganvié

Stilt village of Ganvié

Lastly, here in Benin, I’ve hit places where tourists are less than welcome. First in a stilt village called Ganvié. It’s right outside Cotonou, so just about every foreigner in the country – even if they have time to see only one thing in Benin, go to Ganvié. It’s a short boat ride from town, and the Ministry of Tourism has set up a large departure platform. With government officials controlling the flow of tourists, I suspect that there isn't much tourist revenue going to the Ganvié community. They are busy fishing and getting on with their lives. I doubt they even asked for the tourist influx.

Tourists

Tourists

It doesn’t help that the only way to get around in the village is by boat. That makes it impossible to walk up to someone and ask if it’s okay to take their picture – so many visitors just snap as many photos they can before someone begins to yell that they should stop. The fact that most boats are steered by young boys, who’s inexperience makes it difficult for them to control the boat (but I’m sure they’re cheap labour), and guides who put pressure on them to finish the pre-planned tour quickly (so they can take another couple of paying visitors out to the village) only contribute further to the distance between locals and visitors.

Royal castle gate

Royal castle gate

The other place in Benin was at the temples and royal house in Abomey. The temples are still active places of traditional (pagan) worship, and royal families still live in some of their houses. It’s not surprising that people here prefer to live and pray in peace. However, here are plenty of signs making it clear which buildings that can be photographed or visited and which that can’t. However, even the buildings with "no photo" signs can be snapped. It just requires the visitor to show a minimum amount of respect. Find the house owner or priest, ask politely, and pay the small amount they ask for if they ask for any. Then it’s pretty easy to get a tour of the premise or snap as many photos as you’d like.

Making friends

Making friends

That’s pretty much it. With simple respect, taking an active interest in peoples' lives, and sometimes – just sometimes – move a little bit of cash from the wealthy tourist to the not-so-wealthy local, pretty much anyone will be welcomed. And if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, don’t get in the way of local life and don’t assume that people will be happy to be part of your vacation photo albums.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:25 Archived in Benin Tagged culture travel locals tourist tourists travellers responsible travelling respect west_africa benin togo photographying Comments (0)

Voodoo Country

Zombies, voodoo dolls to annoy your worst enemy, and enough animal sacrifices to turn PETA inside out. How can this not end fantastically badly?

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The witch doctor

The witch doctor

"Now, say your first name out loud three times," said the witch doctor, "then say your last name out loud three times after that." As I did so, while moving the amulet towards my chest every time I spoke, the voodoo doctor ferociously shook his calabash rattled and mumbled indecipherable words in Ewe. I was buying a small charm for good travel luck at a smallish voodoo market in Togo. As a side effect, the amulet would also make it impossible for people to poison me. Apparently, I was told, the witch doctors only awaken the power of the amulets, and sometimes, some amulets have multiple functions. I mean, it’s not like they’re making this stuff up… right?

The slave trade

The slave trade

Voodoo is probably best known from Brazil, the Caribbean – especially from Haiti – and New Orleans. However, it’s not native to the Americas but stems from the West African coast around what is today Togo, Benin and western Nigeria. The voodoo rituals were brought to the Americas on board slave ships in the 16th and 17th centuries, with many captured slaves from the voodoo region in West Africa ending up in Haiti and Brazil. Don’t tell me that Globalisation is a new phenomenon.

These slaves brought with them their rituals, but Voodoo wasn’t a full-flung Religion (with a capital R) until it got mixed with Catholicism. This is also why voodoo tends to be misunderstood as a practice of black magic. ‘The light’ (aka. white magic) is solely the domain of God’s miracles (more totally not made up stuff). Other myths about voodoo include both zombies and the classical voodoo dolls, full of pins (damn!).

Voodoo dolls

Voodoo dolls

While zombies have featured in rural Haitian culture and mythology, they’re not connected to voodoo. Even less so to the voodoo of West Africa. While dulls, know in West Africa as fetishes or nkisi, are used as part if voodoo rituals their usage have nothing to do with the pin poking practices. That seems to be solely a matter of Western imagination inspired not by African traditions, but from old British practices, where dolls were poked to make other people suffer (Hutton, 1999).

Dried money heads

Dried money heads

Voodoo practices and witch doctors have more in common with spiritual practices and medicine men, which is found all over West Africa, than with ‘black magic’. Voodoo dolls, for example, are used to keep good spirits in, and to protect villages and houses from bad spirits, or as portals to the family ancestors. Likewise, most of the dead and dried animals seen on voodoo markets are crushed into powder and then mixed with water and herbs to cure all kinds of ailments and sicknesses. To my surprise, these shakes aren’t for drinking. Instead, you wash with the water for the treatment to work. A huge disappointment for me personally, as I had been looking forward to drinking dried snake mixed with powdered crocodile…

Lomé's voodoo market

Lomé's voodoo market

All this keeping sickness at bay, protecting against evil spirits and bad luck, and communicating with family ancestors are considered good deeds. Just as we find the work of a hospital doctor for good deeds. Thus, tourists are told this is "white magic". That is not to say that "black magic" is unheard of here. While the witchdoctors refuse to perform "black magic" for tourists who just want a cheap laugh, both spirits and medicaments can be used to create bad luck or even sickness and death for people. For local peoples here in West Africa, this has nothing to do with magic. Spirits, to their minds, are as real as gravity is to ours. And even I, a sceptic, wouldn’t rule out that some herbs and other natural medicines could have some effect

One of the most dramatic examples of the use of spirits for evil is when human traffickers smuggle young women to Europe and force them into prostitution. One of the ways dealers keep these women quite – there’s plenty of physical abuse involved too – is by casting evil spells on them that will result in great harm to themselves and their families should they try to escape. Physiological abuse if you will.

Hat souvenir

Hat souvenir

Back at the voodoo market, I simply opted for a small amulet, made of herbs rather than dead animals. Getting some extra travel luck doesn’t really seem necessary since I’ve survived so far and the trip is nearing its end. The fact that I don’t believe in shaking a rattle over some herbs is going to do anything for my luck doesn’t help either. But it was the only way to see the witch doctor doing his thing. At least it makes a good souvenir – and it has the bonus that I can attach it to my travel hat…

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Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University

Posted by askgudmundsen 02:51 Archived in Togo Tagged travel market travellers travelling doctor west_africa voodoo haiti benin togo vodou lomé witch_doctor black_magic Comments (0)

Why (White) Travellers Stick Together

So, apparently, I like to hang out with white people.. While travelling Africa...

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Sex tourist

Sex tourist

I’ve made an observation. And I’ve thought pretty hard and long about that observation. But let's start with that actual observation and get to the thinking later. White people in Africa greet each other on the street. Everybody, from the traveller over the expat to the sex tourist and everybody in between. Even if there’s no chance that we’re going to start a conversation together – say, when I’m walking down the street, and an expat in an NGO jeep drives past me in the opposite direction – we’ll give each other a small wave or a polite nod of the head. Let me repeat that: white people, who are complete strangers to one another, greet each other on the streets in Africa simply because they’re both white!

Why is that? Is it racist? Does black people in Europe or Asians in Australia do the same thing? If someone could get back to me with that, that’ll be great.

Making friends

Making friends

I’ve even done worse. I’ve been pretty privileged with a number of visits I’ve received while travelling around here in West Africa. It’s been helping to keep me sane in a region were hostels, social guesthouses and other travellers are hard to come by. I haven’t kept score, but regarding fellow traveller’s I might have met someone about every two weeks. I’ve simply lacked other white people. I’m travelling in a region full of perfectly reasonable and friendly locals. It seems fairly unsympathetic, I not downright racist, to need people of my of my skin colour so badly.

Then again, travellers, no matter where in the world, also stick together. Expat creates what is famously know as the ‘expat bubble’ where they hang out with other expats.

Expat bubble life

Expat bubble life

The easy answer is probably that it’s all a matter of reference points. Travelling for the sake of travelling is a foreign notion for most people here in Africa, while for us in the West most people know it as a vacation. Being a university educated Dane with a global outlook, while most local are simply trying to get by, doing hard manual labour, doesn’t make it easier to have meaningful conversations much past the usual phrases of introduction. Not that I haven’t made permanent friends down here, though they too tend to be university educated people from the upper middle class – just like me.

Bo visiting

Bo visiting

Thus I have cherished the visits I have received. Where it’s possible to talk about things happening at home, things going on in the world (read Trump), travellers’ problems or simply speak in my native languish and make jokes based on a common frame of reference of cultural classics and internet memes… And on that note, I’ll change the topic for a brief moment.

My latest visitor, Bo, has headed home and I’ll be travelling on my own the last month my trip. But before I continue my trip alone, I have a visit to make my of own. Not only have I been privileged with visits by friends and family. I’m lucky enough to know friends who live here in West Africa. I know, what are the odds, right. It might be a 700 km detour, but as I hinted at, we travellers are willing to do a lot for the right company.

Pernille

Pernille

Pernille is a friend from university who works in a development project in northern Togo. With me travelling through Togo it’s an obvious visit to make. Living in Togo’s second city, Kara, in a compound with a handful Americans and two local families, Pernille isn’t totally isolated from the outside world. But it wasn’t difficult to see that the mere fact that my presence doubled the number of Danes in Kara excited her. Again, that common languish, and those common points of references do a lot.

Sticking together

Sticking together

What is interesting is that it’s not something that’s obvious when travelling around. Sure, travellers stick together in hostels or guesthouses to an almost sickening degree (including myself), but I’ve not necessarily been able to explain why that’s the case. Usually, I just attributed it to travellers being selfish douche bags (myself included). But having first my family and then Bo visiting, before talking with Pernille – who, after all, live with a bunch of Americans – helped this realisation along nicely.

It's not all bad

It's not all bad

While there are probably many reasons why white people greet each other on Africa's streets, it probably isn’t racists, though it can look like that. It’s a matter of recognition. Of finding some common references, some familiarity on this vast foreign continent where we – if we are honest – doesn’t belong. At least not in the sense that we understand or appreciate everything that is going on. Some of the same familiarity even extended to my visit with Pernille. And she lives with a bunch of other white people.

Thinking a bit about it, it does seem rather natural and human. Even though it sometimes make for rather odd situations of me waving fanatically at random white people driving past me.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 17:03 Archived in Togo Tagged travel black tourist travellers bad tourism travelling west_africa racism expat white_people Comments (0)

Gold Digging in the Wild West

What to do when a country – in this case, Burkina Faso – lacks obvious attractions to visit? Gold mining? Sure!

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Sissoko (middle)

Sissoko (middle)

West Africa could be described as ‘the Wild West’. Mostly known for civil wars, blood diamonds and Ebola; it’s not far from Indian wars, gold rush and dysentery. But I’m old school, so I went hunting for gold rather than diamonds.

Last time I was in Burkina I made some good friends in the north of the country. Not far from the border with Mali. One of those had told me that there are some pretty impressive gold mines a few hours north-west of the capital Ouagadougou. So why not visit a goldmine. I’ve certainly not done that before, and I was pretty sure my travel mate Bo hasn’t done either. My Burkinaian friend, Sissoko, even came down to show us around the mining area.

Legoland

Legoland

To be honest, I didn’t expect much. We knew it was so-called open-earth mining, meaning that the mining was done by hand and straight from the ground. Jokingly, I suggested that it would be a little like visiting Legoland’s western town, where kids can wash fake gold out of mud to get a shiny medallion. At most I expected a few fortune seekers were digging through the dirt. Was I in for a surprise!

Driver and red(?) car

Driver and red(?) car

Having arrived in the rather unimportant truck stop town of Yako, Bo and I met up with Sissoko, who had been hanging out with a friend of his, waiting for us. Once there, Sissoko was a champ and asked us to wait in the shade for a couple of minutes while he would organise a ride out to the mine. It wasn’t more than six or seven kilometres away, but he insisted that jumping on three taxi-motos would be too bumpy and too dirty. A little while later he came back with the only real taxi in town – a former red car, so old that all the paint had peeled off and it was now simply a white/rusty car.

The driver was the father of Sissoko’s friend, and both him and Sissoko insisted that he would drive us for free. That wouldn’t do for us, so we paid the gas for the ride (about 4€’s worth) secretly. Sissoko would later pay our driver another 4€ for the gas, in that way the driver did get a little for his troubles. We also bought both of them lunch at the finest restaurant in town after the visit to the mine, which isn’t saying much. We tried our best, but between the four of us, we still weren't able to eat and drink for more than 15€…

Women tracing ore

Women tracing ore

Driving along the dirt roads, we quickly arrived at the village that’s the centre of operation for the gold mining. As we drove into town, we spotted a few makeshift dredges. We thought we’d arrived and were impatient to get out and chat with the guys showering dirt. But we kept driving. Straight through the village. Only to do a short stop where our driver shouted our arrival to the village chief – and more importantly that our purpose there weren’t to steal people’s gold.

Gold mining

Gold mining

We soon found out why we didn’t stop in town. Just outside it, behind a ridge of red earth, lay the real mining site. And what a shock. It wasn’t just one mine. It was dozens. Hundreds of young men, working in shacks, around handfuls and handfuls of mine shafts, dug straight out of the flat ground. All of it – including the young men – were covered in a fine layer of white sand, which must have been dug up from under the red top soil.

Shaft

Shaft

We all headed for the nearest shaft. The guys working there were openly surprised to see white people, let alone tourists. But they also took pride in the work. In the hardship of it. And in the danger. This particular shaft was 70 metres deep. Less than half the depth of the deepest shaft we came by. They offered us to be lowered down to see it from the inside. But standing on a small plank of wood strapped to a rope, with 70 metres of darkness below, was a little more excitement than both Bo and I was looking for. It goes without saying that we hadn't gotten many kilometres out of town before I regretted not risking my life to get a closer look at those mines!

Teenager pulling up ore

Teenager pulling up ore

The work itself is back breaking. Once a day’s shift has been lowered down, they stay in the mine for 24 hours. Always digging, hacking and washing out the potential ore. Others haul the ore up – 50 kilos at a time. This then gets washed, wild west style. Larger rocks and stones get crushed into powder, which is then also washed. Everything, every gramme of dirt, is carefully examined for specs of gold and gold dust.

Only two steps in the process are electric driven. The machines crushing the rocks, and the pumps pumping water down into the mines for the workers to wash out the ore. It’s all dangerous work, and people die every month here. And it’s not only dangerous due to the risk of the mines collapsing. Shacks must count at last ten strong men; otherwise, they’ll risk getting jumped by other groups of miners, who are after the ore they have dug up.

The open mine

The open mine

It was an unbelievable sight. Like stepping back in time. To the American, rather than the African, west. Having talked with a few of the crews and gotten our photos, we headed back to the car. Away from the burning Sahel sun that made conditions horrific. We wanted to sit down and have a drink, but Sissoko – himself a retired miner – warned us. Every single drink available at the mines are spiked with drugs, natural or chemical, that energises the workers. So better wait until we’re back in Yako.

Kid washing for gold

Kid washing for gold

On the way back to the car we came past a couple of kids – around nine years old, I would think – who were busy washing gold out of the mud. Child labour if I any saw it. But not particularly more horrible than the kids working in the fields, markets or harbours all over the continent. But it still, somehow, struck a nerve.

One thing is certain. What Africa lacks in ordinary tourist sights, it more than makes up for in shocking, fascinating and crazy experiences!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 17:32 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged travel wild africa western sights gold mining mine travelling west_africa burkina child_labour Comments (0)

Africa’s Cheapest Safari

No, I didn’t just see some zebras from the bus window… We did get chased by two elephants and pulled a crocodile by its tail, though.

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Bus to Mole

Bus to Mole

Having just barely made it off the Volta Ferry, Bo and I headed for Mole National Park. Its main attraction is its heads of elephants, which congregate at certain drinking holes here in the dry season. Little did we know, as we approached the park, that those same elephants would eventually chase us away from their drinking spots.

Getting from Yeji where the ferry left us, Bo and I used all day getting the 300 km to the park. Starting at 7:30 by crossing a river, onward with first a coach then a minibus, before making the final few kilometres in a taxi. We arrived twelve hours after we had taken off, just as the sun was setting over the bush.

Pool-side elephant spotting

Pool-side elephant spotting

Standing tall on the top of a cliff, Mole Motel have been the primary place of accommodation in the park since the 1960’s. I haven’t had too much luxury during my previous national park visits in West Africa, but lounging by the pool with a view of elephants on the plains below is pretty much a highlight. And the expense? 13 US$ a night for a dorm bed. Before this turns into a commercial for the Motel, I should probably note that it’s pretty rundown in that built-in-the-60’s kind of sense.

Getting close

Getting close

And while sitting by the pool and watching elephants from afar is all well and good, going out searching for the elephants on the plains is a lot more fun – and excitement. So, for 2.5 dollars per hour per person, we headed out on a safari walk to get a closer look at the elephants. The animals have mostly gotten used to visitors, and they are somewhat relaxed about us hanging around. To be honest, the group of elephants we found seem much more concerned about throwing the right amount of dirt on themselves and wash in the big waterhole were the congregate. It was easy getting within 20 meters them. Awesome!

Just before it charged

Just before it charged

Though not every elephant loved our hanging about. At the end of the walk, we came across two young male elephants, who did not like our presence one bit. I’d just managed to get a frontal photo of one of the two elephants when they made a small charge at us. It was more of a threat than a real charge, but it quickly sends us head over heels – running for dear life. The armed ranger who was with us, got so far shouldering his rifle, preparing a warning shot while we retreated before the elephants stood down. Not happy with the speed of our retreat, the did follow us for a while to make sure that we were leaving.

With that level of excitement, we wasted another afternoon at the pool…

Just walking a croc

Just walking a croc

The next day we left Mole, not so much because of the elephant chase, rather because Bo is running out of time before he needs to get back home. But our animals adventures in Ghana wasn’t over just yet. In the far, far north, on the border with Burkina Faso and another day’s journey from Mole is a small border town named Paga. The town is home to a couple of sacred crocodile pools. Somehow, the crocodiles have an unspoken agreement with the ponds’ caretakers that they get a chicken if they don’t eat the dumb tourists who come by, posing for photos with them.

Petting croc

Petting croc

Having paid the entrance fee (not getting eaten isn’t free) the caretaker zipped around the corner to a nearby market to buy the unlucky chicken that had to give up its life because Bo and I wanted some photos with a crocodile. The chicken was then waved in from of the croc, which then crawled onto dry land. Here, Bo and I was instructed in how to pet and hold the tale of the crocodile, while we were both nervous about the animals large teeth and felt pretty horrible because walking around, pulling the tails of poor crocodile falls well into the category of something bad tourists would do. The pictures turned out pretty bad-ass, though.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:58 Archived in Ghana Tagged animals travel elephants adventure africa safari pool crocodile ghana travelling west_africa Comments (1)

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