A Travellerspoint blog

February 2017

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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Pool-side elephant spotting

Pool-side elephant spotting

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.

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)

Sailing the Volta Lake in 30 Hours

Floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world, sharing stories through the night.

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The Yapei Queen

The Yapei Queen

Slowly floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world is a relatively lax affair. The bar is loaded with beers, the captain walks around to greet the passengers, and the big-shot yam trader is sleeping on a foam mattress on the upper deck. Africa is – as always – full of surprises. Also surprisingly, the ferry, MV Yapei Queen, had gotten a new engine. The 430 km used to take anywhere between 36 and 60 hours – now the journey takes 30 hours sharp. Dare I say; it’s not very African of them.

First Class

First Class

30 hours is still a lot longer than the 10 hours the same distance would take in the bus. But after months of road travel, the alternative of travelling by the Yapei Queen was an unmissable opportunity for covering some distance with comforts not found on even the best of roads here in West Africa. The buses don't have a bar. Nor does most of them have A/C. And none of them has two first class cabins with bunk beds, one of which Bo and I managed to secure by booking a few days ahead. Otherwise, we would have shared the upper deck with the yam-trader. I know, but after ten months here, I’m happy that I don’t have to rough it all the time.

Volta map

Volta map

I’ve always liked to travel slowly, and the fact that we ‘only’ used 30 hours was almost too short. We left Akosombo, on the lake’s southern extremity, at 7 pm. Monday and arrived a Yeji in the north at 1 am. Wednesday. Only having one full day to enjoy the ride seemed almost too short. Especially, because sailing down the lake, big as a small ocean, was peaceful bliss. No wind, no waves. Just a mirror-like surface. Just for the sake of giving you an idea I've made a rather primitive map showing the trip. anyone really interested in boats, timetables or geography will probably have to look up the lake... Then again, few probably are...

Bo on the Upper Deck

Bo on the Upper Deck

The Harmattan wind – a meteorological phenomenon where strong trade winds blow dust from the Sahara down over most of West Africa, for months at a time, between November and February – was lying like a blanket of foggy dust on the rugged shores. We almost felt like sailing through a thick soup, perfectly isolated from the rest of Africa. From the rest of the world.

Bo and I used the evenings sipping beers on the upper deck with a couple of other pale travellers. Sharing travel stories and comparing destinations long through the night. My 30 years of age and 88 countries travelled made me both the youngest and least travelled of our group. Let’s just say; the stories weren’t boring.

Sailing the Volta Lake

Sailing the Volta Lake

Arriving in the small port of Yeji at 1 am wasn’t optimal – to put it mildly. Certainly not because we needed to cross to the lake’s opposite shore 7:30 that morning to catch the one daily bus leaning from the even smaller Old Makongo on the other side. The captain was kind enough to let us stay in our cabin until 4 am, but didn’t tell us that the ferry would sail out at that exact time. So when a shipmate knocked on our door at 3:58, yelling, "we’re moving!" we weren’t ready at all. Five minutes later, we’re running off the boat, hoping we haven’t left anything behind. No matter now. Less than twenty seconds after our feet touched the harbour’s dirt, the Yapei Queen pulls off and leaves us in the dark.

Fishing at first light

Fishing at first light

The port – no more than a long pier made of dirt and rocks – is pitch black. A few stalls make a small harbour market, with a few traders sleeping on benches and a transistor radio playing reggae. A little wooden cart is standing off to one side. As we have been told that the small boat that makes the 5 km crossing to the other shore also leaves from here, we simply decided to nap on that wooden cart until daybreak woke us up a few hours later.

The bus to Tamale

The bus to Tamale

The short crossing only took an hour, and our bus showed up at 9.00 but didn’t leave town until a little past 11 because of no particular reason. From there we had a four-hour dusty and bumpy ride on Ghana’s northern roads until we arrived in Tamale, the main city of the north. To be honest, we quickly began to miss the tranquil life onboard the Yapei Queen...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:22 Archived in Ghana Tagged boats travel ferries sailing ghana ferry travelling west_africa volta yapei_queen lake_volta Comments (0)

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