Sunday 13 May 2012

Ouch! That Monkey Just Bit Me! Backpacking West Africa..

This blog post was originally published for Do It While You're Young, a community and network for women ages 18-35 who previously or are currently traveling, studying, working, or volunteering abroad.

I’m a believer that your age should never be greater than the number of countries you’ve visited.

I’ve lived in Europe, volunteered in Asia, and done quick stints in Australia and across North America. Couchsurfing, solo traveling, Contiki tours, eco-service trips, Peace Corps, you name it! Though a passion for travel still ignites a fire in my petite belly, there aren’t many experiences that can really make me say, “This is crazy!” Until a few months ago; however, two girlfriends and I decided to backpack West Africa for 24 days…

Mali – The Gem of Africa

Staying at the Sleeping Camel in Bamako allowed us to acquire the “need-to-know” information about the city. The Artisan market had an incredible selection of wood crafts and jewelry forcing the three of us to stock up (why I bought a drum the first day to carry around I still don’t know!). The music scene and night life on Route de Bla Bla – yes, that’s really its name – allowed us to kick off our trip in full force.

There may be nothing more awe-inspiring than UNESCO’s World Heritage town of Djenne. It’s here where we were mesmerized by the Grand Mosque- the largest mosque in the world made completely from mud! Not only are the homes constructed from mud as well, but they are multi-storied creating an ancient town of varying building heights.

Soon it was time for our three day hike across Dogon Country. At arrival our guide stated “We are going to hike for 15 kilometers this afternoon. This will take five hours if you walk well.” Keep in mind that I’m a former New Yorker that used to take the subway from 34th to 42nd Street! Nonetheless, sleeping on roofs under the stars and seeing pure, untouched Africa was incredibly surreal. During our (ridiculously long) hike, we came across Tiogou, a village built on rock formations supporting waterfalls and Youga Dogourou, a village where inhabitants live inside a mountain’s crevices!

Burkina Faso – No Man’s Land

After an ATM fiasco (let’s just say $400US was taken out of my checking account though I never physically received the money!), we jumped on an 8-hour bus to Bobo-Dioulasso (where you ask?!). Yes, Burkina is very much OFF the beaten path, part of its lure! The country is one of the poorest in the world, yet since it is a transport country, the roads are upkept.

We received a local tip to shop at Gafreh Boutique, a fair-trade store that showcases products created from recycled plastic bags. At Banfora, we touched the Karfiguela Waterfalls and the Sand Domes of Fabedougou before heading off to Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou (say this five times fast!).

Togo – Not the Sandwich, But a Lovely Country

When we reached Togo, we searched the village of Goundoga for a secret “castle in a cliff” (okay, maybe not too secret as we read about it in a Lonely Planet guide, but it’s definitely not a touristy place)! While traveling there, I realized we had no clue where we would spend the night. “Would you like to stay at the chief’s house?” my chauffeur inquired. Yes!

It turns out our “castle in the cliff” was actually a mini-fortress with a steel ladder built into the side of Mt. Semoo during the 19th century. The Chokossi had established an empire; however, the Moba resented this and built the fortress to hide from soldiers and tax collectors. Just like the IRS!

After a 12-hour ride (yes, 12 hours!), we welcomed the cool-climate of Kpalime, a tropical paradise amongst hilly forests, artisan markets, and cocoa and coffee farms. The best activity to do here: butterfly hunting!

Lome was my favorite city of the trip with its gorgeous beaches (check out Aneho too!), great shopping, delicious restaurants (Vietnamese pho anyone?) and voodoo! An affordable place to stay is Le Galion, which is walking distance to the beach. I would have recommended Chez Alice, 12km away in Aveposo, but the hostel’s monkey bit me!

Benin – Beaches and Stilts

The trip ended with a quick stop to Grand Popo – another beach resort (we needed it!) and Ganvie, a stilt village only reachable by canoe! At Ganvie, 30,000 Tofinu people live in stilt houses that sit two meters above water. Back in the 17th century, the Tofinu fled here to escape slavery as their attempted captors, the Dahomey, were afraid of water and disallowed to enter it due to religion.

Be warned: backpacking West Africa is not for the novice tourist or for those lacking patience! Bush taxis (i.e. squeezing 8 people into a taxi!), non-existent time-tables, a beating African sun, and constant negotiation are just the realities of a trip like this. However, for those searching for adventure, you will find nothing less!

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Advice about Life to Future Peace Corps Volunteers

A few months ago, my Associate Peace Corps Director asked me to write a vignette about life as a Peace Corps Volunteer and to include any advice. The Volunteer Assignment Description will be provided to future Community Economic Development (formerly Small Enterprise Development) Volunteers coming to Cameroon...including my replacement. Here we go:

Small Enterprise Development Volunteer Assignment Description Vignette

October 2011

“Jam na?” In the local African language of Fulfulde, this translates into “Do you have peace?” Before every meeting, I must traverse the room repeating this to each attendee. I could have never predicted exactly what my projects would entail of as a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer. Some days, I facilitate the meetings of savings and lending cooperatives for illiterate women; other days, I organize artisan classes to teach income-generating activities. And of course, as cultural exchange is a part of the job description, I spend other moments dancing at Muslim weddings and playing “football” with the kids. As a Peace Corps Volunteer of this generation, you will find yourself in a transitioning world. I’ve helped women who weren’t allowed to attend school as children to create e-mail addresses. Sometimes I Skype with family and friends and sometimes I write letters by candlelight. Realize that although every Volunteer’s post is different, your own attitude and flexibility will be the true determinants of your experience. And do not worry, speaking French will come with practice and time for everybody. Life here is full of uncertainty and there will be instances of frustration as in every job, but let yourself laugh, remember that development and impact require patience, and treasure the small, everyday moments of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Krystina Nguyen, SED Volunteer

Ngaoundéré, Adamawa Region