A dozen tips for independent travelers

During my backpacking trip through Africa, there were so many moments when I though to myself, I’ve gotta remember this for the next time I travel.

Like most independent travelers headed for developing countries (independent = travelers who aren’t with a group and figure out accommodation and other details as they go), I knew to bring a money belt, invest in a pair of durable shoes and abide by simple food rules: boil it, peel it, cook it or forget it. But I learned a few more tricks along the way, ones you can use for your next travel adventure.

My tips for independent travelers:

Mom shows us how easy it is to use a stand-alone net.

1. Love your mozzie net. If you need a mosquito net, buy one that includes poles and sets up like a tent. (I use this Skeeter Defeater from Long Road Travel Supplies.) Hangable nets are useless when there’s nowhere to hang them.

2. Learn to Skype. Skype, a free service that allows you to make calls over the Internet, is the cheapest way to call home.  The drawback: for it to work well, you need a solid Internet connection, which can be hard to find in some developing countries. If you plan to Skype often, you may want to bring your own headset.

3. Be your own office assistant. Create sticky labels with addresses of anyone who deserves to get a postcard. You won’t have to carry an address book, and you’ll know you sent all required postcards when the labels are gone.

4. Buy visas along the way. It takes a little planning, but buying a visa in the country adjacent to where you’re going is usually cheaper than buying it from home and requires less paperwork. Just make sure there’s an embassy for country #2 in country #1, lest you get stuck without one. Also remember to ask about multi-country visas, which also can save you money.

5. Cipro for the sicko. Convince your doctor to prescribe several doses of Cipro, or Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic that treats bacterial infections — pretty much anything that forces you to spend your entire day squatting over the toilet. Since travelers often suffer from stomach bugs in developing countries, it’s smart to have this drug handy. Bring Bacitracin ointment, too, and use it; even small cuts become easily infected when you’re not at home.

6. Make room for music. Ditch something in your pack so you can bring lightweight, portable speakers for your iPod. You’ll use them at hostels, on the beach, everywhere you want to share your music with others.

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Six reasons to detour to Burkina Faso

Of the seven countries I visited during my backpacking trip, Burkina Faso was one of my favorites. It’s sandwiched between two West African countries that are popular with tourists – Mali to the north and Ghana to the south – and yet the French-speaking nation sees few visitors.

Here’s why you should add this culture-rich country to your itinerary:

Tempted to munch on these fried caterpillars...

1. Fried Caterpillars. They’re a popular snack in Burkina, sold by roaming vendors who carry them in buckets or bowls on their heads. Crunchy and burnt, these insects look awesome hanging from your mouth for a photo to send back home.

2. Fewer tourists mean less hassle. Compared with its neighbors, Burkina attracts few tourists. Perhaps partly for that reason, Burkinabés are friendly but not aggressive, and rarely hassle foreigners to buy whatever they’re hawking. Even though this country isn’t as well known with Europeans and Americans as Mali and Ghana, there’s still plenty of affordable accommodation.

3. Motos make for a cheap thrill. Motorcycles are the primary means of getting around in Burkina, which is a perfect excuse to rent one and zip around the city. If you’re afraid to drive a two-wheeler, hail a moto-taxi.

Locating Burkina Faso on a map of Africa.

4. Tourists and volunteers boost an impoverished population. Burkina ranks as one of the least developed countries in the world. Since fewer international non-profit organizations are on the ground there than in neighboring countries, it may take some digging to find volunteer opportunities. But once you do, you know you’re helping a needy population.

5. Buses beat bush taxis. Burkina’s two biggest cities, Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, are connected with a beautifully paved road, one of the nicest you’ll see in West Africa. Riding the Greyhound-like bus, which boasts tickets and a full seat for each passenger, is luxurious compared with the bush taxi transport that’s popular throughout most of the West Africa.

6. Ouagadougou. Nowhere will you find a capital city with a more euphonious name than Ouagadougou (pronounced WA-ga-DOO-goo). It’s almost as good as saying you’ve been to Timbuktu. And to make it easy on you, locals and visitors shorten the name to Ouaga.

Which countries would you like to visit in Africa? If you’ve already explored the continent, which countries would you recommend?

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Time for an excerpt: Another marriage proposal

It’s been a while since I posted an excerpt from my book. And I’ve written so much during the last few months! So today I want to share something short that will make you smile.

This piece is from the middle section of my book, which takes place in Cameroon. (It’s adapted from my travel blog.)

* * *

On one of my final days in the Yaoundé, I visited the patisserie down the road from the guesthouse, a bakery that sold homemade ice cream, a delicacy I’d found only in Africa’s major cities. Set up like a modern bakery in France, it offered freshly baked bread, sugary cake bites and glazed fruit tarts, all displayed deliciously under clear plastic cases, protecting the treats from the drool of customers. While I mused over the selection of ice cream flavors, similar to those I’d choose from at home, the man behind the counter hit on me like he did every day when I arrived for a scoop.

“Ma cherie,” he purred, using the same pet name, “my dear,” that at least a dozen other African men had tried on me. “You know I want to marry you.”

I did know. He had told me yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, even though he was at least twice my age. (Let’s pretend I wasn’t getting ice cream every time I went into the store.)

“Bonjour. How are you today?” I responded politely, pretending to give him my attention while I debated whether to go with chocolate or coffee-flavored ice cream.

He ignored my greeting, pressing on with more important issues. “Do you have any friends here?” he asked, leaning over the counter toward me, his beer belly showing through his apron. “I want to marry a white woman.”

Way to make a girl feel special, I thought. Me or my white friends, it doesn’t matter.

I browsed through my mental library of witty replies. Ignoring him – an effective tactic when it came to dealing with men who hissed at me from the side of the road – wouldn’t work, since he stood between me and my ice cream. I’d already tried several of my go-to retorts with this guy during previous visits, including turning polygamy on its head and asking, “Would you like to become my second husband? Because I’ve already married one man.” The day before, as I ordered a cone topped with chocolate chip, I had even described the husband who awaited me in the States, a fictional character I’d talked about so much during the last four months that I half expected the dark-haired hottie to pick me up at the airport when I arrived home.

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Another writer who wandered in Africa: Tanya Shaffer

You probably know by now that I read travel memoirs compulsively, particularly those by women traveling alone. One of my favorites is Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa.

So I was particularly pleased to connect with the author, Tanya Shaffer. And she’s with us today! Welcome, Tanya.

I’m focusing on weaving a thread through my book, a theme that ties it all together. What’s the theme for your book, and how did you discover it? Was it obvious from the outset?

More than half the chapters in Somebody’s Heart is Burning were originally published independently, as stories, although I knew that I’d eventually like to put them together into a book. When I first sent the manuscript around to agents, it was more like a story collection loosely interlinked with fragments of emails and letters. (I was fictionalizing, incidentally – email had not yet become ubiquitous when I was in Africa.) The wonderful agent I ended up working with, Richard Parks, told me he didn’t feel confident he’d be able to sell it as a story collection, but that he would like to work with me if I could rework it into a single narrative.

I therefore went back and inserted the through-line of the relationship back home throughout the stories. In some stories it was a few paragraphs, in some just a single sentence, but I made sure it was enough to keep it alive throughout. That was for narrative continuity, which is a bit different than thematic continuity.

In terms of themes, several themes emerged over the course of the writing. Two of the primary ones have to do with friendship and spirituality, and with those too I went through the whole manuscript tracking them, looking at where I began and where I ended and ticking off the intermediate steps along the way. Life, of course, is not so linear, as I say in the book, but art, even creative non-fiction, has to be.

2. It’s been a few years since your book was written in 2003. Where has your career taken you since then?

Since then I’ve been focusing on my work as a playwright and a mother. The birth of my first son in 2003 (same year as my book – my most productive year yet!) changed my life a lot. For the time being, I don’t travel the way I used to. I knew that would be the case, so there are no regrets. I sowed a lot of wanderlust oats before I had kids and I’ll no doubt sow some more as they get a bit older, but for now, my traveling life is a lot safer and more planned than it once was.

I have continued to write plays. I had an amazing production in 2005 of “Baby Taj,” a play I wrote based on a trip I took to India a couple of years before my son was born. An acting edition of that play will be published in the coming year. Since then I’ve been working on a musical loosely inspired by the life of the Buddha. It’s a long-term project, but I’m working with a fabulous composer and I hope to see a production within the next couple of years. A long while back I started another book, and some day I imagine I’ll finish it. The last one took nine years of stop and go, so I have precedent for returning to projects after lengthy breaks.

3. Obviously people (like me) are still buying your book. What are sales like five years after publication? Do you still actively promote the book? Do you see any royalties?

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What do you want to know about Africa?

At a family reunion this weekend, I was peppered with questions about Africa. I didn’t mind. Conversations about my travels often serve as writing prompts, reminding me of details to include in my book.

That’s why I’m asking you: What would you like to know about Africa?

Are you curious about what people there eat? Whether kids really run around barefoot? What toilets are like? How much it costs for a bar of soap? Whether people even use soap? What languages sound like? How the air smells when you step off the plane for the first time?

If you were having coffee with me right now and were free to pick my brain about Africa, what would you ask?

Your questions will help me add interesting details to my travel memoir. (And I’ll answer the best ones in a future post.)

An excerpt: Cameroonian patience

Last Monday, I kicked your butt into gear. This week, a gentler form of inspiration, an excerpt from my book.

Wanna learn about my travel memoir first? Check out this post.

* * *

Packages from home take on new meaning in Africa. Peanut butter? Like gold. A favorite deodorant? More valuable than cash. And batteries for my digital camera that actually worked — they elicited a fist pump into the air.

So when I returned to Dschang, Cameroon, after a week in the village, I beelined to the post office. My sister had mailed me a parcel weeks before, and I desperately hoped it would arrive before I left the region.

The post office’s small main room was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and loud, with mostly men yelling toward what appeared to be the front of the “line.” What was this chaos? Were they picking up government paychecks? I was about to tap on a man’s shoulder and ask when a post employee recognized me – not many whites frequented the Dschang post office. He gestured to follow him behind the counter, into the package room, where I had collected a parcel from my mom the previous week.

Bonjour,” I greeted the woman behind the desk as I took a seat in one of her office chairs. “Do you have a package for me?”

“I think I remember seeing one here for you,” she said, getting up from her seat to shift through boxes and padded envelopes that crowded shelves, waiting to be claimed.

“Really?” I pulled my passport out of my bag, knowing she would need to see it to confirm that I was the intended recipient.

“Yes, it’s here,” she confirmed, reaching behind a few boxes. “But, oh, I remember this package now.” She pulled the thick envelope out from behind the others. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s a problem. It arrived in poor condition.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said quickly, assuming the mail had been dropped in a puddle or smashed by the weight of other boxes. After all, it had crossed an ocean to reach me. “I’ll take it regardless of its condition.”

Now on her desk, the package clearly had ripped open sometime during its voyage, but the tears were at least partly covered with clear plastic tape. I held out my passport, eager to collect my parcel and leave so I could delve into my gift, but the employee wasn’t as ready as I was.

“You can see this package arrived here weighing one-and-a-half kilograms,” she said, pointing to scrawl on the envelope that apparently was official. Then she moved her pointer finger to a different part of the parcel. “But it left America weighing three kilograms.”

What was she getting at? My package had been so badly damaged that it lost half its weight? How could that happen? I looked at the woman, puzzled.

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Brainstorming a brilliant title

A friend recently asked me, “When you find the right title, will it hit you over the head? Will you just know?”

I hope so, because I haven’t felt smacked by one yet. That’s why I’m turning to you: Wanna help brainstorm a title for my travel memoir?

You’ll first need to know what my book is about. (That’s easy for loyal readers of my travel blog.)

Some titles have automatic resonance, which means the reader understands automatically what the book is about. In other words, the title is self-explanatory. Others don’t acquire resonance until after you’ve read the book. I’ll use Eat, Pray, Love as an example because it’s the same genre as my book and many of you have probably read it. When I first picked up the book, I had no idea what the title meant. It wasn’t until after I read her story, and understood that each of those words represented a leg of her journey, that the title had meaning for me.

Why does this matter? Because thinking about titles through these prisms has helped me understand what might work for my book. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I’d like my subtitle to be something like, A woman’s solo journey through Africa. Since that explains the essence of my travel memoir, the main title can have either automatic or acquired resonance.

Several scenes in particular seem like they would lend themselves to a title with acquired resonance, including a few I described on my travel blog: Seeing a bright Milky Way in rural Cameroon; celebrating in that same Cameroonian village when I offer the gift of school; making a special delivery in Madagascar.

Some ideas in my brainstorming file with that don’t quite work:

  • Bush Taxi Adventures: A woman’s solo journey through Africa
  • Madame or Mademoiselle? (too complicated, readers of this blog decided)
  • In Search of Pizza (too light-hearted, though I like the idea of a funny title)
  • My Mozzie Net and Me
  • Bumpy Roads
  • Milky Way Meanderings
  • Dancing with Glowsticks
  • Please Send Pants
  • FuFu for Breakfast
  • African skies (too close to Under African Skies)
  • The Path Left by the Moon
  • Digesting Africa

You get the idea. Plenty of authors wait until they’ve written their entire book to come up with a title, and I may end up doing that. But for now, brainstorming is where it’s at.

So throw your ideas out there! Drop them in the comments section below. Even titles that aren’t perfect, like the ones listed above, help get my brain juices flowing.

What should I title my book?

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You asked for it: More about my book

Readers of this blog increasingly ask: Can you tell us more about your book?

Most of you know I’m writing a travel memoir about my solo journey through French-speaking Africa. It’s based on my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa.

I’m recounting my backpacking adventure, which took me overland through West Africa — across Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana — then to Cameroon and Madagascar. Traveling alone as a woman in these countries was empowering, humorous and, at times, scary.

Part I: West Africa. A three-day boat ride up the Niger to Timbuktu, an inspiring AIDS-infected teenager in Burkina Faso, a drug deal in Ghana. Seeking independence through adventure, I end up connecting with new friends.

Part II: Cameroon. Delivering the gift of school to a polygamous family makes me appreciate everything I have: my running shoes, my education, and my financial and personal freedom as a woman.

Part III: Madagascar. Watching the world watch my country elect a historic president, then finding myself vulnerable in a dangerous bus station at night, and finally feeling high on travel, I learn that I can do whatever I want on my own. And that even traveling solo, I’m never really alone.

What my book is not: My beef with most women’s travel narratives is that the author usually finds love at the end. Sure, this makes for a romantic, feel-good ending, but it also reinforces the illusion that the only way to reach gold at the end of the rainbow is through a relationship. I adored Eat, Pray, Love until the woman who claimed for 300 pages that she was looking to discover herself finally feels fulfilled in part because she finds a man.

I’m out to fill what I see as a gaping hole in modern stories about women’s solo travel: the tale of true self-exploration. I did my share of flirting with men in Africa, but I didn’t need — or want — one professing his love to me to feel complete. (Although, ironically, I often fended off would-be suitors by telling them I was married.) Instead, my book is about seeing this beautiful yet poverty-stricken continent through my own eyes, learning to depend on myself as I push my limits and eventually, coming to love traveling avec moi.

Coming soon: At your request, I’ll post a few short excerpts from my work-in-progress. The trick is offering enough of a tease without giving too much away!

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More than a run: A lesson from Africa

When I ran the Freihofer’s Race for Women six years ago, I had just returned from my first trip to Africa.

I had lived with a polygamous family in Cameroon and developed friendships with the four co-wives. The women had inspired me, showing both physical and spiritual strength when they had so little of everything else: no electricity, barely enough money to meet their children’s needs, and no financial or personal freedom to pursue their dreams.

Just weeks after returning to the States, I waited behind the starting line of the 5K race in my hometown of Albany, NY. Standing next to my mom, sister and thousands of other women, I could feel the pre-race anticipation grow as crowds of runners stretched and ran in place, preparing for the contest.

But everyone stood still when the national anthem began to play. As the words of the Star-Spangled Banner echoed through the crowds, I watched the women and girls standing around me in solidarity, as well as the men and boys on the sidelines, there to cheer us on. Suddenly it hit me, how lucky I was to be a woman in America, free to run this race, supported by both the women and men in my life. I started to cry.

My sister, who’s close to me in age, looked at me with wide eyes, horrified and embarrassed that I would shed tears in public. But my mom somehow understood my feelings, and she teared up, too.

That’s when the starting gun went off. We ran the race, and though I had to be escorted to the medical tent at the end — apparently running doesn’t mix with a recent bout of malaria — we crossed the finish line with hoards of other proud women.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because today I’m running that race again. Back from another trip to Africa, I’ll again stand behind that starting line and reflect on what it means to be an American woman, how lucky I am to have a pair of running shoes, the freedom to run for fun, and a country that finds women valuable enough to give us a race of our own.

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That magical title

To pitch my book to agents and publishers, I need a title.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I possibly come up with a title when I haven’t written the book? It ain’t easy. But since I’ve already outlined the book for my book proposal and developed a theme, it’s feasible to build upon that base and create a working title.

I need something catchy. Something that “tells and sells,” as literary agent Michael Larsen advises in his book about writing a proposal. A title that will appeal to a wide audience, one that offers a bit of the book’s flavor.

Most successful women’s travel books use the Title: Subtitle format, and for good reason: It allows for creativity but also gives the reader a sense of what the book’s about. To prove my point, here are a few examples from my bookshelf full of travel memoirs:

* Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. By Tanya Shaffer.

* Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert.

* Tales of a Female Nomad: Living At Large in the World. By Rita Golden Gelman.

* Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman. By Alice Steinbach.

Since the second phrase usually explains the meat of the book, I brainstormed the subtitle first. What makes my book stand out? What makes it different from other travel books? 1. I’m a woman. 2. I traveled solo. 3. I traveled in Africa. And so I came up with this subtitle: A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa.

The primary title is a bit harder because it requires more creativity. So far, I’m leaning toward Madame or Mademoiselle? Here’s a paragraph straight from my book proposal that explains why that title’s appropriate:

Unlike other women’s travel books, the author is not looking for love, nor escape from a failed relationship. Instead, she seeks freedom and independence, a chance to see the world through her own eyes. Paradoxically, to fend off men hoping to snag a white woman as their wife — “Mrs. or Miss?” they ask, and, “Are you married?” — the author constantly lies about her single status, claiming that her husband is back at the hotel or at home in the states.

Together, those pieces form this title:

Madame or Mademoiselle? A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa.

Whatcha think? Does it work? Or should I go back to the drawing board?