I don’t consider myself a world traveler, but I was recently made aware that while most of my family and friends have never gone beyond our country’s borders even once, I’ve left it 5 times.
When I don’t travel for awhile, I take so much for granted. Refrigeration/cold milk/cold anything. High-speed internet and data. Building codes. Sanitation. A shower that stays set. PEANUT BUTTER… But after international travel I appreciate these everyday luxuries. “I love you, fridge!”
International travel was never one of my dreams—I’m happy just seeing Pinterest photos—but now I think every American should get out at least 3 times: someplace in Europe, someplace in Asia, and someplace in Africa.
Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in a paragraph: the traffic is like Kenya and the trash is like India. Cars make up their own lanes, and there really is no process for waste disposal other than “out of my sight.” But despite being a poor country, the poorest I’ve been to, the food in Cote d’Ivoire was as amazing as the best food I had in Hungary.
Every single meal was delicious. But it was their hospitality that ultimately made my belly do flips.
One afternoon I was late to lunch because I had to take care of things in the office. When I made it the the cafeteria most of the people finished eating and the staff were picking up empty plates. I went to the buffet counter and through broken English and frantic hand-gestures understood that there was no more food. A little sad, I smiled, said okay, and left the building. It was fine. Thanks to my tried and true packing list, I had a stockpile of fig-bars and mango energy balls. And since they always gave us large portions for our meals, I felt that a small meal might actually be good for me.
As I listened to the birds and crunch of the gravel, I heard someone running behind me. “Madam!” One of the girls from the kitchen, Yasmine, waved her hands. She spoke very little English and I barely spoke French, but she motioned for me to follow. As we walked, she ran over to a lady who could speak English. She said lots of words but when she finished the lady just smiled and said, “Your lunch is ready.” I was so confused—how did they get more food?—but I went back to the cafeteria.
Yasmine handed me a plate that had chicken wings and something like spaghetti on it. Although the room was mostly empty, I sat next to my friend who was at the conference as a translator and was very well traveled. I shared what happened and she said, “Ah, hospitality is very important to the people here.”
“It might be that this food came from the portion they were saving to eat for lunch themselves.”
Guilt instantly grabbed my gut. “They didn’t have to do that. What do I do?” I asked and stared at the now tainted food. But she encouraged me, explaining that they would be honored if I ate it and that I should do my best to let them know I was immensely grateful, despite the language barrier. Everyone there understood “thank you” and “it’s very good,” but to this day I’m frustrated that my French was too poor to properly thank them.
Even though it was way too much food for one person, I gorged myself. I would not waste their generosity. Thankfully, my friend let me sneak some onto her plate. As we left she thanked them profusely, and because of all her travels and familiarity with the culture I’m sure whatever she said was better than anything I could have come up with on the spot.
IMHO, the people in Cote d’Ivoire are some of the sweetest people I’ve met in all my adventures, and the food and pastries we had are probably the best in all of Africa. “Because it was colonized by the French,” some people said.
If you get a chance to travel to Cote d’Ivoire, make sure to try this unique drink: Bissap and ginger. I didn’t get a picture of it—if I waited for even a moment it would be gone. Bissap is a purple juice that comes from hibiscus (yep—the flower), and they mix it with ginger juice. After the first sip you feel refreshed and more awake, which alone is a miracle because of the humidity. The hibiscus is also my favorite flower, but I didn’t know it was good for anything other than looking pretty.
I also found something I never noticed in my other travels. After a few days driving through Abidjan and interacting with the people, I felt strangely at home. I stared out the window as we drove and wondered why. Suddenly I knew: my father’s spirit was everywhere.
My dad is still alive! Let me just add that real fast. When I say his spirit I mean his attitude towards life, which seems out of place in America, yet it seemed to be in all the people in Abidjan.
It was in the little kid who couldn’t have been older than 7, fixing a motorcycle alone on the side of the road. The mechanics that set up shop along the highway. Stacks of old tires. The way lightbulbs hung from the walls with exposed wires. Things we throw away without a thought is reused, and in some cases (like with plastic bottles) even treasured. Broken tiles. Rugs with holes. All of these things my dad keeps and uses, and he gets a lot of weird looks for it.
My dad grew up in poverty. His family never really recovered from The Great Depression and he clings to the “save and reuse everything” attitude. He gets labeled a strange, grungy horder, but I found an entire country where people think the way he does…except they speak French—a language my dad adamantly refuses to learn.
Even though Cote d’Ivoire is a poor country, no one sits on the corner and begs for money. This seemed strange—even in Colorado there are lots of people who sit on corners with a cardboard sign expecting money, and in India people walk up and down the lanes of traffic tapping on windows. But in Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya, I didn’t see anyone begging. At least in the places we went, everyone does something to generate income.
On one of our trips into town we stopped at a red light and a group of little kids surrounded the van. They had plastic bottles, some filled with soapy water and some with regular, and a couple of kids had windshield wipers and a cloth. They squirted the windows and ran around cleaning them. Our driver gave them some money, but the car in front of us shut the kids down by turning on his wipers.
Everyone does something.
I wonder if no one expects hand outs here because there are not enough tourists to give them.
In Cote d’Ivoire, and possibly Africa in general, being a driver seems to be a respectable career. I definitely admire those who can do it! I was never able to tell where or when a car was supposed to stop, or sometimes even what was a road and what was not.
Even after a week and a half in Cote d’Ivoire, the rain still fascinated me. Not only does a simple rainstorm sound like a hurricane, in Colorado, standing under the tree will keep you from getting wet, but in Africa the trees are designed to let water pass through. Which also explains the strange trees we saw on the safari in Kenya.
Unlike my previous experiences where shop owners see a foreigner and raise the price intentionally, while at a cafe in a small shopping center in Abidjan my friend was accidentally charged three times for the same transaction. We left the store, happy and clueless, when the shop keeper ran after us and waved us back. “Attendez,” was all I caught as someone ran to the store next door and came back with a roll of receipt paper. They printed the charges, she gently said lots of things in French then smiled sweetly, “Je suis désolé…” and handed us 30,000 FCFA (about $60), the total that had been charged extra.
She didn’t have to do that. My friend would never have noticed anything strange until it was too late.
I’m sure if the same thing happened in Kenya or India the owner would have accepted the bonus with a grin. I learned the hard way that in Kenya—unless it’s a grocery store—everything is supposed to be negotiated, even if there is a listed price (which is how I accidentally bought $300 reading glasses for my boss…Sorry!).
Quick tip: While there, I developed a handy trick to quickly see how much USD I was actually spending. If something is 70,000 FCFA, I doubled the number and dropped the last 3 zeros to get an estimated dollar amount. The quick estimate is more than the actual total, but it’s good to get a rough measurement.
70,000 FCFA x 2 = 140,000 – last 3 zeros = ~ 140 USD
Thanks to this handy trick, I learned I spent about $40 USD on chocolate…
Some of the people, like the lady from the cafe, are glad or indifferent when foreigners shop at their store. However, others, I was told, think the increased number of white people living in and visiting their country is another form of colonization. I suspect the owner of the fabric store, who we met later, was like the second.
When we tried to check out, she glared at us, repeatedly yelled the same thing that we clearly weren’t understanding, and crossed her arms. Finally I got it: She was upset that we didn’t have exact change, 100 FCFA. She insisted that the change be added to my purchase when I paid by card, yet the grocery store and chocolate shop cashiers didn’t care when we owed change that was slightly larger. The missing amount? About $0.20 cents.
Going to a place where I don’t speak the national language made it difficult to relax and enjoy being so far from home. But there was usually someone nearby who could speak some English—we even met a lady from Brooklyn at the grocery store, she helped us find gummy candy.
In case you’re not convinced of my fractured French, I was in charge of handing out the conference program and participants badges. “Abien tot!” I’d say and smile. Everyone politely smiled back. After the participants had gone through the line, we were working in the office. “Abien tot!” I said as someone left, and one of our trainers and my friend Ivanova both smiled like I’d told a joke.
“What?” I asked.
“Abien tot!” The trainer mimicked. He did his best to imitate my voice.
“What’s wrong with that?!” I begged them to share.
Ivanova sheepishly explained, “It’s the right words, but you say it like ‘I’m glad you’re going.'”
My cheeks flooded red. 50 people heard “I’m glad you’re going” when they checked-in for our conference…No wonder they all grinned like that…
A final note: You absolutely must take anti-malaria medication! I literally just took my last pill today, but I stopped complaining after we learned one of our trainers actually got Malaria! 5 days after they got home, they came down with “the worst case of the flu ever,” and tested positive for Type A flu AND Malaria. After spending a week in ICU, they made a full recovery and were released from the hospital.
Because the bacteria can hibernate in your liver for a year, it’s extremely important to stop it the moment it gets in your system. Take those pills people! (You’ll also need a $125 yellow fever shot…but your doctor can tell you about all the shots you have to have.)
Overall, it was a fantastic trip and I wouldn’t mind going back.
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Since I’m gonna be a world traveler now, I might as well share my continually-adjusted packing rules I live by.
Unusual but highly recommended items for international travel:
- Adapters with a “grounding” prong (I had to commandeer my boss’ when I needed to charge my laptop…)
- Anything with peanut butter (I crave this every time!)
- Granola and/or fig bars because sometimes your stomach just wants familiar food (I would add potato chips but those can be bought almost everywhere and it’s kind of fun that way.)
- Chocolate to use as needed, usually after long day
- Facial toner and cotton rounds because my face does this cool thing where it breaks out whenever I go someplace new
- Maven Thread headband because I have a weird obsession with needing my ears to be covered when I sleep, and these ones don’t slide off
- Mini Pillow Pet because some places have awful pillows or none
- Clorox wipes for the room
- Butt wipes for …
- Floss sticks
- Toothbrush cover (I ended up using a ziplock bag)
- Laundry strips or powder in case you need to wash a shirt you already wore
- Printed photos to keep me grounded in reality (I added this after India…)
- If you’re traveling on Ethiopian Airlines, noise-canceling headphones that can plug into the audio so you don’t have to spend 8 hours gaining a deeper empathy for people with tinnitus.