Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lone Female Traveler in the Côte d’Ivoire

Guest Post by Sarah

It was the end of a long day in the Côte d’Ivoire, and I was feeling the effects of two beers on an empty stomach. My food still hadn’t come several hours after I ordered it. When I tried to leave the restaurant, my co-workers gave me a look that said, “You crazy American woman, like hell we’re letting you take a taxi home alone.” One of their cell phones rang. It was a friend of our NGO inviting us to continue the party across town. “I’m really tired,” I insisted, and they dropped me off at our hotel. 

By all accounts, it was a dump: paper thin walls with mysterious stains, sheets that smelled like they hadn’t been washed since it opened. We were only there because Save the Children was having a conference in this ordinarily sleepy town and all the better hotels were taken up. Right as I’d entered the lobby, the power went out. I waited for a minute hoping for the reassuring hum of a generator, but no luck. I took a step, tripped, cursed, and felt my way to my room. I used my cell phone as a flashlight, shining it like Nancy Drew in my closets and under my bed, just in case. 

Then I sprayed myself with Off, pulled my hoody over my head, and tried to convince myself I was imagining the feeling of bugs crawling. I kept thinking I heard sounds on the poorly-locked balcony off my room. It occurred to me that everyone I knew in this country was off drinking at an unknown location. I couldn’t escape it: I was scared. So I called my mom. For once, the connection was good. “Hey,” I said, trying to make my voice sound casual. “You’ll never believe where I am…” I talked with her until I couldn’t justify the charges anymore and tried to fall asleep.

In the morning, I stumbled down into the hotel lobby to meet up with the rest of the team. I sat down on a couch to wait. “Excuse me,” said a soldier who had been smoking in a corner when I came in. Thinking he was trying to hit on me, I rolled my eyes and looked down. Then he picked up his AK-47 I somehow hadn’t noticed lying down on the floor next to me. Later that day, as we were setting up for the day of solidarity, three truck loads of UN peacekeeping forces rolled up. This turned out to be entirely unnecessary, and they spent the afternoon watching interactive theater (as seen in the image below).

This little anecdote is pretty typical of my experiences this summer. Making the decision to go to Côte d’Ivoire alone was stretching my comfort zone. Then the organization told me I’d be stationed in a rural town instead of embassy-accessible Abidjan. Then they told me I’d be travelling a bunch – to the Liberian border, into territory still under rebel control. I’d like to say I smiled at each piece of news and relished the thought of a fresh challenge. But that would be a lie. I’ve been scared a bunch this trip. I’ve stayed up late reading travel advisory warnings and worrying about every worst case scenario. Then I talked with a former (male) intern via Skype about my concerns and he laid it out for me: if I’m going to do this job, I can either drive myself crazy reading third hand sources online or I can trust the people I’m with.

 Although it hasn’t been easy, I’ve made the decision to trust my co-workers. And so far, so good. I’m starting to realize that my prior conceptions of what is safe and what is not safe are just fundamentally not suited for my current environment. For example: guns are so understated here, security personnel carry them openly. But there are probably more guns around me when I’m in major cities in the U.S. I’ve definitely heard more gun shots at home than I have here. 

Another thing I hadn’t anticipated was that my blatant not-from-around-here-ness would attract so much positive attention. This is the third post-conflict zone I’ve travelled through, and I’m becoming convinced that these are some of the most foreigner-friendly places to visit. It’s like people are so aware of the bad rep others have of their homes they’re anxious to go out of their way to make you feel at home. Whenever we drive by a UN encampment, I find myself wondering if the yards of barbed wire and heavily armed guards are necessary. I know that there was a horrible conflict here, I know there continues to be conflict here, but on a gut level, I find it impossible to reconcile with my experiences.

I’m not sure if I’ve been just lucky in my travels or if the world is really just not as bad as everyone seems to think it is. I do know that I am not a risk-averse person, and I have never felt seriously threatened during my travels (most of which have been in Africa). That being said, I do have some safety tips for women planning to travel solo to off-the-beaten-track-places:

  1. If someone hits on you, either ignore it or try to laugh it off. Especially if you are the only woman around, yelling really just makes things worse. Although some people might suggest wearing a faux-wedding ring and inventing a family, I’d recommend claiming to be a nun.
  2. Even if you’re planning to go anyways, read what the State Dept has to say about places on the travel advisory list. It’s good to have information from a variety of perspectives. If you’re scared – talk about it. Don’t feel like you’re being weak. Chances are giving voice to your fears will help to put them in perspective.  
  3. Trust what you are able to learn on the ground– what you learn firsthand is the most reliable.
  4. Always keep enough credit/power on your phone to call someone should you need to.
  5. Carry a flashlight and a Swiss Army knife. And toilet paper.
  6. If you’re in a place where you’re going to stick out, embrace it. Turn it into an easy ice breaker. I’ve gotten into a lot of great conversations about Obama in cabs throughout Africa.
  7. As much as you may value your independence, sometimes you have to compromise with your context. If it’s not safe to walk home alone, don’t.
  8. If you walk down the street looking hostile/scared, people will respond to that. A smile can go a long way.
  9. It’s usually better to be sober.
  10. Wear sensible shoes.
Sarah’s first trip out of the United States was to Sierra Leone in 2008. Much to her parent’s chagrin, her travels have continued to have a post-conflict theme, and she keeps looking for ways to get back to Africa. She is currently researching radio as a tool of peacebuilding in Côte d’Ivoire. For more about her travels visit Go Girl Magazine.

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