African border crossings

Corruption, bribes, hassle… hitch-hiking, bus, walking. There are many ways to cross a border in Africa, here is a small guide from my own experiences.

Morocco – Mauritania
You have to organize a visa at the embassy in Rabat, it takes 24 hours and cost 350 dirham, cash only. It is not allowed to walk across this border due to it being an old mine field, if you don’t have a car you need to organise a ride in Dakhla (about 400 dirham) or hitch-hike.

After two days of driving through the Western Sahara my mind was as relaxed as it could be, but still a small sting of nervousness hit me as we stopped by the ghost town (built by the Moroccan government for the Western Saharians who doesn’t want it) closest to the border. I was hitch-hiking with Viktor from Holland and he had done the crossing many times before. But still, my visa wasn’t valid yet.

To get the good bye stamp in Morocco was easy and without any hassle, then we had to drive across no mans land on a non marked out road, avoiding the soft sand which would get us stuck and causing a storm of people rushing to help us in exchange for money. What all those people were doing there between the borders? Viktor said they are luck-seekers and thieves, too lazy to work. One man waived at a car, pointed on some tracks asking the car to choose that way. The driver did. Two minutes later he was stuck in deep sand reaching the doors, and seven people ran up to help them dig after some hard negotiations on the price.

We drove through with no problems. Once on the Mauritanian side of the border the difficulties started. If Viktor wasn’t there with me I would have no clue where to go. He gave a man a bottle of perfume, another one some chocolate and water. He took me with him into a room with two officers, talked and smiled a lot, pointed out that they had nice computers while the Moroccan officers had only pens and paper. The men smiled back, stamped our passports and we were in.
If I had done that crossing myself, I imagine it would have been the worst experience ever. Be prepared if you go there with a car, have all your papers ready and be prepared to go through many doors, talking to lots of people and getting very confused before you can take your car with you. And practice both your French and your Arabic.

Mauritania – Senegal
Europeans don’t need to get a visa before hand and it’s free at the border.
I came with a taxi from Nouakchott, had no idea where to go but a guy from the Gambia took me under his wings and showed the way. It’s pretty close to where the taxis stop, and the exit is clearly marked. Once in the border-area walk to your right and a small office will be discretely marked out on your right hand side. Getting the stamp is without hassle and then all you have to do is wait for the free boat across the channel to pull in. Or pay a small fortune for one of the banana boats to take you across.

Once on the Senegalese side it’s easy to get through, though I had to wait a long time for the immigration officer to get to the office and a lot of people tried to push themselves in front of me in the line. By then my elbows had become pretty sharp though and I’ve learned how to keep my spot in line. Don’t be afraid to push, everyone else does it and so can you.
Just outside the border area some guys are selling sim cards and there is an office where you can buy air time. People with horses and carriages, taxis and bikers are all willing to get you a ride to the bus- and taxi station for a small amount of money.

Europeans don’t have to organize a visa before getting there, but it cost 50 US dollars and is only payable in cash.
Organization is not my strong side. I came by airplane and I did look it up, read that “Swedish citizens do not need a visa” but totally missed the paragraph saying you still had to pay for it before entering. I only had Senegalese CFA and my bank card, they accepted none of it. “You can come back tomorrow.” the one officer told me. “Tomorrow? I should sleep here tonight?” I said, pointed at the floor. The two officers looked at each other, shook their heads. “No, it’s not good.” the other one said. They would actually let me get into the country and come back the next day to pay, but I didn’t want to. I know myself, I wouldn’t come back and pay and I would have problems when getting out of the country.
Solution? My friend waiting outside came in and paid the fine.

Tanzania – Malawi
Free for Europeans, no need to get a visa in advance.
My favorite border crossing. From the taxi I paid a guy with a bike to take me to the border, we went fast down the hill and he pointed at the office where I would get my good bye-stamp. I walked inside the gates, got the stamp, went to the exchange bureau to exchange my money and then walked across the bridge. It was a nice walk, about 100 meters, under the bridge a wide brown river flowed and I felt a strong sense of freedom.
At the Malawian side it was just as easy to get my passport stamped. The only difficulty was to find a ride to Karonga, there was a bus leaving for Lilongwe and thinking about it now the bus probably made a stop in Karonga. Anyway, I paid for hitch-hiking and fell in love with the country and its rice plantations, green hills, bikes, bikes, bikes and lovely people.

Malawi – Zambia
Cost 50 US dollars, only payable in cash. No need to organize the visa in advance.
I was on a bus this time, and although I KNEW that I would need 50 US dollars to cross, did I have them? Of course not. I exchanged my Malawian money at the black market, borrowed some dollars from the friends I traveled with at the moment and eventually I had scraped the 50 dollars together. Yet another example of how I never learn.
This crossing is very easy, the bus stopped just by the offices on both sides of the border, there were people selling fruits and vegetables and drinks. In total it was a very peaceful and pleasant crossing.

Zambia – Zimbabwe
The visa is supposed to be free, but you still have to pay 50 dollars to get through. Only payable in cash.
This one is the easiest. I was with Alex by the Victoria falls and after the sunset we simply walked up to the office, got our stamps out of Zambia and walked towards Zimbabwe. It was about a kilometer to walk I believe, maybe longer, and we were told later on that one should never walk there at night since the monkeys can be pretty aggressive. We had no problems with animals though.
By the immigration office in Zimbabwe we had to pay for our visas, the officers were nice and happy (probably because we were too, although I nearly let a comment about African corruption slip through my mouth as we had to pay). We got our stamps with no fuss and caught a taxi to the hostel in the town of Victoria Falls.

Zimbabwe – South Africa
Free and easy.
In Zimbabwe our CS-host told us this is a Real African border crossing. He had never been to West Africa, obviously. Sure the ques were really long and it did take a very long time to get through, but it was very easy. All we had to do was to stand in line (except for Alex who had to prove that he’s from South Korea and not north) and get our passports stamped.

Conclusion: if you want an exciting border crossing, go to north west Africa. If you prefer it easy and smooth, go to southern Africa.


Like a celebrity

As we I stepped off the bus the taxi drivers, guides, sellers and other people all surrounded me, screaming, pushing, pulling, shouting… “where are you going? I take you anywhere!” “Come with me!” “Let me show you Lusaka!” “Taxi!?” “Come here ma’am!” and I got the feeling of being a celebrity, though the cameras had changed into taxis and whatever they have to offer.

It takes a while to get used to, and I totally lost my temper as a man in Lusaka told my friend that I was his wife. It was after that sixteen hour bus ride, low blood sugar, low energy level and all that suppressed annoyance suddenly escaped over my inner wall of patience and calmness. The men around us got the seriousness and urged him away. The next morning as we came back to catch the bus to Livingstone, I went to look for breakfast at the market while my friends got the bus tickets when I heard a voice in front of me. “You came back!” I ran. Or walked very hurriedly, sneaking in between some tables and behind a wall, shaking him off me. Why? I asked myself. Why does he have to be so … like that? I am not interested in talking to him.

Be prepared if you plan on traveling Africa and you are a foreigner to this continent. There will be a lot of hassle and people will be stubborn and uncaring about you. But, there will be even more people showing you love and true friendship. And saying no firmly will often get you more respect

Climbing a mountain for breakfast

My host and I got up at half past five this morning, and started climbing the mountain next to her house with a friend. Just to watch the sunrise.

It was a hard climb, Mbeya is already about 1500 m above sea level and the air is very thin. The spot on the mountain we were going to was over 2000 m. As the path started ascending I felt as if my lungs got no oxygen no matter how deep breaths I took. “It took us all three months of dizziness before we got used to this altitude, just stop when ever you want,” my host said.

As we got more than half way I told her that “in the beginning I didn’t think I would make it this far even, but one step at a time it’s pretty cool hey.”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s like life. You look ahead of you and just see this crazy steep mountain, and it feels hopeless. But just look a few steps in front of you and suddenly you have climbed it all.”

And it was just like that. After an hour climbing, slipping in the mud coloured orange from the sunrise, we reached the big white cross shining white as if the angels themselves had rubbed it with their wings. We saw the sun rise over Mbeya, this small African town in southern Tanzania where albinos once were harshly hunted for their organs, and I felt so strong. I could breathe again and I felt as if I could do anything today. Beneath us the town stretched all the way to the soft green hills and a whole chain of mountains. As we sat there I realized we were just about as high up as the tallest mountain in Sweden reaches. And there I sat, wearing a shirt and long shorts, and the coldness of Kebnekaise (our Swedish mountain) felt so far away.

To start the day early with a trek in the mountains is something I would love to do every week. But unluckily I live in the flat landscape of south Sweden when I’m not traveling. I just have to enjoy these moments as much as I can when they come.

The coolness of Mbeya

As I was on the bus and the sun started to set people crept inside their blankets, saying it was way too cold. I felt for the first time in long that this is my temperature.
The air is much cooler here than in Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. As I hugged my friend P good bye last sunday it was as if both of us just came from the ocean, both skin and clothes soaking in vapour. In Dar Es Salaam my forehead was always blank and wet with moisture.

Here, in Mbeya, it’s cool. But not too cool. We’re on a really high altitude, I think my host told me today we’re about 1400 meters or something above sea level. The air feels clear and I enjoy every bit of it. Tomorrow morning we will climb the mountain almost next to the house and watch the sunrise. Seriously, I can’t wait.

“Muzungo! Fuck you your MFB!”

As I stepped off the bus in Mbeya last last night I was met by three MC-guys. “Hello babe, wanna ride? Where are you going?” I ignored them, and said “no thank you” to the taxi guy who already stood by my side, and started walking towards the restaurant i had spotted from the bus.

No one of the staff at the restaurant spoke English, and they kept on offering me chicken. “No, no chicken.” I said. “Hen?” they asked. “No, no animals. No chicken, no hen, no meat. Vegetables. You have vegetables?” I asked. The waitress didn’t understand me.
One of the guests offered to translate, he asked me what I wanted. “Something vegetarian to eat.” I said. He asked them what they offered. “They have chips. Do you want chicken with that?” he asked. “No,” I said, “No chicken. No meat” He looked at me. “Ok, ok. Goat? They have goat.” At this stage I was ready to rip my hair off. “No, I’ll have only chips.” By then three people were standing at the table, they all looked at me as if I was from another planet. “Only chips? No hen?”
Eventually I got some chips.

I had the wrong number to my CS-host so I couldn’t get hold of her. It was already past ten o’clock at night so I had to find a hotel. The English speaking man later told me that “you have landed in Mbeyas most dangerous area, here are people who want to hurt you.” He looked me in my eyes. After all the travelling I’ve made I wasn’t ready to believe him, but he offered to follow me to a hotel so ok. I didn’t say no.
As I had finished the meal I got into his car, he took me to the hotel which was literally right across the street. Not more than twenty meters. As we stopped he said “the woman at the restaurant said you could stay at her place, but I told her it’s not appropriate to invite someone like that. I told her it’s much better for you to stay at a hotel.” WHAT!? I don’t get it. I live couch surfing, I always stay in other people’s home. Even when I am At home.

Today I walked around Mbeya and three times I was called by guys, “hey! Muzungo!” It means soemthing like, hey, white person. “You speak English huh? Mother fucker!” another one called “Muzungo! You know English huh you mother fucker bitch!?”
I totally ignored them and thought about Senegal. I thought the people there were rude, I now realize it was nothing. But sure there must be more nice people here than the ones at the restaurant yesterday?

I am now at my CS-host’s place in Mbeya, in south Tanzania, and it feels great. We’ve shared some wine at her terrace, underneath a million stars, overlooking the mountains. Her dog sleeping on the stairs. Travelling is really heaven. You never know what to come.

Photographing Stone town

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As I was walking around, getting lost again and again, discovering empty streets, houses about to fall apart and houses that has fallen apart, I stumbled upon an alley I walked in some days ago. I decided to walk up the alley again and as I did a young man sitting on his doorstep raised his head in a ‘hello’ and asked “are you a photographer?” I said “yes, I am.” He asked how I found the alley, and I told him it’s right here, “I’ve stumbled upon it before and I like it so I decided to walk here again. It’s interesting.”

I sat down next to him on his doorstep, showed him some of the photographs, and we talked for a while about life, travelling and growing up on the country side in two different parts of the world. A boy walked past carrying two thermoses, my new friend called him and asked me if I wanted some Zanzibar-coffee, I couldn’t decline and we had a cup each of ginger coffee.

He sipped his coffee and said “travelling alone in Africa being a woman, you are strong hey.” I told him that at least I try to be. “No, you Are strong.” he said, looking at me. “Thank you” I said, gazing at the half torn building in front of us and thought of the past two months, “I have been fighting so much against my self.” I told him, and we talked about struggles in life and how fantastic travelling is. He is dreaming of South America, me of West Africa.

Liquid Sugar cane

Along the big market street there are buckets in all kinds of colours. They are filled with ice and bright coloured juices, all from pomegranate to all those I didn’t catch the name of. And there are heaps of branches behind tables and people squeezing the branches in mills, pushing out a cream white liquid into the bright yellow buckets. The taste is sugary and like nothing I have tasted before. Fresh sugar cane juice. You buy it per glass and can enjoy it either buy the street, or at night by the ocean in the park.

As the sun sets the park comes alive. Some forty small restaurants, consisting of nothing but a table and a grill or chopping board, fill the park with the smell of grilled food, Zanzibarian pizza and that fresh sweet smell of fresh sugar canes. People are laughing, smiling and the air is easy to breathe.

My first night in Zanzibar my friend P and I walked through the park, suddenly he stopped and said “look, he’s gonna jump!” I looked towards the ocean, a young man was taking some steps backwards and ran, gaining more speed for every step, and as he reached the low wall he took a powerful step onto it and made a volt above the warm dark waves before splashing into the ocean. The stars glimmered in the water, to the right the harbour lightened by artificial light making the big containers in different colours look like a big painting.
We had just been for an evening swim in the ocean, the mild water offering a soothing chill for our warm bodies.

This morning the rain was pouring, and as I got lost in the labyrinth of Stone town looking for the café I knew existed somewhere at the edge it started dripping from the sky. I hurried, walked around some more corners and found myself at home again. How the flip did I get back here!? I asked myself, and took the right turn again. The dripping became more intense, and just as the sky opened and the heavy rain splashed against the pavement did I step onto the terrace of the café. I ordered their home made ice tea and sat down, enjoying the cool air left by the rain and the chilly breeze combined with the fresh ice tea. Life is so good.