I have butterflies in my stomach as I write this. It’s just over 12 hours until I leave for Mali and Burkina Faso and I am really nervous – more nervous than I can ever remember feeling before a trip.
And no, it has nothing to do with Ebola.
I was nervous about this trip long before Ebola showed up in Mali. This will be my first travel to West Africa and only my second trip to the African continent overall (Egypt being the other trip in 2008, although I always think of that as more the Middle East than Africa). I will be venturing much further outside of my comfort zone than I ever have before.
Sure, it was challenging and scary to quit my job to travel around the former Soviet Union for a year. But in retrospect, there was a lot that was easy about it too – as a blond with Scandinavian roots, I blended in well throughout Russia and Eastern Europe and even in Central Asia, I often passed for one of the Russian minority instead of a tourist. While I didn’t speak Russian fluently, I spoke and understood it well enough to get by in pretty much every way I needed to.
My attempt to learn French before this trip (the language spoken in Mali and Burkina Faso) was largely a failure and I certainly will stand out like a sore thumb in West Africa – not just as a blond Westerner, but as a tourist in general. Tourism hasn’t exactly been booming in the region lately – especially not in Mali. I know I am in for a great deal of culture shock – likely more than ever before. And I worry about things like money and food and getting around because I just don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how easy or hard it will be to find gluten-free food that is safe for me to eat. I worry about the ATMs eating my debit cards. I am afraid that my bug spray will be ineffective in keeping the mosquitoes away and I’ll be eaten alive (because mosquitoes love me).
I feel silly being this nervous, but I am.
I am also traveling much less independently on this trip than I have for a long time. I have a pick up arranged at the Bamako airport, I’ll be traveling with staff from buildOn to visit two villages in southern Mali and then I will stay with the owner of a tour company in Segou. For my time in Burkina Faso, I pre-booked a six-day itinerary with a guide and some private transportation to make the most of my short time there.
While this should all make me feel more comfortable, it also reminds me of one of my challenges during my career break trip: I am an introvert at heart and I desperately need my alone time. Looking back at that trip, I struggled when I stayed with host families because I never got to be alone. And I probably offended my hosts at times when I begged off from visiting more because I was just so exhausted from trying to interact with people in a different language. I worry about that happening on this trip as well because I literally will not have a single day entirely on my own. I need to remember what a unique opportunity this is and take full advantage, regardless of how tired I may feel.
I am also nervous about even getting there and back. I initially booked this trip back in April on Turkish Airlines, only to have the leg of my flights going from Istanbul to Bamako cancelled. After getting a full refund, I eventually booked on Ethiopian Airlines, flying through Addis Ababa. A few weeks ago, that flight got cancelled and luckily re-booked for a day later. Add in the Ebola cases in Mali and a military coup in Burkina Faso and I sometimes wondered whether this trip would ever happen!
At the same time, I am trying to focus on all of the good signs along the way – I have managed to make a surprising number of contacts in the two countries who have been incredibly helpful with all of my planning. And in the last month, I have met three more people in the U.S. who have traveled to Mali, all offering me helpful suggestions and recommendations. I have a couple books loaded onto my Kindle to learn more about the two countries on my way over. And, of course, the fact that I will get to see firsthand the difference that Passports with Purpose and buildOn have made in two villages in southern Mali is really exciting. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would have given up on this trip long ago.
So now, I am sitting in a hotel room not far from Washington-Dulles, an easy shuttle ride away from the airport tomorrow morning. I have checked in for my flights and printed my boarding passes, but it still doesn’t quite feel real. I feel like I may be holding my breath until I actually make it through immigration in Bamako and step out of the airport and into the car waiting to pick me up.
Hopefully, about 36 hours from now, I will be exhaling a big sigh of relief. Stay tuned…