If you’ve been following along for a while, you may recall I was a bit nervous for my trip to Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa in November. Not only had I never previously traveled to sub-Saharan Africa, but I was visiting Mali in the midst of an Ebola outbreak and Burkina Faso just after a military coup. Add in that I didn’t speak the language and I had pre-trip jitters in a big way.
Of course, in the end, everything went far better than I could have expected.
And surprisingly, travel in West Africa reminded me a lot of travel in Central Asia. As my two weeks in the region went by, I found myself making constant comparisons between the two regions. Ultimately, I concluded that the three months I spent in the ‘Stans back in 2012 prepared me pretty well for the realities of travel in West Africa.
To start with, I saw some interesting geo-political parallels between the two regions. In Central Asia, I found arbitrary national borders drawn by Stalin that had little correspondence to the ethnic make-up of the area. As a result, when the Soviet Union dissolved, ethnic Tajiks were stuck in Uzbekistan, ethnic Uzbeks were trapped in Kyrgyzstan, and so on and so on. Similarly, the borders in West Africa were somewhat randomly drawn by French colonialists, meaning that ethnic groups tend to span national boundaries. However, movement among countries in West Africa is much easier than in Central Asia. Where I experienced long lines when crossing borders in the ‘Stans, my experience going from Mali to Burkina Faso was painless – likely because the locals didn’t have to bother with visas or paperwork to travel between countries; they only had to show their ID and yellow fever certificate.
Of course, I did have to get visas for both Mali and Burkina Faso and the visa process for these two countries seemed incredibly easy compared to getting visas for Central Asia! There was no getting lost on the outskirts of Baku in search of the Tajik and Uzbek embassies, no queuing for hours outside of the Kazakh embassy in Tashkent, no arguing with officials about correct processing times or the need for a letter of invitation and no begging armed guards to even let me in the building. Nope, I found the embassies for both Mali and Burkina Faso on Embassy Row in Washington, DC and simply walked right in. I mailed my Mali application in advance and it was ready right on time and then I dropped off my Burkina application during the wrong hours, but they accepted it anyway. And while the visas were just as pricey as my one for Uzbekistan, they are both multiple entry, good for five years!
Speaking of prices, West Africa was surprisingly expensive in some ways – just as parts of Central Asia were. Many popular tourist sights are not easily accessible by public transportation, and the scarcity of tourists means that no regular, inexpensive day tours run either. This means that hiring a private guide with private transport is often the best bet. It’s what I did to see the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and for my entire trip to Turkmenistan. And it’s what I did for my week in Burkina Faso. Despite the countries otherwise being inexpensive, the cost of hiring a guide and driver as an individual was not cheap! Granted, I wasn’t paying anywhere close to what I would pay for something similar in Western Europe, but it was still more than I had expected.
Dealing with transportation in Central Asia also prepared me well for West Africa. In the ‘Stans, the primary means of getting around is by shared taxi or minivans known as marshrutkas. These don’t run on any kind of fixed schedule; they just leave when full, which means a lot of waiting around at times. So when I found myself waiting for more than two hours for my bus from Segou to Bobo Dioulasso to leave, it didn’t even faze me. Neither did the fact that I ended up sitting on a plastic water jug in the middle of the aisle for more than an hour or that on the bus from Bamako to Segou, I ended up squished in a seat with my backpack on top of me, unable to move for about four hours. The aggressive touts selling fruit and bottled water and the squat toilets at the bus “stations” also brought me back to my days in Central Asia.
Finally, the people throughout Mali and Burkina Faso reminded me of those I met all over the ‘Stans. They were warm and friendly, and always with smiles on their faces. They took me under their wing and welcomed me into their homes with open arms. And just as the people I met in Kazakhstan were more than pleasantly surprised that I would visit their country, the Malians I met were overwhelmingly thankful that I made the trip, despite the ongoing security issues and Ebola outbreak. The scenery and cultures may have been different from Central Asia to West Africa, but the people and their hospitality were so much the same.