A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about culture

Tourists In the Way

Sometimes, we should probably just let locals be locals and stay out of their way...

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No Photos, Please

No Photos, Please

Some places like tourists, some places need tourist. And some places resent tourists. This is, of course, a generalisation. Areas are made up of individuals. Persons who have vastly different opinions about tourists. Some people make a lot of money from tourists. Others are proud of their cultural heritage and happy to show it to visitors. Others again think the influx of foreigners and money is altering their community for the worse or too fast, and sometimes it’s simply fairly annoying that people come and insist on taking people’s photo, while they are just trying to go about their daily business. But somehow, the sentiments that tend to be domination a given community tend to be in either one or the other end of the scale.

Tea time in the desert

Tea time in the desert

I’ve been visiting just about every type of place on this trip, and there are just about two general rules of thumb. The fewer visitors to a place, the happier will the local population be to see you. And the more the local individuals are part of the attraction, the less happy will they be to see you. I don’t blame them. Loads of tourists and travellers invade certain small areas of this world on a daily basis. Imagine being treated more like an attraction than a human being. Whether that is being a Maya Indian, a Tibetan monk or an African villager still living the traditional life.

Jumping on to a boat

Jumping on to a boat

Travellers and tourists (or the tour companies) make a load of money and social capital on these people. Granted – I make little money from my photos, though I do make some. But I do make a shit load of social capital projecting myself to the world as an experience and hardcore bad-ass traveller who goes where no-one else dares to venture... or… At least that’s what I like to think I do.

We – travellers and tourists – do so, without any form of appreciation to the people we often snap photos of. Way too many of us don’t even bother chatting to people before taking their picture. Too many of us don’t even ask if it’s all right with the people we’re snapping away at. It shouldn’t surprise that people in touristy places – particularly when the tourists are a lot richer than the locals – are asking for money if their picture is taken.

Village kid, Liberia

Village kid, Liberia

In general, I’ve been received everywhere with a mix of positive shock, open arms and a lot of offers to buy all sorts of crap. No exceptions. But some people and places just stand out as exceptionally friendly. The old man in upcountry Liberia who led me sleep in his village house when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The young guy in northern Burkina Faso who ended up paying my guesthouse bill for two nights. Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as a whole.

Sahara Trek

Sahara Trek

Then there were the places that used to have a lot of tourism, but where it have all but disappeared because of political instability in the Sahel. In Mauritania’s desert region, a man invited me to stay with him for free and pay nothing for the three meals a day I received (except a few voluntary contributions). His hospitality paid off as I used him as my middleman in setting up a five-day Sahara Desert trek. Obviously, it’s possible to question whether his hospitality was genuine, but it was a win-win situation, with both of us coming out on the other side happy.

Dogon Country

Dogon Country

On another five-day trek, in Mali’s Dogon Country, I got to experience a place where a lot of people had been sceptical towards tourists when we first showed up. But as tourism suddenly dried up, they had realised how much it meant for the local economy. The Dogon’s are very conservative and traditional people, and they had had tiny contact with the outside world as late as the 1970’s. So the massive influx of tourists that began in the early 2000’s was received with some unease.

Dogon hunter

Dogon hunter

However, every hostel is locally owned, and there’s a small fee to be paid to every village visited. For a population who live off farming, primarily onions, the extra income counted for a lot. Plenty of people told me how happy they were to see me, and hoped that more tourists would return soon – even though they hadn’t been euphoric about them previously. The reason was simply. Tourists had a major impact on standards of living and had turned out to be of rather uninfluential on their traditional culture.

Stilt village of Ganvié

Stilt village of Ganvié

Lastly, here in Benin, I’ve hit places where tourists are less than welcome. First in a stilt village called Ganvié. It’s right outside Cotonou, so just about every foreigner in the country – even if they have time to see only one thing in Benin, go to Ganvié. It’s a short boat ride from town, and the Ministry of Tourism has set up a large departure platform. With government officials controlling the flow of tourists, I suspect that there isn't much tourist revenue going to the Ganvié community. They are busy fishing and getting on with their lives. I doubt they even asked for the tourist influx.

Tourists

Tourists

It doesn’t help that the only way to get around in the village is by boat. That makes it impossible to walk up to someone and ask if it’s okay to take their picture – so many visitors just snap as many photos they can before someone begins to yell that they should stop. The fact that most boats are steered by young boys, who’s inexperience makes it difficult for them to control the boat (but I’m sure they’re cheap labour), and guides who put pressure on them to finish the pre-planned tour quickly (so they can take another couple of paying visitors out to the village) only contribute further to the distance between locals and visitors.

Royal castle gate

Royal castle gate

The other place in Benin was at the temples and royal house in Abomey. The temples are still active places of traditional (pagan) worship, and royal families still live in some of their houses. It’s not surprising that people here prefer to live and pray in peace. However, here are plenty of signs making it clear which buildings that can be photographed or visited and which that can’t. However, even the buildings with "no photo" signs can be snapped. It just requires the visitor to show a minimum amount of respect. Find the house owner or priest, ask politely, and pay the small amount they ask for if they ask for any. Then it’s pretty easy to get a tour of the premise or snap as many photos as you’d like.

Making friends

Making friends

That’s pretty much it. With simple respect, taking an active interest in peoples' lives, and sometimes – just sometimes – move a little bit of cash from the wealthy tourist to the not-so-wealthy local, pretty much anyone will be welcomed. And if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, don’t get in the way of local life and don’t assume that people will be happy to be part of your vacation photo albums.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:25 Archived in Benin Tagged culture travel locals tourist tourists travellers responsible travelling respect west_africa benin togo photographying Comments (0)

The Case Against Flying

Because shooting through the air in a metal case is boring and only add cultural shock to your adventure.

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dont-fly.jpg

I think that I’ve mentioned it a few times already: I consider flying as cheating. So, since I’ve just returned to the African mainland – by plane – after a few weeks on Cape Verde, I should probably explain myself. It’s not that I don’t like the act of flying or is afraid of it; I rather like it. But when it comes to travelling I find it... aesthetically and essentially (for lack of better words) wrong.

Travelling is, to me, essentially a matter of experiences. Whether these are cultural, historical, natural or something entirely else. Flights are not. Flying is the complete opposite. It’s humanity’s most efficient mean of transportation. Planes are inherently time machines, moving people in time and space. The time travel is most evident when we’re flying across time zones.

Cultural Adjustment Curve

Cultural Adjustment Curve

That is, however, not why I dislike flying. (I really want a real time machine!). It’s the travel in space that I mind. Step into that metal cylinder we call a plane in one part of the world, a few hours later we step out somewhere completely different. The problem is that the world doesn’t work like that. The stark difference we feel when flying from, say, Europe or North America to Africa or Asia isn’t real. Sure, it’s real for those people taking the flight, and many of them will probably experience what we call ‘cultural shock’ once they arrive. Simply because the transformation in space is so sudden that it takes some time to get adapt to.

Flamingo in Andalusia

Flamingo in Andalusia

This experience of cultural shock is easily avoided by not flying. Things on the ground change gradually. Consider my trip. Had I just flow from Copenhagen to Dakar (where I am now) it would have been a significant change. Instead, I’ve passed through a number of ‘cultural belts’. The first being Andalusia in Southern Spain. It’s Spanish and European, but having historically also been part of Islamic empires it probably has more in common with Morocco than with (secular, Scandinavian) Denmark. Another transition happened as I moved from to the very conservative and Middle Eastern-ish Mauritania or more open-minded and Sub-Saharan Senegal. Both Islamic countries, the area around the Senegal River, which marks the border, is less conservative than most of the rest of Mauritania on the northern side, but more conservative than the rest of Senegal on the southern. Travelling over land has eased transformation from Scandinavia to Africa in a way that would be impossible by flying.

Overland Travel

Overland Travel

Cultural Shock is basically a lack of understanding about how a given culture works and how it is different from the one you're used to. People and cultures are different too. But travelling over land gives a distinct feeling for where people and cultures are different and where they aren’t. It provides a better understand of who you’re visiting. By experiencing the transformations from Northern to Southern Europe, from southern Europe to North Africa and from North Africa to Sub-Saharan West Africa I have gotten a much better understanding of how people across these regions are similar and different.

Walk if you have to

Walk if you have to

However you go about your non-flying (driving, biking, taking the train, hitch, sail or purchasing a donkey cart) it will give you many more experiences, make you infinitely richer on adventures and be a lot more fun than just flying. As flying is essentially a somewhat tedious affair (unless you’re afraid of it, and they you should avoid it anyway).

Fine, if you’re crossing oceans, are in a hurry (say, on an extended weekend) or if your purpose is not to experience anything, but just to lazy about on a beach, go ahead. Jump on that plane. But the next time you’re taking a two-week vacation somewhere, snub the aeroplane, extend your vacation to three weeks and use that extra week on getting to and from your destinations properly, visiting the fascinating towns, sights and people between your home and wherever you’re going! Especially, if you’re travelling within Europe where distances are incredibly short.

Fogo Island (Aldo Bien, Wiki Commons)

Fogo Island (Aldo Bien, Wiki Commons)

The biggest problem these days are that aeroplane tickets are so damn cheap. Ignore that. Travelling shouldn’t be about saving money. Go the adventures route instead! If you have any sense of adventurous or travelling spirit, it’ll thank you for it (and so will the environment).

So why did I fly to Cape Verde then? It simply was the only mean of transportation. There aren’t any ships from the African mainland. Container ships travel directly there directly from Europe and the private yachts set sail almost exclusively from the Canaries. If I wanted to visit the Verdes, flying was – unfortunately – my only option.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 06:45 Archived in Cape Verde Tagged flying culture no north africa transportation europe andalusia travelling experience non cape_verde cultural_shock Comments (0)

Cities of the Sahara

Ancient caravan stops in the desert, which today moves to the sound of the sand blowing through the air and the guitars’ insisting sounds of the past.

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Heading into the Mauritanian Sahara, I had to pass through a few unavoidable cities and towns. The region's central city is a garrison town and administrative centre, and nothing worth talking about. However, there were a few other places.

Chinguetti

Chinguetti

The cities of the Sahara’s caravan trade seems to have one thing in common. They rise out of the Earth, more like growing three than buildings. Or, I could be mistaken, are they being consumed by the sand and rocks they stand on? It’s impossible to tell. Chinguetti, the most famous of Mauritania’s caravan stops (at its height 32,000 camels passed through here every day), seems at one with the sandy dunes that engulfed the ancient city. A hundred kilometres to the northeast, Ouadane’s crumbling houses, mosques and city walls give off the impression that the stones have just tumbled down the mountainside, randomly forming the buildings that now form a ruined ghost town. Regardless, there’s something in the air in these place. Something more than the dust and the sand always blowing in from the desert surrounding them. The whistling sounds sand-grains make as they fly through the air hits at a whiff of history, that simply won’t leave the cities.

Ouadane's Old Quarter

Ouadane's Old Quarter

These cities were not only important for caravans. Medieval Islamic scholars congregated on these towns, as the caravans did not only bring goods and trade. They also brought knowledge. These scholars began to collect manuscripts and books, not only religious texts – Koranic verses and Sharia law – but also history, cosmology, Greek philosophy and Babylonian laws.
All this a thousand years ago, when Europe was still caught in the Dark Ages, and people through that the Earth was flat. 400 years before Copernicus figured out that the Earth moves around the Sun (not the other way around) did these Islamic scholars draw Solar-centric illustrations in their books – in the middle of the Sahara. More than 15,000 of these books are still stored in private libraries in the desert cities of Mauritania.

Librarian with his manuscripts

Librarian with his manuscripts

This is something that simply makes my academic heart melt. History and knowledge are dear to me – my brain having taken damage permanently from my bachelor’s degree’s minor field, Philosophy. These texts are such an important and invaluable part of human history and it is almost inconceivable how they have survived here – in the middle of the Sahara – for hundreds and hundreds of years. Stored away in small dusty libraries, in crumbling houses, surrounded by the massive dunes of the desert. The fact that these have survived is a tribute to our abilities as humans to take care of our shared history. To quote the Internet: “Faith in Humanity restored.”

Desert mosque sunset

Desert mosque sunset

History isn’t the only attraction here. Once the scorching sun is setting over the horizon of dunes life, return to these ancient cities. Blankets will be spread in front of peoples' house and the tea will be prepared. An important evening ritual here is to keep one’s friendships alive and well. People will thus make rounds. From house to house, from blanket to blanket. Many friendships go back to peoples' childhoods; some go even further back. Families, who have been close-knit for generations. In these cases, keeping the relationship healthy is not only a matter of social comfort – it is a duty to one’s family, one’s parents and grand-parents that are not taken lightly.

Spontaneous concert

Spontaneous concert

Central for knitting the social fabric of Mauritanian social life is two things: tea and music. The only thing that possibly can interrupt these ‘rounds of friendships’ is when the musicians bring out their instruments. Lead by an insisting guitar (these days more likely to be electronic than traditional) men and women alike will gather, spontaneously, around the musicians. Though these a subtle affairs, with most people sitting down, all will join the musicians. All bands will thus have one or two ‘lead clappers’, who will lead the crowd by showing the rhythms of the claps. Often, when there is more than one band clapper, they will clap different rhythms. They are thus equally a part of the group than the guitar, the singer or the drums are. As an attendant, all I have to do is pick one of the clappers and follow his lead.

Tea on the way - literally

Tea on the way - literally

The other central element to Mauritanian life is tea. Tea is a cultural ritual in many countries, but in few is it obsessed over as it is in Mauritania. Tea here is not just ‘a cup of tea’. It is the fuel for conversation and as such, it is no small business. Tea will be offered to an arriving guest; by merely passing in front of someone's house; or – in the middle of nowhere – when the taxi-brousse driver needs a break. But make sure you have the time before accepting a tea-offer. Brewing tea correctly in Mauritania takes no less than 40 minutes and easily more than an hour. Two pots and at least three classes are required in an endless ritual of pouring the tea between the pots, between glasses and between glasses and pots the taste of each serving is perfected. Tea here is not one glass, but three. The first strong – this one is for health. The second neither too strong or too sweet – this one is a life without too many extremes. The last glass you get served is very, very sweet – this one is for love. The glasses large shot-glasses and the upper half consist of white foam made in the pouring process. Drinking the tea actually takes a fraction of the time it takes to make it. The mean time is filled with conversation.
Mauritania is a conservative country, and it is easy to see in daily life. I found it worth it to slow down and appreciate this in the Sahara towns historic setting. Especially since I was about to head further into the Sahara for something that would be a rather challenging walk. More on that in a few days.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:57 Archived in Mauritania Tagged people desert culture history travel adventure sahara mauritania chinguetti adrar ouadane wadane liberaries Comments (1)

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