Comparing Gary Arndt’s and Francis Tapon’s West African Experiences

My friend and author, Francis Tapon, has been traveling around Africa for the past year. While I was sailing up the west coast of Africa this year, he had been traveling across similar territory by land.

Given how different our trips were, I thought it would be interesting for Francis to compare his observations about Africa with mine. Although his experience in Africa has been much more extensive, we’ve come to similar conclusions about some things and very different conclusions about others.

He has also begun a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the pilot episode of the Unseen Africa TV show. All money raised will go directly to the production of the pilot.

Take it away, Francis….

Although Gary and I explored West Africa around the same time (he went through a few months after I did), our experiences were radically different. So it’s understandable that we sometimes reached different conclusions. It’s equally remarkable that we often agree with each other. What follows is a comparison of our two trips through West Africa, with a focus on three West African countries.

But first, a bit of background on how Gary and I met. Probably like you, I first bumped into Gary in cyberspace. Soon thereafter, I was on his “This Week in Travel” show to discuss the sexiest country ever: Moldova.

I’ve been traveling nonstop since 2006 (a year before Gary’s exodus) and I identified with what he wrote, “I know there are a lot of people that would like to travel with me in theory, but when push comes to shove it is a different story. When I first started traveling I had many friends who said they would come and travel with me at some point. 6 years later, not a single one of them has ever made any effort to do so.”

I’ve suffered from the same fate. It doesn’t help that I favor destinations like the Continental Divide Trail, Albania, and Kosovo.

Therefore, when I learned that Gary was dropping into my hometown of San Francisco, I thought it would be fun to travel with him for a few hours. We met at Mission Dolores Park, where he had just come out of a meeting with TripIt. He was carrying what seemed like a normal black backpack, but when I attempted to pick it up, I concluded that Gary loves to collect lead isotopes.

Gary was carrying lots of electronics—and gadgets are heavy. It’s thanks to Gary’s heavy lifting that you and I get to enjoy his blog. Without all those gizmos, Gary couldn’t blog effectively, and we’d all be forced to watch the crappy Travel Channel instead.

I proved to him that having a local guide is sometimes overrated. I walked him down the gritty Mission St. instead of the more gentrified Valencia St. that was just a couple of blocks away. Luckily, we didn’t get mugged. Gary was unimpressed with my tour guide skills.

To make it up to him, I invited Gary to join me for dinner. We had dinner at the house of the lady who organized the TEDx Conference that I spoke at.

Gary is used to being a guest, so I was curious how he would behave. Would he be one of those travelers who shamelessly mooches off the hospitality of strangers or would he be a gracious guest that couchsurfers ought to be?

Gary brought an excellent bottle of wine—thereby proving his good manners. He was allergic to something the host cooked (I can’t remember if it was gluten), but he didn’t complain. He said he would be fine with salad. A true gentleman. (The host eventually made a separate dish for him.)

That evening, we parted ways, knowing that the next time we would see each other it would probably be on Mars. Little did we would know that 18 months later, like ships passing in the night, we would just miss each other in some place even more outworldly than Mars: West Africa.

A Tale of Two West Africa trips

Although Gary and I both visited West Africa at roughly the same time, our trips couldn’t have been more different. For example, Gary went south to north along the coast, while I went north to south mostly inland.

He went by cruise ship, while I went mostly by car, but sometimes on camel or on foot. Gary had it pretty cush. He could “barely tell the ship was moving,” whereas I rarely got out of the second gear anywhere in Sierra Leone because the roads were so rocky, muddy, and diabolical. The back roads in Liberia were also a mess, as were the roads in its towns. In Mauritania, Mali, and Western Sahara there simply were no roads sometimes. And at one point in Guinea I wish I had Gary’s ship.

Gary had a talented chef and bartenders who provided “an ample selection of wines and other beverages.” I drank (filtered) river water and ate rice with potato leaves for $1, beans and wheat for 50 cents, or ate mangoes for 20 cents each.

Fortunately, West Africa cuisine is delicious, although presentation never matters. However, not everything is a culinary delight. Even though I have a high tolerance for spicy food, Liberian cooks are worse than a deranged Thai or Mexican chef.

Gary had air conditioning in his room, bedsheets, and warm showers. I had one or more of such things about 10 times in the last 400 days. Indeed, for the last few months, I’ve been sleeping naked without any sheets because it’s been a constant inferno. I usually would not have a fan. And if I did, there were often power cuts so it wouldn’t work anyway.

I’ve climbed the tallest peaks of every West African country, sometimes facing hazardous conditions. For example, in Liberia, I had an army of ants attack me. Later, my guide abandoned me—thereby forcing me to spend two days in the mountains without food or shelter. Gary admitted that going by ship “is by far the least dangerous way to experience West Africa.”

Gary had the constant company of dozens of other passengers, whereas I was either alone, isolated, or with locals (I picked up over 1,000 hitchhikers in the last year—including a few odd ones). In one year of travel in nearly 20 West African countries, I basically never saw white people outside the capitals. I saw a few Peace Corps Volunteers in Labe (Guinea), in Tambacounda (Senegal), and in Bohicon and Dassa (Benin). That’s it.

Oh wait, I also saw two small French tour groups in Bohicon and Dassa over the course of my three months in Benin. Don’t go to West Africa unless you don’t mind feeling like you’re Brad Pitt—you will attract nonstop attention.

Even Gary’s weather experience was different than mine. Gary pointed out, “Other than a brief shower when we were on Principe, we haven’t been rained on.” My summary of the West African weather would be, “Other than a brief bit of sun, it hasn’t stopped raining.”

OK, I’m exaggerating. The last few months has been the dry season, and it’s lived up to its name. Moreover, I was surprised by how little rain fell during the rainy season. Still, during the six-month rainy season there were a couple of torrential downpours almost ever day. But they’re warm showers, which is why folks in Guinea Bissau (even in their capital) would run outside, strip, and take a natural shower when it rained hard. (That’s because most don’t have piped water or electricity at home.)

Speaking of Guinea Bissau, Gary’s right when he says that coastal temperatures north of the Guinea Bissau drop dramatically. For example, when I was in Niamey (Niger) in May, it was 45 degrees (113 F), while in Dakar (Senegal) it was 25 degrees (77 F), even though they’re practically at the same latitude.

There was Internet on Gary’s ship. Meanwhile, I usually felt like I was living in 1991 (i.e., no Internet). In 2012, Gallup surveyed 1,000 random Guineans and not one had Internet at home. When there was Internet, it often exhibited bandwidth circa 1997—impossible to see a video and photos loaded bit by bit. West Africa’s Internet Motto: Click and Wait.

There were more books in Gary’s cruise ship library than I saw in most of West Africa. That’s because West Africans don’t read. An intelligent Togolese woman told me, “If you want hide something from an African, put it in a book.”

She added, “You can put a 10,000 CFA bank note in a book and lay it on his living room table. It will stay there for years and the man will never pick up the book and flip through it and find the money.”

Yup, Gary and I traveled in polar opposite ways. Neither is “better” than the other. Each has its pros and cons. I would have loved to switch places with him to see the difference. What’s most fascinating is that despite our wildly different methods of traveling, we arrived at many of the same observations about West Africa. There are a few points of disagreement, though. To see what I mean, let’s compare our observations in three West Africa countries: Ghana, Togo, and Benin.


Gary went to Takoradi, Ghana, but I did not. Still, when I was way up in Tamale (Northern Ghana), I could have written the same thing Gary wrote about Tokoradi: “The infrastructure was still significantly better and there were more signs of business activity.”

Speaking business activity, Gary and I were both amused by the religious names that many businesses have. His favorites were the “God Rules Internet Cafe” and the “Triad College of Theology and Computer Training.” Mine were, “God is Good Hair Cut,” “God is Great Fashion,” and the perplexing “o God Be The Glory Cold Store.”

I lived in Accra for over a month and I agree with Gary’s observations: “Accra is at a different level from all the other cities we visited. The roads were paved. Grass was mowed. The monuments were clean and kept in good condition. There were business raining from large to small. Most people were driving cars, not motorbikes.”

What Gary didn’t mention is that one reason motorbikes are less prevalent in Accra than in other West African cities is that motorcycle taxis are illegal in Accra because they are accident prone. Having spent a year in West African countries, I can confirm that motorcycle accidents are common and sometimes gruesome (I stood over a Beninese man whose foot was nearly completely ripped off his leg).

Speaking of accidents, in Accra, while I was making a U-turn, a motorcycle that was speeding behind me slammed into the car I was driving. Since there was no oncoming traffic, he could have avoided me by veering to the left or right, but because he was driving so fast, he crashed into my left front wheel and flew over the hood. His helmet wasn’t strapped on, so it flew off, he sliced his head, and he bled on the sidewalk. I drove him to the hospital. What happened afterward was illustrative of police corruption.

The police wanted me to give them “an envelope” for doing the investigation: they wanted a bribe. I refused. As a result, they found me 100% guilty, even though the motorcycle ran into me from behind. Welcome to corrupt Ghana.

Still, I agree with Gary when he wrote, “Whatever Ghana is doing, at least relative to their neighbors in West Africa, is working. I had a real positive feeling about Ghana and absent a coup or some other disruption, they should keep moving forward.”

Indeed, the other reason cars dominate Accra is that Ghanians are doing better than their neighbors. As Gary wrote, “Ghana in general, but Accra in particular, has been the star of West Africa so far. This is not to say it is perfect or that it is a fully developed country, but when compared to nearby Togo and Benin, the differences couldn’t be more stark. It is easily one of the most dramatic differences I’ve seen in standard of living between people of different sides of a political boundary.”

The downside of all these cars is that Accra had the worst traffic I’ve seen in 20 African countries. It took one or two hours to cross the city of 2.3 million inhabitants. I concluded that I could never live in Accra simply because the traffic would drive me insane.

We’ll end with one more of Gary’s observations that I agree with, “If there is one country I’ll be sure to revisit from this trip, it is Ghana. I was very impressed with the direction the country is headed and the state of affairs on the ground. From the comments I’ve been getting, it also seems to be the most visited country in the region, which comes as no surprise to me.”

Sierra Leone

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Gary spent about a day in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, while I never even saw it. Instead, I spent a couple of weeks in northern Sierra Leone—I entered via an obscure Guinean road, drove to a village that no car has ever driven to, climbed the tallest peak, and then crossed southeast to enter Liberia.

Despite our utterly different experiences, Gary observed what I saw everywhere in northern Sierra Leone: “The kitchen consisted of an open fire and some pots. One woman was opening cans with a large knife as they had no can openers.”

He added, “I also found Sierra Leone to be a very photogenic place. Some of my best photos from the entire trip so far have come from our two days in Sierra Leone.” I agree, although it was raining every day I was there.

Gary’s observations about the lack of electricity not only apply to Sierra Leone’s capital, but even more so to the rest of the country. I also saw the lack of electricity in Guinea Bissau’s capital, which had power only a few hours per week.

Gary observed, “Traveling through Freetown was like being in a city that was suffering a blackout. More that half the buildings didn’t appear to have any electricity and the ones that did only had one or two lightbulbs. There were more candles than there were electrical bulbs. There were no streetlights, no neon signs, and no lit up store fronts. I looked at the sky and actually saw a few bright stars. I realized that Freetown was the first city with over 1 million people I had ever visited where I had been able to see stars at night. Despite the crush of people, everyone seemed well behaved. Again, we were a curiosity and at no point did I ever feel unsafe or in danger.”

That’s true about it being safe, even in the dark. The same holds true in Dakar, Senegal. I even walked at night in Lagos (Nigeria’s notoriously criminal capital) and felt fine (granted, I was in one of its richest neighborhoods).

The point is that throughout West Africa, you’re just as safe as you would be in America. And just like someone in New York can jump you from behind and steal your smartphone that’s in your shirt’s front pocket, that’s exactly what happened to me in Accra.

I disagree with a couple of Gary’s observations about Sierra Leone. He said, “The lack of infrastructure does make it a bit difficult to get around, but it isn’t insurmountable.”

Try driving around in the north during the rainy season. The roads are so bad that for many cars they are truly “insurmountable.”

For example, the road to Sierra Leone’s tallest mountain is such a mudfest that nobody has ever been able to drive a car there (only motorcycles can make it—barely). Thanks to my car’s winch and the help of dozens of villagers who fixed, modified, and constructed several bridges along the way, I was able to pull it off.

Finally, I disagree with one more thing that Gary wrote. He said, “As we drove through Freetown, I had two simultaneous observations: 1) Freetown might be the poorest major city I have ever visited, and 2) Freetown might be the friendliest place I have ever been to.”

He elaborated, “Almost everyone we passed took the time to wave and say hello to us. Young and old, men and women, so many people were waving and some were even taking our photos (which is a great turn on tourists taking pictures of locals!). Sierra Leone gets so few visitors I think people were genuinely curious and proud that people were visiting their country.”

The Sierra Leoneans were the first Africans that I met who were not always super friendly. They reminded me of many of the Eastern Europeans that I met while researching The Hidden Europe; they were cold, suspicious, and slow to smile.

For example, wherever I saw West Africans, whether in a village or on a deserted, muddy road, I would wave at them. I always got an enthusiastic response. However, in Sierra Leone, about half the time, they would stare at me with a look that said, “Um, do we know each other?”

West African kids would normally run to my car as it crawled through the muddy roads. Sierra Leone kids, on the other hand, would run away from the rumble of my car. They would jump into the bush to hide. What could account for such a difference in behavior compared to other friendly West African countries?

War. Sierra Leone’s war, which killed tens of thousands and displaced a third of the population, ended in 2002. UN peacekeepers left just a decade ago. Although war has happened everywhere in Africa, in Sierra Leone, the psychological wounds have yet to heal. Thus, kids still mimic the behavior that their parents had throughout their 11-year war. In my experience, Sierra Leoneans were often slow to trust strangers—skepticism and cynicism abounds.

To support my theory, I was curious about how Liberians would behave, since it’s Sierra Leone’s neighbor and endured a 14-year civil war that also ended around the same time as Sierra Leone’s conflict. The result?

The same vibe as Sierra Leone.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying most Sierra Leoneans and Liberians are frigid, just like I don’t say that most Eastern Europeans are grumpy. Just like there are jolly Eastern Europeans, there are plenty of gregarious Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. My point is that there was a higher proportion of such people in those two recovering countries compared with the rest of West Africa. And hey, let’s give them credit: Sierra Leoneans and Liberians never flipped me off like some mischievous Senegalese boys did.

Gary here: I suspect the differences in what we saw may have everything to do with Freetown. That was really the only place I visited, and Francis didn’t get there at all. From what I understand, the war was much worse in the countryside than it was in Freetown. The difference in what we saw I assume is attributed to that.


Voodoo Fetishes in Dassa-Zoumé, Benin.

About Benin’s biggest city Gary said, “Cotonou was subtly, yet significantly, nicer than Lome. It didn’t hit you over the head, but it was obvious if you took the time to look.”

I’d agree, although it’s perhaps so subtle that you might feel the opposite depending on personal experience.

Both Gary and I have got a whiff of West African corruption. For Gary: “The Benin navy had offered to transport people to shore for the low, low price of €350 per person….each way!”

For me: my Dassa car mechanic charged me hundreds of dollars extra for a new car engine. I mobilized the police, which threatened my mechanic and his two Nigerian co-conspirators with jail. After protracted negotiations, the three coughed up the extra cash.

When the case was done, I slipped the police chief $20 to thank him. Had I not done so, I would have endured his wrath since they expect such payment for their services. (By the way, what I disliked about the Ghana cops is that they asked for bribe money before they rendered their judgment. Thus, in Benin, it was more of a tip rather than a bribe since the cop wasn’t sure he would get it.)

Gary observed, “Ouida also was a classic example of how traditional African religion can exist side by side with Christianity. Outside the basilica was a python temple. Nearby was a small forest which was sacred to the voodoo religion. It didn’t seem to be an either/or for most people as they practiced both religions in some combination.”

Once again, it’s remarkable how Gary picked up such subtleties despite his pace. I completely agree, and would add that West African Muslims also can mix animist beliefs with Islam. What’s odd is that it was hard to find anyone who admitted to being animist, even though the CIA estimates that 40% of Bissau-Guineans and 30% of Sierra Leoneans and Beninese are animists. It’s as if they’re embarrassed to admit it. So they keep their true religious beliefs in the closet, along with their fetishes.

Speaking of fetishes, I agree with Gary’s take, “Given the amount of discussion, debate and preparation we were given for the fetish market, I found it a bit underwhelming. While it was a bit morbid, the sight of dried dead animals didn’t really bother me too much. Moreover, the market really wasn’t as big as I expected.”

I saw several fetish markets. I also climbed a sacred hill, saw the fetishes by a humble temple, and even participated in a voodoo ceremony that was meant to protect me through Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Let’s see if it works—that’s where I’m going to next. It’s all part of my four-year journey through all 54 African countries (about one month per country).


I want to leave you with five final thoughts.

First, when my observations contradict Gary’s, that doesn’t mean that I’m right and he’s wrong. It simply illustrates how fickle and random traveling is. Gary and I may return to Sierra Leone and he might conclude that a high percentage of Sierra Leoneans are a bit cold at first, while I may say, “Wow, everyone’s nice now, I guess the war hangover is done.”

Travel, especially fast travel, is a bit random. That why travel writers ought to be careful with their generalizations. Gary wisely litters his observations with caveats and “your mileage may vary” warnings.

It’s great that you read Gary’s blog more often than the Bible and that you read my blog more often than the Koran, but ultimately you must go to the places we write about and judge them for yourself. Just stay humble and realize that you’re not necessarily “right” either, because your observations are probably also based on a limited number of data points.

Although spending more time in a place can smooth out the random spikes of travel, even a lifetime in a place doesn’t guarantee a monopoly over the truth. Think about your own country: does everyone around you agree with what defines your national characteristics?

I didn’t think so.

Second, I’m not suggesting that my trip was “better” or even “more authentic” than Gary’s trip. I would have loved to have gone on his cruise. I adore staying at the Four Seasons Hotel and any place that leaves a Godiva chocolate on the pillow. Who doesn’t appreciate luxury and comfort?

Gary probably would have enjoyed my inland journey through West Africa too. Gary has roughed it. And he’s been to unseen places like South Georgia Island. I’ve taken the cushy route too. They’re both great. The point of this article is to celebrate the many different ways of traveling and to show how they all lead to insights and great memories.

Third, if you dislike tourists surrounding you, come to West Africa. You’ll have the place to yourself.

On the other hand, don’t be travel snob. Don’t hate tourists. On the contrary, you should love tourists. I love many touristic places. Why? Because they’re often amazing—that’s why people travel halfway across the planet to see them.

I never get tired of looking at or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf is packed with tourists, and yet it’s still an authentic part of San Francisco, just like Mission Dolores Park. Without it, San Francisco would be different. It’s part of what makes the city what it is. Embrace it.

Moreover, most tourists are smart. They go to Cape Town and the Serengeti because it’s stunning, while Shithole, USA is not.

Indeed, most UNESCO World Heritage sites are tourist meccas for good reason—they’re jaw-dropping. You’d be a fool to avoid them. Gary’s smart to be obsessed about visiting as many of them as possible.

Fourth, for those who envy us, remember: Gary and I are not lucky bastards. We both made tradeoffs to get where we are today.

Fifth, if you remember only one thing from this article, then remember to support my Kickstarter Project below. But if you can remember two things, then remember this: What’s important isn’t how or where you travel, but just that you get out of your damn house.

The Unseen Africa Kickstarter Project

You like reading travelogues, but would you also like to see my four-year adventure to all 54 African countries come to life on the TV screen? Would you like to see parts of Africa that CNN and National Geographic never show you? If so, please support The Unseen Africa Kickstarter Project. It launches on Africa Day: May 25. If it’s successful, you might help make the Travel Channel be about travel again.

Francis Tapon, author of Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europe, is creating a TV series and book called The Unseen Africa, which is based on his four-year journey across all 54 African countries. Connect with him on Facebook.