And what about group travel, then, a new experience?
Our group travel experience has come to an end. In the past days we did bump into the occasional group members again, in the hotel or in town, but by now the group has quietly disintegrated, people go their own way, some have already left – without any formal closure, without saying goodbye. Strange, after having shared 40 days travelling together.
Perhaps a good moment to reflect on group travel. As I have said before, we were fourteen, of which twelve were paying clients. Alonso was the organiser, leader and truck driver, and he had another woman with him, who does much of his social media and promotion for him. The others were a wide mix of ages and experiences. The oldest was 78 (!!), an American professor, the youngest 36, a Greek tour guide with American roots. A broad range of – Western only – nationalities, like Irish, Norwegian, Swiss, a couple of Spanish and a few more Americans. And us. The good news is that all of these people are experienced travellers, most spend more time on the road than we do, in a year. And all are experienced ‘overlanders’, as they call themselves: people who travel with an overland group in a specially prepared truck, like we did the past 40 days (well, part thereof). Another good thing: nobody complains, not about long driving days, not about rough camping conditions, that is all part of the experience. They did complain – amongst themselves, never openly – about the poor planning and organisation, though. And about the lack of communication, things I also mentioned already earlier in this diary.
There is this unwritten rule that you don’t criticise anybody else, and that works well, because we haven’t had any major fall outs between group members – despite some pretty irritating habits, one who walks in and starts taking pictures immediately, even though told not to do so because this is inappropriate, or another who constantly wanders off on his own, and is always the last one to get back when we leave again. I have most difficulty with an American foul-mouthed – “what the fuck!!” – woman who is mostly concerned with selfies in every possible position in the truck, and elsewhere. And who obviously has an alcohol problem, starts drinking at the first possible moment, often before 10 am, and cannot stop until she is totally plastered, and then becomes an embarrassment to all of us – or at least to me. There is in any case a drinking culture amongst part of the group, an eagerness to start early with preferably large, cold bottles of beer. Often smuggling the bottles onto the truck, a no-no in Africa, because you are disadvantaging the local seller who has to return an incomplete crate. But there is this unwritten rule, and nobody mentions anything.
The idea of group travel is also that you have more people to talk to, not just the two of us talking to each other all the time. But that does not always work out well. We are the only couple in the group, all the others are single – one or two have partners at home, but most don’t. And whilst not all of them suffer from typical singles behaviour, many have great difficulty listening to somebody else, they take each opportunity for conversation as the start of a monologue. Towards the end of the trip we find ourselves more and more sitting next to each other again, sharing observations and experiences that nobody else seems interested in.
There was never a real team feeling. Everybody got on with everybody else, mostly, but in the end everybody went for themselves first. There were always the same group members who were first in line when it came to hotel rooms, or used sharp elbows to get to the front of a queue – others didn’t, though. Most hilarious were those who, on the way to a hotel with limited rooms available, quickly got on booking.com to make a reservation, ahead of the group arriving. Sadly, in order to stay with our heads above the water, we started to show similar behaviour.
But I think the biggest problem with group travel is, that with fourteen you have a lot less opportunity to get to know the locals, you are always an intimidating bunch, difficult to approach. That said, quite a few of the group do break away occasionally to strike up conversations with local people – not that easy for everybody, as most of them don’t speak French -, but it is never the same as when we are traveling alone. In any case, it remains a question how much interest individual group members do have in the local culture. Several admit that they are only interested in counting the countries they have visited – and then a 40 day tour through nine countries helps. Some are surprised that we don’t want to go to Guinea and Guinea Bissau, after all, we are here, so that is easily two countries added. Others find that, in the end, every country was the same, as far as they are concerned, something we beg to disagree with – as I have also tried to describe, in this diary. Mind you, not everybody was the same, and this is no generalised judgement on ‘overlanders’, everybody chooses what suits him or her best.
In the end travelling in a group was an interesting experience. I think we were partly disappointed in the single mindedness of our group leader, who – I had sometimes that impression – treated us more like cargo in the back of the truck than paying clients. But other overland trips may handle this differently, better, or so the others tell us. The main learning point for us is that there is not necessarily an advantage in travelling in a group. Admitted, we would not have gone to West Africa if we hadn’t spotted this trip, because we may not have been confident enough to do so. But already after a week we found ourselves on our own in Cameroon, because of the Nigeria visa problem, and we quickly realised that travel in West Africa is actually not different from travelling elsewhere in the world – we can perfectly well do this independently. Of course, we wouldn’t have seen all the dances, in Chad and in Benin, but I do have some mixed feelings about those anyhow, how authentic they are, specially organised for tourists. And by travelling alone we get more opportunity to interact with locals, more chance to appreciate the local culture. Determine our own priorities. For – not unimportant – a whole lot less money than we have spent on this trip.
So, the verdict? An interesting experience, and a lesson learned: next time we just travel on our own again, it suits us better. Never mind that we will have to organise everything ourselves again, but at least we organise it the way we want to travel. No unnecessary rush, no competing with sharp elbows, no embarrassment from other group members. Dare I say, no camping? And only my own single mindedness to reckon with.
Next: leaving Freetown