There are some things you can only learn by actually travelling. If travelling around the coast of Africa with a notebook for 13 months, through 31 countries and crossing 36 frontiers, taught me anything it was to never be mistaken for a journalist (or an Israeli). It is one of the reasons – the others being poverty, and a desire for interaction and immersion with local communities – that I choose to take so little technology with me when I travel.
Having only an old Nokia 3100 mobile phone to hand, which failed to even send text messages without local SIM card swaps in several countries, meant I was reliant on local interaction to find and use internet cafes in order to blog and communicate in more than 140 characters with the outside world. It also meant I couldn’t possibly be working for any international media organisation, which I found to be an important protection.
For example, I was asked in crossing from Liberia to Côte d’Ivoire if I was an undercover journalist. ‘They send people like you, alone and with backpacks, to trick us’ I was told by the single border official at the River Cavally. It was election day for the presidency, and the eyes of the world’s media were taking rare aim at Liberia.
During a six hour border crossing from troubled post-Gaddafi Libya into Tunisia, the border guards were convinced my list of ferry crossings made me a journalist, at least until they found a small soft toy camel with ‘I love Egypt’ stitched onto its side in my bag. Had they delved further they would have found some business cards (which had themselves ignited conversation on the border between Guinea-Bissau and Guinea), some dirty washing (always at the top of my bag to dissuade more in-depth searches), a small library of books, and several more notebooks. They would have found no technology.
Leaving Ethiopia for Sudan, the border official was surprised by my lack of laptop, or money, and by the small size of the compact digital camera with which I took all my photographs. Uniformed officers and general populations alike were also frequently surprised by the fact that I chose to travel overland. ‘Why on earth do you want to spend time in Africa of all places?’ they would ask. ‘Why aren’t you travelling by air instead?’ Whatever answer I would give them, I could see that often the only answer they heard was that I must be a journalist.