Phil, interviewed for our weekly series, fell in love with West Africa and in particular with Mali and Cote d'Ivoire: read more about his semi-nomadic life, his concept of slow travel and experiencing the place.
I am a 28 year old American who has been semi nomadic for a bit over 3 years now. I spend most of my time in West Africa, primarily in the countries of Mali and Cote d'Ivoire.
When you started travelling and why?
I had always been a sporadic traveler. I took trips during my university years - whenever I could - and I studied abroad in Ghana during my sophomore year. It was after working for three years in DC and subsequently quitting my job that travel became a more central part of my lifestyle. After quitting my job, I used my savings to travel back to Ghana to see friends and to explore a few other countries in the region. Along the way, I figured out how to start making money online, through my blog and freelance writing, and I was able to prolong my trip indefinitely.
What's your travel style?
My travel style is a bit of everything. When I came back to West Africa, I couchsurfed almost the entire time. On my way back to the states to visit family, I stopped off in Lisbon and rented a nice apartment for a few days. I have taken buses and bush taxis traveling in between countries in West Africa and I have also flown. It all depends on the state of my bank account and what I'm in the mood for.
How many continents and countries have you visited so far and what are your favourites?
I don't have a number here and frankly I don't have an interest at the moment in making an exact list. Before West Africa, I had visited a few countries in South and Central America, a handful in Southeast Asia, and most of Western Europe with a bit of Eastern Europe thrown in. My favorite countries at the moment are those where I spend the most time: Mali and Cote d'Ivoire.
What's the aim of your travels? What are you looking for while travelling?
For me, travel is about discovery and making connections with people. Every now and then I will take a short trip somewhere, see a few sights and generally take pleasure in the fact that I am clueless. But most of the time, I try to spend a significant amount of time in a destination, to get to know it and to try and figure it out as much as possible. There are so many things we miss as travelers when we breeze through a place. There are so many discoveries to make and many of them take time to uncover.
What's the best memory you keep from your travels?
I don't have a singular best memory, but here is one of many: going to the Festival in the Desert in 2012. Set just outside of Timbuktu, this festival is one of the world's more inaccessible music events. A stage framed by dunes, lots of Tuareg guitar bands and one of the most energetic crowds you will ever see. During the day, you take tea and relax under a tent or wander into the sandy streets of Timbuktu. In the evening, the music starts and it doesn't stop until dawn. While the festival is temporarily on hold because of insecurity in the north of Mali, hopefully it will re-start soon.
And the worst one?
This is easy: traveling back from Timbuktu to Bamako (on a separate trip in 2010) with Amoebic dysentery and very cramped public transportation. The single worst bit of overland travel I have ever experienced. I can still feel the abdominal pain when I think back on it.
Tell us a funny situation you experienced.
Another story involving crowded public transportation: on a crowded ferry heading to Niafunke from Mopti (both cities in Mali), I struggled to find sleeping space on the deck of the boat and ended up in a twisted, very uncomfortable position between a bunch of jerricans, the railing of the boat, and a Malian couple that took up more space than was warranted. At some point in the night, the woman had unwittingly placed her foot up my shorts and I had to try to dislodge it without waking her or her husband. I ended up knocking over a stack of bowls and waking up half the boat, including the couple. The wife was laughing, but the husband was suspicious of me and became rather furious. A very awkward situation at the time, but now quite humorous.
What was the most important lesson you've learned while travelling?
A smile and a greeting goes a long way. If you can do it in the local language, all the better. It's a key that unlocks many doors.
What's your average monthly budget and how do you fund your travels?
This changes drastically from month to month. When I was first traveling, I had months when I spent less than $200 while couchsurfing and eating with my hosts. I've had other months that have been over $2,000 where I am traveling more often, going out the evenings, staying in more expensive accommodation etc. I fund my travels with a variety of online activities, mostly freelance writing, selling things like travel insurance as an affiliate, and designing websites for people. I also recently started a restaurant with two Ivorian friends in Abidjan, but I don't count on it as an income stream just yet.
Do you have any idea to make money for travelling that you could share with us?
I would say that there are so many work opportunities that you can find while traveling. Almost everyone has a skill that they can market, whether it is teaching a language, doing something with computers, working as a consultant etc. Then there are jobs within the travel sector itself, such as acting as a tour guide or working in a restaurant, bar or hotel/hostel.
If you think of yourself in 10 years, how do you imagine your life?
Very hard to answer. I just recently got engaged, I am splitting most of my time between two countries, and I have been running a restaurant with two friends for just 5 months now. Ten years from now, yikes, I have no idea to be honest. But I am confident that I will still be focused on discovering new places and getting to know those places as much as possible.
A valuable advice for a long-term traveller at the beggining of his journey?
I would say don't feel burdened by an imagined pressure to see "everything." Because "everything" exists just about anywhere and the discoveries are nearly infinite. Take your time and figure out where you like to be. Don't worry about how much ground you cover.
Phil Paoletta is a semi-nomadic camel drawing consultant who lives and works in West Africa. You can find him at http://philintheblank.net, on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Phil.inthe.blank.dot.net and on twitter at http://twitter.com/philinthe_