Never order the Spaghetti Bolognaise: My rules for traveling in Africa

I have some unscientific rules for traveling in Africa, but most of them are hard lessons learned or observed.  The following is a list of things I do and do not do in Africa:

Do not ride on ferries that are designed to carry cars. They regularly are overweighted, and tip and all the people drown.  I plan to see my family through to my end, which is why not drowning because some Captain did not follow the suggested weight amount for his vessel is important to consider.

Do not swim or ride on rafts in rivers. All the rivers in Africa have meat eaters in them, and an ARMA once thought it was a good idea to swim across a river. He was eaten by a croc.

Do check your hotel room to see if the doors lock. Almost every time I travel, I find a window or sliding window that doesn’t lock. Perhaps it doesn’t lock for a reason? I normally travel with a three-foot-long block of wood that can easily slip in the crack of the sliding door, or I find things in the room to jam into the space between the doors.
Do not drink the water out of the sink, wash your toothbrush with it, or swish your mouth with it. Buy bottled water, which is sealed, and use it.  This took me four months to realize in country XXX.

Do not order the spaghetti. Africans don’t eat spaghetti bolognaise, it is purely an expat item restaurants put on the menu because they know: 1) Expats (Americans) can’t read the menu and when they see spaghetti, we think yummy and order it, 2) its quick so we order it, and 3) we don’t know they make it once a week or month and think it doesn’t spoil.  I will tell you that from my experience on a flight from Addis to Johannesburg that spaghetti bolognaise does spoil, and it is not fun on an eight-hour trip when your body reacts to that spoiling.  If I’m suspect of a restaurant, I order the Margarita Pizza or the daily dish.  The daily dish, plate de jour, usually is fresh and is eaten by everyone.

Do put all electronics are in your backpack. I’ve lost four checked bags in Africa, all traveling through Addis.  Two of the four eventually made it to me, one had frozen food in it.  When it arrived, even the porter wouldn’t give it to me.  It was growing white lines on the outside.  I took it, then dropped it in the trash immediately.  I couldn’t claim the loss since they delivered it to me. Lesson learned, ship frozen food in a sealed container within a suitcase, or risk your uniforms, suits, Italian shoes, etc. being ruined. Electronics are generally not reimbursed by any airline in the world.  That $100 portable battery backup, not refundable, nor did it work after the turkey juice spread into it and then spoiled.

Do not drive without a seatbelt, a mass casualty first aid kit, a confirmed inflated spare tire (or 2), wood blocks for the jack, $1000 in local cash, and toilet paper. You cannot call 911 in Africa.  You either prepare, or you die on the road.  I have found my most rewarding experiences in Africa have been in “the bush” or miles away from the embassy.  Get out, but be safe.

Do not forget to plug everything up at night. I’ve found that some of our security measures will drain their batteries quicker than usual because they are searching for signals.  This also causes them to be repeatedly charged and their batteries to die quicker.  No matter what, charge everything every night.  I found a small solar panel that can recharge a cell phone, with good light, in an hour. I have not had to use it, but I tested it, and it worked.  If I was broken down in the middle of nowhere Africa and talking a lot, this will help me.

Do not forget a towel, a mosquito net, potable water, or shower shoes. The towel is a matter of the fact that I don’t like the skin off my back being removed every morning when I use the ten-year-old towels in most of the African hotels.  The mosquito net, I learned this one in Ethiopia in a hotel where I left with twenty plus bites (it was not in the capital).  Water – I travel with a minimum of two gallons of potable water – for me, and also for my vehicle if we blow a hose and I need to replace the water in the radiator.  Shower shoes, that fungus that is amungus!  They don’t clean your shower in your hotel with bleach…please.  If you wear shower shoes on a military base or during deployment, why not in some random hotel in Africa?

Do check your windows and doors, and walk the perimeter of your house. Most house intrusions are because criminals case houses and they look for weaknesses. Let them observe you checking the wire on your wall for snips, walk around your house every day to check to see if anything has changed, and lock your doors and use the alarm system if you have one.  How do you know if your electrical wires on your wall are working?  Find something to test them, most criminals use a wooden broom and tap the wires to see if they spark or not.

Don’t get scared by this list, but understand that you grew up a different environment. Don’t be afraid to treat your travels in Africa like a convoy mission.  When something happens in Africa, it is you and you alone who will react to and deal with whatever situation you are in.  Be safe, jump through all the BS requirements that whatever command you are under has put on you – do not finger drill them.  Think about what you would do if a terrorist came into the lobby of the hotel you are in while you are eating, or if you are asleep and you hear gunshots.  Do you barricade or run?  What about the rest of your team members and LES staff? What is your plan? Think about what you would do if you had a bad case of stomach flu/diarrhea, do you know the local hospitals if it gets too bad? Think about what you would do if you were in an accident in the middle of BFE Africa.  If you are cognizant and your cell phone isn’t destroyed, who would you call? Are those numbers already in your phone or instead on some sheet in your backpack?

Force protection in Africa is an individual event.  It is up to you to keep yourself safe.  Please display an extreme level of discipline in your travels, daily lives, and daily commutes. I travel with three tourniquets already sized for me.  I figure after three limbs removed, I probably should die because life without my limbs is not something I want to do. This seems extreme, only until the situation happens.

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