Tom Coote is a long haul travel writer. He takes extreme, long distance journeys across incredible swaths of the globe, and condenses the experience into rather epic books and countless magazine articles and blog posts. In the process he has traveled to over 116 countries, and definitely ranks among the more traveled people on earth. His first full length book, Tearing up the Silk Road recounts his travels along ancient trade routes from China to Europe. His second book, Voodoo, Slaves and White Man’s Graves: West Africa and the End of Days, is about his travels in West Africa. The following is an interview with Tom about this new book and the life of being a modern travel writer.
How did your new book, Voodoo, Slaves and White Man’s Graves: West Africa and the End of Days, come about? Can you explain a little about the book and why you chose to write it?
I am one of those exceptionally nosy people who want to go everywhere and always suspect that I might be missing out on something if I haven’t experienced it for myself. West Africa had rated fairly low on my priorities for travel as it has a reputation for being expensive and dangerous, and I can’t speak French. I was, however, keen to visit Dogon Country and Djenné in Mali, and thought that a good trip, with quite a bit of variety, would be to fly into Benin pretty much be the same as the one that the overland trucks used to take up until Mali became too dangerous.
I usually take notes when I travel, with a view to possibly writing about it, but it wasn’t until I got back that a broader narrative and concept began to evolve that I thought could be developed into a worthwhile book.
Where did writing this book take you? Where did you go? Why?
As I had also wanted to visit Libya, I chose to fly in to Cotonou in Benin and then out of Bamako in Mali, with a stopover for a couple of days in Libya. I arrived in Tripoli on the same day as the Arab Spring took off in Tunisia and other nearby countries. Nobody in Libya seemed particularly concerned at the time as everybody agreed that Colonel Gaddafi’s stranglehold on the country was far too strong to ever be broken. By the time that I had travelled overland through Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, and flew back into Tripoli to get my connecting flight, everything had changed. All communications at Tripoli airport had been blocked and nobody knew what was going on. I caught one of the last of two flights to leave the country for quite a while.
What challenges did you have to contend with on this trip? What were the risks?
If you stick to the main routes then travelling in West Africa is actually far easier than you might suppose. However, once you try to do something different it can start to seem like hard work. You can be vulnerable to theft in some of the bigger cities, and malaria is always a risk, but the biggest everyday risk for both travellers and locals probably comes from using the motorbike taxis. Unfortunately, there is often no other practical way to get about.
What surprised you about this part of Africa? What were a few unexpected encounters?
For all of the problems in West Africa, the people have got to be amongst the warmest and friendliest in the world. One particularly memorable encounter was with a crippled man, in a kind of hand driven bicycle/wheelchair, who propelled himself over to me while I was waiting for a bus – when he held out his hand towards me I had at first assumed that he was begging but then realized that he offering me a handful of nuts as a gift.
Would you say that the common take of the Western media that West Africa is a cesspool of disease, violence, and poverty is correct? Why or why not? What did you see and experience that supports/ counters this overarching viewpoint?
While West Africa faces an uncertain future, and many terrible things have happened in the past, it is important to realize that that is only one part of the story. Most people simply get on with their day to day lives in much the same way as people do anywhere else in the world. Outside of certain parts of some large cities, I don’t think it was particularly dangerous, and the majority of people you come across seem reasonably happy and healthy. Having said that, malaria, in particular, is responsible for large numbers of people never realizing anything like their full potential.
After traveling through this region, what’s your opinion on its immediate future?
Not long after visiting Mali – arguably the most appealing country for travellers in West Africa – it pretty much dropped off the tourist map. Recent events in Nigeria don’t exactly inspire confidence either. Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, West Africa has largely been neglected by the Western powers, allowing both criminal and terrorist networks to grow increasingly powerful in the region – this could well have serious repercussions not only for the people of West Africa but also for the rest of the world.
What’s your travel writing system? What’s the process you use to transfer experience into writing?
I’m not sure if I have a system, as such, but before visiting somewhere new I like to read up on it, and while travelling I try to make at least some notes every day. Hopefully, ideas will then evolve over time, which I can then explore further through further searches and reading, which I will also make notes on. If I go somewhere and all I have to write about is what I did on holiday then I’ll give up – there has to be something more to it than just what happens on the surface, if it is going to be worth either reading or writing.
What does your days look like when you’re doing the travel phase of your book research?
I still work full time as a systems analyst/developer so any research I do is in the evenings and weekends. During the week I usually just read books while sitting on the sofa and listening to rock music, as I have enough of looking at computer screens all day long!
Now this was your second full length book. How lucrative have you found being an author so far? Are you able to live an travel off of book royalties alone? How are you funding your travels?
It is not very lucrative at all. I received a modest advance for my first book, ‘Tearing up the Silk Road’, and occasionally get paid properly for magazine articles, but I am a long way from making a full time living from travel writing. It still used to be possible to make a decent living from just writing travel books, ten or fifteen years ago, but even quite well known writers now have to do other work to guarantee a decent income.
I have recently had some opportunities for ‘travel junkets’ but, so far, all of my trips have been paid for out of my own savings.
Any parting words of advice for new travelers or aspiring travel writers?
I don’t really think I’m qualified to offer anybody advice. I’m still trying to figure it all out myself and everything keeps changing!
(Editor’s note: Good answer.)
Tom Coote’s Voodoo, Slaves and White Man’s Graves: West Africa and the End of Days can be purchased from Amazon USA (Kindle version is free for a limited time!) or from Amazon UK.