Dear Mom and Dad,
Of all the times I had a choice between buying a first class ticket or a second class one, I have always gone second class, until last Saturday for the Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali) train. When I was buying the ticket I was surprised by the high prices, but Amy, a Canadian I met waiting for the ticket booth to open, said no way travel second class. She was getting a couchette, saying, "When you have the opportunity to travel in style in Africa, take it."
Even though I had a first class ticket, I wasn't expecting much luxury. The train is hot and dusty and lasts 35 to 48 hours. But when I got in to my cabin I was not expecting junk everywhere. All the overhead luggage racks were filled with bags, and the seats were piled with water coolers and a camp stove and teapot. Where the feet should be were bags of rice noodles. Worse than sharing the cabin with smuggled noodles was having to share space with empty plastic water jugs.
What I learned from the bus ride across the desert was that one reason it was so comfortable was that the bus was "mine". I felt as if I owned a little of the bus (maybe I bonded with it while pushing it over sand dunes). So I decided to make the train "mine" as well. I kept saying, "This is my cabin. This is my train." I was determined to enjoy the trip.
The first guy I met in the cabin told me he had bought two seats, the two window seats. So he had his feet on the seat next to me, with his legs supported by some of his junk. But that didn't prevent me from leaning over him to look out "my window" as we left Dakar city.
What I saw totally reminded me of India. One side of the tracks were lined for miles with shacks made mostly out of rusty sheet metal or old rail crosspieces, with junk piled on each roof: broken chairs, rotted ironing boards, ripped tarps, a couple goats (on the roof), plastic jugs, and bricks. People were everywhere out in front of their shacks cooking, playing, lots of urinating, waving at the passing train, donkey carts, beat up cars, men with wheelbarrows. I had my head out the window until I saw the first stars.
One guy in the cabin left, and another came in. He told one of the guys to please move out of his seat. The guy did move, and then went agro for the next hour. He yelled at everybody (except to me with whom he spoke broken English) all the time, for no good reason. The new guy called train officials to get the angry man out of the cabin, but he just yelled more and more and stayed in my cabin.
He didn't actually yell all the time. He either muttered to himself or someone passing who had pissed him off, or he yelled, but he mostly slept. I had no idea what was really going on with him or with the new guy (he said he bought three seats under which he concealed his boxes of ammunition) so I chose to forget about it and not get annoyed. Whenever angry man started yelling I chose to think it comical.
Amazingly, the next morning I wasn't tired. I had even dreamed during part of the night. For most of the night I just leaned back with my feet on the noodle packages, but sometimes I forced my feet up (onto one of the guy's three seats), and when the window hogger left for the sunrise Islamic prayer, I curled up horizontally on his 'second' seat and mine and slept well.
In the morning we stopped at a town, so I got out to stretch my legs and look for breakfast. I saw Amy in the window of her couchette. We chatted. She told me so, about all the junk people take onto the trains here (I think Dakar to Bamako is the only major train line in West Africa).
I met three more foreigners (all Swiss) boarding the train. They looked a little lost so I told them where to go. They had been told the train would arrive at 9 pm the night before (it was 9 am).
Anyway, that day on the train was pretty good. Some mud hut thatch roof villages, lots of open landscape with trees and the baobabs. I saw several bright blue birds, kind of like parrots. No lions or elephants or anthing besides goats and a few pigs. I talked with the two Swiss guys, and Amy came down to visit me.
Okay, I looked around town all day today for internet and now I've found it so I'm writing a long letter.
At the border I met another foreigner, Robin from London. She had gotten on that morning in second class, and when she met Amy, paid for the upgrade to Amy's half empty couchette.
Then I got kicked out of my cabin by the police, moved next door with young Senegalese students. One guy asked me to explain the electoral college to him. Then he wanted me to explain what happened in Florida. He was cool.
Their cabin only had their individual luggage and a couple cases of fruit juice, but there were six people, so I had even less leg room than before. Still, it was nice to get away from the angry man (he really stank too, and not just his feet.)
At the next long stop (trains stop and you have no idea how long it will be so just assume it will be a long time but be ready to jump on when the whistle blows) I brought Amy and Robin two jus de jahn jambre. The ginger juice got me past the guard. There was still an empty couchette. The prospect of a second night sitting on the train wasn't attractive, but the chance to socialize with two cute travelers was the main reason I felt like upgrading.
In Morocco and Senegal I took taxis instead of buses. I think I'm getting softer as I get older. Even before splurging for the first class ticket I was feeling grateful that I've already done most of my traveling, because I don't think I could do it again. I mean, I know for sure my parents would not want to travel in the first class cabin of the train. I thought it was okay, but in twenty years I doubt I would want to do it again. Budget travel can be uncomfortable (unless you use some of my techniques), and it's really only the young who are willing to put up with it. I think it is the better way to travel, so I'm just saying I'm glad I've already gone all around India and done the budget traveler thing. I'm still doing it, and it's still okay, but I'm glad I'm doing it while I'm 26 and not 40.
In Bamako I went with Robin and Amy to the same hotel/house/hostel. That was yesterday. The whole day was spent with Robin getting money (not so easy in Mali) and getting visas for Burkina Faso (which is the next country for me after Mali) and walking around in the hot Mali sun sipping little plastic bags of juice (sometimes frozen) or water (from the tap, but cool and cheap) and hanging out at the bar/brothel (the rooms in back each had a bed and three chairs.)
Bamako is a cool city. I like it much more than Dakar. Only the main streets are paved, and the whole city center is a market (lots of shoe salesmen, motorcycle repair shops, women selling eggs and live chickens, clothing stalls, mangoes 7 for 33 cents, young girls with frozen juice bags (4 cents each), plastic toys, fabrics and other market stuff. Very few people come up to you to give you a hassle. That's nice. The only thing really missing are internet cafes on every corner.
Today I had mangos and sugared yogurt milk for breakfast. It was also laundry day, so I've been walking around in my swimsuit and neoprene T-shirt. I just bought flip-flops after the incessant urging of my roommates (Amy, Robin, Christophe and Jens from France). It's really the first time I have worn shorts on this trip (first time I've washed my trousers) so I sometimes feel stupid with bare, white legs (especially at night with all the mosquitoes breeding in the open sewers/canals/streams.)
Today was National Museum to see interesting masks and figurines, hiking up to the plateau for a good view of the city and the River Niger, lots of mangos, bus ticket for tomorrow for Mopti, getting money again (I'm loading up), searching for internet. I guess that's it. It's very hot here.
Dear Mom and Dad,
So I know you're leaving soon for Africa. I had thought there was a small possibility I could fly from West Africa to Tanzania to see you before you left, and go to Ethiopia after that, but no way. Still, I would appreciate it if you would bring me some stuff.
My digital camera is awesome. Assuming the photos will come out well. They look good on the screen except when I use a flash, then I have spots on the photo. I think my lense is dirty. Any idea how to clean it?
My underwater camera case was invaluable for the Sahara crossing. Sand everywhere, but not in my camera.
I have only needed to use two batteries, one and one spare. But I'm glad I have extra spares. Most places have electrical outlets for recharging.
I am concerned about space on my compact flash card. The camera is so good that I use it often, and the photos are too good to erase. Maybe I don't need ten photos of the bus stuck in the sand dune in the middle of the Sahara, but they're all too good to erase. Please bring the camera software so I can download my pictures, or at least have the option of downloading them. Some internet cafe somewhere will probably let me burn a CD of my photos if I have the software (I have the USB cord to connect the camera to the computer).
I would also like you to leave some small Ziplock freezer bags for me. Also make another duct tape pen for your travels and leave it for me (duct tape wrapped around a pen). While pushing the bus across the beach I snagged my Pendleton and ripped it, but duct tape works fine, and it was good for the hole in my Thermarest (punctured on the bars of the German missionaries' roofrack, 5 hours through the Sahara).
The cord for the camera to show photos on the TV would be nice. Oh yeah. Maybe a bird book. Get the green Birds of Africa (or African Birds, it's a green book about 4 cm thick) book for yourself (you won't see lions every minute on safari) and leave it at Suzanne's for me please.
Mali is the first country that really seems like Africa to me. Senegal had too many paved streets and multi-storied buildings. And it had a lot of French influence. But I did see a troop of baboons the first evening coming in with the bus.
So more heavy, small Ziplocks; camera software and TV cord; Bird Book; duct tape. Lots of people have already remarked how well-equipped I am.
Dear Mom and Dad and friends and family,
Finally, an internet place that is both slow and expensive! I am in Mopti, Mali having spent five days in the Dogon Country. Tomorrow I will take the slow boat (five days, though they say three) to Timbuktu.
Dogon country is where the Dogons live. There is a good book written about their culture and customs, and maybe National Geographic has done an article or two about them. They live on the Bandigara escarpment cliff, with a few villages on the high ground, but most are at the base of the cliff. There are still some huts and ruins of the houses built right at the base of the cliff, like the Pueblo Indians at Mesa Verde.
The guide was recommended by Amy's friend. I was thinking of doing the trek on my own (can't get lost if you keep the 200m cliff on your left), but with other people, guides become affordable. And a good guide, recommended by other people, complex traditional Dogon culture, hopefully I'd learn something.
We got two cars to drive us to the first Dogon village, Djijibombo, up on the plateau. After a bit of a rest in the shade (an excuse to sell cold drinks) we went around the village. Each village has a tourist fee which allows one to wander and take pictures of the buildings, but pictures of people require money or gifts of the traditional kola nuts.
We gave the justice men some kola nuts, so I felt obligated to take their photos. We passed the blacksmiths' hut. I asked about them, "Blacksmiths (from translation)". So, from previous knowledge, I know that the blacksmiths come from a special caste, both feared and revered because they make stuff from the earth, like a god. This custom of valuing while also shunning the metalworkers caste is present in other African culutures, maybe all over the world. Fascinating really. So I asked Mamadou more about them. 'They work with metal.' Something more? 'To make tools.'
Also in that village we passed the house where women must go when they are menstruating. "House where women go when they menstruate."
We hiked down the escarpment for three kilometres (45 minutes) to the next village, Kani Kambole. There we rested and had lunch. It was also our dinner and sleeping stop.
More culture stuff: That night Mamadou told us that the Dogon animists (the ones practicing old spirit religions, not having converted to Islam or Christianity) ate dog and donkey. I asked more about the animists, like when we'd see them and what else they did differently, but Mamadou didn't say.
I asked why we gave people kola nuts, and what they were good for (why people ate them (and why the heck was I carrying five kilos of them (2 kg of Amy's))), and where they came from. Answer: "They make old people strong."
That was the first day, and that was it for culture or information. I'd ask what this tree was (jiggy jiggy tree or something). Then I'd ask if you could eat it (I know how to say that in french). My guide would say No. And nothing else. Pretty soon I got the hint that questions bothered him.
I think Mamadou just told us everything he knew in the first half day. The rest of the time he didn't tell us anything. I guess I'll have to read that book or check out back issues of National Geographic.
When I travel I like to learn things. That's probably the main reason I travel. After we got back I read Christophe's Lonely Planet about the place and people I had spent five days seeing. I read how the Dogons revere the star Sirius, the Dog Star, also very important to the ancient Egyptians. The Dogons know precisely when Sirius will appear where in the sky. They also believe that Sirius is actually three stars, one of which is invisible. The LP says, "Modern astronomers have long known that Sirius is a double star, but only in 1995 did (sophisticated) telescopes detect (the invisible third star)." I read this after my five day (26 km) trek. The Dogons are amazing but I didn't learn anything about them.
Still, there's more to travel than learning stuff. Cool stuff happens and one can also see interesting things plus nice scenery. And there's also lots of personal interaction with other travelers. Five strangers go on a trek together, that's interesting.
So a lot of really cool stuff happened. Dogon Country is amazing, but this keyboard is too sticky and I have to go back for dinner with the others (and Mamadou), so this is just an introduction. I really hope I can write the second half of this email, in Timbuktu, in five (or six days).
Dear Mom and Dad,
So after 26 years, 5 months, 10 days, 12 hours, 16 minutes I finally made it to Timbuktu.
Not that I ever really aspired to visit Timbuktu. I didn't even know where it was until I started thinking about traveling in Africa. It's in Mali; I was going to Mali. Now I'm here, in Timbuktu.
Appropriately, Timbuktu is hard to reach. It took me a flight from San Francisco to Madrid. Buses to the ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Buses and trains to the Western Sahara town of Dakhla. Roof rack of a 4WD, then bus across the Sahara. Another ferry. Bush taxi. Long train from Dakar to Bamako. Bus to Mopti. There I did a five day excursion trek in the Dogon Country. Then from Mopti to Timbuktu by moped, pirogue, pinasse, pirogue, moped.
The River Niger starts in Guinea a couple hundred miles from the ocean. Then it wends through West Africa for over a thousand miles, through the desert, until joining the ocean in Nigeria. Since Timbuktu is in the middle of the desert, but right near the river, it was a major trading post in the olden days of camel caravans going through the Sahara.
During the hot, dry season (now), only the midsize and smaller boats can navigate the river. So I got passage on a pinasse, an 80 foot long wooden canoe laden with goods bound for Timbuktu. They said it would take three days. I prepared for five.
I was very, very lucky with my pinasse. It was a working pinasse, an old-fashioned merchant vessel, bringing peaunts, sugar, flour, diesel, soap, plastic buckets, MSG, charcoal, mopeds, beer, and four passengers down the river. The ten worker guys were concerned with transporting said cargo from point A to point B. A Swiss guy I met on the long train and again in Mopti before I went to Dogon Country, I saw on the river. He was unlucky. His pinasse was on Day 11.
The first day downriver the boat got stuck. So I and the workers heaved and hoed and pushed the pinasse through the sand through the river. I helped push the boat a few more times over the next two days. It was fun work because I got to swim in the river and because they had a system. It wasn't the frenzied non-movement of the bus through the desert. It was methodical, inch by inch plowing through the shallowest parts of the river, never any doubt we'd get there in the end.
Okay, so I spent 5 days on a stupid oversized canoe, sleeping the first night on shore, and the rest of the nights on 100 kg bags of peanuts. The first night I slept on the boat I had combination dreams of 'The Princess and the Pea' and 'Jack and the Beanstalk.' In my dreams I felt as if I were a giant sleeping on hills and valleys. But the picture of me curled comfortably in a green valley, with a hill or sheep or clouds for a pillow, didn't fit. I felt each of the lumpy peanut sacks. It was more like trying to sleep on a topographic map. However, the dream was kind of zen as well because I decided that a giant sleeps wherever he wants, and I was comfortable after that.
Each night I had a different arragement of peanuts to sleep on. The last night I put some sugar on top of the peanuts. Sugar makes the best bed.
Lots of reading. Meals were included in my tourist fare passage. Thirteen meals of rice with MSG Mali sauce, sometimes meat gristle, sometimes fish. MSG is mono-sodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer. West Africans are addicted to it. On board the pinasse we had boxes of "MSG Purity 99% and Up". It's really disgusting once you know what it is. At first it tastes nice, but that was before 5 days in the Dogon Country. I don't love the smell of MSG in the morning.
Sorry this is not a very interesting email.
I saw three hippopotamuses. There are villages everywhere along the river, or nomadic donkey herders (cows, sheep, goats too). Lots of fishermen. Always bare-breasted women washing themselves. Passing pirogues. Children shouting "Toubaboo! Toubaboo!" Foreigner! and waving. The cook on board had a young boy. She always wanted me to take their picture. My 'automatic' camera was a big hit.
I didn't drink much. I had diarrhea sometimes. My French didn't get any better as I didn't talk much to the guys (a couple spoke a little French).
That's basically it,
Dear Friends and Family, |
Timbuktu, Mali -- March 27, 2002
Greetings from Timbuktu! The town is hot and sandy. All the buildings are made out of mud. I just got back from two days in the desert (the edge of the Sahara) on a camel. The President of Mali is here in town for a celebration of the end of the war with the Tuareg desert nomads. The post office is closed and I am leaving early tomorrow morning, so here is your postcard. Sorry for not being able to include a stamp and the cancelation from Timbuktu.
They're having a big conference in this internet cafe. Had to plead my way in for a few minutes. The presdidnet of Mali is here. I'm rushing. So I'm in Timbuktu!!
I'm taking a 4wd back to civilization tomorrow; Not going to do the river trip again.
Dear Mom and Dad,
So all the V.I.Ps here for videoconferencing have cleared out and I can use internet again.
I can say I have been to Timbuktu.
I had heard that it could be a disappointing place, not quite an ancient city with streets paved with gold. So I wasn't expecting much. I wasn't really expecting anything. Just getting here, especially after five days on the peanut bags on the pinasse, was a victory--a thing in itself--worthwhile, a reason to travel.
So coming to Timbuktu with no expectations I leave disappointed. Yes, it sucks that much. I was walking around this afternoon trying to find the explorers house and the museum, mentally writing an email about how how much I like a city is almost independent of the city. Traveling, being a tourist, is 90% mental. If you expect great things and are willing to find them and have a good imagination, you'll like a place. You will find the cool stuff you're looking for. If you expect not to like something, you probably won't. But then if you expect too much you are liable to be disappointed. Really the lesson to all this is if you can control external factors, you'll be happy.
So a funny thing happened in Timbuktu. I was thinking, 'My disappointment with this city is just a self-fabrication. I can decide to like this place, to have fun, to create an adventure worthy to write home about.' And poof!, I was at the edge of the city, away from all the mud brick buildings, away from the children, every single one wanting me to give them something, to a dune in the desert, cool breeze, and again poof! it's just a stupid desert. I was already in it for two days.
I wasn't planning on going on a camel trip, but this German I met arranged a trip for himself, and I decided to go too. The price was too much, but the trip sounded good, and the food sounded like it would be traditional Tuareg food. So far in Mali the food-tourist thing has been missing. I haven't eaten any good, local food, or tried anything new or unusual.
My only expectations were good food, and even then I knew I'd just get rice with some gross desert meat (mostly flies). Somehow drinking from a desert well sounded attractive when the tour guy talked about it.
I knew in the first ten minutes that if I constantly compared this trip to the one in India, I would be disappointed. I didn't overpay to be disappointed on a camel. So even though many things were much worse in Mali (having to go at the same pace, our three camels tied together, no control over anything), I just accepted them and didn't get annoyed or upset. It helped that the German guy was a control freak (he is very similar to myself. He's very hard to be around, but I just laugh because it's probably like traveling with myself). So I was able to be the carefree, anything goes, I'm happy with everything no expectations, gee this dirty water tastes terrific.
In Dogon Country I was the one who tried to push the guide, wanting to walk further, faster; asking lots of questions, sometimes quibbling. I did a lot of quibbling, a grown man's version of whining. The other people were the carefree, 'The plan for today is to sit here for seven hours? Great!'
The food was always prepared by a Tuareg woman at some tent in the desert. Each campament had a large supply of rice. I hope we payed them well enough for it. And we brought all the other food to go with the rice. Unfortunately, I think all the traditional things stayed in Timbuktu. But at least no MSG. So we had plain rice with oil and two bits of sheep. Macaroni with oil and two bits of sheep. Rice with canned fish (in vegetable oil). Some of the water was drinkable. I even drank the water with shit floating in it. I'm not dead yet.
Mohammed said the first glass is, "For death." The second glass, "For life." "The third glass is for I forget." I really wonder how traditional it is. They do the same thing in Senegal and Mauritania always with Chinese tea (from China). I heard the third glass of tea was for death.
Sleeping out in the desert, under the stars is very nice. But everywhere in Mali is desert and I'm always sleeping outside. And this time of year the desert is cloudy with sand and clouds that are attracted to the sand.
That's the thing. Timbuktu is a mud city with sandy streets. It's very hot. It has a mud mosque. It's like all of Mali. I think the best way to visit Timbuktoo is to just fly there. Come straight from Europe or America and start your trip here. Then it would be very cool. But for me, all of Mali is mud houses, hot, sandy, with very funny children who all have unreasonable expectations.
The children of Timbuktu expect all the tourists who arrive to be plated with gold. But, like children everywhere, they are born with original enlightenment. They don't get discouraged when the tourists don't meet their expectations. They just laugh and continue walking down the street, happy with everything else they see.
Goodbye from Timbuktu,
PS Your African trip sounds much different from mine, of course. Could you leave some sunscreen at Suzanne's please, but just a little (to refill my small bottle)? I'm on my second CF flash card for my camera. I keep taking more and more photos, and erase fewer and fewer, but that's okay.
Dear Mom and Dad,
So everyone lies in Mali. But you don't notice it so much because you expect it. At least I expect it. Big Lesson #2 of Africa: Don't allign yourself with a guide and have him arrange everything for you. One person for this, one person for that, you always in control. It's much better that way, obviously.
After five days on the pinasse I had to pay a lot for a small pirogue to transfer me from where the working pinasses dock, to where the road to Timbuktu is. Okay, so it wasn't a lot of money, but it was more than it should have been. However, I didn't gripe or question because that's how much the guys on my boat said I had to pay for the two minute transfer. I asked if I could walk, not to save 70 cents, but just to keep prices in the Mali ballpark. Anyway, never mind. Once on land where I was to get the taxi into Timbuktu I was welcomed by the first Timbuktu touts. They say Hi, How are you? Nice trip? Going to Timbuktu? Welcome. It's going to cost you as much for the 18 km by road into town as for the five days on the boat, meals sleeping included.
So that's crazy to pay as much money for 30 minutes by beatup-pickup as for five nice days past hippopotamuses on the River Niger. But Welcome to Timbuktu. Welcome to Mali.
It was about 5:30 pm when my pinasse arrived. And nobody was really around anywhere. There were people in their little tent shops selling bitty bags of sugar or powdered milk or soap, but they looked like locals. If it were earlier in the day I would have just found some shade and waited for more peasants to arrive and load up the taxi pickup, and I would have gotten on with them and paid five times their price, but I would have been happy.
Another option for me was to stay the night at that port village and
wait for a normal price taxi in the morning. So,
1: The last thing I want to do after spending five days on an oversized canoe is pay way, way too much for a taxi all to myself into Timbuktu.
2a: The second to last thing I want to do is stay the night in a stupid tent and grass village when I could be in Timbuktu.
2b: Also what I really didn't want to do was walk 18 km at night with only river water in my overly heavy packpack.
I saw a moped. Balancing with a heavy pack, on back of a speeding moped makes the list of stuff I don't want to do, but I guess it was number 4.
So how much for the moped? 10,000 CFA, $13.50. Still no way, but mopeds can be bargained. The guide book says taxi should be 1000 to 2000 CFA depending on your bargaining ability. So I was willing to pay 2000 CFA to get into town, but no more. I'd walk or sleep with the mosquitoes instead.
Actually, number 1 thing I didn't want to do after five days on the River was haggle over how much they'd rip me off. Welcome to Timbuktu.
I saw another guy with a moped who looked like he was leaving, headed for Timbuktu (there's really nowhere else to go). So I approached him, asking if he was going to Timbuktu. Yes. How much for me to go with him? He didn't answer, defering to the other vultures who answered again, 10000 CFA. They came down to 7,500 and I said NO. An emphatic no.
The moped rider rode off, towards Timbuktu, then stopped. Aha, my cue to negotiate with him directly. I went up, "Dueuuuu mil" with two fingers, not to be confused with "Di mil" which can mean either two or ten thousand depending on whatever. The man said, 'Hop on.'
Speeding along the road balanced precariously on the back edge of the moped, I took comfort in the fact that if I was bumped off, my overfull backpack would take the brunt of the fall.
At one point the moped stopped and he told me to get off. He went with motorbike alone down the road, to talk with some friends. I wasn't worried that I was stranded, but even if I were, it was a nice, cool evening and I felt good, happy to be getting to Timbuktu.
Back on the moped, the worst part was in Timbuktu in the sandy streets. Driver had to go very fast to keep momentum. I took comfort in the fact that if I fell off, the sand would be soft.
I was delivered not to the hotel I mentioned, but to a restaurant where I was introduced to a guide. My arms were still shaking from muscle fatigue from holding on. I didn't want to talk to guides, even if he spoke English.
But I did speak with him and he convinced me to stay at his place rather than an expensive hotel (my thoughts exactly). Then I had to pay the moped driver. I gave him the 2000. He didn't accept it. He wanted 10,000. I am an experienced traveler so I know not to get upset at those things. I was already in Timbuktu. I had all the power. The guide and another guide and other onlookers try to be the nice guys, 'Just pay him 5000 then.' Yes, travel does give self-confidence. 'It's 2000 or nothing mister. Take it or leave it.' They always take it. But still, Welcome to Timbuktu.
So it was night, but I had finally arrived. I walked with the two guides through sandy alleyways past melting mud houses and tents erected in open spaces (where the houses have already collapsed). I didn't know these people, and if they tried to mug me I was going to kick their ass.
I don't remember the whole point of this. I guess it just was my introduction to Timbuktu. It's a lot of stupid hassle, meaningless hassle. Yes, I expect it, I'm used to it, and it really doesn't bother me, but I'd prefer traveling in a country where the people don't rip you off.
So, the second guide with me at night wanted to sell me a camel safari. I wasn't very interested. So he sold it to my German friend (who I met the next day) and I decided to go along. We way, way overpaid (like $31 a day!), but what's money?
So this same guy he also wanted to arrange our 4WD way out of Timbuktu. Lots of lies and everything and I'm still in Timbuktu.
Bonus day in Timbuktu: Saw the other two mosques. The normally generous Lonely Planet says about the mosques: "Timbuktu has three of the oldest mosques in West Africa. They're not large, architecturally impressive or in good repair--just old." And you can't even go inside them (you can go in one but they charged too much so I said something quibbling like, 'If you go to Europe, you go into all the churches free. In America, the churches and mosques, all free. In Asia, all the mosques, free.'
So saw the outside of the other mosques. To the house where the leader of the first American expedition to Timbuktu stayed (1912-1913). Don't think I learned any history there or anywhere else in Timbuktu. The house didn't even have a plaque (like the guidebook says). I asked in the museum (Tuareg pots, Tuareg baskets, old bracelets, nothing interesting, but what did I expect?) where the house was and where the plaque was. He showed me into the museum back room. Behind the stuffed baby aligators was the plaque. I asked why it wasn't on the house itself? He said it fell down. I asked why they didn't put it back up? He didn't have a good answer, said if people wanted to see the plaque he knew where it was.
Midday, you can't do nothing in Timbuktu. It's too hot. So internet cafe, obviously. Oh yeah, I bargained with another "Tuareg artisan". The Tuareg, or entire Mali system of bargaining is different from everywhere else I've been. My usual expert system of not overpaying too much didn't work here until last night and today. I have the system down, but I don't want to buy anything else--don't want to give them any more of my money--to fully take advantage of my knew knowledge. I could write about my modified African market bargaining system, but that's a different email.
I'd like to be in Burkina Faso for Easter. I'm going to skip Benin and Togo because I'm tired of West Africa and I need to skip stuff because I really don't have much time for Africa. I only wanted to go to Benin to learn stuff about voodoo and the slave trade. But if I want to learn that kind of stuff I ought to go to a library. That's what I've learned about West Africa.
Also, I don't have very many empty pages in my passport (43 of 50 are full) and Togo and Benin require visas so that's a very bad reason to skip two countries.
Final note: One really good thing about Mali is the frozen juice in plastic bags. They are very good and cheap. I am an expert at drinking or sipping out of a clear plastic bag.
Another note: Streets in Mali, especially Timbuktu, are littered with plastic bags. There are no dumps and goats don't eat all the plastic. I am contributing every day about five or six plastic bags to the African environment. After sucking the last of the juice you just throw the bag to the ground no matter where you are. I think it's normal to do that even inside.
PS You don't need to leave me any cash at Suzanne's. I should have enough. Well, leave half the amount you originally planned. Thanks. And anything else you can think of because I'm done thinking.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Some reason says I'm not in the mood for writing an email. Yesterday I wanted to rip off three or four good ones, this morning too. But internet has been closed all day, and last night was no good either.
I am in Ougoudougou, or however you spell the capital of Burkina Faso. Getting here from Timbuktu was a grand adventure. I will write an email about it, tomorrow for my weekly list.
I was told that the best thing about Burkina Faso is there's nothing to do here, so you can just relax. You don't have to rush around seeing stuff. Maybe. I think I'm stuck here until Friday, hopefully only until then. Combination of visas, Easter Monday holiday (what the heck is Easter Monday?), and lack of transport into Ghana. We'll see.
This morning I woke up hungry because I didn't find much for dinner last night. I didn't find anything for breakfast either, on my way to the Cathedral for Easter Mass. But here in the heat, water is as good as food anyway.
So this morning I woke up, sweating, put on my nice clothes, then got lost trying to find the cathedral. My grand plan was to be in Burkina Faso for Easter since there are lots of Christians here. I don't know what I was expecting. I didn't see the Easter Bunny or any crucifixion re-enactments, or any pagan festivals disguised as Christian.
But I did make it to the Cathedral and sat down with nicely dressed Africans singing lots of songs. I don't know anything what they said. It mostly was singing with some prayers and a couple short speeches by the men dressed in white. It was very easy to sit through for an hour. It was enjoyable to be in an African cathedral, just chilling. I wouldn't get that opportunity back at home.
I walked around the city after church. The only thing Easter about anything today was one of the church officials said, "Bon Fete." and so did a beggar boy. I found a supermarket and bought yogurt and two chocolate bars.
I'm going to look for something to eat, then maybe I'll see which Indian film is playing at the movie house. There are a couple old French people staying at the orphanage. They haven't really talked to me. I want to hang out with the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on the bus yesterday. They get to stay at their own private PC hostel. Maybe I'll meet them on the street.
When I am alone with nothing to do, then I get lonely. If I am alone in a city with tons of museums or pedestrian walkways or cheap internet cafes or something to do, then I'm not lonely.
But today I'm lonely,
PS Angela, Mom, Dad. If you have any bandannas with you, please leave them with Suzanne. They're very useful for African travel and I seem to lose them. Angela, you have to tell me more about Mt. Kili.
Dear Mom and Dad,
In Timbuktu last Wednesday the president of Mali came for the dedication of a monument commemorating the end of the war between the Tuaregs (incomprehensible businessmen/ desert nomads) and the rest of Mali. It was to be a big festival, so I stayed in town for it, with a 4WD booked for Mopti Thursday morning. I wanted to be in Burkina Faso for Easter because I had in my mind that there were Christians here and I wanted to see a great cultural event. (The festival in Timbuktu was colorful and featured lots of people standing around the monument and many men on camels. Nothing happened at all. At night there was supposed to be a concert, and maybe some music was playing, but I was there and don't remember it.)
Well, maybe I did. Oh wait, the chronology of the story is all mixed up. I'm still on my motivation part.
First thing was getting back from Timbuktu. I think I was very glad to leave the town when I finally did (at 4 pm in a dump truck after being assured previously that our 7 am reservation in the 4X4 was golden.) I had been warned that Timbuktu was very "touristy". Ha! Or at least I have a different interpretation. Kathmandu is "touristy". Bali is "touristy". Heck, Paris is "touristy". I take it to mean "something for tourists to do" or "overrun with tourists" or "not a real part of the country you're visiting, just something set up for tourists".
Anyway, Timbuktu was a hole, with nothing for a tourist to do. My advice: on your next travels, avoid Timbuktu.
Part of the deal Thomas and I struck with our personal guide/rip-off artist was we got the front seat in the truck. Us and the driver, nobody else. So for the first ten hours of the ride I was squeezed in between tall Thomas and the stick shift (with the non-responsive Malian owner of the truck squeezed next to Thomas) bumping through the hot Sahel in full moonlight. It was a very nice trip. The truck was empty except for three more tourist passengers in the back (two French girls and a Japanese guy who was on the pinasse for 12 days to Timbuktu, I was only 5 very lucky) and then the workers who dug us out of the sand when we were stuck. I would have gladly done that job. In fact I felt useless, with all my 'moving large vehicles through the desert' experience, as I watched the others dig away some sand and put the metal plaques in front of the wheels. They did a good job, and nobody pushed, though I wished we could have. I just played my Dogon flute in the middle of the African outback. It was total safari country we traversed in the moonlight, except there are no animals in Mali besides donkeys, cows, sheeps, and goats.
Next stop was Djenné. The taxi minivans must have 18 people signed up and paid until they leave. That's with numerous of idle nine-seater cars (they really pack them in here). I could talk about inefficiencies in Mali people transport, but the three hours waiting for the taxi to fill was a nice break between transport squishings.
The one hour squished in the hot, already full minivan waiting for them to pack all the bags on top (couldn't they have done that while we waited for the taxi to fill?) and for the driver to check things off on his list (count passengers five times, check; get gas, check; stop off at Ibrahim's to shake his hand, check; stop off at house to say goodbye to wife, check; cram two more passengers into the back, check; stop at Mohammed's to shake his hand, check; start the drive to Djenné, check.) That hour wasn't as nice as my long breakfast hour, but it did allow me to pump the Polish couple next to me for info on Ethiopia. That's where I'm going after Ghana after Burkina Faso, though they told me it was easily the worst country in all of Africa they've been (they're doing my trip in reverse, with two extra months).
This was Friday. Friday afternoon arrive in Djenné and take lots of photos of the mosque. Then Thomas went up to a French guy and asked him about how to get out of Djenné. Thomas was going south, me to the west.
Anyway, what happened was I got a ride with Michel, the French Volunteer (like the American Peace Corps), to his home near Mopti. He was supposed to go to a town, Bandiagara, on the way to the town, Koro, where I could get the twice-weekly (Thursday, Saturday) bus into Burkina Faso. But we took too long in leaving (he too had to say goodbye to all his friends in Djenné) and too long dropping people off and saying hello to more friends.
So I spent Friday night in the home of a French Volunteer. He lived in the same compound as a Mali family, sort of his host family I guess. I slept in a nice bed with no dinner (I was very tired) and had a nice shower and the first shave in three weeks (first mirror in three weeks). I kind of wanted to get to know his host family, like to meet real Malians, but an exchange of "ça va's" was as deep as the conversation went. We were to leave at 8 am for Bandiagara.
OKay, so this email is longer than planned, but I have nothing else to do here in Ougadougou (capital of Burkina Faso).
I was up early even though I've learned not to rush in West Africa. There's no need to ever rush for anything. So up early to eat a very nice mango (Michel had a refridgerator, my first non-warm mango in Mali), and then breakfast with him. He asked if I ate vegetables in the morning. Yes, yes I do.
Lettuce, carrot, and tomato salad with nice French dressing, plus bread and jam and powdered milk. Usually only my daily list gets my breakfast report.
Michel talked all about Mali and their school system (miserable) and the upcoming elections, and what he does as a French Volunteer. Traveling, I learn much more from foreigners about the country than from locals, 1000 times more.
At 9 am he asked what the time was. I knew I needed to be quick about my transport, since the rare bus from Koro to Burkina left sometime in the afternoon, and not too late since it was at least a six hour ride. But I wasn't concerned. I left it up to fate to get me whereever I was going. Meeting Michel was fortuitous. Staying in his Mali house and talking was fortuitous. Whatever happens happens.
We took until 11 am to pick up more of his friends and say goodbye to the other ones. I never know who all these people are, but I greet them and smile just the same. Actually, a big part of Michel's job is networking, trying to get projects started and get people to care about them.
At Bandiagara they said there was no transport to Koro. But I could wait there for a bush taxi on its way from Mopti. They said one might come today. Unfortunately, bush taxis (either stuffed minibuses or stuffed covered pickup trucks), only leave when absolutely stuffed. So if you're in a village along the way and want to go somewhere, usually you're just stuffed.
I was fortunate (okay, really, I'm very, very lucky when it comes to transport. It's because I make a wish on the first star I see every night). A stuffed pickup came limping along at 20 mph. We had passed it in our speedy 4WD, and I felt sorry for the people on board. Now I was fortunate to be one of those people. There was still room for me, either standing off the back of the pickup or sitting on the back gate with my legs meshed with the legs of a Malian with sunglasses.
For two and a half hours I talked with them about Mali, the Dogons, and the Peace Corps.
Whenever the pickup stopped, I hopped out. It was my game and the reason Togo called me the Tall German, like my legs were too long to be so long cramped up, every chance I took to stretch. I am adept at getting into and out of moving pickups while eating mangoes.
Upon arrival in Koro we were all red from dust. No need to hurry, but the bus to Burkina was leaving that moment. So I got on, sitting next to Jackie and Shiela, PCVs in Senegal, on a short vacation.
In two and a half days I went from Timbuktu to Mopti to Djenné to Sevaré to Bandiagara to Koro to Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. With innumerable stops in between. I met Japanese, Poles, French, Americans, and spent all bumpy night talking to German Thomas.
I learned heaps about West Africa. Very quickly because I'll
write it again:
The reason so many children have the distended stomachs (way poofed out) is because they don't eat good food. No protein means no stomach muscles (and a belly button thats looks like a muppet's nose, or Gonzo's nose if he's not a muppet and he has a big nose). That's really only a maybe on the official correct answer scale, but malnutrition is the definite correct answer.
The reason so many kids carry tomato cans or bowls for begging (I only
noticed it briefly in Timbuktu, but it didn't register, okay the
Every single kid, almost, in Timbuktu comes up and asks foreigners for gifts. Walk around with anything in your hand and you're constantly barraged to give it up. In that atmosphere I ignored everyone's plea. I noticed children walking around with begging pales, but I didn't think further about it. I did wonder what happened to the rice with MSG sauce I leave on my plate. Like sure, 'Starving Children in Africa' but what exactly am I supposed to do with my leftovers? Do I leave the restaurant with their bowl, roaming the streets looking for starving children? I just leave my leftovers and let the restaurant manager (restuarants are just shacks, don't get the wrong idea, and the food isn't very creative or good) dispense with them, hopefully going to the children instead of the goats or sheeps.
But in Mopti, as I waited for the taxi to fill up, I went into town for breakfast, millet pancakes with MSG sauce. The pancakes were flavorless but good. I should have stopped her with the sauce. In Mopti I really noticed all the boys with tomato cans or plastic bowls. They were all skinny, but all African children are skinny (even the ones with bloated stomaches). But none were like super famine skinny. And they were everywhere. Why hadn't I noticed this before? Half the people on the street were starving children begging for food.
At the pancake place (woman with a fire and batter, some buckets, and the metal grill on the side of the road) I was surrounded by boys (8 to 11 years old) holding their begging bowls out for me. I picked one boy out. He had been there first, but he always avoided my eyes when I looked at him. I sort of wanted him to tell me what to do, like how to give him my leftovers. Surely the crowd of boys were hungry for my food, but then they weren't acting like starving children.
I gave the boy my bowl and he speedily dumped it into his tomato can and started eating. It was an okay feeling giving my leftover food to a starving child in Africa.
The conclusion of the story:
The Tomato Can Kids are students of a muslim marabout. They learn only the Koran and are set loose on the streets to beg. One of the five pillars of Islam is to give to charity, so people are happy to give to the begging boys. The money goes to the marabout (the muslim headman), the food goes to the kids. Either the boys get regular meals, then go out to beg, or they must beg for their food. Different PCVs give different answers. But anyway, they're not starving. The begging is supposed to teach them humility. So by giving these boys food, I'm messing up their instruction.
The Third Top Thing I Learned from the PCVs:
The moringa tree really does exist and it really is a miracle tree. Grows in desert conditions from a seed or cutting to 15 feet in one year. Its leaves can be eaten and have more vitamins than truckloads of banannas or mangos or whatever. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, so stuff can grow around it in otherwise barren land. Some crushed leaves in water makes it safe to drink. Bark is used for all sorts of medicines. Lots of other miracle things. The trees grow in Senegal. Hopefully I can see it elsewhere and eat the leaves (made into a sauce). The trees aren't very widespread though. It's hard to change people's habits to make them value this miracle tree.
Last thing: The problem with West Africa is that since colonialism (and Mali's socialist dictatorship) the people expect answers/solutions/development/hard-work to come from outsiders. The PCVs say their biggest problem is motivating people to take personal responsibility. Getting them to dig latrines (instead of digging it for them) is why the Peace Corps is here.
Now I am in Ougadougou and there's nothing to do expect wait for onward visas and the periodic buses and do internet and sweat and eat mangos and watch Hindi violence/romance musicals. It was 97° at 9:24 this morning.
If you've read all this I applaud you,
PS I made it here for Easter. Went to the cathedral. Watched dressed up Africans sing a lot and men in white say some stuff and a couple prayers, but mostly singing. No Easter Bunnies but I did eat a chocolate bar as an Easter treat.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I got my Ghana visa this afternoon, so I'm ready to go. The buses and bush taxis to the north for the interesting market tomorrow already left. The next bus to Ghana is Friday. So I have my ticket and I'm ready to wait.
Today at 1:20 it was 108°. That was during a part of the day with the clouds obscurring the sun. I think it has even been hotter.
Walking around in that heat isn't that bad. It's actually kind of nice because I don't sweat. The worst part of the day is in the evening when it gets cooler and the sweat doesn't evaporate immediately. Then it's just sweating buckets.
Anyway, the worst part of the heat is that I'm so aware of it. That's the only thing people talk to me about. 'Hello, it's very hot.' All the time people talk about the heat, so I become hot. I'm already used to the heat, so if nobody mentioned it, I don't think I would notice.
Normally I would never stay long in a city like Ouagadougou, possibly the most obscure capital in the world. The National Museum is closed indefinitely. The market is just a market. There's no river, no parks, the cemetary I live next to is always closed. The only thing I can do is read and sweat and do my little chores (go to Ghana embassy to find they are closed, go back next day, go back next day again to pick it up, go to bus office not to buy a ticket because I need my passport which was at the embassy, go back to bus ticket office for ticket, post office to buy stamps, post office to mail postcards).
Besides little stupid things I have been eating mangoes, but now I'm upset about it. Mangos everywhere. But no mango juice. No mango cookies. Mango chutney, curry, cake, candies--forget about it. I'm not supposed to do this, gripe about the Africans, but I am. Why don't they use their resources in creative ways? At least some people make a peanut sauce (with MSG, to put over rice). The small juices in clear plastic bags I like so much are getting old. Same two flavors all the time, probably from the same powder mix.
I had high hopes for Ouagadougou. I came in on the bus with two cute Peace Corps volunteers. Nothing to do in Ouagadougou, so I could just hang out with them and their American friends. But they just disappeared into their private Peace Corps hostel (I don't know where it is, but I think it is far away). Two nights ago I met a Canadian guy (25) in line for the cinema. He was doing the same as me, wondering what the heck to do while waiting for the banks and buses to get over their weekend and Easter Monday thing.
My new friend left yesterday, but then I met someone else. She was buying the bus ticket to Ghana same time as me, except now she's gone on this morning's bus, and I'm still waiting. Yesterday I went to the market with her to help her shop, then she showed me some nicer places for dinner (I found where to buy yogurt on the street and salad). I would have watched Star Wars at the outdoor cinema last night but cute girls take priority.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I like Ghana. The best thing is probably that the colonial language here is English, not French, and it's not so hot.
For five whole days in Burkina Faso I did nothing, the cabin fever kind of nothing. That's it! I caught the "Waiting for a visa in a boring capital" fever.
At the bus station last Friday morning I met Jackie and Shiela again, the two PCVs [Peace Corps] stationed in Senegal. They ditched me upon entering Burkina for the secluded Peace Corps compound while I went to the orphanage by the cemetary. I asked them what they did in Ouagadougou.
'Oh, not much. (There's nothing to do in Burkina Faso.) We found out that most of the PCVs at the house usually hang out at the Rec Center.'
"What's the Rec Center?"
'It's a club for Americans next to the embassy. They have things like tennis courts, a swimming pool, movies, basketball courts, a cheap garden cafe where you can get milkshakes and macaroni and cheese. You have to show your passport to get in. Costs [65 cents] each day for non-members.'
"Was it air-conditioned?"
For the next fourteen hours I had the worst bus ride in Africa. I was very tired the whole trip. I started getting sore, bumped, bruised, irriated that the driver wasn't more aggressive in passing trucks. The road was nice and we didn't make too many unneccessary stops, and I had a book to read and people to talk with at the stops, so it shouldn't have been that bad.
"Waiting for a visa in a boring capital" fever.
Jackie and Shiela surprised me at the bus station in Kumasi, Ghana by saying they were going to stay at the Presbetyrian Guesthouse (the backpackers' place) instead of the Peace Corps regional house.
So the next day Saturday we three went to the Kobiri Butterfly Sanctuary where a remant of rainforest has not been logged. It was a very good day taking bush taxis, hitchhiking, and walking through the rainforest. Physically I was very tired, full-body fatigue; but I didn't act tired. I very much enjoyed being immediately understood when (coming across a tree blocking the forest path) saying things like, "Oop! Can't go over it..." (A my generation, American, summer-camp-goer thing.)
The highlight was taking a picture of a nasty-looking spider right in front of my face. She was on the other side of her web, so I put my face up close and reached under and around with my camera for the photo.
Eventually getting back to our mission guesthouse, I noticed I had a rash all over my neck, a little on my back and chest and arms too. It itched and I had a 102.4° temperature and at night I got up seven times for the bathroom even though I was dehydrated.
Yesterday Sunday we went to the Lake. It was supposed to be a nice weekend spot for locals. The lake was pretty, but I was feeling worse. I thought maybe sun would do my rash good, so I sunburned my neck and shoulders (it was cloudy, and I underestimated the sun's strength.)
Waiting for the taxis back to Kumasi I felt suddenly attacked by ants. But there were no ants, just the stinging of my rash popping up into whiteheads. The stingings only lasted a couple minutes. Temperature back at guesthouse: 103.2°
Dear Mom and Dad, (It's very long so you read it or you don't)
I forget what I wrote about yesterday. I was at the internet cafe because I had to wait two extra hours for the 3:30 bus to Accra. The 1:30 bus to Accra was sold out by the time I wanted to buy tickets. Major bummer since it had three friendly English travelers from the guesthouse on it.
The bus is supposed to take four hours to Accra. It was late in leaving and arrived at 9:45 pm. The first two hours were very pleasant. I happily read my book and spied on the foreigner sitting one row ahead of me, across the aisle. Ghana countryside is the lush greenness of deforested rainforest. Instead of just getting to see a curtain of big trees as the road tunnels through the forest, in denuded places one can see green rolling hills pricked with bananna trees, lots of copses of the tall rainforest trees, many dead ones still standing high--with a vulture on a branch. It's nice scenery and the roads are smooth.
At the first break stop I talked with the foreigner, Merlouse from Holland volunteering at an orphanage in Kumasi for two months, traveling to Accra to see the Dutch Prince and Princess there on diplomatic visit.
Back on the bus it was dark (sun sets quickly near the equator, I think I'm at like 8 degrees North). The stupid buses have flip-down seats in the aisles so at any stop it takes ages for the first sleeping guy to be yelled at to get up so the second fat lady can take her time gathering her purse and flipping up her seat and making room for the third person in the aisle... When you're sitting near the back of the bus... it only bothers me when my body is sore from fever or my neck itches from zit rashes or my butt stings from sweat acridity.
The dark three and a half hours on the bus sucked. Cute girl in the row in front of me but I couldn't talk to her because two people in the way and nobody talks on Ghanaian buses. I didn't want to drink my water because I didn't want to have to pee and because it tasted like unfiltered lake water (I've discovered now that it's my water bottle, the one which had the 1.5 litres of ginger juice I bought on the the train in Senegal. I often carry three water bottles, they come and go but this one stayed. I grew attached to it. Now things are growing attached to it. [I write my emails as if I'm saying them, so the last it should be emphasized like in italics.])
Cute Dutch girl with wide eyes ('Wow, you've traveled all the way from Spain; all of Africa for six months!?') had a girlfriend already in an Accra hotel. My chosen place, Akuma Village, had been highly recommended by Annie from Ouagadougou; and I had told the three friendly English travelers (one guy, two girls--no couples) to go there. So Merlouse got out of the taxi at her hotel and I continued on down to the beach/Rasta/artsy/cool-travelers resort at Akuma Village.
All the rooms were full, though I didn't see any travelers anywhere, just Rasta guys or older village tribal elders hanging around. The bartender said I could sleep in the office.
I took a bucket shower then went into the office to read from its bookshelf. Kant's Critique of Reason when it started pouring. Water dripping evenly in four feet intervals all around the office (concrete floor, bamboo roof, two chairs placed in between the drippy spots). The Bartender came rushing in to tell me to move all my stuff into the bar. "You will sleep here."
As soon as it started raining all the customers (three older men with younger women had arrived) were gone, and the bar was boarded up. Bartender dragged the speakers inside and turned up the radio. It was 11:30 pm.
As the Bartender put some more things away I wrote in my journal. Bartender finished cleaning (two minutes) and sat on a stool with his head in his hands, resting.
11:45 pm I put my journal away. Bartender was laying on a raggety blanket on the ground next to the Thermarest pad he had donated to me. His shoes were still on, the music was still full blast, the lights and refrigerators on.
I didn't know what to do? I figured he was just waiting until midnight so he could officially go home. So I tried to see how comfortable the leaking air pad was, on the concrete; and to see if I could sleep with the radio turned on so high (and playing the same song for twenty minutes). I had earplugs, but I didn't use them.
I slept until Midnight. The Bartender wasn't leaving. I wanted him to leave so I could put up my mosquito net and take off my sweaty clothes and get out my better Thermarest.
But he stayed. So I got out my sleeping bag and my Thermarest and he looked at me but didn't say anything. The music was still loud with earplugs in. And very bright lights.
Bartender went out looking for me, couldn't understand what I was doing. I said, "I want to sleep." 'Then come back inside.' "I do not sleep with lights and very loud music. Do you normally sleep with your shoes on?" 'I am very tired. I thought you wanted to read.'
I don't get angry in Africa, but I do get annoyed. Yes, I should have said something earlier, but at first it was like a test. Could I deal with African insanity? Nothing of anything made sense, so I tried to make the best of it by just trying to sleep.
Coaxing me back inside Bartender turned off the lights and the electrical appliances and the music. No lights meant we were swarmed by flying cockroaches. Couldn't he have left some small light on in the corner to attract the flying beaties?
I didn't sleep much better until the bar opened up at 6 AM.
I moved back into the office and slept until 7:30 AM. I was very sore, nose sniffling. Sleeping in the tropics with a fever is just so wet. Or not sleeping is even worse.
I went outside and ascertained than none of my friends were at Akuma Village. It was only six rooms. Bartender told me, 'Move your stuff now before you do anything else. In your room. The key.' "I want to see the room first." It was decent, but without friends, I didn't like the ambience.
So I told him I would not take the room. I was leaving. 'Do it now. I want to go to the city.' Bartender was always very nice while issuing his commands (it's the only verb conjugation many Ghanaians use.) But then he told me to dress first. Anyway, before I left the office I opened another book and read (paraphrasing from memory):
'I was traveling on a bus in India with a friend who was arranging my trip there. He was of a caste which had been discriminated against for four or five thousand years, and he was very tense. He had worked very hard to make my trip enjoyable, and was constantly worrying over all the details. To reassure him I told him I was enjoying my trip very much and he was doing an excellent job. He relaxed a little, but soon was back to the constant tenseness of a person of his caste, the tenseness of four or five thousand years. He should have been happy for the moment, not tense with worries about the journey. That's why saying the phrase, "I have arrived," is so powerful.'
When I read "I have arrived," I was like struck by its meaning. All the frustrations of the past night vanished. I have arrived. I'm where I am and I'm content. It was cool to read that because it's similar to ways I cope to forcefully enjoy travel, like having "ownership" of the bus or whatever situation I am in. Like, I'm here and this is where I am and it's my choice so I automatically like it.
I still moved hotels. My new one is much nicer. It's the first room I have alone since Dakhla in Morocco a very long time ago (before riding on top of the 4WD across the Sahara).
Now the problem: I want to go to Ethiopia by flying. I went for my visa today but they said I needed my ticket first (their phone was busy all morning). I went to two travel agencies. I don't think they are very creative, like they don't say, 'Hmm, let's see, if you fly here first then the fare would only be...' So the cheapest and best flight I can get is $920. Out of principle I don't want to pay that much.
Another problem is that two travelers whose opinion I trust said Ethiopia was the worst country in Africa. Oh yeah, but two travelers whose opinions I trust said it was the best country in Africa.
Sounds like another India,
PS What kinds of emails do you (the reader) like reading? What things should I write about?
Dear Mom and Dad,
The two Polish travelers who hated Ethiopia said they paid $440 to fly from Ethiopia to Accra. So this morning I set off to find a better travel agency and a cheaper ticket.
Breakfast in my hotel room was a liter of water with rehydration salts. Then at a major intersection (the best place for food) I got two small bags of fried plantain chips. They are really good. Last time I had them was in C. or S. America.
I wasn't finding any travel agencies. The guy at the internet cafe last night recommended one close to my hotel, but his directions were bad. He probably didn't know my hotel, just pretended to.
That's one thing, one of the most striking things about Ghana (next to the names of the businesses, more on that sometime), that taxi drivers don't know anything here. In Kumasi we had to spend ages telling them where we wanted to go. They don't even know major landmarks. Then in the taxi it's always, 'Okay, after this street take a left. Move to the left lane. That way. Now turn left. Left. That way. Go there.' Same thing in Accra. Street names are nearly worthless even though Ghana is the bestly signed country in West Africa.
Because the taxi drivers don't know your destination, they'll be nervous about it and ask a million times, 'Where you want to go?' In the taxi from the bus station to Akuma Village, at night, I knew more about the layout of Accra than the driver did because I had looked at my map a couple of times.
I was walking past the National Museum so I went inside to check it out. I suppose it's worth returning to, after all my business is finished. The next thing down the road was the tourist information office. They were very helpful and friendly because they don't get many foreign tourists, maybe three or four a week. I asked for a recommendation for a travel agency for my ticket. The guy made some calls. Then he got in the taxi with me to go down the road to the agency. Accra to Addis to Nairobi, $760. I decided to get it.
The travel agent rubbed his fingers. I produced my credit card. He came back saying the airline only takes cash, only dollars. Like I have $760 cash (I don't). So the tourist info guy got in the taxi with me to go to the main bank. There I could use my Visa card to get Ghanaian cedis (7600 cedis per dollar, biggest note is a 5000 cedis). Then I could take my cedis to the street forex bureauxs to exchange for dollars.
On the telephone the bank teller announces to everyone my credit card number, rejected. I said I maybe had a $500 limit so she tried again. Rejected.
Now what? The ATMs have 500,000 cedi limits. I need about 6 million. That is 1200 bills of 5000 cedis. Preposterous.
Last night I thought my fever was over. So I checked, 100.4°. Mostly over. Today my nose has stopped running. My rash is fading. It's not a real rash, not a tropical disease or anything, just like pimples. I like the oral rehydration salts.
Now what? The bank teller told me to call my bank. I'm not going to call my bank. I wanted to come someplace to think and drink water. The problem with Accra is nothing is central. Public transportation? Taxi drivers don't know where most things are.
Gotta go think,
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wanted to get my Etiopian visa, but to get the visa I needed a ticket. To get the ticket I needed obscene amounts of dollars cash. To get dollars I needed gaudy armfuls of cedis. To get so many cedis required my Visa...
The mission for the morning was to get more dollars, so I went straight away to the bank. Lots of waiting. They gave me a favorable (to the bank) exchange rate and charged a commission on my Visa card transfer. The other branch didn't charge any commission (my card didn't work there), and this new branch didn't tell me about the fee; but once I had my money I didn't complain.
My money was a stack of 500 2000 cedi bills (that's a big handful of bills) plus a smaller handful stack of 460 5000 cedi bills. The teller gave me a plastic bag for the money. Instead I stuffed the bills down my pants, in my money belt and various pockets.
Before I went to any Forex offices to get real money (US dollars) I walked through a markety area where I bought chocolate and garlic.
So for breakfast I had 50 g of chocolate bar with peanuts as I walked down the street looking for Forex offices with dollars (with one thousand pieces of money down my pants).
I think maybe the dollar is appreciating. I don't like that. The bank gives the same bad rate for their cedis, but when the dollar increases in value it costs me more of the cedis to buy them. So the first five Forex's I skipped because they gave a bad rate. At the next five Forex's I went in, said Hello to the man or woman sitting on the couch watching TV, enjoyed the moment of air-conditioning, asked, "Do you have dollars?" and moved to the next one. Finally I took a cab further downtown where I got dollars yesterday.
I asked the bank for $450. They made a conversion to 313 pounds, deducted their commission, and made the conversion to 3.3 million cedis. I took the 3.3 million cedis to the Forex and got $423. $100 of that as a stack of one dollar bills.
Back to my hotel room to get my other cash, to the phone office to call the travel agency to see where they were located (taxi drivers would never know), walked to the agency, handed over $760 in cash, walked back to my hotel. Coming back later to get the ticket.
At the telephone shop, as I was talking with the travel agency, the worker passed me a note: "Do you want to be my friend?"
When Ghanaian people say they want to give me their address I let them, if I have some sort of relationship with them (I say No to the random people on the street who come up to me wanting to give me their addresses or wanting mine). I don't ever say I will write to them.
There's a girl at the travel agency who likes me. There's another girl there who wants to set me up with the other girl. It's kind of funny. First girl (in her 20s) is a little shy, so the other one does all the talking. Very, very silly.
Back to pick up my ticket. They said to come back at 2:30 pm. After lunch I took a nap. I actually set my alarm in time to get up to be there at 2:30 but I didn't make that mistake again.
Lesson #2 of Africa: Never be in a hurry. It's no good to hurry up and wait. So skip the hurry part. So I turned off the alarm and got up when I wanted to and walked to the travel agency at 3:30 where I waited until 4 pm for my ticket (talking with my admirers).
But I got it. So I went to the Ethiopian Embassy. I opened the gate.
Guy said they were closed. I shook my head and used the Force, "No. I
have my ticket and application and passport, everything's ready (I can
"Okay, you can go in."
So I pick up my visa tomorrow between 11 and 12. I fly Accra to Addis April 15, then Addis to Nairobi May 7. Visa cost $70 (cash).
Ethiopia had better be good,
PS Anybody interested in a fascinating book on Ethiopia as the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant, read Graham Hancock's The Sign and the Seal.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Up at 6:30, pack up and out of hotel at 8 am to the museum. Small bag of peanuts for breakfast (plus some water and some gross oral rehydration salts), also a bag of papaya slices which tasted like carrots (threw most of them away, starving children be damned). I'd eat a real breakfast if any could be had in Ghana. The only thing to buy in the shops is packaged goods (canned fish, tomato paste, dried milk, chocolate bars) or bagged goods (5 cent bags of rice or flour). I've turned down a number of raw eggs.
The museum was decent for Africa, which meant it sucked, but I suppose I know everything there is to know about West Africa already.
After the museum I went to the Circle where there is supposed to be a book store and where the bank is. The bookshop closed, but I did get a paperback from a street vendor (and two different flavors of chocolate and a bag of pineapple chunks). I was going to exchange travelers checks for more armfuls of cedis, but I realized I didn't have my passport.
To Ethiopian Embassy for passport and visa. Back to the bank, but they only had 2000 cedi notes. I didn't want to carry $250 worth of quarters (2000 cedis equals 26 cents). I'm going to Cape Coast in an hour, so I will have to change some dollars into cedis to live off of. That's really annoying: changing credit card to cedis to dollars back to cedis. But at least most things are cheap here. Could you imagine only using quarters to pay for things?
That's it. I haven't done anything good in Accra. But at least I've been busy and my room has a fan.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I am in Cape Coast, Ghana. I'm just going to write about what has happened (nothing too exciting), and let's see how it comes out.
Yesterday at the bus station I felt bad because I had sort of vowed not to take another stupid STC bus in Ghana. They have the system of a fold-down seat in the middle of the aisle. It's not very comfortable, and when the bus makes five stops in the suburbs before the main terminal, it's really slow. First braindead guy has to get up, then second really fat lady, then third person. It's slow and I've already talked about it before.
But STC goes to Cape Coast, so I went there too. The bus was full. I had been assured by the friendly people at the tourist info office that I would have no problems if I went an hour early (2 pm) and also there were lots of buses, some going further, that I could get on until Cape Coast. The next of those buses with space was 5:30 pm. So screw it.
I got a taxi to the motor park for "tro-tros" (each country around the world has a different name for its "crowded local transport". Somebody ought to make a list.) to Cape Coast. Yeah, yeah got one. Crowded, not too comfortable, but fine. I read for two hours then looked out the window at the passing rainforest/cleared farmland villages.
Taxi to my hotel. I hate taking taxis. I hate having to take taxis, but better than walking everywhere. In the hotel reception the man said, 'All our singles are taken. We have no cheap rooms left.' The other budget option was up the road a mile. I didn't want to go anywhere, so I used the Jedi Mind Trick again. I just stood in the doorway with my backpack on (for at least five minutes) mentally saying, 'There is room here.' Then the man said, "Maybe I think a man is leaving his single room right now. Put your bag down and come back in one hour."
I went out walking, to get my bearings. It was 6 pm, getting dark. A boy was following me, telling me stuff and asking questions. He's just fishing for a tip later on. Doesn't concern me because I don't give money to those types of people. (I rarely airly give money to anybody.) I saw a white girl down the road, and a crowd standing by the beach. The boy said they were watching the football match.
So I walked that way. At the intersection (girl one way, soccer the other) I just waited, maybe talked to the kid. White girl looks at me from afar; I smile. White girl comes closer, looks at me again, I say Hello. She was being attended by a 20 year-old 'Rasta boy'. As a solo male traveler I get only the innocent 12 year-olds hoping at the least to practice their English. I'd hate to be a girl.
Once we started talking our attendants vanished. White girl and I walked to the soccer match. She was Lisa from the Orkney Islands. The game was over just as we got there, so we just stood and talked. I don't usually pick up girls (meet other tourists) on the street, but I'm trying to expand my repetoire.
Quickly I realized that if I wanted the conversation to continue, I didn't have to do anything. Lisa wanted to talk. She wanted to complain about our hotel, about the men in Ghana, about the taxi drivers. She just wanted to talk to another foreigner. She said something like, 'I was talking with a Ghanaian and he didn't really understand me, like where I was coming from.' I evidently understood because she told me everything, including about her pet goat as a child.
The Orkney Islands are right next to the Shetlands, I think. She was wearing overall shorts and talking to me about pet goats. Anyway, it was fun. We just ambled around the town, getting our bearings. I pointed out the Southern Cross. Oh yeah, she's a volunteer here at a school in Accra, for six weeks now. Don't know how much longer she'll be here. When she arrived in Cape Coast (not long before I did) she was a little shocked, especially at the hotel not having any singles, so she got one of the expensive rooms and called her Dutch friend in Accra who said she'd get in a tro-tro immediately (to come save Lisa).
Back at the hotel I was given a single room key, paid the cheap rate, and saw another girl walk into the office. I'd seen her at the STC bus station in Accra. She wasn't white, but she was foreign, so I said Hello to her. Then talked about the STC bus and whatever. Roxanne from Toronto. In Ghana for five months (volunteering at various school libraries in Accra).
My room was very cheap and very nice. I went out for some street food. Okay heck, I had from a 13 year-old girl some octopus with hot sauce. Then from a woman rice with palm oil soup and fish. Together combined cost less than 50 cents.
Back in my hotel room I ate chocolate and peanuts and fell asleep reading the Gideon's Bible (Apostle of St. John).
This morning going into the shower two girls said Hello to me, and I belatedly mumbled back when I noticed that Roxanne was the second of the two. The first was her cute friend. They were going upstairs, for breakfast I assumed. So I tried to shower quickly (easily with little water pressure) and dress fast to join them upstairs with my bag of water.
But as I left my room at started walking upstairs I saw them being led into the room almost across from mine.
"Changing rooms?" I asked Roxanne.
"Yeah. Sort of. She is."
"Hmmm," I said.
Cute friend: "Is that okay?"
"I don't know. This is sort of my corner. Yes. It's okay." They laughed. It wasn't funny. That meant we were flirting.
I asked the two girls what they were doing today. They were going to Kakum, the rainforest reserve. Oh yeah, that's what Roxanne said last night. I talked bad about it last night and again this morning. I saw the pictures at the tourist office. Very expensive. Don't get to see any animals. Just do the touristy thing of walking in the canopy walkway, 30 m above the ground.
When I said I was going to the Castle (to learn about the slave trade, which I already know about) the cute friend looked very interested. She said she was going there probably tomorrow or something. "Do you want to come to Kakum with us?" she asked.
So, one of the themes of this travels is to be with people. I will change my plans just to be with other people. It's like a guiding principle on this trip. Some people focus 90% of their energy on where they are. That's me. Some people focus 90% of their energy on who they're with. Those people seem to have more fun. So this trip I will try more for 50%/50%.
I asked for their guidebook, Kakum had one of the four canopy rainforest walks in the world. I've already been to the one in Monteverde Costa Rica. I already skipped the one in Southwest Australia. If there were only four, heck, the girl was cute. "Yes. I want to go to Kakum with you."
It's fun walking around towns with cute, interesting girls. Guess what Erica is doing in Accra? She's volunteering, for Olympic Aid organizing community sports and health events (big soccer match where babies get vaccinations too).
After going to the bank (using the ATM, cringing at the plus 10% ATM withdrawal fee, but not so bad since I only see it on the statement and I don't read bank statements in Africa), we went for "tea." That means a hot drink (Milo) and eggs on bread. Funny thing about Ghanaian eggs is that the yolks are white. Anybody have any answers for that?
Got our tro-tro to the rainforest preserve. It was very well set-up. Like the first place I've been to in West Africa where I didn't mentally think how to improve it for tourists. The museum was really good. I didn't learn much, but that's because most of it was focused on the locals, like teaching them reasons to value their rainforest.
With the student price the canopy walk turned out not to be too expensive. It was pretty cool. Rope bridges between the rainforest trees, 23 to 40 metres above the ground. I didn't see any animals, but I did see the trees and a couple butterflies.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wanted to also see the fort at Elmina, the first European structure in the tropics (predating Columbus), but I didn't have enough time. Saturday, instead of seeing the old forts, I went to the rainforest with Canadian volunteers Erica and Roxanne. I didn't want to go to the rainforest, but I wanted to be with people, especially cute girls.
The canopy walk and the museum were very cool.
So yesterday Erica and I went to the Cape Coast castle. I was waiting for 'the revelation' as I went around the museum, or listened to the guide on our tour; but I never found it. It wasn't at the Isle de Goree in Senegal either.
The 'revelation' is the fact, made explicit to tourists (lots of African-Americans), that the slaves who were sold to the European traders to be shipped to the New World were gathered/captured bought/sold enslaved by the dominant African tribesmen. No Europeans went into Africa to capture or round up slaves (at least not on any large scale). Slaves were sold by Africans to the Europeans for guns, gold, and glass beads (and other manufactured goods). The slaves were transported to the New World, sold. Then sugar, rum, and tobacco came back on the ships to Europe. That was the Triangular Trade (the one thing I learned about Africa in school).
Erica and I just toured around the beautiful castle and saw the dungeons where thousands of slaves were kept for the next ship; and we took a lot of photos.
I'm leaving for Ethiopia tonight, but I don't really want to go now. Erica is here in Accra volunteering with Olympic Aid to do stuff with sports and health in Ghana. Her flatmate Rhett is a former Peace Corps volunteer who liked Africa so much he's here volunteering again. I stayed with them last night. Breakfast was yogurt with cereal, very civilized. And hot chocolate (Milo). It's nice to be able to sit on a couch and to be shown around the city with 'locals'. Like last night we went to an ex-pat sports bar where we watched "Training Day" and ate apple crumble with ice cream.
A highlight of Ghana is just the store signs. "Hand of God Beauty Salon" "Jesus is My Brother Plumbing and Pipe-Fitting" "God's Holy Name Communications Center" "God's Time is Best Chop Bar" "Distinguished Ladies Ass." "Holy Trinity Snack Bar"
I'm forgetting a lot of stuff. I'm going to write a monthly email later.
West Africa I:
M email ,
West Africa II: M email , D&W , Photos
Ethiopia: Both M&W emails , Photos
East Africa: M email , D&W , Photos
5th Month: M email , D&W , Photos
South Africa: M email , D&W , Photos