Toilets flush counterclockwise in Timbuktu M3.12.20

Why do 
the African children have the puffed out bellies?

Wed, 17 Apr 2002 10:01:36 -0700 (PDT)
(Written in Accra, Ghana, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Dear Mom and Dad and Friends and Family,

Whew! Second month in Africa. In my first month I went from Spain to Morocco where I had my throat slashed by a man from Fez. Then I crossed the Sahara: first on the roof rack of a 4WD, and then pushing a French bus over sand dunes and through the beach.

My travel goals for West Africa were to go to Timbuktu and then learn about Voodoo and the Slave Trade in Benin. I didn't know anything else about the area, so I didn't know what to expect.

The train from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali) was going to take two nights. Amy, a Canadian I met in the ticket line, told me to, on no account, travel second class. I felt a little guilty buying my first class ticket, because I've never chosen to go anywhere First Class when cheaper was an option, but six months in Africa will be my last travels, and I've got long legs.

When I saw my cabin I had to laugh. First Class was not going to make me go soft. The seats and overhead racks were piled with junk. Bags of noodles, empty plastic water jugs, boxes of shotgun shells and other ammunition, dirty blankets, stinky people. Three other men shared my cabin. One was a raving lunatic who yelled at anybody who disrespected him. Another was the "village chief" whom everybody who walked by greeted. The chief also gave money to people walking by.

the train
From Senegal to Mali

Actually, it was Amy who thought he was a chief. I just thought he was a well-known man wearing pajamas (traditional robes) because when he spit out the window he often just hit the window. I didn't think tribal chiefs would allow themselves to miss so often. And when some of the guys passing would greet him, they'd give him a titty-twister.

That night I had enough room to sit and sometimes to put my legs up on the bags of noodles. The next day on the train I spent most of my time talking with the new tourists who boarded, and with Amy and Robin (from London) up in their sleeper car.

When the train crossed the border into Mali, I and my cabinmates were forced to move, because the Mali police was taking over our cabin. I was put into a cabin with six Senegalese students. They asked me to explain the Electoral College to them. After that I had to explain Florida. They followed me all the way through and including "hanging chad."

Outside the scenery was like trees and brown grass. It did look like Africa, but was really only interesting for five minutes at a time.

The other people in my former cabin were dispersed also. The lunatic was forced back into Second Class. I don't think he ever had a ticket. And the Tribal chief? He got a plastic chair by the toilet. I don't think he was a real chief.

mangoes outside the train
Women selling mangoes, eggs, and ginger juice

The two girls still had an extra bunk in their sleeper car, so I paid for the upgrade, more for the company than for the comfort (though it was nice to spend my second night on the train lying down).

My plan worked, in that once arrived in Bamako, Amy, Robin, and I all went to the same hostel. After a short time in that capital city I decided to join them for trekking in the Dogon Country, since it was on the way to Timbuktu.

But in West Africa you can't just say, "Let's go do this" and then do it. You have to get there first. And getting to the Dogon Country meant getting to Mopti first which meant 11 hours in a very, very hot bus.

I didn't mind it at all though because I got to sit next to Robin, and even in the middle of the desert in Mali, somehow when the bus stopped, girls appeared to sell the frozen bags of juice they carried on their heads. My favorites were ginger juice and bissap, made from boiling hibiscus flowers in water and mixing with sugar. My favorite favorite was lait caille, French for "sugared yogurt milk in plastic bags". It became a game to me. Whenever the bus or bush taxi or truck or stuffed mini-van transport stopped I would get out and look first for lait caille, then ginger juice, and then mangoes. I ate 100 mangoes in West Africa. That's only three a day, every day.

So the bus, unremarkable except for the mystery of the windows. It was blazing hot in Mali in March, yet the riders wouldn't want the bus windows open. Robin was really annoyed and waged a battle with the men in front of us for control of the window. But the one time everybody opened the windows was when we had to take a detour along dirt roads. The bus boy walked down the aisle opening every window. Each person, if they had it, put a turban around his or her face, or some other cloth over nose and mouth. And then we motored through the dirt roads with dust pouring in the windows. Back on the main road, paved, the windows were re-shut. I don't know. It's a mystery.

Dogon Country Detour:

The Dogon people live in villages along a cliff/escarpment. They have so many traditional beliefs and customs it would be really cool to be an anthropologist. Good guides are supposed to clue-in interested tourists to some of the culture. But, yeah right. My guide was recommended, but he was no good. I didn't learn anything about Dogon beliefs in five days of trekking through their country. If I want to learn something about the common people I ought to become an anthropologist.

village market
Dogon village market

But it was still cool. On the first day I walked through a village during their market day. At the base of the cliff, with ancient cliff houses as background, colorfully dressed African women sold stuff under baobab trees. I bought a Dogon flute and improvised haunting Dogon tunes in the cliff ruins at sunset. That night, after eating a baobab sauce over millet for dinner, and looking at the Dogon stars (they worship Sirius which they claim is three stars, one of which is invisible, go figure) I was giddy with travel happiness. What I had seen and done that day, just all the factors (dehydration undoubtedly one of them) combined to make me love life, love traveling, love the fact I was in Africa.

village and cliff dwelling
Ancient cliff dwelling and Dogon village

Over the next four days in Dogon Country I saw more of the mud huts, women carrying water on their heads back from the wells, men sitting in the shade drinking tea. I went monkey hunting with an old, black hunter. We didn't hit anything. In one village I had just come back from a little exploring when the chief motioned me to sit next to him. His chiefly necklace of knives was summoned. On the necklace was his Dogon flute, similar to the one I wore around my neck. The chief played a few notes (the flutes have only five notes), then told me to play mine. Then he did a more complicated series of notes, and it was my turn again. We had a flute-playing contest. I could do a few little melodies and some tricks (like making it sound Andean panpipe style or playing the first line of "Good King Wenceslas"), but in the end I let him outplay me.

Continuing to Timbuktu:

Day after getting back from Dogon Country I was at the Mopti port to get a pinasse down the River Niger to Timbuktu. I got on a working boat. The job was to transport goods to Timbuktu as quickly as possible. They told me three days. It took five and all the time I was extremely grateful. A Swiss guy I met took 11 days. A Japanese guy took 12 days. Same river, same type of boat (80 foot canoe with diesel motor and bamboo mat canopy) much different experience.

5-day Canoe to Timbuktu

Maybe my boat went so much faster because I helped push it through the sand. The river is going down, down every day. My experience with the bus in the Sahara probably helped. Actually, I was just a little extra muscle. The boat workers were very efficient. They wanted their cargo of peanuts, Brazilian sugar, Italian tomato paste, MSG ("99% purity and up"), flour, soap, plastic buckets, and Chinese green tea as quickly in Timbuktu as I did.

Pushing a boat through the river

Food was included in the fare. That meant all the rice with MSG sauce I could want, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The first couple of days I got bits of meat fat and gristle in with my MSG rice. Then the other days I got fish. Sometimes, like at night, when I was eating on top of the canopy and couldn't see the food, I imagined it was really good; and it was. There's really nothing like cruising down the River Niger, watching the stars come out, looking listening for hippos, pretending to be eating the best food on earth.

Nights on the boat were mostly uncomfortable. I found out by the last night that sugar is more comfortable to sleep on than peanuts.

Inside of the pinasse

I wasn't expecting anything from Timbuktu. Just getting there (direct line from Spain through Morocco through Mauritania and the Sahara, to Dakar, to Bamako, to Mopti [Dogon Country was my only detour for a month and a half]) would be the end-result experience in itself.

Timbuktu is a town at the edge of the Sahara and on the River Niger, so it was a really important trading town way, way back when. The town started declining in the 15th century.


So I got there 500 years too late. Not expecting anything, I left Timbuktu disappointed.

Too much hassle, not enough of anything good. Malians warned me that Timbuktu was "very touristy". Goes to show you what they think a tourist is. They should have said, "You'll just be targeted for your money without any value in return."

Every kid was a beggar

But it wasn't that bad. I went on a camel safari for two days with a German guy Thomas. Uneventful, but I do have a lot of photos.

safari with Tuareg guideDesert 
nomad Tuareg hutBaby at 
hut we stopped at for lunch

Okay, this is getting out of hand. This is a monthly email. I really think people should be on my daily list, but then you get massive amounts to read. Don't read it if you don't want. Trying to sum a month of Africa while being rushed at an internet café in Ethiopia?

Left Timbuktu on a truck traveling by the full moon across the desert/savannah. No sleep, but I wasn't tired in the morning. So immediately to the bush taxi place to wait for hours for the stupid mini-van to get overfull for the trip to Djenne. Djenne has a magnificent Monday market. I was there on a Friday, so all I saw (in super hot temperatures, liked at least 110 degrees) was the mosque. But that's all there is to see. The mosque is made of mud with wooden supports. It looks good and I've got the pictures to prove it.

The mosque in Djenne, Mali

I wanted to get to Burkina Faso (it's a country) for Easter, which was in two days. But transport out of Djenne was impossible for that evening. However, by grace alone, I met a French volunteer.

The Volunteers:
So I met this French guy, Michel, who was driving that evening to somewhere I could get a bush taxi to further on my way to Burkina. He spent too much time saying Goodbye, then Hello, to all his friends (I guess most of his job is networking) so we didn't get to the town, but I did get taken to his house. That was nice, though I went to bed without supper.

Next day after a nice breakfast with Michel and a chat about Mali and the French educational system, and hours of Goodbyes and Hellos I was driven to this town. But sorry, no more transport today, but you could just wait and hope for a passing bush taxi (overfull pickup trucks or minivans). Trouble is they only leave when stuffed, so unless someone gets off, 100 bush taxis could pass and none of them stop.

After two minutes one stopped. One person got out. I got in. Right next to me were two American Peace Corp guys. For three hours in the super hot pickup I learned heaps about Mali and Africa and everything, even why the children have distended stomachs, and what the deal is with the Dogon astronomers.

Bush taxi

I had to get to a town Koro in time for the twice-weekly bus to Ouagadougou (Whaaguhdoogoo). I got off the pickup, walked to the bus. They said Hurry, hurry, it's leaving. Lesson #2: Never rush in Africa. There's no hurry.

I got my ticket, hopped on board, and the bus left. Even more amazing, I sat next to two more Peace Corp Volunteers, Jackie and Sheila from Senegal (and America). For the next six hours I learned even more about West Africa, including another explanation for why the children have their puffed-out bellies.

It was a long day, and my brain was packed full of the volunteer's perspective on Africa, but I made it to Burkina Faso, late Saturday night.

Easter Sunday was uneventful. I went to the catholic cathedral.

The next five days, or however many days I spent in Ouagadougou until I could finally leave on Friday, I did a whole lotta nothing. I had to wait, wait, for my visa for Ghana. My grand plan of learning all about Voodoo in Benin went out the window when I realized I'm very short on time (Africa is a large continent) and that I'm not an anthropologist.

Sometimes it's very nice to just stop somewhere for a while to regroup while traveling. Ouagadougou is the last place to do that. There's nothing to do in (Whaguhdoogoo). I just sweated at the orphanage I was staying at. It was incredibly hot. I'd only really start sweating at 9 pm, because it was always so hot before then that my sweat just immediately evaporated.

In retrospect I think I had malaria

(Picture me drinking hot tap water [with salt added], sweating or not sweating in sweltering heat (at least 108 degrees) reading my book or walking around town to the Ghana embassy or the bus station or just around doing nothing good. Then picture the PCVs Jackie and Sheila at the American Rec Center playing tennis or watching movies or eating mac and cheese and milkshakes in air-conditioned luxury. I didn't know about it. They stayed at the private Peace Corp hostel, where they learned about the Rec center.)

When I finally got to leave Ouaga, I met Jackie and Sheila again. Their telling me about the luxuries of the American club made me sick. The next three days I had a high fever and a heat rash, but I still went around with them in Kumasi, Ghana to the rainforest (click for my spider photo) and then to a lake. The lake sucked while I was there because I was too tired and feverish to enjoy it. But later I learned that the lake was made by a meteor crater. I love meteorites. It actually in retrospect made the lake cool.

Jackie, Shiela, and the Lake Bosumptwi boys

I arrived in Accra, late at night. I went to the hotel recommended to me that nobody else has heard of. It was full, but I was allowed to "sleep" inside the bar (it was a bar restaurant hotel by the beach). The music was blasting and the lights were on until 2:30 am even though the bartender was sleeping on the ground with me. I couldn't understand the logic. Bartender had closed everything up, but left the lights on and the music very loud, while he went to sleep, with his shoes on, on the bare ground. Finally I asked him to turn everything off and he did. Agghh. That night made me sick again.

The reason I came to Accra (capital of Ghana, an English speaking country, sort of) was to buy a plane ticket to Ethiopia. For three days I got the run-around. Can't get my Ethiopian visa until I get a ticket. Can't get a cheap ticket anywhere. Can't get an expensive ticket without paying for it in dollars. Can't get dollars, must get cedis (local currency in which the highest bill, most valuable, is worth 67 cents). Can't get cedis because the infrastructure has rejected my Visa card. Finally do get cedis, but only in armfuls of 2000 bills (worth 27 cents). I did get some of the 67 cent bills too. Stuffed the bills down my pants to go to the foreign exchange offices, looking for dollars, getting ripped on the double exchange rate. I did this three times. Got my dollars, bought my ticket, got my visa, got out of Accra.

Went to Cape Coast. I wanted to see the old slave trading forts. Instead I went to the rainforest because a cute girl was going there, and because it had one of only four canopy walkways in the world. I didn't know there were only four. I passed one up in Australia, but went to the one in Costa Rica. I wonder where the fourth is?

So I walked amongst the tops of the rainforest trees. Then the next day went to an old slave trading fort, 1500 slaves stored there at a time. Not much mention of how it was the Africans who captured and sold their brothers/enemies to the Europeans. Still, gruesome European dungeons, horrendous passage to the New World.

Cape Coast slave fort with Erica

I went back to Accra with Erica (Canadian volunteer, met lots of other volunteers in Ghana, more volunteers than travelers, hmm, maybe all volunteers, me the only selfish traveler). Stayed at her place. I only had a day there before I left for Ethiopia, but it was very nice. Couch with fan and guy's magazines (Maxim), refridgerator, toilet, shower. We went out to a foreigner's bar/restaurant and watched a movie. Ate a double cheeseburger with grilled onions and chocolate shake, and fries. I didn't want to leave.

Now I am in Ethiopia. If you want to be on my monthly list please tell me. Weekly list (less long emails, but it's random when I write them, so you don't necessarily get the good stuff), tell me. Daily list (shorter emails except when I ramble, what I had for breakfast, more about the other travelers I meet, more impressions, just whatever comes off the top of my head, but it's like that for all my emails). So you choose. Most of you already have. If you're new to the list you have to reply to keep getting anything.

Okay, thanks for reading,
Eric Vance

PS So one thing I did do in Timbuktu was check out all the toilets in the town. They flush counterclockwise. Some also flush clockwise.

PPS 'Sirius has long been known to the modern astronomer to be a double star, but it was only in 1995 when a third star, an invisible neutron star, was detected in orbit around the other two stars.' (paraphrased from Lonely Planet West Africa). I think that's the smoking gun. It's evidence of something for sure. And how did the Dogon's know? They won't even dig their own latrines, but they know impossible things.

2nd month daily and weekly emails

West Africa I: M email , D&W , Photos
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

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Last modified January 1, 2003.
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