Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joyful reunion...

Before rejoining the tour in Bamako, Mali we stocked up on duty-free candy and wine in anticipation of lots of self-medicating.  Upon rejoining we soon realized that the one thing we agreed with Farron before leaving (i.e. which visa he would do first in Bamako) had changed.  So within ten minutes of our arrival we had to make independent plans to go to the Ghanian embassy.  Gosh, it’s great to be back…

Meanwhile, Max, who had not been feeling well for the last days in Dakar, went immediately to a nearby clinic where he tested positive for a fairly severe case of malaria and was immediately hospitalized.  Since Africa can make a hypochondriac out of anyone, we began to feel inexplicably tired and achy and, after some debate, decided to assuage our paranoia and get ourselves checked out as well.  Bet you can guess the result.  Positive.  Well, mild case for me actually.  Tia (despite having stronger symptoms) turned out to be negative but the doctor believed that our malaria pills might have skewed the test.  So we’re off of alcohol for three days (why now?) and on to our new friend, Coartem.

That didn’t stop us from cruising around Bamako, though!  Motorbikes whizzed by like swarms of bees and we often felt we’d plunge into the Niger if we weren’t careful.  We paid a visit to the National Museum for a cruise among Malian artifacts, spent a night out dancing at a Russian karaoke bar where we met a particularly racist Texan, saw Tomani Diabeté (still just as good the second time) and his younger brother at Le Diplomat and haggled with a Malian woman in the frenetic vegetable market where even our poor French was of no use and we were reduced to bartering for carrots and onions using hand signals. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

3ème Festival Mondial des Arts Negres

It seems only fair that for all the cool events we miss by just weeks, that we’d have the good fortune to be in Senegal for the third World Festival for Black Arts.  Amazingly, almost all of the hundreds of events are absolutely free.

The world-famous kora player, Toumani Diabeté, was the first performer at the opening ceremony.   Somehow the majesty of an instrument normally best enjoyed in a small and intimate room was not lost as he played standing alone in the middle of the 60,000-seat stadium.  Next up an impressive dance/theater performance telling the story of the African diaspora followed by speeches from the presidents of Mali, Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Guinea Bissau and finally… Wyclef Jean??  Wyclef started his speech by complaining about Haiti not letting him run for president (“I came to Haiti and they sent me home before I was even off the plane”).   Although considering he doesn’t speak French, maybe all they told him was that he needed a visa first.  Next, he congratulated himself on being educated (“I can read.  I can write”), encouraged people to do hip-hop because they love it and not “for the bling and hot chicks” and ended with the embarrassing, “If you want to see Haiti, then just look at me.  I am beautiful.  I am strong. I am...”  Are all Haitians self-congratulatory?  I think not.

My favorite part about the evening, though, was the fake camera crew wandering through the aisles all night with their cardboard camcorders, wooden microphones and homemade t-shirts.  Je l'aime.

The parade of Burkina Faso marionettes never materialized (or we were in the wrong place at the wrong time – turns out the English schedule differs from the French on some important details).  Archie Shepp’s gravelly voice enthralled us for an evening under the majestic African Renaissance statue (apparently they’ll be spending another $7 million to lengthen the woman’s skirt at some point although arguably the money would be better spent covering her side-boob). Massimo thought it looked like something out of fascist Italy. You be the judge...

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Planet of the crabs…

Even if we never leave Ocean & Savane, the trip to Senegal is already worth it.  The beach is covered with crabs the size of my head and at nightfall as they advance from the beach further inland it looks like a sea of crabs.  I am simultaneously amazed and fearful of them, realizing we’re outnumbered.

As for the people, it’s impossible to improve on Max’s description:  “They are so beautiful.  If we give them money and power, we instantly become second-class citizens.”  It’s hard to disagree when everyone you see is tall (the perfect posture from carrying stuff on their heads helps) and elegantly sculpted with skin the color of polished ebony.

We spent Juan’s birthday at the Doudj National Park.  To say we were underwhelmed at the beginning is an understatement – the Pantanal was 10 times cooler – but when the boat rounded a corner and we saw thousands of 20 kg pelicans hanging out on a narrow concrete slab, we were sufficiently impressed.

We experienced the three-part Senegalese tea ceremony each night (amére comme la mort; doue comme la vie; miellé comme l’amour), marveled at the more-or-less tame sea hawk perched just feet from our dinner table, and made friends with the hotel’s chocolate lab puppy.  The kicker:  all of it costs the same daily rate as bush camping on the truck…

More pictures here:
St Louis - Senegal

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our type of bush camp...

After too many sleepless nights and the promise of a Christmas dinner back home in Longreach, Amy jumped ship and took the 3am London  flight out of Nouakachott.  Meanwhile, the truck’s itinerary for the next seven days involved nonstop driving and desert camping every day in dangerous Mauritania.  Not a problem.  But no showers for a week with no plans to stop at anything interesting?  No thanks.   So we’ve taken matters into our own hands.  

Enter the noble Italian heroes: Massimo and Massimiliano (yes, we realize how amazingly Italian these names are), followed by their faithful sidekicks: Tia and Juan.  M2 came up with the idea to leave the truck for a 10-day visit to Senegal and fly back to meet the group in Bamako, the capital of Mali.  We didn’t take much convincing.  A 7-hour drive from Nouakchott, four of which we spent in an impounded car that the driver bribed a policeman to borrow (genius) and three of which we spent packed like sardines into a mini-bus with a goat tied on top, is the first French settlement in Senegal:  St. Louis.  

Crossing the border with M2, we can see why people get the impression that tourists are easy targets.  When I asked Massimiliano (Max) if his pockets were allergic to money, he replied, “I had only 20 euros in my pockets but I feel like I paid the whole world.”  For example, they probably would have paid our pirogue driver the original 8000 ouagiyas he asked for, if I hadn’t pointed out that the book said we shouldn’t pay more than 200 each.  Which, by the way, got me in big trouble with the friend of the boat driver.  “I do not look in a book when I visit your country, I listen to your advice!”  Promptly followed by him invading my space to grab my book, me asking him not to touch me, Juan saying, “Leave my wife alone” (in French), and then the guy saying, “Yes, I prefer to deal with the men.  Here, we don’t deal with the women.”  Wow.  We ultimately settled on 2000 but only after the Mauritanian policeman we’d bribed…er, paid…for border assistance intervened.   Ultimately it was probably a fair price since Massimo alone had 80 kg of baggage.  Across the river at Senegalese customs, after Tia had the passports stamped, Juan was told, Toi, t’es bon, mais ta femme parle beaucoup (“you are ok, but your wife talks too much”).  

After arriving at Ocean & Savane and examining our stilted huts built over the river, we strolled 100 meters to the beach on the other side of the hotel and there wasn’t a person in sight.  Back at the hotel, the bar was stocked with cold beer and French wine.  Max promptly announced, “Tonight, I bush camp.”  And we laughed at the thought of where the truck was now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Juan Auld Jose and Tia Mint Jill

We always love being welcomed into a country by cheats.  Although, to be fair to the cheats, they came highly recommended…  When we arrived in Nouadibhou, Farron announced to the truck that our campsite/hostel would provide the best exchange rates.  So we took our remaining Moroccan dirhams (approx. US$110) and exchanged them immediately upon arriving.  Getting lost in the cross rates in the moment, we accepted the Mauritanian ouagiyas and went back to our room to double check the rate.  We were completely shocked to find that we lost about $27 on the transaction.  When we complained to the hostel owner we found that the man who made the exchange didn’t work there— in fact, he was nowhere to be found.  Farron (who changed his money elsewhere!) compared this to taking him up on a restaurant recommendation and not checking the prices.  Upon which Tia retorted, “No, it’s like you giving us a recommendation for the cheapest restaurant in town and it turns out that every other restaurant is cheaper.”  And even then, no, because you can still expect an expensive restaurant not to take your money and run away!

After this fiasco we only had a few hours of daylight left, which we spent drinking contraband beers in a strictly dry Muslim country.  How, you might ask?  Only one wily Australian (read: Amy) and the owner of a nearby Chinese restaurant will ever know.  Then we were off to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.  We arrived at the Auberge du Sahara around 5pm and immediately hopped in a taxi to head for the fish market.  Every day in the early evening, fishermen bring their catches to shore and we walked across the rough concrete floors thick with fish scale slush while cutting a wide path around the cleaver-wielding men to avoid being sprayed by entrails.  Behind the market stretched a picturesque beach lined with brightly colored boats, parked as close as cars for a mile.  Men worked in lines, rolling their boats into their spots atop old helium tanks and wrapping up nets as long as fifty of them.  Women with impossibly good posture sauntered by, balancing buckets on their heads, while adorable children stumbled alongside gawking at the white people.  The night ended with Amy treating us to a joint birthday dinner of surprisingly pleasant sushi and fresh fish (and cold beer) at La Salamandre.  Things were beginning to look up…

Unfortunately, Tia woke up with hundreds of bed bug bites from the mattress and when she confronted the hostel owner was told, “Many people complain about them, but what am I to do?”  Incensed and working on little sleep, we were starting to get sick of not having the power to do anything since she was already paid by African Trails.  Meanwhile, it was our turn to cook for the group that same night.  So we ended up buying pizza across the street and concocting a plan…  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I have a .45 and a shovel, I doubt anyone would miss you...

Twin statues of ostriches in a roundabout signaled the end of Morocco (and of supermarket parking lots) and the beginning of Western Sahara.  Technically not a country since Spain decolonized in the 70s, Western Sahara was alternately claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania and is now undergoing a referendum to choose whether to become independent or part of Morocco.  Humming along the endless, dusty, desert road, one can see why Spain left.  Aside from sand dunes (and iron ore, evidently) there’s not much here.  Still, the beaches where we stopped were stunning and our campfires under the night sky were lit up by the stars.  The few hills in the distance would shimmer like mirages and at times appeared to be floating freely in the sky.  Somehow we still ended up having lunch on a beachside cliff overlooking garbage heaps: a credit to Farron’s uncanny ability to always serve a cake with icing… made out of trash.  Mmm yum!

I kept thinking that if Tia wanted me knocked off this would be the place to do it— no international laws and I doubted the U.N. peacekeepers would intervene.  If my family ever reads this entry please send help (and water) soon.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the vast majority of people on the truck are treating this trip as if it were free.  Ergo, it would be rude to complain about anything.  Our conversations often go something like this…

Tia:  I can’t believe the truck leaks everywhere.  Through the roof, the windows…even the floorboards into the luggage compartments.  I expected my tent to leak but not the truck.

Gustav:  I love the truck.

The parts of Morocco we’ve actually seen, we’ve really enjoyed.  Marrakech, Fez and Casablanca all had amazing outdoor markets full of butchers fulfilling orders on the spot, colorfully-embroidered shoes, horses carrying insane amounts of goods, snake charmers, dirty spices and leather goods.   Volubilis and Rabat had amazing ruins and Casablanca the fifth biggest mosque in the world.  Unfortunately, Farron only ever allots 1-2 hours in any place interesting.  We spend the vast majority of our time parked in Marjane (imagine a Super Target or Big K) parking lots.  Not a joke.  Instead of stopping in any of the amazing, dusty, off-the-beaten-track towns for lunch, we go to commercialized shopping centers for expensive imported food.  And then hang out there for HOURS.  Why does no one else seem bothered by this?!

On the plus side:  Juan and I are rockstars at putting up our tent, we managed to cook a killer Thanksgiving dinner despite the conditions, Carol cooked grilled cheese for my birthday, and it’s finally starting to be a bit warmer at night.

Definitely check out Amy’s blog for more insight on this trip: amyjeanmurray.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick

Our Western Africa trip got off to a bumpy start.  Farron, our driver, did not meet us at the airport as planned and we were shuttled to a Marrakech hotel by non-English speakers with no information.  We didn’t mind much because we got to spend the night catching up with Amy…  (I met Amy in a data room on a property investment deal in Sydney and instantly liked her.   That she decided to join our African adventure is further proof that I have impeccable taste).

Farron arrived the next morning to inform us that our transport for the entire trip (it’s hard to know what to call our beast of a truck) was still in Spain because Moroccan authorities would not let him drive a tourist vehicle across the border without tourists (or Moroccans pretending to be tourists…or inflatable dolls).  The good news = five days spent in hotels.  The bad news = a re-routing of the trip that ultimately loses us a bit of time down the road.  We later learned that the border “mistake” cost the company about 5,000 Euros.  I call this the cost of karma.   You can ask me why later.

The players for our 10-week adventure:  An ex-maximum security prison guard from Canada with a heart of gold and a fiery wit, two Milanese businessmen who teach us dirty words in Italian whenever they aren’t busy flirting, a Portuguese surf-shop/bar owner who left his wife behind even though she wanted to come (he claims he didn’t want to endanger her, but this reason seems increasingly suspicious as we get to know him), a couple of English psychologists, two girls that just finished Teach-for-America stints (Amy has nicknamed one of them “the Devil”, a title she more than deserves), a quiet Swede, a cynical Scot, a 21-year old German soap-opera star (well, “star” might be a bit of a stretch) who is teaching himself a fourth language on this trip (yes, I am appropriately shamed), an Irishman who is quickly getting sick of us asking him to pronounce the number three (“tree”), a 19-year old kid that has been saving for the trip for two years by working at a supermarket in England, two Alaskans in their 60s, an adorable eye doctor currently working in Borneo, a gay (always drunk) Kiwi, an English woman with a penchant for Fijian men, an Aussie that I still like even though he bought a guitar on the second day of the trip (thankfully  we don’t have the type of group that wants to sit around the campfire singing), a Swiss-German who  keeps to himself, another cute Canadian, and a thoughtful Englishman that is always off taking pictures of birds (Kaedon would like him).

With the exception of the Devil, we have been pleasantly surprised by the people on the trip.  Still, I wish we had the right to vote people off just in case.

More on Morocco later, but as a preview, I'm in love with the walls of colorful shoes...