Sunday, January 30, 2011

When life gives you tyrants afraid of water...

After a few days in Cotonou (which was surprisingly overpriced for a West Africa city!), we were off to Abomey.  We took our first bucket shower at the lovely Auberge D’Abomey, ate delicious Beninoise cuisine at Chez Delphano,  and arranged a four-hour tour of the remaining Dahomey palaces with an English-speaking guide. 

The Dahomey people were a bloody lot and had the dubious honor of never having been enslaved...  because they hunted prisoners from neighboring tribes and sold them as slaves to the Europeans.  Many of their 18th century palaces remain intact along with the decorative bas reliefs containing the unique symbols of each king – Glele chose the lion and a scimitar to symbolize his reign; Kplenga a vulture and a gun; Tegbesson a shirted buffalo and a gun; Benanzin a sharp-toothed fish and sword.  Notice a common theme?  Their art isn’t all that advanced; their coats of arms sort of look like children could have made them.  I guess when your main focus is war, not the arts, this is probably appropriate. 

After our informative moped tour of Abomey, it seemed only fitting to end our Benin trip with a visit to Ganvie, a village about 30 minutes north of Cotonou.   Back when the Dahomey people were blazing a bloody path through Benin and either enslaving, killing or driving out local people, some locals decided to capitalize on the fact that the Dahomey people were prohibited for religious reasons from entering water.  They headed out into Lake Nokué and built a whole city on ebony stilts and became master fishermen.  Although it probably never happened, I sort of envision them taunting the angry Dahomey from dugout canoes while the Dahomey impotently wave their war implements from the shore.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gas stations in Benin are faaaancy!

Gas station in Mali:

Gas station in Benin:

Move over Franzia, you have a new competitor for class...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble

We met our favorite border bureaucrat while crossing into Benin. After we filled out the immigration forms, he carefully went over every single answer with us; double-checking certain entries against our passport, asking us questions, and each time he came to a number seven he’d verify that we meant seven and then add one of those small horizontal lines to each one. As it slowly dawned on him that we hadn’t included these on any of our sevens, he increasingly cast sideways glances at us as he corrected each one. His look said something like, “You think you are so smart, but you don’t even know how to write the number seven. I laugh at you and your inferior Western ways.”  Haha.

Benin is only a sliver of a country, but it’s full of charm and history. Ouidah, a small town about an hour outside of the capital, is considered the birthplace of voodoo and we made it there in time for their annual voodoo festival. Given the vulture skulls and rotting bat carcasses found in voodoo fetish markets throughout West Africa, the festival was surprisingly tame: cool outfits, presidential speech, etc. The voodoo priests shambling through the streets wearing layered robes and mittens with their faces covered by thick-woven veils were one of the most interesting sights. When we gave one a 100 franc donation he waved his stick of power at us in annoyance and uttered something. Luckily we still don’t understand French (or believe in voodoo) or we might have been disturbed by whatever he had to say. Gauging by the dire looks on other people’s faces, however, as they spoke to the priest (or rather to the plaster head on his kneeling back) they believed every word he said.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problem

Cash.  We were beginning to need it desperately.  Our hopes were pinned on finding something in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.  A whole day of wandering from bank to bank trying to pronounce Grand Bretagne in French eventually proved fruitful at La Banque Internationale du Burkina (BIB) where they only made us pay a 4% commission to change British pounds.  Another bank even took our traveler’s cheques.  Money in hand we felt confident that we could spend another few weeks in the Franc zone and decided to get a visa des pays de l'entente to enter Benin and Togo before circling back to finish in Ghana.  At the BF Dept. of Migration, we were told that it would take three days to process such a visa, which would have been too late for the next bi-weekly bus to Benin.  Having flashbacks of when we were trapped in Guyana we pleaded with the official if it could be done plus rapidé.  

I’m sure you can guess where this went next.  There are two types of people you can bribe: one type will be grateful and go out of his way to help you, while the other type thinks you’re rich suckers and will extort as much as he can.  Hoping that he was the first we slipped him an extra 5,000 CFA ($10) on the $100 visas so that they would be done by the next day.  Judging by his eyebrows it was more than enough.  As we left we wondered if we should have paid less and whether we would have any difficulty getting the passports back when we returned.  Instead, we awoke the next morning to one of the auberge staff knocking on our door telling us that our passports were here.  The smiling official had hand-delivered them to us, a few miles out of his way, and thus freed up the rest of our day for artisan shopping and a long lunch.  Best bribe ever.

The other funny thing is that we bumped into people from the overland truck, but…  not our truck.  Oasis, another overland trek company, follows the nearly the same route around the same time as African Trails.  How did we meet them, you might ask?  We were having dinner in the hostel and overheard loud complaining punctuated by the word “truck” every other sentence.  Amazing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Go, speed racer, go

Thanks to the lovely Franca, who let us leave our monstrous bags for a night at her Villa Rose Hotel, we had the requisite motivation for a one-night trip to Banfora.  About an hour and a half southwest of Bobo, this sleepy town is the gateway to some of Burkina’s most beautiful landscapes – waterfalls, weird limestone formations, sugarcane fields and more.   

Although the lovely Hôtel Canne à Sucre didn’t have a room for us, we still enjoyed one of the best meals we had in a while at their restaurant and used their contacts to find someone to rent a motorcycle from.  You didn’t know we knew how to drive motorcycles?  You would be right.  After giving Juan a five-minute lesson, Abdullah parted with his motorcycle for about US$11 – no ID necessary, no deposit, no insurance, nothing.   Remind me why it’s better to live in a litigious country?

We realized a few things on our three-hour excursion:  we are getting pretty good at asking for directions in French, it’s hard to drive a motorcycle through soft sands, and I don’t quite run fast enough for our 10-second camera timer.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Not bad scam artist, not bad at all...

Our ride from Koutiala to Burkina Faso’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, was largely without incident.  Unless you count the time that our driver saw a police checkpoint, veered off the road to avoid it and then drove through the bushes for 20 minutes to get back to the road.  Oh, and when he didn’t have enough warning to avoid the next stop and the police pulled us over and made all the people riding on the roof and hanging off the back (about six people) get off and walk.  Luckily we had two of the 20 seats inside the 10-seater.

The most remarkable aspects of Bobo-Dioulasso?  #1:  We have rediscovered a world where bus companies have actual schedules, published fares and [gasp] assigned seats; #2: Michele, the Corsican owner of Restaurant Les 2 Palmiers spent an evening chatting with us about doing business in Burkina Faso (can you imagine repeating instructions to your employees three times each morning and then still having to argue with them every evening??), treated us to free dessert and the  worst alcoholic drink of my life (yes, I’m including college) because we reminded her of her two sons that are off traveling, and actually accepted our credit card.  Do not underestimate how excited this last point makes us.   Our ATM cards have not worked in about a month, we’ve changed all our US dollars into francs already and no one will change all the British Pounds African Trails told us to bring; and #3:  Le Boulangerie Patisserie Le Bonne Miche has the best raisin rolls ever.  It’s nice being back in a world of delicious French pastries. 

Unfortunately, we got scammed out of 10,000 CFA (luckily only about $20) at Les Cocotiers Hotel.  Who would have thought that the guy sitting in the security guard’s seat when we arrived, who then walked behind the front desk to check availability, chatted with someone to show us a room, and whom we ultimately gave our two nights’ worth of money to, didn’t actually work at the hotel.  Not bad, scumbag, you had us going.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

We partied like it's 1999 (e.g. we still aren't legal)

They say it’s better to get malaria when you are still in Africa than when you return home.  The doctors can easily diagnose it and the cure is readily available for less than $10.  After the three-day course of Coartem treatment (and some pampering in a nice-ish hotel), Juan is almost as good as new.

Next up: getting to Burkina Faso.  After waiting all day at a bus station in Sevaré, we eventually found a beat-up Italian bus rescued from the 1970s to take us to Koutiala.  We had some debate over whether to go via this border town to Burkina Faso, simply because there were reports of bad roads and bandits along all three land entries from Mali…  Not reassuring.  Still, we were free from African Trails!  Arriving well into nighttime we were grateful for the taxi man who knew our hotel and only charged us double the fair price ($2 instead of $1).  Bon année, taxi dude.

As an aside, I’m firmly in the habit of saying I’m from Mexico.  Not only does this seem to make people friendlier and elicit surprise and wonder but it usually makes them assume I’ve got less money to throw around.  It’s only once that an electrician who studied Spanish ages ago asked me to speak with him (he understood none of it) and another time a guy quizzed me about the 1986 Mexico World Cup (I just nodded enthusiastically and said Mexico was tres super).  So when we rolled into Hotel La Chaumiere and introduced our Mexican selves to the proprietor, he immediately responded with a wide grin that his name was Besame.   Whether that was a reference to the song, Besame Mucho, or a sly request for Tia to kiss him we’ll never know. 

After showering off the dirt caked into our skin from the day’s travel, trying to establish with the hotel owner if there would be any dancing or singing that evening (he replied no to both), we camped out under our mosquito net to watch the Russell Crowe remake of Robin Hood.  The only good thing about that movie is that, because of its length, we actually stayed awake past midnight to ring in 2011.  Rockstars.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thank you, Africa, for your many gifts

There was a computer game I used to play back on the Commodore 64 called Heart of Africa.  You played this pixellated adventurer who wandered across the entire continent through desert, oasis towns, tribal villages, and rain forests in search of a Pharaoh’s tomb, keeping a journal along the way of events that happened to you.  If you wandered too far from cities you inevitably died (yet still somehow recorded this fact in your journal).  And not your run-of-the-mill sort of death either; it had to be something exotic and horrible.  Starvation, eaten by a lion, jungle fever, army ants were all ways to kick the bucket.  Understandably, it led me to have a dire view of the African continent.

Now that I’m saddled with malaria for the second time in a couple of weeks I’m beginning to understand that it was all true: there are some truly unpleasant things you can catch here.  Seriously, take a second to read about this disease and it will scare the crap out of you; little six-cell parasites are camped in your liver and gobbling up your blood!  Your whole body aches—it hurts to breathe, laugh, or burp.  You burn with fever and feel cold despite being in the middle of a desert.  You’re too tired to do anything except sweat in bed under a mosquito net.  Lonely Planet says that 10% of people who contract the disease die from it and, despite realizing that these are probably people who don’t have access to decent medical care, I’m quietly convinced that I will have a new mutated version and they’ll airlift me back to the States where the doctor (who is Rene Russo) tells me from behind a plastic wall that there’s nothing she can do. 

Anyway, we’ve had to separate from the African Trails tour to spend some time at a hospital in Sevare and have packed up all our belongings.  The truck is going to spend a whopping two days in Burkina Faso and then drive straight down to the Ghanan coast to chill on beaches for two weeks.  Wondering again why we’ve paid these jokers so much money to show us “real” Africa, there’s a fair chance that we won’t even bother to catch up with them again.
Goodbye truck.  Oh, how we'll miss you.

Award for Best Thing to Say to Recovering Malaria Patient goes to Sherry from Alaska: “If there were a 7-11 here I would buy you a Slushee of your choice.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

Santa's been drinking, kiddos

With all of the tours we’ve been doing, it’s been about a week since we’ve had a truck dinner.  Somehow, with the system designed while we were in Senegal, cook groups who were lucky enough to get a pass didn’t have to cook until their day came up again.  As such our group (just Tia and I since Amy left), who cooked right before we went on the tours, would get to cook again on Christmas day after we got back.  Luckily, some of the superstars on the trip who always end up doing the lion’s share of work kindly volunteered to help out, while we spent the afternoon celebrating our anniversary in a nice-ish hotel (we bought them beers as thanks).  The dinner included a motley assortment of mashed potatoes, boiled cabbage, canned apples, corn, roasted lamb, and bread and Christmas puddings for dessert.  Not too shabby, bush cooks.   
Commandeering the sound system, we replaced the French reggae with a 15-song playlist of Christmas carols (gets old quick) and then some classic Dean Martin tunes.  The night further devolved when we had our Secret Santa and half of the gifts turned out to be gags.  One guy got an animal jawbone and an empty can of beans with a piece of poop inside.  I got, well...the pictures say it all.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool

After an uneventful two-day trip up the Niger river from Djenné to Mopti, we made final arrangements in Bandiagara for a trek to Dogon country.

Isolated from the world until the mid 20th century, the Dogon people are considered to be one of the best preserved African cultures.  They’ve built picturesque villages of mud houses alongside a cliff face and tours lead you down the escarpment, from village to village, along sandy footpaths and past irrigated onion paddies.  Over three days, we slept on auberge roofs that catered to Westerners (i.e. provided cold beer) and took tours through the various villages.  Each time we would approach a village, children would run out to greet us yelling, “Ça va!  Ça va!” and take hold of our hands.  At first it all seemed pretty innocent and only uncomfortable when one of them hanging on my arm happened not to be wearing any clothes, but then we realized that a few were asking us for a petit cadeau (small gift), a bonbon (candy), a bouteille (water bottle), or a chemise (shirt).  We eventually decided that the cuteness did not outweigh the kid germs plus harassment so we tried to keep our hands otherwise occupied after that (Tia was much better at it than me).

The hike wouldn’t have been hard if it weren’t for the parching heat.  People were spread out over a kilometer between the self-dubbed “hard core” hikers at the front and the others who were just happy to keep up with the donkey cart (or ride it).  I stuck with the impassive guide hoping that if I asked enough questions he might actually start describing some of the surroundings.  Every time he passed anyone in a village he’d say, Po, u say yo (“hi, how are you?” in Dogon), which kicked off a succession of similar greetings, all ending in say yo and often chanted in unison if more than two people were involved, which roughly asked after your father, your mother, your family, your village, and so on. Proud to say that after a few tries I managed to get people to go through two or three rounds with me, while smiling broadly at my ineptitude.

Best accomplishment was buying a cool Dogon shutter that this super nice guy sold to me at a bargain price of 8,500 CFA ($17). He was the only seller who didn’t badger or harass and nodded politely when I said I’d consider buying later (after the crowd of hawkers cleared). Once we closed the deal I said, Vous ette tres juste avec moi et vous ette tres joli, which aside from saying he was very fair with me I also apparently said he was very nice-looking…  Hope he didn’t get the wrong idea giving me that discount.

Sean, the young Brit, got yelled at (and almost chased) by these women for taking a picture of them grinding millet.  Kola nut to the rescue. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Stop stealing my, um, white-ness?

On a small island cradled by the Niger, sits the city of Djenné, considered one of the most important cities in Muslim academia with people traveling from throughout the Islamic world to live and study here.  After taking a barge across the Niger and crossing a precarious-looking mud bridge, our truck lumbered into the city, stirring up a cocoa-colored dust and scarcely squeezing past a number of the multi-story, mud buildings.  We found our way to the roof of Le Campement and from there had a clear view of women bathing themselves with water pails, topless.  Tick the box on another sight seen…  Amy told us about a Nigerian writer who caustically wrote that every Western guide book of any African country must include a photo of women with bare breasts.  While he was clearly pointing to a Western tendency to sensationalize and stereotype an entire continent of varied peoples, there’s no doubt it still catches you by surprise and suddenly reminds you of something important you forgot somewhere else.   

The next day the whole group took tours through the city, starting with the highlight of the region: the Djenné mosque.  As the largest mud building in the world, it’s impressive to behold.  It needs to have additional layers spread on it every year to avoid melting into the ground.  From the outside (entrance forbidden to non-Muslims) our guide described hundreds of pillars in the main foyer supporting the roof.  Each pillar represents a distinct lesson for a person studying Islam and the last pillar’s meaning is known to only a privileged few.  Later, we passed by the grave of the virgin girl buried alive as a sacrifice to bring good fortune to the city on its founding in the 11th century.   Her family, we’re told, has reaped a tithe from every harvest since.  Sounds like it worked out for everyone except the girl…

The city streets surrounding the mosque were filled with Islamic schools and children writing Arabic on clay tablets, some of whom would run up and grab our hands and then run away laughing.  One of our tour guides confessed that he used to do the same to white tourists when he was little because he and his friends believed that it would make them turn whiter.  To which Reena, the British-Indian eye doctor, later remarked, “Then why are they touching me?” 

Lastly we wound through the Djenné market, boasted as one of Africa’s largest.  Huge piles of dried fish didn’t entice us to take our wallets out, but we did buy some scarlet and white colored kola nuts.  They’re naturally caffeinated (one of the original ingredients in Coca Cola) and have been used as currency throughout the region for centuries, particularly in the Dogon country where they are sometimes preferred over money.  Our guide was happy to receive one as a gift at the end of the tour and happily chewed on it with the few teeth he had left.  Probably better than giving him a Coke.