Monday, January 31, 2005

It's About The People

You might have noticed by now that there haven't been any overwhelming vistas or amazing buildings or evidence of ancient civilizations. And the only wild animal I've seen so far is a squirrel. So why go to West Africa other than because it's there?

Well, that's always been a good enough reason for me. But here's another one that folks come up with: It's because of the people.

That is, they're not what you expect them to be. They're hard working, honest, pretty sober, extremely pacific, and they carry their poverty with about as much dignity as humanly possible. And by and large they're really, really nice.

I mean, really, really nice.

It's not their fault that they've been left out of the globalization loop; Or that the economic fantasy of comparative advantage doesn't really apply here. Or that we project our racist fantasies of shiftlessness, etc., upon them.

They're trying to make their way on a continent that, next to Australia, has the crappiest land in the world. They're saddled with absurd boundaries, no infrastructure ever, and a government structure not even haphazardly thrown together about 40 years ago.

Really, somebody should cut these guys a break.

And Back To Conakry

Freetown on Monday morning looked a lot less decrepit than on Saturday night. Almost pleasant. In the middle of downtown is a humungous and gorgeous cotton tree. I got a taxi to the border, and this time only paid for one seat, so I had someone sharing my front bucket. He turned out to be a really nice and intelligent young Sierra Leoneon.

As we motored along I told him about my lost camera, and when we reached the border we set about trying to get it back. The immigration and customs people at the sleazy little Guinean border town just shrugged their shoulders. So we started asking questions on the street. After about ten minutes some guy came forward and said he could lead me to the camera for 100 bucks. I told him 16, and he'd have to bring it here. I thought he was lying, but he headed off somewhere.

Meanwhile our new taxi had filled up and was waiting to go. At the last moment he returned, this time with an old man who furtively showed me that he had the goods. Now the negotiations began.

This was the big find of the old man's life. But I pointed out that I was the only person in the entire world that could use the electronic camera, and that once I was gone nobody was getting nothin'. This prompted the finder's fee guy to pressure the old man, and in the end a total of forty dollars changed hands and I had my camera back.

Just like in the movies.

Now I'm back in Conakry and probably heading north to Bamako tomorrow. If there's any leg I've been dreading it's probably this one, since it's at least 24 hours.

I think I'm going to buy two seats.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sunday In Sierra Leone

Not many tourists around these parts. Lots of UN workers, though.

Freetown looks lovely from a distance, with hills tumbling down to the sea. I liked being at a distance.

I found out about an Indian restaurant, generally non-existent in West Africa, a couple of miles away, and had some samosas and pampadums. I walked in the hot humidity for a mile over to an internet place, right across the street from the UN Amputee Camp. I'm about to continue walking a half mile to the warm, sunny beach.

There's not much to do in Sierra Leone if you're not working for the UN. The plan is to go back to Conakry tomorrow.

Your PC Dollars At Work:

About twelve years ago there was a problem with a ragtag 'rebel' group in eastern Sierra Leone, whose main goal was to take over the lucrative diamond mining area. The government responded by hiring a couple of hundred white South African mercenaries, who quickly brought stability to the region.

To the World Community this smacked of racism or something, so the World Community pressured the goverment to get rid of the mercenaries. It caved and they left. Soon the ragtag 'rebels' were terrorizing the whole country.

These are the guys who chopped the arms off of about 20,000 people, mostly children. Another 50,000 or so died. Finally the UN was brought in for their most expensive policing action ever. Now there is stability, and across the street prothesis are being placed on those still limbless, and they will be sent out to fare in this, the poorest country in the world.

Conakry To Freetown

Conakry's an interesting place, stretching for many a mile. It's hard to characterize; parts of it are typical African slum, parts are almost languid. The fanciest hotel in town is literally one block from an area that is straight out of a primitive village.

I got well rested overnight and in the morning headed back out to the garage area for a share taxi to Freetown. This time I bought two seats, and had shotgun all to myself. As we went out of town it was clear that now I was in a totally tropical area, complete with tropical hills in the background.

Not that you could see them that well, since we were now in Harmattan season, a time when dusty winds sweep south from the Sahara. You can't actually see the dust, but after two hours driving down a paved road my brand new pants were all dirty.

We got out of the car at the border to do the leaving Guinea stuff, then crossed over into Sierra Leone. That's when I discovered that my camera must have fallen out in Guinea. Drat, drat, drat, drat, drat.

Drat. I tried to be stoic as we motored along. I hadn't liked the camera anyway, it was freezing up on me, I was going to buy a new one.

But, but, all the pretty pictures...

Well, it's not good to let the natives see a white man cry. And the extreme poverty I saw unfolding around me made me reflect upon how relative it all is.

For now I was in the country ranked poorest in the world by the UN. Yay! I'd made it! These guys should be so lucky as to have cinder block houses and working sheet metal roofs. Not to mention that they were just coming out of about ten years of a vicious way.

But it was still tropical looking and very beautiful, like a Caribbean island. And like said island you could still tell that they were proudly British. There were towns like Waterloo and Kent, the first billboards since Morocco, actual street signs and road directions.

And when we got into Freetown it looked like an extremely poor Caribbean capital, complete with horribly dilapidated wooden houses scattered amongst the other buildings. It was chaotic, crowded, and becoming Saturday night.

I found a cab who said he knew where the Hill Valley Hotel was, but he didn't. We ended up at the Hjemann Hotel. Fortuitously, that turned out to be a half mile from the Hill Valley. Fortuitously, I got the last room available. Fortuitously, they had both electricity and a/c.

Friday, January 28, 2005

From The Third World To The Fourth

I went out to the gare routiere in Bissau and waited while the sept place filled up. The Peugeut 505 is a large standard issue station wagon: The first seat is shotgun and is nice and comfortable. The second and third placed are on the right and the left of the middle, and are also pretty good. The fourth one is in the middle middle, straddling two seats, and is arguably more uncomfortable than numbers five, six, and seven, which are crowded on the last row. There was a little contretemps on this trip because some fat lady didn't want to sit in the back where she belonged.

Anyhow, the ride upcountry to Gabu was suitably tropical, though it got drier as we moved inland. When we got there I reflected on how 'large town' is even more a misnomer in Africa than is 'city'. It's almost literally just a wide spot in the road, and a very, very basic one at that. 'Shops' are usually small, dingy, dirt floored, and dark. People are massively walking everywhere. And what can you expect when a Coca Cola costs almost literally more than a day's wage?

I confirmed a seat for the next morning's trip to Conakry, and rolled on over to the only hotel in town, where a generator kicked on at six pm for the evening's light and fan. And went to bed around nine.

Now I had discovered Banana Milk, an indestructible dairy drink that is such a refreshing alternative to fizzy pop, just a few hours earlier. And I had immediately drunk one and a half liters of the stuff. Which, since my body wasn't used to nutrition any more, wasn't such a good idea. I awoke at 1 am with diarrhea, which is never a good idea when you're about to be sitting in a car for 24 hours, and dutifully drank the Pepto Bismol that my wife had insisted on me taking. That seemed to work, but now I ended up staying awake the rest of the night, which is an even worse idea.

So I groggily showed up at eight am for my sept place, and then at ten when we loaded up to start out had the unpleasant surprise that in Guinea (where I was headed) they do a neuf place, and four people are squashed in the middle row. Not only that, but although I am usually gargantuan in the rest of the world, and even though most Africans are suitably small and scrawny, some of them are quite big, and I had the good fortune of sharing my seat with a large six foot three one.

Down the road we went, a rather potholed one, then turned off onto a dirt track that was actually better. We got to a 1000 foot wide river that was the border and waited for a half an hour for the cable ferry guys to decide to come over for us. When they finally did they came very, very slowly.

My suspicions were confirmed when they arrived: they were moving it forward by turning and turning a hand crank. We loaded up and headed back, with four guys sweating and churning in the hot sun. I was even dragooned in to help towards the end.

Then up the hill and on into Guinea. By the time it was all said and done it was about one thirty. Except now we had two guys riding on the roof.

The road continued through a dry forest, with lots of dead underbush and brown leaves. It looked ever so much like driving through a flat eastern US forest during a hot November day, again during a drought. Except for the occasional goats or medium horned cows, or the traditional little huts, now sometimes even made with something other than cinder blocks.

Around four we came up to a stop sign, turned right, and now we were on a nice wide Guinean main dirt road. We were also at our first real, though small, Guinean town, and there was a colorful throng of ladies, probably celebrting a wedding, singing and dancing down the street. We stopped for a few minutes for food.

As before, road quality varied from pretty good to not so good. Also around now hills started to appear for the first time since Morocco, and it's funny how a few hills can make a place start looking interesting. The occasional palm didn't hurt either. As the sun sank we were still heading south towards Boke, me having now spent eight hours perched in between three other guys, with none of us having room to breathe.

Pavement and the bright lights of Boke appeared about eight thirty. We were now five hours from Conakry. Then the lights went out; then the trip started going downhill.

I had been bounced around, stuck in place, hot, and unable to sleep all day. Now we had a flat tire, and, goodness gracious, so was the spare. By the time they were both fixed in the pitch darkness by a local tire guy, it was ten thirty. We started driving, and at eleven fifteen there was another flat. Then twenty minutes after that the muffler fell off. We took about thirty minutes dropping a guy off, and so it was about one when we got to around fifty kilometers of Conakry.

And then we hit the nighttime Guinea police roadblocks. Everybody had to produce every obscure document possible. At the first one they hit a Liberian girl up for a two dollar fine. At the second they hit the other Liberian girl up. At the third they hit up both Liberians and me. By the sixth roadblock in about fifteen kilometers it was getting pretty old.

We stopped and dozed a bit until 5 am when the roadblocks are lifted and traffic starts up again. Then it was into Conakry and the first industrial looking stuff--all totally beaten up--that I'd seen so far in West Africa. Then waiting at the 'garage' area until 8, when taxis started showing up. Then a ride to my pension.

Which turned out to be the nicest resting place I've been to yet, owned by a retired French lady, air conditioned, and right by a palmy beach. (Okay, it's not a beach any more. She says that the poor people carted it all off a bucket at a time so as to make bad, salty concrete.)

But I wasn't done yet, because it was Friday morning, and if I didn't want to wait until Monday I had to hurry on down to the Mali and Sierra Leone embassies to procure visas. That was done pretty painlessly, and then it was noon and back for at least a few minutes rest.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Into The Void

When this morning broke I discovered that I was in the 'Old Town', a colonial Portuguese version of St-Louis, complete with balustraded backstreets and a ruined fort. I walked down to the water where there were a few rusting tankers, and then strolled around Bissau.

There's not much to see. On the way into town there were some rusting tanks from the war they had here way back in '98. The old Presidential Palace is missing its roof. As intimated earlier, there are some large official buildings, and if everything were spruced up this might not be that bad a place.

The guidebook was once again wrong about where to find the internet, but I lucked out and found this place where, for a very high price, I got a really fast connection.

I don't intend to be so lucky in the near future, since I'm heading upcountry, and this place and Guinea (where I'm heading) are pretty much, as they say, off the grid.

They say, however, that it's all quite lovely.

Full Moon Over Guinea-Bissau

I had finished my last blog, and I started to wander around downtown Banjul, which was about three blocks square and had absolutely nothing of interest, trying to figure out how to waste the next three hours until my visa was ready. I was dutifully ignoring all the occasional, 'Hello, my friend' greetings from the hucksters, when someone tugged lightly on my sleeve and said, 'Hello, my friend'.

I turned and saw the guy from the Guinean Consulate, resplendant in his long white cotton robe. He had seen me two bloocks away from his third floor office, and had run downstairs and followed me, so as to let me know that my visa was ready. I came back with him and got it.

That was cute, but the rest of the Gambia was kind of downhill. Maybe it was the power outages and the absurdly slow internet service at night. Maybe it was the constant low grade hussling. Maybe it was everyone telling me that Gambian mosquitos were the worst in the world for malaria (Don't worry, mom, I'm taking my pills). Maybe it was the extremely unattractive white people walking along with their younger and slightly less unattractive Gambian sex partners. Most Gambians were fine enough, but...

So I spent another night there, making friends with a Dutch guy who had bicycled all the way from Holland. Then the next morning it was back out to Serekunda and the garage park for southern Senegal.

Serekunda turned out to be a big, ugly mess, with crappy dirt roads and crappy dirt buildings. What's more, the garage park was now in Larekunda, which was a couple of dirty, congested miles away. We found it, though, and I transferred my gear to a border bound sept place.

No problems at the border, as usual, and I was now in the Casamance, an area of Senegal that is supposed to be a lush, watery paradise. Well, maybe in the rainy season. Now, although it was much more forested than the Sahel, and palm trees were starting to proliferate, it still looked like undeveloped Florida during a drought. Kind of nice, actually, yet still feeling like a bad version of a sunbelt state.

We got to Ziguinchor, the capital city of the region. Now by 'city', even though I know better, I'm still expecting streets and buildings and some infrastructure. This isn't really the case. The Flamboyant Hotel, Ziguinchor's finest, was on a street about twelve feet wide, and the whole ambience felt like a small town in nowhere in 1945. Still, I was back in Senegal, land of friendliness and culture and paved roads, and when it transpired that the Guinea-Bissau consulate had closed for the day a half hour earlier, someone produced a phone number for the 'owner', somebody else called him for me, and he turned up toute suite and issued me my visa.

Okay, back to the gare routiere, this one actually paved over. I was planning to go down to Cap Skiring on the coast for the day; not only would I see more of the Casamance, but I'd have one last day at the beach. But here at the gare they told me that no public transport went there anymore, due to the bad roads. It was time for some quick thinking.

I walked over to the Guinea Bissau stand and got the last seat on the last taxi of the day. And we got to the border fast enough, but now it's time for a little background:

I had my passport stolen in Costa Rica a few years ago, and got a replacement one, which they only issue for a year's period. After that they stamp the back of it to say that it's good for another nine years. Except in my case they had screwed up the stamps a bit. And I was always worried that at some point some idiot guy at some idiot border would raise a fuss over this. But up to now, from Swaziland to Azerbaijan, my fears were unfounded.

Okay, you guessed it. On exiting Senegal the police guy decided that my passport wasn't valid. Never mind the countless country stamps, nor the fact that I had just been let into Senegal this morning. So we stood there for fifteen minutes, him saying my passport was not official, me saying that it was, and him saying that I would have to go back to Dakar and sort it out with the American embassy.

Now you know how much I like to kid the French, but right now I was glad that there was one sharing my cab who spoke some English. I went and got him and had him explain to the police guy the intricasies of the US Passport Agency. At last the guy relented and stamped me out of the country, still darkly muttering that he was going to inform the embassy about this.

Into Guinea-Bissau, which is so obscure that even I was pretty much unaware of it. A former colony of Portugal, it was part of an empire that once included Macau, Goa, East Timor, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. And now I was finally into 'authentic' West Africa.

The land was more lush, more tropical, and brimming with strange trees and plants. The larger squarish buildings that started in the Casamance continued here, now with peaked thatch roofs. (Okay, more were in the more utilitarian, but less authentic, corrugated tin.) Cashew trees, the main export crop, rolled by in their tidy groves.

Now when I say 'cashew', you probably say 'gesundheit', but my mind was thinking about how Senegal and Gambia depended on the peanut, and I saw a Planters Mixed Nut theme developing.

We got to a ferry and waited an hour to cross the mile wide river. The sun was sinking as we pulled into Bissau, the capital. Much to my surprise I saw some actual three and four story official looking structures.

We got dropped off and I hailed a cab to take me into town, knowing full well that as things got dark, things also tended to get weird. And what made it worse was that Guinea-Bissau is a privatiser's dream: the government doesn't even pretend to provide electricity, and just about everything is pitch dark.

And there were problems with my destination. The guidebook recommended a hotel that had no name. The guidebook's maps turned out to be all wrong. And absolutely nobody in Bissau has the slightest idea of the names of any of the streets.

We finally got to an approximation of where I was going and I went to pay the driver the 1000 CFA we had agreed on. And right now you have to understand that even though I am filthy rich, almost all my money is in 10,000 notes (about $20), no one ever has any change, and I had just used up all of mine. I handed him a 5000 note.

And the guy tried to rip me off, which I believe no one ever had before in Africa. An altercation ensued, with me finally telling him to take me to the police.

We started off, heading down darkened streets away from the center. Maybe dodgy, maybe not, but I already knew that this guy was a liar. I decided to take things into my own hands. I reached over, turned off his ignition, took his keys, and started to walk away.

There he was stuck in the middle of the road, but it got his attention. A small crowd gathered in the pitch dark and listened to our case. Finally I got him to cough up most of what he owed me and I gave him his car keys back.

Turned out he was an immigrant, and everyone else in Bissau was pretty darn friendly, including the next taxi driver who took me back into town and vainly tried to find my unnamed hotel. I finally punted on that one, and looked up a hotel that had a name. We got there in short order.

What did I get for my $30 room? A small bed, a three foot square shower- curtained shower in the corner, a tiny tv perched on top of the 'closet' that pulled in one Portuguese station, a tiny refrigerator, and a toilet down the hall. Oh, and a kind of working air conditioner, which I had chug away all evening. And downstairs was a small restaurant where I got, guess what?, a cheese sandwich and fries.

And from where did the electricy come for all this comfort? From the hotel's generator.

Outside, overhead, a full moon shone down on the darkened streets, but I was too tired to enjoy it.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Why They Love Americans

One of the worst paranoid visions that many Americans have is that the rest of the world hates us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes they do, more and more, hate our government. But virtually the entire Third World is used to living under the rule of a government that doesn't remotely reflect their attitudes in any way. So they take it as a given that no real American would actually agree with the actions of their government.

Moreover, the relatively few Americans who every show up in these places almost by definition are the ones who are most internationalist in outlook. So this reinforces the first point.

Finally, everyone everywhere really likes and admires the Spirit of Americans. That is to say, Europeans tend to walk around with an unseen box around them; typical German NGO workers in a restaurant in Uganda won't relate at all to the waiters or even restaurant owner. Americans, on the other hand, always want to say Howdy and How's It Going to everyone they meet.

The Peace Corps is the best example of this; their volunteers are universally loved. Another example: my hotel owner in St-Louis related how just last week the former American ambassador stayed there, and how amazed he was that the guy was absolutely devoid of pretense.

So I guess we're doing something right. And one hope of my little blog is to get some of the rest of us out here saying Howdy.

Lord knows, the Government sure ain't going to.

The Gambia, Fantasy Version

My daughter has suggested that my blog would be more exciting if I sounded a bit more like the Crocodile Hunter. So here goes:

Crikey! The mates down at the Guinean Embassy gave me my visa in only FIFTEEN MINUTES, which I'm sure is some kind of record! So nothing was going to stop me from my big adventure!

Now The Gambia is home to some of the most dangerous animals in the world! There's the giant, bomb sniffing rats that are as large as a COCKER SPANIEL! And the Goliath Frog is bigger than a dinner plate! Crikey, you don't want to see THAT when you come down in the morning for breakfast expecting pancakes!

And the Gambia River, she's long and flat and winding, just like an ANACONDA. In fact, she fills up the whole country! And inside she's full of water, which can KILL you if you sink in it! I knew I'd have to be keeping my wits about me as I boarded the bus along with my wife, my secretary, my wife's secretary, our manager, and the camera crew. Because this was going to be ME against the wildness of Africa!

Okay, I'm tuckered out now. And the Guinean Consulate isn't going to have my visa until three pm, which gives me plenty of time to waste. I did have the fantasy of taking the bus up to the end of the country, but now, considering that Guinea will probably be a lot of hard travellin', I'm going to head to Senegal and one last shot at the beach.

In the meantime I can report on The Gambia, which isn't quite as civilized as Senegal. It's a little poorer, a little more annoying. The annoying part, besides off and on electricity, consists mostly of 'friends' who appear, try and take you to where you were going in the first place, and then ask for money. All in all, it's still not that bad, though.

And you can probably blame the annoying stuff on the fact that out on the coast, past Serekunda, are all sorts of package tour hotel locations for a bunch of low price European package tour outfits. Tourists almost invariably screw up the local ambience.

One nice thing is that I get to use an English keyboard.

The Gambia

Idyllic isn't so idyllic when it turns out that the hotel driver didn't show up today, and now you have to lug your forty pound backpack up a mile long hot, dusty road to the blacktop. Instead I asked around and then waited while a French tourist finished her petit dejeuner before she kindly drove me up there.

A share taxi immediately appeared and helpfully deposited me back at a small gare routiere on the main road. Here I took a Senegales bus, which is about the size of a delivery van, and into which about thirty or more people are crammed. But it's a civilized cramming, in that each person gets a seat and everyone politely respects everyone else's space.

I knew I probably wouldn't get to eat today, so I bought a delicious looking sack of oranges from a lady. Turned out that they were virtually unpeelable, and after I destroyed my fingernails getting one open, it was 75 percent seed. And I had 20 more in the bag...

We continued on slowly and surely through the Sahel and the baobabs. I kept noting that every single structure here is built out of cinder block, with the finer buildings and fences having only a thin patina of plaster to distinguish them. At some point we started passing 'traditional' huts, each with thatched roof, and about six of them in each 'bamboo' fenced compound. On closer examination, however, I determined that under their thatched roofs even they were made of cinder blocks.

The bus stopped at Mbour, where I caught a sept place to Kaoleck, then a taxi across Kaoleck, then another sept place to the border, where again there were incredibly dinky border posts.

Now The Gambia is one of the whackier countries in the world, and it starts with the name, it being one of the only ones to include a definite article (Quick: Name three others...) It's also about 20 miles wide and about 200 miles long, being basically the two sides of the Gambia River, and being completely surrounded by Senegal. And even though English is the official language, it is almost easier for me to understand the Senegalese French than it is The Gambia's English.

Anyhow, another share taxi to the ferry landing, where I walked through a totally dirty and crappy 'market' and then waited in the ferry waiting room. Then the doors opened and about 400 to 500 Gambians walked down a quarter mile road to the ferry, which is an open deck car ferry, and is about large enough for 12 cars. Then a half hour ride across the wide Gambia, and we were in the capital city of Banjul.

Now I was all proud of myself for successfully and seamlessly negotiating 8 means of transport today. And my luck was changing: now I was passing the broken down minibuses, I was not being on them. But pride goeth...

By now it was dark, and there was little if any electricity in Banjul. Not to mention the trash all over the street. Not only was the first hotel I stopped at unappealing, but I also had the problem of still not having eaten all day.

A squirrelly little guy attached himself to me and told me he would take me to the next hotel. After about a mile, and having seen no open restarants, I consulted my book and saw that said hotel was still almost a mile away. I decided to go on to Serekunda, about 15 miles further, where my book and a Senegalese guy had said much more civilization beckoned.

Problem was, it was Sunday night, and although hundreds of Gambians lined the road, there was no transportation, public or otherwise. Nonetheless a Gambian in a pickup truck stopped for me, being an interesting looking white guy. We headed out.

By now I was more than a little fatigued, and so I changed my plan and decided to head for a hotel praised in my book and about five miles further. When we finally found it, it was crowded with rally car drivers, it cost three times what the book said, and it was in the middle of nowhere. So back to Serekunda.

But in talking to my new friend he told me I was crazy to stay there, that since I needed to get my Guinean visa in the morning I should have stayed in Banjul all along. Which, it being where he was headed anyway, I agreed to.

But then there was the police checkpoint. And the police found some infraction with the guy, so I had to pay a three dollar bribe to get us out of it. And then finally back to Banjul, where I had to pay him about twelve dollars for all his time and gas. And there I was back at the hotel that I didn't want to walk to in the first place.

Fortunately, there WAS a restaurant nearby, overpriced as it was, and so at least I finally got to eat.

Taking The Dakar Bypass

Eid afternoon was calm and peaceful in St-Louis. Everyone on down to the smallest toddler was walking around in their best, most colorful Friday go to meeting robes. I had my own mini-Eid myself, having some vegetables and noodles at the Vietnamese restaurant next door, then some onion pie at the hotel.

Saturday morning I got over to the gare routiere (taxi/minibus lot) and got a seat in a sept place heading for Dakar. The gare was orderly and efficient, with only a few boys doing some desultary begging. All of Senegal seemed pretty darn civilized, considering that it is still essentially a very poor country. The front seat passenger and driver dutifully fastened their seat belts, we all sat relatively unsquooshed, and the trip transpired in modest silence.

We headed south through the Sahel, which is going to predominate geographically for the rest of my trip. The middle ground between the Sahara and places where you can actually farm, it is basically flat and has the appearance of an endless overgrown vacant lot. Except of course that it is dotted with trees, from about one or two per acre to the occasional semi-copse. This is the dry season, and so it looks especially brown these days.

What livens it up a bit, besides the people, are the baobab trees. These quintessentially African trees look kind of like giant upside down tubers, and come in all sorts of sizes and comically grotesque shapes. Many seem dead, some have little tufts of leaves. Sometimes there's one per mile, sometimes whole groups of them looking like Ents waiting to wake up. Maybe if Central Texas planted a bunch of them it would, along with the armadillos, give the state a little flair.

Anyhow, I had this plan to bypass Dakar. Partially it was the crime, partially it was because I have no great need for an exciting nightlife, partially it was because everyone said that it was one big congested, annoying hassle. Mostly, however, it had to do with my not wanting to pay an arm and three legs for a quarter decent hotel room; if I wanted to pay $120 a night I could do that in the States and get a much, much better room.

Besides which my book said that there was this incredibly idyllic place about forty miles south of the city. So I got out where the roads diverged and arranged a taxi out to the beach.

Idyllic was advertised, and idyllic it was, with flowers and fanciful stone walls and such. I was mostly surrounded by French tourists, who are smaller and much thinner than us Americans, wear shabbier clothing, and all have a hard bitten edge (probably from smoking all those Gauloises), but, what the hey, nothing's perfect.

I went down to the water, which was about 60 degrees.

(As if to prove the point of my last post, the electricity went off right here. So I walked around town until I found another internet place, where I waited around while they found some oil and then cranked up their generator. Upon returning to blogger, I was amazed to see that my draft was saved at the last possible moment, so that I can now proceed from here, generator chugging away.)

Which was kind of surprising since this is Africa, and I'm well into the tropics now. But it's also January, and there's a cold current offshore to boot. Still...

I was also at about the westernmost point of West Africa. Not quite, but at the actual point there's a Club Med. And the temperature, which a few days ago in Mauritania was a wet and windy 50 degrees, was now inching up to about 80. Above me on the twenty foot cliffs were pretty nice villas (for Africa at least).

I decided that my public required a dispatch (Is anyone reading this besides my wife?), and so spent four dollars to have the hotel driver take me five miles through the sleepy backcountry to the closest internet place. I guess everything was too sleepy, because the guy was gone. And I was informed that if and when he did return I, as the only customer, would be charged four dollars an hour for the telephone hookup. I decided to cut my losses and return to the idyll.

Where I sat around in the sun, read a little, took a long romantic walk on the beach by myself as the sun set, then came back and had some vegetarian lasagna, and finally sat on a small terrace in the moonlight watching the sea and the bright lights of Dakar on the horizon.

I strongly suspected that this was about as good as it was going to get.

To Anyone Concerned

The internet is always in every town. Whether there is electricity, whether the store is open, or whether I get there before they close at night, those are different questions.

So far there is no question of personal safety. As I intimated at the outset, Africans are very non-violent people; I'll address that issue more in the future. My only concern is over me overtaxing my poor, pitiful old body, but so far I still feel pretty perky in the morning.

There's no need to start thinking morbid thoughts until I don't sign in for five or seven days. Then, go for it.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Spirit Of Saint-Louis

The old colonial city of Saint-Louis was the capital of French West Africa until around 1900, and of Senegal until around 1960. Then there was benign neglect, which means that now it is a town of genteelly shabby nineteenth century buildings and balconies. It's on an island in the middle of the Senegal River, and my hotel is at the northern end, looking out to the Atlantic over the horizon with its memories of times past.

Eid is the one day in the Moslem year when everything shuts down, so I am glad to be here on my day off. Even the internet places are closed, so the hotel owner is letting me use his. Fortunately the ATM was open (praise be to Allah), and now I am filthy rich, having withdrawn about 600 dollars in CFA, which is the currency for about seven of the countries I'll be in.

I'll be needing that money here in Senegal, since prices are really high. Dinner costs ten bucks and my hotel room is 30 dollars a night, which would have been less a couple of years ago when the dollar was at 750, but now that it's south of 500...

Anyhow, I'm pleased to report that even at its most chaotic Senegal is a friendly chaos, and the Senegalese are well known for their honesty and non-violence. They're also known, by the way, for their devotion to all things French and for their love of partying.

And I'm also pleased to report that from here on out there should be much fewer schedule pressures. Tomorrow I should have a leisurely trip to south of Dakar.

But for right now I'm going back to my lounge chair out by the water.

West Africa Appears

There are a lot of cars in Noakchott for it being the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world. Traffic was an endless game of slow motion chicken. Downtown wasn't much; at one point we passed a particularly moribund building and I noticed that it was the National Assembly. The cab driver was stopped once by the police, who shook him down for a couple of dollars. He finally deposited me at another dusty 'garage' lot.

This time I took a group cab, a beat up old Mercedes. In the trunk, along with my backpack, were two more goats. There were four of us in the back seat, with the Moslem lady sitting as far from the infidel as possible. In the front sat a hook-nosed bearded 'shiek', who could have been out of the Saudi royal family. Between his seat and the driver's sat a sixth passenger.

There were about five police stops along the way, at each of which the driver had to pay a small bribe. Sort of like toll booths.

As we left Noakchott there was empty yellowish-brown sand littered with garbage. Then it turned into low sandy hills dotted with bushes and low trees. And Mauritania started looking like one of the world's poorest countries. The few small 'towns' consisted of small stucco squares stuck in the sand, plus innumerable little tin shacks, which must get a little toasty in the summer. Outside of town living quarters consisted of varying qualities of tents. And always goats, and occasionally camels, probably the only two creatures in the world able to eat such bad vegetation.

We stopped to change a tire, and I went over to check out a tree. Sure enough it was one of those famous African thorn trees, and sure enough each branch had lots and lots of three inch thorns. When we started out again, I wondered what would happen if we got another flat. I soon found out.

First, everybody got out and stood around. Then the driver started flagging down passing cars. The first one that stopped gave us their spare tire. Great, except that now it was determined that our lug nut wrench didn't fit the lug nuts. Another car was stopped and a lug nut wrench produced. Okay, now we found out that the lug nuts were unbudgeable. After a whole bunch more of stopped cars, bigger and better wrenches, a second spare tire, and grunting and stressing and straining, lo and behold the nuts loosened and the tire was changed.

This all took only 45 minutes, a record so far for shortest snafu. We started off again, this time with two tires in the back seat, but with two fewer passengers, since somehow in all the cars stopping they had snagged other rides. In short order we were at Rosso, the border town, drove past a large live goat market, and I was let off about 400 meters from the border.

This particular crossing has the reputation of being the worst in Africa, but it really wasn't that bad. The touts and money changers were easily ignored, and there was minimal hassle from the Mauritanian police. I collected my passport and was now on the banks of the half mile wide Senegal River.

Boy, had the scene changed. Now there was a huge milling throng of Africans in the brightly colored African clothing. I searched the horizon in vain for the free passenger ferry, but none was to be seen. All sorts of people were getting on pirogues, twenty foot long motorized 'canoes', so I joined in. The engine barely sputtered to life and we barely coughed our way over to the other side.

There at a tiny little police post I was stamped into Senegal with absolutely no hassle. And the money changers, etc., were even more easily blown off. On the other hand, this did have the vibe of a crazy, crawling with people border town, and I had to focus to find my way to the share taxi stand.

The African vitality was immediately palpable, and although the Senegalese are Moslem, they practice a much more hang loose version of the religion. I got a seat on a 'sept place', a standard West African Peugeut with two back seats, and here in Senegal they can only sell seven seats.

That means that they try and overcharge you for your backpack, for like the New Age world, those carrying baggage pay a lot more. And, of course, there were two live goats strapped to the roof, although now their bodies (but not heads) were wrapped in bright yellow goat tarps.

It was so great to see fresh water, and we passed a few sugarcane fields, but soon Senegal became a flat dry version of, well, Central Texas. But at least there was life going on, and the first towns I saw reminded me of small towns in East Africa, with the buildings and the fences all made with yellowish brown cinder blocks, and with little wooden shacks of commerce along the roadside.

We got to St-Louis around dark, and I got a cab over to the island, where I found a room that was nice and quiet and that had beaucoup de hot water. I took a shower and shaved for the first time in about five days, and had a good night's sleep.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Counting Countries

Looks like I'm running the table here.

The whole reason for my mad, uncomfortable dash to Noakchott was that I needed to get my Mali visa before they closed for the holiday weekend. So I was up at six thirty this morning, with five hours of sleep, to get over to the Embassy bright and early.

Except that they decided to close a day early. Which means that now I have to re-route my trip to go through Conakry, Guinea, and hope that there are no problems there.

Not only that, but because of Eid tomorrow all the transportation will be shut down, so that instead of resting here for a day I have to immediately head off for Senegal.

Where hopefully milk and honey will flow.

Those who have been here before me say that you either love or hate Mauritania. Fittingly, I'm kind of neutral. The 23 men and 1 woman who shared my tin can with me yesterday were pleasant enough. Everyone seems pretty honest. They say that there's racial tension between the Africans and Moroccans who share the country, but to me it seems like a spectrum of inter-marriage.

On the other hand, it's just a big, ugly sandbox. Noakchott seems like a very large, rather poor Mexican town, with no discernable center. Most of the roads are unpaved and sandy, most of the buildings shabby, with a fair amount of litter and goats walking around.

Not the sort of place you want to hang around for three days for the Mali Embassy to re-open.

So off I go...

On a lighter note, did you know that there exists an actual club for people who have been to more than 100 countries? According to their definition of 'country' I've now been to 130 of them.

I have a stricter definition, but I still include places like Scotland and the Isle of Jersey (both technically and legally countries), Hong Kong and Zanzibar (since you have to have to go through passport countrol to get in), and Puerto Rico (since they have their own Olympic team). By my count, I'm at 115.

Using the strictest definition--UN representation--Mauritania is my 100th country.

Aaaagh, Part One

I slept in a little, due to my being up until twelve doing the last blog. Morning in Noudibhou was cool and drizzly; the town was full of puddles and muddy sand. I bought some food at the market, ate it, and then headed for the 'garage' for Noakchott at a quarter to eleven.

The garage was a big sandy lot where a small cacaphony of vehicles were filling up. The driver of one dilapidated large van beckoned me and showed me that he had one last seat on the bench. Sure, I thought, everyone says it's only a six hour ride, I'll get to meet the locals and still be in Noakchott by five or so. I hopped in.

And waited. While they loaded more stuff. While they stuffed more people. While they got gas. During the police check. During the next police check five minutes later. Finally at one o'clock we hit the road.

I'm sure you can see where this is heading, so I'll spare you the details. Except to point out that the road isn't 80 percent complete, it's only 50 percent complete, with the rest varying between good gravel and work in progress. Also, even though it seemed like we were hauling ass, we must have ended up averaging about 30 miles an hour.

Nor were there that many stops. Just one for urination and/or praying to Mecca, then another, then a third. Oh, and then for changing two tires. And for getting unstuck out of the sand. Not to mention how miserably drizzly and cold it was. We pulled into Noakchott at midnight.

The scenery got a little interesting in the beginning, with the ugly brown landscape starting to show a little rise and a few tiny ridges and hillocks. But even that flattened out after a while, so there wasn't a hell of a lot to see through my dirty, smudged window. I did get to think a lot, as my back was inexorably smashed by the interminable jouncing, about what an absolute total failure and idiot that I was.

After all, I could only blame myself for this, especially as I noticed us being passed by all the nice, passenger filled Toyota Land Cruisers. Because you can't just pay attention on a trip like this, you've got to really pay attention. And I hadn't done that at the garage.

Well at least my fantasy of being mugged by the cabdriver at one in the morning didn't pan out, and the hotel we eventually found was warm and inviting and English speaking.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rainy Night In Mauritania

The next morning it woke up cool and clammy and overcast. Since there is no public transportation into Mauritania, I took a cab five miles out of town to the campsite where all the European overlanders congregate, the idea being to see if anyone heading south had room.

Close, but no dice; they were all full. I had kind of expected that, having arrived in town so late last night. But not to worry. I trundled my backpack 500 yards down to where the Mauritanian truckdrivers hung out.

(You might be wondering how an old, lazy guy like me is carrying around a 40 pound backpack. I'm not. I'm rolling it on its wheels. Which only works of course if there's pavement, and no sand, and no stairs involved.)

When doing the research for this I had imagined that 'Mauritanian truckdrivers' drove everything up to and including a big rig. Uh uh. They meant everything up to and including a big van. And there stood about seven such dilapidated vehicles, though it soon transpired that only two were in play.

One of the guys chose me, and while waiting for the produce to arrive that went into the back of his van, I made the acquaintance of a Mauritanian lady who had shared my bus journey the day before. Her name was Ramata, she was 47, she had seven children, and she owned a small men's clothing store that went along with her government job.

To fill her store, she flies to Casablanca, buys several giant bales of clothing, and then takes the bus back to Mauritania, since that's a lot cheaper for freight. Anyhow, the two of us shared the front of the van with the driver, and we all had a great time heading down the road.

With striking African features wrapped in a billowing robe, she certainly didn't fit the stereotype of the reticient women I had seen in East Africa. And that went double for the Moslem woman stereotype. She was definitely out there, and thought nothing of putting her arm around my shoulders when she felt cramped. Although there wasn't the slightest hint of her coming on to me.

How self confident was she? She had recently visited one of her sons studying in the States, traveled around for a month, and doesn't speak a word of English.

Outside it was the same, flat, ugly desert terrain. Sometimes we were close to the Atlantic and I could see the waves cresting, but it didn't look like a stretch that anyone was going to develop any time soon.

Except that, filled with produce, the driver's van didn't go all that fast. (He was an interesting character, too. Again African features, again the billowing robes, although the effect was kind of lost when he replaced his head turban/scarf with a baseball cap.) And we had started rather late. So we arrived at the Moroccan exit point with ten minutes to spare before closing. The driver was going to have to bribe the Moroccans ten dollars so as to process us before everyone else, and nobody, not the driver, not Ramata, not me, had any Moroccan money left.

Finally he apparently promised to pay them the bribe next time through, and we were on the road again.

By now it was getting dark. It was also starting to rain in the Sahara. As we officially left Morocco, the paved road ended and there were about three miles of dirt road no man's land. Then another paved road and Mauritania appeared.

In the form of a tiny little shack. This was Immigration, and the man wrote my information in his book with the help of a flashlight. This was also where my driver knew everyone, and instead of the two hours that this border can take for the typical overlander, we were through in about three minutes.

And then 40 kilometers on into Nouadizhou, the first, and just about only town, in Mauritania. It was eight at night and it stretched along the road for several miles, all poor and messy like a bad Mexican roadside town. We dropped Ramata and her bundles off at her store, I got dropped off at an overlanders cheap hotel, the hotel guy had an official bank guy come over to change money for me, I went and got a filling though strange pizza, and then found an internet place, where it is now eleven pm.

The ride cost over 40 dollars, which should be my highest cost per mile by far. On the other hand, both my hotel last night and tonight were five bucks each, so I'm still saving money all over the place.

Western Sahara

Supratours started out like a happening bus company. Computer generated ticket, big comfortable bus, left the station right on time, no goats in the hold. Then...

We wound through downtown Agadir and I marvelled once again at how modern much of Morocco is. The drive-in McDonald's we passed was fancier than anything in the States. We headed on out of town.

And stopped an hour later for dinner. No big deal: everyone would be sleeping soon. The scenery became empty in the dark. Around one am I noticed that we seemed to be driving through mist. Then I figured out that it was a sandstorm.

By the time we stopped in a town at two the effect, with the wind and the driving sand all around, was pretty neat. We started up again and the driver turned off the arabic music around ten to three. I settled in.

At four fifteen we stopped briefly. I got out and stretched my legs, then got back on the bus, where I slept soundly for two hours. When I awoke the bus was...

Still there. The driver had just stopped. At first I thought it was because of the sandstorm. Then I saw that other buses, trucks, and cars were still whizzing by. Which made sense because even though there was a constant 40 mile an hour wind, there was still a quarter mile visibility. The guy next to me pointed out that they have sandstorms just about every morning.

He also pointed out that not only had this been a holiday weekend, but it was an entire holiday week: the Moslem feast of Eid. Sort of like our Thanksgiving. With the same sort of traveling. Which explained the full buses and hotels.

And still we sat. And sat. And sat. Each of the full to overflowing passenger list squooshed in their seat. Finally at nine fifteen I decided I needed a bathroom break, and I laboriously wriggled my boots on and tied their laces. The moment I was finished the driver came on and started the bus.

If only I had thought of that sooner!

Anyway, we started down the highway, and in the daylight the scenery was unrelentlessly ugly. Picture the worstest flattest part of West Texas. Then add varying perpetual hazes caused by sandstorms. At times it looked like the setting of some science fiction novel.

On we went. Not the driver was trying to make up for lost time. No, we stopped for two hours one place, then an hour, then a half hour, then another hour.

When we finally pulled into Dakhla at eleven that night I had spent virtually the entire preceding 36 hours sitting on a bus;


In 1975 Spain gave up its claim to the Western Sahara, due to an ongoing insurgency by the Polisario rebels. Morocco immediately staked its claim, sending 350,000 citizens walking into the place. After a few years it got the upper hand, meaning that the Moroccan flag flies proudly and 100,000 refugees live in squalid camps in the middle of stinking nowhere in Algeria.

The Western Sahara has the world's largest deposits of phosphates. I didn't see any. Nor did I see anything else of the conflict, except for around twenty brand new white UN SUVs parked around some hotel.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Fun Begins

This morning was the first overcast one. The Djamaa square had all the ambience of an empty parking lot. I walked around as all the stalls opened with their predictable merchandise (the cassette tape souk, the cheap shoes souk...).

Then it was a cab over to the bus station, although I had to walk the last 200 meters because the streets were closed for the Marrakesh marathon. I think that this was a holiday weekend.

Because the buses to Agadir were all full. I finally got a ticket on the funky eleven thirty bus, although it left at twelve...

The scenery was lame and sooned turned into a version of West Texas, although the High Atlas were still off to the left in the distance. Then we climbed up into some hills that looked for all the world like the mountains in northern New Mexico: reddish brown dirt and cliffs, and dark, dull green sparse vegetation. Then we came out of the hills, down past a few camels munching on trees, and out on the narrow coastal plain and the resort city of Agadir.

Now I don't want to have left the impression that Morocco looks and feels just like Colorado Springs. If you're the sort who thinks of Canada as weird and foreign, you will definitely think of Morocco as much more so. And there are the very occasional veiled women and the more occasional guys in a jalouba.

And I am well aware that I've breezeed through the place, and that there are many great treks to walk and many great waterfalls to behold.

But Morocco was never meant to be more than a sidebar on this trip anyway. For now the fun begins.

Actually, it's already begun. Because when I walked up to the CTM bus counter a half hour ago they told me that the next available seat was a week from tomorrow! That was kind of scary, so I walked over to the Satas bus office, where they said I could get on the bus tomorrow night.

My last shot was the Supratours place, and, Lord have mercy, I got the last seat on tonight's bus. So at 7 pm I should start an 800 mile, 20 hour journey to the south of the Western Sahara. Which is or is not part of Morocco, depending on which diplomat you talk to.

Anyhow, I've got to go eat and otherwise prepare for this. The earliest you will hear from me again will be at the end of a long and lonely road.

A Note on the Transportation of Sheep:

Yesterday, at a bus station in a town on the way to Marrakesh I was bemused to see a guy put a live, bleating, unbound sheep into the baggage compartment of an otherwise modern bus. Today I found out that that's the norm, and five sheep and goats shared my journey to Agadir.

It also turns out that, although sheep are great in herds, individually they don't much like to be led. So if you want to get them around a city you have to either hogtie them and push them in a cart or pick them up and carry them over your shoulders.

I don't know what you're supposed to do when they pee on you.


Nice country, but so far an idiotic bus system.

It started late, as with the other bus journeys I've had. And then it took eleven and a half hours to cover 300 miles, even though the two lane road wasn't half bad. The first rest and food stop was eight and a half hours into it, about 70 miles before Marrakesh. The last hour or so I was brain dead from the tedium.

The scenery started to get more attractive as soon as we left Fes, going up into some moderate hills, and ending up looking like a cross between the south of France and New Mexico, if that makes any sense. Then after a while it started to flatten out, starting to look like a cross between the unattractive parts of the south of France and New Mexico. Then it flattened out altogether, turning into an endless panorama of fields and farms and the occasional orange or olive grove.

To the left of me the High Atlas appeared as a semi-respectable mountain range, with snow covering the top two or three thousand feet. These were soon eclipsed by closer, moderate hills which slowly diminished. Finally, right before Marrakesh, the High Atlas reappeared on the distant horizon, looking more majestic but too far away.

I passed the usual Third World assortment of donkeys, goats, and people, but, once again, Morocco didn't look backward enough. Even the rooftops in the small villages sprouted satellite dishes; in the larger towns were new developments that would be upgrades for many Americans. I don't know where the country is getting its wealth, since its entire industrial base seems to be one cement plant on the outskirts of Rabat. Maybe it's all those remittances from those working in Europe...

Anyway, and finally, we entered Marrakesh. Again, all clean and pretty new. I got off the bus and took a cab to the old district. We passed a posh hotel, then a posher hotel. Then a poshest hotel. Then a more poshest hotel. Everyone was built in the same style, with pink stone facing and palms and esplanades out the wazoo. Around them strolled posh Europeans. I was starting to get nervous.

Then we got to the old district, which was old only if you consider 'old' to mean 1960. The nice little hotel I had chosen beforehand was full. My backup, a giant backpacker hotel, only had one very, very crappy room left.

How crappy was it? Well, it was six feet wide. People walking up the stairs could see into it. The front of the toilet in the 'bathroom' was three inches from the wall, making it impossible to sit on.

It turns out that while Friday may be Sunday in Moslem countries, and while Sunday may be Monday, Saturday night is still Saturday night. I was stuck. So I took it.

Now it was time to check out the nighttime action at Djamaa square, which is Marrakesh's big drawing card. The hotel was only a few yards away. Here goes...


Okay, it is big, I'll give it that much. And there were thousands of people milling around. But what were they milling around for?

Here's what: Off to the left as you enter are 80 (don't worry, I counted them all) Moroccan EZ-UP craft fair booths, each well lit and each neatly displaying obviously manufactured Moroccan 'crafts'. Then as you walk through the square there were several quasi-competent Moroccan drumming circles, each surrounded by over a hundred spectators, and a few Arabic storytellers, each surrounded by the same. On the left and the right were 70 giant mall pushcarts, each selling either oranges or dried fruits. On the far side of the square were set up about fifty 'open air' restaurants, with about the ambience of a church or school fair, each selling, of course, the same stuff.

And that was it. That was Marrakesh.

Now I'm not one of those who think that the quaint should remain poverty stricken for the benefit of the viewing public. And I'm sure the local middle class Moroccans enjoy coming here in the same way that you might enjoy going to the church fair. And, as I've said, I realize that it's not 1969 anywhere in the world any more.

But even though the Istanbul I saw in 2004 was totally changed from the one I saw in 1970, it still had the Blue Mosque and St Sophia's. All that Marrakesh ever had was its old world funkiness. With that gone, why in hell would anyone come here???

Those of us who live in New Mexico are always scratching our heads as to why anyone visits Santa Fe. But Santa Fe, even with its Ann Taylors and Banana Republics, is far more authentic than here. Actually, Santa Fe might be the appropriate analogy: For Europeans, living in a totally fake and modern world, Marrakesh might be a totally fake and modern 'escape'.

Enough negativity, though. Let's focus on the positive. First off, what with the Mauritanian visa snafu, I was afraid that I would regret leaving Marrakesh too soon. Not a problem. Next, the nighttime chill wasn't nearly as bad as Fes, so my fears of pneumonia have diminished.

Third, my hotel had an all you can eat couscous buffet. So I was finally able to live the fantasy of being surrounded by mounds of the stuff.

Friday, January 14, 2005

First Footnotes

About the Food:

Even I fell for it this time, imagining that I would be surrounded by endless mounds of couscous. The reality is that, like just about every other country in the world, whether or not the people eat traditional foods at home, what they eat in restaurants are burgers and fries, pizzas, and all the other stuff that's basically served at Denny's.

It's true that the poor people eat 'traditional' food, but poor people food is almost always crappy and tasteless. And you can go to a fancy restaurant and get the real ethnic deal, but you'll probably be paying as much as you would at home, and it might not be as good.

Okay, it's not quite as bleak as that. But in general, if you really crave good Indian food or Mexican food or Moroccan food, you'd do best to check out the yellow pages.

Moroccan Trailways:

Moroccan buses are about as good as Turkish buses, which is one cut below Greyhound. Although on Turkish buses they have a 'steward' who goes around dispensing tea and the occasional snack.

And, to further destroy your ex post hippie fantasies about this country, all the major cities are connected by expressways.


It isn't 1969 in the US, and it isn't 1969 in Morocco, either.

In fact, far from being exotic, Morocco so far seems like a poorer, though somewhat friendlier, version of France. And urban Morocco is actually wealthier than the France of 1969.

Anyway, even though this country is verging on Second World, it got me to thinking of an idea I had years ago, namely that the developed world should just re-colonize the Third World. Only this time they would have to do it right, steadily investing in infrastructure and education, in exchange for an immigration policy that would be fair and balanced.

It would have to be voluntary, of course. But almost all the Central American countries, for instance, and absent George Bush, would vote in a heartbeat for Puerto Rico status. And it is always quaint how former British and French colonies will maintain British and French affectations long after the actual British and French have forsaken them.

Moreover, it would give folks like us something useful to do with our time and energy besides going to Las Vegas and starting insane wars...

Well, back to the travelogue:

Meknes is the 'third' tourist city in Morocco, and although it does have a medina (or old part), said medina was definitely lacking in oomph. On the other hand, the people were very friendly, and it was a pleasant place to spend the night.

Fes, on the other hand, is a city of over a million, and is supposed to have the largest medieval medina in the world. Not only that, but it's supposed to have the' most annoying touts and salesmen in the world. I looked forward to checking it all out.

I don't know. Maybe it's because it was Friday (Muslim Sunday); maybe it was because of my hard and stony expression; maybe it was the way I totally blew everyone off. But I walked in the gate and nobody hassled me. I mean, doesn't anyone even try any more?

And maybe I'm just old and jaded, but somehow gas stations at the entrance, satellite dishes on the roofs, and guys walking buy wearing Adidas and NY Giant sweatshirts, none of this screams MEDIEVAL at me.

In the end Fes was mildly interesting, but hardly worth planning a vacation around: it's mostly just substandard housing. And although there might be 8400 winding alleys (I'll give it that, it is humungous as old cities go) they all wind up as dead ends, so it's no fun getting lost.

Oh, and finally one kid hassled me for about five minutes, but then even he gave up.

Anyway, I still have my illusions, and tomorroa at 6am I head for Marrakesh, where I hope to be overwhelmed with exotic. At the very least, arriving there should stop that stupid Marrakesh Express song from nattering through my brain.

Molasses In January

The plan was to pick up my Mauritanian visa at 11, put on a jaunty little red hat, and take off for Fes. That was the plan.

It started off all right, with me sauntering around Casablanca for a couple of morning hours, finally ending up at its distinctively unattractive seashore. There stood the Hassan II mosque, supposedly the largest, and arguably the least inspiring, religious building in the world. Like the megachurches in the States, this megamosque ignores the deep spiritual truth that God probably isn't about being bigger than everything else.

Then it was down to the Mauritanian consulate for the visa. Except that the consular official decided not to come in this morning. (Why they didn't stamp the passports yesterday afternoon...) So about forty of us--a few backpackers, a few Moroccans, a few French car thieves, and a whole bunch of German retirees waiting to take their vans and mini-Winnebagos south--stood around being pissed off for two and a half hours.

Finally at one thirty the passports were produced, and I got to race back to my hotel room and talk the clerk into not charging me for an extra day. Then over to the bus station, where I talked the clerk into re-issuing my noon ticket. THEN it was off To Fes.

Except I decided to stop in Meknes, about 40 miles short of there.

So let me fill you in on the Moroccan landscape so far: It's rather flat. And insipid. Mostly pasture and a few stands of scrubby forest thrown in. Casablanca was surprisingly clammy, which isn't so surprising when you consider that it's on the ocean.

And a sartorial note: I only brought tropical clothing, and it gets cold enough at night to see one's breath, so I walk around in 4 or 5 layers. Which will probably start to get rather funky pretty soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Casablanca The Reality Show

I wrote the last posting after being awake for 31 hours. Melatonin does wonders for jet lag...

The coast of Africa stretched long and straight and plain as we approached it from the Atlantic on Air France. Casablanca appeared as if out of nowhere, looking much too small for a city of 5 million. The airport was neither primitive nor fancy, about on a level with that of El Salvador. Entry into Morocco was painless.

A train connected the airport with downtown. Looking out the window, the countryside looked a lot like the Middle East, with poor white squares of houses and stony soil. The sky was blue and the fields were green, this being the rainy season.

Morocco has a reputation for having the most annoying tourist hasslers in the world, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find the average Moroccan to be unfailingly polite and pleasant. Even the traffic is exceedingly well behaved. The city itself, while not super slick modern, is white and pal,y and pretty clean for the Third World.

That said, there's precious little for a tourist to see, which made it all the more annoying this morning when the first of my carefully laid plans was torn slightly asunder.

I was supposed to have an easy in-out on my Mauritanian visa, but they changed the regulations on 1-1-05. Now I had to wait in line for 2 hours, then wait another 24 hours for the stamp in the passport.

So I went to Rabat for the day. It's the capital, about an hour away on the train, and the downtown part is even more uptown than Casablanca. It's also got an older part, and a teeny tiny medieval part, its own Casbah. I stood on the ramparts, gazing out to sea, due west to... North Carolina. North Africa is still pretty far north.

Below me were numerous brown dots in the water. I finally figured out that they were Moroccan surfers, waiting inside the breakwater for some wave to come along. In 7 minutes of watching, I didn' see a single guy catch one.

Well, gotta go. This French keyboard is a pain. Also, this somputer has an annoying habit of erasing my posting when I'm halfway through it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Je Suis Ici

I was going to start off by saying that the weirdest thing about traveling these days is how un-weird it all is: Then I got to the Paris airport:

First off; there was no convenient sign board showing the departing flights. Then when I found one, it didn't have my flight. Then when I found one with my flight, it didn't have the gate number. Then when I finally found someone to give me the gate number there was a scrum of several hundred people waiting to go through passport control so as to get in the departure lounge:

So then an official says that American passports can go through another door and up the stairs, but when I went through that door one could only go downstairs. Anyway, ten minutes later when I finally get in the departure lounge, it turns out that it's 4 bucks for a cup of coffee, 5 bucks for a coke, and there are only ' bathroom stalls for 12 gateloads of people.

So the French are indeed quite capable of living down to their reputation.

Not to mention that it's hard attempting to be creative when you're trying to type on a French keyboard, which is 85 percent the same as a 'real' one, but...

Anyway, you're probably much more interested in finding out what Casablanca is like, but for that you're going to have to wait 10 hours until I've gotten some sleep. For now I'll just point out that it's not like the movie at all: I have yet to see a carload of Nazi soldiers drive by.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Following Along At Home

Okay, gotta go. Even though the plane doesn't leave for 24 hours, I've got to go into Albuquerque and conduct business all day and into the night.

But, in case you've got a map of West Africa handy and in case you're interested, I thought I'd share my projected itinerary:

After landing in Casablanca I'll be going to Fes and Marrakesh, then down to the coast and on through the Western Sahara, with its unended war and thousands of landmines. Then it is down through Mauritania, famous for the world's longest iron ore train and for still practicing slavery, and on into Senegal, where you're likely to get knifed in its capital city, Dakar. I don't plan to be staying there long, so it's on to The Gambia, home of giant rats, giant frogs, and lots of peanuts, to which I am allergic. Then back into southern Senegal, which has been having a civil war that you haven't heard about, then on into Guinea-Bissau, which just had a bloody coup that you haven't heard about.

Then north into Guinea, on east on the back roads of Guinea, finally ending up in Bamako, Mali, where it's already 94 degrees every day. I head east to Mopti and Djenne, home of the world's largest mud mosque, then southeast to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. I continue east to Niger, where I hope to buy some uranium yellowcake for my nuclear weapons program.

Then it's south through Benin to the coast, west to Togo, land of delicious sandwiches, and finally ending up on the beach in Ghana, from where I shall fly back on February 21.

Of course, all of this depends on exquisite and precise timing, which in West Africa is a totally laughable idea. Prepare, therefore, for a few changes in plan.

On the other hand, they say that the extreme southeast corner of the Ivory Coast is still safe. And American citizens are the only ones who don't need to obtain visas beforehand...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Goma Sunday Morning

It's a few days before I land in Africa, so here's what was happening a few days before I left Africa last time:

For some reason there aren't many tourists in Rwanda these days. Which is a shame, because 'La Terre des Mille Colines'--The Land of a Thousand Hills--is one of the most drop dead gorgeous spots on earth, with terraced, beautifully lush volcanic hills rising in every direction and making somewhere like Bali seem lame in comparison.

Most Africans react to you with deferential respect, but while we were waiting through the border formalities, Jean Pierre had walked up to me with the friendly self confidence of equality, and invited to share the car he was driving into the capital of Kigali.

Many Tutsi are tall by African standards (5'11', say) and are almost skeletally thin with strange elongated heads, but most, like Jean Pierre, are indistinguishable from the 'normal looking' Hutus. It was a comfortable ride to sit in the front of a Volvo, and he didn't hesitate when I gingerly asked him about his experience in the Genocide.

His father was a prominent doctor in the south of Rwanda, he had eight sisters and brothers, and the entire family was massacred by their next door neighbors. The only reason he survived was because he was out of the country at the time.

I asked him how he had coped. He replied that for the first five or six years he had been overwhelmed with anger, but then a couple of years ago he had come to the realization that he was just going to have to blow it off. Now he had a wife and family and was putting together his future.

When we got to Kigali, he used his cell phone to call a friend to come over and change some money for me. And an hour or so later I was crammed into a ubiquitous African minibus going over and through some of those thousand hills to the 'resort' of Gisenyi.

I stayed at the Palm Beach Hotel right on the shores of Lake Kivu, probably the best resort hotel in the country. There had been a more upmarket place right next door, but that was where the 'government' that ran the genocide had been based, so it wasn't open these days. Like much of Africa itself, the staff of the Palm Beach was doing its part to keep the place up, but it was kind of a losing battle.

They did have a functioning pool table and tv lounge for the few upper class Rwandans and a few more white and East Indian businessmen sorts here to while away the weekend. And out on the lawn, between the hotel and the lake shore, tables and umbrellas were set up, waiters stood by for your order, and guards beat the crap out of any local daring to enter the property and trying to sell things to the guests.

There were supposed to be fabulous views of Congolese mountains across the lake, but the haze made the lakeshore look generic and not exotic. As the sun went down and the moon came up, I sat and tried to evoke what it must have been like here nine years before. But everything seemed too normal and peaceful, and in the end I went to bed.

The next morning felt like waking up at the summer vacation at the lake, and to make it even more laid back it was Sunday to boot. I decided to walk the kilometer distance along the lake, past the neatly mown lawns of modest vacation villas, to the border with the Congo.

When I got there I saw the cutest little border post I had ever seen--and I've crossed a lot of borders. The Rwandan flag was flying, a little white painted building stood by it, there was no traffic to be seen. I decided to take a picture.

Now I already knew that most Third World governments freak out if you take pictures of their border area. But it's such a bizarre, paranoid attitude, and anyway it was such a peaceful Sunday morning, and no one would probably notice me doing it...

When I entered the building, the guy immediately asked if I had taken a picture. I said yes. He said I would have to give them my film. I immediately realized that we had a problem here, since I had a digital camera.

What was worse, Rwandans speak French, and I had only been speaking French since I had entered the country yesterday, so my command of the language wasn't. And I was completely tongue tied trying to explain how I could just erase the offending shot.

Now the gendarme guy came in waving his gun and threatening and screaming. I knew that the worst case scenario was that I'd lose my camera and not my life, so it was easy to keep my cool and try to come up with new pidgin ways to explain my simple solution to their problem. Finally, when the customs guy and the gendarme guy went away for a minute to figure out what to do with me, I successfully showed a third guy that I had already gotten rid of the image. Went they returned it took him a couple of minutes to get this across to them. Once they understood, they calmed down and were then really fascinated by this, their first digital camera.

I smiled, shook their hands, and then walked fifty feet over to the Congo, where I bought a visa. The vibe in the small Congo building was suitably anarchic, and, as I was leaving, the guy said the one condition was that I didn't take any pictures. I thought he might have been aware of my recent contretemps and said, You mean around here?, and he said, No, In the Congo.

As soon as I walked out of his little one room shack I was in Goma, population more than a million. Except that the only way you could classify this as a city was by noting that a million people lived here: it was more like a really densely populated rural area that went on for about ten miles. The way you get around in Goma is by flagging down a 20 year old on his motorbike and riding around on the back of it, so within a couple of minutes I had done that, making the acquaintance of one Albert Kaymanza.

And Albert didn't have to ask me where I, the tourist of the week, wanted to go. Because although Goma was the Congo's third or fourth largest 'city', there had been a civil war for the past ten years or so, which had kind of hampered economic growth. And then a couple of years ago that volcano I could barely see in the mist about thirty miles away had erupted, and a long thin finger of lava had snaked down those thirty miles and had taken direct aim at what had passed for the downtown business district. So obviously I wanted to go see the lava field.

We passed an endless tableau of small thrown together shacks and small plots of banana palms, and we passed hundreds and hundreds of people walking in every direction towards a horizon of more shacks and banana palms, finally arriving to where that long thin line of lava had gone through the middle of the airport, and then following it on down to the lake. When we got to 'downtown' there were several hundred acres of moonlike desolation surrounded by the miles of shacks and tropical fecundity that were completely untouched. One giant blank wall of the cathedral was still standing. Nothing was left of the bank building, the two large department stores, the electric company headquarters.

Albert suggested I take some pictures. Not having gone through the fracas at the border I would have been sorely tempted to. And maybe have wound up in a Congolese jail. Instead I acted conservatively and kept the camera in the pocket.

Albert then continued to motorbike me through town, me continuing to be fascinated by all those people walking, walking along the road. How, without any discernable economic activity, did anyone, let alone everyone, survive here? I was flummoxed. Then all of a sudden a sign caught my eye: Internet!

We stopped and I went in. Yes, there were about 20 computer terminals, and it was about 50 cents an hour. I signed up.

Amazingly, not only was the equipment new, but the connection was super fast. I checked my e-mail, sent some messages, sent a few more messages for the novelty of e-mailing from the Congo, and then looked up.

Sitting a couple of terminals away was this incredibly grizzled and haggard white guy, looking exactly like a French version of Humphrey Bogart in 'The African Queen'. It was immediately obvious that he had been here all of his adult life, through all the civil wars, etc., probably the last living embodiment of the Colonial ex pat.

And there he was, this Goma Sunday morning, blithely keeping up with all of his internet correspondence.

Friday, January 07, 2005

So What's The Problem?

To say that personal safety is not an issue is not to say that there aren't issues that will make this journey problematical. They include:

TRANSPORTATION. Morocco is supposed to have a modern road network and a heap of modern buses. After that it starts to get funky. They're just completing a road through Mauritania, so one no longer has to hire a guide and head off through the dunes, and I'll be on sort of major roads from there on. But it many places the only 'public' transport is large shared taxis, and depending on the condition of the taxis and the number of people they squoosh into them, it might get interesting.

FOOD. I'm a vegetarian, which makes road food a challenge under the best of circumstances. Needless to say, there aren't many fast food restaurants along the way.

LANGUAGE. Most of the countries I'll be in are Francophone, and although I do speak a little French, I'm by no means fluent.

HASSLES. Some of these have to do with the infrastructure problems of traveling through literally the poorest countries of the world. For instance, you might not be aware of it but ATM's now proliferate through virtually the entire planet. But not, by and large, in West Africa. Other, personal, hassles include police and border guards fishing for bribes and those rude jerks who think that the way to make money is by hassling perceived tourists. Morocco, by the way, has a long established reputation for such folk.

Finally, AGE. I'm 57 years old, and at some point I'm going to be too old for this. It's the time of life when one's body doesn't adjust so well to 21 hour bus rides and lying awake all night in a hot, mosquito ridden hotel room with a disco going on next door.

Of course, I won't know I'm too old until I directly experience it, and then there's always the chance that it's too late.

Anyhow, and speaking of which, right at the moment, two days before I'm supposed to leave I'm just recovering from a bad case of the flu that I got because my doctor convinced me to get a flu shot. I can't reschedule the flight because I got a super-cheap 'consolidator' fare. And to make matters worse, there's all sorts of business stuff I have to process this weekend.

Oh well. Assuming I can physically make it to the airport on Monday, the best worse case scenario is that I hang around a beach in Morocco for a little bit longer, and maybe knock Guinea-Bissau off the itinerary...

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Safety Issue

Most people, when they find out I'm going to Africa, respond as though I'm doing something that's both crazy and dangerous. And I'll admit that I had a few trepidations when I went to South and East Africa about a year and a half ago. After all, it is the Dark Continent...

So there I'd be in a place like Zambia, and people would notice my wedding band and ask me why my wife wasn't along, and I'd say, Because she thought it might be dangerous, and they'd give me a look of disbelief, point to the scene around them, and ask, What's dangerous about this???

And it was true. By and large, I felt perfectly safe throughout my journey, even though I drove all over South Africa by myself, even though I even entered poverty- and war-torn nations like Mozambique and Burundi. There were of course other issues that made my 'vacation' a little different than going down to Cancun for a week, but personal safety out amongst the civilian population was not one of them.

So why, besides the general paranoia that permeates our times and the general all purpose fear of the unknown that is a function of the human condition, do people freak out about the idea of going to Africa? I think there are two reasons.

The first is probably unstated. And that is, that they are afraid of being the only 'whitey' in a sea of hostile blacks. You know, the car breaking down in the 'Hood, and the night's falling, and the Crips are surrounding you, and...

The reality in Africa is that nothing could be further from the mark. Not only do Africans not hate white people, they actually like them. Really like them. They're curious, respectful, perhaps reserved, but almost always friendly. At the worst, white people are looked at the same as Chinese people or East Indian people, both of whom are relatively common there: as foreigners in the midst, but with absolutely no hostility.

I'll take it a step further. The African will see you as a superior person. By this I don't mean to imply a racial thing or to say that they're servile. It's just that you obviously have more money and freedom than they do, so they naturally assume that you've got something together that they don't. And this means that more curiousity and respect will be forthcoming.

And although you will be hassled some by touts, etc., at the few tourist areas there are (from what I've seen so far at least), the level of hassle is far less than you would find in most other Third World countries. And as you look around you, you will see them interacting with each other with the same sort of polite respect.

Anyway, the second reason people freak out about Africa is because of all those famines and genocides and people whacking off arms and stuff like that. So let me deal with that issue.

Yes, those things have happened. But it's also true that once they're over, things go back to normal pretty quickly. For instance, right now Uganda is completely stable and is Africa's shining success story. Sierra Leone is described by travelers as totally peaceful and laid back, almost like a Caribbean island. Rwanda is at genuine peace with Tutsis and Hutus working side by side.

How is this so? Here's my theory:

Far from being inherently violent, Africans are really gentle, non-confrontational people. In fact, their culture is so nonviolent that they don't know how to deal with it when it occurs. For those who 'cross over' to the violent side, they don't have any long developed psychological defense systems in place to deal with that frame of mind, so they go nuts. And their victims, for similar reasons, don't know how to defend themselves.

Then, when it's over, everybody goes back to how they were. And I know that this is perhaps hard to believe, but...

So in theory personal safety shouldn't be an issue for me in West Africa. And I know from reading the accounts of those who have already been there that safety hasn't been an issue for them.

Although I'll shortly find out for sure.