Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Reader Survey

Now that the trip is just about over, I can say that West Africa was a piece of cake. A piece of incredibly dry, stale three week old cake, with nothing to wash it down with.

Seriously folks, I'll still be adding some insights and conclusions and reflections about this place once I'm safely away from it. But for now I have to decide what to do with the future of this blog.

I've come up with four options:

A. I can turn it into a monopolar forum from which I can broadcast all my educational, theological, political, and, probably, mostly just plain stupid thoughts. Sort of like all the other blogs, except this would be, naturally, a folzblog.

B. If you like the travelogue stuff, I have a pretty complete memory, and I could faithfully re-create, day by day, some of the other trips that I've taken, to places like Labrador, Tibet, Armenia, and Oklahoma. And I can tell you in advance that none of them will be as remotely depressing as this one.

C. I can go on hiatus until another real trip transpires.

D. I can pull the blogplug. After all, it's hard work being this funny and insightful, and if (as I suspect) nobody else is actually reading this, then that will necessarily be the default position.

To vote, as it were, or to just let me know you're out there, you can hit the 'Comment' button at the bottom of this. Or, if you'd like to be more private, you can e-mail me at:

Well, up to now it's been an interesting exercise for me at least. And if anyone IS reading, thanks for doing so, and I hope you've enjoyed it.

Oh, and here's my entire creative output for the trip so far:


I'm thinking that with the Beach Boys being older now, that instead of surfing they'd probably be more into sustainable development these days.

And they'd be singing something like this:

Little NGO, you're lookin' flash
Four Toyota Land Cruisers and a local staff
See the projects lining up now, watch the funding grow
Evaluate, Allocate, Duplicate

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Vision Thing

It's easy to mock former colonial peoples for their aping of their former masters' ways: The Senegalese being oh so French, the Ghaniana, like the Indians, taking to democracy and bureaucracy with such earnestness. But there's another perspective.

Say that some space aliens came down and offered you good money to go round up your neighbors and sell them to said space aliens who would then take them to some far planet to be lifelong slaves. Would you do it? What if others were doing it around you? What if your close relatives had already been sold? Would you then have a very high opinion of your own culture?

And it's easy to mock the 'benefits of civilization'. But you live in a world where the trains and buses have always run on time. Where you have trains and buses. I can find it funny that the police have to be bribed $2 every five miles, but I don't have to look forward to that every day of my life.

Of course the French and British didn't deliver even close to 100% on their promises of education and progress. But the intelligent Christian understands that their Church is imperfect, and even if the Africans and Indians and all ended up hating their hypocritical masters, they still loved the dream that the British and French were selling.

The point of all this is that for the past thirty years or so America has, rightly or wrongly, provided that vision for the poor and benighted of the world. Sure, some of their (to us) slavish admiration for all things American had to do with a childish love of flash materialism, but there were two other factors which were much more important.

The first had to do with their belief that in America hard work and virtue were rewarded not with just material wealth, but with a system that included justice, fair play, racial tolerance (!), and intelligence. (If you find this hard to believe, look at our multi-racial cast movies with their messages of justice prevailing, etc. If you ignore all the sex and violence, they present a pretty nice picture.)

The second point is that Americans don't put on airs, and in the third world anyone with any power or money does. A hotel owner in Senegal was telling me how a former American ambassador had just stayed there the week before, and how amazed the hotel owner was that he just acted like a regular guy. It would have been ludicrous to think of a French ambassador acting that way.

Anyhow, just about the worst long term effect of these Bush years is that this beautiful, wonderful (if to us somewhat unrealistic) vision of America is being torn up in front of the eyes of the rest of the wanting to believe world. Here in Africa they don't follow the news too closely, so their eyes still light up when they hear I'm from the U.S. It's so sad that that probably won't last for long.

Friday, February 18, 2005

To Go Or Not To Go

To Togo, that is.

Whether to begin the Benin, as it were.

After all, there I was in Accra, surrounded by delicious food and all, and the only real justification I could give for re-exerting myself and completing my adventure was adding two more countries to my list. Isn't that a little silly?

Well... Look at it this way: All my life I've been looking at maps of places like Togo and Benin, especially weird little places like Togo and Benin, and wondering what exactly was there. I actually think it would be silly to be this close and NOT go check it out.

So Thursday morning I headed east from Accra, this time in an extremely comfortable shared taxi. We first passed through about 20 miles of eastern Accra, on a freeway to boot, surrounded by the type of big time construction you see in Asia. I was once again astounded by how much Ghana has gotten its act together, especially when you consider all the crap and chaos which surrounds it.

Then it was a couple of hours of Sahel by the Sea, replete with baobab trees. This was the famous (to geographers at least) Dahomey Gap that separates West African forest ecology from the rest of the continent. On the way we passed a moderate house right by the road, and my fellow passengers pointed out that that was the weekend home of former President Jerry Rawlings, the guy who 'saved' Ghana about twenty years ago. And he travels with only the smallest of security details, they proudly added.

We got to the Togo border, I went through the formalities, and all of a sudden I was in Lome, the country's capital. Speaking of crap and chaos... Actually, it was better then some of the places I'd been, but I was still glad to get myself squahed into a minivan for the ride to Benin.

Togo is only 30 miles ride, plus a half an hour or so to go through the Benin border, and by 4:30 I was in Ouidah, a town of about 100,000, and the place where voodoo comes from.

But you couldn't tell it from the town vibe, which was simply barebones poverty and not much else happening. The place was too poor for cabs, so I took a motorbike down to the ocean, where there is a big monument to all the slaves taken from here to Brazil. (Here's a Slavery fun fact: Of the 7 million people transported, about half went to Brazil, about half to the Caribbean, and only about 5 percent to the United States.)

I was immediately longing for the much, much more upscale poverty of a small city in Ghana. For food I was back to bad bread and La Vache Qui Rit.

Friday I awoke bright and early and got an air conditioned ride back to Lome. There I got a tight fitting share taxi up to Kpilame, a town up in the Togo hills where I was planning to spend the night. But I was so overwhelmed by the heat and humidity once I arrived that I started having second thoughts.

The Harmattan haze clinched it. For although it hadn't really been a factor since northern Ghana, today it was effectively screening all those beautiful Togo hills(and I could sort of tell that they were) from my eyesight. And breathing the haze was making me (for the first time of the trip) start to feel very faint.

And Ghana, civilized Ghana, Ghana of the ice and fresh orange juice, was right across the border...

So I went down to the car park and sat around for an hour and a half while a small car slowly filled with passengers for Ho. And while I was there I saw my first bunch of African hippies.

Man, were these guys tripped out. Apparently they were from somewhere in the middle of Niger, which, if so, has got to be a destination for me some time. Africans are known for their colorful dress, but let's just say that if these guys had shown up in 1969 they would have stolen the show. I surreptitiously took a couple of pictures, but basically you would have just had to experience how seriously though positively weird they were.

Anyhow, my car finally filled up, and then it was over the hills and through the borders to Ghana. Where I am right now, and where, for only the second time so far on the whole trip, my hotel room doesn't have at least one thing really crapped out about it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

On To Accra

I finally got to do some enjoyable tourist stuff. First it was the Cape Coast Fort, which wasn't incredible as far as forts go, but, once again, for West Africa... Actually, to stand there and realize that it was first built in 1650 and was the British headquarters for the region until 1872, and all the slaves that were processed. Mostly, though, there just isn't that much history here to hold on to.

Then I rented a taxi to drive me 25 miles to the National Park, realizing while I did so that car and driver is the way to go around here. I then bought a ticket for the rope canopy tour.

For once Africa looked like Ramar of the Jungle land, replete with hanging vines. And then there were the swaying ropeways right out of an Indiana Jones movie. They said that they hadn't lost a customer yet, and there's netting between your waist and the walkway, but as soon as I stepped out on the first one I didn't believe them one bit.

After all, I've got a pretty good sense of balance and I don't scare easily, but: When you take your hands off the rail, stand sideways, and try to take a picture, you feel like you're going to pitch right over the edge, and any appreciation of the ecosystem 100 feet below you is easily overwhelmed by sheer terror.

All in all, I don't think the wife would have liked it.

Anyhow, today it was into Accra. If Ouagadougou was West Africa's first semblance of a real city, it could still easily fit into Accra's hip pocket. Not only that, but much of the city is not insanely chaotic. Some of the bank offices, etc., are crisply airconditioned. All in all a nice place to be.

Monday, February 14, 2005

From Goner To Ghana

I don't know if it was more heat exhaustion, the lingering effects of malaria, or something I ate, but Friday night brought a low grade fever, no sleep, and a slight delirium. At seven on Saturday morning it took all my will to get my clothes on.

When I went outside the Harmattan dust was so thick that it looked like the end of the world. A humid, sticky end at that. My plan was to take a cab to the main gare routiere, find a minibus to the town of Po, somehow get from Po to the border, across the border to the first Ghanian town, and so on. Under the best of circumstances it would have been hot and humid and tiring. In my current state I could barely stay conscious in the cab.

We got there and I asked one of the guys standing around for a minibus to Po. Instead he led me to a giant modern bus that in an hour was heading for deep in the heart of Ghana. What amazing dumb luck! I almost cried in my weakness. And what was really astounding was that buses weren't supposed to leave from that part of town.

And so off we headed for the promised land. And at around four I was deposited at Tamale, the largest town in northern Ghana. I went to an air conditioned room at the Catholic Guest House, and then up the hill to a restaurant, where I pigged out on iced fresh orange juice (you can drink the water here!), mushroom soup, and real pizza. Within a few hours of eating something not totally repugnant to my body, my body responded with good health once again.

The next day consisted of a hot, squoosed quasi-bus one breakdown ride to the city of Kumasi, where the first hotel didn't have a/c any more, the second was full up, and the third was too expensive. Not to mention the internet cafe was broken and the Indian restaurant was pretty mediocre. But you don't have to mention those things, because now they're just humorous happenstances, not potentially life threatening incidents.

Because Ghana has an economy!

Now it's still rather like a Central American economy, maybe like Costa Rica 20 years ago, but considering that this is Africa, that's pretty incredible. Also the fact that it's been down without the 'help' of the Lebanese or East Indians, who control the economies of most of the rest of Africa.

In fact, it's fascinating to see layers of economic life being added as I've headed south. Now there are, for instance, print shops. Billboards for tires. Though small, car dealerships. Areas of town that are pretty nice. Even though, please remember, the level of general poverty would be shocking by first world standards.

But compared with what I've been putting up with, it's end of the rainbow land.

Anyhow, here I am on the coast, at Cape Coast to be exact. It's so humid that you're dripping sweat ten minutes after having a shower. And that's with the a/c on!

But the up side of that is that for once the landscape is dripping with green and with life. Not only that, but about halfway down Ghana there started to be slope for just about the first time since Morocco. After a couple thousand miles of West Texas, any undulation makes a place look like paradise.

So now I'm resting. Tomorrow I'll tour the famous local fortress and go walk on a jungle canopy. It will be so nice to be up in the air without a net compared to the other stuff I've been going through.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Upper Volta

When Model UN rolled around back in high school, I thought it would be really cool to represent the most absurd country in the world. After I did little research I decided on Upper Volta.

After all, there was no Lower Volta. It had absolutely no natural resources. Its capital was Ouagadougou. And you got there by taking the Ouagadougou Choo-Choo. So a delegation was formed and fun was had by all.

Now after all these years I was here, although in the meantime they had changed the name to Burkina Faso. I was hoping against hope that it was better than Mali.

And I could see that it was as I was deposited in the first town the next day at two thirty. For one thing there were restaurants of a fashion, with a couple of actual plastic chairs sitting in front. The gas station actually had a mini-mart which sold canned sodas, and a few other flavors than fantacokesprite. The bus we were to board at four would have actual cushions on its seats and it would actually leave on time.

Of course, this was the country's fourth largest city.

And when I started the trip I was depressed by all the people walking around selling all kinds of small plastic crap; how could they hope to clear more than a dollar a day? But seeing them now was a sign of prosperity. There are customers who can afford small plastic crap!

I got to Ouaga at seven, found a hotel, and indulged in the first hot water in over a week. The next morning I awoke to find myself in the first functioning city I've been in since Morocco. Traffic! Buildings actually transacting business! People bustling about!

That excitement soon faded, however, when I found that with increased economic activity came many more people hassling me to buy their plastic crap, more so than anywhere I've been in Africa. It was still bearable, though.

Not as bearable was the heat, humidity, and dusty Harmattan winds. Also the fact that the Ghana bus I was expecting to exist didn't. I therefore went around researching my options.

One would be to take the train to the Ivory Coast. Except that I had just promised my wife not to do stupid things. Still, it was appealing... Anyway, another was to wait for a minibus to fill for Togo. That seemed pretty hot and tiring.

The final idea was to go town by town into Ghana. The problem with that was that I could get stuck in the middle of hot nowhere. I was about to head out to the gare routiere and give it a shot when a flashing gas station time and temperature thing said it was a hundred degrees.

I retreated to my air conditioned hotel room to try again in the early am.

Bicycling Through Deep Sand

Mali is the perfect Post Modern vacation destination: Get off a plane from Paris to a land that literally doesn't have the infrastructure of Afghanistan in 1970, then go see tourist sights that only the Emperor in his New Clothes would have loved.

I talked to a fellow New Mexican who had just spent seven days trekking in the famous Dogon Country, supposedly the most amazing thing about West Africa. She said that scenically it was an amateur version of New Mexico, and that whatever mild cultural interest that was there was more than offset by the enervating heat and having to pay through the nose for every breath you took.

Given my straightened health condition, I decided to blow it off.

And as I became less malarial and more conscious I became aware of the Post Modern nature of Mac's Refuge. For instance, the NGO people never seem to do anything except attend conferences where they discuss what they should do. There was a snotty little rich French girl there who was nattering on about how the Imperialists had exploited West Africa, and seemed oblivious to the reality that there is nothing here to exploit.

The strangest thing though was this gay former Peace Corps guy who had come back, thanks to a grant he had written, so that he and two friends could go to some totally remote town and have the sixth graders spend a week using point and click cameras. Which they then had to give back.

Now it immediately occurred to me that said remote village would have probably preferred that the twenty thousand or so dollars involved be used to, say, improve the road, fix the school, add a phone line, buy a computer... But nobody at Mac's thought of that as a relevant question.

So it was time to move on. And Wednesday morning I got to the gare routiere bright and early so as to get to the town of Koro, where the bus left for Burkina Faso at two.

Except, of course, the minibus didn't leave until eleven, and then an hour along the road deteriorated to one of those ten mile an hour jobs, and I didn't get to Koro until four thirty.

Along the way I at least got to experience the incredible escarpment of the Dogon Country. Except it turned out to be a cliff about four hundred feet high. There are easily several thousand sights in the western US better than the best sight in West Africa.

Starting to sound grumpy, am I? Well, as I trudged to the one hotel in town I became pleasantly surprised. Because although they didn't have electricity, they did have a pretty courtyard, flowering bushes, and well appointed, if totally dark, rooms.

As twilight turned to night I took a walk. And once again was pleasantly surprised. For here was a place that had never even had the electricity to miss. All was totally peaceful and quiet as I walked the sandy back streets, each block defined by sandy brown walls that hid family courtyards. At one point a battery run black and white tv drew a small crowd, but otherwise it was small wood fires and men chanting.

For once I was in a totally different world, rather than a really bad version of what I was trying to leave. West Africa did have some magic after all, even if for a moment. And I cherished the illusion that here, at least in the evening, people neither knew nor cared that they lived in the poorest country on Earth. I was taken back to a time when Life was something other than a function of economic statistics.

Kind of like back in the Fifties...

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Sunday morning I woke up feeling pretty good, and had a great Mac's Refuge American breakfast of whole wheat pancakes and fruit and yogurt.

An Ohio mom who was visiting her Peace Corps daughter had rented a car and driver for the sojourn, and they were heading out to Djenne after breakfast. I hitched a ride, so to speak.

It took an hour and a half on the main road to get to the Djenne turnoff, then another half hour to the town with the famous mud musque. We got there and... were all somewhat underwhelmed. For one thing it was surrounded by a wall and then the town of total old mud houses crowded around it to boot. I guess it photographs well.

The sad thing is that this is just about the cultural highlight of West Africa. If you go trekking in Nepal you put up with a lot less discomfort and you end up seeing the Himalayas. Here there's no reward for all your suffering.

And I was beginning to suffer, feeling weaker by the minute. As we headed back to the main road I started to have trepidations. So that when I was dropped off at the junction I only half jokingly asked the lady to contact my wife in a few days to let her know the last time I was seen.

It was now high noon and I had assumed that buses and taxis would be going by all the time. I was wrong. It wasn't dreadfully hot, but I was, sitting there quickly realizing that here I was with absolutely no safety net in any direction.

Finally a private car came by. I flagged it down and they stopped. I begged them for a ride and they obliged, heading off at top speed for Sevare with me sitting in the closed window back seat.

Many years ago my daughter had a pet longhaired rabbit that we kept outided in the winter in the cold sunlight. One freakishly warm day in March it was up in the eighties and we were out there in our t-shirts playing badminton when all of a sudden we all went, 'The rabbit!' We ran over and the poor thing was gasping and gasping away. We couldn't save it and watched it die a few minutes later.

Now I was the rabbit. As we rode along I had no idea whether my internal thermostat had already broken and it was all over for me. I had to wait a couple of times while, it being West Africa, the car broke down and they set about fixing it. Then it took fifteen minutes once we got to Sevare for them to find the hotel.

Finally at 2 pm I was in my little adobe room, with the overhead fan turning and me desperately trying to breathe. Around six hours seemed to pass and then the fever broke a little. I looked at my watch and it was 3.

Well, at least I know what malaria feels like now. It's not just that your body's hot, your whole being is. It's semi-delirious, and the chills occur because of the broken thermostat thing.

Anyhow, at three thirty Mac came by with some salt water to drink, and at four a nice Malian doctor came and took my temperature, which was now down to 102. He gave me the pills to take, and by dinner time I was unwoozy enough to eat.

It's now Tuesday afternoon and I'm mostly recovered, feeling like a 19th Century explorer resting at the oasis and getting his strength together for the final push. On the one hand, the bright lights of Ghana--West Africa's 'success story'--beckon. The idea of nice cold banana milk is so appealing.

On the other hand, here at the compound I can get wonderful approximations of real food, and there's a steady stream of interesting travelers to talk to. Of course, not a single one yet has been crazy enough to take public transportation anywhere in West Africa.

Oh, and yes, I've promised my wife that I'm never, ever, ever again going to do anything remotely stupid, rash, or foolhardy.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Close Enough To Timbuctoo

I met a 45 year old American archeologist in Bamako who said that when he started out he was told that West Africa was a young man's place; if you were over 50 it would kill you.

In certain ways entering Mali was like inching back into the Third World: electricty, paved roads, buses (though funky), no obvious payoffs at the police stops. But in other ways it was the poorest country yet. For instance, it was damned hard even to find bottled water, let alone edible food.

And virtually the entire country is made out of dried mud. As we had left Guinea those cute conical stone huts had become almost prevalent, with entire towns of them. But in Mali it was just cruddy dried mud adobe. And the landscape was the same dried out dreary flat scrub and/or dry grass with scattered trees.

Maybe I was just getting tired out by the beating I've been administering to myself. But West Africa IS depressing.

And it didn't help when, at the end of an 11 hour bus trip I got to Mopti, found the well recommended Catholic center closed down, and ended up at the worst hotel ever. For thirty bucks I now got a two inch mattress on wooden slats that was so uncomfortable that I had to put it on the floor and try that.

The next morning I walked around the tired little town on the Niger river, then went ten miles inland to Sevare, where I found a little place run by an American guy. And got his last and tiniest little room.

The plan was for me to go the town of Djenne and its famous mud mosque. But to do that I had to go back to Mopti and wait around in the hot sun for a minibus that never left.

At this point I was only 200 miles from Timbuctoo, which due to the newly completed road was just six hours away. But the place is supposedly such an uninteresting tourist trap these days, with planeloads of French tourists flying in, that I concluded that it would be far hipper for me to be this close and NOT to go there.

Anyway, back to Sevare. Once again I was feeling awful. I chalked it up to heat exhaustion, thinking in the back of my mind that it might be malaria, but figuring that, having taken all my pills and having only had about three mosquito bites..

They served a pretty good approximation of Mexican food that night, but my appetite wasn't so hot. Hopefully, tomorrow I'd be feeling better.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

All Hail The Laughing Cow

You might wonder how a vegetarian survives in West Africa. Very, very barely.

Just about the only thing I can eat outside of the big cities is La Vache Qui Rit processed cheese, a totally indestructible dairy food product, sold in its little cartwheels with eight little aluminum coated triangles inside. Oh, that along with baguettes, which the smallest Fourth World town can make better than just about anyone in America.

Over and over and over again.

Plus Fanta, Sprite, and Coca Cola for additional nutrition.

Right now I'm headed out to a Lebanese place. The Lebanese run virtually every business in West Africa, so naturally there are restaurants that they also run. Felafel, hummus, baba ganoush, you've got to get it while you can.

A Day Off

The landscape right before Bamako had started to get interesting, kind of like a cross between West Africa and the Wild West, complete with cliffs and rock outcroppings, but with really interesting trees thrown in. Bamako itself, like just about every other African city, was pretty much an overextended grubby mess.

Breakfast at the hotel consisted of a tall glass of ginger juice and a large cereal bowl full of coffee. I had slept well, my mind was clear, but there was absolutely no wind in my sails. I decided to take a day off.

I went back to my room and just lay there, not sleeping, not thinking, just breathing. Finally at around two thirty I got up to go two miles to the 'downtown' area.

I walked out into a temperature just short of blast furnace, with no shade and no cold drinks available. I finally made it to my destination, where on the left behind walls were large official buildings like the National Assembly and the National Mosque, and all around me on the sidewalk was a cacophony of vendors selling every cheap good imaginable. I turned around and stumbled all the way back to my hotel and my air conditioning.

The Bamako Express

By the way, naturally Sierra Leone turned out to be the most photogenic country so far. Included among my lost pictures were great billboards, hills going down to the sea, ladies balancing huge burdens on their heads, and wonderful beaches. My 'favorite', though, was a poster that said, 'The Special Court Will Be Looking Into These Crimes', and then had simple drawings of a guy running off with a television set, a woman about to be raped, a car exploding, a woman about to have her hand cut off, and snickering soldiers about to cut a baby in half. Lesser crimes need not apply.

Also, by my last posting I didn't mean to imply that all Africans are saints. Nor that they accept their fate cheerfully. Senegal seemed a happy place. But in these other countries everyone knows only too well how crappy it all is. In fact, there is a sort of reverse patriotism going on: the Guinean is sure that his country is the worst, the Malian thinks his is, and so on.

Finally, it is interesting to note that you can appear to be the only white man in a hundred miles, and no one ever does even so much as a double take. It's not that they're blowing you off; if you talk to them they're very friendly and curious. They're just very, very polite.

Anyway, back to the trip. I got to the taxi place for Bamako at 10:30 and bought the last two seats. This usually means that we take off, but not this time. About an hour later I found out that they were waiting for a passenger and freight that were showing up at three. Fine, I'll sit in the hot sun in the slums for another three hours or so. They finally started loading the roof at four: on top of the regular four feet of baggage and parcels they now added two large motorcycles. At five we started and by seven we were about 20 kilometers along.

Then the night fell and we kept on driving. The police this time weren't that bothersome, and it seemed like Guinea traveled at night: when you consider the heat of the day that made sense. I dozed on and off as the driver kept driving along.

In the morning I felt like an African Gene Autry, because I was back in the Sahel again. Actually, it was dry forest, which alternated with scrub forest for most of the rest of the way.

(Some of you might not be aware of how empty much of the Third World is. After all, if the land could support teeming masses, by now they would have developed agricultural surpluses, etc., etc.)

We hit a brand new road at Kankan and continued up to the Mali border, then across it by 3pm. Then forward for another hour when the road collapsed to a dirt road condition, made worse by it being a construction zone. So the last three tiresome hours were a hot dusty hell. I was in Bamako at seven pm.