Saturday, April 30, 2011

Long Way to Libreville


"I saw you a week ago on the ferry from Nigeria!"

Stunned, I took a minute to form a response to the man who owned the copy shop across the road from the police station in Bitam, Gabon. And when I did form one, it was lacking in articulateness.

"Wha...really?" 

"Yes, from Calabar." 

Damn, he was right. I started laughing. He laughed too, and then explained why the police had asked him to come across the street to translate for me.

"They want a copy of your visa. Here, I will take your passport and make it for you in my copy shop."

On to Gabon

"How do I get out of here?" I addressed a matronly woman sitting at the dining room table on the porch at the hotel/family home I'd checked into last night Ambam, Cameroon.

"You need a taxi?"

I nodded.

"Wait." She called her helper, who was the same college-age kid who'd checked me in last night. I'd guess this was her son, and her husband was the man who'd been sitting in the living room last night when I'd arrived. Helper-son disappeared through an opening in the wall of the yard. Minutes later, I heard a whirring. He showed up on the back of a motorcycle taxi he'd hailed.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Leaving Yaounde

The visa for the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville, was a bargain at $140. Compared to the $267 I paid for the five seconds I was going to be in Congo-Kinshasa, this seemed like a steal.

I'd walked my passport back up to the Gabonese embassy on Wednesday afternoon. The visa officer visibly pulled back when he saw me.

Again.

"The boss isn't back yet."

"I know. I just want to get my passport in for processing."

Relieved, he took it and gave me a receipt.

"Come back Friday at 2."

"How about tomorrow? Any chance?" I couldn't afford to keep hanging around Yaounde unless I changed hotels. And I was lazy.

He laughed. "No."

"A little earlier on Friday then?"

"Maybe. Probably not."

Oh.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Like Overfeeding Your Fish

What should I eat first, I thought. The baguette or the croissant or the toast?

I've really, truly had quite enough bread since crossing over from Spain at the beginning of March. And why exactly was I still drinking this hotel coffee tastes so bitter?

I have developed the unfortunate habit of eating every meal on the road as if it were my last. I gorge myself on things I don't even like because I don't know when I'll get to eat again.

But, I reminded myself, I'm not on a long bus journey. I'm stuck in Yaounde all week, waiting on visas. There are nice restaurants right down the road. Who knows what logic my instincts are following?

I ventured down to the DRC embassy, with the 5,000 CFA I owed on my visa. They made me wait a bit while the people behind the glass partition had a riveting conversation that was probably about office gossip, then handed over my extremely expensive visa.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yaounde by Candlelight

Here's how taxis work in Yaounde, Cameroon. A taxi driver sees you and slows down his cab. You yell out your destination, followed by how much you're willing to pay. In French. If he agrees, he honks once and stops. If not, he keeps going.

Great. So this should be...well, not easy.

But it doesn't work that way when you get off the bus from out-of-town. There are taxi drivers actually waiting when you get off the bus. Of course, they can't understand my accent and don't know where the hotel I've chosen is. But at least I don't have to yell at them from the side of the road.

I tried asking for my hotel, Meumi Palace—which I'd chosen due to its location near embassies—using different pronunciations.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Worse, Yaounde Had No Chocolate Bunnies

Dear lovely and sheltering hotel: You really don't have to turn on music or TV every time I enter a public room at 6:30 a.m.

Yep, Lady Gaga again. Which means that Serge Gainsbourg can't be far behind.

I was up early to catch the 8:30 bus to Yaounde, where I was going to hang around all week and apply for onward visas.

People who don't travel much might at this point ask me: Why didn't you get your visas before you left home?

I got all I could. West Africa is tricky visa territory. Maybe the trickiest region on earth. Wait. Let me think. hmmmmmmgulfmmmiddleeastmmiranmmmmpakistanmmmcentralasiawithitsinvitesmm...yep. I award the region of West Africa the Marie-prize for trickiest visa spot on the planet.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mangoes and Monkeys

Sunrise in the pouring rain.

KA-BOOM.

And thunder.

Right, so it's rainy season in Cameroon.

That's not all bad, of course. I'd circumvented the tricky muddy roads over the mountains by taking the ferry from Nigeria, and I didn't have anything to do today. So I slept in until 8:30, ate a piggy breakfast, and did my laundry in the hotel sink.

And listened to Lady Gaga. Did they only have one CD in the lounge? No, wait...two. Serge Gainsbourg and Lady Gaga on a loop. Not at the same time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Me

I woke up on the Endurance ferry from Calabar to Limbe just in time to catch the end of a rain shower outside and a Nollywood video inside.

Where is my passport? I was starting to get nervous. A man with the shipping company had taken my passport at the start of the journey and I'd figured it would show up eventually. Now I was getting worried.

We pulled into the Limbe port and anchored.

My, Cameroon was green. Deep, rich, Central African green. I was glad not to be crossing the green mountains between Nigeria and Cameroon in a vehicle. That's the kind of forest that sucks you up and spits you out at its own pleasure, with complete disregard for your schedule or wishes.

I followed the other passengers off a steel gangplank, onto the pier, and then down to a container-turned-immigration office. The sun was fierce and had burned off any coolness from the rain in moments.

Hooray for Nollywood

I've seen bad action movies in train stations, on ferries, and on buses from Bolivia to Jordan to Thailand. But West Africa, thankfully, doesn't seem to know these exist.

Instead, on buses and ferries from Bamako to Calabar, I had the pleasure of watching baffling, quirky, frequently hilarious Nigerian movies. And by movies, I don't mean film. This is cheap-and-cheerful digital video, with melodramatic themes of tragic backgrounds, believable crime, and a surprising lack of cynicism. To my simplistic eyes, Nigeria's south is a mind-boggling mixture of corruption, crime, petty thieves, and teetotaling Bible-thumpers—in the classic sense, as in "There's a big guy with a beard in the sky and he will fix my problems if I pray harder, or maybe he'll buy me a car." Nollywood to me produces some lively, unsophisticated, confusing, and random movies, the kind of not-too-linear stuff I imagine Hong Kong producing before it found its footing.

Some of the movies I couldn't make head or tales of. It's hard to understand the soundtrack when you're on a bus and the sound is piped in and distorted a few feet from your ears, and you're wearing earplugs because of this. Plus there's the accent problem. I can communicate only slightly better in English than in French here due to my/their accent.

South

"45," I thought. "When you need reading glasses to pop a zit."

Happy birthday to me. For my birthday, I got a 4 a.m. thunderstorm that somehow shut off the water supply to my hotel room. But I had power, so I could see in the bathroom mirror. No fair, I thought. Wrinkles AND zits. No fair at all.

I wore my Tevas in honor of the muddy ground, and made my way to the front gate in the dark. I had to wake up the guard to get out—it was 5:30 a.m.—but only had to stand along the road for a minute until a taxi pulled up.


"Inland Waterway," I said.

The driver nodded and I got in, trying hard not to think about all the warnings about not taking taxis alone in the dark in Nigeria.

So far, it's all been quite safe, I reminded myself. The panicky warnings have been exaggerated. I think.

"Which boat?" The driver asked when we approached the dark port on the outskirts of town.


"Foka."

He stopped his Toyota and waved me down an alley. The sun hadn't risen yet, and the whole area looked different in the dark from yesterday afternoon, when I could see clearly.

Oh, great. I stood looking at my ship when I reached the dock. I'm on Endurance.

First, I had to hand over my backpack, which was weighed on a hefty scale and then loaded onto the Endurance. Then, I headed over to a long line at Immigration, which was located in a tiny lit office at the back of what looked like a long concrete storage shed. The sun rose as I waited, illuminating a series of steps and holes to be avoided in the shed. No one in line looked too happy. I guess getting up at five in the morning to stand in line so that officials can glare at you isn't the ideal way for anyone to spend the morning.

Eventually, a man in a uniform pointed at me. I took my turn at walking into the tiny office, where I filled out a form, handed over my passport, and was sent outside again to wait.

I took the opportunity to change money and return, waited some more, and finally was handed back my passport. I was stamped out of Nigeria.

Boarding the Endurance also involved a tiring, miserable line of people. The ferry officials took the opportunity to be kind of mean, and harangued everyone to wait in a rigid single-file line. I couldn't squeeze in between the people at my place in line, and I was extra-harangued until one of them made room for me.

The sun peeked through the clouds but the day was overcast as I found my want up the stairs to the first-class cabin. A guy in a uniform took my passport and starting bitching that I had the wrong visa ("If you continue from Cameroon to Gabon, you need transit visa, not tourist visa"), so I argued with him for a while and then just left it. He was certainly wrong.

Almost all the seats were taken, and I fell asleep as yet-another-absurdly-delightful Nigerian movie came on. The ferry motored off into the Gulf of Guinea.

Next stop, Cameroon.



Thursday, April 21, 2011

If It Isn't Nailed Down...


This note was tacked to the back of my hotel room door at the non-NAF Club hotel in Calabar. I should have brought in a few extra chairs just to screw with them.

Nigeria: Day Four

Calabar. I'd raced along to get here. A few weeks ago, I took a look at the calendar and realized I was off-track. My goal had been to give myself an entire month to get across the Congos and Angola, since these are not areas where I can just pop over to the Lonely Planet forum and get the latest info on bus schedules and cool budget digs. And also, I wanted to go to Cameroon for my birthday.

Years ago, I met a guy named Danny on a flight to Nairobi. I can't remember his last name, though I had his card for a while. He was working for an NGO, somehow involved in worm-farming in Nigeria.

"How is that?" I asked politely.

He hesitated, then said:

"There's nothing redeeming about Nigeria."

I was shocked. This was such a generalization. I thought back to my co-workers at Roy Rogers when I was a teenager. Austin and Solomon were both Nigerian college students at UDC. Austin was a real partier and would come in stinking of beer on Sunday mornings. Solomon was a nice boy, never one to visibly show signs of partying. They both cooked chicken pretty well, except when Austin was drunk. He sometimes came in hours late. But he was so charming, he managed to never get fired.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sprinting to Calabar

Wow, that Abuja room was disgusting. And something chewed on my leg all night, which meant I was scratching all day.

The hotel had lots of better rooms. But I hadn't had any money, so I'd ended up in the hovel at the back. Yuck.

I walked out of the Q Palace Hotel just as the morning light broke. A taxi rolled up a second later and took me to the ABC Transport bus terminal.

I had a ticket on the "sprinter" service to Calabar, the last town in Nigeria before Cameroon. From there, I'd get the Friday ferry to Limbe, celebrating my birthday by crossing the border.

But first, I had to sit on this sprinter—which is a nice van or maybe you'd call it a jitney—until dusk.

The van wasn't sold out and still left on time. We had air conditioning and curtains to pull shut when the sun got to be too much. There were only six passengers—a businessman, a younger man, two women, a nun, and me.

We spread out, each taking a single seat or row. The nun sat in the two seats across from me. I'd taken a single seat.

To Abuja

As we approached Akure, the minibus I'd gotten on in Oshogbo pulled over. The driver motioned me out.

No one else got out. Eh? 

He walked to the back of the minibus and opened the hatch, handing me my bag.

"Taxi," he said, pointing to the patch of dirt across the road where a gaggle of sedan taxis sat.

"Abuja?" I asked, wondering if these taxis were bound for Abuja.

He shook his head, said something I didn't understand, and motioned wide with his arm, then stopped, and made an arc. Ah. This taxi would take me to the bus for Abuja. I think. Maybe.

Unarguable Comfortable Waaoh

Reading over the Nigerian hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, it seems to me that Nigerian hotels employ plenty of ballot stuffers. These must be the same guys who work on the online confidence scams because their choice of words on TripAdvisor is every bit as over-the-top and hilarious as the last e-mail you got from the heir to the throne of Bongo-Mbongo-West-Zaire who needs you to help process his gold inheritance.

And mysteriously, all these reviews come from people who only posted a single review. And they list their residence as "Maryland" or "Iowa."

Examples: "Excellent hotel beyond compare with a touch that is unarguably comfortable at all times. Wow!"

and

‎"Waaoh!!! unbelievably classical and affordable hotel."

Of course, what I was rapidly learning about Nigerian hotels was that they really did start out well. But that hot shower doesn't work anymore, and instead, you get a bucket full of water. The sink works fine if you turn on the tap at the wall. And the ceiling fan hasn't worked in a decade, but the A/C works, buy has only two settings: On and Off. And the lock needs to be jiggled just right, and the wi-fi works great if you walk to the internet café and hold your laptop at a 35-degree angle and whisper into the USB-outlet…

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Osun Shrine

Here are more photos of the Osun Shrine Sacred Forest in Oshogbo, Nigeria.

The Forest Catches Me

While I'd been waiting in Immigration yesterday at the Nigerian border, one of the bored officers had struck up a conversation with me.

"Where will you go in Nigeria?"

"First to Oshogbo, then to Abuja, then to Calabar, and from there to Cameroon on the ferry."

"Oshogbo? To the shrine?"

"Yes, to the Sacred Forest."

He chuckled.

"What will you do if…"

He dramatically stretched his arms wide then swept them together.

"…the forest catches you?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nigeria: Day One

After yesterday's marathon day, I couldn't bear to get out of bed again at five. Who knew if the Nigerian border would be open today? I hit "snooze" on my iPhone repeatedly for a whole hour.

The front desk clerk at Hotel Riviera Benin took a 50 euro note as partial payment for my night's lodging, so I didn't have to unsew and untape my ATM and credit cards from the inner calf pocket I'd sewn into my pants using a Zip-Loc bag. My black pedal pushers have seen better days. Namely, Saturday, before I wore them all day in taxis on Sunday. Because I didn't want to re-sew my valuables into a different pair of pants, I was considering wearing the same trousers all the way through Nigeria, just leaving the my valuables taped in until Cameroon, where I could safely use a credit card again.

It was already nine by the time I got the zem motorcycle taxi to the shared taxi park and settled into one where the guy was yelling "Igolo Igolo." I gave all my coins to the zem driver (350 CFA) and then paid a reasonable and correct 1500 CFA to the shared taxi. So far, so good.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Border Day. Or Not.

One does not cross the busy Krake (Lagos) border into Nigeria lightly. Not even Africans do this. They all seem to have an individual system, and the people I've met have been happy to share their strategies with me.

"Only two bags max. You must keep your money you need for the day in your pockets. Do not show where your other money is. Do not get into a taxi with people who look like thieves. They will crowd you and feel your pockets. Do not open your bags at the border. Do not speak to anyone who is not wearing a uniform. Change your money the day before. Only travel between 8 and 4 when it is light. Don't risk getting caught out when you can't see your surroundings."

I get it. The Benin-Nigeria border scares people.

And they, in turn, scared me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ganvie Video

Here's a look at Ganvie without all the hassle.

Sometimes You're Just Stuck

"How do I get to Ganvie?"

I was addressing the day clerk at my Cotonou hotel, the Hotel Riviera Benin. Or at least the morning clerk. It was morning, after all, and I'd already availed myself of the free breakfast, as usual gnawing on bread with accompanying Nescafe. This hotel also included tiny croissants, cheese, and deli meat, so it wasn't too bad.

"You should call this man. He is reliable."

The clerk handed me a flyer. The guidebook had described the stilt village of Ganvie as heavily commercialized. The only person I know—which is to say I don't really know but have communicated with a few times online—who has been there wasn't too impressed with it, and she'd so far had reliable instincts. I was trying to keep my expectations low, but I still wanted to see this stilt village on Lake Nokoue.

Friday, April 15, 2011

And Her Reward Shall Be Chickpea-based

Good morning, Lomé.

And goodbye.

That's it, my time in Lomé. Overnight. I read through my guidebook, concluded I wanted to see the Ganvie stilt village and the voodoo town in Benin, and mostly, I wanted to enter Nigeria on Sunday. I considered getting my Gabon visa in Lomé (and later learned I should have), but was more interested in getting past Lagos on a Sunday than in visa acquisition.

I had dinner after dark in my hotel in Lomé, breakfast in the morning, and I got a taxi to the shared-taxi center, a dusty ramshackle area along the coast. The Atlantic glistened at me from beyond the beach, across the road. Lomé has probably seen better days—much better days—but the ocean doesn't mind. I did later learn that the Underwear Bomber was from Togo, but his home isn't quite on the tourist circuit. A missed opportunity, perhaps.

My taxi driver found the Cotonou vehicles quickly and deposited me in one that was now full. That means I got the center seat in the back, but it was okay. There were only three of us in the back, and one passenger, a laptop-case-carrying man in his forties, in the front.

I was flanked by a couple that slid into their seats after I got in. The woman noted the windows, where were all down to create a breeze once we started driving, and immediately slipped off her wig, placing it in her handbag.

So many women wear wigs in this part of the world. Their hair is buzz-cut underneath, like a schoolgirl in these parts. Initially, I'd wondered about the perfectly straight, even bobs with a splash of purple or red, but the Sleeping Camel owner had set me straight.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dead Man Dreaming

Ghana didn't get a lot of my time. I didn't have the patience to scour the countryside for craft villages around Kumasi, and I didn't go to Mole National Park at all. I don't regret the latter—I lived in Murchison Falls National Park in the summer of 2005 and it's hard to follow up that kind of access to wild animals with a safari in an area without a lot of game. I do like looking at animals, and if the chance comes up further south, I'll take it. But I'm not going out of my way and spending a lot of dough to do this.

I do regret not having more time to see Ghana's sights and cities, but I was getting anxious. I'd intended to be in Brazzaville at the end of April to meet a friend who was there working on a story, and I was a week late. I probably wasn't going to make it. And I was keen to get through Nigeria already. Nigeria has such a bad reputation that I was nervous. I wanted to get in and out into Cameroon and have the part making me nervous be behind me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Canopy Walkway Video

Here's some footage I shot up in the trees. In the second one, you'll see I couldn't hack it. I tried to walk without using the rope guides, but I had to stop shooting and hang on.





A Walk On the Woods

How dare this impending thunderstorm ruin my morning on the forest canopy, I thought when I woke up next to my laptop, which was perched on top of a hotel Bible in the Mighty Victory Hotel in Cape Coast, Ghana.

But the front desk clerk was more optimistic. "I think it will clear up," he said. I asked him to find me a taxi.

It's not impossible to get to Kakum National Park on public transportation—it's only 35 kilometers away—but it takes work. Namely, at the end, when you have to get from the nearest road to the gate to the headquarters for the canopy walk. I didn't have time for all that—I wanted to get to the mall at Accra tonight to buy sandals. My heel melted on a motorbike exhaust pipe back in Djenne, Mali, and I'd been ignoring the damage ever since. But my shoes had seen better days, certainly. I didn't know how long they'd hold out before my right foot started to hurt.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Photos of Cape Coast

Here are more photos of today's trip to Cape Coast Castle.

Anniversary of Sorts

"You can take a Ford to Cape Coast."

Say what? I didn't quite get it. Did the hotel clerk just advise me to take a Ford to my destination, a coastal town south of Kumasi?

She had. This turned out to be an almost-generic term for the sleek, new, air-conditioned vans that privately transport passengers in Ghana. I'd looked into buses the day before and they left both too early and too late, so I had the taxi driver drop me off at the private bus park (the public buses leave from their own station), where I cluelessly wandered around the dusty lane, getting into the wrong queues.

"This is the Accra line," explained a university-aged man in a business suit, waiting in the longest line. "For Cape Coast, you need to walk two more blocks over."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Kumasi, Ghana

The taxi drivers had leapt at me when I'd disembarked from the bus in Kumasi last night, but they took it with good humor when I argued I didn't want a private taxi—I wanted a share. This saved me a small fortune, but it cost me in time. My taxi driver had no idea how to find the Royal Park Hotel, which I'd sniffed out on TripAdvisor. But after some discussions with other drivers and a hotel receptionist downtown, we did find it out in what seemed like the 'burbs.

Which was great, because the Royal Park Hotel was just the place for a rest and a splurge. A/C, 'fridge, wi-fi that worked sometimes, hot shower, and a decent Cantonese restaurant. And the breakfast! I'd been on a steady diet of baguettes and croissants since my first morning in Melilla, so it was exciting to be offered an egg along with my free breakfast.

I hired a driver on my one day in town, a nice guy the hotel clerk knew who tried very hard to find me an ATM that would take my Citibank ATM card. These bear the Mastercard logo, which makes them tough to use in West Africa. Tough, but not impossible. Ten years ago, they were quite difficult to use when I'd been traipsing around on the east side of this continent, but now there seemed to be one bank chain per country that took my card.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bus to Kumasi

I sat alone in the dark at 5 a.m, gnawing on a baguette that the B&B owner had left out for me (covered in plastic, I mean). He'd also thought to leave a Thermos of hot water and some Nescafe. You know what? This guy rules. Here's his B&B: Case d'Hôtes.

I heard the taxi pull up outside the gate and I was halfway out the door before the security guard could even stand up. On to Ghana!

But first, there was madness at the normally so organized TCV Bus. Several buses were leaving at the same time, so people were everywhere. I watched with interest as all the male customers were patted down, while all the females cruised right onto the bus.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ouagadougou

"Un billet pour Kumasi pour demain, s'il vous plaît," I said painstakingly to the young woman at the TCV bus ticket counter in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

She shook her head. Was I wrong about the schedule? Did I screw up my French? I'd looked it up on Google Translate and written it down.

I showed her my handwritten cheat sheet of the phrase I'd just uttered.

"Finis," she said. She motioned at a roster of names and numbers. At the top? Kumasi. Ah, the bus was sold out.

Shit. This wasn't in my plan.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bobo

"The war in Ivory Coast has caused problems with the internet," explained the owner of the b&b I was staying in.

That sounded like horseshit to me, but who knows. It certainly didn't affect the internet in the center of Bobo Dioulassou, where I sat for hours on the porch of a nice hotel, using their internet, ordering their food, and finally, chatting with a couple I'd met in the guesthouse.

Nina, Frank, and I talked for hours. Why not? It was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday. There wasn't anything else to do in Bobo, which is relaxed almost to a fault.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bus to Bobo

Why would I assume my bus ticket would have a time on it? Silly me.
"I think it leaves at six," said Bill. 

I thought the ticket seller had said seven, and that I should be there by 6:30. But I honestly didn't remember. 

I compromised and arrived at the Bittar station in the dark at 5:30 a.m. to catch my 7:00 TCV bus to Burkina Faso. Now I'd get to find out whether I'd weaned myself off coffee enough to not get a massive headache without morning caffeine—I hadn't as it turned out, and will be reduced to morning Coke when coffee isn't available). 

A dozen people slept sprawled out in front of a TV in an open-air waiting area at the Bittar gare. There was no room for me, so I perched on a box nearby and watched the gare slowly come to life. Vendors unlocked their kiosks and passengers visited the Nescafe man.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

That Elusive Visa

I'd crawled in late and exhausted, but I was still up early. The suspense had to end. Was I getting my Ghana visa?

"We're going to ACI deux-mille to go grocery shopping," said Bill. "We'll give you a lift. It's a good time to be out anyway. The shit-truck is coming at 10:30."

Duly noted. Also of note: Africans generally don't swear like Americans. But some of the staff had started referring to the septic truck as the shit-truck. It's just so apt.

Monday, April 4, 2011

More photos of Djenne

Here's a link to a gallery of photos of the day before yesterday, of my trip from Sevare to Djenne.

And here are lots of photos of the big mud mosque of Djenne, the Monday market in front of it, and the trip back to Bamako.


Djenne to Bamako

Homemade peanut butter and real coffee for breakfast? Have I mentioned I adore Hotel Djenne Djenno? Besides the last time I mentioned it, I mean?

Later, I would regret not buying a jar of it in the gift shop, just as I regret tossing out my jar of Jif and my trail mix when my pack was too heavy at the last minute in Jersey City. But for the moment, I was too busy enjoying Sophie's peanut butter to think about how useful that would have been for me on long bus journeys.

Around nine, I went over to the Monday market. I didn't want the hassle of people trying to lure me into their shops, so I randomly chose a small alley that wound through Djenne's maze of mud houses, and ended up following women en route to the market.

The market was absolute chaos! Huge crowds of people everywhere, their wares spread out around them. If I'd wanted something from the dollar store, dried fish, or an Obama T-shirt, this was the place.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dinner Music

Here's a sample of the music that local musicians played while I at my dinner at Hotel Djenne Djenno.

Djenne in the Afternoon

After checking into my outstanding hotel room at Hotel Djenne Djenno, I showered and then took a two-hour nap.

Which admittedly isn't the most efficient use of my short time in Djenne. I only had this afternoon and then tomorrow morning before I had to hurry back to Bamako to pick up my passport at the Ghanaian Embassy. (Would I get my visa?) 

But this was the most efficient use of my time in this excellent hotel. If there hadn't been a UNESCO World Heritage big mud mosque across the bridge and in the center of town, I would only have left my room for dinner in the hotel courtyard.

Which was also outstanding. Cold cucumber soup followed by perfectly cooked pasta and Swedish meatballs, accompanied by local musicians. To listen to, I mean, not for dessert. That was a custard and fruit thing.

But in between sleeping and dinner,  I did actually leave the room, because I really did want to see the big mud mosque.

Djenne Ferry Video

Here's some video of the Djenne ferry crossing.

Off to Djenne

I had breakfast at 6:30 a.m., and the hotel guy sweetly ran out to find me some yogurt when he realized that Mankan Te was out, though I have no idea where one buys yogurt that early.

And at 7, I was standing across the main road, in front of Motel Sevare, waiting for the bus. Dramane had helped me buy my ticket last night, and it had 0700 written on it.

By 7:30, I was worried. By 7:45, I was going to throw myself onto the next vehicle that stopped. A large family seemed to have the same idea, unfortunately, so I hung back and let them be rejected by every full bus that came along.

My "Somatra" 0700 bus turned out to be an eight o'clock bus on "Bittar," which arrived on-time at 8:15 at my end of town. Whatever. I have developed an amazing ability to not be surprised. It's kind of unfortunate, as it stops me from noticing novelties I used to enjoy.

The bus conductor waved me on and installed me into an empty seat. Kids gathered round the bus to sing a goodbye song. This always happens in Mali. Sometimes it's adorable. Other times, it's off-key and a racket.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

More Dogon Photos

Here is a link to the full gallery of photos I took in Dogon Country.



Helping Dad

Cute kid helps Dad at work in Dogon Country.

A Day in Dogon, Part Two

As Dramane had promised, there were other things to see in Ende. I'd read that this was one of the more touristy villages, but it really wasn't an issue since there was no hard-sell, this was the off-season, and I was the only tourist in sight.

Ende is a crafts-oriented village, at least as far as what us tourists see. There are carvings, weavings, and bogolan for sale. And me, I didn't have much cash in my pocket. Which is a shame. I'd have bought one of everything. Certainly, there's a commercial element to Dogon villagers offering indigo, bogolan, and carvings, but it's a two-way street, a commercial transaction at a reasonable price, buying locally. Fair trade. I'd buy every bogolan I saw if I didn't have to worry about getting it home.

An English-speaking village guide led me through town, showing me the mud mosque, the carvings, the men using the homemade looms (with their feet!), the women dying the indigo, the drying bogolan textiles. We looked at the cliff dwellings way up high on the cliffs, but did not climb this time. I bought some indigo and just as we left the indigo-dye hut, a troop of purposeful-looking young boys went by, single-file.

"They are going for the circumcision," the guide said, just above a whisper. I believe this is a multi-day male-bonding affair.

We walked past a pedal-operated Singer, sitting among a group outdoors where it looked like it got a lot of use, and approached a low shelter in the center of town. It was open-air, built from thick, forked logs and branches, adorned with carvings of humans, and had a foot-tall, reed roof.

A Day in Dogon, Part One

My pal Theo, who was on a Dragoman trip with me in Central America in 1996 (!), offered me this riddle:

Q: How many people are in a Dogon family?

A: Four. Mom, Dad, two kids, and a French anthropologist.

Har har har. Okay, that might not make sense until we go see what a Dogon is exactly.

Anyway, I woke up to a little bit of internet and morning light, right before the power went out in our part of town again. The authorities had decided to let us have electricity while we slept? Strange. But I'd already done the bit of e-paperwork I needed to do for the office, and anyway, I was going out in a car, so I didn't need power.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Waffling into Sevare

"No, no. Not Mankan Te Restaurant. Hotel. Mankan Te Hotel."

My taxi driver stared at me blankly, as if I hadn't said this three times already. Of course, he hadn't heard me. He'd heard "Mankan Te" and tuned out the rest. That's what people do, extrapolate what they can from a few words they understand and ignore the rest. It's certainly what I do when trying to grasp what a foreign language speaker is telling me.

He turned the taxi off outside Mankan Te Restaurant, which was, I noticed, right where the bus had stopped in the center of town before I'd taken it to the actual Sevare Gare Routiere and had to take a taxi back. He asked some men who were sitting there outside the souvenir shop. They spoke and motioned across the street.

Big in Mali

Che didn't much enjoy his short time in Africa when he visited, but that doesn't stop him from being huge in Mali.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Che if he'd lived to be as old as Fidel. It might be a good alternate future story. Better if there were robots and monsters involved, or if the two of them had to team up with Bill Clinton and Will Smith to fight an alien invasion.


And She Goes Anyway

I woke up early under the ceiling fan in my dark, concrete room at hotel L'Auberge in Segou, Mali. It wasn't an amazing hotel by any means, but I had A/C, a ceiling fan, a working bathroom and shower, and wi-fi.

Ugh. That bus journey yesterday. Two for two, Mali, I thought. I can't bear to go on to see Dogon Country. I'll spend the day in Segou, then go to Djenne, then just go back to Bamako to be at the Embassy of Ghana on Tuesday to pick up my passport. Last night, a freelance guide named Hama had been bugging me.

"I'll take you around town on my motorbike. We'll see crafts and the colonial part of town. I am a good guide. Here is my card."

I'd taken his card and now I looked at it. Huh, a URL. I looked it up. He seemed totally legit. Now I felt bad for him, this professional guide reduced to chatting up dirty backpackers outside hotels. It was off-season, though, because Mali in March is insanely hot. Maybe things weren't so bad in other parts of the year. I dressed and walked past souvenir-seller's row to the hotel restaurant across the street.

"Good morning, Mare-y. You'll look at my shop today?"

"Maybe."

The room was fine. The location was interesting, though. Eating required running the gauntlet. To their credit, the souvenirs were lovely. They were expensive, though, and bulky.

A Dizzy Ride

A quick spin around Segou on the back of Hama's motorbike.