Note From Jon


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Note To Africa

The trip is over now and while I couldn't actively update my blog more than a couple of times en route, I did keep a journal (Africa provides ample opportunity to sit and write). I plan to transfer some of the memories from the journal to my blog along with photos of the trip. Click on any photo with a caption to be linked to my photo albums and the rest of the pictures.

July 24th - Thoughts on the flight over:
It's an interesting mix of emotions going into this trip. It's unlike any "vacation" I've taken before. Parts of Indonesia and China were the "Third World", so I've been exposed to some of that. But other than weekend trips in Indonesia everything has always been with a bus and an itinerary. I've never backpacked in the states or Europe let alone in the "Fourth World" (as my Round the World guidebook described West Africa). On the one hand this is a once in a lifetime opportunity since I have the connections in Africa to attempt the trip (Chris) and the lack of connections at home to prevent me from taking it. I have no doubt I will have memories from this trip that I will be grateful for the rest of my life... but I don't know what they are yet. What feels more concrete at the moment is how difficult the trip is likely to be. I am traveling with a friend whose previous summer vacation included riding on top of iron ore in a railway car across the Sahara Desert, and we are traveling into a country where students go to the airport at night to study in the one spot with reliable electricity. Here are my questions which I will revisit and answer at the end of my trip.
  • Will I be able to carry my 46 pound pack on my back for the next 28 days?
  • How will the communication work when Chris and I know no French other than what I've picked up listening to Pimsleur lectures on my commute for the past month?
  • What will it feel like to not shower for perhaps an entire month?
  • How will my patchy beard look if I can't shave for days (or weeks) at a time?
  • What strange foods will I eat, and will I be able to get them down gracefully?
  • Will I stay healthy both from minor issues like travelers diarrhea and more serious problems like Cerebral Malaria which is endemic in Guinea?
  • Will corruption be an issue?
  • Will we be robbed, scammed, or find ourselves evacuated (we already cancelled a part of the trip to Guinea-Bissau because of concerns that pirates were operating around the islands we wanted to visit)?
  • Sadly my biggest concern is will I be able to find (or make) a bathroom when I need it, and will I be able to balance myself for long enough to be able to use it once I do?
  • What will those priceless memories turn out to be that will make all of the difficulties seem insignificant?

Part I – Dakar (July 25th - 27th)

The theme of the trip was set the moment I got to Immigration at the Leopold Senghor Airport: Things won’t go smoothly, but they will work out in the end. I handed my disembarkation card to the official and was handed it right back. Apparently the section of the card below the heading to the effect of “For Official Use Only” is actually meant to be filled out by me. I was meeting Chris at the airport, but I had no idea where we were staying which makes the “Address in Destination Country” section hard to fill out. Fortunately they let me go out and find Chris to bring him in to explain. Unfortunately Chris didn’t know the name of the … hotel (a brothel apparently) we were staying at either. It just doesn’t have a name apparently. Chris described where it was (next to the well known Ali Baba Restaurant), but the customs official was unimpressed. After about a five minute conversation with Chris in Wolof (a local language common to Senegal and The Gambia) he relented and we were staying at the fictitious “Hotel Ali Baba”.

"Hotel Ali Baba"

It wasn’t long until “things won’t go smoothly” recurred. About 20 steps actually. To the baggage carousel that went round and around but never produced my bag (which I later discovered had decided to continue on to Johannesburg, perhaps in the hope of getting to go on a safari without me). I spent two days asking myself why I hadn’t packed a spare change of clothes (underwear at least) or toiletries (actually that answer is easy, courtesy of the liquid bombing plot last summer) in my carry-on bag. Two nights later I waited in person for the (delayed) 3am flight to arrive from Johannesburg to be sure my bag didn’t decide it had had enough of Africa (and Delta) and try to sneak past me back to Atlanta. Like I said, it worked out in the end, and despite not having my bag I managed to enjoy my time in Dakar.

I decided to give my body a crash course in African food and drink to get acclimated (actually I decided to do whatever Chris did). On day one I drank the tap water (our room did have a sink, shower and toilet – with no seat), had an omelet sandwich on the street (the egg was readymade and was fished out of a pile of fried eggs in a plastic bowl) with lettuce and tomato. I did pass on the mayo though, which Chris later informed me keeps for years apparently. I drank some delicious bissap juice (with ice), and for good measure on the second day I tried the one thing which Chris admits still gives his body trouble: sour milk. To be fair I didn’t know it was sour milk at the time it was offered to me. It was orange and sweetened and tasted just like a push-pop smoothie (only the chunks gave me a clue as to what it really was). Completely unexpectedly, my body stood up to the test.

I love bagged water Mmmm... is that sour milk you're holding?

Over our two days in Dakar, we hiked along the beach where a hospital had been (the vials and syringes kind of gave it away), discovered I love bagged water (tastes the same as bottled water but its much more fun to drink), learned that you have to drink your bottled soda where you buy it (glass bottles are too valuable), watched as the street was lined with flags that were passed out from the back of a pickup to welcome the French president Sarkozy who was visiting, haggled for a toothbrush and shower shoes (flip-flops designed like the flag of Senegal), were offered Senegalese wives, and were treated to a family dinner by Chris’ extended host family (we shared one big plate of Yassa Poulet, and then watched Lost dubbed in French in their multipurpose foyer/hallway/TV room).

Chris' extended host familyFoyer, Hall, and TV Room

The dinner was the highlight of my time in Dakar but perhaps the most memorable experience was at the internet café we swung by just before dinner. Sitting at the computer next to me was a teenage boy who had done a search for 60 year old men on He was rapidfire copying and pasting the following message to each man: “Hi, my name is Edith. I am 28 years old and I really liked your profile. Write back so I can get to know you better and exchange photos…” I looked around the café a bit more and saw another boy with a notepad document open with a series of canned responses which he was cutting and pasting into messages (e.g. “That was such a sweet note you sent. I really want to reimburse you but need to know where to send the money…”). Instead of sitting at my computer receiving them, I was now sitting in the place where these email scams originate.

Not all scams were directed overseas though. We had two women show up at our hotel room door (not surprising considering the other role of our “hotel”). They claimed they were from the bank and were looking for two Americans staying at the (fictitious mind you) Hotel Ali Baba. Apparently there was a problem with the money that had been exchanged. We hadn’t known if we’d have access to money for the next three weeks so we’d changed quite a bit at the bank – and given “Hotel Ali Baba” as our address. Normally I wouldn’t worry about the validity of my money, but as I heard the accusation I remembered where I got the fifties I had exchanged… I bought them from Darren… who had received $3000 cash from a stranger who bought his car last month. Getting imprisoned for passing counterfeit money was not how I planned to spend my summer vacation! Thankfully I was listening to this conversation from the other room and they didn’t recognize Chris so they didn’t pursue it (Chris felt it was probably a scam anyway since they weren’t dressed like bank workers) but nonetheless it was just one more reason I was grateful my bag came that night and we left Dakar the next day without another inquiry from the bank girls (or their police friends).

Part II – Ndangane (July 27-July 30)

Salt flats of Ndangane

Chris planned our itinerary well for easing me into West African life. Our stop after Dakar (the most developed city in West Africa) was a relaxing “resort” town on the banks of a mangrove-lined river delta. We ended up splurging on our most luxurious hotel of the trip at the 13,000 CFA (about $26) a night Campement Palangrotte. I was realizing this trip wasn’t going to be as challenging as I had expected, at least from a hygiene perspective. Campement Palangrotte had clean showers and western toilets (which seem much more common in West Africa than in Indonesia).

It may just looks like a hut...... but it was our nicest hotel in Africa

Although we originally planned our boat excursion to the town of Mar Lodj for Saturday we were advised that it would be more interesting to wait until Sunday and go to the Catholic Mass on the island, which is about 1/3 Christian. This could explain why our typical “Salaam Alekum” greeting wasn’t as universally acknowledged as it was in other regions. This gave us Saturday to relax, which isn’t to say it wasn’t a memorable day. I tried my hand at West African laundry (tough on the knuckles), and got to try my first meal of Thiebou Diene. This was a special treat for me because I had learned about Thiebou Diene (though spelled Chebujan) when Darren and I put together a Trivia Scavenger Hunt at the Natural History Museum last winter. From the scavenger hunt story:

“One smack and Bayside is back in the tiny village of Njau in the Gambia. Chris G. is so surprised to see Bayside pop up that he spills his dinner of chebujan all over himself. The popular Senegalese dish of rice, fish, vegetables, sauce and spices flies everywhere.”

As an added bonus, I actually liked Thiebou Diene, which I hadn’t expected because I’ve never liked (aka been willing to try) fish served with the skin and head. It’s only been in the past five years or so that I’ve started eating fish at all. In Indonesia, before I ate any seafood, I’d gone so far as to join the vegetarian table when we traveled to the islands where whole fish was served at every meal (this earned me the wrath of the real vegetarians who apparently had much better reasons for being at that table than not liking fish). I’m sure it helped that I was trying this fish dish in a fishing village.

Oh yeah, no washing machinesBut I love me some Thiebou Diene

Clean and well-fed, Chris and I meandered through the surrounding farming communities until night fell. Cattle herded around us, we found a concrete well that had been poured that day, and Chris used his Wolof to get us offered a couple more Senegalese wives from one of the compounds. We’d met two of the sons working out in the field and gone with them back to their compound, where we were greeted by the mother (wearing a black bra as a top) and a couple of the daughters. There was also a much younger brother here who showed why most dogs in West Africa look so downtrodden, the boy was “tapping” the dog over the head with a large stick (apparently this was fairly common practice since the dog didn’t make any effort to retaliate – or even move out of the way). After Chris made the greetings, a voice invited us into a hut where the father was laying on a wood and straw bed avoiding the afternoon sun. After chatting (well just smiling for me) for a few minutes we emerged back into the sunlight, which is where we were ultimately encouraged to consider choosing a Senegalese wife from the daughters. This elicited a response from within the hut and the father emerged booming a few sentences that sent everyone into hysterics (including me though I didn’t know why I was in hysterics until Chris translated for me: “Hey, if anyone is going to be giving them away, it is going to be ME!”). After a few more minutes of conversation Chris politely excused us and we walked home still unbetrothed (I think).

Our prospective wives live herePerhaps the cows come with them?

Farmlands surrounding Ndangane

Sunday worked out just as well. We started with a boat tour of the mangroves led my Badou and Mamadou (everyone seems to be named Mamadou in Senegal, this was the third Mamadou I met in just the weekend in Ndangane. There is a real talent in remembering African names and faces and Chris was clearly mastering this while I was virtually useless). It turns out mangroves aren’t what I had pictured. I’m thinking bayou swamps with huge mangrove trees. We got mangrove “bushes” along the edges of the river. Chris thought there might be crocodiles and hippos in the river like there are in The Gambia but apparently there is too much boat traffic in the area. What there are is birds. Plenty and plenty of birds. While Chris and I aren’t much in the way of bird watchers, just being out on the river for a couple of hours was perfect.

Watching birdsJon is enjoying

We pulled into Mar Lodj with plenty of time to see the mass (which seemed to run from about 9am until noon). The church was packed, but seats were available for us at the end of a pew in the back. Fans oscillated from the walls and fluorescent light bars lit up the whole space. The service was in French, but what was truly unique about the service for me was the music. The hymns weren’t too different but the choir, complete with drums, really captured me. I began a slide down what turned into a particularly sacrilegious morning. I knew my MP3 player was also a voice recorder and I decided to give it a test (as discretely as possible). While the fidelity isn’t close to CD quality, I was impressed with how well it did capture the song (especially considering I had to record with it concealed in my hand from the back of the church). I found myself listening to the track I had recorded over and over again through the rest of the trip. Not satisfied with a possibly illegal recording, I was determined to get a photo of the church service. Here I lucked out when a painting was presented as a gift to the church. A photographer was up on stage to commemorate the event and I took the moment to snap my own shot.

How many sins can I commit...... during a single mass

I was on quite a roll so when it came time for communion I decided to go for the full experience (even though I’m not Catholic). They only had the wafers and no wine or grape juice. As a result I had walked back to my seat without being able to swallow the wafer which had pasted itself to the roof of my mouth. I figured if I was ever going to convert it would be in this lovely church with the drumming choir here in West Africa. I didn’t, but it was one of my favorite memories from the trip and I will always cherish my recorded song.

Listen to the Mar Lodj Choir recorded July 29th 2007

I was sure the mass would be the highlight of my time in Ndangane, but of course I was wrong. When we’d first checked into Campement Palangrotte we’d met Maimouna, who worked around the campement. She and Chris established a quick rapport and were often talking while I relaxed around camp (e.g. writing the thirteen lost postcards…). He learned that she was 30 and unmarried (quite rare in this part of the world). Maimouna was originally from a village about 7km away but had recently bought a property on the main strip of Ndangane. She rented the shops in front out to “Big Boy Salon” and a tailor, and the room in the back was her house. She was working at the campement in order to save up enough money to open her own telecenter in the shop space she was renting out. She is a fascinating and ambitious woman and while tipping isn’t common practice in West Africa (e.g. you don’t typically tip cabs or at restaurants) when we checked out of the campement and the bill came to 44,000 CFA (we’d had a meal of local cous prepared for us on Saturday night in addition to our three nights), I gladly paid 45,000 CFA and had no expectation of change. However, I failed to convey this to Chris and therefore to Maimouna. Over dinner Chris told me he thought Maimouna had gone off for change (which is hard to come by in Senegal) and after discussing things with Chris we determined to swing by her house after dinner to let her know the change was hers.

Chris kong, konged on her gate (the African equivalent of saying “knock, knock” when enter someones opened door) and we found her at home and in the process of straightening everything. Without hesitation we were invited into her house. It was a single concrete room, sparsely but functionally furnished. One side of the room had two foam mattresses on the floor. One mattress had PetSmart™ sheets and the other John Deere: Nothing Runs Like a Deere sheets which also made up the curtains. We were directed to the couch (the John Deere mattress). The opposite wall had two refrigerators. One served as a fridge, and the other was for storage (pots, pans, etc. which she was in the process of organizing – and which nearly fell over when she went back to organizing after the conversation had died down). She had two suitcases, which served as dressers. In one corner was a Panasound (one of many knockoffs we saw on the trip) radio with an antenna attached to a wire which ran all the way up the wall to the sheet metal roof. The lone decoration was a framed photo that Chris and I thought was her mother. When Chris asked it turned out it was a photo of Maimouna (and she even produced the top she’d been wearing in it from one of the dressers). She didn’t seem nearly offended as I’d imagine most women would be if you mistook them for their mother. It was such an opportunity to get to see the inside of Maimouna’s house and I tried to absorb it all. While I scanned the room, Maimouna walked right out the door stating “I’m coming”, which Chris explains is exactly what people say when they are going. We discussed this peculiarity for a bit until Maimouna returned and we realized immediately the comical flaw we had made in coming by to tell her to keep the extra change from our hotel bill. She returned carrying a liter bottle of Coke to serve to her guests, which would have easily cost her more than we had stopped by to give her in the first place! When Chris did get around to telling her to keep the change, we found out she had already left it for us with Mamadou the night watchmen at the campement (as opposed to our river guide Mamadou). We told her we would be telling Mamadou to return the 1000 CFA to her (Chris had purchased Ataya tea as a gift for Mamadou already). After we finished our cokes and helped save her toppling storage refrigerator we said our goodbyes and left Maimouna’s having taken much more from the experience than we had given, including a lesson in African hospitality.

Maimouna was one of my favorite people on the whole tripPre-dawn in Ndangane

Before dawn we left Ndangane on the back of a horse drawn cart that the campement had arranged (gratis) to take us over to the gare voiture to catch transport out of town. Rolling slowly across the salt flats, I heard the mosque begin the call to prayer and saw the belt of Orion hanging in the still dark sky. It was a magical blend of the familiar and unfamiliar, and I found myself once again trying to soak up the experience. We arrived before the cabs so I walked the sleeping streets of Ndangane experimenting with the manual mode on my camera to capture scenes lit only by the full moon.

Part III - Ndangane to Tambacounda (July 30th)

Ndangane is the green highlight in the middle on the left, Tambacounda is all the way on the right

Leaving Ndangane, is where the “travel” portion of this trip really began. We had an ambitious plan to make it from this little fishing village to the city of Tambacounda a few hundred kilometers to the east. After our peaceful horse cart ride we hopped in a taxi which kept filling with more and more people as we drove (and by filling, I mean that the lady basically sitting in my lap seemed nice enough). In the small town of Fimla the taxi unloaded us onto a mini-bus, which thankfully was full and left almost immediately. That’s one of the key differences about public transport in West Africa, vehicles leave when they are full. And full means more people than you expect could possibly fit.

This mini-bus was just like the one we’d taken to Ndangane and I’d show you a picture except that it was deleted, and here’s why: One of the nice things about traveling in West Africa is that the rest stops come to you. Whenever a vehicle pulls over to load/unload passengers (or more often to troubleshoot a mechanical issue), goods would pop in every window and door, along with the arms and heads selling them. Bananas, bread, baggies of bissap juice, impregnated matches (whatever the hell those are), they were all available to us without leaving our seats. Kinda convenient. And damn funny to watch each new mini-bus get engulfed by these touts as it pulled over. So funny in fact that I’d gotten the idea on the way to Ndangane to take a picture of this happening to the mini-bus that pulled in about 20 feet behind us. Mind you we even had the back door closed and this picture was through the glass window. Nonetheless, as soon as I took the shot, a crowd of touts descended on the back of our bus and pulled open the doors (which didn’t quite close right anyway). “L’Argent!” (money) they demanded. Chris came to my defense and engaged the growing mob in their native Wolof. Much to our amusement (later) the ringleader of the touts who had led the L’Argent charge declared to Chris that “I am an intellectual!” Hard to say exactly what he was arguing there but Chris eventually worked out with them (or at least offered) that I would delete the picture from the camera. I don’t know if the mob had any clue what I was doing and I probably could have hit any combination of buttons I wanted to on the camera, but I did actually find and delete the photo in front of them, and thus lost photo IMG_0081.jpg forever (I tried a bit to recover it when I got back but was unsuccessful), so you will just have to imagine it from my description.

I kept my camera sheathed for this portion of the trip and we reached the main highway to Tamba uneventfully and everyone piled out to wait for new transportation headed east. Chris didn’t seem worried, but this was one of the situations I had read about on Mark Moxon’s Travel blog before coming. If you weren’t at a place where empty buses departed you could be waiting a long time (remember buses only travel when full, except when they drop someone off along the way). And we were with about 20 locals who would all be vying for any empty seat on a bus that came by. Apparently that’s what saved us. There were so many of us that an empty bus bound for Dakar was rerouted to take all of us to Fatick. What could have been the longest transfer turned out to be the fastest of the trip. I got a good seat at the back. And then was ushered to a bad seat in the middle (they waste no space in these buses and the walkway that allows you to get to each row has a backless jumpseat that folds down, one of which I just scored). Chris felt bad for me from his seat at the back, but I felt good because I was able to show that this less than ideal seat wasn’t a problem for me.

I snapped a photo of the packed passengers and promptly rested my chin on the Camelbak strapped across my chest. I don’t meditate or study zen anything, but I was determined to enter some sort of zone to pass the time to Fatick. I either succeeded or it was a really short trip, either way I emerged in high spirits when we were funneled into a smaller bus for the rest of the trip to Kaolack (about half of the passengers were stopping in Fatick so they didn’t want to waste a whole big bus on us). I didn’t mind since it meant that we were yet again avoiding the long wait times I’d heard about for filling buses. I was beginning to wonder if those warnings were overrated and that this leave-when-we’re-(over)full concept might not actually be incredibly efficient.

We were quickly in Kaolack and were once again funneled into an ever smaller vehicle. This was my first sept-place bush taxi. Theoretically it has seven seats for passengers, one in the shotgun seat, three in the middle row, and three crunched into a mini seat in the back. The good thing about being the last two passengers in this car is that we were once again leaving immediately, and would surely now get all the way to Tambacounda in one day. The bad news is that we got two of the crunchy seats in the back. Undaunted we climbed into this back “seat”. Once seated I was feeling considerably more daunted. There is literally a four inch gap between the edge of the back seat and the back of the middle seat (the seat with the metal bars poking through the padding, and now into my legs). The back seat is also elevated, which means my head was titled at a 45 degree angle to not poke up through the (no longer upholstered) roof. Serenity now. Check the map. About 230K from Kaolack to Tamba. Highway. So what, about 100 KmPH? Couple of hours as a pretzel. I could do it... I think. And for the first 70K things are “fine”. Well it would be nice if the guy in front of me would roll down the window. Oh. I mean it would be nice if the window still had a handle to roll it up and down (this would become a common sight. If you were lucky – as in this case – the driver would have one handle that he would pass around to roll each window. If you weren’t so lucky he would have one screwdriver to attempt to turn what used to be the spot where the handle attached).

Once the window was down, and I had become fairly numb to my contortions, it wasn’t too bad. As long as we were moving fast and the breeze came all the way back. Except that for some reason we weren’t always moving so fast. In fact the breeze started coming less and less. It started with one pothole and then several and soon we were quite literally driving an obstacle course down the highway zig-zagging all across the road (along with all of the oncoming traffic). Luckily we weren’t moving fast enough for the oncoming traffic to be dangerous, unluckily we weren’t moving fast enough to generate a breeze. The highway seemed to deteriorate with each kilometer we crawled along. Do highways get worse the farther they are from Dakar?!? This wasn’t going to take 2 hours. Hmmm, we’d stopped driving on the highway and switched to the makeshift “access roads” worn into the bush. No potholes here are least. Ah, the breeze again. Um. Why are we airborne? Crunch!

The driver got cocky and launched us into the air going too fast over a dirt ridge on this access “road”. On touchdown, the passengers all agreed out loud that the driver needed to slow the hell down. Not surprisingly it was shortly after his Dukes of Hazzard driving that we started breaking down periodically. Luckily it never lasted long enough that people bothered getting out of the car, unluckily it lasted plenty long enough to make me wish they would. Even the breeze of the 20 KmPH pace we’d been setting would seem blissful. And it would be nice to get outside and untwist for a bit.

Mercifully we eventually rolled into Kounghoul... the halfway point. And discovered the car needed to go into the garage for repairs. Well I untwisted at least. I was also treated for the first time to one of the nicest things about traveling in West Africa: you can sit anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be this “seating is for customers only” mindset and if there is an empty spot on a bench in front of a shop it’s pretty much up for grabs. This is a good thing because one thing you do a lot of in West Africa is sit in random places and wait for your car (to fill, to be repaired, to strap everything – including sheep, goats, and chickens – onto the roof). We bought some biscuits and hung out on the porch of a shop playing dodge-the-kitten. The one that would be really cute if it weren’t for the collection of large open sores all over its neck... The kitten had its own game of rub-up-against-the-tourists going, so we were happy when a couple of our co-passengers spotted the mechanic’s shop and walked down to check on the car. Not ready yet, but at least we had a kitten-free log to rest on.

Watching the repair process was nearly worth the breakdown. From what I can tell (which isn’t much) they were welding the radiator in some way. There were about six kids (probably between 8 and 12 years old) moving all around and switching off between providing tools to the mechanic and staring at Chris and myself. But the kids were definitely working. One of the kids took a piece of scrap metal and used a chisel to “cut” it into a square which he proceeded to pound flat and hand to the mechanic to weld into place. He must have made it correctly because we were soon on the road again (after they gave up their attempt to weld the cattle guard back onto the front and just strapped it to the roof with the rest of our luggage).

Our pit stop had been productive in a couple of other ways as well. For one, we’d been able to seek out a “bathroom” (the gas station attendant directed us to the wall behind his station), which was important because in my entire month in Africa I never once saw anyone ask the driver to pull over for a bathroom break. West African bladders are just stronger or else cars break down frequently enough that it isn’t an issue (I have a feeling it’s both). Returning from the bathroom we came across a bearded toubab (regional slang for a white person, which isn’t necessarily insulting but which isn’t particularly pleasant either. Chris would occasionally mention in Wolof to the little kids that shouted it at us that he didn’t address them as black person). Chris identified this toubab as a Peace Corps volunteer from his ubiquitous beige bag, with an ad for Chinese mosquito netting, that is given to all PCVs at orientation. He was a PCV Senegal and his sept-place was pulling out of the station en route to Dakar so he didn’t have time to talk but he did pass off a brief description on how to find the Peace Corps house in Tamba.

Cramped back into the car I wasn’t any more comfortable, but expectations can be powerful things and I now knew what to expect in the way of West African travel. I settled in with my MP3 player and started listening to the “Conquest of the Americas” lecture series (music wasn’t going to kill the number of hours we had left) as I watched the faded and crumbling kilometer markers pop up from time to time. I prayed the first marker I saw said Tamba 31 K. Nope. It said Tamba 81 K. When we finally ground to a stop in the Tambacounda gare voiture 4 hours later I was truly humbled (and a little bit terrified - after asking around the gare voiture, Chris indicated he wanted to leave the next day for Guinea. We’d just finished a 12 hour travel day and he was ready for what the Lonely Planet describes as a 24-48 hour bush taxi ride! Keeping up with him was going to be as challenging as I’d imagined)

But as with everything on the trip, things have a way of working out. We found the Peace Corps house but were vigorously denied lodging for the night by the Senegalese watchman (who explained to Chris that The Gambia is not a part of Senegal and that his expired Gambian PCV card was no good here). We had to leave our bags out front with the watchman but were allowed to enter the house. Inside we met Matt, Greg, Sue and the rest of the PCVs who were on holiday from their villages for a bit. We were warmly welcomed, offered beer and soda from the community fridge (at PCV costs), told our short adventures and future plans, and eventually ingratiated ourselves to the point where we were informed that the guard changed at 9pm and that the next guy was much cooler so all we had to do was wait it out and we’d have a room. The night just kept getting better. They called for delivery and I got a vegetarian burger (which means an egg instead of a beef patty), wrote notes for this story in a hammock, showered, and got set up in a room with a fan, a mattress and a mosquito net. I even found out Greg was headed to the post office the next day and paid him to take my thirteen postcards to mail home (as of this writing - six weeks later - they haven’t arrived yet. But I’ve got faith that someday they will show up and surprise us all – right Greg?). Ah well. Somehow the magic oasis of the Peace Corps house was exactly what I needed and believe it or not I was ready to tackle the 24-48 hour trip into Guinea the next morning. Or was I...

Part IV - Tambacounda to Labe, Guinea (July 31st - August 2nd)

It rained for the first time during the night in Tambacounda but this would become a trend of our rainy season travel. From that night on it rained virtually every night, but with a few exceptions, only at night. Tuesday was the lumo (market) day in the nearby town of Manda and our best shot of getting into Guinea. The lumos draw vendors and customers from all around so they also serve as transportation hubs. On arrival in Manda we immediately found “Bonne Chance” (Good Luck), which would be our taxi into Guinea. The only problem was that everyone (but us) had business in the market to complete so it soon became clear this would be our first true wait-until-the-taxi-fills experience.

Ah, Bonne. How we loved theePlaces to visit in Manda, Senegal...

I had resolved to stick to a travel day diet of bread, water, and Immodium (especially for 24-48 hour travel days like this one threatened to be). What I hadn’t anticipated was tacking on an 8 hour wait at the beginning of this trip. Chris and I killed the time by hiking through the surrounding farmland (with some impressive termite mounds) and eventually crashing on a plank bed in the back room of a rice bar (the offer of the bed was another example of the West African hospitality we received while waiting on transport).

A bus at the Manda MarketTaken just before I was eaten by a giant termite

When we did set out that evening I was nervous (about bathrooms and border crossings) but excited to be entering Guinea, which is much more off the typical tourist path than Senegal (after all it was under a state department advisory as recently as April due to general strikes and concern over no real plan for succession). Sept-places like our “Bonne Chance” don’t ever seat seven in Guinea. As we pulled out for the long haul to Labe, we had a driver, two passengers riding shotgun, Chris and I as the bookends of a middle row of four and three people crunched into my dreaded seats in the back. Chris leaned over and asked “Do you have someone on the roof on your side too?”. Indeed I did. Add another two onto the roof. The twelve of us set off for Guinea in our seven seat taxi.

"Is there someone on the roof on your side too?"Outward Dog

I had discovered the key (for me at least) to West African travel: Window seats (well that and my Bread, Water, and Immodium diet). Except when bouts of rain would force the windows up (and our roof guests into the taxi) I assumed what would become my official travel day position: head stuck right out the window like a dog. It was perfect. I got a breeze, a great view of the countryside (which is considerably more pleasant in Guinea than on the Kaolack to Tamba highway) and everyone in our row got more room. All I had to do was stay awake enough to duck back inside the car in time to dodge any incoming branches as the car drove off the road to avoid potholes (a feat I managed nearly every time – ouch).

I popped on my MP3 player and watched the sun set. I was not merely surviving this trip but actually enjoying it. One of the happiest points of the whole vacation was when I was in my canine travel posture and the song “Lives” by Modest Mouse came on. The combination of the wind on my face, neon green landscape sliding by, and the lyrics filling my head will always be with me:

“It’s hard to remember, it’s hard to remember, we’re alive for the first time,

It’s hard to remember, it’s hard to remember, we’re alive for the last time,

It’s hard to remember, it’s hard to remember, to live before you die”

The lyrics may not seem the most upbeat, but at that moment when I truly felt I was taking advantage of an opportunity to really live, it was practically euphoric.

Listen to the lines that will always remind me of traveling in Guinea

This sense of joy stayed with me as we flew down the unpaved highway out of Senegal (indeed a theory I had that an unpaved highway was better than a paved but not maintained one seemed to hold up). Getting the exit stamp for Senegal and the entry stamp for Guinea went as smoothly as any part of the trip, probably because we were traveling by taxi so the driver and even some of the passengers ushered us through each checkpoint. It’s hard to say whether they did this out of friendliness or to be sure we didn’t slow down the whole car, but they certainly seemed happy to help us. Since my French vocabulary doesn’t include “Computer Programmer” (or really much of anything other than Ca Va) Chris believes I may have entered Guinea as a “secretary” based on my typing charades with the border guard who asked about my work. Nonetheless we were in Guinea, without a wait at the border, and without the slightest bribe requested.

The rest of the trip to Labe was pleasant. I mean sure we had to get out and push start Bonne each time we stopped, and yes she did eventually break down when the driver tried to drive off road to avoid a 20 foot diameter water filled “pot hole”. True we had to stay overnight in the border town of Koundara to have Bonne repaired (well replaced ultimately) and we did drive by a ominous road sign depicting a car driving off a cliff into a river, but despite everything we pulled into Labe, Guinea just 24 hours after we left Manda. I had originally expected to hurl myself out of the taxi and kiss the ground (not a particularly good idea in Africa I imagine) when the journey ended but I found I was in far better condition than I had been after the ride to Tambacounda. Sadly the same could not be said for my camera, which had its LCD screen crunched during one of the many times the car door was slammed shut (the car is too cramped to pull your own door closed, someone has to slam it shut from the outside).

My least favorite hotelThis doesn't look good...

We took a rest day in Labe where we enjoyed our room in the Hotel de L’independence, which had running water and electricity (that is, when the city of Labe had water and electricity, which seemed to be about 75% of the time). We did laundry, showered, changed money, and I fell in love with the Café Cofoprec which was a surprisingly advanced internet café right next to our hotel. I posted some earlier blog entries from there and confirmed that my camera was still perfectly functional despite having a busted LCD. And if anyone from Labe is reading this, here is a login for the Cofoprec with nearly an hour of time left on it: PEC1002, FC1002 (assuming you are the first person to read this and use the login :-p) We also tracked down the elusive Musee de Fouta (Museum of the Fouta Djalon region), which the Lonely Planet lists as being a couple km from the hotel but which has now relocated to about 5 km away to the outskirts of town on the Route de Pita. It was of course closed when we arrived (as it was each time we drove past it on future trips through Labe) but we hardly minded because as with so much of this vacation it was really more about the journey than the destination…

What do you mean, closed?Decorations at the Hotel de L'Independance

Part V - Mali-ville (August 3rd-6th)

Our next stop was Mali. Not the neighboring country of Mali (home to Timbuktu, to the Bamana Mud Cloth I’d learned about for the Scavenger Hunt, and to the griot, or West African bard, Toumani Diabate whose music I’d discovered on NPR). Next trip perhaps. This was the tiny mountain town in Guinea named Mali. It is usually referred to as Mali-ville to distinguish it from the nearby country.

Of course our trip to Mali-ville wasn’t without some adventure. A late coming passenger decided that he would ignore the bags on the seats Chris and I were reserving. Apparently he didn’t like the idea of being the third person in the shotgun seat for the 4 hour trip. And perhaps he felt as a policeman he might intimidate us into letting him have the seat. Chris of course was having none of it and masterfully redirected the policeman’s arguments over to the chauffeur, who defended our prior claim. So when we rolled off to Mali the policeman was leaning out the shotgun window in front of me. He therefore had a good view as our chauffeur proceeded to slowly drive the car right off the road and into an open sewer… before we’d even gone 100 yards from the gare voiture! There was no obvious reason for this gaff, no oncoming traffic, no potholes, no reverse potholes (livestock), and he drove off the road fairly slowly with the policeman shouting “Attencion! Attencion!”

I figured we’d need to push the car back up the way it came in, but in West Africa, friendly (or bored) folk abound and before we’d barely had time to evacuate the car, a horde of onlookers surrounded it and simply lifted the side of the station wagon (still fully laden with luggage) out of the sewer and pushed the whole car sideways onto the road. It reminded me of a Guinean version of the old mentos commercial where the construction workers pick up a woman’s car who has been boxed in. It also made me wish it was more acceptable to take candid photos in West Africa as my description can’t do the scene justice.

We never did find a map of GuineaWelcome to Mali-ville

We were right back on our way to Mali-ville, but I think everyone was relieved when the driver pulled a U-turn in the road about 15 minutes later and declared that there was something wrong with the motor and we had to switch cars (and therefore drivers). The policeman, who eventually warmed up to us, asked the question everyone was thinking… “Are you sure it doesn’t have anything to do with you driving off the road back there!?!”. “Nope it’s the motor” the driver maintained. Whatever the cause, our replacement taxi cruised all the way to Mali-ville with me leaning out the window, dodging branches, and singing silent karaoke to the passing countryside.

Mali-ville has three hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. L’Auberge Indigo which had jacked their rates up 300% since the book was printed, Campement Bev which overlooks the Dame de Mali rock formation… 7Km outside of town, and our eventual choice: room three in the hotel La Dame de Mali. Apparently this was the foreigner special because we would meet up with the previous residents of room three at our next stop on the journey.

Another casualty of the Guinean taxi systemWhat, you didn't like room three Susanna?

Over the short weekend we spent in Mali-ville I experienced the best and worst days of the trip thus far (Alright second worst – the trip to Tamba was pretty brutal, but the Peace Corps house that night redeemed it). The worst was our first day of hiking to Guinea’s most famous natural landmark – La Dame de Mali. I’d seen it on the faded tourist poster in the Guinean embassy back in D.C. when the cultural attaché named Baldi gave me a virtual tour of the country using the poster. I was looking forward to a peaceful day hiking with nature… what we got was a personal escort by a dozen rambunctious kids. I felt as irritable and crotchety as using the word “rambunctious” to describe kids makes me sound. As I’d found in China (at the Disneyland-crowded Stone Forest and the boardwalked Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), enjoying nature in a quiet solitary manner is a foreign concept to many cultures. I bemoaned this fact but not nearly as much as I got frustrated with myself for being frustrated with the situation. Kids are great (well maybe not the ones throwing stones at me the day before!). Why couldn’t I adjust and enjoy? Who knows. But I didn’t. Hopefully you’re allowed one ornery day per trip.

The Dame. In person...... and in poster.

The best day of the trip was the very next day, taking nearly an identical trip. We’d planned two day hikes. One to see La Dame de Mali, the next to see the Chute de Gelmay. The Dame is a 15km hike from Mali-ville, the waterfall is 30km. So Saturday we’d do the easy hike and Sunday the hard one. Of course we found out… on Sunday… that 15km of the waterfall hike is… to and from the Dame. It turned out the familiarity with the hike was great because it meant to made that portion of the trip alone (exactly as I’d hoped the day before).

Of course we weren’t really alone, and this turned out to be the best part. Sunday is Market (lumo) Day in Mali-ville. So as we hiked out of town people from all the surrounding farms and villages were hiking in with all manner of goods to sell. Most of the goods were carried in plastic buckets balanced on their head. This being the rainy season many people also had an umbrella stuck through their headwrap, like a giant hairpin. Of course they were happy to sell en route as well and we bought a banana for breakfast, an avocado for our lunch and told a woman selling traditional Indigo cloth that we’d buy some when we got back to town. Many of them were simply curious where we were off to and we stopped several times to exchange greetings. People seemed surprised we were going all the way to the waterfall and back in one day and we even got a “Bonne Chance” from one group. We hoped we’d fair better than our taxi with that name did.

Got balance?Could I interest you in this fine chicken perhaps?.

30Km didn’t seem like an overly adventurous hike for us… until I realized the elevation gain involved. The hike to and from La Dame de Mali was most flat or rolling. We discovered when we met up with our guides (two of Mr. Souare’s sons) that the rest of the trip was not. The day before we’d hiked to the top of Mt. Loura where La Dame resides and looked out across a valley far below us. Today we would hike all the way down into that valley to the waterfall and back out. Did I mention I love my Camelbak? We hiked down to the valley on the paths that water takes to get there, which means nearly straight down, often using our hands to lower ourselves. It also means that if it rained or was raining on our way home… best not to think about that. We also passed a farmer leading a cow to market (up this path). He was the only ornery cow I saw in West Africa, and I can hardly blame him.

Now, see those little huts through the clouds?No? Let me walk a bit closer for you...................

Although it was challenging, the hike was well worth the effort. Our view across the valley stretched all the way to Senegal (I think. Sadly they don’t paint the boundaries on the ground in West Africa either). The waterfall was as impressive as advertised and made a perfect lunch stop. We passed through various compounds along the way, spied a monkey on the way home, and I even tried my hand at grinding some ground nuts (known to the rest of us as peanuts). Although it was mostly natural splendor and unspoiled West African culture, I remember fondly that during lunch one of the boys was humming the Numa, Numa song I’d only heard on YouTube. And perhaps most importantly, the rain held off.

Chasing ChutesGrinding Groundnuts

What really made the day special though was the trip back from La Dame de Mali to Mali-ville that evening. Chris and I were on our own again and our hike had taken so long that now everyone who’d gone to market was returning home. We passed our morning fruit sellers, our “Bonne Chance” man, and even ran into the Indigo cloth lady, who we happily bargained with to purchase some gifts. The one person I’m grateful we didn’t see was the cow farmer, because I can only imagine how pissed that cow would be if it hadn’t been sold and needed to make the trek back down into the valley. We’d learned enough of the local greetings now that our trip was filled with a chorus of “N’jarama”s (Hello), “Tanalatoon”s (How are the home people), and “Jam Toon”s (Well). The translations are my own and are not literal but I believe that was the meaning they conveyed. The friendliness and excitement from everyone we reunited with along this hike is the strongest memory I have from West Africa and alone was enough to make the trip worthwhile.


The day was so good that I intend to revise history and move the fact that in the evening I sliced my finger open on my pocket knife while trying to cut the duct tape free from my garbage-bag-backpack-cover, back one day. That unpleasant experience now officially took place on Saturday night...

To keep our streak of failed Guinean vehicles in tact, our sept place cooperated by breaking down three quarters of the way back from Mali-ville. We wound up ushered onto a passing lorry (the equivalent of a West African eighteen wheeler) that was loaded with goods (bags of rice, oranges, etc.) and about 40 people packed in on top of them. The lorry looked unappealing at first, especially when they wanted us to pay extra (Chris expertly rejected this request and insisted it was the sept place driver’s responsibility to cover any additional costs since we’d already paid him the fare for the entire journey). Once situated in the back on some rice bags that molded to our contours quite nicely it turned out to be my favorite method of travel in all of West Africa. A constant breeze blew through, my legs were stretched out and the landscape unfolded gradually behind us. Best of all we didn’t break down. Chris noticed that lorries are like the Tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare. It certainly trundled along, and sept places would careen by us, but like clockwork several minutes later we would lumber past those very same cars with all the passengers milling about as one problem or another was addressed. One of the female sept place passengers had developed such a rapport with our driver’s assistant (who hangs off the back of the lorry) that they joked each time our lorry passed her Puegot… which it did no less than 3 times… just in the hour we were in it. By the familiarity they expressed the first time we passed her car I have no doubt that it had happened many times before we even got on board. And true to the story our Tortoise pulled into Labe well before her Hare…

The Tortoise...... and the Hare...................

Part VI - Doucki (August 7th-10th)

From Labe, we made our way through Pita (like the chips) to the small village of Doucki (pronounced like Steelers RB Najeh “DookieDavenport’s nickname – he took a dump in a girl’s laundry basket). Despite the name, Doucki was the most beautiful location on the whole trip. I often found myself comparing this region to the island on Lost (though we managed to avoid the black smoke monster, I think).

Welcome to...... Doucki...................

The Lonely Planet raves about Doucki, but the entry is really only there because of one man. Hassan Bah. Doucki isn’t so much a village as the locale where Hassan has set up a compound from which he offers a traditional Fula hut, three home cooked meals, and guided hikes all for just $16 a day. Hassan is a man of boundless energy, a speaker of many languages (including English thankfully), and a lover of acronyms. And he deserves every bit of the praise heaped upon him by the book. For a video glimpse of the man himself check out this YouTube clip that a previous guest posted:

Chris managed to get us all the way from Mali-ville to Doucki in one day. The only problem was that the taxi deposited us at the side of the Telimele road a little after 10pm… in the rain… a couple of Km from Hassan’s place. The driver’s apprentice did walk us to a hut near the road and leave us with a Fula woman who we figured would help us. Except that we couldn’t understand her. Well we could understand 20,000 GF, which was apparently what she wanted for… something. We just couldn’t figure out what. Chris and I looked at each other and tried to figure out what she was offering. She was motioning towards a small hut beside her. We thought maybe she wanted 20,000 GF for the hut (a bit steep we thought). Our befuddlement turned out to be a good bargaining tactic as before we’d attempted to communicate with her she dropped the price to 10,000 GF. We accepted. It turned out she wasn’t offering the hut, she was offering the boy in the hut… as a guide to Hassan’s place. The price was steep but we’d agreed to it and we didn’t have any other way of finding Hassan in the dark. 1,653 paces later (gotta pass the time somehow) we reached Hassan’s compound. Turns out Hassan had a full house. After seeing almost no westerners since Tambacounda, the most isolated spot on the whole trip already had all three huts booked. We weren’t even aware of this though because after greeting us in his night shirt, Hassan set us right up in a spare room in his house, and brought us some left over dinner. T. Y. H. B. (Thank you Hassan Bah).

The irrepressible Hassan Bah ...... And his brother Abdul-Rahim

B.F.H.B. That’s the acronym I heard from Susanna at breakfast the next morning. Big Fan of Hassan Bah. Susanna was a RPCV Guinea making her fourth trip to Doucki. She was traveling with her friend Alpha Oumar who she’d met while volunteering in his village of Diontou (the same village Amadou Diallo hailed from). She’s a Yale grad student studying out of Dakar for the summer and making a research trip around Guinea (which meant she had a laptop and graciously backed up all my photos and recordings much to my relief – Thank you Susanna!). The other huts were occupied by a combination of Fess, an American who had seemingly retired early to travel, Danielle a 20ish year old American girl traveling the world until her money ran out, and Amina who was Guinean and “with” Fess in some capacity or another. The three of them made an interesting bunch and I never could really establish all the interrelationships there, but they were certainly friendly folk and entertaining hiking companions (plus Danielle took a bunch of my extra bug spray and hand sanitizer with her when they left).

Meet RPCV Guinea SusannaTraditional Lodging

And hiking is what Doucki is known for (other than Hassan). Although as much as I liked the hikes, I think I enjoyed Hassan’s names for them even better. We got “Wet n Wild”, where we frolicked in the region’s waterfalls, hiked to the overlook of “The Grand Canyon”, explored I.J.W. aka “Indiana Jones World” of vines and cave-like canyons, and finally tackled the hardcore hike named “Chutes and Ladders”. Chutes and Ladders got its name because you hike down into the grand canyon (past “Bob Marley Stage”) to the valley floor and then literally climb back up through a series of waterfalls (Chutes in French) using bundles of sticks (Ladders). Good Times!

"Wet N Wild""The Grand Canyon"

"Indiana Jones World""Chutes and Ladders"

The rocks along the hikes are like permanent cloud formations that have been weathered into such interesting shapes that Hassan and his guests have given them names like “The Camel” and “The Ninja”. I particularly enjoyed how pitted some of the cliff faces were because not only did it give me a chance to do some elementary rock climbing, but I also discovered several holds formed into shapes that I was certain only existed on the walls of my climbing gym (I am still fairly certain the light bulb, smiley face, and alphabet holds are unique to the gym… but who knows).

Climbing...... like a ninja!

The week started better than it ended though as Chris caught some sort of illness which he jokingly attributed to our decision to “shower” (shampoo and all) in the “Jacuzzi” at the end of Indiana Jones World. As a result he missed the Chutes and Ladders hike which I did solo with Hassan’s brother Abdul-rahim (the other guests had gone on their way by that point and Chris and I had moved into a Fula hut). Between my blisters and Chris’ illness I was content to spend our final day in Doucki relaxing in one of the hammocks at the meal hut reading through Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Alexander McCall Smith’s “Tears of the Giraffe”. I had ribbed Chris a bit about the Tears of the Giraffe book which is in a series of detective novels with the ridicule-inducing name “The Number One Ladies Detective Agency”… I am of course now hooked on the series and was bitter to learn today that delivery of the five book box set I ordered from Amazon has suddenly been delayed until March. I will accept no harassment on the subject until you have read one of the books yourself!

The Jacuzzi...... and its aftermath...................

On Saturday Chris was feeling well enough for us to embark on our trip to Conakry, the last stop on our journey together…


Part VII - Conakry (August 11th-18th)

Sitting by the road in the tiny village of Talamagy, about 200 Km from Conakry, I was sure the streak would go unbroken. So far we were 3 for 3 with long distance taxi rides in Guinea. No vehicle in which we departed ever finished the journey with Chris and I still in it. As the sun set over our car and the mechanic beneath it I would have guaranteed you we’d just gone 4 for 4. After about a hundred happy kilometers the car had simply decided it no longer had any interest in getting into gear. A mechanic was motorbiked out from the nearby village and he spent about an hour under the car working on the problem. His fix held for about half a kilometer. We coasted to a stop in the middle of town and a few minutes later the same mechanic reappeared. As was customary, Chris and I settled in on a bench in a nearby food stall. Chris was tempted by the sour milk they were serving but managed to resist. I had fond memories of my push pop drink in Dakar but was even more fond of the success of my B.W.I. travel diet, although we did splurge on some oranges (which Chris offered as thanks to the proprietors). After another hour beneath the taxi the mechanic indicated he was done, and this time our driver thoughtfully decided to take a test drive with the mechanic before loading everyone back in. Unless the mechanic was 400 times more successful in his second attempt than he had been in his first I still felt pretty certain I wouldn’t be sleeping in Conakry. I owe him an apology. Although I winced every time the driver went to shift gears for the full 200km, this taxi broke the streak and dropped us safely at the Indochine restaurant in Conakry at 1am.

Thank you Kevin!

In Conakry we were staying with Chris’ friend Kevin who he’d known from their time studying in Ghana together. Kevin worked for the embassy and had an immaculate apartment overlooking the ocean (and perhaps the most humorous tennis court on earth. Baselines – we don’t need no stinking baselines). Kevin was a generous host and the accommodations were truly luxurious (as was the food prepared by his personal chef). The week we spent is Conakry was in such sharp contrast to the rest of the trip. I was certainly grateful for the amenities I’d been without (a toilet, hot shower, television, clean bed, the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever tasted), but in some ways it felt like the trip was over and yet it wasn’t so by the end of the week I was in limbo.

Baselines? We don't need no stinkin' baselines!

There is a transportation shortage in Conakry so getting around town is a bit of a trick. You can’t just hail a cab and tell them where you want to go. Taxis work like buses, so you stand out by the main thoroughfare (usually among a crowd of taxi seeking Guineans) and signal where you’re headed. We quickly learned several hand signals which consisted of turning your thumb horizontally and pointing away from the road (as if you were a roman emperor about to signal whether to spare or to end a gladiator’s life) if you want to head downtown, or wagging your pointer finger at the taxi (as if you were shaming the driver for not stopping) in order to head to the market district of Madina. You could sit there wagging your signal at each passing cab for anywhere from a couple minutes to maybe a half hour before you were the first of the waiting throng to scramble into the packed cab (2 in shotgun, 4 in the back). As a result Chris and I usually picked one destination each day and spent a few hours running errands in that one area before returning to the apartment for an evening of American Forces Network TV (it’s cute, they can’t show commercials so they have a whole series of PSAs and military PR stories which they show instead. By the end of a week of watching the PSAs you’d assume that every serviceman was a sexually harassing drunk with bad credit… who’d given someone durable power of attorney when they could have given them special power of attorney. Yeah, we watched a lot of TV.)

The woodworker who carved my "Nimba Woman", a Guinean national symbol

That’s not to say we didn’t have plenty of memorable experiences in Conakry which I am grateful for.

  • Ate at my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world (including the ones in China)
  • Watched firsthand the arbitrary nature of African bureaucracy as Chris applied for a Ghanaian Visa (no problem one day, not possible the next)
  • Shopped with Chris as he bought the hippest trousers on earth in Madina (they are so cool they are both Levi’s AND Ecko’s)
  • Walked past the Korean embassy and realized it was the North Korean embassy (with the largest old school roof antenna I’ve ever seen)
  • Studied a team of ants march a section of fishbone vertically up a wall at the local Coke distributor’s café
  • Observed real Silverfish scurry across the sea wall as I leaned up against it (after years of incorrectly calling the House Centipedes at home Silverfish)
  • Dined at an Indian restaurant on a platform so rickety that we spend the whole meal joking about our escape plans for when it finally collapsed (which resulted in hearty laughter that caused the platform to shake so violently that we nearly fulfilled our prophesy)
  • Discovered that when the US built a brand new embassy in a quiet part of town, the only other new building in all of Conakry was a Chinese television station that went up shortly thereafter on the hilltop overlooking the embassy… (and was nearly taken out by an incoming jet)
  • Was stopped by a policeman who chatted us up for a while before wanting to know “What we had for him”, in the only attempted bribe of the whole trip (we explained we had nothing – otherwise why would we be walking the 7 km back to the apartment - well other than to explore the city and because of the transportation nightmare that is Conakry during rush hour)
  • Attended a candle making seminar at the embassy and was treated to homemade pizza during a movie marathon at another embassy employee’s apartment (although the highlight of my embassy day was hearing the Marine on guard say “I’m not about to harass two Americans here on U.S. soil”)
  • Learned that embassy employees aren’t allowed to ride in local cabs… or on Slok Airlines which was my carrier back to Dakar.
  • Spent the day seeing the workings of an African clinic as Chris got X-Rays and bloodwork done to address the lingering remnants of his Doucki illness (which turned out to be Malaria – or at least it was discovered for the first time there that he had Malaria. But ever impressive, this hardly seemed to phase him and barely even delayed his solo expeditions on to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Voire and Ghana. PCVs in general and Chris in particular are truly hard core.)
  • Got sick. I mean what kind of trip to Africa would it have been if I hadn’t gotten Traveler’s Diarrhea even one (thankfully it lasted exactly one day, happened in the comfort of our most luxurious accommodations, and Kevin called the sweetest nurse Diana to come check on me when he discovered that it was me and not Chris vomiting in the bathroom. Really if you are going to get sick in Africa, this is the place to do it. Thanks Kevin and Diana).

And of course, as I mentioned in a post from Conakry … I got pickpocketed. How it happened is that as I walked across the street this guy slid his foot underneath where my heel was about to land causing me to step on his foot (and thereby initiating the interaction in my subconscious). I offered a passing apology (in whatever Anglo-french hybrid of words and gestures I could manage). He didn’t seem to accept the apology and was intent on reenacting the offense as he first placed his foot beside mine – showing, I thought, how much bigger my foot was than his. He then proceeded to lift my leg and place it down on top of his foot. Yes, yes. I understood my big old foot had stepped on his and I was sorry. Chris was issuing our mantra of “Pas de problem, Pas de problem”. Finally he agreed and walked away… with about $20 worth of loose change he had pulled out of my zippered back pocket while he had lifted my leg up and down in his fake charade. Doh! I felt fairly stupid and frustrated that I’d realized what happened within five seconds of his departure but it had taken me just long enough to check my pockets that he was gone once we looked around. But my passport was untouched and my camera was still in my pocket so I was able to chock it up to experience. I’d caught the pickpocket in Tibet, the one in Conakry had gotten the better of me.

Saying goodbye to Chris I knew I’d had exactly the trip I had hoped for when I decided to join him this summer, but I was also ready to head home. Unfortunately I still had two days left on my own in Dakar so it was time to leave the American Forces Network world behind and kick back into travel mode…

Part VIII - Back to Dakar and Goree Island (August 19th-21st)

Anticipating West African travel quirks I had given myself a two day buffer between my flight from Conakry to Dakar and my flight from Dakar to BWI. This seemed prudent given that Slok Air wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the dominant airline on this route, Air Senegal International. Perhaps you’ve heard of Air Senegal from their billboards advertising “80% customer satisfaction!” Slok Air made no such claims. Therefore I was thrilled to see Slok Air C5-OUK arrive on the tarmac behind the waiting lounge. I was less thrilled to learn from a fellow passenger that a Slok Air boarding pass doesn’t guarantee much. Suddenly I understood the triangle of people packed tightly up to the gate door. They weren’t trying to get a good seat…they were trying to get a seat. I packed in with the best of them, after all I’d been practicing jockeying for position in a bush taxi for a month, and it probably helped that I was bigger than most of my competitors… er passengers.

I did manage to win a seat. A window seat right by the wing. Which gave me a perfect view of the loose bolt sticking an inch out of its hole. It made for an intriguing game to watch whether it would vibrate its way completely free on the flight. Thankfully I didn’t know what can happen when a bolt comes loose from a plane (because it didn’t happen until two days later). Luckily, the bolt held the entire flight, and despite my harassment of Slok Air, they got me to Dakar on time and unscathed (even the piece of bone in the vegetarian pizza snack they served failed to chip a tooth).

Hey is that a...... loose ...... bolt?!?

Unfortunately certain sensitivities prevent me sharing the full details of my time in Dakar in my blog but at some point I will probably write up the story which I can share in person or via email with anyone interested. Just too put to rest any speculation, I wasn’t arrested for any money changing fiascos I mentioned in Part 1, nor was I put in a Senegalese prison for mooning the governors house like this sorry chap

What I can share is that I spent Saturday night in the airport hotel (which I felt was a surprisingly good value for $50… with working air conditioning! I may have been biased by the fact that I feared having to pay $100+ for much less based on the description of other Dakar hotels in the Lonely Planet). Delta has no permanent presence or daytime phone number in the Dakar airport. The Delta reps are nocturnal and work from 11:30pm through the night when their flights arrive and depart before closing up shop again before dawn. Since Dakar is a transit point on their flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta it is critical to confirm your flight with Delta two days in advance so you are on their “list” and have an empty seat waiting for you when the flight arrives. Since I’d previously been informed that the Delta reps don’t necessarily answer incoming calls I decided to handle this situation in person (which had worked well for securing my lost luggage a month earlier). I was successful in confirming my seat and felt great settling in to the clean sheets of the airport hotel with a plan for Sunday to visit Goree Island and spent the evening picking my (currently undefeated) fantasy football team from the airport telecenter.

Nothing fancy...... but it was clean and cool!

Goree Island was the only place in Senegal or Guinea that I knew anything about before deciding to take this trip. I’d love to say I knew about it from studying African history… but I knew about it from an episode of the Amazing Race (which is another reason I will defend it as the only reality show at this point with redeeming qualities). On the show they visited the House of the Slaves, which has a portal in the stone wall at the back that opens out to the Atlantic Ocean. Theoretically this is the last doorway on African soil through which thousands of slaves were deported (there’s some controversy over whether ships would actually have pulled up here where it is shallow and rocky as opposed to the established harbor a couple hundred feet up the shore). At any rate, it was a powerful image even on television and it was the first place I intended to visit during my afternoon on the island. Except that it is closed every day from noon until 2:30… exactly the time I was scheduled to be on the island.

Let's see I'm on the island from noon to 2:30...

I decided I’d have to make do with the view of the ocean next to the Maison des Esclaves (as its called in the bit of French I translated). I walked down the path next to the building and realized that if I leaned out a bit I could see the portal from the outside. In fact if I walked down onto the rocks (which the waves periodically crashed over), I could get a pretty good view of the back side of the building. Actually if I walked along those slippery rocks at the base of the building I could even look back up into the portal. Theoretically the portal is so low that it wouldn’t be any problem to just hoist oneself up to sit on the ledge. And of course once seated in the doorway, why not just stand up? But I can neither confirm nor deny that that’s how I got my photo looking out the “door of no return”.

Just ...... a little ...... bit ...... closer

I explored the whole island in my afternoon there and despite its decidedly touristy feel it was an afternoon well spent, and made me grateful I hadn’t gone directly home after Conakry. The fact that I didn’t miss out on my fantasy football auction helped too…

Goree Island

Parting Thoughts

On the flight over I didn’t know what my memories from the trip would be so most of my focus was on my apprehensions. Although most of this can be gleaned from the long rambling narrative above, I’ll provide some Top Ten lists (a very Chris-like thing to do) and address the questions I raised in the introduction.
  • Will I be able to carry my 46 pound pack on my back for the next 28 days?
    • I didn’t have to (and not just because Delta nearly didn’t deliver my pack). Since we did our hiking out of central locations the farthest I ever had to carry the pack was the 2 km to Hassan’s compound.
  • How will the communication work when Chris and I know no French other than what I've picked up listening to Pimsleur lectures on my commute for the past month?
    • If we’d had to rely on my French it would have been a disaster. However Chris spoke fluent Wolof which was understood throughout Senegal and his French (especially “travel” French) was much better than he’d let on (and much better than mine). Being essentially mute for a month (except to Chris) was one of the most challenging aspects of the trip, and one thing I noticed is that I felt as unfunny as I have ever felt in my life.
  • What will it feel like to not shower for perhaps an entire month?
    • Who knows. The level of hygiene we were able to maintain was one of the surprises of the trip. Granted some of the showers were from a bucket or in a stream but the result was the same.
  • How will my patchy beard look if I can't shave for days (or weeks) at a time?
    • Thankfully you were all spared from finding out in what could have been hideous photos of me because of how often I was able to bathe.
  • What strange foods will I eat, and will I be able to get them down gracefully?
    • I was shocked that the most unusual food I ate on the trip was the sweetened sour milk. China (scorpion) and Indonesia (frogs legs, octopus, prawns with the heads attached – when I didn’t eat any seafood) both provided more unusual food. Not that I minded except for lacking a fun story.
  • Will I stay healthy both from minor issues like travelers diarrhea and more serious problems like Cerebral Malaria which is endemic in Guinea?
    • I was amazingly healthy with a one day exception in Conakry. Chris wasn’t as fortunate and was diagnosed with Malaria but it doesn’t sound serious and he is continuing his adventures.
  • Will corruption be an issue?
    • Not a bit. Not a single bribe was paid during our trip and only one was requested in Conakry. From Chris’ blog it seems that isn’t always the case so I was fortunate for our experience.
  • Will we be robbed, scammed, or find ourselves evacuated (we already cancelled a part of the trip to Guinea-Bissau because of concerns that pirates were operating around the islands we wanted to visit)?
    • Pickpocketed in Conakry, potential attempted scam in Dakar and observed the behind the scenes workings of email phishing at the internet café. Nothing that proved to be a real issue for us.
  • Sadly my biggest concern is will I be able to find (or make) a bathroom when I need it, and will I be able to balance myself for long enough to be able to use it once I do?
    • Yes! Through the combination of West Africa’s colonial heritage (many of our accommodations had western toilets), my B.W.I. travel diet, the revelation that I could place my hands on the walls for balance while squatting, and the grace of God all potentially disastrous (ok, embarrassing) situations were avoided.
  • What will those priceless memories turn out to be that will make all of the difficulties seem insignificant?
    • Well below are the…

Top Ten things I loved about West Africa:

10. West Africans don’t smell bad, which is critical when you are packing 12 people into 7 seat cars.

9. Eating locally made sweetened yogurt from the Super Marche while watching American Forces Network PSAs.

8. Fresh baked baguettes and oranges are for sale everywhere and cost less than a quarter.

7. People let you sit (or in one case nap) anywhere while you are waiting for public transportation to be filled or repaired.

6. Senegalese food! Yassa Poulet, Theibou Diene, and the push pop flavored sour milk are all worth tracking down here at home.

5. Sticking my head out the window of a crowded taxi like a dog, listening to my MP3 player while the wind (and occasionally a branch) pounds my face.

4. Hassan Bah, and his unforgettable hikes around Doucki to Indiana Jones World, Chutes and Ladders, and Wet ‘n Wild.

3. Riding in a lorry and watching sept places fly by us only to have us lumber past them fifteen minutes later when they break down.

2 (tie). Listening to the Mar Lodj choir sing in the Senegalese church where I took communion.

2 (tie). The hospitality shown to us by Maimouna as what she offered us to drink cost more than what we had gone to her house to repay her in the first place.

1. Hiking in the opposite direction of the lumo traffic, conversing with people on the way to the Mali-ville market in the morning and then greeting them again in the evening as we all returned home.

Top 10 things I didn’t need in West Africa:

10. Sleeping pad: There was always some sort of mattress or pad to sleep on and whenever I might have used it as a seat or something to lie down on while waiting by the roadside… it was packed tightly on the roof of the car.

9. Bandanas: Brought two on the advice of Mark Moxon’s travel blog and never unpacked either (at least they were light).

8. Tape Adapter: I had naïve visions of Chris and I sitting in a taxi headed across West Africa and using this to listen to my MP3 player through the car speakers. I figured we could convince the driver to let us pick the music… I hadn’t counted on the other 10 people in the taxi…

7. French Lectures: Once it became clear Chris’s Wolof and French would be more than I could hope to provide language wise it sort of defeated the purpose of listening to these which took up space on my MP3 player that I could have used for more music.

6. Dress clothes: I never unpacked the pants and only wore the shirt because it was what I had on my back when I landed in Dakar without my luggage.

5. A ridiculous excess of bug spray, sunscreen and hand sanitizer: I brought 30 ounces of bugspray and used less than 2, 20 ounces of sunscreen and used 4, 17 ounces of hand sanitizer and used 1 ounce. The amount used even included both Chris and I on occasion. Hopefully Danielle, who took much of it off my hands in Doucki, found them more useful.

4. Garbage bag: I never needed to put this over my pack and the one day I put it over my day pack… well see number 1 below.

3. French Dictionary: I used it once (including the time I was on my own in Dakar). Chris and I looked up the word Malin (clever) out of curiousity while reading a Skol billboard once. Interactions were far too dynamic to bother trying to use the book, yet I carried it around in my Camelbak virtually every day just in case.

2. Dig-It Shovel: In hindsight this was easily the most absurd item I brought. Digging a hole if I needed to take a dump on the side of the road is just completely out of touch with West African culture. Thankfully I never had to use the roadside, but if I had I realized almost from the first day that I wouldn’t be digging a hole.

1. Pocketknife: Not only did I never put this to any good use despite carrying it around with me the entire trip, but it caused actual harm to bring along. Trying to cut the duct tape off my garbage back covered Camelbak the knife instead closed right on my finger and made a fairly deep cut (thanks go out to fingernails for keeping it from going deeper). The good news is that it was so useless that I’d never actually used the knife so it was completely sterile when it cut me.

Top Ten things I’m glad I had in West Africa:

10. Adventure Medical Kit: The gauze and ample supply of band-aids was handy when I sliced my finger open with my pocket knife.

9. Haircut: The shortest haircut since my sophomore year of college (when I briefly had the nickname “hedgehog”) was perfect for low maintenance travel in West Africa.

8. Sleeping bag: The +55 travel sack was my cocoon in some questionable bedding situations. It also meant I only needed bug spray on my face at night.

7. Everyday wardrobe: Ex officio shirts, Columbia zip off pants, Keen Newport H2 sandals. I wore them virtually every day and quickly established homes for all my essentials in the clothes. Back left velcro pocket = toilet paper packet, back right zippered pocket = loose change pocket, front right zippered mini-pocket = hotel room key, front right zippered inner shirt pocket = passport wallet. I’m particularly happy for the zippered inner shirt pocket because my wallet stayed safe even when my change pocket was pilfered. Plus the clothes dried quickly and didn’t smell (much… that I know of).

6. Camera: My Canon Powershot A710IS. Took AA batteries which was critical since I had almost no access to electricity all month (used about 14 total). Also had a working viewfinder which allowed me to frame shots once the LCD was crunched. Purchased specifically for the trip from Costco which turned out to be the most important part of all because you can return electronics there for 90 days for any reason whatsoever (like a busted LCD screen).

5. Moleskine and Zebra Pens: Compact and sturdy tools for recording my thoughts and activities on the trip (which served as the basis for much of the above entries). West African travel offers plenty of down time and I loved having these readily accessible to take advantage of that.

4. MP3 Player: Creative Muvo 2GB turned out to be the perfect choice. I got the advertised 18 hours of playback on a single AAA battery, and had enough music to make the long travel days enjoyable.

3. Camelbak: The perfect day pack. 3 liter pouch gave me enough water for any travel day and meant I had bottled water everywhere except for the end of the week in Doucki. It also held all my essentials (sunscreen, bugspray, MP3 player, Moleskine, camera, medical kit, rain jacket, Immodium and malaria pills). Most important though was that every travel day I would strap it to my front and in addition to providing access to water and essentials, it served as the perfect pillow for me to rest my chin on and nod off.

2. Immodium: One way I know it was important is that it was one of the only things that Chris asked to borrow. And given that my number one apprehension coming in had been finding a bathroom (I’d have been even more apprehensive if I’d known I’d be packed in bush taxis for hours on end) I’ve got to credit this with making that a non-issue.

1. Chris: Seriously, Chris should be the entire top ten list and then some if these reasons were weighted proportionately. I’d have never gone nor made it through without him and I can’t thank him enough for making this possible (Thanks again Chris!). He setup the itinerary, handled virtually all of our communication (including: ensuring I didn’t inadvertently get married, that I didn’t get accosted by an angry mob of peddlers who I foolishly photographed, and negotiated a reasonable price for souvenirs and for my oversized bag on every taxi trip), gave me the opportunity to meet his host family, to visit a family compound outside Ndangane, to see the inside of Maimouna’s house, to get rejuvenated in the Tamba Peace Corps house, to visit the U.S. Embassy in Guinea and to spend a week relaxing with an ocean view in Conakry (through his friendship with Kevin). None of the rest of this matters without Chris. All I can say is: This trip is gonna be great :-p