Saturday, July 30, 2005

Picture from Elephant Safari in Gabon

I never got a chance to write this little adventure up. Maybe I will someday. Until then, there are at least some pictures. I just liked this fruit stand.

This is a forest elephant. It is fairly little for an elephant, about the size of a minivan, but the most deadly for humans. I think this is because they look cute. They are highly aggressive though. Which we found out when taking this picture. They are also loud.Very large snake in the grass.
I actually road in this van with theh manioc after getting stranded on teh Gabon-Congo border for a couple days. It is a really long story...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Very much not dead: a calm week in paradise

Just as the blender masters at Smoothie King are always able to get just the right amount of bananas, strawberries and yogurt to make an Angel Food the best tasting thing in the world on a hungover Sunday morning ride to Long Island, Sao Tome exists as an ideal blend of the Caribbean, Africa and Portugal to break up an at times arduous journey in Central Africa.

Sao Tome and Principe are a pair of small small islands off the West coast of Africa in the Atlantic. The second smallest country in Africa and only 30 years independent from Portugal, they couldn´t find the beaten path with a GPS. The people are completely guileless and incredibly helpful, and the scenery is beautiful. Even the Nigerians here are honest, one drove us in from the airport for free!

So we set up camp here in Sao Tome town. We rented a little house and a motorcycle (though we never did figure out the Portuguese word for "helmet"). The house came with a dog named Jimmy. Jimmy isn´t very smart and likes to bark. But other than that the house is great. It is an old colonial right on the beach. 15 foot high ceilings, two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen, porch, bathroom bigger than most of my college dorm rooms, if only it were in Boston... We have spend the days scuba diving (hanging out with sea turtles and sharks and whatnot) and running around the island on the bike. The coastal roads are incredible, jungle rising on one side, black sands beaches with crashing waves on the other, twists and turns the whole way. Little villages to stop and eat bivalve brochettes (and bananas). Climbing up the mountain to the old overgrown plantations. (Historical background: The Portuguese found these volcanic islands uninhabited and completely covered in jungle in 1480-something. They landed, looked around, said looks good, go get the slaves, and started clearing the land for plantations. They cleared about 25% of it and started growing coffee, cocoa, vanilla, sugar cane, etc. When the Sao Tomeans got there independence - in 1975 - they looked around, said looks good, high fived Karl Marx, and nationalized everything. At which time the Portuguese left and the jungle came back. Things have since swung back the capitalist direction, greatly helped by the discovery of oil.)

The scuba diving has been great. It isn´t the best in the world, but there are NO other divers. In addition to the usual assortment of little colorful things, there are big sand sharks (6 feet or so long) and sea turtles.

Other than that not too much is new. We hang out with the small expat community here (they are SO excited to have someone new to talk to here) and go to their parties. We went to the American party. Boring. I forgot how dull these things can be in countries where proselytizing isn´t punishable with something primeval. The ambassador gave some long and boring speech because the crew of the USS Bear - some Coast Guard boat we sent over here - was in town to help "preserve the Sao Tomean and Principean national integrity" - layman´s translation - keep the Nigerians´ fucking hands off the oil that rightly belongs to Chevron.

That's pretty much it. I am headed back to the mainland tomorrow to look for gorillas. I will be home in less than two weeks.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Almost Dead: Malaria and Shots Fired

Your heroine had a long couple days since the last message, but all is well now. I am in Libreville, Gabon, a majorly developed city on part with Dakar, with a belly full of speghetti carbonara, a working keyboard and soon plane tickets to a remote island nation with excellent scuba diving. Things are looking up.

We decided to head overland out of Pointe Noire up through Congo to Gabon. The first leg of the journey was a 5 hour train ride from Pointe Noire to Doulisi. The train was supposed to leave at 9 am, but as it was the maiden voyage of a new route, they didn't want it to be late and changed the departure time to noon. This decision was announced at 10:30. The train left at 1. The trip itself was comfortable enough. The train wasn't crowded and the surrounding countryside was incredible. There was a little excitement about an hour into the trip though, with a quick blast of automatic weapon fire rattling through. Matt and I ducked a little until the shooting stopped, then I went back to quietly shivering in the corner from the mild case of malaria I had picked up in Brazzaville. What happened is that the train was full of Klashnikov-armed gendarmes that were supposed to fight off any invading Ninjas or Cobras that might happen to drop by. Basically they just waved their guns around a lot and acted like big men. Anyway, there was some poor bastard kid, maybe 19 or so, that didn't have enough money for the trip, so he tried to give the guards all he had as a bribe to ride to Brazzaville. He was unsuccessful. The guard yelled at him for a while, and when he didn't seem to be getting the message they shot off a couple rounds to make their point. Happily they were shooting off the train not at it as we originally feared. An old guy on the train took up a collection among the passengers to pay the rest of the kid's ticket / bribe and that seemed to solve things. And we went on our merry way.

We spent the night in a Protestant mission in the dying town of Doulisi. It must have been important at one point in the colonial era, with more French-built buildings than a number of Africa capitals I have been in, but that time is long past and the city is quietly and sadly crumbling. Goats and chickens inhabit the ruins of the former Hotel Intercontinental, circa 1950. In the morning we went to the garage to find a ride north. We were about 250 km (150 miles) from the border and hoped to be there that afternoon. The only vehicle heading that way was a massive camion loaded to the gills with cases of beer, sacks of flour and hundreds of people. Okay, hundreds is an exaggeration, but more than 100. Matt and I watched the mad scramble to get into the back, with people kicking and puching to get the best spots on top of the beer crates and long the side wooden benches, and that included a 70 something year old man using his cane to fight people off as he climbed the side of the truck and tried to squeeze between the wooden slats. It was the most disgusting expression of human nature I have come across in all my years on the road. Matt and I paid and extra couple dollars and sat up front with the driver and a nasty little woman who kept telling us how miserable she was and how a truck had crashed on the same route last week killing 5 people.

The ride took 19 hours. The overloaded truck crawled along the road, having to offload all its passangers every couple hundred meters to get across a rough patch in the road and then load everyone back on. People would get bored and climb down off the top to stand on the running board and talk to Matt and I. Just disembodied heads trying to speak English. Then there were the police check points where drunken officials got endly pleasure out of hassling the two whities and trying to get us to pay bribes. (My favorite dealing with these idiots was the guy that demanded "proof of tourism." We offered to show him vacation photos.) Eventually they car got tired of dealing with this and would send someone in with us to brow beat the official into hurrying up. One official tried to get cute at 3 am and demand to offload the entire truck full of luggage to get to our bags and search them because we would buy him another drink. When he told this to the ensemble at the car, they ran him off in three languages.

Eventually we got to the border, and despite the fact that we wouldn't give the guy any whiskey (it was 6 am for god's sake), we crossed into Gabon. The next 12 hours were spent on three different taxi brousses making our way north and fighting with border guards. Things got a bit easier though as most people assumed we were Peace Corps volunteers. We got to Lambréné just after sunset. Matt heard the word "Sofitel" and we were on our way to hot showers and grilled gazelle for dinner.

Lambréné was a nice little tropical island town. It was where Albert Switzer had his hospital. We spent in after the previous sleepless night and spent a quiet day sightseeing. This morning we headed up to Libreville. The only thing of note was that as soon as we crossed the Equator, from winter to summer, it immediately switched from dry season to wet season, and started raining. Bizarre.

So, depite the shooting, and the malaria, which despite being mild is something I would not recommend to anyone any time soon, we are having a good time. Gabon is filled with Gabonese and Chinese people. The Gabonese living in the forest and the Chinese cutting it down. We are heading out on Sunday to Sao Tome for a week, a nice little tropical island off the African coast, so that should be less stressful.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Still in Congo, Still not Dead

I am now in the oil boom town of Pointe Noire on the Atlantic Coast of the country. Matt and I flew down from Brazzaville on Friday. That was a trial. We wanted to take the train. It is a 24 hour ride through what is supposed to be some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, but due to "rebel activity" whiteys aren't allowed to ride right now. You see there are two rival heavily armed militias that control the Pool region which surrounds Brazzaville and they support themselves by ripping off trains. Straight out of the Wild West huh? It gets better though. The names of the two groups are the Ninjas and the Cobras. So basically it is like an old episode of GI Joe without the good guys. There are soldiers, but if they don't get paid on time, they rip off trains too. Resulting in gun battles as to who gets to rip off the train. So we decided to fly. The airport if the 7th circle of hell. It took 3 hours of wringling and writhing through the unwashed masses to register for a 40 person flight. The plane was of course something old and Russian. We were a little worried about the condition after the mess that flew us from Freetown to Conakry, but the other option, as I mentioned, involved battling Ninjas. But as soon as we got on, everything was copasetic. The interior of the plane was completely covered in faux suede black and white cow print. The magazine holders were leoperd print and the curtains and head rests fire enginge red. It looked like the set of a hip kitchen show. How can you worry about crashing down in a ball of flames in the Congolese jungle when there are faux suede cow seats to pet? After our arrival we have pretty much hung around with the sister of a firend ouf ours from Nouakchott, exploring the town and surrounding countryside. Tomorrow we are heading out to the bush, so hopefully we will have more interesting stories about gorillas next time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In Congo, Not Dead

For all those who where convinced that I would be killed upon arrival in Congo, you fears, once again, are unfounded. Matt and I left Nouakchott on Monday night, flew to Bamako, where we had a six hour layover, from 1 am to 7 am, hanging out in the airport parking lot, smoking cigarettes, eating cookies. Then we flew down to Brazzaville. The trip was one of the better ones on African airlines, Matt knows people so we got bumped up to 1st on both legs, and he got to ride in the cockpit during takeoff. The father in law of one of our friends in Nouakchott met us at the airport and took us to a hotel. All is well.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Out of Sierra Leone in the Whirly-Bird

So I just got back form a vacation in Guinea and Sierra Leone. (That sentence is a complete lie. I got back almost a month ago, but I have been so busy that I haven't gotten a chance to finish this thing.)

There is a joke in the State Department about why they so heavily recruit former Peace Corps volunteers. For example, tell a normal person that they are going to have to spend two years in Ethiopia, they blanche a bit. Tell that to a former Peace Corps volunteer and they will likely respond, "cool!" Tell that same normal person that there has been a change of plans and they will actually be going to Liberia, their resume will be on by time you finish the sentence. The former Peace Corps volunteer pumps their fist in the air and says, "Even better!" Perhaps this partly explains what prompted us to decide to vacation in the one of the poorest and the recently strife-torn poorest countries in the world.

Eventually we did take off from Nouakchott for the hour and a half flight south to Conakry, arriving late Saturday afternoon. Taking one look at the breeding pestilence that is Conakry, we had wanted to go hiking right away, but were stuck in the capital until we could get our visas sorted out. There is a consulate in Nouakchott, but, despite the fact there are direct flights between the two cities 4 times a week, it has been out of visa stickers for three months, so we got a promissory letter and they took our passports at the airport. We decided to spend the next day on the Isles de Los, the beachy islands about an hour's pirogue ride outside of the city. [Editor's note: Pirogues are traditional wooden canoes with motor boat engines slapped on the back. They are found throughout Africa and are universally leaky.] The docks are notorious for hustlers scamming tourists, but we fell in with the "right" company fairly quickly. There were two American contractors there with a group of their workers. They apparently work six day weeks on the new US Embassy, and then go out to the islands to blow off steam on Sundays. Ray and Tony apparently make an ungodly amount of money, as they had no problem paying an ungodly amount of money for the pigoguier's services. In addition, they speak not a word of French or any other the local languages, and are about as ugly as Americans can be abroad. They cursed at the boat master. "%&$* you! I give you too much money last week! Me no payee more understandee?" The boat master cursed at them. For about an hour. Each. But they took us along for free, happy to have someone to speak English with, and to perhaps translate all the things that people have been saying to them all these weeks. We loaded up the leaky boat with the four of us, plus 10 or so of the Guinean construction staff, a couple beautiful but disconcertingly young girls, one guy with long dreads and a spliff permanently attached to the side of his mouth, and a couple of inexplicable Turks, that spoke only Turkish and were deathly afraid of the water. Matt and I ditched the circus as soon as we hit shore, enjoying the day in the sun on island, then caught a ride back with these clowns. Rasta, the dreadlocked character, ran out of smoke and promptly fell asleep. We hit a wave and one of the Turkish guys through himself across the boat to avoid getting wet, directly into me, just about sending us both overboard. Everyone yelled at each other in languages that they couldn't understand. And a good time was had by all. Did I mention it was free?

An interesting tidbit about transportation in Guinea (and Sierra Leone). Did you ever wonder what happened to your beloved school bus for grade school? Where is good ol' St. Pat's Bus F these days? Well let me tell you. They are plying the roads of West Africa, filled to capacity with people and livestock and baggage. Roof racks have been soddered to the top and the sides plastered with Bob Marley and Madonna stickers. Yes, City of Manchester, Middle Valley Union Free, Plainbrooke, your buses are here. Just in case you cared.

Next day we settled the visa problems, got our visas for Sierra Leone (a bargain at $100 each, payable in hard currency only please), and generally made plans to head up-country the next day. We found what we gambled was a respectable guide at the tourist office, and made plans to depart the next morning. It was a cramped and not surprisingly uncomfortable ride up to Pita, where we spent the night. Pita is a town of traditional weavers and pygmy goats, neither of which were all that keen on getting their picture taken. Next morning we grabbed a ride out of town about an hour, our guide riding on the roof of the car because the driver wouldn't let him smoke, and started walking. The first day was about two hours, nothing to strenuous. We arrived at the village where we would spend the night and were shown to our quarters. We were staying in the home of a prosperous villager living in France. You could tell they were prosperous by the number of pots in the bedroom. [Editor's note: A common wedding gift if a set of pots and dishes for the new couple, not unlike the United States. They have yet to adopt our bridal registry system yet though, so everyone just kinda brings pots. The more people at you can afford to invite to your wedding, the more pots you get. The more prosperous people you know, the more pots they can afford to give.] It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland, floor to ceiling, everywhere stacked with brightly colored pots. It was a little disconcerting to sleep in. You felt like the pots were watching you. That and it was filled with mosquitoes from the screenless windows. That afternoon we hiked around a bit, seeing the natural rock bridge and some large waterfalls. It felt so good to be in a place where there was more to look at than endless frigging sand dunes.

Next day we hiked over to a little village about two hours away, spending the afternoon hanging out in a traditional hut, which was pretty much all the village had to offer. It was nice, perfectly round and made of smooth mud, with a high conical thatched roof. And lots and lots of really really big spiders living in said thatch. I have to admit I wasn't too upset when the guide decided to move along to spend the night. We headed out across the fields to the next village. Upon leaving the village we had to cross one of the many little rivers in the region. On a bamboo-vine bridge – straight out of a Tarzan movie. Two metal cables are run between trees on opposite sides on the river, about 20 feet off the ground. Then vines are tied to the cables in a v-shape, spaced about six feet apart. Bamboo is then used to connect the vine loops, forming a bridge. The problem is
that the bamboo is just sort of piled there, not attached in anyway. So you gingerly picked you way across, reaching from vine to vine, hoping to god that the bamboo doesn't move under your feet while you are reaching for the next vine, sending you plunging to the river below. This was frightening.

We arrived at the next village for a "surprise" wedding. Apparently some tourists get a kick out of these things. Matt and I felt intrusive, largely because the chief of the village had a meltdown when he saw us. But the guide wanted to drink and dance, so we ate our rice and went to bed early in our little mud house. And slept about 20 minutes due to noise. Also fun in this village is that I got to shower in an open field. Everyone baths in the river and I was having none of that, so I got a bucket of cold river water and a field. Price you pay for being picky.

Next day's hike was beautiful but brutal. I am not a hiker-person and it was bleeping hot out. The "highlight" of the day though was crossing yet another bamboo bridge, this one in a much more deteriorated state. I have to admit, this is the most scared I have been on a backpacking trip – I think ever. The bridge was higher. The bamboo was only one 3 inch thick piece in the middle, and even that was badly splintered. I held on to the cables and vines quite literally for my life as I crossed. I was shaking pretty badly when I hit the other side. When we came to the one we had crossed the day before I just about skipped across, it seeming so sturdy in comparison. If my life were a movie, this definitely would have been a good time to contract a stunt double.

And on we went, back to Pita, back to Conakry, spending the night before setting out the next day for Sierra Leone.

We got a bush taxi for Freetown. The trip was uneventful enough, only one flat and we got across the border in less than three hours. Coming into Sierra Leone was interesting though. We cross the Guinea border and drive a few kilometers down the road. There we came to a hand-painted sign (not unlike the ones that would be on a childhood clubhouse) and a tent. The sign said, "Welcome to Sierra Leone." We walked into the tent. There were two men in uniform with guns taking down passport information. These guys were, um, a bit off. Bulging eyes, twitchy, spoke only in halting sentence at full volume. Definitely not good candidates for decommissioning. One of them took our passports and shouted at us, "Why are you here?" We responded, "We are tourists." They looked at us funny. Finally the first guy asked, "Tourists? Can you spell that for me?" As we walked out Matt turns to me and asks, "So do you think they are naturally crazy or just fucked up from all the people they killed?" Dunno brother. We repeated the process three times as we traveled down the road. Have to do something with the former soldiers I guess.

And I really thought vacationing in the poorest country in the world wouldn't bother me much. I lived for two years in the third poorest, had already been in the second poorest, how much worse could it possible be. Ooh. The feeling was slightly similar to arriving in Burkina on the first day of Peace Corps. The sheer level of poverty was disorientating. As far as I can tell, the country is largely constructed of razor wire and tarps from the UNHCR. All of the children are underfed, their hair red from advanced malnutrition. It was the kind of thing that makes you re-examine your priorities. I am at the point with my dealing with the third world were I want a laminated badge and a minister to talk to about increasing direct foreign investment through regulation reform. This place made me want to hop out of the bush taxi, ask directions to the nearest functioning school (which judging by the state of the infrastructure, might have been a healthy walk), and start teaching. Anyone. Anything. I couldn't make the place much worse.

So we arrived in Freetown as the sun was going down. There is no electricity in the city so the whole place was lit with lamp and torch light. It looked eerily like a medieval kingdom as you looked at the flickering lights climbing the hillsides. Except for the NGO and UN residences, glowing brightly in fluorescent light. We checked into a little guesthouse, with an armed guard, a generator bigger than the apartment I had been living in in New York and enough razor wire to intimidate Sing-Sing. Home sweet home.

The next day we looked around town. The place was swelteringly hot and the mid afternoon rain did nothing to break up the humidity. We registered at the American embassy and went out in search of the sights. There were a couple of aging relics from the colonial period (which, when put in the context of the rest of the crumbling infrastructure, are completely unidentifiable without a guidebook.) There is a big tree. An earnest but sad little museum. That is pretty much it. We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find a new hotel (there had been some sort of altercation outside our room the night before and we were seeking greener pastures.) We went to the two largest (and according to the guidebook, nicest) hotels in town, but they had been converted to camps for the UN troops monitoring the ceasefire. There was a sole-less Chinese built monstrosity, but you can't blame them too much, they were working with the remains of the rebel hilltop strong-hold. We might have even stayed there too had they not explained their credit card billing system as being routed through the First National Bank of Zimbabwe. Eventually we found an overpriced but nice enough place on the beach-edge of town. We made plans to move there soon.

The next day, however, we were bound for the beach. We caught a taxi out to the supposedly best known resort on the Freetown Peninsula. We got there to no guests, no staff except for a bartender, and a bunch of people hanging around trying to either sell us things or be our friends, neither of which we were particularly interested in. Apparently the staff was off at a funeral in a neighboring village but we could wait a while. So we sat on the beach until it started pouring. Then we caught a bus back to town, arriving at the hotel hours later, soaked, cranky and frustrated.

Next day it was all about the chimpanzees. We went to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Reserve. It is a home for chimps that have been too screwed up by humans to return to the wild. Getting there wasn't too bad. We took a mini-bus about 10 kilometers from the middle of town (while might as well have been 1000 for all the infrastructure out there), and walked the last 4. The chimps are in large sanctuaries blocked off by electrical fencing. They looked happy enough. We puttered around with the tour guide for about an hour, listening to the care that they gave them, how they got them, how many they had, etc., and took pictures of the happy monkeys. As we came to last enclosure, the guide warned us that this group had an Alpha-Male named Bruno and he could be a little surly, so pay attention. We were snapping away, not paying too much attention, when this MONSTER monkey comes charging out of the forest. The thing was the size of a gorilla. Holy shit. He jumps up on a stump and raises his arm to throw a rock at us. The guide yells, "Bruno! No! Nice people! No rock Bruno! Nice people! Tourists!" Bruno glares at us again, then throws down the rock like a pissed off three year old. A tense moment passed. He folded his arms. We went back to taking pictures.

The next few days were uneventful. We hung around the city, which was a truly beautiful stop, surrounded by lush green mountains. It will be a hell of a tourist destination in a few years, if they every rebuild the infrastructure. We went back out to the beach, in nicer weather this time. Hung out by the pool. Relaxed. Took pictures of the signs outside things like hospitals and nightclub saying, "No Arms Allowed Inside," with pictures of Klasnikovs with red lines painted through them. As we were checking out of the hotel a few days later, the Hungarian manager comes up to say goodbye. He asks what we had been doing here. We explained that we were tourists. He looks at us incredulously and tells us that in his 10 months of managing the biggest hotel in Sierra Leone, we are his first tourists.

Then it was time to go back to Guinea. We decided to fly back, as driving took 10 hours with no major mishaps. Now the only way to get to the airport in Freetown is by helicopter. I shit you not. So, at 7 am we are at the UN compound to take the helicopter to the airport. There are large numbers of people milling around. There is a guy playing the balophone. Kids are selling snacks. There is a guy in a clown costume trying to explain helicopter safety to people. No one is listening to him. About 15 people at a time fit into the copter, and it takes off straight up over the city. The windows open so you can reach out and take pictures of the city and surrounding countryside. It was really frigging cool.

The plane was less cool. The airline was some less than reputable Lebanese outfit. The plane was old and Russian. The pilots were the same. I hoped to god they were sober. Everything was written in Cyrillic script. There was no safety briefing. No cabin staff. No ventilation (the cabin reeked of mildew), but not to worry, because the seals on the windows were so loose, you could see the water vapor streaming in as we passed through the clouds. But we didn't die, so that's okay.

Then back to Guinea for the night and back to Nouakchott. It was good to be back in the desert.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

I'm not even supposed to BE here today...

So I am supposed to be on vacation. For the last couple weeks I have been burning it at both ends, traveling around the country, working on my economics until all hours, getting up before 8 every day (which for an independent researcher might as well be sunrise). All for the purpose of going on vacation. Two weeks in the green of Guinea and

Sierra Leone. Hiking, beach, no sandstorms, seafood served grilled on every street corner and not a frigging camel for miles. Doesn't get any better than that. Matt and I bought tickets two weeks ago. I was dancing on air all day, running around in the 105+ degree heat doing errands all morning, and I didn't care. Bags packed. Off we go to the airport. There is no one at the airport. No flights today. Huh? We have tickets to Conakry. We think we screwed up the day or the time and double check the tickets. Nope. Air France has sold us nearly $500 of phantom airfare. There are tickets yes, but the flight does not exist. Sorry. Bitch that it isn't refundable. Have a nice day, if you could just move along please.

So we go down the Air France office, which closed because it is Friday afternoon in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I calmly but deliberately explain the situation to the guard at the gate. It is the same tone my mother uses about three seconds before she flips out at the car rental / bank / concierge. He got the message and found perhaps the only woman in Mauritania not praying to help us. Yup. We sold you a ticket for a flight that doesn't exist. Sorry about that. There is a flight tomorrow. You can try to get on that one. Good luck. Have a nice day, if you could just move along please. So I am still in Nouakchott, bag packed. Maybe we'll go tomorrow.

I don't really have too much to complain about though. I went to Dakar last weekend. Where they have good food and beer. And Matt flew me down. Literally. He is taking flying lessons so he and I and his flight instructor and his flight instructor's girlfriend took a 4 seater Piper down to Dakar. The little planes are lots more fun to fly in that than the big ones, although the take offs and landing are a little hair raising when your pilot has only about 15 hours of flying time. The desert looks incredible at sunset as you fly over.

Other than that, not too much is going on here. Mauritania is hot and the sand storm season has started. Picture blizzards of sand. You have to pull over on the road. Duck into the nearest building. They are awful. And they accompany the coming of the heat. Super.

One other little story that I got a kick out of. A couple weeks ago Matt and I are were in a restaurant. We had ordered our food. As the waiter returned with our drinks, the transformer where the electricity enters the restaurant exploded. White sparks all over the place, followed by flames and thick black smoke as the cable burned. All less than 10 feet from where we were sitting. Neither of us got up. Matt lit a cigarette. The waiter put down our drinks and beat out the fire. We sat in the pitch black of the smoke filled restaurant for a full five minutes talking about what to do. Should we leave? But he already brought our drinks. Yeah, but the food is going to take forever if the power is out. Yeah, alright. Let's go. When I told this story to my mother over the phone, she was a little bit distressed. Kristen Anne, I don't care how long you've lived in Africa. If the restaurant is on fire, leave. I know Mom, but he had already brought our drinks. She just didn't see it my way.

That is pretty much all for now. We are leaving tomorrow, insh'allah. (If it is the will of Allah) Though I don't think Allah is going to be on our side tomorrow. There are supposed to be Islamist demonstrations (which interestingly enough follows the disappearance of a weapons cache). The UN and EU have their people on lock down.

Embassy still thinks we are okay, so we are heading out. The Islamists are pissed because two weeks ago the government changed the weekend from Friday and Saturday, the weekend of the Prophet, to Saturday and Sunday, the weekend of the Infidel. All because the new big dog in town wanted them to, Woodside Petroleum Export Company.

They printed the announcement in Wednesday's paper that the upcoming weekend would be changed. Have a nice day. Now Woodside isn't really interested in working in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. But since this is where the oil is, they have asked the government to change the name. So the government is in the process of changing the name to the Democratic Republic of Mauritania. And while you are at it, could you repeal those pesky temperance laws? No problem sir. (Mauritania could be a lot more interesting when I get back in a couple weeks.) Anyway, long story short, Islamists are a little perturbed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Pictures from Mauritania

Most of you have seen this picture of me before in a traditional mulufah. I used it for my Christmas card a couple years ago.
Mauritanian mothers had a little more street cred when they insist that you clean your room.
Camels and sand and camels and sand and camels and sand and about half the total number of trees in the country.
More camels.
Me on a cliff in front a town that is (was) actually home to a Peace Corps volunteer. It was in the holy mother-loving middle of no where. And there was no beer.
Same town, still sad.
Lamb. A popular dish at many upscale Mauritanian restaurants.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Eatin' Camel and Ridin' Ore

So when we last left off, I was waiting for my buddy from the States to come visit so I could see some of the highlights of this sandbox on the sunny side of hell that I currently call home. Mauritania has exactly 1 tourists attraction, the village of Chuingetti in the northeast. Figured I might as well check it out.

Josh arrived only 3 hours late, as opposed to my 3 days. Unfortunately for me, that meant he for in at 4:30 am. Not to many taxis around at that time of night, but I convinced a couple of gendarmes to take me down to the airport in their pickup. Yes, that is as sketchy and stupid as it sounds, but the other alternative was to walk 2 miles in the pitch black by myself to the outskirts of town.

After a day and a bottle of Senegalese whiskey to recover from the traveling we both had just done, we set off for the northlands. The trip from the capital to the main city in the northeast was uneventful. The only interesting part is that the Paris-Dakar rally was zipping though Mauritania at that point, road in the opposite direction was dotted with tricked out, logo covered 4x4s speedingsouth. That was sort of neat. We spent the night at the Peace Corps volunteer's house in Atar, and set off the next morning for Oudane.

Now Oudane has a reputation for being a place that is difficult to get in and out of. It is a desert oasis, set high in the rocky cliffside, literally 100 miles from anything and everything else. The two volunteers that live there just needed 3 days to find a ride in. Josh and I lucked out. In less than an hour we were perched on top of a supply pickup headed to one of the guesthouses out there. Perched. On top of cases of soda, crates of vegetables, eggs, bread, you nameit. The truck started it's winding assent through the mountain pass to get to the desert beyond and eventually Oudane. The wind was freezing, as we were flying, so I laid down on the onions, pulled the drawstrings on the hood closed over my face, leaving only the pink sunburning tip of my nose sticking out, at rode out the bumpy 3 hours. Josh was a little less fortunate. He was on the edge of the truck, white knuckling it, as we spend around turns over sheer cliffs perhaps best described as abysses. And it seems that they ran out of moneybefore they put up guardrails. Oh well. No one died in the end.

When we finally got to Oudane, I was so covered in dust and sand from the trip, I looked like the Great Mummy rising from a thousand year sleep. But I dusted off, grabbed my pack, and set out to find a place to sleep. We checked with the volunteers and they recommended a guesthouse nearby. We rented a tent with full board, lunch was camel and noodles! We spent most of the afternoon playing cards and waiting for the tourist "guide" to show up. Apparently the Peace Corps had built a tourist center here a number of years ago, leaving this guy in charge of it. Eventually he did show up and took us on a quick soulless tour of the old city. It would have been hard to diminish the sights though. The old city dates from at least the 12th century, those are the oldest doors they have left. It is made of rocks fit tightly together and sealed with mud and set high in a cliff over looking the date palm oasis. Truly incredible. The guide led us around, then down through the gardens to the one room tourist center. It was nice. We were reading the signs about the history of Oudade when he spotted a 4x4 full of French tourists, and darted off after them. We hung out, waiting for him to bring us back. And waited. Eventually it started getting dark so we walked back up ourselves to find the volunteers for dinner. I guess the French are better tippers.

Next day the plan was to grab the first car out of town. After 2 hours of climbing up and down the cliffs to no avail, we decided to just camp out at the tourist office, conveniently next to the gendarme stop, until a ride came through. We played gin rummy for 4 hours, occasionally running out to stop a car and ask for a lift. The plan was to get a ride to the crossroads about 120 km down the road, then walk or hitch the rest of the way to Chuingetti. Apparently we looked dangerous because no one was interested in letting us near their trucks, tourists and farmers alike. Around 2 in the afternoon, salvation arrived. You remember that poor set of parents that I got delayed with for days heading incountry? Yup. With their daughter, in a pickup. Sure, no problem, we can give you a ride, we are headed there too. We leave at 5. Back to gin rummy for a few more hours.

In Chuingetti we ate, rented a tent and crashed out for the night. (What's for dinner? More camel!) Chuingetti is a whole different animal. She is the seventh holiest sight in Islam, as she served as the assembly point for West African crossing the desert to Mecca for the hadj. Everyone brought books there to study before the journey and eventually they were collected into a vast network of libraries. And it looks like the end of the earth. Beyond town there ain't nothing but dune until you hit the Nile. Sand dune after sand dune, nothing else. The next morning walked out into the dunes to see the sun come up. After breakfast, we picked up the volunteers in town and went to one of the libraries for a tour. The manuscripts were incredible. Dating back centuries, they had illuminated texts of the Koran, and algebra books complete with student's margin notes. After such an incredible cultural experience, there is only one thing left to do. Go dune boarding. One of the volunteers had acquired a snowboard from god knows where, so we threw it back in the pick and headed out of town to the largest dune. I have never snowboarded before, so I was a little nervous to say the least. I strapped my all-terrain sandals in and pushed off the crest of the 25 foot high sand dune. I made it all the way to the bottom before getting really scared, unsuccessfully attempting to sit down to stop, and getting a mouth full of sand as I tumbled to an eventual halt.

Then it was back to Atar, to spend another day reading and playing cards in preparation for the train. Now the fastest way between Atar in the northeast, and Nouadibou on the west coast is by train. The train that makes this run is the iron ore train coming from the mines in the north to the port on the coast. The train stops at a town called Choum, three hours north of Atar, for a few minutes beforeheading on. And there are three ways of riding this train. The first is the most expensive, renting a berth in the sleeping car at the end of the train. The second, slightly less expensive option, is buying a ticket for a seat in the passenger car. The third, and free option, is to climb on top on the iron ore and bed down for the freezing 12 hour ride, emerging black and covered in iron ore dust, but having alittle extra in your pocket. I will leave you to ponder the choice we make...

Meanwhile, we had to get to Choum. The taxi ride was the longest three hours of the trip, wedged in the corner over the wheel well. Then we get to Choum. This was hands down the most depressing town I have ever passed through. It looked straight out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. I filthy dusted down group of buildings, facing a dusty central square. People with rotting teeth, dressed in rags, begging for change. All it was missing where the zombies. Josh and I found two filthy mats in a dirty restaurant at the corner of the square to hang out for the 5 hours until the train. We ordered a plate, and got dry couscous with two piece of rotting fish. (Fish in and of itself scared the crap out of me. The nearestsource was 2 hours away, by helicopter.) So we, you guessed it, read and played gin rummy, eventually by candlelight, until just past 8 pm, when the train came.

That was an adventure in and of itself. Suddenly you hear a low whistle in the distance. Crap! The train stops for less than ten minutes, so you got to be on it. We throw everything in our bags and take off in a quick walk across the field separating us from the track. When the train stops I pull myself up the metal ladder and climb into the rocky, dusty pile of ore. Black clouds puff up as mysandals sink in. Josh climbs in and we start making preparation. We were in the first car behind the locomotive because we through it would be (a) cleaner, and (b) less likely to go off the track in the event of a derailment, which hadn't happened in almost a week anyway...) Josh dug out an indentation for us to sleep in while I covered myself head to toe in scarves and sweatshirt, socks and second pair of pants. I had even bought a cute little mid 80s Frenchy redand white ski parka. We wiggled into our sleeping bags, slide the bags into industrial size black garbage bags borrowed from the volunteer in Atar (who has made this trip 3 times), and settled in for the long, cold, long cold night.We arrive in Nouadibou looking straight out of those Depression Era photos of coal miners. We are Filthy. Our faces are black. Our teeth are black. Our hair is black. Everything is black. We call the volunteer there and go over to her place for a shower. Feeling a bit cleaner we try to get a flight back to Nouakchott. (Hey, don't roll your eyes at me. I just spent 12 hours on a pile of iron ore. I deserve it!) Which entailed sitting at the airport for a couple hoursuntil they told us we were shit out of luck. So back to town and lunch with the volunteers. Fortunately they knew this cute little Chinese brothel that served cold beer. After three of those I was feeling better about the impending 12 hour ride through the desert I had to look forward to that night.The ride was long. We got stuck once, requiring the assistance of another carload to dig the car out of the sand and get the sand out of the transmission. I sat the little adventure out. Listen gentlemen, if you don't have to shake my hand, I don't have to dig your car out. Fair's fair.

I did eventually end up pushing a couple times later that night when there were fewer hands on deck.We got back to Nouakchott just in time to sleep for a couple hours, do some last minute shopping, kill the last bottle of Senegalese whiskey, and get Josh on a plane back to NYC. In sh'allah.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

To Rabat Without Any Underwear On...

So after two (somewhat) idyllic weeks in the United States of America, on the evening of January 3rd, 2005, I set off for Mauritania. Mom helped me pack up, insisting on loading every square inch of extra space with granola bars and powdered milk for the seven long months until I return, then dropped me off at the airport. The plan was simple. I was to leave on Royal Air Maroc flight 201 from Kennedy to Casablanca, where I would have a 17 hour layover in which to putter around the city, then hop the flight down to Nouakchott, arriving safe and sound at 2:35 am on January 5th. Right.

At the airport I met up with three Peace Corps volunteers I knew serving in Mauritania. The flight was delayed so, as Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are known to do in periods of down time, we went to get a drink. Two hours and three double sized pints of Brooklyn Lager later, the waitress, who was nice enough to set up a radio link with our gate in case the plane decided to leave, informed us that the flight was cancelled and that we would be spending the night in a hotel. We joined Mr. And Mrs. Jackson of Hicksville, New York, who where on their way to visit their Peace Corps daughter in Mauritania, and armed with just our carry-on luggage (and no coat), we waited outside for the bus to the Holiday Inn. The hotel was straight out of Dante's Inferno. I don't know what the receptionists may have done in life, but it must have been bad, for now they worked at a hotel whose only clients are people whose flights have been cancelled. People were a little ticked off, to say the least. Myself and my fellow travelers were still a little zen about things at this point. We got our meal tickets and helped ourselves to the buffet, waited on line for free toothbrushes… Margaret and I were even lucky enough to get invited to a drink by two visiting Texans. The two guys approached us to chat as we were hanging around the lobby. They were staying in the hotel down the block but since it was without a bar, they had meandered down here. One of their opening lines was, man theHoJo's here are much classier than they are back in Houston. I replied that they had just confirmed every stereotype Northeasterns had about the South. We made polite conversation for a while but then left. Never accept bourbon from a man who may want to lure you back to a HoJo's. Moving on.

The airline was nice enough to narrow down our departure time to between 3 am and 3 pm on January 4th. Don't call them, they'll call us. The next morning I was awakened by the striking workers banging on their drums and firing up the fans to inflate the omni-present giant rat. I went down to fight for a place in the breakfast line with increasing annoyed group of people trying to get to Beijing. At1 pm, we headed out to the bus to the airport, still wearing the same clothes from yesterday. After only 3 and a half hours more delay, we were airborne, winging our way to Casablanca.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at 5 am, we discovered that we had missed our connection. The next flight wasn't for almost two days. They would be happy to put us up in the decaying beachfront palace of Hotel Azur for the interim. By this time we had picked up a seventh for our little group, Nathaniel, a college kid in a pressed shirt and a tie on his way to deliver computer equipment for the project he was working on. There were a couple other travelers with us, mostly boundfor Dakar, but as they were completely irritating, we ignored them. One was completely furious that they only had Lipton tea. She only drinks herbal. Have fun in Africa lady. They next days were spent wandering around the markets of Casa. Doing some light shopping and sampling whatever it was the street vendors were selling. On the second day we visited the mosque of King HassanII, third biggest in the world. It was brand new, not fully completed yet, with a retractable roof so people could worship in the sunlight in the summer. That certainly wasn't an option now. It had been in the 30s when we landed that morning, and warmed a little during the day, but not too much. Should have brought a coat. Since we had a couple hours to kill before headed back to the airport for our 11:50 pm flight, Margaret and I decided to go to the hammam. Longtime fans of these e-mails remember my hammam adventures in Hungary and Syria, but for the new folks in the house, a hammam is a traditional bath,mostly found in Islamic countries, where you strip down to your skivvies and get vigorously scrubbed. That is pretty much how it went. The scrubber-girl was a little nuts with her scrubbed and took about a pound of flesh off. I had a tan once. Then I moved over to the convex plastic soaping-board where I got my soapy massage. Now, I am covered in soap and the board is covered in soap, you know what that makes? An almost perfectly frictionless surface. And, as anyone who has ever played air hockey knows, you only need a little push togo flying. I was holding on for dear life as she rubbed my back. I was afraid that one strong push would send me skidding off the table and across the hammam floor, a little naked pink infidel missile.

The only problem with the hammam is that I still didn't have any extra clothes. (Yes I am still wearing the same things as when I left NYC.) And my underwear was soaked. No worries, I can go without. All I have to do is go back to the hotel, get my bags, and head to the airport. Which, once I had been reunited with my group of seven, is exactly was I did. On the bus to the airport I became a little concerned by the fact that the fog was so thick I couldn't see the other side of the road except for the vague glow of passing headlights. The scene at the end of Casablanca where they are at the airport and walk off into the mist? Yeah, not so good for air travel. When we get there they inform us that the flight has been re-routed, we have to go to Rabat. So we claim all of our luggage (not an easy feat given that Nathaniel has 300 pounds of computer equipment and the Jackson's have seven suitcases worth of school supplies for their daughter's village) and get on the bus with a bunch of other travelers headed to various African locals. At 9:45 we sent off to Rabat. Perhaps 45 minutes down the down, the driver gets a call on his cell phone. After some discussion in Arabic, we turn around and go back to Casablanca. After waiting around outside in weather cold enough to see my breath (I still only have a long sleeved cotton shirt on) to get through the security checkpoint, we get back into the airport. During this time, I will have to give this to you Mom, the granola bars came in handy. Everyone had two because no one had eaten dinner.

After finally getting inside, dragging everyone's luggage, the official tells us, hurry hurry up! You were supposed to be on the bus to Rabat! Back down through security and back onto the bus. Apparently only the passengers to Nouakchott were supposed to get on the bus, not those to Dakar. The Dakar people had mixed in, so we had to come back and let them off. At 12:50 am on January 7th, 2005, we set off again back to Rabat. The bus is freezing. And I am still not wearing any underwear. At just after 3 am we arrive in Rabat, and dothe speediest off load of luggage anyone has ever seen, get in line to clear immigration, and, praise be to Allah, out onto the tarmac were the plane is waiting engines on, to take me home. We arrive in Nouakchott around 6 am, in a frigging sandstorm of course, and I am back home and sweeping by 7:30.