A Travellerspoint blog

Week 53, 27.Feb.10 - 5.Mar.10

Axum, Ethiopia to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

View Week 53 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Axum, Ethiopia
Today Svenja and I joined another couple, John & Lidya, for a tour of sites outside Axum. We hired a minibus & guide Lion (?), and our first stop to visit was the Battlefield of Adwa, an important site where seriously under-armed Ethiopians thwarted an Italian attack in 1896.

We next headed to ruins of Yeha, birthplace of Ethiopian's earliest civilizations and first capital 3,000 years ago.

In the museum we were shown old crosses and bibles (once again, handled without gloves!).

Next stop was Debre Damo, ancient (10th c. AD) and still functioning monastery on top of a mountain that was built by the 9 Saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia.

To go visit, John and I (no women allowed) simply had to pay 50 Birr each for the monk to throw down a slightly-too-weathered-looking leather rope for us to climb up some 18 meters - eek!

Safely up on the mountain top our guide Lion woke up the monastery guardian, and while we waited for him to get up and get dressed (which was taking quite a while), were shown around. Went into the old bell tower,

then wandered to the water reservoirs (not looking very refreshing),

homes of the monks,

and cemetery (essentially a cave with exposed bones).

Back at the church the guardian showed us paintings and an ancient bible (no gloves), along with an incredible wooden ceiling carved with animals.

The climb back down was a bit more tense - had to climb out about 1 meter from the edge to grab the rope! Back down (safely) on the ground we joined the ladies and headed back on the road to Axum, passing bulls & donkeys being led to the markets in Enticcio. The restroom stop along the way was not the cleanest Svenja's ever used....

Shire, Ethiopia
And so, 365 days older and - I'd like to think - a bit wiser, from the day I left New York and the creature-comforts of stability, routine, HYGIENE, and, among many other things, income! I've covered 56 different countries spanning 5 continents; traveled over 101,000 kms by air, train, bus, car, truck, 3-wheeled carts, bicycle, boat, camel, horse, donkey and yes, my own 2 feet. I've definitely seen some amazing places, met loads of interesting people, been exposed sometimes (well, oftentimes) to unfriendly and harsh conditions - but totally rewarding and unforgettable. And since I've enjoyed this experience so much and felt that there are many other places I still want to see, I realized a while back that my initial plan of traveling for 1 year was going to be something more like 1 + years, and so here I am still traveling, looking forward to what tomorrow brings! Today Svenja and I checked out a few more sites in Axum - Queen of Sheeba's bath, where the local boys were having their daily(?) bath,

the twin tombs of Kings Haleb & Gebre Meskel,

and the very cool King Ezana's Pillar (stored in a shack with a padlocked door that some old man came to open for us). 4th c. Christian campaign inscriptions on each side in a different language (Sabaen, Ge'ez and Greek).

We took a bus from Axum here to Shire and checked into one of the dumpier hotels I've stayed in the past 365 days - dirty sheets, dirty room, no running water for shower, toilet or sink: I had to pour our bottled water for Svenja while she washed her feet after using the squatter toilet! I went to complain to the hotel manager who was trying to tell me (in Amharic) that there was jugs of water we could use for bathing - yeah, right. I was heading back to grab Svenja and move to a different hotel when the manager finally, reluctantly, said we could use the private shower behind the office. Good enough for us to stay, although after I returned from accompanying the boy who had to show passports to the police station for registering guests (random?), the office was locked so I had to step on chairs to climb over the gate in order to shower. Ahh, yes - the joys of traveling... no wonder I want to keep going!

Debark, Ethiopia
This morning in Shire Svenja and I were up before the dawn, got to the bus station and joined a hoard of people standing outside the locked gates in the dark. When it opened, the scene was total chaos - people running in every direction toward shouting ticket handlers yelling their destinations, standing by some 15-20 different parked busses with the headlights beaming out. We finally found our bus and got the uncomfortable back seat for the bumpy 9 hour ride,

but seeing some incredible views along the way,

here to Debark. Upon arrival, we were greeted repeatedly by seemingly every child in the village who ran up to stare at us (them: "Hello". us: "Hello". them: "Hello". us: "Hello" etc....). We went to the park office and organized a trek for tomorrow to the Simien mountains, now back in our hotel - pretty nice digs (well, at least compared to yesterday's gem...).

Simien Mountains (Sankaber camp site), Ethiopia
Early this morning Svenja and I headed out of Debark with our guide, armed scout, mule and mule handler into the Simien mountains - totally amazing views along the 23 km (fairly strenuous) trek to Sankaber camp site.

We saw plenty of birds - Svenja's call to one kind with the white head got a response,

huge eagles, and the funny looking black ones who float around with their legs down as if about to land, but never do....

After pitching the tent at the campsite, our guide took us another 5 km to the waterfall, which unfortunately was dry! Back the 5 km to the camp we met a Dutch couple who let us use their stove to heat up our gourmet dinner - canned corn and beans, leftover pasta and can of tuna for me. The temp is dropping - rapidly - so I'm getting set to build a fire, crack open a beer and relax!

Gondar, Ethiopia
Getting ready to crash here in Gondar - after the combined 56 km hike over the past 2 days, both Svenja and I are completely exhausted! We got up this morning at 05:30 after very few hours sleep last night in the cold tent, rounded up the guide, armed scout, mule and handler and headed back toward Debark.

More spectacular views along the way, particularly the sun rising over the mountains.

Then came upon a large pack of gelda baboons searching in the dirt for breakfast.

So cool! From the chief with large mane to the babies clinging to their moms running across the plain, all had personalities.

Made it back to Debark and grabbed a bus few hour bumpy ride here to Gondar. After getting thoroughly harassed by the beggars at the bus station, set out to find a hotel. The first hotel we went to, the receptionist motioned us into the office from outside, only to tell us the hotel was full. Same thing with the second hotel - very strange that they feel the need to invite us into their office just to tell us that they're full. After finally getting a room at our 3rd choice, dinner turned out to be quite interesting. Only 1 restaurant we found open past 9 pm. Not knowing the options (the menu was in Ahmeric), Svenja ordered the vegetarian national dish injera, while I ordered the fairly standard international option in Ethiopia - spaghetti, which I've come to rely on quite a bit. When I ordered it, the waiter nods and says the Ethiopian "Yeah. Yeah". So Svenja's injera comes out, and after around 10 minutes, still no spaghetti. Finally I think because the restaurant was going to close the waiter himself starts eating dinner, so I asked again about spaghetti. He again nods', "Yeah.", goes to the kitchen and brings out.... more cooked cabbage for the injera. Cookies for dinner!

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
This morning back in Gondar Svenja and I wandered around the 17th c. castles of the Royal enclosure. Very surprising that Ethiopia has medieval-era castles, and what's more, very well-preserved!

Emperor Fasilada's palace dominated the enclosure with its many rooms and towers.

We took a minibus taxi over to Fasilada's bath a couple kms away, where the sunken pool is now dry, but many awesome looking trees in the complex growing right through the walls.

After the sites of Gondar, grabbed a minibus down here to Bahir Dar - which took twice as long as expected thanks to the overturned truck on the side of the road that everyone stopped to look at. Now, heading over to Friendship restaurant to order some pizza (hoping it is pizza, not injera).

I'm getting set to watch a movie in the hotel here in Bahir Dar, haven't had TV in quite a while! Today Svenja and I joined a couple other folks on a boat tour to visit the island monasteries in Lake Tana. After breakfast (with some visitors),

hopped in the boat and first stop was Eutos Eyesisi island monastery - separate entrances for men and women (although the interior is circular, and everyone meets in the middle anyway), led to beautiful paintings on the "maqdas" (inner sanctuary) of different biblical scenes.

Next stop was to the little island of Debre Maryam,

for another tour of a monastery that turned out to be closed, then on to Zege peninsula to visit Ura Kidane Meret monastery, probably some of the nicest maqdas yet.

Stopped off at a pretty cool little museum showing traditional house and everyday items used by the local (got to strum a bit on the musical instruments). For lunch we bought some mangos and other fruit (not sure what!) from the locals, to round off the tour of the lake.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:01 Comments (0)

Week 52, 20.Feb.10 - 26.Feb.10

Bamako, Mali to Axum, Ethiopia

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Arrived here in Addis this evening, flight over from Bamako was uneventful (but somewhat entertaining with the crazy Ethiopian guy sitting next to me who kept laughing at everything). Going through security in Bamako airport was certainly interesting - no metal detector or xray machine, just good ol' fashioned pat-down and manual bag search. Got checked into the not-so-spectacular Wanza hotel, but at 120 Birr (about US $9 and change) for private room en suite bathroom, good enough! Just returned from walking around a bit (had to dig into the bottom of my pack for the jacket - haven't seen that since Marrakech), and at first glance Addis seems to be a pretty lively place, loads and loads of bars all over (unfortunately the only women at the bars are prostitutes).

Its kind of weird to think I'm actually here in Ethiopia... the images from UNICEF aid commercials of the 80's (with kids with toothpick-thin arms & legs and balloon bellies, sitting in the dirt with flies all over their faces too weak to brush them off) doesn't resinate, at least here in Addis - this place is surprisingly modern with shopping malls, cafes, bars, restaurants - and paved streets/sidewalks! Definitely seems more modern than Bamako, Banjul.. maybe even Dakar. I wandered around a bit in the area trying to find a wifi hotspot or even traditional internet cafe - the latter of which are closed Sundays, the former - despite the apparent modernity of the city - seems to be a concept no one has heard of ("Why fly?"). Visited the not-so-impressive Holy Trinity Cathedral while a service was being conducted -

what the structure lacked, the atmosphere made up for it - folks packed inside as well as outside attending the service... very cool.

Ugh.. I'm officially taking a sick day - definitely caught something over the past few days traveling non-stop on busses. No sites/tours today, just rest and hope to recover!

Just returned from dinner at a "traditional" (meaning, full of tourists) restaurant with music and dancing performances - I must say, impressive moves they do with their bodies and heads!

This morning I went to the airport to pick up Svenja who arrived on her overnight flight from Frankfurt - we had been keeping in touch since Israel, and decided we wanted to meet up and travel together during her next break from school. After her understandable need to rest a bit (and needing a bit of rest myself for my still aching sore throat), we went out to see a couple sites near the Piazza: communist-era Derg monument,

and St. George cathedral

with its small museum. Wandering around the Piazza area after, we were thoroughly harassed by homeless mothers encouraging their kids to beg; some went so far as to try and hand their babies to Svenja - definitely not the nicest area! But I think the most interesting site for us both today might have been the Ethiopian bamboo scaffolding at construction sites scattered around the city!

Today Svenja and I went to visit a couple pretty good museums - first one was the Ethnological, set in really nice surrounding gardens at Addis Ababa University.

At the museum entrance was an interesting monument: spiral staircase, erected by the Italians, as a symbol of their occupation in the 1930's.

Inside the museum, we saw (once the power came back on!) really great displays. Some of the more memorable for me: Konso Waka grave markers,

and Suri/Mursi tribal lip plates, where women fit plates into the bottom lip, progressively enlarging the plates over time as the lip becomes stretched out... the larger the plate, the more beautiful the woman (uh... not sure it does it for me).

Next stop was the National museum, for a glimpse of the 3.2 million year old hominid "Lucy". Standing next to the cast, can't help but wonder... have we really evolved that much?!?

Axum, Ethiopia
Getting to historical Axum from Addis is 1.5 hours by flight, vs. 2 days by bus. So, after checking flight prices at a travel agent yesterday and finding a good deal, seemed the obvious choice to book the 6 AM flight this morning. Well, getting up at 4 AM was pretty painful, but not as bad as the NINE HOUR delay due to "mechanical problems", we were told. The ancient prop plane bouncing around while in flight did hold up, so I guess the 9 hours was a worthwhile investment of time. Another "highlight" of the day, the attendants told the passengers that due to some weather condition (too hot?), the plane couldn't take extra cargo, so our checked luggage would be arriving on the first flight tomorrow. Oh, yeah... and they told us this after we finally boarded, so there was no way anyone could change their flight if they needed to get to their luggage (i.e. medicine). Understandably, Svenja and I and a couple other backpackers were throughly annoyed. Well, when we landed and deplaned, strangely, there was luggage being pulled out of the plane... and apparently everyone's luggage, for that matter. So the mood quickly changed to a sense of relief - I don't know if it was Ethiopian Airline's horrible communication, but I suspect more likely a clever diversion to make passengers quickly forget about the 9 hour delay so as to not pursue compensation. Now just returned from dinner at the only restaurant in town functioning during the power outage here in Axum... judging by the cleanliness of the place, maybe better that we're not seeing what we're eating...

Today was spent covering the ancient sites of Axum - the Northern stelae field with obliesks both erect and toppled dating back from 200 - 500 AD,

when the Kingdom of Axumite and Queen of Sheba dominated the region as a major crossroad between Egypt, Sudan and Arabia. In the field were a few uncovered tombs that we were able to explore like the Mausoleum and "Tomb of the False Door",

but apparently didn't even scratch the surface, as it is believed 98% of all the tombs in the area are still buried and unopened! Stopped by the museum for a look at some of the artifacts that were found in the tombs and surrounding areas, then over to the outskirts of town to visit the Gudit stelae field - maybe not as impressive as the Northern, but definitely interesting and seemingly more authentic (that is, unrestored and not roped off) with dozens of obliesks set among modern farms and animals and supposedly Sheba's final resting place.

Across the road we checked out Dungur, well-preserved Queen of Sheba's Palace (although archaeologists suggest it was a nobleman's mansion).

Back in central Axum we next visited the St. Mary of Zion churches, site of the beginning of Ethiopian Christianity. We entered the New Church (kind of gaudy), and were shown a several-hundred year old bible (that was handled by the caretaker without gloves...).

Next I was shown (but no women allowed, so Svenja had to stay back) the Old Church (1665 AD) with impressive murals, like the 9 Saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia, hidden under cloaks that were lifted up by the caretaker for photo ops.

In between the churches, was a small chapel that supposedly contains the Ark of the Covenant -

of course I'll have to take their word for it, as no entry was permitted and surrounding gate patrolled by an armed guard! After the St. Mary of Zion tour, we negotiated a 3-wheeled "garis" taxi ride a few bumpy km ride out of town, accompanied by a self-appointed guide (reeking of alcohol) to the rock-carved Lioness of Gobedra. During the ride toward the mountain, the local kids appearing from nowhere started running toward, then alongside, the (very slow) garis, staring into the side plastic windows - no expression, not saying anything, just running alongside and staring at us in the garis... so bizarre! Arriving at the mountain, and having even more local kids come and walk alongside us (and asking for Birr, pens, etc.) for the climb up, approached the rock. Interesting story/legend about the source: Archangel Mikael battling some lioness and throwing it so hard into a rock that it left an imprint.

The climb back down was again accompanied by the local kids, and now I can say that the 80's images I had of Ethiopia - barefoot, dirty faced children in the sand - is pretty much spot on.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:05 Comments (0)

Week 51, 13.Feb.10 - 19.Feb.10

Serrekunda, The Gambia to Bamako, Mali

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Janjanbureh, The Gambia
Its difficult not to get frustrated traveling overland in West Africa! You have to get up at the crack of dawn, make your way to the correct "garage" (sept place/minibus station), and then wait for the transportation to fill up. Well, the time waiting for the vehicle to fill up has gotten out of hand - 4.5 hours this morning back in Serrakunda! Of course if I show up later than say, 09:00, I run the risk of missing out on a seat entirely that day since there is no time schedule - when they're full, they're gone. So on top of the wait this morning in the parking lot (entertainment involved watching they pack up the minibus),

the drive was 9.5 hours, along some of the worst roads I've ever seen - even for African standards. Along these long drives I've become accustomed to a few guidelines: Ensure my iPod is fully charged night before. Arrive early enough to try and get a seat that won't cripple you with lack of leg room (that ones a toughy!). Keep your eyes peeled for interesting sites,

but even more important, keep a lookout for upcoming roadkill so you can take a deep breath before you pass - nothing quite like the smell of a rotting carcass baking in the sun on the side of the road in sub-Saharan Africa. So eventually the minibus drops me off at a checkpoint intersection on the "main" road, where I walked around 1-2 km to the river in complete darkness - as in, without my torch, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face (but was awe-struck by looking up and seeing more stars than I have before, ever). Made it to the small man-powered rope-pulley ferry to reach tiny Janjanbureh island. Hitched a ride in a pickup truck bed into town and managed to find a cheap-ish room at a campsite. Glad this day is over!

Awesome day spent relaxing on a boat ride up the Gambia River to a national park, called "baboon island" (how cool!). Along the way saw, sure enough, baboons; crocodiles

tons of birds, and the occasional hippo!

Now back on Janjanbureh I'm the island's "internet cafe" (which is some guy's shed), with ONE computer. And, nothing like good-ol' dial-up connection! While I'm waiting in line behind a Dutch couple, who had been waiting for the place to open (only available from 19:00 - 22:00 during the time the island's generator runs), the nice enough owner took me around to show me his garden (cabbages, onions and papaya trees) and introducing me to his dog... yeah, you could say this is a small-town feel!

Tambacounda, Senegal
Another arduous 10 hour or-so trek today: Ferry from Janjanbureh back across to mainland Gambia,

then (after a few full ones passed) catching a Serrekunda- Bansang minibus with available seat, then connecting from Bansang on a minibus to Basse Santa Su, then connecting again in a pickup truck taxi (with benches in the bed, and the added bonus of all the men required to get out and push for the thing to jump-start) to cross the border in Senegal to Velingara, then connecting again in a sept-place over here to Tambacounda, complete with a couple break-downs along the way. Arduous trek....

Kayes, Mali
Sounding like a broken record here... another day spent on, or waiting for, taxi and busses! This morning back in Tambacounda got my donkey cart taxi ride to the gare routiere, waited around for the really mint-looking sept-place to fill,

which took around 2 hours. About 3 hours drive to Kidiria on the border, taxied across and then sat in a dirt lot for 5.5 hours waiting for the full-size bus to fill up. Freaking unbelievable! During the wait, the "station" (some tent) had a generator running to power a satellite TV, and the movie we watched was a French film about the 1960s(?) black Africans soldiers in the army revolting against the white French officers - loved the stares I was getting from everyone during that! I bought my ticket for a stop here in Kayes to break up the journey, but after the unexpected lengthy delay to depart, coupled with breaking down along the way for ~30 minutes (saw some interesting live cargo while we were stopped...)

and moving at a snail's pace after that, didn't arrive until 22:00, so I've just changed my ticket to stay on the bus overnight straight to Bamako... no way I can start over and take another day of this.

Bamako, Mali
Arrived here in Mali's dumpy capital Bamako this afternoon, after a glorious night and morning spent on a stifling bus (ya!) I found my way and got checked in to a pretty nice hotel (with fan and mosquito net - the new barometer on the scale), wandered around only a little, but now to let my body recover going to sleep early....

I cannot believe how blazing hot it is here - still - at 20:00. I checked weather online, still 37!! I mean, I do not know how these people can live here in the summer... I spent most of the day going between the air conditioned patisserie around the corner, or the air conditioned bar few blocks away. Sandwiched in-between was a nap! I did make it to a few unremarkable monuments: de l'Independance,

Tubaniba, and Modibo Keita memorial.

Not terribly exciting today, but spent without waiting for, or riding in, any busses or taxis so a good day nonetheless!

Back at my air conditioned bar putting back a few cold ones - nice. I did venture around today (I think maybe it was a high of only 38) to the north part of the city, must nicer area with tree-lined boulevards leading up to a couple museums, the Bamako (not so great) and National (pretty good). The latter had good displays of Dogon masks, Timbuktu relics, and models of the Djenne mud mosque,

so although I don't have enough time while in Mali this trip to visit any of these places, at least I can get just a little taste; motivating enough to make sure I return here someday!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:55 Comments (0)

Week 50, 6.Feb.10 - 12.Feb.10

Saint Louis, Senegal to Serrekunda, The Gambia

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Saint Louis, Senegal
Heading out in a few for the live music bar down the street (pretty good venue last night, may as well go back!). Today I ventured off the town center small island of Saint Louis to the parallel long narrow peninsula, Langue de Barbarie. No tourists/tourist shops over here, just contemporary Senegalese life (very poor). Walked past the Guet N'dar fishing pier, where people were hauling in buckets of fish and loading onto trucks - gallons of bloody water pouring out of the buckets on their heads, and out of the truck splashing on the ground.

So dodging the puddles along with the aged piles of rotting fish, held my breath and kept walking south past a really large cemetery with interesting graves of sand - wasn't sure if there were actual coffins underneath, or if a swift gust of wind was going to reveal a random arm or foot sticking out...

Further south past the questionable smells and sights of the peninsula was seemingly endless stretch of white sand beach, where I found a palm tree to sit under and spent some time reading and enjoying the relaxation ("tranquil", as they say here in Saint Louis...).

Dakar, Senegal
Staying in the relatively expensive (23,500 CFA or ~ $49/night) hotel Saint Louis Sun, not in Saint Louis, but in Dakar, capital of Senegal (and essentially, West Africa). This morning back in Saint Louis I hopped on the local bus to the gare routiere station and was able to score the coveted shotgun seat in the 4-hour sept-place ride down here to Dakar. So along the drive, I really noticed the change in topography heading further south - definitely more green: grass, trees and shrubs/bush, of that iconic sub-Saharan image.

I dropped off my bag at the hotel, and wandered around the city for a while. Based myself at the Place de L'Independance, heart of the city and home to impressive architecture like Hotel de Ville,

and nearby train station.

Unfortunately, also home to a large number of Dakar's infamous hustlers and scammers, who circle around the area like vultures waiting for the tourists. I was suddenly the most popular and recognized man in the city, with about 1/2 dozen different guys over the afternoon coming up to me, "Eh, mon amie! You remember me? My friend, I saw you before, remember?" The cheap scam basically involves losers hanging around outside hotels, spotting tourists walking out, bumping into them a short while later (total coincidence), then able to throw out the, "Yes, you know me! Remember, we met at your hotel Saint Louis Sun!", and eventually asking to "borrow" some CFA. Well, I wasn't too good about hiding my amusement of the obvious scams, basically laughing out loud and responding, "Yes, I recognize you because you keep appearing everywhere I go, but I certainly do not know you". And I cut to the chase and just add, before they even bother to ask, they're not getting any CFAs. The best is their acting skills - not bad, actually. They look genuinely hurt, as if they really were just dissed by a longtime friend. Dakar also has its fair share of pickpocketers - some guy in the Place was trying to sell me a shirt, and after brushing him off 1/2 dozen times, while persistently following me as I'm taking some pictures, he changes strategy and starts commenting on how nice my shoes are (they're not), leaning down to point with one hand while the other starts trying to slip into my front pocket, where my camera is. The act was so obvious, not to mention with my small pockets there is no way I won't feel my camera leaving, it was over practically before it began - I reach down grabbing his fingers and start squeezing - hard - and yell at the guy, "You think I'm f-ing stupid? You think I don't know what you're doing??" His reaction was either pathetic or hilarious (haven't decided), with the plea, "No, friend! No I just want to see your shoes!", and then walking away sheepishly. Now I'm back in the hotel, showered up and ready to see what activity the night may bring...

I'm heading out in a bit to The Viking bar to meet up with Simon, Irish fellow who I had met back in Saint Louis and now also visiting Dakar. This morning I checked out of the hotel Saint Louis Sun to a cheapie a few blocks away - definitely not as nice, but saving me about $20/night (and, I've stayed in much much worse). After the switch, went over to the Malian embassy and applied for a visa (struggling, once again, to get through the French application). So the process unfortunately takes 48 hours, which means at least that much longer here in Dakar! I later wandered around from the city center checking out more sights like the Palais Presidentiel, then strolling a few kms along the corniche, main road winding around the peninsula. Some awesome views along the way.

At one point on the way back I was standing near the edge of the cliff, with a pretty sizable drop down to the rocky ocean shore, getting shots of the city.

So some guy walks up with his "I'm getting ready to con you" smile. I instinctively take a step away from the edge, while he takes a step closer toward me. I tell him, "Hey, man...." and put up my hand to show, "back up a little". Well, suddenly his expression changes to a look of seriousness, he kind of grabs my shirt (half-assed) with one hand, and says, "Give it to me. Give me the f-ing camera." Well, my reaction is to just to, in one motion, close the shutter and putting the camera back in the case, slipping into my pocket while raising up my arm, cocking my fist back to take a swing. He backs up, eyeing me and looking around. He continues backing up to cross the road while I walk behind swearing at the guy, and after he crosses the street, I just start walking back toward the city center. I couldn't believe that just happened! I mean, its one thing if I'm dumb enough to go along a deserted area at night by myself, but alongside a busy highway with people in the area, afternoon, broad daylight?? I know I'm not a huge intimidating fellow, but if one were to look at me would probably guess I can handle my own, better than say, a female or elderly traveler. So this guy must have some serious cahounes, or really desperate. One of the guys from across the street who was watching this, runs over saying, "Hey, friend! That's a bad man! He said he wanted your camera, but I told him, 'No, don't do it'.... So..... mon amie... where you from?" And instantly starts in on the bullsh-t I'm already too familiar with in this city, ending up with, "So, we go to a bar and you buy me a beer?" Unbelievable. "No I'm not buying you a damned drink!" So after 11+ months traveling without any incidents, in just 2 days in Dakar I nearly get pickpocketed and mugged (for my not-that-great camera). Well, guess I've pretty much formed my opinion of this place...

Today was refreshingly much less dramatic and incident-free: spent it wandering around peaceful and (nearly) tout/scammer-free Ile de Goree.

Took the ferry from Dakar and arrived to a place infamous for its past role in the slave trade, with a few museums providing information on its history.

Along with the educational side, the island itself is just super-quaint... no roads or cars, just narrow alleyways separating colonial-style buildings.

Very very "tranquil"...

Picked up my Malian visa this morning then over to the Ethiopian embassy for round 2. I was really hoping they'd be able to issue on the spot, but no luck, had to return in the afternoon, which meant another day in Dakar. And spent the day just having cafes and getting online. Think I'll finish up my last night here with a stop over to The Viking...

Serrekunda, The Gambia
Long, LONG day in the minibus (which took 2 hours to "fill", and was absolutely crammed over-capacity, inventing a fourth place on 3-person benches), 8 hours to the Karang border town (unreal... slowest driver EVER!), and pleasantly a (mostly) hassle-free crossing into The Gambia. 45 minute taxi ridefrom Karang to Barra (waiting for the driver to pay off his fine or bribe or whatever), then 1 hour ferry ride across to Banjul, then getting ripped off on a taxi ride here to Serekunda. Had to take another taxi to the Post Office (as the "local" taxis wouldn't go to my destination), then walked about 1 km to the absolutely awful, middle-of-nowhere (but cheap!) YMCA. I met a local, really nice smart girl Mary along the walk here who helped me actually find the Y, and joined me for dinner after getting checked-in. That is it for this exciting day, off to bed!

Just got back from dinner, now getting ready for bed. Today was spent s-l-o-w-l-y getting from A to B - you can't be in too big a hurry in The Gambia! Wandered around the capital Banjul with a couple monuments,

ubiquitous African markets, and pretty decent National Museum.

Ferried across with the masses to Barra,

then took a minibus to visit the straw-hut village of Jufureh, "Roots'" Kunta Kinte home town (very, very cool).

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:09 Comments (0)

Week 49, 30.Jan.10 - 5.Feb.10

Nouadhibou, Mauritania to Saint Louis, Senegal

View Week 49 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Nouakchott, Mauritania
I'm in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, and despite my horrible ~2 hours or so sleep last night in the Nouadhibou camp's tent (mosquitos biting all night, Jan's snoring, some French guy bumping into me while rearranging his mat twice, and some crazy TV/radio rock concert blaring from nearby), I'm tenting it again at the Aubuerge campsite here - the single room is too expensive, and I have to be very conservative with money while in Mauritania, as I read there are no internationally-working ATMs and I have a limited supply of cash (this isn't a place I fancy being stranded!). This morning with the Dutch humanitarians, I rode in Conrad's (younger Canadian) car, and for the group it took a bit to make it out of Nouadhibou - couple wrong turns (one leading to the slums),

but eventually got on our way. Mauritania's landscape is quite amazing - sometimes flat as a pancake with a few scruff trees off in the distance (5 km away? 10 km?.. difficult to say),

sometimes spectacular rolling sand dunes.

I think anyone traveling alone along this road, they better have plenty of petrol and water, because neither show up for 100km stretches at a time (fortunately, we all had plenty of both). Along the way we got to see the Zouerat-Nouadhibou iron ore train, at 2.3km's, the world's longest,

and after a while when we stopped along the side of the road so Chirak could talk to some locals who were erecting a TV/radio tower, but meanwhile all that is happening with the 3 other vehicles is being harassed for food and money, so there was a kind of coup d'etat and all 3 other cars started driving away (and at a more reasonable 110 km/hr pace to make up some time), taking the lead. Made it here this afternoon fortunately still with daylight, said goodbye and thanks to the humanitarian group, now off to bed (hoping mosquito-free with the nets provided).

Heading out in a bit to watch the final match of the Africa Cup of Nations football, Egypt vs. Ghana. I can't believe this will be the last match! Funny, I have no idea who is in the NFL playoffs back home, but can list the results of the Africa Cup finals the past round. So today, I spent a while wandering around the center of Nouakchott, visited the Grande Marche, and feeling this city is about as African as it gets - dirty, sand everywhere, broken-down looking cars, people's head wrapped entirely in cloth and sunglasses to block out the sun and blowing sand.

Mauritania, and specifically here in Nouakchott, seems to be a real cross-road between the Arabic north, and the Black south - very integrated here. And also super-friendly - very helpful people, like the woman working in the post office who wouldn't let me pay for a stamp to mail off my postcard. Very refreshing experience coming from Morocco! Later, I took a "taxi" (all cars here are potential taxis... just hold out your hand to any car passing by your direction and haggle on a price) to the Port de Peche on the coast, and spent some time watching the busy fish market,

and the hundreds of boats being brought in with the day's catch. Awesome!

Today was all about relaxing - after visiting the unspectacular national museum,

spent majority of the time in a hotel cafe with wifi and got caught up with the family on Skype calls. What to do now with no bar and no Africa Cup of Nations to watch??

Touba, Senegal
Its midnight and I'm on the building rooftop of a Senegalese family (actually, I think many families) home, laying on a mattress under a millions stars with my headlamp torch, and listening to different groups of people on the streets below still singing/chanting religious songs. Awesome! So this morning back in Nouakchott, took a taxi from the city center to the "station" Rosso, where I caught one of the barely functioning, decades-old sept-place (seven place) taxis cram people in (the makeshift rear bench for 3 is hardly what one would call "roomy"), and traveled to the border town of Rosso. Two Senegalese guys also in the sept-place and I, shared a horse-drawn taxi cart

to the border checkpoint, and were helping me to navigate through the hoards of scammers and hasslers in order to get my exit stamp and board the ferry to cross the Senegal River. One of the guys, M'baye, kept telling me (in broken English) I needed to come with him to Touba, as there is a big festival happening over the next 1.5 days. I planned only to go to Saint Louis, as I am without cash and need to get to a functioning ATM. But he convinced me, "No money. Everything in Touba during Grand Magal gratis! Food. Drink. Bed - all gratis!" Well, I never heard of this place nor the festival before, but there is a blurb mention of it in my guidebook (held annually 48 days after the Islamic New Year to celebrate the return from exile of the founder of the Mouride Islamic brotherhood, Cheikh Amadou Bamba), so figured I may as well go... after all, to me, this is what traveling is all about! So without any money I go with this stranger to the sept-place "station" on the Senegalese side of Rosso. Already I'm feeling a completely different atmosphere in Senegal - lively and loud. The crammed, falling apart sept-place was a really uncomfortable, although entertaining, ride to Touba: M'baye spent nearly the entire ride debating with the other male passengers in their native Wolof language, while the woman sitting next to me was breast-feeding her child uncovered (while the kid just kept slapping the boob). So we arrive in Touba this evening and the place is just crazy - thousands of people roaming around, everyone is decked-out in really nice outfits, music blaring, car & horse carts all over riding in the dirt roads.

We arrive at his Uncle's home with dozens of relatives who I'm introduced to, I'm trying my best to hold conversations in French! Showered, relaxed on the rooftop here, and then they brought up dinner - which was a large tray filled with hunks of beef, rice and vegetables. Plates? Silverware, napkins? Uh, no - bare hand (right only) digging-in, tearing apart the beef from the bone and scooping rice, shoving it in your mouth. In a helpful gesture(?), M'baye and others are tearing apart pieces of beef for me. OK, so I realize that this family is living the traditional way when it comes to hygiene - squatter toilets without flush (bucket you fill with water for that), and no toilet paper - so when you're finished with the restroom, you wipe (again, no toilet paper) with your left hand, and use your right hand to pour water and "wash" the left (I don't think the traditional style uses soap for that). So, I already knew all this, but this was the first time I've ever seen actually practiced where your left hand isn't supposed to touch anything or anyone, ever (understandably). Of course with my anal-retentiveness, it is little comfort, so I'm doing my best to block out the thoughts and figure, well, I haven't eaten yet today and completely starved, so just chowed.

I am sitting on a dirty mattress, under a tree with some sheets hung up to block out the blazing afternoon sun in some large, dusty lot with a bunch of house wall foundations 1/2 way built (doubt if they'll ever be finished).

There are groups of younger people all around, and everyone (except me!) is smoking hashish. And this is how I've spent many hours this afternoon. But so this morning after minimal sleep on the rooftop (with the loud singing/chanting going on all night and the mattress I slept on being shared with 2 of M'baye's cousins (the young kid in the middle who kept kicking me), we had breakfast. Corn flakes? Omelette? Ah, no - large tray with hunks of beef, rice and vegetables, again eaten with the right hand. We also had tepid coffee, I'm sure made with water right from the tap. I'm thinking to myself, "If I don't get violently ill after this experience, it will be a miracle!". So I'm given this colorful "Gnakhasse", traditional Senegalese outfit, and M'baye and his other friend (or "brother", as everyone calls everyone else) head into town. As we leave, I'm looking at them both with their pants tucked into 2 layers of socks, and we're walking outside, so I ask, "Uh, where are your shoes?", to which M'baye responds, "No, I do not like shoes." Ok then, they're walking around the dirt road town in their socks. So we take the ubiquitous horse-drawn taxi cart to get into town center, we walk around the streets crammed with thousands of people - the majority of men, I notice, also not wearing shoes, only socks. Socks! This is just crazy, I'm thinking. There is music blaring, people singing (or actually shouting, the "la la LA LA la" song, as I call it),

and vendors selling all kinds of stuff. Being the only white person, I'm getting plenty of stares, but everyone is super friendly - so many times we stop to meet people and are greeted in the traditional way (shaking hands and touching the other's hand to your forehead). We make our way to the Grande Mosquee, which despite all the mosques I've seen before, is still quite impressive to me.

We next go to some religious figure's house, and M'baye and his friend are on their knees bowing in front of this guy like he's some bishop or someone pretty important and start conversing. Well, I just kind of sit down next to them (I forego the bowing), and don't know what they're discussing but it seems like M'baye is maybe asking for forgiveness or a favor/blessing. So the bishop, as I call him, is shaking his head, and eventually we are lead to the head, top dog religious leader, the Cherif, and invited in his home - apparently this man has more influence and power than Senegal's president! So the two guys, and even the bishop, are all bowing in front of this Cherif. So I'm just sitting around and M'baye introduces me, and the Cherif, who speaks some English and is really interested in my story, asks me to sit next to him to discuss global events and drink lots and lots of coffee. We're there a while, and different groups of people keep approaching him to receive blessings (I think), all the while he keeps talking to me, occasionally throwing out a riddle or two (which I always guess the incorrect answer!), and more coffee and tea (possibly about 10 glasses by the time we leave).

I think he took a special liking to me since I was so casual about meeting him - I mean, I never heard of him before and its certainly not my religion, so I'm just chatting with him as another person and thankful he speaks English. Really nice man and completely humble considering how much influence he has (I think his son, who I also met, is a bit high on himself). He encourages me to walk around and take pictures... the locals are of course reluctant, until they're told that the Cherif said it was OK!

So we finally leave and head to this dirty lot, and I am trying to understand some of the blessing/foregiveness M'baye was asking for, as his English is very limited, but I'm pretty sure now I understand he was just recently in a Moroccan prison for possession - ok then! And now we're sitting in this lot and he's smoking hash all day - I mean, we've been here for hours. I understand (or so I'm told) that its legal here, but still have the feeling the groups here are reclusive/hidden for a particular reason. And now I was told that we're staying up all night, because the song and dance climax of the festival doesn't happen until 5 or 6 AM! Well, its a good thing I didn't pay for a hotel room.. Meanwhile, lunch and now dinner have been, unsurprisingly, large trays of beef, rice and vegetables.

Saint Louis, Senegal
Long, long night last night and day today. I am checked in the really nice hostel here in Saint Louis, looking forward to a mosquito-netted bed and some sleep. So, sure enough, stayed awake the entire night last night - which was really cool to see the climax of the festival, between 05:00 - 07:00, but the midnight through 05:00 hours were spent sitting around that dirt lot with a bunch of hashish smokers - I got up and wandered around a few times, but not knowing anyone except M'baye, and himself not going anywhere, didn't venture too far. But the festival climax did make the whole experience worth it - dozens of groups dancing and singing,

with the Cherif again extending preferential treatment, with endless cups of coffee and asking me to sit next to him. So afterwards, I say goodbye to the other pilgrims and Cherif and M'baye and I head back a long long walk to his Uncle's place, where I bid thanks and farewell to him and his family, for a truly unique and unforgettable experience. I head over to the lot of sept-places, one of which is bound for Saint Louis. Well, I am the first guy there so score the coveted shotgun seat. But 3 hours pass, and still no one else shows up (sept-places only leave when full) - the driver offers to take me direct right there and then for 30,000 CFA - around US $60. As an individual seat sells for 5,000 CFA, I said "No way" and stuck it out. Well finally another car in front of mine goes ahead to consolidate, and I end up getting stuck in the middle third row - and this turned out to be one of the worst 3-hour rides ever! The space between the 3rd and second benches was so small I couldn't even fit my feet in, so my legs are curled up to my chest. And the beat old wagon starts overheating, so the driver has to turn on the rear defog air - hot air. And it is blowing right on my head. Seriously, so miserable was this ride that all I could do was laugh! Finally arrived in the very quaint, historic (first French settlement in Africa) island-town of Saint Louis, and already really like this place - looking forward to seeing it tomorrow!

Yes, I really like it here in Saint Louis! Old colonial buildings, calm and (for the most part) scammer-free atmosphere - and plus lots of good places for cafe au laits in the morning and beers at night - today I took advantage of both! So after breakfast, wandered around the small mini-Manhattan looking island and just enjoyed the atmosphere. Plenty of nice architecture to scope out,

and I headed down to the southern tip of the island for a tour around the museum (not the greatest, but nice enough to escape the blazing sun for a couple hours).

Now after happy hour at a riverside bar, showered and heading out to a live-music venue down the street - great day!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 10:35 Comments (0)

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