A Travellerspoint blog

February 2010

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

Serrekunda, The Gambia to Bamako, Mali

View Week 51 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

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

View Week 50 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

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

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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)

Week 48, 23.Jan.10 - 29.Jan.10

Fes, Morocco to Nouadhibou, Mauritania

View Week 48 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Fes, Morocco
Catching some football on the rooftop terrace at my hotel, heading over in a few minutes to catch an overnight bus to Marrakech. After the 05:30 prayer call from the mosque right next door (I'm convinced the AM prayer calls are much much longer than those during the rest of the day...), got a couple hours more sleep then awoke to crappy conditions - today has been cold and rainy for most of the day, but despite the weather, wandered around to take in more sites. First, I decided to avoid as many faux guides as possible by walking around the outside perimeter of the medina and entered the eastern gate to check out the tanneries district of animal skin & dye shops making all kinds of clothing and accessories.

There was only so much of that smell I could take before I bolted! So, next headed to the spiritual heart of Fes, Qaraouiyine mosque. Built in 859, not only is it one of the world's oldest, but also most elaborate with the colorful fountain and seemingly endless columns.

Next, after getting lost and wandering in circles in the medina, got my bearings and found the Nejjarine museum, housed in a restored palace that once served as a resting point for traveling merchants,

but now an interesting collection of wood crafts.

I wandered further west to Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace), and saw an entirely different Fes from the crazy souq area - the locals here totally calm, relaxed, and non-harrassing.. perfect end to the day!

Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech is everything I had always pictured Morocco to be - jugglers, snake charmers (who demanded 200DH for photos I took of them... yeah, right! I offered them 2DH), monkey handlers and other street performers,

along with the seemingly ubiquitous Moroccan scammers and drug-pushers, all crammed into the Djemaa el-Fna square in the heart of the medina. Spreading out from there are the narrow alleyways lined with hotels, cafes, shops, souqs and motorscooters, carts, bikes and occasionally small cars going full-speed both directions with only a random horn or bell warning. When I arrived this morning around 7 am, the streets were still empty so I was pleasantly free of scammers for a couple hours as I made my way from the bus station into the medina. The cheap hotel I settled on has definitely seen better days. I spent a couple hours in the Djemaa el-Fna at a cafe taking in all the sites before they became quite repetitive, then wandered around some of Marrakech's other sites - Koutoubia mosque with its enormous minaret,

then got lost on my way to the 12th c. Ali Ben Youssef mosque. Caught some of the next round of African Cup of Nations football, then back in the el-Fna at dusk for more of the spectacles - the food stalls were now open, but as I was a bit weary to try anything for fear of becoming seriously ill, settled for pizza.

At the bus station waiting to take my overnight down to Tan Tan - no idea what will be there, as my guidebook doesn't provide any information, but it seems a pretty close 1/2 way point between Marrakech and Dakhla further on south. Today around Marrakech figured I'd seen enough of el-Fna and spent a majority of the day getting lost around the rest of the medina, occasionally stumbling on a site or two like Saadin Tombs (very cool, actually),

and nearby ruins of Palais el-Badi (now just some walls where storks are nesting....).

Also found the Sidi Bel Abbes tomb and mosque where the city's blind and lame were congregating in the center square.

After I shopped around a while, found a money exchange place with the best Dirham-USD rate, since some of the places I'm heading next are supposedly without ATMs. One of the US$100 bills looks suspect... I really hope I wasn't just scammed....

Tan Tan, Morocco
I'm at the bus "station" here in Tan Tan (storefront building used as a ticket office), with a couple men; one is calling his pharmacist to see if they have any anti-milaria pills, while the man's wife (I think) is just sitting waiting in the car. How this came about; this morning after arriving here on my overnight from Marrakech, I stopped by the second man's store (pharmacy) and asked about anti-milaria pills that I'll need to start taking heading further south, but he didn't have any. So I just went on my way and spent the day here wandering around this dust bowl of a town,

killing some time until the second consecutive overnight bus (eek!). But I must say the southern Moroccan atmosphere is very different - relaxed pace, locals looking at me more as a curiosity than dollar $ign$. The full-length robe women are wearing are colorful patterns, not the drab black ones up north, and the skin tone is surprisingly light, almost olive (I think this stems from Spanish ancestory?). So fast forward, here I am at the bus station outside having a cafe, and the pharmacist from this morning stops the car as he's driving by and now he and his friend are trying to track down someone in town who has the anti-milaria pills - very genuine and very very cool.

Dakhla, Morocco
I'm at a campsite, "Camping Moussafir", about 8km from the Western Sahara city of Dakhla, listening to a bald, stocky Austrian man with a 1/2 meter-long gray/white Santa Claus beard sitting around in his bikini briefs in the blazing sun, telling stories of how he's Saddam Hussein's nephew. No TV available for entertainment here?.. no problem! Arrived in Dakhla this morning on the overnight bus from Tan Tan (nothing quite like 2 consecutive overnight busses....), and wandered around a bit, had a coffee and croissant waiting for the sun to come up (which it did, over the Atlantic - strange to witness from the Western Sahara, but possible since Dakhla is built on a peninsula).

I got checked in the campsite, not too bad - cheap private room and hot showers (of course, I did ask they change the bed sheets... normally the cheapies will at least remake the bed to mask dirty linen, but this was still unmade from the last guest!), and then started making inquiries with other travelers staying there who had space for an extra passenger to the Mauritanian border, as Dakhla is the last point south for public transportation (but still about 375 km from the border). There is a Dutch-based convoy heading down to The Gambia to donate items to schools that is a possibility, but they're waiting for a runner - the campsite owner's son - to return from Rabat with their Mauritanian visas (as they weren't aware the visa is no longer available at the border... fortunately I did my research!). Meanwhile, its now 18:30 and I've got a ways to go for catching up on sleep, so I'm calling it a really early night.

Day 2 in Dakhla... I had figured it may take a few days to get that ride to the border, but hopefully not much longer - while Dakhla is nice and relaxing with the beach,

not terribly exciting. And the campsite is a long way from the city... one hour's walk (I tested that by walking back this afternoon... didn't feel like haggling/getting ripped off by the taxi guys). I got a ride into town this morning from a Senegalese man who now lives in Paris, and is making his way south but now also stuck temporarily here without the Mauritanian visa... apparently this change of visas no longer available at the border was just recently put in place. So he's even considering flying back up to Rabat to visit the Embassy, so that could be a backup plan if I'm not able to score a ride with the Dutch humanitarians (since the runner hasn't yet returned with their passports, causing some understandable anxiety over there). Meanwhile, I am meeting some other characters at this campsite, like a German woman who travelled south in Morocco this far but afraid to go into Mauritania because of the overblown rumor/scare stories of kidnapping/abductions from bandits. Same story with the 2 French men who actually entered into Mauritania but turned around after two days because they were so afraid... whatever! Some people are so easily influenced by overblown sensationalized stories... while there has been about 3 or 4 reported kidnappings, it is over the span of about 5 years - I'm sure much worse has happened in both Germany and France during the past 5 years but not reported in the news (I have a feeling these folks would never consider visiting places like Syria or Lebanon)... Anyway, while in the city today I stopped in a few cafes and also a restaurant for lunch - my first proper meal after 2.5 consecutive days of cookies (on the busses, plus no restaurant at the campsite). I ordered this chicken pastry - flakey crust sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar - bizarre way to eat chicken, but really good! I enjoyed the (nearly) hassle-free environment of the city compared to the north.. only incident was with a group of young boys who came up asking me for money - I responded that they should move up to Marrakech if they want to grow up begging... Now, to mark 11 months on the road, I'm going to watch a DVD I picked up on the street (US $2) on my laptop, while the generator is working at the campsite (only 4 hours/night!).

Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Well, I made it into Mauritania, and getting ready for bed in the campsite tent I'm staying in at the border town of Nouadibou. The 2 Canadians (father and son, Conrad), who are part of the Dutch humanitarian group, stopped by my room late last night letting me know they finally received back their passports w/ visas and had room to squeeze me in one of the 4 vehicles of the convoy. I rode most of the way to the border in the red van with Jan and Chirak, crazy tall Dutch man wearing this flowing white robe and colored head scarf,

Along the drive, the landscape of the Western Sahara seemed to be about as desolate as it gets... "They're really fighting over this?", I was asking myself...

So Chirak really liked to drive most of the way on the shoulder in the dirt, despite the road being paved the whole way. And let's just say also he isn't the fastest driver/in a hurry, so it took quite a while to make it to the border, and once there passed through 4 different Moroccan exits posts, each one of them staged with a guard asking for bribes. I will give credit to Chirak, he handled the harassment well - asking the guards if they were Muslim (they were), and then looking them in the eye, nodding and touching his chest, saying, "Its in here". Then would just start the van up and drive on to the next checkpoint... hilarious! So after getting through the Moroccan side, we were met by some guide working at this campsite in Nouadhibou, who "escorted" our convoy through the 3km long no-man's-land to the Mauritanian border. This area has no real road, just tire tracks to follow (closely, as either side is filled heavily with land mines), and countless piles of garbage and abandoned vehicles.

At the Mauritanian border, we sat for quite a while in the blazing sun - 6.5 hours total - finding different ways to entertain ourselves to pass the time.

And the guide here at this campsite is a total scammer - saying each vehicle costs 10 Euro insurance (even though the convoy already purchased insurance to cover all these countries), and asking for an extra 10 Euro to help speed-up the border crossing process (it didn't). And he totally screwed me on the conversion rate to change USD, saying, "Dollar no good. Euro good, Dollar bad." Yeah, if the Dollar is bad, what does that make the Mauritanian Ouguiya?!?

Posted by rd wrld1yr 02:37 Comments (0)

Week 47, 16.Jan.10 - 22.Jan.10

Casablanca, Morocco to Fes, Morocco

View Week 47 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Casablanca, Morocco
Turning in early (again), in my sleeping bag on the living room floor at the CouchSurfing hosts apartment I'm staying at here my 2nd night in Casa. I had sent a few inquiries out while in Tunis to CouchSurf here, and the one positive response I received was from a well-traveled guy Joel from the States who has spent the past several years living abroad teaching English, so knew I'd have quite a bit to talk about. After checking out of the "prison" (youth hostel), I met up with him at his work location to discover there were other guests also staying at his place, an Aussie couple, on the couch (hence my floor arrangements). So, we all headed out to walk around the city and first stop being a small cafe where we had one of the best juice drinks I've ever tasted (mixed with avocado!). We took a couple petit taxis (since they can only fit 3 passengers each, had to take two) over to the medina for a bit of wandering through the souq - exciting and different for the couple, but I've now lost count of how many souqs I've visited in the Middle East... definitely have had my fill. After a while, we headed out of the medina and caught another couple petit taxis over to Ain Diab beaches a few kms away. The couple gets in the first taxi, and Joel and I the second... which already had a passenger in the front that we joined going the same direction. So when we start driving a bit, I ask Joel how sharing the taxi works if there is already a passenger that has the meter running.... do we just subtract the fare that is already on the meter? He tells me that it is a common thing to share, and they either have a second meter, or will just subtract the initial fare, so I just leave it at that. But after the first passenger gets out and we drive another 10 minutes or so and get out at our stop, sure enough, the driver is asking us for the full fare! Well, I didn't pay attention to what the meter was at when we got in, based on what Joel had said, just figured he knew what he was doing. So an argument between Joel and the driver ensues on the side of the road, and it is ridiculous because Joel doesn't speak French well enough to have a conversation, he just keeps repeating the same phrases. A local bystander watching all this just walks over and hands the driver the 20 Dirham bill and starts saying something in Arabic... Joel tries to stop him from paying, but he just walks away and the driver leaves - well, I definitely was thinking if sharing a taxi was as common as Joel mentioned initially, either he or the driver didn't know what the rules were. Anyway, after that fiasco we met up with the Aussies and walked along the beach a few kms - really nice sunny day with at least a couple hundred locals all along the stretch in various pick-up games of football (soccer).

We get to a section of the beach where locals have set up makeshift cafes (stools, a table and umbrella for the sun), selling tea and some fried bread snacks. We stop at one of the places and a couple older women playing drumming music and singing stop along to perform for us... and the really awesome thing, this isn't a touristy place, other than us 4, there are only locals here!

Out in the water past a narrow channel of water there was a large rock that has houses set up on it, some small community that lives there and the locals being "ferried" across from the mainland and back by some guy pulling an innertube - totally awesome.

We hang out at the beach for a while, enjoying the sun, music, local crowd, etc., then the Aussies take a cab back to the apartment while Joel and I walk, enjoying the scene along the corniche until the sun went down. We went out for dinner at a nearby restaurant, but unfortunately after that, the group wanted to come back to the apartment instead of checking out the nightlife.

Rabat, Morocco
Rabat, the Moroccan capital about 45 minutes north of Casa, has a completely different feel - right away I noticed it definitely doesn't have the grime and slime(y people) like in Casa, everything here seems well laid-out, easy to navigate and minimal pan-handlers and hustlers. This morning back in Casa, the Aussies took off early for Marrakech while Joel and I went out for a coffee. I definitely have observed at the cafes, here and in Tunisia, are of the typical Middle-Eastern type (men only, gathered inside to watch the TV or outside to watch the crowds in the streets). But the one distinction of the North African cafes from those in the Middle East/Arabian Peninsula, is the lack of nargileh/sheesha pipes - I don't recall seeing any so far. But of course thats not to say the cafes here are a breath of fresh air - 99% of the patrons still smoke cigarettes. Well, I bid farewell to Joel then cabbed it to the Gare (train station), short ride up here to Rabat and checked in the friendly, clean (relatively), and hot shower/clean sheeted youth hostel - much better than Casa's! I wandered around the medina late afternoon - super hazy and loaded with people buying goods or sitting in cafes watching the Africa Cup of Nations (of course).

Outside the medina I was actually able to find a bar - super smokey and some shadiness, but they have beer - and cheap, too (only 14 DH, or about $2), so I wasn't complaining!

I'm sitting at a cafe sipping mint tea in the kasbah, high above the bluff overlooking the Oued Bou Regreg channel leading out to the Atlantic - great views!

This morning after breakfast I cabbed it over to the Mauritanian embassy to apply for a visa. Arrived there to a queue of Arabic & French (but not English)-speaking people outside, and used enough of my French knowledge to get through the application. Then proceeded to stand patiently "in line" while super-annoying and aggressive people cut & shoved their way in the door each time it opened to allow another 10 or so people inside. Well, after an hour & 1/2 or so, finally got in (as I was one of the last remaining people), gave the director the DH340 with my application/photos, and was told to return at 17:00. It took 5 minutes, tops - and as an American. I'm not sure why it took so long for all the Moroccan/French people?? But he didn't say whether I would actually get the visa at 17:00. Hmm... Anyway, cabbed it back to city center then wandered around a bit, making my way through the Ville Nouvelle, stopping at one point at an ATM. So, I've been reading in my guidebook that many Western African countries don't have ATMs at all. And rather than withdrawing a boatload of Dirham while here in Morocco that I'll get screwed on commission/exchange rates when I continue traveling, trying to find an ATM that dispense USD or Euro directly (like in Lebanon). So the ATM I stopped at I checked for the option, but only dispensed Dirham, so I cancel the transaction. A local man comes up speaking to me in French, and I just wave him off and start walking away, as I assume he is either asking me if I needed "help", or whether the ATM was not working (which he could find out for himself). "Well, then, F-You!" he calls out! I stop and turn around, he's going off, "I don't know if you speak English or French or whatever, but I was trying to help you..." blah blah. So I respond, "Well, I know what 'F-You' means. I didn't say anything to you." For which he responds, "No, its 'social grace' you lack. I was trying to help you". Yeah, I'm thinking, like this country has so much "social grace" standards to live up to. I just say, "Well, I didn't say anything to you before, but now its my turn, F-YOU!", and just walk away. So he's still going off, saying things like, "You f-ing American... or whatever... get off my land!" I don't even turn around but just reach behind flipping him off and keep walking. I thought that encounter was SO ridiculous, I just had to write it down to remember. I mean, if someone is at an ATM and walks away with purpose, not standing there looking confused or needing help, what makes one think they want help? And its not like you're a tourist at a market or walking along the street and dealing with the normal hassles of local touts/scammers, you're at A BANK and SHOULD have your guard up, skeptical of people around (especially someone who is obviously watching the transaction) offering "help". The reaction for him to get so angry that I didn't initially respond was just idiotic... and if he thinks less of Americans because of that, I guess he's oblivious to all the Moroccans who regularly try to scam the more approachable/unsuspecting tourists. Anyway! I kept walking to get that idiot off my mind and headed to Mohammed V's mausoleum, which is really beautiful mosaic tiled building,

opposite the "Tour Hassan", 12th c. minaret ordered built by the Almohad Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour to be the world's tallest (but abandoned incomplete at 44m after his death).

The courtyard dividing the 2 was lined with Roman columns and really nice big tree-shaded park behind I spent a few minutes people-watching. Continued north along eastern section of Ville Nouvelle to the kasbah,

and the crazy narrow and winding passageways past peoples' homes,

to the Platforme du Semaphore. Here there are really nice views across the Atlantic, Oued Bou Regreg, Sale (across the channel), and it appears as though a large section of the kasbah is slowly sinking into the Oued Bou Regreg!

Now I'm heading back over to the Mauritanian embassy, hoping to receive good news on the visa approved?

Heading out to catch my daily dose of the African Cup of Nations (funny, I think I'm kind of addicted!). No exciting/eventful happenings to mention today; I found a cafe with wifi (rarity these days), so spent a while catching up with the virtual world. I did get my Mauritanian visa yesterday afternoon, so now need to figure out what else to see/where to visit in Morocco before heading south.

Tangier, Morocco
Just returned from dinner with Ayia, Japanese girl I met staying at the same hotel here in Tangier - we had the harira, traditional Moroccan soup - now I'm addicted! This morning back in Rabat, got to the station early to catch the first train out, but still sat around for quite a while dealing with the lengthy delay, due to flooding in parts of the Rif mountains. When we did finally take off, the train went as far Kenitra, where it terminated and all the people had to get on connecting busses. Once in Tanger, got hassled by the touts as soon as I stepped foot on soil! Got to the hotel and then out to watch some of the Africa Cup of Nations, then met Ayia and wandered around the very touristy Nouvelle area.

It is very obvious, there is no doubt of the proximity to Europe from here - this is the most bars and clubs (actually with women patrons!) I've seen in all the Islamic nations I've traveled in.

Heading out in a minute for dinner, and after a late one last night, likely will be an early one tonight. Today said goodbye to Ayia who is heading up to Spain, and I spent a majority of the day wandering around the medina here, attempting to dodge the gang of touts trying to show me hotels or sell me grass. Checked out the 17th c. Dar el-Makhzen, former Sultan palace turned museum with some cool pieces showing the changing hands of nations that have ruled this area over the centuries.

Over at the kasbah, had nice views of Le Detroit De Gibraltar -- funny, last time I looked out over the Strait, it was from the other side, 12.5 years ago!

Fes, Morocco
Sipping a whiskey and coke (took advantage that Tanger had a liquor store) up on the rooftop terrace at my hotel here in iconic Fes. Took the early morning bus today in Tanger, through the flooded Rif mountain range about 7 hours south here to Fes. As the bus was pulling into the city, I had my first glimpses of the walled medina that seemed to stretch forever...

And of course, once I stepped off that bus and nearly every minute since, countless faux guides all over swarmed around, relentless with their harassment trying to score commissions... "Hey friend, where you from?" And it isn't like this is the first time dealing with these types from all over the world - but they're ridiculously persistent here in Fes... as if my ignoring the greeting for the first 5 minutes, will suddenly decide, "Yes, I'd like to have a conversation with you!" And the young kids here are flat out punks - swearing vulgarities at you if they're not acknowledged. Unfortunately, I'm beginning to think the guy at the ATM back in Rabat wasn't an isolated example of the Moroccan men. That said, the cities' sites, and particularly Fes, are amazing.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 04:18 Comments (0)

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