Welcome to my first official blog!  In the short-term, we'll be using this site to document the 2014 USAF Academy Cultural Immersion Trip that I'm leading to Cambodia!  See Details Below.

Ghanaian Van Ride From Hell

June 17, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

 

The trip in the van was getting long and there was no end in sight.  We stopped just before dusk for a bathroom stop. The roads were terrible and some of the uphills looked impassable, but Fatou kept going.  The transmission was a little shaky and he revved and rested every couple of seconds going up the steeper hills, at times almost coming to a stop.  

It was getting dark and passing through villages and along the essentially one lane roads was not at all comforting or safe.  The sing-along had stopped. We were passed by a couple of motorcycles and passed a couple of suspicious cars that were stopped along the side of the road.  Austin admitted later, and Becky agreed, that we were complete sitting duck targets for any criminals that wanted to rob or highjack this van full of white tourists.

I turned on mobile data on my phone to track a little using Google Maps and Becky was doing the same.  Our progress was much slower than expected. George was getting frantic calling the hotel to make sure food would be available when we arrived late, while simply assuring them that we would eventually arrive.  When we stopped to use the bushes, he thought we might be there by 2030. On our maps, it looked like 2130 at the best. About 30 minutes later, when we were discussing dinner, he admitted that he’d told them that he thought we wouldn’t be there until 2200.

We drove through one non-descript village and stopped along the side of the road just past a roundabout that, my map showed, we should take to get to Kumasi.  We’d left the original route Google Maps suggested about an hour or more before, but I said nothing, nor did Becky because we just did not know the roads. Fatou, supposedly, drove this route almost every day and seemed to know the good and bad parts of the road.  Unfortunately, we discovered we’d been used--or at least not told the full truth about our route. Fatou got out of the car and delivered a large box of rice, on foot, to his mom’s house in the village. We were starving and everyone was out of food. We walked back to the roundabout and found a woman selling piles of boiled peanuts in the shell for 1 Cedi per pile (about $0.23).  I bought six piles and put them into three bags and then brought them back to the van. George bought himself a pile, too.

I was texting with the Tailor Made Travel folks telling them what was going on.  They responded once but could do nothing. TransAfrica was not responding to texts.

At about 2030 we stopped at a gas station to fill up and use the bathrooms again.  The shoppette was closed and we couldn’t get any snacks. By now, it was clear that the hotel restaurant wasn’t going to stay open for us, so George suggested that we hit another restaurant in Kumasi before checking into the hotel.  As the length of the trip grew, that seemed less and less likely to be successful. Becky suggested that we didn’t need dinner, just a chance to stop at a shoppette that was open so we could get some food to tide us over. We did that at about 2130 and my phone showed that we were still almost 90 minutes out.  George said that we were only 30 minutes away, but that was to a turn on the highway before Kumasi--he was using Google Maps on his phone, too, I could see. Therefore, he knew all along, as did we, how long it was going to take and how slow we were moving.

I can’t even imagine how many speed bumps we crossed going through villages.  It must’ve been near 1,000. Each set caused us to slow, as intended, but Fatou would come to a near halt for almost every one.  My back was killing me.

We listened to the entire Nigeria-Croatia World Cup Match on a local language radio station--or Fatou did.  I could only understand the occasional English phrase and the names of the teams. When the game was over, Fatou, who’s rear-view mirror had a small banner hanging from it declaring him “Proud to Be a Muslim,” turned it to the 24-hour non-stop Arabic Muslim chant station.  I was just loving this.

At one point, slowing for one of the probably dozen police traffic checkpoints, a large red bus stopped going in the other direction and so did Fatou.  He actually opened the window and started a conversation with his friend, the driver of the bus. Then, I lost it, and just said, “Let’s Go!” We went. As we approached the hotel, George was trying to give the driver directions.  Only about a half-mile away, we started to see signs with arrows for the Noda Hotel. They were in reflective gold and yellow and easily legible. The driver missed the first one and made the wrong turn. He stopped, reversed, and we turned right.  We came to the next one. I said, “There’s another sign, turn left.” He turned left, but not at the road intersection with the sign, but into the parking lot of another hotel. He backed out and made the next turn. We came to the third and final sign directing us to turn into the hotel parking lot--the four-story hotel to our left with the name in red neon lights, “Hotel Noda.”  He almost missed the turn again and had to stop. This time George told him, “Turn there where the sign is.” He did so. I realized that it was entirely possible that our driver was illiterate.

We arrived at 2325 to a dark hotel, but the receptionist at the desk was ready for us and we quickly got keys in exchange for passport copies.  We went upstairs, found our rooms to be quite nice and spacious.

Becky and I did a little sink laundry before going to bed.  George had told us that we would start the next day later, at 0900, and I was sure we could use the extra time.  Before going to sleep, I sent the cadets a GroupMe note thanking them for being so positive and resilient during one of the toughest day of travel I’ve had in my life.  Eight hours in a local, indigenous van with ten people and luggage, covering over 240 km, with more than half of the driving time on horrible dirt roads was more than enough for all of us.


Lots of Cote d'Ivoire - In and Out, 15 and 16 June

June 16, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

We woke up early on the 15th and neither of us had had a good night sleeping.  We did most of our packing and then went downstairs early for breakfast. I finished writing my blog entries for the 14th and we caught up in the news and weather in Colorado Springs where, two days before, there had been a severe hailstorm.  Now, there were flood warnings for the coming week and as remnants of a tropical storm moved north from Mexico.

While eating, Becky saw a Facebook post from Masha Smirnova, our guide seven years ago when we took Intrepid Travel’s Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian trip across Asia with two friends and four cadets.  She was announcing for Intrepid that they had a new trip with a hidden itinerary. They only publish the start and stop dates and locations and price. I’m in. I’ve already submitted a request for info and will plan on inviting a few friends as a gift to myself for my 60th birthday.

After returning to the room, we gathered our bags and went to the lobby. Georgia was ready and waiting and has clearly been on the health upswing the last few days.  Everyone now seems healthy and adjusted to the trip, if occasionally troubled with some minor “distress.”

We left the hotel on time and spent the frist thirty minutes or so retracing our routes through Abidjan before entering the countryside.  En route, we passed a huge new soccer stadium under construction funded by the Chinese. It looked remarkably similar to the Bird Nest Olympic Stadium in the artist’s drawing road signs.

We saw significantly more farming along the route than we’d yet seen on our trip, passing farms growing papayas, corn, vegetables, and bananas.

Rather abruptly, George asked Yah-yah to stop the van along the side if the road and he said we were stopping at a cacao plantation.  We didn’t see anything--just jungle along the road that looked almost impenetrable. We walked back behind the bus by about 10 meters and saw a small footpath leading into the green and a couple of banana trees bearing green fruit.

Almost instantly, though, we began to see dozens of cacao pods hanging from the trunks and branches of the trees varying in size from small green okra-like pods to deep yellow golden ones the size of small Crenshaw melons.

George took one ripe one off of the tree and opened it up to show the many whitish, pulpy seeds within.  We each tasted one and found it somewhat tart, but sweet. I chewed up the seed, which became bitter as I did so, and swallowed it--just in time to see George spit his seed out.  Oh well. Evan did the same thing.

George explained that, once harvested and separated from the husk of the pod, the seeds were wrapped in banana leaves to ferment.  A few days later they would be laid out in the sun to dry before being sold. He said that cocoa prices had recently tanked on the world markets and that that was causing concern in Cote d’Ivoire--the world’s largest producer of cocoa.

We were surprised to see so many pics on each tree and how close some of them sprouted from the base of the tree trunk.  Very tiny white flower seemed to emanate directly from the bark of the trunk and branches, ultimately becoming a cacao pod. Some of the trees appeared for have three or four dozen pods at differing levels of maturity.

We returned to the minibus and continued our journey north.  The air conditioning was working well and Yah-yah was driving safely but fast.  There were not the many speed bumps in every village slowing us down as we’d seen in Senegal no police vehicle he checks that we endured in The Gambia or Liberia.

From the jungle coffee and cacao farm, we next arrived in Aniassue, which seemed like a small town with one intersection on the highway.  We stopped at the intersection and picked up two women, one older and one in her late teens or twenties that would take us to the King’s residence.  Both had some white powder or paint designs on their face that we're somewhat worn away. Before they got onboard, though George had gone to a small shop by the bus and bought a bottle of liquor that he said would be a gift for the king. I couldn’t tell the type, but it seemed to be a clear liquor in a tall, rectangular cross-section bottle in a plastic case.

We turned right off of the main road next onto a red dirt road that led into the heart of the village, arriving after about a half-mile at a compound that announced La Royaume d’Aniassué.

We stepped off if the bus and into the compound that had one large residential building a few lower buildings, a large paved area and a covered area with a concrete floor.  There were about 20 kids playing around, some teenagers chatting behind a low wall and some adults.

We we're Les under the Cabana to a ring of plastic chairs that faced the King’s throne and asked to sit by a man who looked like the King’s chief aide and behaved like him, too.

George told them generally about us and there were translations into the local language and explanations in French.

A few minutes later, a large man in a black and white rice came down the stairs and we all stood the greet the king as he entered our area.  In the background, the kids were still gasking at us a little, but mostly just played around.

George introduced us to the king hrough his aid and a young man clearly in training who was helping to translate.  

We then all passed by the king and his entourage shaking hands with everyone including the king.  After we were seated again, the king asked us to introduce ourselves and I began in French. The king was pleased that Becky and I knew French and that also helped George with some of the translation.

I told them that we were from USAFA and that these students would soon be officers in our Air Force. The king asked each of their ages and seemed quite impressed that they were only 20-23 years old.

He then offered us a welcome gift which was the same liquor we’d brought them.  George accepted it graciously and then reached into his bag to present our gift.  I got the impression that many of these bottles just change hands like this and are never opened.

The king was very friendly and asked us if we had any questions.  Through our questions he told us that he was king over a surrounding area encompassing 18 small villages.  He was 72 years old with five wives and 37 grand children. He pointed out his youngest son who appeared to be a mid-teenager.

The king had ruled Aniassué for 50 years as of last December.  He explained that the did not inherit the kingdom from his father but that the throne was handed down traditionally to the eldest son of the previous King’s eldest sister. He said that this was the only way to be absolutely certain that the family blood-line had been maintained because you knew for certain that the child from the King’s sister was related to him, but you could never be 100% certain that the King’s son was, indeed, the King’s son and not that of another man.  This, their hierarchy was maternally based.

He had inherited the thrown at a time when he was a student in Paris.  However, when the previous king had died and he was chosen, he was obliged to return to Aniassué and give up his studies.

We then followed his aide to an open area in which he opened the King’s received bottle of liquor and made a shirt ceremony of pouring a shit, taking a small taste, kneeling in front of an elephant shrine and pouring the liquor out onto the concrete while chanting.  He then touched all of his fingers to the wet concrete and touched his forehead and then his chest with his fingers in a motion similar to Caholics crossing themselves.

He then invited me, as leader of the group to do the same, which I accomplished without incident.

Next, the king invited us back for photos at which time he insisted upon Georgia and Becky sitting on either side of him as the others gathered around for the group shot.

Once accomplished, we took some more photos of the kids--again, unlike in Senegal--no one had an issue with having their photo taken.  They were very beautiful kids and many of the girls looked extremely similar to each other.

From the King’s residence we went to the Animist Priestess's compound.  The entire area was Animist and in no place did we see any Christian or Muslim structures or symbols, throughout Aniassué.

We drove back to the main intersection and parked by a little boulangerie.  The two women led us off the bus and about two buildings away and we entered through a concrete gate and then walked into the home of the ranking priestess at this Animist School for, presumably, witch doctors for lack of a better term.

We sat in the living room and she told us her story.  Another priestess had told her mother, when he mother was carrying her, that she would be a priestess someday.  She claims that, when she was four years old, she wondered off into the jungle near a river and was lost. Everyone was looking for her, but couldn’t find her. She was saved by spirits in the jungle, though.  Growing up she didn’t want to be a priestess but decided at age 21 to change her mind and entered three years of training to become a 'certified’ Animiat priestess.

She now ran the local training facility and the program ranged from three to seven years. The trainees we're mostly girls but included some boys, too.

She gathered her herbs and medicines in the forest and produced her own treatments.  She told us that people will come to her and that the toughest part of the job is diagnosing maladies.  She says she works with modern doctors, too. When there is an ailment that she thinks she cannot cure, she refers them to modern doctors. Likewise, she said that modern doctors will send her their hopeless cases when they can’t treat or diagnose them. It made me think that some American doctors might like to do something like that with a hypochondriac that won’t accept their diagnosis.  We didn’t discuss her treatments in any detail.

The young man who was translating and speaking for the king was also speaking for her.  He seemed to be very engaged through the whole village structure.

From her living room, we went into the compound’s inner courtyard where a group of about 40 had gathered for a fetish priestess dance.  It would be led by the head Priestess’s second in command and was part of the noviate’s training.

The group under the large mango tree pretty much ignored us and spent at least a half hour singing to two beating drums.  The drums would cease and we would expect the dance to begin, but then it would start again.

Finally, the five priestesses who were performing stepped through a doorway into the courtyard with an assistant throwing out clouds of talcum powder (or wheat flour) to announce their arrival.

Prior to this, a couple women made a large circle encompassing almost all of the sunny part of the court with the same powder.

The priestesses seemed to range in age between about 15 and probably late-30s or mid-40s.  The ranking women was clearly the oldest, while the second ranking was much younger and was one of two wearing a red fez.  She was a remarkable dancer. The youngest in the group came out topless, while the others were wearing white bras.

The dancing and ceremony than ensued was just amazing.  We never got the impression that this was centered on us or solely for or entertainment or to generate donations. They didn’t seem to even notice that we were there.

It went on for almost an hour in heat that wouldn’t wilted any of us.  Different priestesses or trainees took the lead. At one point they each danced individually and then thanked and elderly gentleman with gray hair seated sin the front of the audience.  The assistant helped with tosses of additional talcum powder from time to time, too.

At another point a rather young initiate came into the ring from the audience and played a pantomimed game of hide and seek with the second priestess.

We were all just amazed at the length of the event.  Finally, the leader brought each of us a sheet of colorful flower fabric and invited us into the ring to join the dance.  The crowd roared with delight as we mimicked their moves incompetently.

When we’d completed our dance and we're now all dripping wet with dusty sweat, the priestesses continued.  Finally, the leader brought a dish around and we gave donations. I tossed in a 2000 CFA bill, about $4 and they seemed content. Again, I know the cadets each or as a group put in some bills, but I’m not sure how much.

Following this, the ladies each did a solid in the center aided by additional talcum powder and shuffled off the center ring after completing their own dance.

We were exhausted just watching, much less participating in this amazing event.  The dancers came out of their dressing room to meet their friends and family and we were allowed to mingle somewhat.  My camera was a hit and I took many photos of the kids and adults, including several family shots. They gave me the email address of the young man who’d done the translation and I promised to send them photos upon my return.

We thanked the high priestess as we departed and returned to the bus.  We bought baguettes at the boulangerie as well as a few pastries and then loaded up to cover the final 20 km to Abengourou.

In Abengourou, we checked into the sad hotel called the Royal. The stucco was moldy, there were few lights and it was hot with zero circulation.  Other than, it was probably the best hotel in Abengourou.

We settled into our room down a dark hallway and found a bare room with a low bed, TV smaller than most computer monitors and an air conditioning unit that only worked when the door key was in the slot by the door--despite all the jerry-rigging I tried to overcome it. Becky was not thrilled.

We agreed to meet George at 1530 to go to the market and tour the city a little.  When we arrived at the market, we found it relatively clean an spacious by African standards.  It wasn’t crowded either and we could walk down the aisles with ease. This was surprising because the main part of the market had burned down about two months ago and was a mass of charred stucco and twisted corrugated steel and rubble about 50 meters away.

The people in the market were friendly--almost too friendly.  In the cosmetic area in which stylists were working on weaves and eyebrows, one young later suggested that she would like to make the male cadets “mes joués” (my toys).  I told her that she couldn’t have any of them for less than 20,000 CFA apiece. The guys were clearly a hit, while all of the women stared at George’s blond hair and light skin.  

Upstairs, the guys bought Cote d’Ivoire soccer sets before we left.

We walked back through the market to exit and I took many photos of kids and parents in their stalls.

We returned to the hotel and tried to arrange dinner.  They told us that they would like us to order in advance, but we couldn’t do that until the chef arrived. No, they didn’t know when the chef would arrive.

Becky and I went to the bar, which was relatively frigid fromita a/c.  We each had a Beaufort and watched World Cup, catching up on social media, working on photos and relaxing.

The cadets went to the remarkably nice pool and then hung out on the terrace for awhile.

Shortly after returning to the room, I was alerted that we could order our dinner. They gave me a menu and I ordered for Becky and me after asking all of the cadets what they wanted.

They told us that dinner would even ready at about 1900 and they would serve us outside on the terrace since they didn’t seem excited about running the cooler in the restaurant. I asked them if we could be served in the bar and we declined.  While we were in our room running the a/c, another call came asking me to come back to the restaurant to speak with the chef.

When I did, he told me that they didn’t have many things already ordered.  I made some substitutions for almost all of us with consulting and just hoping I’d be close.

Soon after, Becky and I went down to the restaurant and found the cadets in the bar relaxing.  We told them that we’d call them when dinner was ready. Meanwhile, they had turned on the a/c in the restaurant area and temperatures were approaching tolerable.

I was then called to the bar to help resolve a dispute over our drink bill. It appeared that Becky and the bar staff were talking past each other.  Hunger and heat were not helping and we both went back the restaurant after a settlement with the bar.

Dinner arrived about 30 minutes late and they combined our side orders into single plates.  The food wasn’t bad considering, nor was it very good. Luckily, however, it was much cheaper than Abidjan.

We finished, paid up without incident and everyone retired for a night that included lots of noise, loud talk in the halls, and loud banging lasting well past 0100.

16 June

Breakfast was pretty miserable.  We had a choice of baguettes with preserves/jelly and simple omelets.  No fruit, no pastries, and only hot water for instant coffee. Moreover, the waitress claimed that we had to pay for one of us to eat--that  you the same room fee only included breakfast for one. That didn’t go well. We finally chose to order anyway and ignore her. When we left, she said everything was okay.

We loaded up from the rooms and left on time. George told us that we were meeting a second driver and minibus at the Ghana border, leaving Yah-yah in Cote D'Ivoire, but that the other bus had to come from Kumasi and it might be late.  We would drive around abengourou little bit to “waste some time” and maybe make another stop or two because he didn’t expect the next bus at the border until 1200.

We stopped in the town of Niamble just before the border to walk around and soak in a little more culture.

First we stopped into a home compound with a couple of women pounding cassava in a large wooden bowl.  I didn’t see how the younger one with the giant pestle was missing the fingers of the older woman as she kneaded the starchy, sticky, faintly yellow-white blob and occasionally felt and extracted tiny bits of the toughest fiber.

The kids asked if I would take my photo and, of course I obliged.  The cassava stand was really a restaurant because people would come up with porcelain-lined steel pots, add cassava and then gets ladkea of a reddish fish soup with cooked fish heads.

Across the street another stand was selling some fruit and frying more fish heads in hot oil off the road, again with lots if kids.  They were even more enthusiastic for photos, too,

Burning more time, we continues walk, visiting the compound of the local king, who wasn’t home--but more kids wanting photos were!

Yah-yah followed in the bus and a couple of cadets road along in the chase wagon.  Finally, we got on board, too, and headed to the border.

When we arrived at the immigration, a guy in uniform stopped the bus and asked George for our “list” of tourists. He asked, “What list?” Apparently, we needed some certified list for our tourist group granted either at our entry or in some other way. George was confounded and said that we were just a tourist group, nothing special and that he’s never before heard of this requirement.

They argued for few minutes more without much progress when I interrupted in French and told them that we weren’t just tourists, but rather an official group of Americans on government business, handing him my official passport.  For a list, we gathered our orders. The gentleman asked George and me to come inside.

Up some stairs and to the shack where the Ivoirian immigration officers were, we met one man at a desk and another standing.  Over the next 30 minutes, he carefully transcribed all of our info onto an old-style log book. He was confused by our birthdays written with the month word as opposed to number and miswrote several. He wasn’t sure if October was month 9 or 10.  I kept quiet.

Slowly, progress was being made.

Another officer in uniform came in and introduced himself. I returned the favor and we struck up a nice conversation in French during which he told me that his dream was to visit the American West and see the Grand Canyon.

Finally, our man completed his entries and then stamped all of our passports, adding a written note of date and his initials to each.

We drove in the now terrible dirt road to Ghana, arriving five minutes later at the sleepiest little border crossing I’ve ever seen.

We filled out immigration forms and went to the next room in which we filled out more forms.

The agent was only slightly quicker than his Ivoirian counterpart in completing our passports.  There was no rush, however, as the next bus hadn’t arrived yet--nor would it.

We waited at the border with the guards trying to watch the France-Australia World Cup match on a poorly tuned Sharp TV of about 15”.

We decided to drive to the first town in Ghana and meet the next bus there. It was only about five kilometers in and was a classic dusty poor little burg with a dirt center square for three taxis and a couple if spare car engines--plus one transmission.

We stopped to get something to eat or drink, but that was hard to find--at least in any clean and packaged form.& andIwillbe & the same%%^÷® and we can go

George found a bar with a covered back area and a big screen TV where we could get beer and soft drinks--but no food.  Meanwhile he tried to comm from there with TransAfrican and our next driver--to no avail. Soon after, he found a money changers who gave us a good rate on converting CFA to Ghanaian Cedis.  We changed all of them except 100,000 I kept in the car for an emergency and maybe a better rate somewhere. We put all of the cadets money into ours to improve the rate and pro-rated it for each. Next, we sold them some extra Cedis we had from from my ATM mistake.

After sitting for an hour watching the Iceland-Argentina pregame, he decided that we should bring our bags into the bar and let Yah-yah go on his way.  TranaAfrica continued to assure him that our minibus was on it's way. It wasn’t.

George  was getting very perturbed,  We could tell that he didn’t think things were going well and he told Becky that they were not being “very professional.”

Meanwhile, back at the game, we were enjoying the show of all the Ghanaian fans, most rooting for Iceland but there still cheers when Argentina scored the first goal. The place erupted as Iceland evened the match, though, and then went crazy when the Icelandic goalie stopped Mesii’s penalty kick.

The Club beer bomber bottles were only 700 CFA ($1.25) so that helped.

We started discussing the over/under for a bus arrival and thought that 1500 was about right.  At 1445, though, Becky and I went looking for George who was trying to arrange alternative transpo.  I called the TransAfrica hotline twice, but no one answered. I called Tailor Made’s number and they answered promptly. There wasn’t much they could do, but said they would try to contact TransAfrica as well and see what was going on.

While speaking to the Tailor Made agent George walked up and said he’d found a van to take us but that the van we rode in wouldn’t have air conditioningat this point, we didn’t care so long as the windows went down and we’d all fit inside.

The locals took us to the van with a giant catfish painted on the side.  We started to walk around it and Becky, the trip’s director of safety, security, and not doing stupid things, noticed that belt fabric was coming through the right front tire.  She said that she wouldn’t rise in the van and we wouldn’t take it unless they changed the tire.

The driver said that it was okay.  The other three tires were “OK” (meaning in the US they were only 10,000 miles past needing replacement).

Negotiations restarted. They said they would change the tire, but no one moved.  George was negotiating, calling, promising, shaking his head, “Non!” and there was smsovement everywhere. I reiterated our objection in French to the driver and others and then, thanks mostly to George, the conversation shifted to another slightly larger van that seemed, upon inspection, to have four serviceable tires.

The deal to transfer agreement was struck and we starting bringing out bags as the cadets paid the bar tab in a combo of CFA and Cedis.

The cadets were turning a shitty situation into a fun one as we took photos loading the van, photos with the locals, selfies, etc.

Once loaded, we started to roll at 1530 with three each the back two rows, Austin and George in the second row and me serving as driver Fatou’s co-pilot in front.

The a/c didn’t function, so we just rolled the windows down for air.

The roads were amazingly rough from the very beginning, with car-swallowing ruts and pond-like potholes, or pondholes.  George said that the road was in better shape than usual because it was mostly dry.

Fatou was a good driver, though, and did his best to keep us dry and right-side-up as well as loose from the Ghanaian Shihatsu massage.

After 45 minutes of fun, we were stopped at a roadside gate and had to show our passports and entry stamps to the customs officer.  A few minutes later we enjoyed the luxury of a paved Ghanaian road--a treat that lasted for about 15 minutes, but I felt like Fatou covered as much ground in those 15 minutes of high-speed pothole slalom that we did in the previous hour.

Sadly, it ended quickly and we were back onto terrible roads.

The ride was fun so far, though, as the cadets played music on their cell phones and we sang along, much to the delight of Fatou and George.

 


Liberia, Liberia... Uggh, Liberia

June 15, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

From the Ducor Palace, we drove down the hill and headed into the West Point Township slums.  We parked at a Total gas station and walked out onto the wet road, watching a front loader scoop tons of wet, smell garbage.  There were puddles of water in the street, on the curbs, everywhere, and the water was remarkably dark and dirty except for the rainbow diffractions of oil in some. Table and tent umbrella merchant stands lined the streets with one or two women in charge of each that contained food of some sort and a variety of little kids ranging from nursing babies to six- and seven-year-olds running around.  Men were at stalls selling not food items like clothing, shoes, hardware, and stacks of third-hand, cracked cover cell phones.

Jimmy quickly set us up with three kay-kays and the bumper car race into Westpoint began. The cacophony of honking horns, hawkers selling goods, wheels plashing through puddles, and screaming kids was saturating.  We cleared stalls, chairs, people and other vehicles by significant millimeters, traveling at about 15 mph. I decided to take a video with my camera that turned out pretty well.

We stopped in an open parking area along a long wall that, I’m sure, was used more often as a pickup soccer pitch.  The walls around the area suggested that a high school was on one side, a health center on a second, and a Catholic school on a third.  We walked towards the non-walled side that was an entrance into the residential area.

The good news about Westpoint is that the ground base was all sand--we didn’t have to walk through mud.  The bad news was that the sand was very dirty with puddles of unknown composition.

We were immediately struck by the tight, squalid conditions.  Many of the buildings we're about eight feet high and made of concrete block that was crumbling at any exposed edge. These were covered with a patchwork of corrugated aluminum sheets often shared between homes. Entries we're bare except for a sheet or drape of some kind, but colors of paint on doors, walls, and window shutters we're often vivid and primary.  No “home” appeared to have more than about 60 to 100 square feet of space and probably slept six or eight.

Children we're everywhere, most six or under.  Women were cooking or preparing food, laundry was hanging from most exposed wires and cables, and we saw little indication of indoor lighting.  The smells we're so intense that you quickly just flicked the olfactory switch to “off” and stopped caring.

We arrived at a low building with a new roof that burst with the screams and cheers of little kids and soon realized that we’d arrived at our first school visit.

This was a one room schoolhouse with about 80 preschool and kindergarten aged kids (though some seemed to be seven or eight) led by one man whom, we were told was a volunteer.  The kids roared with delight when the cadets went to the front of the room and began speaking to them a little.

There were lessons on the two old chalkboards showing all of the letters of the alphabet and, on the other side of the room, a simple science lesson defining “matter.”

The director/teacher explained that the school was free for the children and run by donations.  Under his direction, the kids parroted back some phrases as a group. We saw no individual recitation or questions.  The room was packed completely with kids and we could barely walk around. The director showed us where the roof had been replace with new wooden underlayment paid for by contributions from visitors.  Jimmy said for a second time that donations were welcome and we got the distinct impression that he had directed us to his friend’s school specifically to generate donations from us--a thought that recurred several more times during the day.

We thanked the director and I gave him USD$10. I’m not sure if the cadets donated anything.

We walked farther (I presumed to the north) towards the inland water side and heard more cheering--we’d arrived at another school.  This one had two rooms and appeared to have three teachers (or two and a director). The kids seemed to be ranging from about third grade to maybe middle school age and we're all dressed in clean blue uniforms.  Every seat was filled. The director led them in chanting drills that seemed inocuous, but were simple and apparently part of a show they point on for tourists. Their accent was difficult to understand, but then, due to the rhythm, we realized he was just saying “One, Two,” and they’d respond “Tie my shoe!” and so on. I took a video of this and, eerily, having just read  “Allah Is Not Obliged,” it reminded me of drills for child soldiers. Becky was struck in the same way. When we mentioned it to the cadets hours later they said that they had not considered that. However, Matt watched the video and you could tell that it gave him chills.

In the other room of the schoolhouse, groups of three boys and then three girls were each doing the same memorized short skit on the value of staying in school that generated cheers from all of the other kids--again like it was a show for us.  We did, however see real signs of lessons on the board, some progress reports belonging to a few of the kids, and a teacher actually conducting part of what looked like a real lesson.

Near the end of the visit we broke up and took some individual photos.  A group gathered around Austin as he showed them photos on his cell phone, including shots from the total solar eclipse in Wyoming last year.  On departure, I handed the director a twenty and, again, I don’t know if the cadets donated or not.

From the second school, we continued towards the water and came to a beach of trash with three building on stilts over the water and rickety wooden bridges leading to each.  Chickens, dogs, and two small children rummaged through the trash looking for anything edible or of value.

In the first building at the beginning of the bridge was a room in which vats of water were being heated for showers that one could purchase in the out building over the water.  The other two over water buildings seemed to have similar arrangements and included toilets that vented directly to the water with about five feet of space between floor and water surface, a la Slumdog Millionaire.  Two young men were sending the hot water vats and collecting money from patrons. In the outdoor area on land, Matt warned us to not look to our “3 o’clock” because a little girl had decided she didn’t need such formal facilities and had just dropped her trousers to relieve herself in the open air.

We left the bathing facilities and walked through the trash heap to an adjoining area with large open steel barrels--several dozen of them.  Some had charcoal smoke coming from them and we realized that this was the fish smoking and preserving area.

Jimmy led us through a passageway and a woman was laying small whole silvery fish (about 8-12” long) on to thin wooden slats.  The charcoal and wet wood chips were already smoking.

She told us that they would smoke the fish for about 24 hours and that someone would tend the process overnight.

We retraced our steps back to our arrival lot and then out on to the main Street of Westpoint.  Jimmy asked if we’d like to ride kay-kays back to the bus or just walk and I said that we’d walk so we could see more and than 'in for a penny, in for a pound,’ we might as well have full experience.

And that we did.  We dodged kay-kays and saw the sellers at work close up.  We passed tiny shops of all varieties presuming that the owners and their families all lived in or just behind the shops.  Among the more interesting sights we're baskets of tiny crabs and giant sea snails.

We walked by one little girl in a pretty blue and white dress squatting a

On the curb brushing her teeth with a fairly new and clean looking toothbrush and paste.  Then, we all shuddered as she spit the foam into the street, reached down with her brush and rinsed it in the street puddle, put it back in her mouth, and returned to brushing.

Our next stop was the National Museum.  We drove down the hill on Broad Street and past the US embassy and parked across the street from the National Museum.  We walked inside and we're greeted by a very serious guide/docent who told us that we could take no photos of the exhibitions, but only group shots near the exit.  He then made it clear that donations were accepted at the exit--something Jimmy reiterated several times during the tour.

Our guide was very knowledgeable, but spoke with a pidgin accept that was all.ost unintelligible.  He also insisted that, despite museum’s small size and several excellent printed narratives at each display, we stay close to him

He grew visibly bothered when any of us spoke among ourselves or made comments to each other about the displays, too.

The museum ahd been recently (2017) redone and was the most modern we’d seen on our trip.  The ground floor covered culture, tribes, costumes, and the history of the region, while the second floor covered more contemporary history, focusing largely on the civil wars between 1980 and 2004, as well as the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Our tour ended with a very amateurish photo slideshow of former President Shirleaf containing photos of her and many dignitaries as well as some good shots from her youth.

We all gathered around the exit and took photos, then put a few bills in the donation box under the close surveillance of our guide who seemed to think that everyone should make their own independent donation and take the time to reach into their own wallet and was quite perturbed when we did not comply.  The whole thing was sad because it really was a good little museum, spoiled by a very antisocial guide.

We next went to the Liberian Inauguration House in which all of their their president's took office.  We saw their seat or the one and that of the vice president. As well as photos of each president, no matter how heinous their reign.

Outside, we saw the tomb of President Tubman who led from 1944 to 1971 during as close a time as any to a 'Golden Age’ in Liberia.  He died in office and his successor would ultimately be executed my MSgt Samuel Doe during the coup d’etat of 1980. Doe’s picture was on the way, as was that of his successor--convicted human rights violator and war criminal, Capt Charles Taylor.  On the lawn outside hall we're Doe’s and Taylor’s limousines, each up on blocks with unlocked doors enabling us to see the small TV and minibar.

Note:  Taylor’s ex-wife is the current sitting vice president of Liberia!

The exterior also had a monument to the pioneers of Liberia erected for the centennial of the republic’s establishment in 1847.

With this, and the time barely past 1230, Jimmy said we were almost done for the day.  He pointed out a couple of old churches we would visit the next day and I wondered why we wouldn’t just see them today.

He said that the next day we would see those sites and Providence Island before going to the markets for souvenirs and leaving for the airport at about 1200.  We did, however, drive up and down Broad Street to see more of the city before returning to the Bella Casa at about 1300.

Actually, our timing was good because, by the time we began our return the rain was falling heavily.

As we parted for the day, I told him that we planned to visit the US Embassy the next morning from about 0800-1000 and could then do what he had planned, time permitting.  He said that he was okay with that and that I could contact him by SMS to let him know exact times.

We went for lunch in the Bella Csa restaurant and sat as a group ordering light food and watching soccer reruns on the wide screen TV.

Service was very slow, as usual, and I don’t think we left the restaurant before 1530.  Becky and I shared a bowl of local-style fish soup and some frites.

We met in the lobby at 1845 and Jarad arrived shortly thereafter.  We piled everyone into his minivan or the short ride the the Royal Palace Hotel and top floor restaurant.

This was Jarad’s favorite hang out and he admitted to eating there more evenings than not. The Lebanese owner knew him well and we got the best service of our trip.

The menu was Asian fusion with sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai curry dishes.  Jarad said the food was the best in Monrovia and that it was one of only two places in the country at which he trusted he could use his credit card safely.

Becky ordered the tuna tartare and I had a Thai Green Curry and shrimp plate.

We continued with deep discussions about the value of overseas and special duty assignments, lessons learned and connections made during jobs like this, and the positive and unpredictable impacta they can have on one’s career.  It was another relaxing but highly rewarding evening.

Jarad also told us that we were on for our Embassy visit the next morning but that he had a fairly tight schedule and could only see us from about 0845 to 1000.  I tried to relay that information to Jimmy by SMS, but he never responded. An hour later, I sent the same info to the TransAfrica rep that had been so helpful the day before and he confirmed that Jimmy and our driver would be at the Bella Casa at 0800 the next morning to take us to the embassy.

13 June

Breakfast was again good.  In terms of room quality, wifi, and breakfast, the Bella Casa was o e of the beat hotel on our trip.  It even had a little Nespresso-fueles coffee shop.

Jimmy was on-time and I asked him, on Becky’s suggestion, if we could leave our bags in our room and pick them up in your way to the airport.  I noted, though, that checkout was at 1200 and we’d need to be back by then. He agreed and we we're on our way.

Emmanuel dropped us off in front of the consulate and the guard gave us friendly directions back to the main entrance.  We cleared the first level of entry with a call from security to Jarad’s office, locked up our cell phones, and proceeded to the Marine Guard checkpoint.

The Marine at the window helped us quickly and Jarad brought us up to his office to show us around.  It looked exactly like every other DAO I’d visited in every other embassy. We did learn, however from a photo on the wall, that Benjamin Davis, Sr, had been stationed in Liberia at the embassy from 1910-1911.

Jarad then led us to the USAID offices where met Dr Jessica Mea.  After a short walk to a conference room, we spent the next 45 minutes listening to her describe USAID's work and many challenges in Liberia and how she'd worked through the Ebola crisis.

Originally an emigree from Romania after the end of the Cold War, she was an epidemiologist who’d serves as a professor at UC-San Francisco and done extensive AIDS research.  She’d worked for the CDC for the last dozen or so years as a public health officer in Uganda and West Africa.

Our discussion ranged far and wide from birth rates, health infrastructure, poverty, prostitution, and the Ebola outbreak to the role of religions (Christian, Muslim, and Animist), women’s rights, gay rights, education, and economic development. Overall, she was not at all optimistic in Liberia but did say that there were positive pockets and examples of progress in Africa, citing Rwanda as one of those.

Again, we had an amazing experience that I’m sure few could match.

Jarad had to get to a meeting, and we hurried our after thanking him profusely and presenting him with the coveted Astro coin.

We cleared our way out of the embassy, retrieved our phones and found Jimmy and Emmanuel at the curb waiting for us.

Jimmy next took us to the first church in Liberia, the Methodist church established with the first arrivers and it proudly proclaimed across the front that it was established in 1822.  We went inside the dark building with hand-painted “stained” glass and a dominating painting of John Westley. Neither Jimmy nor our “guide” could give us much information except to say that the building was constructed in 1822, which clearly was not the case.  It was well-maintained on the exterior, but strangely so with “bricks” painted on some of the exterior walls with stripes of white paint over red paint.

We next went to a market to find soccer jerseys for the cadets, but didn’t realize that we’d be walking there.  It was no big deal, but we did climb and descend a pretty big hill.

We entered the garment area and Jimmy took us to a Lebanese dealer who gave them very good deals at about USD $5 apiece.  They may have actually been able to pay less, but it was so hot inside the store that they just wanted to buy the jerseys and get out--not a bad sales ploy.

Traffic was building now, more quickly than our sweat, as we headed towards Providence Island.  We could see it up ahead, just past a bridge that connected it to our part of the city and, opposite, the mainland.  Jimmy told us that during the Civil War, rebels blockaded the city by taking over the bridge, essentially starving it of many mainland products--he didn’t mention any issues with resupply by the ocean port.  He then added that the American ambassador came directly to the bridge to negotiate with the rebels and bring relief to the city, which he did.

Traffic, though, was at a standstill and it looked unlikely that we’d have much time there if we actually moved since it was now almost 1130.  We were getting a little antsy and tired of Monrovia and told Jimmy that we could see the island and just wanted to get back to the hotel, clean-up just a little before mandatory check-out at 1200 and load up to go to the airport.

He agreed to return and we were back quickly after a ragged u-turn in the middle of the four lane road by Emmanuel.

Skipping forward a bit, I’m now writing as we’re en route to the Roberts Airport, almost a two hour drive outside of the city to the east.  It’s been a whirlwind 42 hours (so far) in Liberia and we’re all ready to leave, I think.

This is a very depressing country with few redeeming values or reasons to be optimistic beyond the demonstrated resilience of many of it's people that have survived so much.

Still, there are very few countries that I will be so happy to leave.

I’m only half joking when I say that Monrovia is a potential preview of the Zombie Apocalypse with it's skeletal buildings, poverty, bullet and RPG holes in walls, collapsing infrastructure and population density.

As I type, we’re at a traffic checkpoint, stopped, watching police scream at two obviously American motorcycle riders on their shiny new motocross bikes.

Our driver just cleared the inspection, though, and we’re not going to see the conclusion. Instead, we’re driving fast to the airport with the windows down because the fan belt on the bus won’t allow us to use the air conditioning.  We’re on a quasi-four lane highway lined by businesses with no curb, divider, or controls/lights. Pedestrians cross wherever they choose and cars stop randomly for them causing brakes to squeal and minibuses to swerve. We turn right onto (strangely) a smaller two lane road that supposedly will lead to the international airport in 27 miles, then merge on to another road.

We’re driving now by the Samuel Kanyon Doe soccer stadium. Yes, that Samuel Doe, who executed his predecessor in a bloody coup d’etat.  I ask Jimmy, our guide, about it and he says that Doe had the stadium built during his time in power. I ask why they haven’t changed the name of the stadium and he said it’s because he contributed so much to soccer in Liberia.  Yeah, and Mussolini made the trains run on time, too.

We pass a sign that says that the EU paid for this road and is paying for it's maintenance until 2021.  It’s a good road now…

We just went through our second police checkpoint, this time without a stop. It’s 1225 and there are many school kids walking along the sides of the road in their various uniforms, presumably because it’s lunch, but who knows.  We see kids in school uniforms at every hour of the day.

The air conditioning belt just snapped.  Our driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us he would try to reconnect it (somehow).  I just said, “No, let’s go. We don’t need air conditioning. The windows are already down.”

Just rolled through police checkpoint number three.

We’ve also passed two large government office building, one the ministry of health and the other a new building to house all other government ministries and learn that they were both built by the Chinese.

Further out of town and along the coast, we pass many large homes in the distance (not along the road, with the poor, but seaside) that are quite large and in every conceivable state of repair--from block walls and no roof, through fully complete and apparently maintained well, to abandoned to the jungle and squatters.

Our driver swerves to pass a land cruiser and just ducks in front before a head-on. He’s no Idi by a long shot.

As we get more rural, we see farming area around the homes and compounds growing corn and bananas.  There are piles of trash interrupting jungle overgrowth of vines along the side of the road.

We’ve covered the first 20 miles in about an hour, but we seem to be rolling along now on a hilly but straight road.  The number of palm trees increases, as does the number of half-built and abandoned homes. We pass by some wetlands in which women and children and wading, harvesting greens of some type, I think.  Next is a rainy season pond that, in the dry season is a soccer pitch--since the pond has goal posts and crossbars at two sides.

The wing-like white airport appears in the distance across a field of sparsely planted banana trees.  Sadly, it’s not open yet, and we turned into a sad little, moldy terminal that was only marginally bigger than Wayne Airport where we arrived two days before.

Jimmy and the driver dropped us at the door and, since we had arrived almost four hours before our expected departure of 1645, we decided to walk over to the Farmington Hotel and get some lunch.  It was only about 200 meters away and we just carried our bags. Jimmy offered to carry us over in the minibus, but that wouldn’t taken longer by the time we loaded and unloaded. Still, he walked over with us to say goodbye.

I gave him  USD $20 and thanked him. I didn’t say goodbye to Emmanuel. He didn’t seem interested in us at all throughout the trip, so that didn’t surprise me. If Jimmy decided to share some of his tip with home, that was his decision.

We entered the very nice Farmington Hotel and we're directed to the dining area where they had a very nice buffet lunch with many local selections awaiting us.  It was relatively expensive at USD$20 apiece, but the cadets got their money’s worth by the time they’d ravaged the dessert table. The best and most interesting dish was a sort of spinach purée stewed with some spices, chiles, and and tough beef or goat. It was very good over here rice.

We connected via WiFi and started to check on the status of our flight.  Each of us, checking a different site or app got a different response for the Air Cote d’Ivoire flight 759 to Abidjan.  These discoveries ran from 'no flights today to Abidjan’ to departures at 1600, 1625, and 1645. The Air CdI site showed no Wednesday flight from ROB to ABJ.

We decided that, in case Charlie’s source (1600 deposit) was correct, we should walk over. Becky was checking with hotel staff to see if they knew the schedule, but their expert wasn’t around, so we walked to the front door.

The manager, who looked Lebanese, was very kind and courteous--and clearly happy that we’d dropped USD$175 on his establishment, so he offered up a free shuttle to the terminal since rain had begun.  We took advantage of that, tipped our driver with some remaining Liberians 100’s and entered the decrepit little place by comically walking all four legs of the labyrinthine rope cue with no one else in line.  The security guards were clearly amused.

We entered and we're pleased to see three check-ins for Air CdI.  From there, check-in was easy and event free, as was clearing of customs and security.   Quaintly, the gate agent hand-wrote each of our boarding passes after checking our passports.  She then handed me a printout of my ticket, which, it turns out had another name on it, unknown to us all.  Richard, however, was scheduled to return to Monrovia from Abidjan' on 22 June. Bon Voyage, Richard. All were accomplished in probably less than 2000 square feet of terminal space and we were in the only waiting area. Security was funny because the older gentleman working it said that he would have to dump my water bottle. But, at the last minute he said, “It’s okay. No problem. I trust you!” And handed it to me across the inspection desk.  Good for me, but not great for airport security.

The little waiting area had a few shops, some broken chairs, and was occupied by about 30 others.  There was a transfer bus outside. An Air CdI agent walked around and took our tickets. We tried to ask her what time we would board and finally understood her to say, “When it’s announced.”

“But when will that be?”

“I don’t know.”

It turns out she was wrong. Five minutes later, the exit doors to the tarmac opened and everyone just starting walking to the bus without an announcement.  Since is was only 1525, we now deduced that Charlie’s source was correct and our flight would leave at 1600.

We were flying on another Q-400, albeit one that looked a little newer than the ASky one on which we flew two days before.

The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes because of an indicator light on the cabin door that was showing it wasn’t fully closed, but they resolved that and we were on our way a little bit late.  The flight was uneventful for us, but for the cadets up a few rows, apparently one of the passengers smelled so bad that another passenger asked to be moved to another seat. The plane was about 75% full, so that was easily accomplished.

Service was very good for an 80 minute flight, with three flight attendants--all very tall.  They served us a small sandwich, plenty of drinks and were working constantly.

We landed in Abidjan and immediately noticed a difference--even though we didn’t have a jet bridge.  There were large (A330 and B787) aircraft from Air France and Brussels Airlines, the runway looked organized and busy, and we stepped into an immigration area that was modern and well-lit.  The e-Visa desk was just inside the door and they were not only ready for Becky when she arrived, they actually greeted her by name when she came in the door.

I was impressed with this service by the company SNEDAI.  You basically completed all of the application on-line and paid the fee weeks in advance, then, upon arrival, you presented your passport, they took the necessary biometrics like photo and fingerprints, then they created her visa in a little laminating machine and stuck it into her passport.  The whole process took a total of five minutes. She was then only a few minutes behind us in the regular immigration line.

We were moved as a group to the diplomatic and first class line and were equally impressed with how quickly they processed us.  From there, we went to baggage claim that actually had a moving carousel and luggage carts like any European airport. Bags, came out, bathroom stops were made, and we cleared the customs inspection, too.  George was waiting for us and we chatted briefly.

The cadets were just amazed at the difference between Liberia and Abidjan and all smiles.  George couldn’t have been more friendly. He is Ewe from Togo, Benin, and has been a guide for 13 years.  After the Cote d’Ivoire Civil War ended, he was invited into the country by several leader general officers and asked to set up tourist itineraries and to do liaison work with communities to reestablish the countries overland tourist industry.  He served as a liaison for some communities and seems to know the country inside and out. He proudly opened (completely) a full Michelin paper map of Cote d’Ivoire and described potential 14 and 15 day adventures that he has led in the past covering all of the major villages, ethnicities., cultures, etc.  We’re clearly with the right guy.

He then told us what we’d be doing for the next couple of days before heading into Ghana and set our departure time the next day for 0800.

The team settled into the bar for a local beer and some ordered food.  We were surprised by the costs--about twice the price of things in Dakar--but then I reminded them that per diem allowances in Abidjan were among the highest in Africa at $225 per night for lodging and $113 for meals.

For some reason, the bar was not air conditioned and we all go remarkably sticky and sweaty just sitting there.  We adjourned to our rooms at abou 2130 and all seemed to have slept well.





 


Abidjan and Environs - 14 June

June 15, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

 

Breakfast at the Onomo Hotel was quite good with the widest selection of food we’ve seen, excellent pastries, yogurt, and an espresso machine.  We came down early at 0700 and then I wrote on my laptop for about 20 minutes, posting two blog entries.

The cadets trickled in and seemed happy with breakfast and their night’s sleep. Everyone now seemed to be near 100 percent with the possible exception of Evan who still needed some Imodium.

George was on-time and we left just after 0800 after retrieving the Imodium from the medicine bag.

We drove through the main part of Abidjan and we're amazed how relatively clean and modern it looked compared to the other cities we’d visited.  You could’ve told me we were in a European city and I would’ve believed you.

First, we stopped in a shopping center to get water and I was amazed at how clean and modern it was.  We walked into the entrance of the Carrefour Hypermarché and it was identical in most respects to one in Toulouse or Paris.  We bought four 5L bottles of water and returned to the bus..

We next went to the striking modern architecture Cathedral d’Abidjan with it’s huge abstract white elephant head spire and suspension wire ropes.  It was just as striking on the insdie, seating 5000 with stained glass scenes that includes one rather interesting panel that appeared to be a owing white colonialists in hard hats arriving on the shore s to greet (and presumably save) black natives.  The cathedral was built in the late 1960s, designed by an Italian architectural firm.

We took plenty of photos and walked around the exterior. We had a guide for a short amount of time, but he seemed most interested in just selling us a book about the cathedral.  Becky deftly deflected that one by saying that we just did not have enough room in our luggage to carry home books.

From the church we drove on the highway past many government and office building to the east side of the center 'Plateau’ part if the city, to a town called Bingerville.  En route, we passed a large University named (as is the airport) for Boigny, the father of independent Cote d’Ivoire and their first president. It look large and sprawling like a western University and even had athletic fields. We also passed national police and gendarme academies and their military academy before arriving at the gates to the Bingerville botanical gardens, established in 1904.

We entered through the main gate to find two soldiers (two chevrons each) sitting on white plastic chairs and a guy in T-shirt and long pants man-spreading over  two chairs in civilian clothes. George began to speak with him, then turned to us and said that it would cost us 25,000 CFA (about USD $45) apiece extra for whomever had a camera and was taking photos.  I said that that was outrageous and suggested that we leave. George turned to ask the guy again, and I clearly heard him repeat the charge. There were no signs anywhere announcing restrictions on or charges for photography, so I knew this was a shakedown. Again I told George that we wouldn’t pay it and then the guy spoke up and asked George to ask us what we were willing to pay.  I said in French that we would be willing to pay 5000 CFA (about USD $9) for the whole group. Now we knew it was a shakedown. He said no and then that it would be 15,000 CFA apiece. At this point I told him, in pretty good French, that that was crazy and that we were leaving. George stepped in and he and the guy went into the little ticket shack. About a minute later, George came back and said we could all take as many photos as we wanted.  He didn’t say if or how much he paid them and I didn't ask.

The park wasn’t worth 5000 CFA.  It was really just 100 acres of jungle with dirt roads/trails on it and some labeled trees.  We saw one area deliberately planted in flowers near a small archway that, with rust coming through the white paint on most of it, would’ve looked appropriate for the site of a hurried second wedding ceremony.

The only really interesting part of the park was the large, tall stands of bamboo and a couple of very large fromager trees.  We also saw several giant millipedes, beach almost six inches long. We walked from about an hour, establishing our first really good sweat of the day.  Luckily, most of it was shaded.

When we returned to the entrance, our man was still there, still covering two chairs, checking his mobile.  We made eye contact for a few seconds until I noticed some nice hibiscus flowers nearby. I took more than the usual amount of time composing and taking the two photos, then gave him a look and a smile on the way out.

From there we went up the road a little farther to the former colonial governor's mansion which is now the national orphanage for boys.  Again George started to talk to the security guards at the gate who informed him that photos would cost 5000 CFA. At this, I told him that I wouldn’t take any photos and returned my camera to the minibus.

When I returned, the director or someone with some power was talking to George about the photo privileges.  George told us to go on and we walked towards the mansion. He joined us a few minutes later and told us that we could return to the bus to get our cameras because photos were now free.  I told him that I was content taking photos with my mobile and we kept walking.

Just past the mansion, we came upon an athletics area with several basketball courts an a large, mostly dirt soccer field. A game of pretty high quality was going on. The players had personalized, matching jerseys, there were three referees, and several spectators watching from the shade of a giant mango tree--there we're no bleachers or other seats.  We watched for a few minutes and were impressed with the skills we saw. It was at the level or beyond a good American high school game under much tougher conditions.

There three little boys shooting baskets and Matt, Evan and I joined them for a few minutes. They were pretty shocked when I accidentally drained back-to-back three pointers through the netless rims.

We continued to walk around the school and chat until returning to the entry.  We expected to meet the director, but she was apparently busy with an event in a large covered Cabana at which most of the students seemed to be.

We loaded back into the minibus, but Becky and George did meet the director, who told them that there were 217 boys at the orphanage and that they were eligible if: both parents had died, or one had died and the other could not support them, or if they were abandoned or not supported by their parents.  The school was heavily supported by donors, including the first lady of Cote d’Ivoire.

We then left for Grand Bassam, which was only about 10 km away by straight line, but a nearly 50 Km drive due to the lagoon.  The drive took us just over an hour.

We arrived in Grand Bassam and passed a center roundabout that had a white plaster statue of three women, all in postures of protest.  George explained that this was a memorial to women who came from Abidjan and all over the country to protest the fact that their husbands were being held by the French in prison in Grand Bassam for their pro-independence views in the 1950s.  Ultimately, their protests played a role in the French granting Cote d’Ivoire independence in 1960.

We then crossed a bridge that took us to the old quarter of Grand Bassam, an area the locals called, “France.”  From there, we went to “La Taverne Bassamoise,” a bar and restaurant on the beach for lunch. The menus were only in French, so Becky and I helped translate for the team.  Our waiter was a very friendly guy in his 50s who was happy to be serving his only customers of the day. Becky and I shared an avocado salad and fries, while the cadets tried various dishes from filet de boeuf to calamari and a salad nicoise.  While waiting for our food, we all walked out to the beach for a few minutes, but it wasn’t all that interesting, dirtier than the beaches in The Gambia, and not very deep. The waves were breaking very close to the shore, indicating a steep drop off.  The beach was VERY long, however, with barely a turn or curve visible in either direction as far as the eye could see through the coastal haze. The beach did appear to be lined with resorts, though, for just as far.

Lunch was good, but strangely served in the sense that the lone waiter brought out two or three plates at a time and placed them on a table near ours.  We watched as the flies sampled our food and he would return for more plates. Finally, when all eight plates were ready on the table, we were served.

The food was good and the beer was cold, so we enjoyed lunch.  The cadets (and, I admit, we too) have had a little trouble with the pace of service in Cote d’Ivoire and the other cities as it seems to take almost forever to serve some of the simplest dishes.  However, break seems to come quickly and the cadets like that a lot.

From the restaurant, we drove a short distance to an old colonial building that was the governor’s residence, now converted into the National Costume Museum.  This humble, two-story museum had a very passionate guide who was extremely knowledgeable. He reminded me instantly of our friend at the Gambia National Museum.  He led us around the sweltering little museum giving us descriptions of all of the many costumes and village dioramas with amazing animation. He spoke about colonial times, forced labor, tribal insurrections, and French deceit.  There were photos from the era, too, showing French generals being carried everywhere in hammocks and carriages ported by groups of four or more indigenous people. I enjoyed hearing about the French interaction with northern, Muslim tribes from the regions that are now Burkina Faso and Mali and how the French used them to have access to the traditional trade routes across the Sahara to Timbuktu and on to Algeria and the Mediterranean coast.

I gave a nice donation to the museum as we left and we thanked our guide.  From there we went to the adjoining craft market where Charlie, the star shopper on this trip, bought a mask.  

George then led us on about a three miles walking tour of the colonial quarter that we all enjoyed.  By now we’d come to embrace the sweat as we had just been dripping wet for hours, with alternating times that it would dry whenever we climbed aboard the air conditioned minibus.

George pointed out all of the building in the area--both their colonial and current (if any) uses.  The locals seemed very friendly and many greeted us warmly without asking for handouts.

We stopped at a batik fabric maker’s tent and were amazed by his beautiful work.  He showed us the stamps and wax he used to complete his tablecloths and runners. We asked about prices and were surprised to learn that a full-sized tablecloth that included eight hemmed napkins was only 15,000 CFA or about USD $27.  The shopping started in earnest then with Austin buying the first full set for 12,500 CFA. We bought a slightly bigger one as well as a runner for 16,500 CFA, Eddie bought a beautiful round tablecloth, Matt bought a runner, and Georgia bought napkins separately, too.  We were sure that we’d made this guy’s entire week, if not month. Still, they seemed to be a tremendous bargain.

We walked by the old prison, saw some 100-year-old mango trees, and other sites before leaving.  Yah-yah, our driver had been tailing us and was ready to pick us up. It was now after 1700 and we were all very tired.  Austin’s smart watch told us that we’d walked well over 5.5 miles during the day.

The drive back was easy and event free except stopping to buy more water and then coming upon the first car accident we’d seen.  It was a minor fender-bender, but airbags had actually deployed in one of the cars (we were shocked it had airbags) and there was a discussion going on with about 40 people.  There didn’t seem to be any injuries in either car.

We returned to the hotel and George told us that we would be leaving the next morning at 0800.  Everyone went back to their rooms for a well-deserved shower and we rejoined at around 1900 for dinner.  Several of the cadets were intrigued with the Croque-Monsieur/Croque-Madame sandwich choices and ordered the latter.  Becky and I shared the medallions of white tuna which was very good and we ordered beer and water. After ordering our food, though, it took almost an hour for it to arrive.  I used the tie to work on photos and we continued our discussions of the trip, music, how USAFA used to be much better (sarcasm), etc.

I went ot the ATM to get more cash and made a bit of a mistake.  Instead of getting about $50 to get us through Cote d’Ivoire for the next 48 hours, I pressed the wrong button and got out a little over $500.  Oops. Luckily, I went on-line to USAA via our USAFA VPN patch and made a transfer. The good news is that we won’t need anymore cash on this trip and I can used my 300,000 CFA to change into Ghanaian Cedis when we get to the border.

So ended 14 June


Goodbye Liberia, Bonjour Cote d'Ivoire!

June 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

13 June

Skipping forward quite a bit I’m now writing as we’re en route to the Roberts Airport, almost a two hour drive outside of the city to the east.  It’s been a whirlwind 42 hours (so far) in Liberia and we’re all ready to leave, I think.

This is a very depressing country with few redeeming values or reasons to be optimistic beyond the demonstrated resilience of many of it's people that have survived so much.

Still, there are very few countries that I will be so happy to leave.

I’m only half joking when I say that Monrovia is a potential preview of the Zombie Apocalypse with it's skeletal buildings, poverty, bullet and RPG holes in walls, collapsing infrastructure and population density.

As I type, we’re at a traffic checkpoint, stopped, watching police scream at two obviously American motorcycle riders on their shiny new motocross bikes.

Our driver just cleared the inspection, though, and we’re not going to see the conclusion. Instead, we’re driving fast to the airport with the windows down because the fan belt on the bus won’t allow us to use the air conditioning.  We’re on a quasi-four lane highway lined by businesses with no curb, divider, or controls/lights. Pedestrians cross wherever they choose and cars stop randomly for them causing brakes to squeal and minibuses to swerve. We turn right onto (strangely) a smaller two lane road that supposedly will lead to the international airport in 27 miles, then merge on to another road.

We’re driving now by the Samuel Kanyon Doe soccer stadium. Yes, that Samuel Doe, who executed his predecessor in a bloody coup d’etat.  I ask Jimmy, our guide, about it and he says that Doe had the stadium built during his time in power. I ask why they haven’t changed the name of the stadium and he said it’s because he contributed so much to soccer in Liberia.  Yeah, and Mussolini made the trains run on time, too.

We pass a sign that says that the EU paid for this road and is paying for it's maintenance until 2021.  It’s a good road now…

We just went through our second police checkpoint, this time without a stop. It’s 1225 and there are many school kids walking along the sides of the road in their various uniforms, presumably because it’s lunch, but who knows.  We see kids in school uniforms at every hour of the day.

The air conditioning belt just snapped.  Our driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us he would try to reconnect it (somehow).  I just said, “No, let’s go. We don’t need air conditioning. The windows are already down.”

Just rolled through police checkpoint number three.

We’ve also passed two large government office building, one the ministry of health and the other a new building to house all other government ministries and learn that they were both built by the Chinese.

Further out of town and along the coast, we pass many large homes in the distance (not along the road, with the poor, but seaside) that are quite large and in every conceivable state of repair--from block walls and no roof, through fully complete and apparently maintained well, to abandoned to the jungle and squatters.

I driver swerves to pass a land cruiser and just ducks in front before a head-on. He’s no Idi by a long shot.

As we get more rur, we see farming area around the homes and compounds growing corn and bananas.  There are piles of trash interrupting jungle overgrowth of vines along the side of the road.

We’ve covered the first 20 miles in about an hour, but we seem to be rolling along now on a hilly but straight road.  The number of palm trees increases, as does the number of half-built and abandoned homes. We pass by some wetlands in which women and children and wading, harvesting greens of some type, I think.  Next is a rainy season pond that, in the dry season is a soccer pitch--since the pond has goal posts and crossbars at two sides.

The wong-like white airport appears in the distance across a field of sparsely planted banana trees.  Sadly, it’s not open yet, and we turned into a sad little, moldy terminal that was only marginally bigger than Wayne Airport where we arrived two days before.

Jimmy and the driver dropped us at the door and, since we had arrived almost four hours before our expected departure of 1645, we decided to walk over to the Farmington Hotel and get some lunch.  It was only about 200 meters away and we just carried our bags. Jimmy offered to carry us over in the minibus, but that wouldn’t taken longer by the time we loaded and unloaded. Still, he walked over with us to say goodbye.

I gave him  USD $20 and thanked him. I didn’t say goodbye to Emmanuel. He didn’t seem interested in us at all throughout the trip, so that didn’t surprise me. If Jimmy decided to share some of his tip with home, that was his decision.

We entered the very nice Farmington Hotel and we're directed to the dining area where they had a very nice buffet lunch with many local selections awaiting us.  It was relatively expensive at USD$20 apiece, but the cadets got their money’s worth by the time they’d ravaged the dessert table. The best and most interesting dish was a sort of spinach purée stewed with some spices, chiles, and and tough beef or goat. It was very good over here rice.

We connected via WiFi and started to check on the status of our flight.  Each of us, checking a different site or app got a different response for the Air Cote d’Ivoire flight 759 to Abidjan.  These discoveries ran from 'no flights today to Abidjan’ to departures at 1600, 1625, and 1645. The Air CdI site showed no Wednesday flight from ROB to ABJ.

We decided that, in case Charlie’s source (1600 deposit) was correct, we should walk over. Becky was checking with hotel staff to see if they knew the schedule, but their expert wasn’t around, so we walked to the front door.

The manager, who looked Lebanese, was very kind and courteous--and clearly happy that we’d dropped USD$175 on his establishment, so he offered up a free shuttle to the terminal since rain had begun.  We took advantage of that, tipped our driver with some remaining Liberians 100’s and entered the decrepit little place by comically walking all four legs of the labyrinthine rope cue with no one else in line.  The security guards were clearly amused.

We entered and we're pleased to see three check-ins for Air CdI.  From there, check-in was easy and event free, as was clearing of customs and security.   Quaintly, the gate agent hand-wrote each of our boarding passes after checking our passports.  She then handed me a printout of my ticket, which, it turns out had another name on it, unknown to us all.  Richard, however, was scheduled to return to Monrovia from Abidjan' on 22 June. Bon Voyage, Richard. All were accomplished in probably less than 2000 square feet of terminal space and we were in the only waiting area. Security was funny because the older gentleman working it said that he would have to dump my water bottle. But, at the last minute he said, “It’s okay. No problem. I trust you!” And handed it to me across the inspection desk.  Good for me, but not great for airport security.

The little waiting area had a few shops, some broken chairs, and was occupied by about 30 others.  There was a transfer bus outside. An Air CdI agent walked around and took our tickets. We tried to ask her what time we would board and finally understood her to say, “When it’s announced.”

“But when will that be?”

“I don’t know.”

It turns out she was wrong. Five minutes later, the exit doors to the tarmac opened and everyone just starting walking to the bus without an announcement.  Since is was only 1525, we now deduced that Charlie’s source was correct and our flight would leave at 1600.

We were flying on another Q-400, albeit one that looked a little newer than the ASky one on which we flew two days before.

The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes because of an indicator light on the cabin door that was showing it wasn’t fully closed, but they resolved that and we were on our way a little bit late.  The flight was uneventful for us, but for the cadets up a few rows, apparently one of the passengers smelled so bad that another passenger asked to be moved to another seat. The plane was about 75% full, so that was easily accomplished.

Service was very good for an 80 minute flight, with three flight attendants--all very tall.  They served us a small sandwich, plenty of drinks and were working constantly.

We landed in Abidjan and immediately noticed a difference--even though we didn’t have a jet bridge.  There were large (A330 and B787) aircraft from Air France and Brussels Airlines, the runway looked organized and busy, and we stepped into an immigration area that was modern and well-lit.  The e-Visa desk was just inside the door and they were not only ready for Becky when she arrived, they actually greeted her by name when she came in the door.

I was impressed with this service by the company SNEDAI.  You basically completed all of the application on-line and paid the fee weeks in advance, then, upon arrival, you presented your passport, they took the necessary biometrics like photo and fingerprints, then they created her visa in a little laminating machine and stuck it into her passport.  The whole process took a total of five minutes. She was then only a few minutes behind us in the regular immigration line.

We were moved as a group to the diplomatic and first class line and were equally impressed with how quickly they processed us.  From there, we went to baggage claim that actually had a moving carousel and luggage carts like any European airport. Bags, came out, bathroom stops were made, and we cleared the customs inspection, too.  George was waiting for us and we chatted briefly.

The cadets were just amazed at the difference between Liberia and Abidjan and all smiles.  George couldn’t have been more friendly. He is Ewe from Togo, Benin, and has been a guide for 13 years.  After the Cote d’Ivoire Civil War ended, he was invited into the country by several leader general officers and asked to set up tourist itineraries and to do liaison work with communities to reestablish the countries overland tourist industry.  He served as a liaison for some communities and seems to know the country inside and out. He proudly opened (completely) a full Michelin paper map of Cote d’Ivoire and described potential 14 and 15 day adventures that he has led in the past covering all of the major villages, ethnicities., cultures, etc.  We’re clearly with the right guy.

He then told us what we’d be doing for the next couple of days before heading into Ghana and set our departure time the next day for 0800.

The team settled into the bar for a local beer and some ordered food.  We were surprised by the costs--about twice the price of things in Dakar--but then I reminded them that per diem allowances in Abidjan were among the highest in Africa at $225 per night for lodging and $113 for meals.

For some reason, the bar was not air conditioned and we all go remarkably sticky and sweaty just sitting there.  We adjourned to our rooms at abou 2130 and all seemed to have slept well.

 


Early Liberia Impressions - More to Follow

June 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

We arrived right on time at Payne International Airport in Monrovia.  On the flight in from Accra, we bounced around a little with the many thunderstorms in the area, then descended to see a very green, jungle countryside.  The runway at LFW was very short and our pilot put the plane down hard and jumped on the brakes and thrust reversers, tossing us into our seatbelts. As we slowed and started to turn onto the taxiway it was clear that we were very close to the end of the runway.  The taxi was very short and then we pulled up to a small terminal that was little better than a small private airport in the US. We walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac that was asphalt with significant amounts of loose gravel. Some well-dressed men came out of the building’s left side and greeted one of the passengers--some sort of dignitary--and we proceeded to the immigration line.

Charlie moved to the front of the line and was processed quickly.  While we were in line, though, one of the officers came out and asked for the leader of our group.  I spoke up and he asked for our group’s official passports. Then, he told us that we could go to baggage claim and wait while they processed our passports.

Our bags arrived and they were checking claim tags before we could leave with our bags.  Managing to find our tags or use other ID with our bag tags, we gathered our luggage and took the time to hit the bathroom.  When we stepped outside, two young men were waiting for us with signs and we carrying our baggage to their two sedans.

It became obvious that our transportation was unaware of our trip and just bringing us to the hotel.  Our driver asked us if he could stop for gas on the way back--only about 100 meters from the hotel--which I found strange, but we agreed.

We arrived at the hotel, checked in quickly, but still found no note from our tour guide or any other information from TransAfrica or Tailor-Made Travel.

I was in touch with Mr Jarad Geiger from the embassy, trying to arrange dinner, via WhatsApp but still wanted to clarify our guide plans here.  I called Tailor-Made’s 24-hour number and spoke with Holly, a very helpful agent aware of our trip. She was surprised that we didn’t have the necessary info, but gave me the TransAfrica local number which I called.  I was using my Google Pixel phone and wifi calling to do all of this since they don’t have service in Liberia.

A TransAfrica agent answered quickly and told me that we our guide would meet us at 0730 at the hotel the next morning to begin our tour.  He then texted me the guide’s name and contact info. With that, we set dinner with Jarad at 1900 and he committed to come pick us up with a colleague of his.  I sent all of this info to our cadets using our GroupMe app and they all responded promptly. We settled into the room and relaxed for about an hour.

Jarad and his colleague, Josh, a foreign service officer serving in the political office at the embassy, picked us up in a white Chrysler Van and a 4x4 with US Embassy plates on time and we went about a mile away to their residential compound.  It was right along the beach with a view of the breakers. The building had a huge gate, tight security, and very high walls. We walked up to Jarad’s furnished apartment that was large and spacious with a balcony and well-stocked drink fridge containing soft drinks and beer.  Inside he had some excellent red wine and copies of Wine Spectator on the coffee table in front of the large, flat-screen TV.

We did introductions and stepped onto the balcony where we stayed for most of the evening.

The discussions were fascinating.  Josh is a former contract flight test engineer that worked with the Air Force before joining the foreign service.  Jarad has been stationed overseas for 20 straight years all over the world. He’s leaving in January and will take a post at the embassy in Slovenia--a nice bonus after Liberia.  

They were both pretty negative about the country and thought that they were headed for another crisis or economic crash in the next six to twelve months.  They were surprised that we had come here and said that if the Army Lt Col Defense Attache was here he would have certainly invited us out, too, and taken good care of us.  They told us about West Point and called it the “worst slum in the world,” and that when bad storms hit, since it is build on a sandbar, several people are just swept away. They advised that we just see it from a distance and don’t go in.  They described violence in the city and it was pretty shocking. They also told us about former warlords and child soldiers with known histories of committing murder and atrocities within their parliament or in cabinet offices. They described a country with very few serviceable roads--it takes 14 hours to drive 240 miles to Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown--and rampant corruption.  They said that Liberia is the fourth poorest country in the world, too, and that the Liberian Dollar had dropped in value against the US Dollar by about 40% in the last year.

Liberia has very few exports except for mineral wealth mined by international corporations and a huge rubber plantation established by Firestone in the 1930s.

We talked about Redemption Beach and seeing the soccer goalposts still on the beach against which Samuel Doe had had his enemies shot by firing squad in the coup d’etat of 1980.

The pizza was pretty good and I’m sure the cadets enjoyed it.  After finishing it, I actually did NOT have heartburn for the first time in about 48 hours, so I felt good.  I laid off the beer and had a glass of excellent Rioja that Jarad offered.

They told us that under no circumstances should we walk around after dark in Monrovia, even in a group, and that we should, in general not go walking around without our guide.

They offered to set us up for dinner with them the next night at a place they called, “the best restaurant in Monrovia, for what that’s worth,” run by a Lebanese friend.  It turns out that much of the successful merchant class here is, or has been, either of Lebanese or South Indian descent. Many were now leaving, though, as they were not allowed Liberian citizenship because the Constitution of Liberia requires that all citizens be “of African descent.”

They returned us to the hotel and we all returned to our rooms, set to meet for breakfast at 0700 for an 0730 departure with our guide.

12 June

Breakfast was very good with scrambled eggs, sauteed mushrooms, potatoes, breads, cereal, coffee, juices, etc.  Everyone seemed to be in pretty good health and only one requested a Loperamide tablet.

We were ready in the lobby at 0730 and Jimmy, our guide, arrived at about 0740.  We waited until almost 0810 for our minibus, though, and Jimmy was definitely frustrated by this.  Jimmy has been a guide in Monrovia for about six years and speaks very clear, good English. He’s a member of the Kpelle tribe from the county of Bong a few hours from Monrovia. He appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s.  Our driver is Emmanuel and he’s much younger than Jimmy--about 25 or so.

He told the group that we’d be going to West Point, walking around, and visiting a pair of schools there. We’d also go by Redemption Beach on the way.

Elaborate later on Jimmy’s discussion of the tourist industry.

 

On the drive, Jimmy pointed out several government buildings, the University of Liberia, United Nations and EU buildings, as well as the old US Embassy, now used as housing for embassy personnel.  We turned up Broad Street and went uphill from there to Ducor Hill to an immense abandoned resort hotel called the Ducor Palace. We parked in a brought asphalt area and were the only cars there.

First we went to the Roberts Memorial that pays tribute to Liberia’s first president.  It’s statue on a small ride atop the hill surrounded by high relief bronze sculpture plaques showing the arrival of the Elizabeth carrying the first freed slaves and others from the American Colonization Society as well as dispictions of local tribes meeting them, ultimately integrating with the “Americos.”  Jimmy told us about Liberia’s early history with some level of pride.

From there we stepped over the abandoned Ducor Palace and began our tour there.  First we went to the old swimming pool. Eddie actually walked out on the old, very questionable diving board and sat on the end.  Jimmy started laughing saying that in all of his tours he’d led, no tourist had ever had the guts to do that. We told Eddie that if the board broke and he fell into the stagnant, green water (probably only two to three feet deep) that he was on his own--no one was going to help him.

Jimmy explained that the hotel had begun construction in 1967 and was ultimately bought by Muhammar Qaddafi from Libya as part of his Pan Africa efforts and investments.  However, afer the coup of 1980 and the ensuing civil wars that lasted well into the ‘90s and early 2000’s, it had been abandoned and generally stripped of everything except some of the marble on the floors and walls.  There was considerable graffiti on the walls, some of it actually quite beautiful. The parking lot actually had a security guard--for what reason, I do not know.

We stood on the balcony and looked out at West Point, the Port of Liberia and other landmarks to the west.  From rooms on the east side we looked over central Monrovia and Broad Street. In some ways it reminded me of the ruins at Mesa Verde National Park.  I’d also visited a similarly abandoned resort during our trip to Cambodia in 2014 that was left fallow with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge to power. Like its Cambodian counterpart, the Ducor Palace was photographic paradise and I could stay there all day taking photos accentuated by the puddles of calm water on many of the floors, the holes in the walls made by both bullets and rocket propelled grenades, and more and more graffiti.

From the Ducor Palace, we drove down the hill and headed into the West Point Township slums.  We parked at a Total gas station and walked out onto the wet road, watching a front loader scoop tons of wet, smell garbage.  



 


9-11 June Gambia Back to Senegal and on to Liberia

June 11, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Trying to get this out--pardon the (probably)many typos.

More 9 June

The National Museum of Banjul was a surprisingly well done little museum with a very sincere and enthusiastic docent that couldn’t have been more helpful. It helped that we were the only people at the museum and he seemed to be the only employee on duty, but he just exuded this infectious pride in his country and the displays that we all admired.

The museum was on two levels and not much bigger than a moderate sized home.  Originally, it had been the colonial “British Club,” then the national library, until it’s conversion to a museum

The first section on the main level covered contemporary culture and politics, while the back section covered history back to prehistoric times, including a fascinating display on iron smelting, Stone Age tools and discussions of regional ethnic and imperial histories, the introduction of Islam, and the colonial era.

Downstairs, they had a display of traditional musical instruments that you could actually touch and play.  Ali impressed with his skills on the antique tribal xylophone, then admitted that he was jus 'making shit up.’

From the museum, we went to the market where we first had to pass through the souvenir section (resulting in some cadet buys) before seeing market proper.  A couple of ladies selling fresh fish actually allowed me to take their photos, which was a rare treat. It was a typical market, though, and we didn’t stay too long.

From the market we first drove to the Grand Mosque of Banjul which, while not that large, was very beautiful and newly renovated inside.  At the gates entry, we saw an interesting sign showing in excruciating detail the right and wrong ways to pray, with graphic photos, red X’s and green ✓’s.  Ali laughed at this and said it was silly.

We walked inside and there were two gentlemen inside--one much older than the other and me.  Both wore the robes of mosque leaders. They didn’t explain much about the mosque, but the local guide had a few words.

While I was taking photos, I walked closer to the two gentleman and the younger one asked me if I was Muslim. I told him that I was not. He then asked, “But do you pray?” I told him that I did not. He asked me why and I responded simply that I choose not to do so.  He looked very perplexed, but the other, silent, older gentleman, flailed his right hand (obviously understanding what I’d said) and stomped away in apparent disgust). I then said, “Thank you allowing us to visit your very beautiful mosque,” walked away.

From the mosque, we drove outside of Banjul to the livestock yards that had some cattle, but mostly hundreds of goats.  We learned that herders bring their goats here to sell, while butchers and private families with drop in to pick goats and cattle for slaughter, haggling with the goatherd or his agent.  We asked about the prices and found that your typical, average-sized adult male goat went for about 4500 Dalasi, or just under $100. Prices were higher for big billies with unique horns and prices would jump to 10,000 Dalasi or more for a high quality animal near the end of Ramadan (Eid).

The next couple of hours were a bit frustrating as we we're supposed to go to a Batik factory--or at least a place where artisanal workers were dying and producing fabrics in this fashion.  However, since it was Sunday, many people were not working but the markets and roads we're jammed. When it all didn’t work out, we returned to the Lemon Creek and relaxed for before dinner.

Most of us went out for a long walk on the beach, going first north, then past the hotel to the south. We easily covered three miles.

The tide was coming in and the waves were occasionally surprising us as we walked along the wet line in the sand.

Our dog friends were on the beach again, as well as a herd of about ten cattle that seemed content (and unsupervised) to ruminate on the meaning of life while staring contentedly at the waves.

A small freshwater pond near the hotel had several hundred gray-headed gulls bathing and chattering.

Some people approached us asking if we’d like to come to their beach bar for happy hour, but we declined.

Many local kids were playing in the waves and Ali pointed out that he didn't to think any of them knew how to swim--but they just staying in the shallows.  We passed one gentleman with his dog on a leash (the first time I'd seen such a thing in Africa, as well as a ball that the dog loved to fetch from the breakers.

We returned to the hot and ordered drinks, including a few JulBrews, then Becky and I went to our room to relax, get cleaned up and do some photo work (me) or crossword puzzles (her).

We left at 1900 with the whole crew headed to Ali’s house.  We parked on the dirt street and walked down a sandy, block-fences line alley to an iron gate. From there, we walked to the front door that also had a little porch on which the family was cooking a large pot of excellent-smelling food.

Ali led us in, introduced us to his mom and dad, sister, aunt, and cousin and we were seated in the living room. Ali offered drinks and then fired up his XBox he’d brought from the States (he said he’d returned with only that, his cadet laptop, and a few clothes).  He and the cadets took turns playing war-type single shooter games while his father sat quietly the women prepped dinner. The TV was also on, playing a Gambia public TV discussion on sexilual assault.

About 15 minutes later, two huge bowls of food were brought onto the dining room table.  The first was about five pounds of spiced red rice, the second almost as much stewed vegetables, cassava, and whole fish.

Ali had told us this was the national dish of The Gambia and (we learned from Moussa) Senegal. It's called “one pot” because all of the cooking occurs in one pot.

The rice was tremendously as we're the veggies.  The fish was fired and a little chewy at first with plenty of bones to pick.  The cadets (especially Austin and Matt) ate copious quantities of the rice. Juice was also served and fresh bananas we're brought out for dessert.

Following the meal, we took group photos and we presented another Colorado photo book to Ali’s parents.

Ali’s parents don’t speak much English. His mom is from Senegal and speaks French.  At home, they speak primarily Wollof--and, as we were learning, Wollof seemed to be used more than English in most of the areas we visited.  So, we didn’t converse much, but we did thank them for the very generous dinner. Augusto and Idi seemed to really enjoy it, too.

We returned to the hotel, bought cold water and a few JulBrews and sat outside having deep conversations about The Gambia, America's role in Africa, growing Chinese influence here, and Ali. I think everyone enjoyed The Gambia a little more than Senegal in the sense that they were more comfortable in an English-speaking country that was a little cleaner and more orderly, but they also saw the optimism is Ali’s eyes and really seemed interested and concerned about the country’s future.  It was a very good day

Becky and I returned to our room and we're disappointed to NOT see our air conditioning unit dripping on the exterior floor, meaning it wasn’t on. Again, I returned to the lobby, and gain the desk agent had to determine whether we’d paid for a/c or not. I assured him we had, but it still required a phone call.  The technician walked back with me and it was turned on promptly.

We pre-packed for the next day’s departure, I uploaded the day’s photos and we went to bed.

 

10 June

We needed to leave early the next morning o catch the second ferry to Barra, across the Gambia RIver’s mouth again.

Augusto had tried to negotiate a slightly earlier start to the regular 0700 breakfast suggesting we could eat quickly if they had the cold items available at 0645. This concerned the staff greatly--they wanted to make us ham and cheese sandwiches to go instead for some reason.  We deferred to them, but I’d told all of the cadets to be in the eating area with bags, ready to go not later than 0645.

Becky and I Arrived at 0630 and saw they were already laying things out--but they’d also prepared a platter with 10 aluminum foil wrapped sandwiches for each of us.  The cadets put the sandwiches in their bags and then got the normal breakfast. Eddie even was able to wolf down a plate of scrambled eggs in about 60 seconds since the omelet guy had everything fired up by 0650.

Austin and Charlie said goodbye to the hotel cats (Greg and Karen) who’d followed us out to give us a kitty paws wave goodbye and we were off again.

Traffic was very light on Sunday morning and we made it to the ferry dock in downtown Banjul quickly, by 0730.  At first, it didn’t look promising that we’d get on the next ferry as the terminal was packed with large freight trucks and passenger cars as well as pedestrians (no cattle this time), but Augusto and Idi worked their magic and we moved towards the front if the queue, just in time for street sellers to offer us plenty of last-minute Gambian souvenirs.  Idi took advantage of one excellent offer to buy two white bottom undershirts from this driver side window.

The inbound ferry arrived at about 0820 and emptied quickly on to the quai, one small pickup truck with side rails had six cattle onboard.  Milliseconds after the last vehicle came off the ferry, cars pushed forward to it ahead and on. The ferry workers, however, did a good job of a game I now call 'Africa Ferry Tetris’ in somehow maximizing the platform space to get the most various-sized vehicles onboard, even if the rear gate didn’t shut all of the way and the bed of a truck was hanging over the water.  Idi managed to get us in a position in which we could actually exit the vehicle (the door opened in, as if designed for this game) and get us within millimeters of the mango truck ahead of us. We squeezed out and went above to the open air seats on a very nice, cool morning.

(Skip this next paragraph if you get queasy reading things about African toilets, ferries, and their intersection)

By now, My digestive system was beginning to show some signs of trouble.  When the gates were semi-closed and we pushed off of the pier, I moved quickly downstairs looking for a toilet after asking Becky for some paper. I lucked out (only in terms of time) and opened a very rusty door to find an equally rusty small space with a porcelain 'squatter’ that was, shall we say, well and recently useful to many, many people. It vented directly to the big bring and there was a large blue plastic bucket half-filled with water for 'la nettoyage.’  The light roll of the ocean was magnified by the exterior nature of the small room and, we’ll just end this by saying, it was one of the very least pleasant experiences of my life. I used all of the remaining water in the bucket to wash the whole thing down, feeling just a little bad for the poor soul that might follow.

The rest of the ferry ride was uneventful and we arrived in Barra about 30 minutes later.  Along the way, we passed the very distinct line between Gambia River freshwater flow (filled with silt) and the clearer green-blue ocean water.  Fishermen in pirogs made a ring about part of this transitional zone that, apparently, was attractive to their prey.

The border was not far away and soon we we parked and exiting The Gambia, reentering Senegal.  Clearing the Gambia side was quite easy this time. The usual hawkers, this time selling lots of cashews in addition to trinkets were there in addition to unofficial money changers. One came up to my window and, with Idi’s help we negotiated a reasonable rate helped by dueling calculator apps on our cell phones.  Idi assured us that the rate we were getting for our remaining Dalasi (converting to CFA) was better than we’d see in Dakar or at the airport and by now we all knew to trust all things Idi.

In mid-negotiation, however, near tragedy struck.  I tossed my wallet to Becky, excused myself from my business partner and walked/ran as quickly as possible to a douane who, in Trump's, directed me to the nearest toilets. (Once again skip forward as needed)

I went behind a small building to find standard four stall, cement block building with a large barrel of water out front. Just barely making it in time, I didn't have time to fill the sluice buckets in my stall. Not good.  The place was just a mess when I arrived and soon got worse. Olfactory senses were now turned off completely as I grabbed the buckets, pulled up my shorts and went to the barrel. I filled them quickly and went back to my stall thinking that this was the least I could do to help--or worse that by not doing so I was committing some huge cultural faux pas.  Well, apparently that wasn’t the case. Even the the barrel was ten feet from the door, in the few seconds I’d turned to get water, an elderly woman in a brightly floral dress had just as urgently gone into the stall, not finding it necessary, it seems to pull the door more than halfway shut. That was awkward. I set the buckets down on the concrete outside the door and returned as quickly as possible to more mathematical pursuits--and two Imodium tablets.

From the border, after a quick stop to buy two 10L water jugs) we began what would be a lot of driving.  Again, Idi was just on his game. I sat next to this guy for a week and he never came close to dozing or losing his focus.  By now, I could predict when he would honk a warning to pedestrians, goats, donkeys, horse carts, or other vehicles. (He said that he never honks at cattle because they just don't listen or respond)  Despite some dangerously crazy idiocy by other drivers (and goats and kids) I didn’t see him get angered or flustered in any way.

We drove for over two hours to Kaolack again where stopped outside town for an uneventful bathroom break and a chance to buy snacks.  It was hot as blazes on the concrete. I decided to treat myself to a Coke Zero for the first time on the trip and also bought a small package of yogurt, which hit the spot.

We drove for almost another two hours in a roundabout route that I didn’t quite understand--possibly to stay on the smooth, newer roads--before arriving in the town of Foal on the beach about 100 km south of Dakar.

We learned that Foal was once the center of Portuguese trade in the region and that it was also the home of Senegal’s first president, though that second claim was up to some dispute or interpretation.  It was also the third most important artisanal fishing village in Senegal behind Saint-Louis and Mbour.

We parked a hotel near inlet/bay side of the town and shortly thereafter met Edward, our guide for a tour of Shell Island.

Edward was originally from Shell Island and has been a certified guide there for six years.  He lived in New York at some time in the past and had clearly been influenced by reggae/Rasta culture, speaking with a pretty good Jamaican accent and sporting some serious dreads above his scraggling, short, and graying facial hair.

Shell Island and it's community were really a series of mud or sand flats in a mangrove bay that had been built up over centuries with billions and billions (trillions?) of cockle and oyster shells.  They reclaimed the land and built a whole town of 6,000 on shells dumped on mud and sand covering three distinct islands to depths (or heights) of well over 20 feet covering many hectares of land. The reclamation continues to this day with locals constantly gathering shells and dumping them by the basket full in low areas or as new foundation. Shells we're even used in the making of concrete blocks as a sort of matrix.  We took a 500 meter wooden bridge over part of the shallow bay to reach the island and could seat the abandoned pilings of the old bridge sticking out of the water to our left as we did.

The community was big enough to support six districts, each with its own ramada-like “palaver’ for local discussion debate, and meetings. They also had a mosque and a Catholic church.  The island was unique in Senegal in that it was 90% Christian, which explained the huge number of pigs running loose in the town or wallowing in the mud of the brackish bay at low tide.

Interestingly, Edward explained that the town football field was really a sandbar just on the west side of the island that was only useful during low tide.

We walked through village saw what appeared to be arriving little community of happy people.  As usual, there were plenty of little kids everywhere. Edward took us to large church and showed us the Black Jesus sculpture opposite the main pulpit and above the entry doors.  He was quick to point out that this Jesus had dreadlocks like him, but that they also had a White Jesus at the front.

Edward also was very proud of the fact that Christians and Muslims cohabitated peacefully on the I and that they had helped finance, build, and rebuild each other’s place of worship, and that were ultimately buried together in the same cemetery.

We next walked over a shorter bridge (about 200m) to their cemetery island. Here, as mentioned earlier, there was a Christian and a Muslim section.  Almost all of the Christa burial sites were marked with a cast concrete cross with details of the deceased written in paint on the concrete. The Muslims had simple steel plates with data and all were oriented in the direction of Mecca.  The cemetery island was actually quite a bit higher than the main island, maybe as much as 20 meters high at an overlook sporting a large cross. Again, this whole island and all that was above the now rising tide was shells.

Edward explained that you could tell how old the grave was in part because of the color of the cocke shells. Newer grave sites were darker, while older ones were bleached white by the sun.  The cemetery had been there so long that a few large baobabs had sprouted and grown amid the shells, as well as some vivid flame trees and some shrubs.

I asked Edward how long people had been living on Shell Island he said he didn’t sure, but that it was many, many hundreds if not thousands of years.  Clearly some grave stacking was occurring on the island as almost all of the graves we saw where no older than the second half of the 20th Century.

We returned to the main island and came upon an older gentleman weaving cloth with a small foot loom.  He had hundreds of threads stretched out 15 meters or more from his loom tied to a cement block, keeping it very tight.as he worked on his Kente-cloth like strip of blue, gray, and white fabric, he would slowly pull on the brick until in needed the rethread the whole loom--womething Edward said could take up to a week.

Austin bought about a two meter section of cloth that was very nice for only 2000 CFA, for which there no reason to bargain.

From there we returned to our van, reboarded and headed back to Dakar.  Traffic was Terri let until we were able to get on the new N1 Toll Highway that runs from the airport to the City.  We drove to the Hotel Djoloff and checked-in.

The Hotel Djoloff was very, very nice. New, modern, great fixtures and architecture.  We instantly liked it.

We’d been communicating with Moussa and planned to meet him for one last dinner before leaving Dakar.

I still wasn’t feeling very well (nor were a few others) so Becky and I checked out the hotel restaurant on the third floor (fourth floor for Americans).  It had a great view of the bay and city and was open air, with a good chalkboard tapas menu. We asked them to set us a table for 10 and then informed the cadets and Moussa (then en route) of our plans.

Dinner was excellent with green beans cauliflower, fish, cured Spanish ham, avocados, duck, and dessert plates.  It was a relaxing evening and a good way to put the exclamation mark on our time in far western Africa.

As we said goodbye to Moussa and promised our return, he gave Becky a nice Senegalese dress and three African shirts for Sean, Andy, and me.  I gave him one of my last Astro coins and there lots of hugs going around.

Becky and I again pre-packed for the next day’s flights, cleaned up and though I tried to work on photos was just too tired.

11June

We awoke at 0450 for our 0530 departure and packed quickly

We we pleasantly surprised to see the hotel had put out a tray of breads and cookies for us as an early breakfast and we all grabbed a few items.  We left on time and made it to Blaise Diagne International Airport in only 45 minutes. At the curb, we said goodbye to Augusto and Idi, returned our Trans-Africa customer surveys to them and gave them each envelope with large tips for their great work.  I also gave Augusto my business card and hope communicate with him in the future and maybe even visit Guinea-Bissau.

Airport check-in went very smoothly and we cleared immigration easily, too.  The new airport is quite nice with little shops, duty-free, and even relatively clean bathrooms--those Charlie managed to discover that they save one stall for the traditional squatter format in each bathroom.

Each of us bought some water or snacks and we settled into our chairs to write, read, and relax.

Our plane arrived on time and we boarded just the same.  We’d warned the cadets that assigned seating might not be that meaningful on an African airline within Africa and the passengers proved us right.

Becky and I were assigned to an exit row but those seats were taken by one gentleman and Austin gave us a shrug when we looked at him--apparently someone was in his seat, so he’d moved into ours.  The flight attendant asked us if there was a problem and Becky said that’ “Someone’s in our seats,” as she pointed to them. He gave her a helpless shrug as well, but then giggled when she said, “C’est l’Afrique!”

The plane was barely half full, so we just moved to the back half of the plane and claimed our whole empty row.

ASky served a good breakfast for free on this 3.5 hour flight and I used almost all of that time to write this with my thumbs on the way to Lomé. We arrived right on time and the transfer to our next flight was easy.  They were waiting with our next boarding passes in the hallway as we exited and after clearing security one more time, we went to Gate 6, waited for only about 10 minutes and boarded via a bus that drove us out to our Bombardier Q-400 (really a deHavilland Dash-8).  As your bus arrived at the plane, so did the luggage truck and trailer and we were relieved to see our bags had made the transfer with similar ease.

Again, our flight had several open seats, so Becky moved to my side of the aisle for the quick 20 minute flight to Accra.

We landed on-time with just a few bumps and all but for us and maybe four others deplaned. I asked the flight attendant how long we’d wait before the next flight and he said we’d be taking off in 20 minutes.   He was nearly accurate as we began taxiing shortly after 1400. Only about dozen boarded the plane, so we each enjoyed our own two-seater row.

We were pleasantly surprised when they served a light lunch of fish in a red tomato sauce with rice and potatoes, plus a mini-baguette and fresh fruit salad.  No complaints at all about ASky so far.

 


Catching Up With The Gambia

June 11, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Writing on 10 June…

 

Wow, now I have to journal our entire time in The Gambia (@thesmilingcoastofafrica, #gambiahasdecided) all at once as we leave this very interesting and optimistic little country.  The contrasts with Senegal are very interesting and worthy of about a 10-15 cadet Poli Sci term paper, so I’ll jus touch on those later and briefly.

It goes without saying, though, that our visit here was tremendously impactes by having 1Lt Ali Sumbundu join us for most of our time here.  Ali is a 2017 USAFA grad, one of our unofficial sponsorees, a former student of mine (Engr 100 in Fall 2013), and is currently and already serving as the aide-de-camp to the Chief of the Defense Staff (Lt Gen) of the Gambian Army.  I can’t put into words how proud we are of this amazing young man.

After finally getting on the road in The Gambia, we stopped about an hour later at a cashew plantation and saw cashews on the trees and laying on the ground with their red “apples” and gray/purplish “nut” connected externally and below.  Though I’d seen pictures of them before and read articles about how drink manufacturers in the US were beginning to try to market the juice and other products from the apple, I’d never seen one, much less tasted one.

Augusto explained that they aren’t picked off the tree but rather gathered when they fall--indicating they are ripe.  We wiped off one of the fresher looking dropped cashews and I gave it a small bite. The skin seemed loaded in pectins (Moe so than even apple skins) and the meet just burst into sticky, sour juice.  It was quite tart, but very tasty. Matt liked it, as did Becky. I think Eddie was the lone dissenter among those that tried it. It seems that cashews are one of the up-and-coming agricultural products in West Africa because of the many uses they have.  Augusi told us that the squeezed pulp pressing of the apple are used to make soap and the nut is also ground to a flour for baking. I’ll have to do more research on cashews and see if we can get some juice in the US. I think it would make a great flavor additive for a sour beer at LFBC.

We arrived at the Bari ferry landing and Idi and Augusto got out of the bus to purchase our ticket.  Augusto had been in contact with the ferry operator or some intermediary all day and we were quickly driving up the ramp, parked in the queue behind a large concrete pumper truck and another truck loaded with fresh produce.  Within five minutes of watching the newly arrived file past us on the lesft, we were driving onto the ferry that could probably hold a half-dozen large trucks or as many as two dozen passenger cars. Two young men with four head of cattle also joined us, pinned to an area in the aft right corner of the parking area.

We climbed out of our bus and made our way to the seating deck from where we could watch the whole show.  From the ferry, we could see fishermen and their pirogs along the beach to the west as well as several large freighters in the mouth of the Gambia.  Banjul was a misty six or seven kilometers away to the south.

There was a nice breeze that mitigated the sunny, humid conditions somewhat.  Two women were selling cellophane-wrapped shortbread cakes displayed on a platter on their heads, while the rest of the passengers checked their cell phones or napped.  The cadets bout two of the cakes as a snack and liked them.

The trip lasted about 20-30 minutes and we passed the returning ferry, going to the North shore, along the way.  It seemed larger, with three decks and many more passengers. It was also named the Kunte Kinteh.

Arriving at the Port of Banjul, we saw two large ships tied to a pier pararllel to each other with a large Turkish flag and signage indicating that these boats we're essentially a sea-going electrical power plant.  An oil tanker was tied next to them, large smoke stacks extended from the western ship, and high tension lines ran directly from one ship to tall towers and, presumably, Banjul’s electrical grid. We’re heard that Banjul was notoriously underserved by reliable electrical power and that this, as well as new power lines from Senegal, we're part of the solution.

A large freighters was tied to one of the piers near our landing as well as a decrepit and rusty river boat and a semi-capsized ship of indeterminate type.

The captain spun the ferry around in the shallow channel, running aground on the beach as he backed the ferry attempting to swing into the gate.  We cleared that quickly and we're brought into the ramp straight away.

The ferry unloaded quickly and we were on our way into Banjul.  We were going to visit the National Museum of The Gambia that afternoon, but Georgia’s condition and our earlier delays helped us decide that we would skip that.

Along the way to the hotel, Augusto pointed out many landmarks, included the museum, city centre square, various government buildings, etc.

It was about a twenty minute drive to the hotel, during which time it became apparent that the Gambia was somewhat cleaner and marginally more orderly than Senegal.  We saw several large businesses, sidewalks and curbs in a better state of repair and significantly less dust, grime, and loose plastic bags and trash.

We stop at a Standard Chartered Bank ATM and several of us got cash before the machine ran out.  We got 2000 Dalasi each, about $50 and went to the hotel.

The Lemon Creek Hotel was somewhat difficult to find, down a couple of dirt roads, but then we arrived driving into the parking area that was completely covered in white clam shells.  We were very close to the beach with several six to eight room buildings, tile roofs and many flowers and tropical plants as well as a couple of large baobobs.

The rooms were fairly large, with mosquito netting over the bed and air conditioning that wasn’t operating.  Each room had a nice balcony with several chairs.

We relaxed, went to the bar and tastes our first JulBrew beer--brewed by Banjul Breweries.  We liked it! We also found the wifi fairly effective and used it to communicate with Ali who was arranging dinner for us at a local restaurant with Muhammed Cham, our incoming Gambian cadet.

The cadets walked down to the beach, I caught up with photos and we enjoyed the relaxing afternoon.

Ali arrived with Muhammed at about 1730 and we all had a chance to chat in the bar area. Muhammed impressed us a quiet and very sincere--as well as very young.  Ali told us that Muhammed had attended the best technical high school in The Gambia, St Peters, and that Ali had shepherded him and many others through the application process with the help of the US Embassy. He’d put them through weeks of physical training so that they would crush the candidate fitness assessment (CFA).  He bragged that Muhammed could do 21 pull-ups and 72 push-ups.

In end end, Ali had gained appointments for three future Gambian officers--two to the US Naval Academy and the second cadet at USAFA.  That’s just an amazing feat for a country so small.

We left at 1900 for dinner at the Butcher Shop and arrived about 15 minutes later.  It was an impressive, white tablecloth restaurant with a large slate menu on the wall, nice wine selection, and very attentive staff.  They proudly displayed all of their TripAdvisor awards on the wall, too.

The owner/manager was a middle-aged man of European descent who walked around with a lit cigar in his mouth.

Augusto joined us for dinner, but Idi went to prayers and had a snack elsewhere.  Ali and Muhammed explained that they would be early lightly, planning to return home for a planned larger meal closer to 2200.

I asked the waitress here favorite dish plate and she recommended a whole fish stewed in a tomato garlic sauce with rice and other vegetables.  Becky ordered the tuna steak, medium rare and the others picked generally between beef and chicken. Everyone seemed to enjoy their meal an the owner made sure we had plenty of bread.  Becky and I paid for Ali and Muhammed, while we all split the Augusto’s bill. It cane to about 750 Dalasi for each of the eight of us, or about $17.

We returned to the hotel and we're pleased to find our air conditioner dripping water outside the door, a sign that it was functioning well.  We turned on the fan to provide some white noise. Otherwise, the room was comfortable and we slept pretty well, waking just after 0600.

9 June

After loading a few more photos and checking social media--plus NCAA track results, I walked on the beach with Ali who’d arrived early.  He was happy to have his first day off in quite some time and wanted to spend it with us, touring around Banjul and other parts of the region.

The beach was remarkably clean by African standards with much less plastic trash than many places.  There were a few stray dogs that were not aggressive and seemed well fed. They were contact to lay in the cool, wet sand.

Matt and Evan had left just before us and we're getting a workout in, running on the waterline and stopping to do some calisthenics.  The breeze was cool and the skies cloudy and hazy at the same time.

During the walk, Ali told me about his situation more and I my admiration for him grew even more. He’s paid a pittance, as are his colleagues, and he received advice from many quarters not to return to The Gambia after completing his degree at USAFA.  He’d endured a change of government (for the better) while in his Firsties year and returned anyway, committed to helping his country’s military rebuild the trust it deserved from other branches of government and the civilian population. He said he wanted to come back because his family and everything he knew was here.

However, having spent four years in the US, he was treated quite differently by his peers, superiors, and even friends and family.  They considered him 'American,’ and many assumed that he had come back rich from his cadet time. He laughed about this and said that that was a common misperception among Gambians--that everyone who spends any time in the US, no matter what their job, is rich.

He said many Gambians return from the US and feel like they have to prove they were successful there, whether they were or weren’t, by borrowing and spending lavishly on many consumer items and entertaining family and friends. He thought his was sad and misguided.

After breakfast, we loaded up and went to the National Museum of The Gambia in downtown Banjul to start the day.

 


More Traveling in Senegal and Into The Gambia

June 08, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

6 June Continued

 

After spending most of the afternoon working on photos and the blog, I decided to do a little walk-around solid with the M5.

The cadets had gone out earlier to do a little shopping and later said that they’d been robbed by hawkers.  Austin had finally bought a Senegal Lions football Jersey for the World Cup, but they’d bought little else and had returned to the hotel to play cards and relax.

I stayed close the hotel and worked on the M5 whose controls are quite different really from the 5D.  I found it tougher to set Auto ISO and really just need practice with the touch screen.

I had my first less-than-friendly encounter with a local when I took a photo of a fruit stand and the back of the man selling fruit.  I don’t photograph his face, so I thought nothing of it. However, a man of about 30 walked up to me and said (in French) “Why do you think you have the right to take a photo?”

I think he was trying to shake me down for money, so I quickly shot back at him, while walking, “C’est un pays libre, n’est-ce pas?” (Isn’t this a free country?). He was clearly taken aback by my response, stopped walking towards me and said no more as I turned and walked away.  I do need to be more careful.

I walked around shooting more doorways and asked a few kids if I could take their photos. Some agreed, some did not.  I returned to the hotel at 1915 and shortly thereafter we left for the restaurant in the Hotel de la Residence just a block away.

Dinner was again good--a Prix fixe menu already arranged with salad to start. We we a little hesitant to eat the lettuce and tomatoes, but ultimately convinced each other to go for it, in part because of the balsamic vinegar.  Not foolproof, of course, but it worked for us.

The main course was either chicken brochets or grilled snapper with a choice of vegetables, rice, or frites.

The snapper was good, but bony and the veggies we're better than at La Flamingo the night before.  For drinks, we a few of us ordered Flag and then we had two large Kirene water bottles (1.5L) that we shared. Service was outstanding again--very friendly but not overbearing.  The sliced baguettes, which, I think may be the cadets’ favorite thing to eat on the trip, we're great.

For dessert, our waiter brought out little wooden pirogs with a scoop each of mango and strawberry sorbet, plus some small shortbread cookies.  The total bill came to about 7600CFA so we asked for 10,000 each and threw a 1000 CFA bill to each of the non-Flag drinkers. Both Idri and Augusto ate for free again and were clearly well-acquainted with the wait staff.

On the way back to the hotel, we bought two more 10L bottles of water for only 1000CFA apiece to recharge our bottles.

Becky and I returned to a rather chilly room as osur a/c had been running all evening, but it felt good while we pre-packed for the morning and climbed into bed.

7 June

The next morning, after sleeping fairly well, I woke up at 0530 ( the alarm was set for 0550), showered and tried to load more photos.

We met for breakfast at 0630, everyone dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts as instructed the night before by Augusto.  He’d told us that we would be leaving the next morning at 0700 for a three hour drive to Touba, the second largest city in Senegal and the home of a very large mosque.

According to our trip notes, Touba is the home of a particular Sufi Muslim sect and city with its Grand Mosque operates almost autonomously in the country.  Nearly 4,000,000 pilgrims visit the mosque each year from across West Africa.

Georgia wore a long black skirt and Becky put on her long grey convertible pants.  All of the men wore long-sleeved T or collared shirts.

Breakfast was again good with the same name as the day before. Matt and Evan shared another messy mango, while Becky and I had plain yogurt, pastries, coffee, and some cheese.

We left on time just after I hit the ATM for

100,000 CFA to get us through to Banjul over the next couple of days.

The route southeast from Saint-Louis was typical in that the quality of the road surface was outstanding and we went through a string of small towns that seemed identical.  Kids walking to school, women waiting for transportation to markets by communal taxi buses, goats along the road, and overloaded trucks.

It was cloudy and humid, with a few light sprinkles muddying the windshield.  The countryside for progressively drier as we went inland, with mostly bare ground and acacia trees by the time we’d traveled 30 km.

Senegal continues to amaze me because, despite the dirt, dust, and poverty, the hundreds of little kids, the trash, and the shacks, horse carts and abandoned cars, half-built and collapsing homes--very little that would suggest development past what you’d expect in the US during the Depression of the 1930s, men and women are often well-dressed if not overdressed in terms of style and colors, they make amazing French-style pastries, service and food is excellent, and kids are all walking long distances to school with backpacks full of books, often in uniforms.  While the boys are often barefoot, in shorts, with T-shirts, the girls and women are wearing very clean, very vibrant, colorful, full-length dresses with matching scarfs on their heads. Those without scarves have intricately coiffed, often tightly braided, hair.

All seem very honest and hard-working.  At La Hotel de la Posted, when we left our 'payment box’ at the table and forgot about the 2000CFA change from two Flag beers, the waitress presented the boss to me two hours later when I returned to order a second beer.  I paid her all 2000, tipping her 500 after the 1500 CFA beer.

So far the cadets have been outstanding--we couldn’t ask for better travel buddies.  Despite very different backgrounds at USAFA, they get along very well and we’ve had zero conflict.  There’s plenty of good-natured ribbing for little mistakes--as you:d expect on a France-led tip--and everyone seems willing to give and take in good humor.

They’ve all been on-time or early to every call and haven’t backed down from strolling through the worst back alley.  They’re asking good questions, are observant, trying to use a few French words, and are friendly and respectful of everyone they meet.

We’ve seen VERY few European/American/White tourists so far.  We stick out even more than I thought we would. The hawkers are very aggressive and pounce on us almost immediately upon leaving the hotel or mini-bus.  It reminds me a bit of Tanzania in that respect. Kids automatically ask us for money, candy, or ink pens. I wish we’d brought hundreds of ink pens!

I’ll say it again and again… you just can’t escape all of the plastic trash here. Everywhere. Bags stuck on virtually every Bush and tree along the roads. Piles of trash in every village. Some of it is burning, but Augusto tells me that it’s now illegal to burn the trash--apparently preferring one type of pollution over another.  I think we all need to get rid of plastic bags if we’re not going to assiduously commit to recycling them--and certainly containing discarded bags to real landfills in which they can degrade. Or we need to find new formulations that will degrade in days or weeks instead of years and decades.

In small villages that we passed, often the town was on one side of the road and the other side of the road was the town trash dump.

Along the road we saw increasing numbers of Falani grass/thatch huts mixed in with the usual block buildings.  We also saw Falani tribespeople wearing the typical woven conical hats.

We arrived in Touba from the North just before 1000, passing through a large concrete arch.  Idri told me later that all of the major roads leading to Touba had these large gates.

We saw many signed referring to “Bon Magal” and learned that Magal referred to the pilgrimage that almost four million per year make to Touba.

We arrived at outside the mosque and we're greeted by a tall gentleman dresses in a white boubou with caftan.  He was very friendly and pleasant, explaining to us that we needed to leave our shoes in the car and then gave Becky and Georgia wrap-around skirts plus carefully arranged and positioned head scarves.

The grand Mosque was huge. Our guide told us that it was the 'largest in Black Africa,’ with the only larger one in Africa found in Morocco.

Our guide was very clear that in Senegal they practiced a very tolerant, moderate sorry of Islam and that Islam meant peace and tolerance.

The grand Mosque was started in 1927 with the caliph of a particular Sufi sect.  The mosque is like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in that it may never be completed and was still be renovated AND built at the same time.

The mosque has seven minarets and will not get any more because it’s improper to have more minarets than the Grand Mosque in Mecca (8).

There hundreds of women in deep blue-purple robes cleaning, artisans were recarving patterns in cupped ceilings, and two of the larger minarets had scaffolding around them for work being done.

The floor tiling was all in white Italian marble not unlike Terrazzo strips at USAFA while the exterior walls were all in Portuguese pink marble. It was amazingly opulent and contrasted starkly with the abject poverty and filth that was only meters away on the exterior.

Our guide told us that there had been eight caliphs since the founding of the mosque and sect and that the eighth had taken his place just a few months ago. All were sons or grandsons, or great-grandsons of the original caliph. The names of the caliphs were all over the city, on taxis and buses, shops and homes, all invoking their specific favorite caliph’s name in hopes of blessings and good fortune.

Our guide told us of the annual pilgrimage or “Magal” that occurred in Touba, brining almost four million there every year from(mostly) across West Africa. Pilgrims were housed by locals and fed as well as part of the hosts’ Muslim obligations, though many chose to stay in hotels. He was quick to point out that this was a huge boon for the local economy, but that it wasn’t a true pilgrimage in the sense that it replaced the requirement of all Muslims to go to Mecca for the Hadj--rather this was more of an annual commemoration or celebration of the Weather African sect or caliphate centered in Touba.

At one point, our guide got into an argument with a younger man who took offense at him wearing a cap in and around the mosque. It got somewhat heated as we watched and walked. I think it was all conducted in Wolof or another local language because I could only pick up the occasional transliterated French words.  Apparently, our guide told the younger man that he did not understand his own religion and needed to study more. That was not well-received. Eventually others joined in and the younger man exited through a gate to the other side of the iron fencing around the mosque proper. We thought, at first that it might have something to do with us, as infidels with women, being there, but that was not the primary issue according to our guide.

The tour ended after about an hour and we made our way back to the bus. I gave our guide a donation of 2000 CFA.

On leaving Touba, we did a quick water and toilet stop at a gas station and Becky and I again marveled at the nearly spotless shoppette with it’s Kum-N-Go type selection, minus the clean bathrooms--those were still outdoor squatters with a big bucket of water and large Dipper to 'flush.’

We drove for another two hours to Kaolack, which, Idi explained was the crossroads of Senegal. In the city several national roads met, going to Dakar, Saint-Louis, The Gambia, and parts East.  It was a town of peanuts and salt, too, with the salty Saloum River passing through it on Nearly flat plain and mountains of salt and peanuts at processing facilities nearby. He explained that you could always tell someone who was from Kaolack because of their teeth stained brown from the salts and sodas in the water--something we saw soon enough.

We arrived at the hotel along the river and we're again somewhat impressed by it.  The Relais de Kaolack was part of a chain (Relais Bleu) in the area and had huge outdoor verandas, a nice pool, and an excellent bar serving Flag for only 1000 CFA (about $1.80)!

We were roomed in small bungalows that had two rooms each.  Augusto said that we were free until 1700 when we would go on a market tour downtown.  The cadets used the time to play pickup water polo in the pool and have a few drinks (beer and soda).  The hotel was hosting a government conference on information management for the sanitation profession with about 100 attendees that moved in and out if the pool and outdoor seating areas as their sessions progressed.  Easily 90% of the participants were male. There were two other groups of European-American tourists, both either French or Quebecois, one being a family of four with grown children and another a group of female college-aged friends. There was also a group of Chinese business people.

Becky read and did puzzles while I worked on photos and tried with limited success to get internet access.  Eventually, I went for a short swim, too.

At 1700 we went to the market and met a local guide took the lead through what turned out to be a typical covered, crowded, find-it-all, African market, complete with narrow passageways, sewing machines, freshly butchered meat and poultry, produce, and just about everything else.  It was maze-like and we were quickly disoriented. Since it was a market for locals, there weren’t a lot of pushy people trying to sell us things here. The cadets handled it well despite the mess and heat that was approaching 100F.

From the market, we walked to an artisanal village of small sales shops.  I saw some interesting paintings and batiks, Charlie bought a small carving, but that’s about all.  As we walked back to out minibus, Eddie asked me what sort of souvenirs we liked and I said that we didn’t buy many souvenirs these days because we had so much already at the house.  We preferred photos and memories and maybe something useful like a bolt if unique cloth or fabric that could be turned into a tablecloth and napkins and ultimately a story to tell friends when they visited us for dinner.

We returned to the hotel at about 1830 and, as we did the day before, ordered dinner in advance planning to eat at 2000.  Becky and I had a drink at the bar and watched the Bislett Games track meet from Oslo on the television above the bar.

Dinner was not particularly good, but the veggies we're acceptable and the baguettes nearly fresh.  Eddie wasn’t looking too fresh and he admitted that he was suffering from some digestive issues. After dinner, we brought him back to our room, gave him dose of Imodium (Loperamide) with a few more pills to last the night, checked that he didn’t have a fever, and refilled everyone’s water bottles.

Our room was chilly from the full-scale refrigeration and, after trying to connect to WiFi and processing the afternoon’s photos, I went to sleep.  We both slept well, waking a few times, but not completely until the alarm at 0620.

8 June

As we started to move luggage outside the door, Georgia appeared looking pekid and said she’d had a rough night with more digestive issues.  She didn’t have a fever, so we gave her Loperamide, too, and plenty of water.

Breakfast was pretty poor with only second-rate French pastries, no fruit, no yogurt, and last night’s baguettes.

On the bright side, Eddie was looking and feeling better. One the downside, Evan and Matt both needed doses of Immodium, too.

We loaded the van, leaving on-time, as usual, and hit a gas station after a few kilometers to get more water.  The shoppette inside wasn’t open, but the guys Manning the pumps were glad to accept 2000 CFA for two 10L bottles if Kirene water.

We're drove about an hour on the highway and then turned off on a dirt road, passing through three Wolof  farming villages to arrive at the Sine Ngayene complex stone grave site. Along the way, Idi explained that they farmed mostly corn and peanuts in the area and each spring burned the fields prior to planting after the third or fourth rain of the just-commencing rainy season.

It was clearly a wetter climate here as the nber are large green trees (not baobab) increased and the acacia disappeared.  The thatch and stubble from last season’s corn was raked into pikea and ling strips and then burned--we could see the black rings and stripes of past fires with several other still burning. Some were attended by kids or adults, others left to burn out on their own.

The drive to the site was about 10 kilometers over sandy roads. IDi stopped once to check the front left tire that he had had refilled two days prior. Happily, it was holding.

When we arrived at the site, the gates were locked. Idi made a phone call and we climbed over the low, rusty, steel tube railed fence and into the UNESCO World Heritage Site--one the only that we will ever visit completely alone, with no other tourists.

The site is quite interesting in that it dates to between 925 to 1305 CE.  It contains 1102 large volcanic, rectangular headstone each weighing a ton or more.  These monoliths are arranged in single and double circles of twelve stones each--52 circles in all.  The volcanic rock has no writing or symbology.  https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1226

A guide arrived a few minutes later and began explaining the site to us.  He spoke almost no French, but rather conversed in Wolof to Idi who then translated to French.  Augusto and I then translated Idi’s comments to English for the group. Sometimes the guide used obviously French words and we could understand his intent.

He told us that the age of the site has been verified by Carbon-14 dating of the bodies found in the graves.  The largest double circles held 65 bodies with the body of the supposed queen buried 1.5 meters deep and in the outer ring, with the king buried three meters below the stones in the center.  The higher ranking bodies had jewelry, knives, and Spears buried with them and their bodies we're positioned oddly with their lower legs pulled up behind and their hands together, arms straight, down at the waist.

The site was discovered in 1956, uncovered by local farmers like the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China, then slowly unearthed by French and Senegalese archaeologists in the Sixties and Seventies before being named a UNESCO site in 2006.

Our guide told us that the stones came from a site over a kilometer away and they were probably transported there during the rainy season in pirogs  or rolled on logs in drier times.

I took plenty of photos and then we walked towards the now-open gate.  Our guide unlocked a small stone shack that held a one-room museum explaining the site, showing some recovered artifacts from graves, and displaying maps showing similar sites in that region of Senegal and The Gambia.

Goats we're playing on the stones under a huge Green tree, plastic trash fluttered in the dry brown sticks of the last rainy season, and we left out the gate to find at least 20 kids and mom's begging for money and candy at the car.  Georgia had gone back to the car not feeling well and was being pestered by the kids and mom's.

We drove back and headed south to The Gambia.

We cleared Senegalese immigration relatively quickly (though we were unaware that we needed to pay a 2000 CFA exit toll.  I paid it as a group to move things along and then we walked across the border.

Gambian immigration was another story entirely.  We couldn’t get Gambian visas in advance as they do not have a functional embassy in the US or any means to do so.  The douane said that we needed to pay 3000 Dalasi to enter.

He gave us back our passports and told us that we should follow “the boy” (actually an immigration office NCO with two stripes) to immigration down the road.

We pulled over after about a kilometer and all entered the immigration office, except for Georgia who again stayed in the van with Idi.

I went to back room with Augusto and we explained to the immigration officer that we didn’t yet have any Dalasi and needed to app in a combination of CFA and USD.  It took quite a while to work this out as he called his superiors (or a local money exchange friend) on his cell phone to confirm the rates I quoted.

We ended up paying 40,000 CFA each for two of us (Evan and Becky) and then $66 each for the rest of us ($400 total) coming from our stashes of USD.

He asked how I would like the receipt written and if one receipt for all of us would do, and I agreed. He really was quite friendly and helpful given our situation.  I thanked him for his help and shook his hand. He asked how long we were visiting The Gambia and seemed disappointed when I said “Only two days.” He responded that he had given us all two weeks on our visas and hoped that we would extend our stay.

We loaded back on to the minibus after the one hour detour and started into The Gambia proper.

Immediately I noticed a few things--besides the signs all being in English--there seemed to be better corrugated steel roofs on the houses and much less plastic trash--apparently least in some areas. That might be because of the wetter climate in both cases, but villages seemed a little cleaner, too.

We passed some cashew farms, plenty of cattle grazing in marshy areas, and noticed many huge mango trees and tall red termite mounds.  The roads, though, are not nearly as good as in Senegal.



 


The First Few Days

June 06, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

I've been trying to take notes as we go, typing with my thumbs on my Google Pixel XL phone and can't keep up because we're just seeing and learning too much.  Let me post the following to catch everyone (or anyone) up on our travels and I'll add to it and edit whenever possible.

2 June

Our flight from Denver was uneventful, but we did spend about 30 minutes waiting and taxiing to the gate because of so much ground traffic at JFK.  When we arrived, our assigned gate for the flight to Dakar was B36, so we took the shuttle from Terminal 2 over there with the cadets and then decided to just split up, walk around and meet back at the gate before the flight was set to leave at 2205, boarding at 2110.  Becky and I got dinner in a pub-style restaurant instead of waiting to eat dinner late on the flight--a decision that paid off later. Afterwards, we walked around the terminal as our gate changed from B36 to B22.

JFK is a 60s or 70s style airport that is very crowded in the older part of the Terminal 4 international  area, with just scads of people lined up for flights and almost no space to stretch out. We were clearly in an older, less renovated area, unlike the newer, more open parts of Terminal 4.  

Later, our gate was changed to B33 and we moved down there, sitting and reading.  We helped a very nice French woman from Nice with some questions about her long-delayed flight at a gate that was expecting a flight from Amsterdam and then eaves-dropped on some conversation in French between a woman in a wheelchair and some porters.  She, too, was headed to Senegal, dressed in a deep yellow floral print. It wasn’t clear why she needed a wheelchair.

We saw her again when our gate again moved to B22, then we endured yet another set of changes to B33 and back before taking off.  It seemed that many flights coming in from Europe were late arriving and Delta was having trouble finding open gates in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, at B22, Georgia struck up a conversation with our Senegalese friend and was learning a lot about the city.  Her new friend wanted to meet her for dinner and show her around the city and they exchanged contact info.

We finally boarded--or started to board at about 2130.  There were dozens of small children and at least five women in wheelchairs.  Boarding was a complete gaggle and we were joking with an American that lived in Dakar that it looked very French, with no one willing to respect place in line.

Becky, the cadets and I pre-boarded after all of the children and wheel-chair bound were on-board, taking advantage of the offer for active duty military to walk on with First Class.  Moments before boarding, I took my 10mg Ambien and we thought we might make it on time.

Of course, boarding took longer than usual, but we settled into the full flight and made the best of it.  I put on my eye mask, used by bluetooth headphones as earplugs and fell asleep.

I woke up at about 0015 and we hadn’t left.  It seems that someone did not board the plane as expected and they had to search the cargo hold to find his luggage--this took nearly 90 minutes.  Ultimately, this caused us to arrive almost three hours late.

During the flight, we both slept very little due to the many babies crying and a medical emergency.  One women almost directly behind us felt very ill and passed out, requiring calls for a doctor on-board--there was none.  A few minutes later we heard the automatic voice of the AED device prepping to give her a shock, if needed--it wasn’t needed.  She was, however, carried to the first row of coach, nearest the main doors so that she could be evacuated quickly upon arrival.

I woke up another time when a young boy apparently had the night terrors and couldn’t be calmed, screaming like a banshee about three rows up and across the aisle.

We landed about three hours late at 1300 and parked on the tarmac, despite what looked like an empty, new terminal with plenty of jet bridges.  No one getting off the plane required a wheel chair, but there was an ambulance waiting for the woman who had an emergency and she was taken off the plane almost immediately, despite looking none the worse for wear..

We got on the second bus and arrived at the immigration/visa processing door in time to see Georgia rushing back to the plane.  She’d been on the earlier bus but had realized that her passport had fallen out of her pocket while on board. We waited at the door, though the guys had cleared immigration and were awaiting our bags.  

Happily, she came back quickly, passport in hand and our first crisis was averted.  We three cleared immigration quickly and didn’t have to wait too long for our bags. We cleared customs inspection just as quickly and stepped into the lobby to meet our guide patiently awaiting us, sign in hand with my last name and “Tailor Made Travel.”

On Augusto’s advice, we all got cash at ATMs near the exit doors.  With an exchange rate at about 560CFA/1USD, we decided to get 50,000 CFA for each person..

We learn that is now an hour drive from Dakar since the new international airport in Thies opened in Dec 2017.  We thought that maybe that’s why we didn’t use jet bridge--it wasn’t open yet. Augusto led us to a large 16 passenger van and we loaded up with the assistance of Idri, our driver.

We drove along smooth, new roads and bridges coming into Dakar and saw work being done on a high speed train being finished to the newly renovated downtown train station.

Augusto explains that Senegal government being moved out of downtown Dakar to nearer airport, explaining all of the construction we saw along the way.  New hotels, a basketball arena, large government offices, and commercial centers seemed to be going up everywhere. It was, however, very dusty along the way with many homes looking half-built, some goats and herders along the highway and mixed in with the homes and small compounds.

During the drive to Dakar and the Hotel de La Madrague hotel, we passed by an Atlantic beach with excellent waves and dozens of surfing riding their boards waiting for breakers that seemed to be in the six to eight foot range.

City very dirty with dust on everything.

Checked into hotel without problem--excellent view of N’Gor Beach, fishing bay, and N’Gor Island to the west.

Hotel nice and clean with bright colors. Simple decor.

Enjoyed a nice lunch at the hotel with grilled whole filet of sole, rare grilled tuna steak, etc.  We shared several plates between pairs, but made a mistake in ordering and got an extra fillet of sole which was easily devoured.  The beer was good and cold, too, and we tried both Flag and Gazelle, the two Senegalese brews. Flag is your very typical tropical climate developing world light lager comparable to Tiger Beer in Singapore and was perfect for lunch.  With drinks, we paid a total of 7000CFA each.

Depart for City tour at 1500.

Many things closed due to Sunday and Ramadan.

Went to Monument to African Renaissance.

Huge statue of family financed by North Korea and just open a few years.

Very impressive, somewhat like Mt Rushmore combined with Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty.  Very heroic, socialist style.

Augusto said that it offended some Muslims because woman is uncovered and legs bare while man is lifting baby in left arm/hand.

Walked up many stairs to base of statue but didn't pay 10€ to go up elevator top of 'crown.’

Saw cool modern art sculptures nearby, then drove past huge Mosque on the beach under renovation paid for by UAE.

Drove into centre college and past President’s residence seeing changing of the guard.

Passed many ministry offices and residences downtown and we're told again that it’s all moving out of town.

Also went by old int’l airport (Yoff) that is now operated by the military.

Abandoned ministry offices will become apartments and hotels downtown.

Went to Catholic cathedral to Mary downtown, built by French in 1930s. Closed.

Went to city overlook and saw Goree Island in the distance as well as port and downtown, then to a monument to WW1 and WW2 dead in front of city hall..

Returned via main roads lined by street sellers with markets down side roads.

Stopped at grigri booths where shamans were selling herbal cures and weird stuff like goat horns, dried lizards, chicken/turkey feet, minerals, spices, leather strips, fur, etc.

Sellers wanted me to pay for photos.  In general, people are very reticent to have their photos taken here and most women either cover their faces or turn away when I simply ask the question.

Walked down a street and saw other street sellers and small shops:. paint, food, hairdressers, tailors, auto repair, etc.

Walked past large concrete soccer/basketball area with a game going on then returned to bus and Idiot, our great driver.

Back to hotel to arrange dinner with Moussa

Moussa arrived at about 1900 to take us to dinner at his mom’s house.

V2 joined us, here with CSLIP for three weeks as sub, arrived four days earlier and had been body-surfing that day.

Moussa negotiated taxi fair (2500 CFA per car and we went in a total of three cars to his mom’s--where he also lives.

About a 20 minute ride on good streets, then down sandy sidestreet to apartment complex. Upstairs in dark hallway to very simply decorated 2-3 bedroom apartment on second floor to meet his mom and aunt who were cooking in kitchen down long hallway.

TV on with African soap operas (Walf TV) and then Muslim chanting/singing announcing sunset and prayers.

Nice deck on West side facing neighborhood of upscale (relatively) and new apartment complexes that were 2-4 stories.

We could hear muezzin calling prayers.

Dinner was served first courses being finger foods that were very tasty, almost like mini-pizzas.

Served at dining room table buffet style.

We served ourselves and ate in living room, not realizing that other food was coming, so we conserved the food on the table to not wipe it all out.

Moussa wanted his mom and aunt to practice their English with us, but there wasn’t much interaction really. They just brought food out.

Next (main) course was roasted chicken with couscous and a great onion sauce that included spices and green olives. Layered on a plate with sliced baguettes.

Moussa had gone out to get bread earlier and he explained that he had taken his mom to the market earlier in the day to get all of the food they needed to prepare for the evening.

We all are well. Cadets asked Moussa questions about his flying, as did I, and experience with the CN-235 flying around Senegal.  Moussa told us that he likes flying around Senegal and that the Senegalese are planning to buy one or two more CN-235s.

We talked about Boubacar and Moussa told us that because of the T-6 stand-down due to oxygen issues he would be graduating late and probably not back to Senegal before September or October.  Boubacar is now married to an officer in the Senegalese navy that he met before he went to UPT while stationed for several months in Saint-Louis. Moussa was stationed there at the same time.

One of the few decorations on the wall was Moussa’s UPT grad certificate and USAF pilot wings.

After dinner, we stepped into balcony and saw a night football match going on in the streets.  

Cool evening breeze.

We thanked Moussa’s mom and aunt for dinner and presented them with a Colorado photo book Becky brought along.

Walked to corner to get two more taxis and then back to the hotel, exhausted.

No need for Ambien tonight as we were totally exhausted.

Went to sleep easily and slept until after 0630.

Augusto is from Guinea-Bissau and has been a guide for ten years for a variety of companies. Speaks at least five languages including French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

He’ll be our guide until we depart for Liberia on 11 June.

Idri (or Idrissa) is our driver and he’s from Dakar, speaking only a little English. He speaks to me in French when I’m in the front seat and is good practice for me.  

He’s an excellent driver always in control of our 16-seat mini bus, very careful and courteous.

The mini-bus is quite spacious and comfortable.  I sit in the front right seat with Becky behind Idri and Augusto beside her on the right.

4 June

I got up and met Eddie for a walk-around the area and photography.

Hazy morning light and fishermen being taken to their smaller boats from a couple of large pirogs.

Several locals in wet suits, some with scuba gear and spear guns going out to their boats.

Colorful pirogs on the shoreline littered with plastic, trash, and blobs of seaweed.

Some people running for exercise.

Many people starting their day.

Walked to point and ducked into neighborhood with very narrow passageways, unmarked, around homes packed into the area.

Some open areas with laundry drying, while there were goats and a few cats as well.

Became a little lost but knew our general direction from sunrise in the east.

Saw kids going to school and small businesses opening.

Back hotel as planned at 0815 for a quick shower and breakfast on the hotel terrace.

Good coffee and pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, crêpes, cheese, salami, and cantalope.

Met Augusto and Idri at the front gate--they’re very timely--and we departed for Goree Island.

Traffic was heavy and thee are very few traffic signals in Dakar--mostly just round-abouts and uncontrolled four ways.

Saw one traffic signal.

Parked near entrance to ferry port near train station under renovation and walked in.

Augusto was buying us tickets when several women (two names Maria) introduced themselves and insisted that we visit their shops on Goree.

Augusto gave us our tickets and we went inside to wait.

About 100 people or more we just outside with crates and fruit and vegetables separated in steel 'pens’ awaiting loading and shipment of their goods.

Several large freighters in the port and a large dry dock.

Weather was nice and cool with a breeze, the sky generally clear but still hazy.

Ferry ride was about 20 mins. Two little British kids sat in front of us on upper deck, outdoor seating calling out jellyfish and 'sharks’ when they saw them--then will really none of the latter but plenty of the former, quite large with reddish tentacles extending ten or more feet behind them in the current.

Sea was calm with only a gentle roll and we could see fishing boats heading to work and more freighters on the hazy horizon.

Goree Island is a UNESCO world heritage site--one of the first so-named.

We stepped off of the ferry and met our guide IDi who lives on the island and was very proud to show us his residence card.

He spoke quickly and moved us along on a tour that only lasted about 90 minutes because we needed to catch the 1200 ferry back to Dakar.

Goree was first settled by the Portuguese and then changed hands many time (mostly in the 17thC prior to becoming French like most of West Africa.

It was a staging place for slave going to Europe and the Americas and at one time had 28 slave houses.

One remaining slave house is well-preserved and our guide showed us around all of the rooms.  There was tourist graffiti on almost all of the walls, some with sympathetic messages but mostly just names and dates.

We saw the island’s old well and an exclusive school for girls named in honor of a Senegalese female author that I’ll try to lookup.

Idi said the best girls were chosen for it and lived there Mon-Fri for school, taking the ferry back to Dakar for weekends.

The island is in two parts and is originally volcanic, kind of like a micro-Maui.  We walked up stairs to the top of the largest part of the island and saw an old (approx) pair of 10” guns that served to protect the island and strait between it and Dakar, built by the French before WW1.  

The barrels had been spiked and destroyed before WW2.

The summit also had a Goree Island monument sculpture that was dedicated to those lost at sea from Goree and Senegal.

There were several artists there and lots of hawkers selling trinkets and the cadets succombed for the first time, with Matt buying these wooden knockers used to keep rhythm (I think Charlie bought a pair, too).

IDi then took us to his old sand painting shop where he used to work and he demonstrated how it was done--then offered us bargain prices on the work.

I think only Georgia bought a small one.

We then huddled through town to get to the ferry on time, passing by a very unique sculpture garden of iron cotton plants with bills of real cotton in them.

One of the Maria's caught us we were leaving and was very persistent about selling bracelets to Becky and me.

She got on the ferry and would not leave us alone.

Her strategy worked and we bought four or five for 5000 CFA just to get some peace more than anything.

I’m wearing two of the bracelets now as a means of fending off other hawkers.

During the visit, my non-Canon OEM battery failed and I had to switch to the M5.

It worked well but I'm just not used to the controls and couldn’t get just what I wanted.

Can’t believe I forgot to get another battery as backup, so I was stuck carrying around useless gear.

We drove back across town after returning on the ferry and north the Lac Rose, almost halfway back to the airport.

Lac Rose is pretty fascinating in that it’s a supersaturated salt lake (ten times saltier than the ocean) no more than a couple of meters deep with a base under the salt water of crystallized salt about a meter thick.

Small wooden boats go out into the lake and you piles to break up the salt under the water and then baskets to collect the Chuck's if salt.  The salt is then brought into shore and piled up for grading, breaking, sorting and bagging. Huge piles of his salt and hundreds of bags are everywhere.

Of course people were selling things and I got another 'free’ bracelet that cost me 200 CFA.

After Lac Rose, we drove back into Dakar and we're told we were free for the evening, but that we would be leaving at 0800 the next morning with bags fully packed and ready.

We relaxed for a little while after returning with the cadets walking along the beach and having a couple of beers. They also enjoyed the pool and Becky read by the pool.

I worked in photos and then joined them.  They said that the security guard advised them not to go too far and Georgia was admonished by locals for walking on the beach immodestly in her bikini, so they came back to the hotel.

Matt and I walked to the South to a point and talked quite a bit. Several ladies selling things approached us but we didn’t buy anything.

Back at the hotel, we made arrangements for dinner with Moussa.

Initially, Moussa implied that dinner with Boubacar’s dad, Gen Ousmane Kane, should only include Becky and me.  I told the cadets and they started to make other plans, including contacting Georgia's friend from the flight.

Just as quickly, Moussa texted back and said that the general expected ALL of us for dinner and that we’d leave at about 1900.

I asked about attire and he told us to wear a little nicer clothes.

We all piled into Moussa’s car and another taxi and arrived shortly after 1930 to his apartment.

Gen Kane greeted us at the door in a flowing white boubou and cap and was very warm and friendly. He invited us in and explained that since he was fully retired he lived in his large apartment complex with his nephew and niece taking most of the house. He also rented out part of the apartment to an American couple who allowed him to use the downstairs area for events like this.

In an undecorated room with chairs and a sofa, the main table was laid out in a buffet with fruit, vegetables, and canned tuna--salad with tomatoes and delicious mango chunks. Also, more sliced baguettes, which the cadets love.

We talked a lot about Senegal, the general’s time in the Air Force and compared National War College stories since I’m class of 2000 and he’s 2007.

Becky spoke of working with spouses of international officers at ACSC and at NWC.

We were introduced to his nephew and niece but they didn’t join us for dinner.

The nephew brought in a large platter of grilled lamb with onions and potatoes which was delicious and falling off the bone.

We had tea as well as soft drinks, juice, and water.

We concluded the evening by presenting him with a book of Colorado photos again and taking pictures--a great evening with a genuinely warm person who couldn’t stop expressing his thanks to us for all we’ve done to help Boubacar and all of the African cadets we’ve sponsored.

We left and took another taxi ride back to the hotel and on the way, in the dark, noticed many people out for an evening run--clearly recreational because they had earbuds in plus they were wearing upscale running shoes.

Back at the hotel, the cadets played cards for a while and then we all went to sleep--or tried to do so.  Neither Becky nor I, nor, apparently Matt and a few others slept well.

5 June

We agreed to be ready to leave at 0800 the next morning and, after breakfast, everyone was set and ready to go--this is a very timely group and I appreciate that.  Breakfast at the hotel was quite good with excellent crepes, patisseries, cantalope, etc. Moreover, Augusto and Idri are very prudent with our time and theirs, so we ended up leaving actually at 0750.

After taking some time to get out of Dakar due to morning traffic, we drove by the towns bordering Lac Rose before heading north only a few kilometers from the coast towards Lompoul and ultimately Saint-Louis.  Each of the little towns looks alike with the same markets, speed bumps, horse carriages, shops, etc.

We went through different agricultural zones in which Augusto and Idri explained that the water table is no more than five meters below ground, so tons of green beans, squash, cauliflower, potatoes, and onions are produced.  Senegal also produces lots of chicken, but I presume it’s all small-time because we didn’t see any large poultry farms along the way. Idri mentioned that Senegal imports zero chicken from Europe or other countries--seemingly due to equal parts concern for health/hygiene and national pride.  Food for chickens and other animals is provided by SEDIMA, the Senegalese equivalent of Purina.

Every village has many, many goats of different sizes, presumably used for meat and milk and we saw herds of large-horned, white African cattle in many places along the way, many time crossing the roads.

We stopped once for water and a bathroom break, buying some snacks instead of having a formal lunch which seems to be the pattern we’ve fallen into, buying big jugs of water, some Pringles, local small roasted peanuts, and other items.  Idri doesn’t eat because he’s Muslim, while Augusto has no issues with that.

Augusto hasn’t told us his religious beliefs but just that in Guinea-Bissau about 50% of the people are animist while 40% are Christian and about 10% are Muslim.  We’re learning a lot about Guinea-Bissau on the trip as Augusto tells us about his life there.

 

 

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