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The Rest of the Trip After Kumasi Arrival and The Trip From Hell

June 22, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

17 June

Even though we set the alarm for 0700 in hopes of sleeping a little later, both of us were up at 0630 after maybe about six hours of sleep.  The air conditioning in the room worked well, but we didn’t have any hot water. Apparently, there was a switch to turn it on in the main living area (unlabeled) that we should’ve found. I tried to update some files and upload photos but had very little success.

We went down to the sparse breakfast that was just toast and pre-made omelets.  There was also a pot of what looked like oatmeal, but I didn’t try it. Georgia was talking to a guy about our age.  He had a thick Southern accent and asked us if we spoke French., Apparently, he was a high school French teacher on a Fulbright Foundation Trip with about a dozen other Georgia state educators led by a professor at Savannah State.  He joined us at the breakfast table and talked almost non-stop for over a half-hour. He reminded me a lot of the character “Cam” from the “Modern Family” TV series. However, he was clearly on a luxury tour compared to what we’d already seen and I could tell that even Georgia was chuckling (and cringing) a little, but quietly.

Georges was there by 0830 and told me that the van was already there.  He was still upset about the day before’s fiasco and wanted to make sure all went well today.  

We loaded into the van and were ready to go once Eddie jumped in after his standard five-minute breakfast.  

A TransAfrica rep named Peter joined us on the bus, apparently for no other purpose than to give us a verbal apology--albeit with no explanation at all--for Saturday’s mess.  It rang hollow.

We drove first to the Manhyia Palace, home of the Ashanti king and the museum of the Ashanti Empire.  

We parked outside in a parking lot by a large field and were told that that area was used for their every 42-day ceremonies led by the king.  We then walked to the museum that was housed in a building donated by the British to the Ashanti king over 100 years ago in partial compensation for wrongs done to him and the empire.  There were several peacocks on the grounds, but several look like they’d had several of their “eye” tail feathers pulled for some reason. They squawked loudly at us, performing their role as “watch birds.”

We were escorted into a center courtyard and were supposed to watch a short video before beginning our museum tour, but another pair of tourists had just finished the video and their guide asked us to join them for the tour.

Our guide was a very knowledgeable young man in his mid- to late-20s with evident pride in his Ashanti heritage.  He gave a great tour that lasted about an hour during which he told us quite a bit about Ghana’s history through the lens of the Ashanti Empire that arose in the region in the late 17th Century.  There were displayed showing the work of the most recent kings since the Colonial Era began and especially since the Ashanti fall to the British in 1873. I hadn’t realized that the Brits sent the Ashanti king into exile in the Seychelles Islands and that the queen mother joined him and died there.  The king returned to Ashanti after 28 years of exile and became an ally of the Brits--of sorts.

Today, the Ashanti king is largely ceremonial, but still taken quite seriously.  The king still “owns” or controls the land of the Ashanti region and collects royalties on the use of the land by locals and foreigners.  He approves all land sales and purchases and is used by the government to resolve disputes in the traditional tribal areas. It was also interesting to learn that about 100 years ago, the Ashanti king had converted to Christianity and the Anglican Church and now all kings and the kingdom were associated with the Anglicans.

Like the king we met in Aniassué, the Ashanti kings are chosen from their maternal lineage, usually the eldest nephew of the king, chosen by the Queen Mother.  The Queen Mother is really the term given to the most senior woman in the king’s family and could be his mother, eldest sister or maternal aunt.

The museum did have some interesting displays of the king’s furnishings dating back 60 or more years including his first TV, first refrigerator--which supposedly still works, but wasn’t when our guide checked it.  Water was dripping from the freezer section onto the floor when the door opened. Clearly, a royal defrosting. There was a smoke alarm in the building, too, that needed its battery changed and annoyingly screeched one per minute during the tour.  I presumed that this was the first royal smoke detector and it had its original battery still.

Otherwise, they also had displays of the king’s guns, crystal, dinner servings, gramophone, etc.  It was a very enjoyable tour and highly recommended. We stopped into the gift shop where Matt, Charlie, and I each bought souvenir Kente cloth neckties.

From the museum, we went only a few blocks away to the Ketegia or Central Market of Kumasi, the largest in West Africa with over 10,000 individual stalls and covering probably 20 acres or more. First, though, the cadets stopped at a couple of ATMs for cash.

Before entering, Georges ad-libbed a little and took us up some stair of a residential building that went directly to the roof of an adjoining building so that we could see the whole market from above.

The roof was a collection of bare rebar sprouting through supporting concrete columns and a couple of shacks from people living up there.  We walked to the overlooking edge and started taking photos. Suddenly, two floors below, two women selling vegetables starting yelling at us, threatening (half-heartedly) to throw vegetables (cabbage and cucumbers) at us, upset that we were taking photos.  We laughed at all this and egged them on. They laughed at us and we could tell it was for show.

We then descended and walked in.  It was Sunday morning, which worked out well because at least half of the stalls were closed and there were not many patrons at all.  We weren’t jostled much and just had to step out of the way of passing merchants with large carrying bowls on their heads or huge bags at their side.

One of the butchery sections was still, probably, one of the worst smelling places I’ve ever experienced and I could tell that Georgia and Evan were about to gag.  Looking at the slimy tables and tree stumps used as chopping boards, it was easy to see why. We were in the “tripe and entrails” section and some of the “non-meat products” were looking a lot like part of Saturday’s (or Friday’s) sale.  Georgia asked that everyone keep moving and I had no problem obliging. People in the market varied greatly in their willingness to have their photos taken. Some were very reticent, while others openly asked or easily assented to my requests.  

We didn’t spend too much time in the market and Georges did a good job of moving us along.  We came out, miraculously, just a short distance from where we entered and walked over to the area above which we had stood on the roof.  We greeted the women who had threatened us with their vegetables and all had a good laugh. I bought a bunch of about a dozen small, ripe bananas from a woman for 3 Cedis ($0.60) and passed them out among the group.  The bananas were very tasty. I offered the rest to our driver, Dada, and he appreciated it, eating two right away.

From the market we drove to a couple of craft “villages” that were really just sets of stalls along the road in villages on a road leading out of Kumasi.  The first was a wood carving area known as Ahwiaa. Under a large wooden cabana with corrugated metal roof, about a dozen men were either working on royal-style Ghanaian/Ashanti stools or smaller items with a variety of hand tools.  They gave us a few short descriptions of the stools, including how you told the difference between a man’s and a woman’s stool: the woman’s had five “legs” connecting the seat to the base and the men’s had a single pedestal type structure between the two that was carved into the Ashanti symbol meaning, essentially, “God in All Things.”  More likely, though, they were paired up in games of Mancala or watching games being played. They were moving with incredibly speed, picking up stones from one chamber and dropping them successively into the adjoining pots one at a time, picking up the next if there were still stones in their last pot, gathering any stones they’d earned, etc.  The next player would start his turn before the last stone played by his opponent was even done rattling in its pot.

They invited us to sit down to play a few games with them which I did.  My opponent and teacher taught me the local variant and then we started.  He was very helpful in the first game, as was Becky, as I relearned a game we’d played with our sons quite often when they were growing up.  He clearly let me win the first game and, in the second job, did an even better job, I’m sure, of letting me win. Of course, he and his friends had Mancala sets for sale and after the two games we joined the cadets that were already hard at work bargaining for their latest souvenirs.

We settled on two sets--one for our grandsons and one for the brewery-- with each being a different color of stained local wood and having a giraffe or an elephant carved into the folding case.  The owner of the shop wrapped them nicely and gave us two or three extra stones.

From the wood carvers, we went to a village that specializes in Adinkra or stamped cloth.  To us, the ones for sale looked like that had been machine woven and then locally stamped with a waxy dye that might not survive for very long.  Georges told us that the most common uses for the Adinkra cloth were as robes for funerals and that we could pick out the funeral patterns because they were almost all black and red patterns, though some were black and white.

We told him that we were really interested in seeing the Kente cloth weavers in action in the next village of Bonwire, so we didn’t stay in the Adinkra area for very long.  

Bonwire was just a few miles away.  As we approached, we could see some foot looms in front or beside houses with their characteristic long, tight runs of gold thread leading to foot looms under large mango trees.  Once we arrived at the center of the town, we parked just before a narrow street by the sign that indicated that a communal workshop was at the end of the path. We walked along the road to find a typical old cinder block and stucco building in the shade of a very large tree.  Inside were at least a dozen foot looms and products from the “cooperative” that turned out to be not so cooperative.

We were immediately stampeded by the weavers as we walked around the inside wall of the building.  Only one weaver was working at the time and it was fascinating watching how fast and coordinated he was in flipping the loom with the cords strapped to his feet and passing the shuttle back and forth between the rows of thread, easily at more than once per second.

We were surprised the huge variety of patterns and colors at the center--far more than we expected or I had seen in my previous, brief visit to Ghana.  Each of the salesman brought out full-sized tablecloths, table runners, and strips ranging in size from a single strip that is about four inches wide and a meter or more long to one meter by two meter tablecloths made of stitched together strips.

The individual strips we're going for between 20 and 50 Cedis or about $4 to $11.  The Weaver's explained and showed us the difference between single, double, and triple weave fabric--the factor that had the most to do with price.

As we moved around the building, the sellers became more and more aggressive and more willing to deal.  Becky and I ultimately settled on a table runner and a unique decorative strip, but the moment you bought one item, the Weaver either wanted to sell you another at a better deal or his cooperative competitors would jump in with similar offers.

If you changed your mind and declines one offer for another, then the Weaver's would argue in an increasingly tense manner.  Frankly, it was starting to get ugly and we decided to leave. Sellers followed us all of the way to the bus, desperate to make a sale.  We told them that we didn’t have room in our baggage but that didn’t slow them down.

I bought one last strip from a guy who’d been lowering his price as we walked settling in 25 Cedis for a nice double woven piece.

You couldn't fault the weavers, really.  In a world where the equivalent of a $5 sale can make your day or week, we understood their fervor.

On leaving Austin held us up for a moment while a guy wove a bracelet for him bus-side by hand.  Austin wanted it to read Antoine and had written it on paper, but it came out as ANETONIDE--another funny story for the future.

We next drove the Anita Hotel and restaurant for a late lunch.  The dining area was very elaborate and kitschy and it reminded Becky of many hotel restaurants we’d seen in China.

We ordered drinks at our large round table, took turns cleaning up in one of the nicest washrooms we’d seen on the entire trip, and ordered lunch.

Almost everything we initially ordered was not available--a recurring Ghanaian theme-- including all of the local favorite Ghanaian dishes like “Red-Red.”

Most of us settled for pizza, but Austin got Beef Stroganoff (inexplicably available).

During the drive back to the hotel, we visited one of the oldest Ashanti shrines in the area, a restored building now made of concrete blocks, but with an authentic bamboo and thatch roof.

Inside were some old “Talking Drums,” used for centuries to connect villages at a very low bit rate.  The site also had a royal-style stool for the local king or chief and was still used for the every-42-day Akwasidae celebration.

Georges told me that the Ashanti month is 42-days and the celebration that marks the new month involves several parts. Locals are expected to bring gifts to the local king or chief and, as we learned in Aniassué with that local chief, the favored gift was a particular brand of Schnapps that came in a green bottle.  Food and livestock were also accepted, but this explained the huge pile of discarded, empty Schnapps bottles and their cardboard cases that formed a mound under the only tree in the small compound.

The site had several narrative posters about the building’s history, construction, and renovation,

We walked around the little village for a few minutes and I managed to gather a following of local kids who wanted their photos taken again and again while striking their favorite glamour or Kung Fu poses.

We returned to the hotel after getting a little lost in a nearby village causing Georges to get mildly upset with the driver, Da-da, for taking the wrong turn.  Nonetheless, we made it back to the hotel shortly before 1700 to clean up, relax, and get organized for the next day of travel.

I downloaded photos, tried to deal with the slow internet connection, and then we joined the cadets downstairs at the bar for the 1800 Brazil-Switzerland World Cup match.  I brought my laptop down and finished processing photos, but had little more success loading them. We all turned in earlier than usual to compensate still for the previous day.

18 June

Neither of us slept very well for some reason. It may have been that the air conditioning worked, too, well and we actually woke up cold a few times.

We were packed and ready before breakfast started at 0700 and met Georgia there again this I'm without her Fulbright friend from Georgia.

Following breakfast, we hauled our luggage to the lobby, checked on the others who were finishing breakfast and loaded up the van to leave just a couple of minutes late.  Google Maps told me it would be a 4.5 hour drive to our hotel in Cape Coast, but Georges said we would make some short stops along the way to see local crafts and industries.  He also said that we would be driving around Kumasi to avoid the Monday morning rush hour traffic, something Google Maps suggested as well.

Our first stop was along the road at a carpentry shop that made home furniture and coffins.  Some of the coffins were very elaborate: one shaped like a fish, another like a house, a third one rather plain.  In the back of the carpentry yard, two men were cutting long, wide raw boards into smaller sizes with a huge open saw blade, the workers not sporting any protection equipment whatsoever for eyes, ears, or appendages.

We’d already learned that funerals are a huge social status event in Ghana.  There were enormous road signs erected to announce the passing of a loved one or even the anniversary of their death.  Some posters announced funeral and after-party details as well as dress code in addition to the deceased’s age, dates of birth and death, and occupation or key survivors.

Georges told us that funerals are a means of a family demonstrating their reverence for the deceased as well as showing the community the status of the family socio-economically.

Our next stop was to a community palm oil production facility in the city of Bekwai.  We were passing through the hometown of our driver, Da-da, and he seemed to know people.  Georges asked him to stop the van on the roadside by the palm oil facility and we got out of the bus.

Georges and Da-da greeted the woman that looked like she was in charge who took us on a tour around the yard.

There huge bags of raw palm nuts on the side of the road that were the raw material. They looked like dark gray granite gravel and not nuts if you were not close-by.

The large nuts went through a coarse grinder that was really a cracker for the hard outer husk.  The result was passed through a spinning, first level grating that separated the smaller pieces of cracked husk from the inner, very hard, nearly black seed that was little bigger than an almond.  Georges took one and cracked it open with his teeth and showed a soft translucent white nut inside that reminded me somewhat of a hazelnut. I tried it, but it didn’t have too much flavor.

From this pile, the nuts and large pieces of chaff we're separated in water because the nuts floated and the chaff, strangely did not. The women seemed to mix some red dirt into the water to provide contrast for fishing out the nuts--something they used a large colander to do.

After being completely separated and cleaned, the refined nuts still in the shell were placed into big black cauldrons for roasting.

The pits we're placed on what I can only call “ground ovens,” where a hole had been dug and three supports of some kind (e.g., bricks, large rocks, a smaller pot). A fire with either charcoal or raw wood was started underneath each cauldron and then tended by women and local children.

The resulting palm nuts we're charred black and then put through a very fine grinder out of which extruded a short of oily black peanut butter with the sediment settling into the bottom.

The thick oil smelled somewhat like sesame oil but looked like motor oil.  Moments after make that comparison, the woman operating the grinding grabbed a small cup, dipped into the top layer of the product and began pouring the oil over all of the moving parts if the grinder.

Our guide explained to Georges that no part of the palm nuts is wasted.  The first layer husks are so blacksmiths to fire their forge and the sludge from the final grinding, once oil was separated from it, was sold as fish food.  We thanked the ladies for allowing us to disrupt the day, took a few more photos and jumped on to the bus.

Our next stop occurred only about 15 minutes later when Georges ordered the driver to stop, then back up.  He said that he had seen a palm wine distillery back about 100 meters, so we backed up to see it.

It looked like just about any other moonshine operation in the world with a wood shack, a covered area with about six steaming, rusty, 55 gallon barrels, and some large plastic 200L containers that, we were told held palm wine.

Georges explained that the palm trees were cut down in a small area and then the core of the trees was opened and tapped for the sap in the same way that maple trees are tapped for their sap. A container is placed under the cut portion of the trunk and the sap slowly flows into it.  The sap is very sweet with some acidity. The containers are emptied into large plastic drums, covered and allowed to ferment into palm wine. Some palm wine is consumed or sold directly, but most is triple distilled into alcohol or “gin’ as the locals called it.

The distiller explained the VERY simple process and equipment they had with a boiling barrel, a length of arched pipe, then two cooling barrels filled with water, and finally a tap out of which the distilled liquor flowed at a very steady pace.

We were offered a sample and it was very, very strong--easily on the order of 75% alcohol or more but my rough estimate.

The head of the operation said that plantation owners were paid by them to come into palm plantations and clear small patches of about 100 trees at a time.  They had a somewhat nomadic lifestyle moving from plot to plot and living on-site in a temporary shack. They could expect to spend about two months at each site after which they would have about nine 200L plastic drums filled with “refined" liquor that would sell for about 10 Cedis (USD$2.25) per liter. Or about $4,000.  It seemed to me to be a means of crop rotation that, at our level, looked fairly smart and responsible. They said that the palm trees would naturally come back in the area--they did not need to consciously replant--and that the next crop of trees would be ready for harvest in about 15 years.

The roads seemed to be getting a little better as we went South, meaning that Da-da's skills need to move through the chicane of potholes, spending the majority of his time on the right hand side of the road.

It turns out, we were actually on a toll road to Cape Coast, something I learned when we stopped at a toll station in a town just after crossing a road with a river that Georges said was stained brown with sediment from gold mining operations upstream.

While we were in line to pay our toll, the van was mobbed with ladies selling peanuts, palm nuts, and roasted plantains.  Georges asked Da-da to open the door and he quickly negotiated for a bunch of roasted plantains and peanut packages.

The plantains we're very good, sweet, and tart and Georges recommended eating them with peanuts at the same time.  The tiny roasted peanuts with their skin on we're delicious. Becky liked it all, too. I’m not sure how many of the cadets had some, but since Georges announced that we were doing directly to the Elmina Castle and not to the hotel to check-in or get lunch, I presumed this was lunch and ate a full package of peanuts and one-and-a-half plantains.

Sure enough, about an hour later, Georges asked if we wanted to stop somewhere for lunch or go straight to the Elmina Castle and we chose the latter.

We drove through part of Elmina and across the bridge in light rain. It had rained steadily for the last 45 minutes, but let up, thankfully, as we arrived.

We when exited the bus, several young men introduced themselves, asked our names and where we were from.  We could tell that they were selling large conch-like seashells and told them that we weren’t interested.

Georges handled out entry and we walked around the tunnel leading in while a few of us hit the toilets.  We joined the tour after a short tour of an adjoining museum in what was the old chapel and four others tagged along--three couples.  Our guide led us to the governor’s quarters and central area where, notoriously, previous Dutch governors had used the balcony outside their room to gaze upon the female slave quarter and choose unwilling partners for their bed.  Dungeons adjoined the area on three sides.

The castle was established in some form soon after the Portuguese arrival in the Cape Coast area in 1482.  The Portuguese used it as a base for trade with caravans and traders coming from the gold fields and Trans-Saharan routes to the north.  The Dutch took over about 150 years later in 1637 and ruled the castle and city until ceding it to the British in 1872.

During the Dutch period, many soldiers and others assigned to the castle had had relationships, including marriages to locals in the cities, resulting in mixed race children.  These children were actually educated in one of the first established western style schools in the region, inside the castle.

Our guide took us in to the many dark, damp rooms and helped us imagine the horrors and deprivations the slaves that were held, traded, and exported here must’ve been subjected to.  We visited the execution room in which recalcitrant slaves were merely imprisoned without food or water until they died, dragged out and tossed into the sea each morning. Like at Goree Island in Senegal, we saw the door of no return through which slaves were loaded like cordwood onto ships bound for the Americas. He also explained the positioning and purpose of the guns (still the original Dutch iron muzzle loaders) and explained how the castle was used during World Wars I and II as a staging and training location for African soldiers of the British Empire before they were shipped to duty in Europe for WWII and to the tropical climes of Burma and India.  Elmina castle is one of the oldest UNESCO sites and was so designated in the late 1960s, almost a decade after the Ghanaian government declared independence and took the castle from the British in 1957. He showed us not only the Door of No Return (now bricked up) through which slaves passed on their way to their voyage, but also a very large set of wooden doors they now call the “Doors of Return.” These days, African-Americans and others of the African diaspora from the Americas are invited to return to Africa through these doors, accessed from a fishing village beach below the castle.

The rain was still lightly coming down when we departed the castle, following Georges on a walking tour of the Elmina fishing village.  This was Monday afternoon and almost all of the boats were in the harbor because Tuesday is a traditional non-fishing day throughout West Africa.  Fishermen were repairing nets while ladies continued to see the morning’s catch along the wharf and little kids peed from the side of the pier or competing for the largest possible arc from the side of the boats.  As usual, the mélange of odors was so overwhelming as to cause nasal shutdown--if you could achieve that Nirvana-like state of olfactory tranquility.

The inner harbor was not unlike Saint-Louis, Senegal or any of the other fishing villages we’d toured and the boats were indistinguishable except for the Ghanaian use of national flags to designate “fleets” of pirogues.  Some sets of three or floor flew American flags, other groups sported Canadian, Japanese, or South Korean, or any number of non-descript banners that might’ve been representative of a city, district, or state.

From the port, we walked into Elmina (meaning “the mine,” referring to local gold mines) and were once again “immersed” in culture.

One of the most interesting sites was what Georges called an Asafo shrine.  Apparently, the Fanti tribespeople had once formed military (or militia} companies called “Asafo.”  The headquarters of each was called a Posuban. Over the decades, these had morphed into local community support companies or organizations that provided services like fire and security, but also served as social structure for general support of neighborhoods.  Each shrine had a meeting hall, number, specific emblems unique to the neighborhood, and a variety of fetish statues in front of the building meant to promote good fortune among the company and during its endeavors.

On the street we passed women and men at small stands selling blue cubic blocks of some obvious food item.  Georges told us that these were a form of the local polenta that was a dense mixture of ground corn and cassava flour that accompanied fish dishes and was served with a variety of spics and sauces.  Called “banku,” it was a staple item in the Fanti diet and could be found stack eight and ten high (each block was about a kg) along the roads in small stands labeled with just the first name of the lady owning the stand.

We next walked past the Dutch cemetery with some graves dating to the 17th Century.  Georges explained that, to this day, many of the names in the Cape Coast area had Dutch origins, citing examples like VanDyke, VanderPuye, etc, originating with children born of mixed race couple over the years.  The British had also assisted in this rite of increased diversity resulting in many local names like Fergus, Smith, Johnson, etc.

From the cemetery, we climbed about 120 steps up a steep hill to the Catholic cathedral area that contained the busts of bishops and church officials of similar stature dating back to the 1700s.  They seemed out of place as the foreground to a notorious slave castle across the city and the slum-like town beneath. The cathedral itself was immaculately clean and well cared for.

About this time, via Georges’s mobile phone, I received a phone call from Roberto of TransAfrica in Lomé, Togo.  He was upset that the day before I had posted on Facebook, on their website, a short narrative of how their contracted driver had left us in such a dangerous lurch in Kofikorjo on the Ivoirian border.  He said that is was their fault and that the driving company with whom they had contracted had just failed to do their job. I told him that that was no excuse and that a simple verbal apology for their negligence and poor communication was insufficient.  As I’ve stated earlier, this was easily one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous situation in which we’d found ourselves and cadets on a tour of this type. Roberto didn’t seem to understand that the whole issue was one of communication and that, had they been forthright and honest with Georges and us earlier in the day, expressing their lack of confidence that the driver was enroute and encouraging Georges to make alternative arrangements ASAP, we could’ve solved the problem much easier and will less delay and danger.  He seemed completely unwilling to give us anything but a verbal apology--no compensation or any other consideration. Therefore, I told him that we had nothing more to discuss, that I would not take down my post, and that he could expect a more detailed, and negative post on several sites once we returned to the US--and that others on the trip would do the same. The phone called ended abruptly.

 

We arrived at the Anamabo Beach Hotel and Resort at about 1700 and drove into the courtyard.  The lobby looked nice and we got our keys quickly. The rooms were single buildings and duplexes scattered in a sandy area under coconut palm trees not far from the beach.  Porters helped us get our bags across the sand and we checked into a spacious room with ensuite bath/shower. One of the staff told us that he would turn on the room’s water pump and showed us how to turn on the air conditioning.  He never mentioned, nor was there a label on the water heater switch. The rooms had no Wi-Fi and where we should’ve had a TV a bare coaxial cable jutted out of the wall from the center of a flat screen mount screwed into the plaster.

Still, we settled in the room, expecting things to be functional soon after and met on the bar’s patio overlooking the beach.  After a Club beer, we met the cadets under the restaurant cabana and took one of the large tables on the sea side of the building.  Adjacent to us was a large group of young women that we learned were nursing students from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville just concluding a three week service visit during which they’d worked in clinics in northern Ghana.  The cadets spend some time chatting with them at the bar, but now they were having their own dinner along with two older women and one spouse whom, we later learned, were leading the trip.

We were eating early because we’d essentially skipped lunch and just had a few snacks enroute to Elmina--a pattern that was the norm throughout the trip.  It began to rain and as the rain and wind strengthened, we moved to another set of tables not so exposed. The mist from the rain felt pretty good, as did the Club beer that was selling for only 9 Cedis ($1.70) for the large 650 ml bottles.

I ordered Red-Red, a favorite local dish, as did a few others, while Georgia and Evan stuck with what now becoming their go-to Africa dish:  chicken skewers.

Georges joined us and I bought him a large Club beer.  He started talking about halfway into his beer and couldn’t stop.  We talked about the new touring company he’s forming on his own called Afrika Vera (afrikavera.com).  He told me that he thought I’d be a good tour guide and maybe his perfect rep to help him in the US organize tours from the States to come to Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Burkina Faso--his focus countries.  I was flattered and quickly agreed to help, including providing him with photos from our trip for his promotional use.

The Red-Red arrived as was very good.  It was served with a large place of plain white rice and was a somewhat spicy stew of local vegetables not unlike ratatouille with chunks of bony fish.  I’ll definitely look up some recipes when we return.

After discussing his company and future with us, Georges also told us that he is a Spanish professor in Lomé when he’s not leading tours.  He told us about his family (wife and two sons ages 8 and 5) and then told us a charming story about his courtship of his wife over five years spanning his studies in Dakar and what he had to do to win her and her family over.  He told us about the wedding and we discovered that it had striking similarities to the Joseph Abakunda’s wedding to Clarisse that we attended three years earlier in Rwanda.

Georges then told us how he was working hard with Da-da to train him to be a good driver and how he needed Da-da to understand that the two of them were a team and that Da-da should ask him questions when he was lost of confused and not just turn down any old street.  We told him about Idi in Senegal and how he was, for us, the definitive tour driver.

Georges and I linked with each other via Facebook and WhatsApp and Georges showed us photos he’d taken with his cell phone of trips to northern Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.  He clearly has plans for the future and a passion for showing people the “True Africa” more than anyone we’ve met. He’s a very driven, disciplined man with a great vision and we wish him the best.

At about 2000, we returned to our room to find still no water pressure. The toilets wouldn’t even flush.  I went to the front desk and asked for help, but nothing happened. After about 30 minutes with nothing working in the room except the lights, I trudged back through the pouring rain and asked for a different room.  They gave me the keys to room 41--we were in 43--and when I arrived there was only a bare mattress on the bed with cleaning buckets on the floor. It was the same building as our original room and the toilets didn’t flush here, either.  They clearly had no clue about the state of each room. Meanwhile the cadets were having similar room problems from no air conditioning to no water pressure, to no electricity. We got most of this fixed and we were moved to a single room building (45) where, guess what, the water didn’t work.  They did manage to turn on this pump and it started to flow right away and we were shown where the water heater button was situated (no label). The room was short of towels, though, and that was remedied about 20 minutes later.

Once moved into the room, the fun wasn’t over.  The entire complex lost electricity at about 2200 and we only had flashlights on our cell phones.  Luckily, I’d already showered. The lights stayed off during the severe rainstorm and were finally restored at about 0100 when I awoke to a fully lit room (Becky had her eye mask on)

19 June

We woke at 0545 and Becky had no water pressure for her shower.  She used a few dribbles and some wet wipes to freshen up. I went to lobby to complain but nothing was done fast enough to help here.  I also took my laptop to the lobby area to use their intermittent Wi-Fi to load some photos and check work email but the connection wasn’t good enough to get much done.

Breakfast at restaurant was pretty good, with omelets, Nescafe, good fruit, and toast.  I was able to check email and was pleased to see a note from Justice that we were set for a 20 dinner in Accra.

We departed at about 0830 going to Rain Forest hike and canopy walk. Georges stopped us to watch cassava flour being made. It was in a family group compound and we could see one group peeling mounds of cassava with sharp, smallish machete looking knives by chopping with short strokes, often with babies strapped to their back, goats eating the peels. The cassava was then ground fresh and put into porous plastic bags and then as much liquid as possible was strained through the fabric before then passing the result through a sieve to eliminate bigger chunks.  Next, the cassava was dried and lightly roasted/toasted on large wrought iron flat grill plate over an open fire pit made of concrete. Logs were pushed into one side of the oven, pushed in farther as the part in the oven fire was reduced to ask.

The flour is then bagged and sold for about 2 Cedis per kilo.  Georges said the powder was used for many things: eaten straight as a snack; mixed with milk or water; cooked into something like tapioca; added as another ingredient to polenta; and even used to brew beer in place of rice or barley as the starch/sugar.  

We really enjoyed the many “Georges Stops.” At each, he contributes money or buys some of the product to help the group producing it and tells them why it’s important to allow tourists like us to witness what they do.

About 15 minutes later after crawling along some terrible wet dirt road, we arrived at the entrance to Kakum National Park.  The park looked well-developed and popular, with gift shops, restaurant, tickets required and (seemingly) mandatory guides. This was one of the few places at which we’d seen other tour buses.

We hit the toilets, Georges paid our entry fees and we met our guide--a young woman in her late 20s by my guess.  Though looking a little soft, she turned out to be in excellent shape and was one of the fastest walking guides I’ve seen.  She led us quickly into the jungle, showing us the line between second and first growth lines. Ominously, in the distance, it seemed like we heard a powerful chainsaw harvesting some of the latter.

We did maybe a total of three miles of walking on very good trails with well-labeled trees.  Our guide had been doing her job for three years and working within the park in other capacities for a total of seven. She was very knowledgeable about the many plants and trees in the park and could tell us all about their traditional uses by local tribes.

After about 20 minutes, we came to the start of the canopy walked.  She explained that though it might be a bit scary, it was well-engineered and built by a Canadian engineering firm with the assistance of the Ghanaian government.  Each bridge was supposedly strong enough to hold three elephants, but they were so narrow that the elephants would never fit on the bridge.

The canopy walk was a series of seven well-designed rope and board suspension bridges from 11 to 40 meters above jungle floor.  We convinced Becky to give it a try and she was game. Side ropes extended up from the rood base on each side coming up to our armpits or above and, near the center, we could also easily grasp the wire rope suspension sections.  There was a good deal of low-frequency vibration and some swaying, but all in all, it was fun with good stability and excellent good views

The park has lots of wildlife but they are hard to see or find, especially at midday.  We heard crashing through the branches and leaves at one point indicating the presence of a relatively large monkey (Colobus?) but only caught a glimpse of his or her silhouette and they scampered up the very tall tree and disappeared into the dense overgrowth in the second canopy.

Our guide told us that there were forest elephants, monkeys, leopards, many bird species, and even bears in the jungle but had no idea many forest elephants nor how many guests per year visited the park.  The park does have a treehouse set about 10 meters above ground-level for paying overnight guests, but Georges said that he’s done it twice with guests and they didn’t like it very much because of the many insects and how noisy the local inhabitants are at night.

From the tree house, we walked to a huge Fromager tree that was over 70 meters tall and easily 20 meters or more in circumference.

The two hour tour was quite good and we covered probably three miles of hiking with some serious ups and downs.  Luckily, we had no slips and falls despite the muddy conditions from the previous night’s rains. I passed a 10 Cedi tip to our guide and thanked her on the way out.

Next, we drove towards Cape Coast castle and stopped for coconuts on the street with a guy who had two wheelbarrows full of them and chopped them quickly with a machete.  I paid for six coconuts and our chopper then threw in a bonus. The milk was very good and the meat varied from coconut to coconut, ranging from very thin and gelatinous to the more firm, chewy type we see in fully ripe coconuts sent to the US or processed into bags for cooking.

Cape Coast castle was next.  It is significantly larger than Elmina but served many of the same purposes. After entering the main courtyard, we were introduced to the head guide who instructed us to go to the castle museum first for a self-guided 30 minute tour and then our regular tour would begin. We walked up a set of concrete and stone stairs to a balcony overlooking cannons facing east-northeast and then entered the museum.

Becky and I were impressed with some of the best written narratives we’d seen at a museum.  They were in flawless English, new, and very factual and balanced. They outlined the history of the region, city, and castle in clear terms without dwelling on blame or scapegoating.  

The dungeons and prison cells were much bigger here and the guns defending the castle were impressive.  It was roughly triangular with one side pointed at the town of Cape Coast looking up the hill to the lighthouse that dominated the landscape.  Signals from the lighthouse would alert the castle to approaching danger from the sea. The castle had a large collection of old cannonballs and the guide stated that the cannons were all the original Dutch versions.  At one point, below us on a rocky beach, we could see some abandoned cannons scattered about, rusting out over the centuries.

All in all, another excellent guide who earned a 10 Cedi tip.  The only downside was a speech he gave at the end of his tour that sounded like grubbing for a tip, if subtly expressed.  He mentioned that slavery still happened today in the world and that any time someone did something for you and you did not pay them, you were practicing a form of slavery.

On the way back to the hotel, we made another water and ATM stop, then arrived in the lobby in time to see the second half of the World Cup Match with Senegal beating Poland 2-1.  We all decided on an early dinner having again skipped lunch after the coconuts.

Becky and I adjourned next to the outdoor bar on a very nice early evening with plenty f breeze and no rain.  Carol, the leader of the nurses’ group, and her husband were there as well. We walked a little along the stone breakwater and then talked to the waitress about ordering dinner.  She took our order and said that our meals would be ready at the restaurant cabana at 1830. She did the same for the cadets. Matt wasn’t feeling well and he retired to his room while the others played beach volleyball with a very game 41-year-old Da-da.

Dinner was a fiasco.  None of us were served before 1900 and Becky couldn’t seem to get the quiche she requested.  Finally, at 1930, the waitress came over and told her that it would be “five minutes.” Five minutes later she came back and said it was “still icy.”  Becky just told her that she no longer wanted it (they’d delivered her French fries 30 minutes earlier) and I added that we weren’t paying for it. Another restaurant worker came over and told us that we wouldn’t be charged, too.  Five minutes later, the quiche came to the table via another waiter and he looked confused when we sent it back.

Meanwhile, Matt wasn’t doing well.  He was puking badly and had diarrhea.  We decided to talk to Carol and we told her Matt’s symptoms.  She said that he didn’t need antibiotics if he didn’t have a fever (we agreed) and went to her room to get some Dramamine to treat his nausea.  We all met in our room and Matt admitted that, though he taken an Azithromycin, he’d thrown it up less than thirty minutes later. Carol said that was fine--he didn’t need another.  We bought him a Sprite from the bar and gave him more Imodium. While in the room with us, he vomited (mostly dry heaves) in our bathroom

Carol mentioned the possibility of amoebic dysentery and gave us a bottle of Flagl as well as the Dramamine.  We told Matt not to take it unless he was still having issues when we returned and checked with the doctors at USAFA.

Meanwhile, back at the bar, Evan and Charlie danced and did drums with nursing students (all women) at beach show.

Matt seemed stabilized, Austin, Eddie, and Georgia had gone to bed, too, so we hit the sack early after packing for the next day’s drive to Accra.

20 June

I woke at about 0330 and checked my mobile phone to see texts from Eddie at about 2230 saying he was sick from both ends. I sent him a note to say that if we was awake he could come by and get some drugs, but got no response between then and when I got up at 0545.

I showered, packed, and then went to check on cadets. Charlie came to room saying that Austin was sick, too.

I started with Eddie and checked his temperature by hand and thought he had a significant fever. I went back to the room for drugs and the thermometer, checking on Austin on the way.

Eddie had a fever of 101.8F so we gave him a three-pack of azithromycin and told him to take one.  We gave him Loperamide (Imodium), too.

Matt still didn’t have a fever and said that the last time he threw up was at about 0300. He said he felt better, but not well.

I checked on Austin again and he was up but in the shower. I gave thermometer to Charlie and told him to take Austin’s temperature when he got out.

Next, I checked on Georgia who was downright chipper and ready for breakfast.  The three of us went to breakfast and had plain eggs with toast, fruit, and coffee.  The mango and pineapple were very, very good. I bought a Sprite for Charlie to take to Austin, too.

I spoke with Carol again and her colleague who told us we could buy Loperamide and Dramamine at pharmacies in Accra if needed, but warned us to look for products made in the UK, afraid that some Chinese or Indian-made generics might not be the real thing.  Nonetheless, they both came back to our room with packages of both to tide us over, saying their trip was almost over, too, and that they’d come “loaded for bear.” They were both very kind, helpful people. I therefore awarded each of them the Astro Coin for distinguished gallantry in the face of significant gastro-intestinal distress under very trying conditions..

During this whole kerfuffle, we did manage to have one slight dosage mix-up when we learned that Matt had given Austin an Azithromycin tablet--which I did, too, only about 45 minutes later.

I’m now in charge of all meds after this.  I presumed that two tablets wouldn’t kill him and confirmed that with Carol.  

Austin mitigated my fears of antibiotic overdose when he puked about 20 mins after taking the second pill.

We struggled to get everyone out the door as porters carried our packs over the sand. Neither front office nor bar would provide change for a 10, 20, or 50 Cedi bill, so porters didn’t get much tip.  (Getting change for larger bills has been a continuous source of frustration on this trip in EVERY country)

The Anomabo Resort is really a crappy resort that could really be quite good.  They spend too much time raking the sand, though, and not enough time making sure that the rooms are functional or that food is served in a timely fashion.  They don’t have what they claim, either (TV or Wi-Fi). The woman at front desk was plain surly when she wasn’t aloof. The credit card machine wouldn’t work for Evan paying his dinner bill, so Matt and I had to pool cash to cover him. I’m pretty sure it just went into her pocket.

We started the drive to Accra and I start reading Kwei Quartey’s “Death By His Grace,” my fifth of the Darko Dawson Ghanaian detective series and was interested to read about the role of religions, both Christian and Animist in the plot.

Matt was the last one to board the bus after a final bathroom stop.  That was good in that he said he had nothing left.

 

Georges very concerned about all of us.  We told him that we thought it best to go directly to the hotel and not have any stops (other than for comfort) along the way and he agreed.  We drove with Austin and Matt laid out across the aisle. Eddie was sitting up but looking bad.

Becky and I reminded all to not be hesitant to call for a stop and to have puke bags at the ready.

We drove along the coast past Fort Amsterdam, built by Dutch on a big hill, then the city-state of Mankessim, the home or capital of the Fanti people.

Forty-five minutes in, Austin asked for an emergency stop and he and Eddie jumped off and into the undergrowth on the side of the road.  Happily, it was a better safe than sorry situation they only needed to pee.

Georges asked if we wanted to stop to see a place where coffee was grown and roasted--our first Georges Stop of the day but, on Becky’s recommendation, we told him that we thought that we should just go straight to the hotel, as mentioned earlier, with the sick cadets before deciding to do anything else.  I could tell that he was disappointed, as I was, but he understood our decision and we continued.

Next, he said that we were entering the area of the ethnic group called Ga, the first to settle in the Accra area.

As we got closer to Accra, traffic picked up greatly.  Google maps said that the last 40 km would take use over 90 minutes.  In the suburbs of Accra we saw some large, modern homes on surrounding hills, passing Lake Weija on the left side.  The two lane road became a four lane divided highway after passing a toll station for the Accra region. The road turned into six lanes but then ground to a halt with hundreds of street sellers weaving in and out of the stop-and-go traffic selling food, chewing gum, windshield wiper blades, large tourist maps of Ghana and Africa, chips, water, pastries, soccer balls, toiletries, and just about anything else you can imagine. Air compressor, jumper cables, jewelry, wallets, electrical plugs and converters, dog collars and leashes, rope and nylon straps, children’s coloring books, ladies’ scarves, art work, eggs, a globe map, cleaning products for the kitchen and bath, pillows and linens, Ghanaian chocolate bars, cloth napkins, used cell phones, lottery tickets, car seat covers, steering wheels, fridge magnets, air fresheners, pens and note pads, sunglasses, earbuds, etc, etc.  We drove through Jamestown, the old colonial heart of Accra and i could tell that Georges wanted to stop here to tour, but instead we stopped at a gas station for another comfort break, ten minutes from the hotel.

We arrived at the hotel which seemed nice but had no electricity.  They said it would be on in an hour. I suggested to the group that it would be at least three hours before the power was on.  I turned out to be a little too generous with my prediction, though.

The Afia Beach Hotel and Resort is was right on the beach--albeit one strewn with plastic garbage and other refuse.  There were sitting areas and gazebos for relaxing below the hotel and a blue fence separating the hotel property from the beach itself, along with a security guard to keep anyone from encroaching on the hotel grounds.

The hotel had a series of duplex rooms on three tiers of the sloping hill, decorated with quite a few flowering plants, papaya trees, and extensive indoor and outdoor tribal art.  The dining area was open and quite nice with a tiled floor, large tables, and plugs useful for laptops and chargers. The porters and manager were very helpful and friendly, as well as happy to see us since it looked like we might’ve been the only guests--we later saw one other couple.

Eddie went to his room to sleep, as did Austin and Matt. We arranged with Georges to meet at 1330 to tour with whomever was healthy.

Meanwhile, I emailed Justice and told him that we would be available for dinner at 1800.  We eventually settled on just staying at the hotel restaurant for dinner as opposed to risking travel with our sick cadets, or leaving them behind for the evening.

The unsick met in the restaurant and ordered bowls of groundnut soup and rice, plus drinks, during which time we had a good discussion about religion, education, rights, development, economics throughout West Africa and the developing world..  The groundnut soup tasted like a slightly spicy peanut butter soup and was quite good with the large ball of rice that accompanied it. I’ll have to give that a try back in the States, along with finding good recipes for the Red-Red we’d had a couple of nights before.

We went back to the room and organized a few things.  Becky decided to stay at the hotel despite the fact that there was no electricity.  By then, she had seen enough local culture and markets and also wanted to keep an eye on our sick cadets.  Before leaving, we made sure they all had water and any necessary drugs and then Georgia, Charlie, Evan, and I joined Georges out front with Da-da and we departed.

Our first stop was the national independence monument which was very similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  It was simpler in design but had the same sort of walk-through arch in the middle and was positioned in the largest roundabout in the city.  Adjacent to the monument on the ocean side was Black Star Square, a very large open area with stadium stile seating on three sides and another large arch (or stool) like structure on the far side.  The area looked like a smaller version of Red or Tiananmen Square and was used annually for the Ghanaian Independence Day celebrations and parades. Between the square and the independence monument was what looked like a tomb of their unknown soldiers accompanied by a tall pillar or obelisk with a bronze statue of a Ghanaian soldier on top and a low dark tomb-like structure beneath it.  There was a bronze cauldron that looked like it once held a non-eternal flame, too, but we could find no other plaques or descriptions of the site.

We took photos of all of the sites there but did not take up the local guides’ suggestions to go to the top of the monument for photos.

From there we drove into the downtown area and found an ATM for Evan, Charlie, and Georgia and Georges took me into a post office where I bought a stamp and mailed a postcard from Elmina to our grandsons back in Colorado.

We continued through this older part of downtown into the colonial or old section called Jamestown, parking in a small area that was an entrance into an area dominated by cliffs down to the ocean and shacks precariously perched atop them.

Georges led us through the streets that were well-decorated with some very sophisticated and beautiful street art.  Locals were frying beignets on one corner and we stopped to chat for a moment. I asked several people if I could take their photographs and most acceded. Several locals seemed to know Georges, or he knew them and one gentleman about his age joined us a local guide, but speaking directly to Georges most of the time.

We weaved our way through the shacks and towards the water, coming out into an area with dozens of large steel oil barrels being used to cook and smoke fish as we had seen in Monrovia at Westpoint.  These, however, were in even a worse state of repair and the junk, mess, slop, and fish guts. The fish being smoked were generally whole mackerel, but some small, very long, thin silvery fish were being smoked in a unique way forming rings as the tail of each was stuck in its mouth.  Other fish included bonita and barracuda steaks and filets as well as some species I could not identify. There were stacks of wood for smoking the fish and the active cookers/smokers were attended by both men and women. We could walk out to a bare point about 75 feet above the water and look back across the small bay to the east, amazed at the enormous amount of trash simply tossed down the cliffs from the shacks, fouling the beaches and everything in sight.  At this very point was also a real pigsty with about a half-dozen large sows in wooden dens.

We continued along the edge of the cliff towards the west and came down several sets of steps and a steep hill to probably the dirtiest, most disgustingly sad fishing beach one could ever imagine.  I’ve seen less plastic at a recycling facility. You simply could not walk on the sand for all of the plastic bottles and bags. We traipsed through it, though, carefully heeding Georges’s and our guide’s warnings to “be careful where you step, because people defecate here, too.”  We were very careful.

Somehow, we managed to get to the long, old concrete and brick pier that jutted into the harbor by a solid 200 meters or so.  On both sides of the pier, colorful sea-worn pirogues of all sizes littered the beach, each with their identifying flags fluttering.  Some locals were doing repairs onboard, but most were empty.

Our guides led us out onto the pier where kids stripped naked and were actually jumping off the platform into the sandy brown breakers below, avoiding the current borne dozens of plastic bag jellyfish that lurked just beneath the surface.

We walked farther out onto the pier to see kids and adults napping on large piles of nets while small groups huddled around makeshift cook stoves sharing three bowls for lunch: the local cassava/corn polenta in one, boiled fish in another, and a spicy red dipping sauce in the third. I politely declined an offer to dine with them--even I have some limits and testing them the day before I returned to the US seemed unwise.

This was another standard “Georges Walk.”  We hooked back and onto the mainland past the anchor maker’s and outboard motor repairman’s shops as well as a couple of tiny seaside bars offering great deals on Club beer.

Maybe one of the strangest things we saw, though, hanging from a nail in front of one shop were about three old hockey skates.  I wondered what giant Goodwill bag sent to Africa had accidentally contained them buried in old T-shirts and jerseys, and what the locals must’ve thought they were when they found them.  Shoes to chop whole fish into steaks, perhaps?

We then passed our van who was waiting for us.  Georges suggested that we just keep walking down the main street to soak in more “True Africa” and we agreed--or rather, I agreed and the cadets nodded and followed.  It was clear that, 18 days in, they had seen these scenes more than a few times and there was nothing particularly new about the street that we hadn’t seen in Dakar, Banjul, Monrovia, Grand Bassam, Kumasi, or Accra.  I told them that this was their last reminder experience of all that we’d done and seen.

We picked up a dread-locked friend of Georges’s along the way who greeted him warmly and introduced himself as a local artist.  Georges was amazing at cultivating these relationships and he knew that our access to special areas and things that other tourists didn’t see were based on everyone, everywhere expecting him.  He greased some palms, bought local food, and made it clear to everyone that he was supporting their community and bringing awareness to all by leading us through their communities and streets.

We walked past the large Anglican cathedral and high school with dozens of kids in uniforms streaming out at the end of the school day, then into a parking lot that adjoined the Kwane Nkrumah Museum and Monument.  At the entrance we found the usual group of hawkers who would always ask us our names and where we were from. Today, I was Bob from Canada. They said they just wanted to chat with us, but Georges kept us moving and shoo’ed them away like the team’s horse-tail whisk.

We entered the nicely air conditioned one-room Kwame Nkrumah Museum and were joined by possibly the softest-voiced docent/guide of any museum in the world.  She was tall, slim, with very high cheekbones--very beautiful--with straightened hair in a nearly ‘60s flip. With obvious pride, she explained the life of Ghana’s first president and his and Ghana’s march to independence on 6 March 1957.  Nkrumah had been held in prison in Jamestown at the converted fort/prison for over a year for political reasons. He was born in a village in the north, but had been educated in the UK at Oxford and held faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.  On 6 March, he and five other Ghanaians, all six featured on several of their Cedi bills and honored at a roundabout entering the Kotoba International Airport, declared Ghana’s independence. They did so wearing their prison black and white stripes on the site of the British polo grounds precisely because black Ghanaians had been previously prohibited from setting foot on this ground.

She explained Nkrumah’s Pan-African leanings and that he was allied with Nassar in Egypt--who was both Pan-Arab and Pan-African, marrying Nassar’s daughter, Fatiha.

The walls of the Museum were covered with photos of Nkrumah during his tenure as Ghana’s first president from 1960 to 1966.  They included photos with Nassar, Chou En-Lai of China, John F. Kennedy, and the famous photo of him dancing with Queen Elizabeth II in 1961 during her historic visit with Prince Phillip (which we’d seen a couple of months before in the second season of “The Crown.”

The museum also had collections of his writings in several languages as well as much of his wardrobe, office furniture, and his two pianos.  Outside, his Cadillac Coupe de Ville (steel blue) was behind glass.

Exiting the museum, our guide accompanied us to the decapitated statue of Nkrumah, vandalized in the 1966 coup d’état led by Joseph Rawlins.  Apparently, after the Rawlins regime took power, they tried to rid the nation of Nkrumah’s influence and cut off the head and the right hand of the statue--the latter because of Nkrumah’s writings.  The head is now mounted on a pedestal beside the body with a plaque mentioning that it was recovered thanks to the efforts of a “patriotic citizen.” The right hand has not been recovered.

We then proceeded to the giant monument covering the tomb of both he and his wife.  We were impressed by the fact that this seemed to be the only monument of its kind (or any kind) in West Africa that was well-maintained and operational.  There were sculptures in the fountains in front of the monument that had water spewing form them as designed, the water in the fountains was clean and plastic-free, and the grounds were well-tended and as close to immaculate as we had seen.

We exited the grounds of the monument and our friends found us with freshly braided bracelets.  We all declined even though the one with the small Canadian flag and “BOB’ on it (with matching Ghanaian flag was hard to turn down.  We just told them, and all others, that it was our last day in Ghana and we had no money left--and that was about 90% true.

We continued walking to an artists’ village that was just another tourist shopping area.  We walked down a couple of aisles, pestered by sellers, but by then we were just so tired of shopping, haggling, being presented stuff, being asked to “just look at my shop,” that we were getting a little brusque.  Georges sensed this and we didn’t spend long there. Even Charlie avoided buying anything!

We returned to the bus and Georges was very perturbed that Da-da had left the bus (locked) and was not around.  He called him quickly and I heard him ask, “what are you doing!?!” Luckily, Da-da was very nearby and materialized at the driver’s door in just seconds.

When we returned to the hotel at about 1730, the electricity was still not on.  We asked about it at the desk and we were told that it would be coming on shortly and that they would start the generator soon.  The lights came on when I was in the bathroom and suddenly, we even had Wi-Fi--but only in the lobby and restaurant. Clearly, the power being off had been their own doing.  They could’ve had power all day, but given the low occupancy of the hotel, we were sure they were just saving money until the evening when they and we would need it for lighting and air conditioning in the rooms.  Our TV still didn’t work, though.

We checked on the sick cadets and told everyone that we would be up for dinner at about 1800 and that Justice would arrive soon after.

Ordering dinner went along the lines of every other meal we had in Ghana.  Many of the items on the menu weren’t available. We would order food and it would come out randomly over the next hour.  French fries would come out in ten minutes, while a sandwich might take 90.

Georges joined us for dinner (our treat) and admitted that he wasn’t feeling well.  He thought it might be either the street coconut from the day before or the “Red-Red” from Anomabo Beach. He ordered spaghetti, while Becky had fries and I ordered the sautéed grouper filet with rice--which was outstanding.

All of the sick cadets joined us with Matt doing the best followed by Eddie.  Eddie ordered a smoothie and a milkshake and just a little of each. Austin was with us for a short time, but still was running a fever and looked miserable. He returned to his room after eating just a little.

Justice arrived finally at about 1930 and we talked for almost 90 minutes, plied by a large Club beer.  He teased the cadets about the Academy going soft with no more running the strips, no longer a requirement for all cadets to take Chemistry II or Physics II and a variety of other things.

Justice is currently finishing up medical school in Ghana at the best med school in West Africa, sponsored by his military. The plan, ultimately, is for him to become Ghana’s first flight surgeon, though he’s not sure when he will be able to complete that specialty.  He finishes med school in early September and is also expecting his first child, a girl, the same month. As he finishes his training, he’s currently in one of the “districts” north of Accra about 2.5 hours drive away. He’d driven in just to meet us, but only lived a few minutes from the hotel and was planning to spend the night here before returning.  He and Georges connected right away and Georges got his contact information so that they might connect on future visits. Like other international cadets from USAFA, Justice seemed to be doing extremely well and was very thankful for his USAFA experience. We took a parting selfie and promised to connect if/when he visited the US and we were back in West Africa.  He reinforced our strongly held belief that the international cadet program at our service academies is among the most important public foreign diplomacy efforts we have in the Department of Defense.

 

Finally, at about 2100, we decided to call it a night.  Georges was looking better, the cadets were trickling away to their rooms, and I had finally negotiated a USD-to-Cedi conversion that would settle our dining and drinking bills for the day and leave us with very few Cedis for the return trip.

Becky and I packed our things one last time for the next evening and tried to go to sleep. Neither of us slept well, in part because of an air conditioning unit that made noises suspiciously like a rat running around on concrete--something we checked for but never saw--plus just the overwhelming thoughts running through our mind of what we’d seen and experienced in the previous 18 days.  We couldn’t believe that we’d made it through the trip with not much more than the Kofikorjo fiasco, but were simultaneously thrilled and apprehensive about returning home and facing the challenges of my final two weeks in uniform, out-processing, and the decisions ahead.

Before I call it a night, though (at least in blog order), I need to say that Ghana has:  the worst roads and traffic we’ve seen on the trip, coupled with the most speed bumps and police checkpoints.  It does have functioning traffic lights in some areas that are ignored by all but the most responsible commercial drivers. They are merely advisory for most--except in he heart of Accra, where only moto-bikes seem to ignore he signals. Lucky for us, Da-da observes them all under the watchful eye of George.  The rich parts of Ghana match or exceed anything we saw in Côte d’Ivoire, but the slums of Accra are virtually identical in terms of depth of poverty, hygiene and living conditions, flocks of small children, and a sense (from our perspective, if not of the inhabitants) of near hopelessness. Still, the Ghanaians seem to have a spirit and energy that was strong and growing.  They have a vibrant economy, a functioning democracy, and hope of improvement that might be the strongest we saw on the trip. Now, if they could work on having a functional electric grid, which might be nice.

Of course, Becky and I awoke before the alarm.  I showered first and then we put the finishing touches on our packing.  I actually think that with all of the snacks, bags, toiletries, toilet paper, extra, abandoned socks, and other stuff we brought along, we may have been returning with less stuff than we had at departure--at least in terms of volume.  Everything fit in our bags, including the Kente cloths, mancala boards, shirts, and other souvenirs. The cadets’ bags looked similar--though Austin came with so much extra room that we wouldn’t know for sure.

Breakfast was supposed to be ready at 0600 for an 0700 departure to the airport, but that was 0600 African Time, clearly.  The restaurant was a ghost-town at 0610 and people began arriving at about 0620. Becky and I had toast with excellent ginger-orange marmalade.  Eggs never came despite the promising label under the chafing dish rack. They did have broiled tomatoes, sausage (hot dogs), fried potatoes, and fruit, which sufficed or all of us.

The cadets seemed healthy.  Austin reported that his fever had broken, Matt looked good, and even Eddie said that, despite a headache (from dehydration, no doubt) he was good, too.  However, we did hand out ibuprofen to everyone for the departure and arrival just to help make sure we didn’t have any spiked fevers that might relegate one or more of us to further scrutiny or quarantine.

We boarded the bus on time, as usual, and headed to the airport which, at this time of the day was only about a 20 minute drive.  Georges told me en route that we was already nostalgic for our group and would miss us. I told him that we felt the same way and that he’d been an awesome guide.  The night before we had discussed our itinerary with him. We were all torn between what we did and what we could’ve done. We decided that for a first trip to West Africa, that it was a very good trip.  But, he said that, now that he knew us (Becky and I, as well as what we wanted the cadets to see) he might’ve designed it a little differently, focusing on more of the cultural aspects and less on some of the standard tourist stops.  We could tell htat he “got us” and it was once again evident how much he enjoyed showing the “Real Africa” to people that truly wanted to experience the many aspects of life on the Dark Continent. We again discussed his company (Afrika Vera) and I promised to send him any and all photos he might want to set up his webpage and for promotional use by his company.

At the airport, we unloaded quickly and took a final photo of the group.  I “coined” Georges with the coveted Astro coin and then gave tip envelopes to both him and Dada.  I spend my last Cedis that way in order to avoid losing money at an exchange stall in the airport, giving Georges a combination of CFA, USD, and Cedis.

We cleared check-in and customs reasonably quickly.  Scanning and inspections were thorough and redundant.  The insides of our bags were swabbed and scanned at check-in and, even after clearing customs and immigration, and the standard TSA-style check, our carry-on bags were opened at searched at gate check-in.

Delta had announced that the flight would departing 30 minutes late, but it still managed to takeoff 40 minutes after scheduled departure which was better than the West African average.  The flight showed almost completely full on our status checks, but when we boarded we were happy to find several empty seats. I was particularly hesitant about the flight because I had the middle seat in the three-seat middle section of the Boeing 767, but when the seat to my left went empty, Becky and I claimed the row as our own.

Boarding and departure was quite a show.  The flight attendants--all African American--repeatedly told people how to load their bags into the overhead.  They had to walk up and down the aisles three times specifically pointing to people to remind them to turn off their cell phones and cease their conversations.  One attendant, about 50-some years old, just chuckled when I told her that, while the bathroom was occupied, I’d discovered that the door wasn’t latched and didn’t indicate that was the case.  She just said, “You get used to that and more on this flight.” We each had a good laugh over the thought of how many passengers would actually SIT on the toilet seat versus squatting on it. The attendants on this flight should get time-and-a-half for the amount of time they have to spend dealing with the passengers.

The flight to New York was uneventful except for several passengers that got out of their seats seconds after the wheels screeched on the runway.  We cleared customs and immigration quickly through a line set-up for the military and then just waited for our bags. Our layover time had shrunken again due to time taxiing, but he cadets still found time to get real American food.

We boarded the next flight on time, but then sat for an hour as more ground traffic cleared.  Headwinds were like, though, and we arrived generally on time at the airport. I had the number of our Colorado Spring Shuttle driver and made sure they would be ready to pick us up promptly once we had our bags in Denver.  The Delta flight to Denver had 110V electrical plugs and I took advantage of that to put together this narrative into one document and give it a once-over editing,

Winds were clearly very good, though, because we still landed almost twenty minutes early into DEN.  We gathered our bags quickly and tracked down our transportation. Just as we were board, though, a final wrench was thrown in the trip gears when I realized that I’d left my laptop in the seatback pocket of a Delta flight that in 30 minutes was headed back to JFK on the redeye.

I ran into Delta baggage claim, they called gate A29 and confirmed that it was found.  They gave me a security pass to go get it and the whole process, despite more running that I’m done in quite some time, tacked about another 40 minutes onto our return.  Our driver and the others were patient, though and we were on the road by 2350, arriving home at 0110. Georgia’s mom was there to pick her up and the others stayed the night.  We each had some cookies and milk, a couple of the cadets took late showers, and the house was open and peaceful by 0200.

22 June

Typical of Becky and me, we couldn’t sleep in.  Despite eye masks and (for me) a half of an Ambien, we woke at 0600 to the familiar shriek of our local magpie squadron.  Realizing that we might as well just get back on the MDT clock, we got up and started the first load of laundry—after one of the best showers and shaves of my life.


 

 

 




 


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.



 

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