Saturday, December 28, 2019

Tropical produce and saved souls

Visiting Abengourou
If our 'safari' in Senegal with Moussa was all about wildlife, this trip has been about people and farm produce. And it's been even more profound and insightful.

Kouame (and Kouame) and more produce
In the words of Chloe Grant, our hostess at The Elephant's Nest in Grand-Bassam and now our guide and driver in rural Côte d'Ivoire, this is cocoa country. Angelika and I spent a fascinating few hours yesterday in Kodjinom, a medium-sized village, and I was taken on a three-hour tour of the plantations by Kouame, a farmer there.

To reach our destination I swapped my erstwhile role and became pillion riding on the rear of the motorcycle - a Chinese single-cylinder 125cc affair - piloted by another Kouame. He is the outreach worker for Chloe's NGO charity and was the link between us and the villagers.

Haojin 125 - in Kodjinom
Beforehand, however, we visited the 'reinsertion' centre for 'street and trafficked children' that Chloe founded and runs in Abengourou. Its title is an acronym for the French description of its objectives.

House pet
It is a spartan breeze-block building in a 60x60 mtr compound with no running water and a pet mongoose to keep the cobras away. For the children who pass through it, it's the best chance they've ever had for a decent future and a happy adulthood.

Some of those who are brought here have been sold into servitude in the cocoa industry. Their parents, perhaps unable to afford the basics of life, may believe their offspring will be better off working on a farm or as a domestic servant. They rarely are. Others in the centre are street children.

There are two youngsters there at the moment. They are both around 12 years old. One, Grace, was being regularly beaten by her grandmother, the other, Kouakou - a boy, has developmental problems, a mental age far below his actual and had been abandoned by his family. In the centre they are cared for by Francine, a warm, energetic lady. They are fed regularly and experience kindness, calm and security, perhaps for the first time in their short lives.

They're clearly happy there. We received enthusiastic hugs from them when we arrived.

The existence of the place is a testament to Chloe's humanity and energy. As I've commented before, she is a remarkable woman.

We sat in the car with her yesterday while she engaged with a gaggle of young boys in the town, quizzing them about which attended school. She eventually bought a pair of live cockerel from one, telling him she'd be checking on his school attendance when she next encountered him. They were a little in awe of her. We all are.

Fruit and vegetables
I followed the two Kouames single-file along narrow paths through groves, low-growing meadows, past paddy fields. We were aways within sight of the remnants of the rain forest that originally occupied the land.

Kouame's rubber trees
The richness of the crop diversity is impressive. I saw produce I'd never seen growing before.

There were pineapple (ananas), peanuts (groundnuts), cocoa, rubber trees, manioc, mango, bananas, rice, okra (gumbo), maize, aubergine and guava - and many others.

Seeing the neatly-aligned, tapped rubber trees was exciting. Kouame was rightly proud of his groves.

Cocoa trees
Peanuts, fresh from the ground
Freshly-pulled peanuts have a moist flesh similar in texture to apple. They are delicious.

A lady and her son were working with machetes clearing a patch of ignam, or yam, of weeds. It looked like hard work. With a twinkle in her eye, she offered me her heavy hoe implying the opportunity for me to help. I thanked her politely and refused her kind offer. She laughed.

I was apprehensive about biting things, especially when we walked through the waist-high undergrowth surrounding the banana and guava trees. If there were any there, my repellant worked.

Cocoa-tree nursery

Rice harvest
One of the two young men working in the paddy fields had a sturdy catapult. He uses it to scare off the birds that eat his crop. He had a supply of stones nearby, carefully selected for size.

Cocoa beans before drying
How did someone figure out that the white beans covered in pulpy, cream-coloured goo could be alchemised into chocolate? Anyway, they did, and it's provided this country with a living ever since.

A village visit
This was the kind of day I hoped for at the beginning of our adventure. I'm very happy to have had this opportunity. Angelika was intrigued by our insight into the village life.

Sadly, we saw another dimension to it. A young teenage girl was presented to us with extremely swollen cheeks. It seems that for four or so years she has been suffering from a gradually worsening abscess in her jaw. The cost of treatment is beyond her family. Both Cloe and we are wondering if we can help.

Some days are a privilege.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Travellers, backgammon and beer

The Elephant's Nest

Rear courtyard
Chloe Grant is an extraordinary woman. She earns a living as an aviation consultant, is founder of a charity which rescues children from cocoa farming, speaks Japanese and French and curates the invaluable West Africa Travellers WhatsApp group. She also created the wonderful auberge we are currently staying in.

Part hostel, part campground, it also has 'luxury' rooms complete with (cold) showers and air conditioning. It's a magnet for overlanders in the region and Angelika and I have revelled in being here and meeting them.

Willow's bicycle
They include Jacques, Michael, Nicole, several other intrepid motorcyclists, campervan dwellers and those using public transport to get around. Most have been away from home longer than us. Most have travelled further. One Australian, Willow, is riding a bicycle. He pedalled through the desert sleeping in his tent or hammock as he went. Extraordinary.

Jelle, leaving for Nigeria and beyond
We've heard tales of vans and motorcycles stuck in mud, drunken policemen demanding bribes, breakfasts improvised above waterfalls and fellow Elephant's Nesters taking themselves to regions that security advice would very seriously frown upon.

It all puts our trip into perspective and I love that it does. Finding that we are a modest part of a greater, adventurous community somehow excites and warms me.

Inside the compound
Jacques and I have, for the last several mornings met at 06.30 on the veranda in the rear courtyard for a daily conversation. Born in France, he has an interesting history having spent 20 years as a Hindu monk. Amongst other things he taught mediation. His insistence that it must be a practical life tool and his ability to explain this clearly caught my attention.

He intended to leave several days ago, but stayed to talk with me because I asked him to. I'm very grateful. He has left now to continue his project to teach cross-cultural understanding to children in schools in the region through the medium of the novel The Little Prince.

Jacques leaving for Mali
A young Australian backpacker arrived a day after us. Michael is 26, has been travelling for over a year and is planning next to go to Mexico. He's a keen chess player and was interested to learn backgammon. We've had several intense sessions in which I probably learned more than him. He's a very able young man and will be good at the game if he chooses to be. His 'friend', a young lady he met in Europe on his trip, flew in yesterday.

West Africa produces 67% of the world's cocoa. Côte d'Ivoire (CI) produces the greatest share of that. Nicole works for a American consultancy carrying out research into the industry on behalf of Mars. She came here under her own steam to gain insights. Chloe arranged for her to visit the hostel she runs housing children rescued from effective slavery on cocoa plantations.

Chloe will take Angelika and me to visit tomorrow. We'll see some of the farms as well.

We've also met Quirin, Lara, Max, Chris and others. They're from Germany, Switzerland, Australia. They're travelling by motor cycle or campervan and have been to Liberia, Guinea, Mali and elsewhere. They're going on to South Africa, East Africa and all points of the compass.

For the erstwhile Pillion and Pilot, people who love people and their stories - and love to share our own - it's been a huge pleasure.

Christmas in CI
It's much warmer and humid here than in Senegal. Spending the 25th of December in shorts and t-shirts drinking beer to rehydrate is a novel experience. We had a great day with our travelling auberge-mates.

The Christmas party
Chloe's one time cocoa-farm-working adoptive son was delighted with his festive day gifts.

Abidjan and Grand-Bassam
While Yamoussoukro is the official capital of CI, Abidjan is the de facto functioning driver of the country. Grand-Bassam was the actual capital under the French.

In three visits to Abidjan, I've found it hard to warm to the place. It's sprawly, doesn't invite sauntering and lacks charm. Tellingly, I have few photographs of it.

Grand-Bassam sidewalk
However, Grand-Bassam, where we're staying, is characterful, energetic and has a great Atlantic beach.

Christmas eve...
... on the beach
Since we've been here, three guests have been treated for malaria. We're taking the tablets.

We applied for our Ghana visas a few days ago. They start on 4th January and are effective for one month. We will almost certainly be on our way home after this.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Surprising, sanguine Senegal ♡

From the Pillion

And so goodbye to Senegal, the surprise country of the trip, for many reasons.

We approached its border as fully-fledged motorbikers, crossed it a bit more doubtful having fallen off the bike, and have left the country sans bike, adopting a different mode of travelling.

The sentiments are mostly relief, tinged with a bit of sadness at the abrupt end of the bike trip.

El Camello is on its way to customs in Dakar, the exercise of shipping the bike back home having usurped all of the Pilot's energy and perseverance. A job well done and enough material for a separate blog!

I have discovered two new sources of anxiety whilst on the bike: potholes, some pouncing on you unannounced and some so big you might disappear into them and the uncompromising sandy turnoffs from asphalted roads with the promise of several tumbles. My stomach still registers them, even though we're not on a bike anymore!

The stuff of nightmares

Some seasoned travellers will traverse West Africa in a 4x4 only.

When you mention 'Africa', the images conjured up are usually of safari, wildlife and desperately malnourished children.

We've seen poverty, but it's not malnourishment. It's lack of infrastructure, lack of access to education and opportunities, and corruption.

There are places of abode so basic; rubbish in the yard, goats in the front and yet the lady of the house, in bright garb, proudly sweeps the steps. People just going about their business. Women carrying babies on their backs and a basket of goods to sell on their heads, swaying along.

It felt wrong and intrusive to take photographs, so we didn't. Some memories will have to live on in our heads only.

The people we've encountered return your smile easily and have a wicked sense of humour - they even understand Simon's!

We've been warned of the hustlers, and they come in gradations.

Quite laidback on the Île de N'Gor (they leave you alone after the first 'Non merci') to a more insistent version in Saly (more limpet-like) to downright in-your-face in downtown Dakar. Simon now pretends he's Igor from Russia and that stops them in their tracks as that's one of the languages they don't speak. I, on the other hand, am immediately identified as German - and I thought my French was improving!

'Christmas hats!'
Simon told a guy the other day that he was from Nigeria, which elicited a chuckle.

Thankfully, we've come across some taxi drivers who stick to the agreed price. Not all the streets of Dakar have names and there are no house numbers. Places are found by identifying a well-known landmark or simply calling the person/business you want to visit and taking directions over the phone as you get nearer.

The taxis range from basic (4 wheels, no seatbelts) to economy I (seatbelts in the front) to economy II (seatbelts in the back but nowhere to 'clunk') and finally to a fully-functioning, comfy vehicle with AC. We travelled to the airport to leave Dakar in economy II, as befits the city.

Bargaining and bartering is de rigueur. Goods or services are being offered, a price is suggested, vehemently rejected by the buyer who walks away. The seller then reconsiders and agrees to a lower price. And here follows the funniest thing; in at least half the cases the seller then adopts what I call the 'Senegalese pout'. Lips protruding and a facial expression that seems to say 'You've just robbed me of my life's savings and may you have seven years of bad luck henceforth!'

Except it's usually the buyer who's been robbed!

Did I mention sand? There's more of the stuff here and every bar/restaurant employs staff who sweep and mop the grainy substance away. A rather Sisyphean effort.

The Sengalese have an above average proportion of beautiful, handsome people. A lot of the men are tall and slender and the women rather curvaceous as is their aspired-to image. A skinny woman means her husband can't afford to feed her properly!

I could stare at them for hours, especially those dressed in the most vibrant of colours. Simon bought himself a colourful shirt and had to drag me away from my ogling.

The Senegalese also like to party, but often things don't get going until 1.00 or 2.00 am. That's pushing it, even for the night owl!

All aboard!

The stresses and strains of the trip have probably shaved a few years off our lives, and a few days ago was such an occasion. We travelled in a motorised pirogue from Dakar to a little island, the Île de N'Gor, maybe half a mile away. Passengers piled in, more than I felt comfortable with, and we nearly capsized even before taking off. The life-jackets handed out were more perfunctory and would probably have assisted the drowning process.

Here's what went on in my head: if we capsize, I'd grab my bag, make sure Simon's ok and swim to shore.

Here's what Simon thought: should we capsize, I'd grab Angelika's bag and throw it overboard as the weight of the damn thing would probably drown her and she"ll try to hang on to it, and then save us both. Priorities!!

All aboard?
We still don't know whether we'll be able to sail back home by cargo ship from Ghana. Our medical cover includes repatriation, but the shipping company want to know how much exactly the insurance will cough up if one of us croaks on the ship and they have to repatriate the remains.

Suppose they don't have a morgue on board?? When we recounted the story to a couple from Belgium, they said, 'Why, we thought the captain would just throw you overboard'! This humour made me think they must have been Brits in disguise.

We spent our last few days in Dakar in a comfy Airbnb in a neighbourhood needing a bit of TLC. In the flat I discovered a Lonely Planet of West Africa from 2006.

Leafing through it made me feel sad. It waxes lyrical about the Adrar region in Mauritania, epic Saharan country, and the cultural heritage of Mali. Both are off-limits now to travellers. In fact, parts of the Sahara and regions of some countries of the Sahel have become lawless and provide fertile ground for terrorists, greatly aided by the political vacuum following the collapse of Libya.

New mosques are springing up everywhere, all the way down from Morocco. They are being financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia who are introducing a stricter version of Islam. First the music stops, then the children no longer play football and then the schools only teach the Koran. Teachers who want to teach other subjects are dismissed. People we spoke to in Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal have confirmed this insidious infiltration.

There is a 'softer' version of Islam in Senegal and the current president seems to have his heart and head in the right place. There's hope.

Dakar oozes energy by the bucket-load and the traffic makes your heart jump. I fear for the mostly young, mostly men, on their small motorbikes, zipping down the roads, dodging street sellers on highways (who's buying a duvet at a busy roundabout?), goats, horse-drawn carts and other vehicles, none of which obey traffic rules as we know them.

After you!
There's little aggression, though, and people rely on their 9 lives. Inshallah!

Things are different in Africa people tell us with a knowing smile and it certainly applies to time.
In Senegal, one comes face to face with the paradox of time - the more you relax, the quicker you get things done. If only we had known this earlier...

And, I'm with Simon, I've also come to love this place.

Here's the now customary relationship update. A tip: If you want to travel with another person for several months, possibly on a motorbike, spend 2 weeks locked in a panic room and see how you get on.

On our last evening in Dakar, we spent the evening with our now host in Côte d'Ivoire and a lovely couple from Iceland, who are both out of a job currently and decided to travel. Simon spontaneously invited them for dinner and we had a great time. Lots of laughter and jokes. 

It brought home how much we missed regular interaction with and company of other people. The same old jokes and comments can become a bit stale.

Simon was getting fed up of me getting fed up with him and vice versa.

When we met, Simon promised me one thing: it won't be boring! Well, he's keeping his promise!! 😉😉

The birthday party
I loved seeing Bianca, Dom and Bryan for my birthday and have decided a year's travel is too long. We're ready to come home soon and spend time with our respective families and friends before we've killed the relationship.

My mum's eighty now, I'm gonna hang out with her and my sister for a while. Travel by train, my favourite means of travel.

Monday, December 16, 2019

'Intimidating and alluring'

From a taxi
We decided to spend our last few Senegal days in the city on the peninsula.

Our previous base, Saly, was specifically created for holidaymaker enjoyment. Those visiting the capital will tell you that it doesn't seem to have been built with anyone's pleasure in mind. It's dirty, crowded, crammed with traffic and displays its underbelly brazenly.

Its street-hawkers, selling anything from clothing to SIM cards, baskets, souvenirs, peanuts or jewellery, are legion and hard to shake off. Some double as fronts for gangs of pickpockets. Its dilapidated yellow and black taxis swarm the place. The drivers, always on the look out for easy tourist pickings, spot you from a distance. You don't hail a cab here so much as fend them off.

The city streets rarely have pavements and if they do there are parked cars blocking them. Walking here is never relaxing. It always involves dodging around vehicles, stepping over potholes or avoiding motorcyclists. The air reeks of traffic fumes, every breath a lungfull of diesel and non-unleaded exhaust.

And, after four days here, I find myself loving the place.

As ever, it's the people that do it. This is a Wolof city. They are energetic, full on, outgoing and warm. The cab drivers gurn and pout when you detbate the fare, but that's all forgotton once you're riding and interacting with them. They ike to know where you're from, what language you speak and what football team you follow.

Everyone in Senegal supports Liverpool. Their star player, Sadio Mane, comes from here. Whenever I point out who I support and feign disgust and offence at their loyalty to my team's rivals, they immediately get the joke, laugh and enjoy the interaction. And I do, too.

Outside our Airbnb
The city's neighbourhoods have distinctly different characters. The Plateau in the south is the relatively more sophisticated locale containing shops, bars, cafes. In the north, Yoff and Ngor are more overtly leisure and tourism places.

We're in between the two, in Mermoz. Although we managed to choose a part that's a little grim in its immediate surroundings, the flat is decent and we're well-placed for getting around the city. Immediately, there's little street lighting, the smaller roads are unsurfaced and there are no decent, walkable cafes or restaurants, but the nature of the cars parked nearby tells that there's money here.

From our balcony
In between Mermoz and The Plateau is the Medina, a grimy, tightly-woven network of narrow streets. With no concessions to visitors, it bristles with craftsmens' workshops, markets, tiny general stores and, incongruously, the occasional modern, bright, clean, air-conditioned pharmacy.

The Plateau is home to the Institute Français. Although, to enter it, you have to pass through some serious security, inside it is a haven of calm and French indulgence. It seems clearly to be a means of maintaining the erstwhile colonial power's influence.

Musical royalty
Baaba Maal
Sometimes you get lucky.

If I wanted one thing from my trip to West Africa, it was to take in local music. Completely by accident last Saturday, once more we did.

We thought we'd go to the Institute for a coffee and a beer and to see if there was any music on. We'd seen a great concert at the Institute in St Louis and hoped we might find another in Dakar.

Some musicians transcend genre and count amongst the world greats in any art form. We saw one such that night, without planning, without effort and, for me it almost justifies the whole trip on its own.

Here were eleven top, top musicians, a magnificently coordinated band, lead by a singer just dripping with talent, know-how and charisma. Here was the craft of The Griot writ large and it was electrifying. I love to see a master performer who knows his value while respecting the respect his audience confers.

I'm still buzzing. Thank you Institute Français, thank you Dakar.

Breaking up...
Getting rid of the bike has taken some effort. Yesterday, one day before we fly to Côte d'Ivoire, I was taken to the customs office in the port by an employee of the shipping agent. I still needed to have my passport stamped to show I had exported the vehicle - or I'd be unable to leave the country.

Still, it's done now. Abidjan and The Elephant's Nest later today.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Upcountry Senegal

Musa, the Serer, animals and many, many birds
We took a three-day tour with a guide, Musa. He is an expert on local birds having worked with the RSPB and is knowledgable about the other natural history of the area.

Fish fence, Senegal style
Having been excited at seeing a fish fence in Kappeln in Germany (see photo #5), we were doubly so at seeing the Senegal version. In the north, it was for herring, here the catch might be dorade or thiof.

Musa was a wonderful enthusiast for all we saw, but he got especially animated each time he spotted a new species of bird. And this was often.

In our stock take of birds encountered, I stopped counting at 25. There were palm-nut vultures, ospreys, whimbrels, oyster-catchers, goliath herons, various species of pelican, African-palm swifts and gonoleks. My favourite was the cattle egret which follows the locally wandering herds of white, long-horned cows gobbling up the creatures disturbed from the soil by their hooves.

No egrets
Wolof, Serer and Fulani
Musa is an ethic Fulani. His language is Pular. It is a distinctly different tongue from the majority Wolof. The area we were in was predominantly Serer. They also have their own different language and when Musa spoke with them they used Senegal's 'lingua franca', Wolof.

Serer are fisherfolk. They are often Catholic in a nation that is mainly Muslim. Neither the ethnic nor the religious differences are problematic in what seems to be a tolerant country.

Salt wells

Local enterprise
One local village, it seems, has the rights to the salt on the flats near to our 'eco-village'. The men dig the wells on the low-lying land in between the agricultural areas and the sea. The women, using woven baskets, then harvest (their word) the salt from the resulting pool of sea water as the sun dries it.

The produce - at CFA1500 (€1) per 50 kilo - is mostly sold for preserving fish.

On the adjoining arable land, millet and peanuts are grown. Salt water gradually encroaches on it rendering it infertile. There doesn't seem to be a solution to the problem.

There are many species of acacia in the area. We saw tamarind, too. Angelika has developed a fondness for the baobab. Its bark was used traditionally for making rope, its fruit provides food and drink and its leaves, dried and pounded into a powder, are used as a binding agent in the cooking of couscous.

Sunset on baobab
In a tour of several highlights, it was the unexpected that provided the greatest frisson.

At the end of our first day, as the sun began to settle and we turned on our donkey-drawn trailer for home, there was a sudden flurry of exchanges in hushed Wolof between Musa and our cartman. They had spotted the one creature we had been told we would be lucky  to see; hyena.

The donkey reared and his handler had to impose himself to regain control. We were told the beast wasn't spooked by the pair of hunter-scavengers we encountered, but I was. Their hunched, lurking gait and leering gaze are intimidating.

Later we saw jackals and the following day, vervet monkeys and dolphin. It was a thrill.

Twilight prowl
Pirogue and picnic
The following two days involved sailing in pirogues and visiting Serer villages.

The first village, on an island in the archipelago, was very non-touristic. This was an intimate look into how the people lived. We felt honoured. I was very moved and humbled by a (much needed) invitation to use a local family's toilet. Musa hinted that the amenities might be basic. A young, proud, smartly dressed housewife led me to the family's outhouse. She was unselfconscous, just pleased to help a visitor in need. And I was grateful and touched.

Although, by European standards, the fabric of the village was very basic; bare breeze-block buildings, earth and sand streets, this was not what defined it for me. There was a strong feeling of a cohesive community. In what seemed to be a symbol of their self-perception, the villagers, especially the women, wore sumptuous clothing, deeply coloured in rich fabrics.

The children in the village were bright-eyed, energetic and laughed easily. We were high-fived by several as we walked by.

Angelika and our crew
To the archipelago
Our lunchtime picnic included bbq'd barracuda. Meaty and tasty. A snooze in a hammock and a pirogue ride back to the mainland.

Shared graveyards and grain stores
The last day took us to another Serer island village, the highlights of which were the Christian/Muslim burial ground and the stilted grain stores.

The latter were on another island which kept them away from the rats, we were told.

The graveyard is on a third island comprised mainly of shells. The locals collect whelks, remove the meat and deposit the shells in the cemetery. Recent research, our local guide told us, has found shells there from the eighth century. They are several meters deep.

No intensive farming here
High street
The graveyard contains both Muslim and Christian remains. While this is not unique, it is unusual. The local guide was proud of the peaceful coexistence of the two communities.

Side by side
Grain and rice stores
The meat from the whelks* is dried in the sun. They keep for months. I bought some.

This was a special few days. Memorable, moving and exciting. Musa was a very engaging guide. Thanks to him.

*They looked better in the bag than they tasted in the pasta sauce.