Monday, September 29, 2008

Some Like It Hot

Anyone who got an actual hand written letter from me during the last two years has heard me whine about the heat in Burkina. Just when I thought I couldn't complain any more, I go to a place that's even hotter. The fabled Timbuktu. Not just a hip brand of messenger bags, Timbuktu is also a really hard to get to town in NW Mali and a certified world heritage site. It took 5 full days of pain and suffering to get there overland from Ouagadougou(which is about 700 km away). The trials of this trip included having to spend the night sleeping on the bare ground in a shantytown on the bank of the Niger river where a gang of little rascal aged street urchins tried to mug me. They got nothing but my pride, since my pockets were empty at the time. Anyone attempting to rob me these days will be sorely disappointed.

Situated on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was once a way station for the trade of gold, slaves, and ivory from the gold coast to northern Africa and of salt in the opposite direction. Geographically, this made a lot of sense up until about the 16Th century when people gave up the excruciating hassle of crossing the Sahara in camel caravans in favor of sea and river based trade routes. Owing to its prosperity as a commercial center, the city developed into a social and cultural hotbed and was home to a huge university with as many as 25,000 students as early as 1400. The library is pretty spectacular, with gorgeous mud wall construction and and impressive collection of ancient islamic and greek texts. I couldn't give it more than a cursory clark-griswald-at-the-grand-canyon type nod because the heat from the sand was seeping through my cheap Chinese flip flops(my only pair of shoes! yay for minimalism!) and scalding the bottoms of my feet. Other famous things that I didn't spend much time looking at are the Djinguereber and Sankore mosques, built in 1327 and the early 15Th century respectively.

Since there was no way in hell I was returning the same way I came, I got halfway back to Ouaga on a ferry boat running the Malian length of the Niger river. you can also pay an absurd amount of money to take a frightening prop plane out of the "airport", but I opted to save myself the cash and the panic attack. The boat ride is the preferred mode of local transport because a fourth class ticket is 10 bucks and you can bring your goats, cattle, and chickens. I chose a second class ticket for 80 bucks. Falling squarely in the center of the deluxe-first-second-third-fourth class spectrum, this will get you a bed in a four berth cabin, three days of meals, and access to a tolerable but nonetheless cockroach infested latrine. In spite of being dirty and uncomfortable, the ride is amazing and highly recommended. Sunrise and sunset on the Niger river are photographer's dream. Check out the pic snapped with a cheap digicam of the full moon rising at sunset. The boat stops at small villages along the way to pick up and drop off passengers and supplies. Most of the villages are only accessible by river during the rainy season, and are thus relatively untouched by western influences. Among the more interesting stops was the village Niafunke, which blues and world music fans will know as the home to the late Ali Farka Toure.

I got off the boat at a town called Mopti so I could check out the nearby mosque at Djenne, an architectural wonder and another world heritage site. The world's biggest manmade mud thing, the mosque was first built in 1307 and subsequently rebuilt in 1907. Not much more of interest here for the reader, but a trip well worth the effort if you are ever in the 'hood. My philosophy is that anytime one is near the world's biggest anything, one should go see it. The area gets a bad rap by word of mouth on the backpacker circuit because it's not easy traveling. Even if your pockets are stuffed with cash, you won't get better than 2 star accommodation. In spite of being inadvisable for high maintenance travelers; between Djenne, Timbuktu, and Dogon country (which I described in a post I put up last year), this part of Mali is among few tourist destinations that are worth the hype.

Pictures: Self portrait in Niger; Mosque at Djenne with monday market in foreground, Mali; Niger river in Mali; Giraffe in the wild in Niger.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Nigeriens are Nice.

After Grand Popo, we moved westward to the administrative capital of Benin, Porto Novo, on the western border of Benin. Porto Novo is a sleepy little town famous for satellite villages on its lagoon that are built entirely on stilts. These villagers have elevated shacks were they sleep, but the rest of their lives are lived on boats. The lagoon is their living room, highway to the outside word, food source, and also unfortunately their toilet. A Japanese relief organization built some elevated latrines a few years back but it seems it's easier to hang your butt over the side of the boat than it is to paddle over to the public restroom. Porto Novo itself has a distinct South American flavor owing to it's resettlement by freed slaves from Brazil. It is also home to the mattress that made me itchy all over. It may be lice. I don't feel too sorry for myself since I just ran into another traveler who discovered she had worms when one burrowed its way out of her belly button.

From Porto Novo we made a brief 12 hour stop in Benin's economic capital, Cotonou. If Poto Novo is like Albany, then Cotonou is like Manhattan. The city is a sprawling mass of humanity choking on it's own pollution, traffic, and bad attitude. Cotonou was very accurately described by my Lonely Planet guide as "like being locked in a car with a chain-smoking speed freak". Once again finding that the only accommodation in our price range was an apparent brothel, we hightailed it out of there. We took a bus to Niamey, Niger (the next stop on the tour) which left Cotonou at 1 a.m. and was arrived in Niamey at 7 p.m. the next day. As you can imagine, that really sucked. It was a typical third world bus scene. Too many people, not enough seats, luggage blocking the exits, stifling heat, and alarming levels of diesel fumes making their way back onto the bus. It was at this Benin-Niger border crossing, my fourth border in one month, that it finally dawned on me that "unemployed" is not what immigration officials want to hear when asking about my profession. Apparently in their world "unemployed" is synonymous with "drug dealer" or "bank robber" or "troublemaker". I have since changed my answer to "teacher" (leaving off the "former"). I think things should go a little more smoothly for me now.

While Benin is the wealthiest country in West Africa that I have visited, Niger is the poorest with a per capita income of 260 USD. Note: all my per capita income info is coming from from a 2006 World Bank survey. This is a very interesting list. Check it out here, and notice that the US is only seventh, behind Ireland among others. Are the guys from U2 are single handedly skewing the statistics? Or maybe nobody at the World Bank ever read Angela's Ashes. The US is probably even lower on that list than it was in '06, and since then the dollar has dropped to roughly the value of monopoly money. Bermuda shares the top spot, which I'm sure has something to do with rich people avoiding paying taxes. All the other US-beaters are really cold countries. All the poorest countries are really hot. Hmmmm. Time to re-read Guns Germs and Steel.

Niger should not be confused with Nigeria, which is south of Niger and east of Benin. Nigeria is probably more familiar to most people for it's oil and as home to the musician Fela Kuti. Niger isn't known for much although has gained modest wealth owing to oil, gold, and uranium deposits. The country is enormous and geographically dominated by the Air Mountains and Sahara, Tenere, and Bilma Deserts. I hear these areas are beautiful. I didn't make it up there since the region is troubled with an ethnic uprising and land mine explosions are not unheard of. Instead I spent all of my time in Niger near the capital, Niamey. Niamey was fabulous. I mentioned in my last post the correlation between poverty and hospitality. Theory confirmed. Niamey is an infrastructural train wreck, but a nicer city folk I may never meet. Even the cab drivers are nice. It's about a zillion degrees year round. This encourages napping, which I imagine is good for the soul. It also decreases productivity, which is bad for other really important stuff like health care and education. You can't have it all I guess.

A few days ago, we took a field trip from Niamey to a nearby village called Koure where we saw a heard of giraffes. That was wicked. Next up, I pass back through Burkina to pick up some visas and make some attempt to float up the Niger river (in a boat where I hear you have to relieve yourself over the railing of the deck) in Mali and hopefully arrive in Timbuktu. I hear Timbuktu is hard to get to and not all interesting, but worth going to just to say you've been there.

No pictures this time. Technical difficulties.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Boat Rides In Benin Cause Vomiting

Moving to the left (stage left) along the West African coastline, a few days ago we crossed over from Togo into Benin. The border was pretty frenzied. My first impressions as we came into the country is that Benin is decidely more developed. Much like exiting Pennsylvania and entering Maryland, one notices immediately that the roads are wider and better maintained. Other hallmarks of development were fatter chickens, more scantily clad women (my friend claims to have seen bare knees), and less friendly (but by no means unfriendly) people. Seems to be an inverse relationship between average per capita income and hospitality. With a wopping 540 USD a year, the Beninois are the wealthiest people that I will visit on this trek through Africa. Barring a brief flirtation with communism, Benin's history is a lot like Togo's. She is a former french colony with many regime changes since independence in 1960 but is now considered a bonafide democracy and even got a visit from George and Laura earlier this year.

We spent our first 3 nights in Benin in a beach town with the awesome name "Grand Popo". We found a beachfront hotel with infestation free mattresses and a clean bathroom, both luxuries on our budget. On day one, we ran into some peace corps volunteers that we knew when we were in Burkina and who inspired me to lay around on the beach and drink too much beer. On day two I went out on a very eventful excursion on a fishing boat. I strolled over to the beach around 7 in the morning which was just in time to catch a medium sized boat about to be put in the ocean. With the help of a random guy on the beach who spoke both french and the local language, I managed to secure myself a spot on the boat in exchange for a liter of the local moonshine liquor, called Sodabi and made from distilled palm fruit. The boat was wooden, really heavy, propelled by something that looked like a lawn mower engine, and steered by the captain who was a billion years old and who I hoped would lay off the moonshine till we got back to shore. It took about 30 people heave ho-ing in unison to get the me and the boat (they correctly predicted that I wouldn't be much help so they let me sit in the boat while they did all the work) from the beach onto the really choppy waves. Then about 20 people, 15 extremely athletic teenagers and 5 old-man-and-the-sea types, jumped in the boat.

I clutched to the side of the boat expecting it to capsize while everyone laughed at me for being such a scaredy cat. The waves got choppier as we made our way out to sea and I scanned the boat looking for something I could use as a buoy in the likely event of disaster and wished with all my heart that a life jacket would magically appear. When we finally got about a kilometer out, the fishermen heaved a small portion of the giant net into the ocean and then a few of the teenagers jumped in to adjust the net and then swim a long distance back to shore in a micheal phelpsian manner. This repeated every ten minutes or so until we ran out of net and teenagers. Then we doubled back along the entire distance of the net while i dry heaved (fortunately i skipped breakfast) over the side of the boat and the remaining old guys laughed hysterically. After about a half an hour I curled up in the bottom of the boat and spooned the anchor while the old guys stopped laughing and started shooting nervous glances my way. We hustled back to shore and the captain scooped me out of the boat, deposited me under a palm tree and demanded that I drink water. I layed on the beach for a few hours and watched the crew undertake the herculean effort of bringing the net in. All that work for about a hundred fish. Then some guys on the crew offered me their share of the days catch. My impression was that they felt proud that a person would come all the way from America to watch and appreciate their work. For about the thousanth time in the last few years, I was humbled by the kindness and humility of people who work so much harder and have so much less than me.

Pictures: my friend Jon's gross injured toe in Sindou, Burkina Faso (he took the picture); voodoo village in front of Lake Togo in Togoville, Togo; and the boat ride from hell in Grand Popo, Benin.