Saturday, January 31, 2009

Marrakesh Express

My first stop in Morocco proper was Essaouira, a historic port town 200km north of Agadir. As I approached along the winding coastal road the landscape reminded me of the eastern Mediterranean (from southern Turkey through to Jerusalem): olive groves, rocky fields, crisp colours, especially the bright green of recently sprouted grass and leaves. Essaouira is an early example of something that I have come to loathe: the planned town. But since it was planned before the inception of motorised transport it's fantastically compact and full of character. A few main roads cut through the town whilst tight, dogleg alleyways radiate away to form little mazes and dead-ends that are fun to explore. The buildings, with their uniformly whitewashed walls and bright blue doors and window frames, also form a harmonious whole and afford plenty of opportunities for the amateur hack (me) to take snaps of everyday vignettes and catch brief glimpses through open doorways of tiled courtyards and domesticity. It being a port Essaouira is more cosmopolitan than its comperes, but even I was a little stunned to see, in a Muslim country, women in miniskirts lounging in doorways during one of my lost ramblings. It took me a while to realise that I had stumbled upon the red light district (how innocent am I?).

Essaouira is famous throughout Morocco (and even the world, for people who are interested in such things) as being the home of Gnaoua music, a genre of spiritual music (although Gnaoua incorporates esoteric and mystical elements like Sufism, as well) that is thought to have originated from the mixing of (black) African and Arabic traditions. I didn't really know much of this to begin with, but whilst ambling aimlessly this middle-aged local, who smelt distinctly of pot and alcohol, struck up a conversation, mentioned that he made musical instruments and offered to show me some. I had nothing better to do and so tagged along. He led me down a few alleyways before ducking into a low door and into his small home that he shared with his mother. His room was rather small and dingy, with a low table and a half-empty bottle of (local) wine. He pulled out his home-made bass - although it looked to me like something they used to make on Blue Peter I have since learnt that it was in fact the real deal - and jumped into some Gnaoua jamming. I'm no connoisseur, but I quite liked it (for a sample of gnaoua check out this site, or just do a simple search on YouTube).

From Essaouira it was on to Marrakesh, the final destination of my trip. As the bus headed eastwards and upwards the snowy peaks of the High Atlas became visible to the south, its jagged spine running parallel to the road and reminding me that it's winter back in Europe, and apparently one of the coldest in recent history, a reality I am not relishing. But until then I am planning to make the most of my time in the Red City (I've been trying, without success, to find a list of cities associated with particular colours: Jodhpur and blue, Jaisalmer and gold, Aberdeen and grey, Toulouse and rose, Jaipur and pink - there could be a book in there somewhere). The old city, or Medina, has survived the ages pretty much intact which gives it a special character. And it's no stale, preserved museum piece either, but a vibrant, living, chaotic jumble that is immediately endearing. The centrepiece of the city, both literally and figuratively is the Djemaa El Fna, a giant, irregular square (almost certainly the largest in Africa). The square itself is rather unremarkable, but what makes it unique is what goes on there: traditional storytellers, acrobats, musicians, snake-charmers, soothsayers, henna tattooists, dancers, purveyors of fetishes and traditional remedies, and tarot readers all congregate during the day and well into the evening. What's particularly satisfying is that they aren't there for the tourists but for the local population (because quite frankly I don't think the average tourist has any idea what the wizened Berber ladies with the funny cards are saying) and we, as visitors, are being allowed a glimpse into their world. In the evening over a hundred food stalls set up shop selling everything from your standard Moroccan fare (couscous with something) to the less expected (rather tasty snails).

Ho-hum, I would like to write more but it's 11pm and my plane leaves tomorrow morning and I need to pack. The next you hear from me I should be back in the "real world".

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tale Of The Unexpected

The best day of my trip so far began rather inauspiciously: I arrived in town after a gruelling 24 hours of travelling, and the town was just supposed to be a rest stop between overnight bus journeys - it has no sights to speak of and is at least 1000km from the nearest UNESCO world heritage site. What the hell was I going to do in Laayoune? But first, how did I get there, and where is it even?

I got up early on the morning I wanted to leave Nouadhibu as it was the last day before my visa expired and I didn't want to get any hassles from the Mauritanian authorities. I scurried over to the transport garage where bush taxis leave for Dakhla, the first town of any note on the other side of the border, made my intended destination known and sat down to wait. [At this point I think I ought to point out that to the north of Mauritania lies Western Sahara. It was a Spanish colony until 1974 when they finally moved out, but instead of leaving the Sahrawis to themselves the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved in to annex the newly vacated territory. The Sahrawis managed to repel the Moors but not the Moroccans and so the territory has effectively been annexed by the latter which has also sent a wave of settlers to occupy the territory, effectively making the Sahrawis a minority within their own country. The UN has been on the ground for the past 18 years trying to get the sides to agree to a framework for a referendum but so far to no avail. Naturally the status of Western Sahara is a touchy subject in Morocco and is officially referred to as the "Saharan Provinces". There are distinct parallels with the Palestinian situation, but oddly enough the Saharan situation doesn't elicit a similar response from the Arab community.] And wait I did. And then some more. Despite turning up at 8am the taxi didn't leave until 2pm. We were a motley collection of passengers: a Senegalese tour guide heading north to meet his French girlfriend, a Guinean off to see his brother in Casablanca, a portly Sahrawi woman (for Moors and Sahrawis traditionally the plumper the lady the more beautiful she is) and her hyperactive 5 year-old son, an old Moor and myself, bringing up the rear. The authorities on the Mauritanian side are notoriously corrupt and my black-African travelling companions had to shell out cash at several checkpoints (of which there are many throughout the country), but once their greed satisfied we got through quite quickly. Between the two countries the no-man's-land is just that, with no side claiming responsibility for it, and so the 4km stretch between the two borders isn't even graded, let alone sealed. Cars, and even large, articulated lorries, gingerly pick their way through the desert and pray they don't get stuck. A good half hour later we reached the Moroccan border and the difference was immediately evident. Here there was order, respect, rules. There was also a tight adherence to them and a thoroughness that was lacking in their their counterparts to the south. Unfortunately this meant paperwork and bag-searching, which lasted over two hours. By 6pm we were on the road and heading to Dakhla and we reached the police checkpoint on the outskirts of the town at 11pm. As the police were taking our details a bus heading north trundled along and I (and my Senegalese companion) jumped at the chanced and hopped on for another 8 hour jaunt to Laayoune, the regional capital (by all accounts Dakhla doesn't have particularly much to keep the curious visitor busy).

So I arrived in Laayoune at 7am. The bus dropped us off in the central square just in front of the nicest hotel in town, used as a HQ by the UN. I could tell because there were over 25 UN vehicles (most of them new Landcruiser Prados) in the parking lot. I had little information about Laayoune and that which I had read something like this: "there's nothing there". Armed with this information I planned to to spend the day there before taking another night bus north to the coastal city of Essaouira. My only ray of hope was the number of a CouchSurfer who may or may be in town. I waited until 8am to call Ali. Luckily he was in. Unluckily I had woken him up. Once this little faux pas was ironed over he said that he'd come over and meet me in town. He took me to a pleasant cafe to have some breakfast and a conversation - he turned out to be both an informed and eloquent individual and it was fascinating to get his views, not just on the Sahara question, but on life in Morocco in general.

We then returned to his flat to drop off my rucksack and check on the plumber (he was having his bathroom redone). The town struck me as being neat and clean (though Ali reminded me that I had just been in Mauritania and that all things are relative), the houses, though rather boxy, all painted in a not unpleasant combination of rose and white, but it all seemed unfinished and missing something.

"So there you have it," said Ali once we had arrived at his place.
"Laayoune. There isn't much to see. To get a real taste of Western Sahara you need to go out into the countryside with a car. But ... my friend is getting married today so we can go round and you can see a local wedding, if you want."
"Sure," I said, "as long as it's not imposing."

So we went to his friend's house which was nearby in a residential part of town, an unremarkable building except for the people spilling out onto the alleyway. My meagre Arabic, which was stretched enough as it was, broke down underneath the onslaught of the multitude of elaborate greetings; instead I just shook hands with my left covering my heart (a sign of goodwill and friendship) whilst beaming manically. The fact that there was a random foreigner at this most intimate of celebrations didn't even seem to raise an eyebrow (I try and picture the reaction if our roles were reversed and I brought a stranger to a wedding in Britain). We penetrated deeper into the bowels of the house until we reached the groom who was holding court with his friends. The small room had a low table in the middle, piled high with dates, nutty, bite-sized pastries and drinks (UHT milk and fruit juice) and around the outside sat the young men leaning against a series of cushions (the youngest was in charge of making the tea, a purely male task). The groom was lounging on some mats dressed in a white boubou and white leather sandals next to a suspended cotton sheet which separated a small corner from the rest of the room (it was so innocuous that I didn't notice it at first). After greeting the groom and paying my respects I was given a couple of light lashes to my back with a small, tasseled whip that dangled from his wrist. Only bachelors get whipped and it is supposed to bring about their marriage more quickly. Then I was liberally sprayed with not one, but two different eaux de cologne.

I was very lucky: not only was the groom happy to have me tag along, but he was an English teacher as well so communication was easy (I also think he appreciated the opportunity to talk to a native speaker). Having an in-depth, varied conversation with a local who isn't trying to sell you something is one of the rarest, and most rewarding experiences when travelling and trying to learn about and understand a different culture. And when that conversation is during such a joyous occasion and punctuated with liberal doses of sweetmeats and tea, well that's just the icing on the cake.

After about 20mins the groom partly pulled back the sheet to talk to someone on the other side. I was more than a little bewildered to find out that the bride was in the same room but hidden, which caused no end of amusement for the others. Later I was asked if I wanted to eat. I looked at the pile of date pits, sweet wrappers, nutshells and remains of sweet millet porridge in front of me and wondered if this was some sort of Sahrawi joke. But no, apparently the main meal was happening elsewhere. There were about 200 men in the small hall, elders around the outside on chairs and the others in small groups on the floor. To get us in the mood more dates, cakes and sweet tea were passed around. An elder then spoke, at length, about various topics - like most weddings most people weren't really listening. Then, announcing the imminent arrival of food, a group of waiters went round dousing the guests with a variety of pungent perfumes. I don't think I have smelt so good on this trip as I did then! The first main course was composed of whole, roast chicken sprinkled with olives. This was then followed by slabs of roast camel (the hump, which was diced up, is solid fat, but tasty nonetheless). The Sahrawis, living a nomadic, desert lifestyle as they do, don't have much room for vegetables. Being a bit of a novelty at our table I was bombarded with questions about religion and politics, which I have learnt, over the years, to diplomatically answer without lying.

I was holding my stomach for the rest of the day for fear that it may burst. And although I was invited to attend the evening festivities (Sahrawi weddings go on for several days) I knew that I wouldn't be able to and keep to my schedule (my flight home is in a few days and I still have a couple of stops on my itinerary). So it was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Ali and set off for the night bus to Agadir. Despite just passing through and not even staying a night, my time in Laayoune will stay with me as long as my other, more illustrious, destinations on this trip. Which goes to show that amazing things can, and do, happen in the most unlikely places - you just have to keep your eyes open for them.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Long Train Running

Before coming out to Mauritania one of its main draws for me was the legendary train that carries iron ore from the northern mines at Zouerat to the port at Nouadhibu. Not only is it in the running for the mantle of longest/heaviest train in the world but you can catch a ride on one train a day which has a single passenger car stuck on its end like an afterthought. Of course, this being Africa, people don't stick to the passenger car and it is possible to ride atop the ore for free. But I decided against this as it would be potentially very cold, dusty and highly uncomfortable. Sometimes I hate it when I'm so right.

When I arrived in Choum, one of only three places the train stops, I was told that the train would come at 6pm. I sat myself down roughly where I thought the passenger car would be (there are no signs, no-one else was waiting and I had no idea where exactly it would stop) and began to wait. 6pm came and went, the sun set and it got very dark. I was getting a bit apprehensive and so decided to return to town where hopefully there would be other people waiting. The town was deserted and so rather than wander aimlessly I decided to wait there where there was at least some light. The train crept in so quietly that it had almost stopped before I knew it. I rushed up and realised that I was at the wrong end and that the passenger car was up to 3km away further down the track. There was no way I was going to run down there in the dark with my backpack - I didn't want to run the risk of missing the train entirely and having to spend a whole day in Choum, which, to put it mildly, is a shithole. I saw an ore wagon with a light moving on top and made my way to it and climbed aboard, thinking that there is safety in numbers. I was hauled up the last couple of feet into the wagon and was immediately surprised by the iron ore itself, which was ground to a fine, black dust, like soft sand. There wasn't much time for introductions as everyone was hollowing out little niches for themselves to shelter from the wind that would come on the journey and so I did the same. Then I pulled my sleeping bag out, set my back pack vertically to act as a windbreak and backrest, wrapped my keffiyeh totally around my face so that I could barely see and buried myself in my sleeping bag. Up until now I had been somewhat regretting bringing a 3 season bag which has been a little too warm for Malian nights, but it certainly helped make the train journey at least bearable. The combination of the wind, chilly desert night and the ore and metal wagon which suck heat away from you make the trip very cold indeed if you are not properly prepared. Luckily I was able to get a few hours fitful sleep. The other discomfort is the sand and dust that fly everywhere and make it hard to see and breathe without a proper face covering.

In the end the journey 'only' took 15 hours (the train has an average speed of a little over 20km/h) before we trundled into Nouadhibu, Mauritania's main port. In the morning light I could see that the train was disappointingly short, only about a mile long and composed of about 120 wagons. But it was still an experience; one I was glad, in retrospect to have experienced, survived unscathed, and certainly wasn't planning on doing again! The town is situated in the middle of a long peninsula in the far north of the country, but the iron ore plant is at the tip. So I saw the town sail past as we continued past to the plant which resembles some dystopian, post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie set. Mad Max would feel right at home. Huge machines clank and whirr amid mountains of ore, rusted wagons litter the landscape like rotting carcases and the plant is a confusing jumble of pipes that reaches to the sky. Once I made it to the town I was glad to have found a CouchSurfing contact - another American Peace Corps volunteer called Eli. I was even more glad that he had a hot shower. After I had got most of the ore dust out of my hair and ears and off my skin I was ready to check out my new surroundings. Nouadhibu is a strange town. It is more cosmopolitan than other places in Mauritania, even Nouakchott, and the ever-present Moorish boubou (the national dress worn by most Moors both white and black, it is basically a large, cotton poncho - either white, light or dark blue - sown together at the bottom) is less evident. There is also a large expat community, both European and black African, as this is a popular jumping off point for attempting to reach the Canary Islands (and therefore the European Union). There are no real sights as such, but I was fascinated by a collection of rusting hulks in the bay just south of the port. Apparently they were given by the European Union to the Mauritanian government to help develop the fishing industry but they were never used. Instead they have just been left to rot and serve as a source of scrap metal. There are two stories as to the reason: either it was to collect the insurance money, or that the government didn't bother training anyone in their use and so they were just left. Either way it is a sad example of good intentions going to waste.

Tomorrow I head north to Morocco as my Mauritanian visa expires (and I only have 6 days to get to Marrakesh). My one regret is that I have been unable to visit the Banc d'Arguin national park which lies between Nouakchott and Nouadhibu. In winter the bay and its rich waters is home to the largest concentration of migrating birds in the world. Over 7 million birds including terns, plovers, spoonbills, herons and many more.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Drinking Champagne In The Desert

From Nouakchott I headed northeastwards towards the oasis towns of the Adrar which form the cultural cradle of the Moorish civilisation. Along the way I've managed to hook up with a couple of crazy Slovenes (although, from my experience with their compatriots that's a bit of a tautology) who are driving down to Senegal in an old, bright orange Dyane. Slovenes seem to have different priorities from most people. Whilst it's true that they have a couple of spare wheels and plenty of other kit to fix the car, most of the space in the back is taken up with homemade preserves, salami, pickles, conserves and, taking pride of place, booze. Grappa, wine, mead, plum brandy and even champagne - anything and everything A particularly impressive achievement as Mauritania is an Islamic republic and alcohol is officially banned. "No problem," says Alfijo the driver, "10 euros at the border and they don't check." Amongst all the random flotsam they have, however, made a little space for me and taken me on board with a hearty handshake, smile and a couple of shots of slivovice.

Although the region is true desert it doesn't conform to the sandy, dune-filled stereotype. Instead much of the Adrar is a flat, gravel-strewn wasteland where a few hardy plants eke out a meagre living. The most revered town in the area is Chinguetti, which used to be on the old trans-Saharan caravan route linking the Ghana and Mali empires to the south with the Mediterranean to the north. Like its rival Timbuktu, which eventually superseded it as trade routes shifted, Chinguetti was a centre for Islamic learning and scholarship and to this day there remain a dozen private librariess each with envious collections of priceless, medieval Arabic manuscripts spanning a wide range of subjects, from Koranic study to mathematics. Chinguetti also claims to be an town of particular religious significance, claiming even to be the seventh-holiest city of Islam. Being a born pedant it was a claim that I was rather suspicious of and so whilst I was there I kept asking people what the other holy cities were (the first three are universally accepted to be Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Every person I asked gave me a different answer and in the end I had about 10 other cities that were vying for the three intermediate spots. I suppose it's a case of making a claim that isn't so improbable that it offends people whilst being impressive enough to attract them. Chinguetti lives from tourism and has been severely affected by a huge drop in visitor numbers (down to about 25% of their normal levels) due to the credit crunch and murder of four French tourists last year which also provoked the cancellation of the Dakar rally. This makes it easier to find cheap accommodationn, but theflip sidee is that there is greater competition for the tourist dollar which is manifested in being continuously hounded by women selling trinkets from local co-operatives who will not take no for an answer. We were followed for a good half hour by a particularly persistent gaggle, easily the most tenacious hawkers I have ever come across.

We also paid a visit to a secluded oasis hidden down at the end of a narrow valley which had one of the rarest and most valuable things in the desert: perennial water. Not only that, but as the water trickles out of the cliff and into the palm grove it's at a very pleasant 26 degrees - very nice on a Sahara winter morning where the temperatures can drop surprisingly low. Alfijo had visited the village a couple of years before and had such a good time that this year he wanted to give something back and so he had brought a whole trunk-full of notebooks, pens, games and other knick-knacks for the kids. The people running the campement where we were staying, however, warned us to give the stuff directly to the children and be careful of the teacher who would keep a lot of it for himself. This had me slightly worried and I understood as soon as we arrived at the school why. The teacher was black in an entirely Moorish community. After only a minute or two speaking with him it was obvious to me that he was a friendly, mild-mannered man. The invariable hangers-on who had followed us from the campement were trying to take control of the situation and boss him about despite their having no business there. I even caught a couple of them trying to pocket material destined for the kids for themselves. From what I have seen myself and having talked to several people who work for NGOs I have become sceptical as to the real effect such gestures. undoubtedly well-meaning and generous, actually have when there doesn't seem to be the requisite change in attitude and mentality that is required to make full use of them.

Last night was my last with Branko and Alfijo and they opened one of their two bottles of champagne to say goodbye, which really touched me. Travelling with them for the past two days has been a little bit crazy, somewhat uncomfortable, slightly strange but lots of fun. But one bottle of bubbly is nowhere near enough and so we polished off their bottle of apricot schnapps as well.

Monday, January 19, 2009


So here I am finally in Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania). It took two and a half days to drive the 1500km from Bamako for a variety of reasons: the roads are not always the best in the world; with a 2.5L diesel engine Landrovers are seriously underpowered; and we only drove during the day to avoid wandering livestock and nutters in cars without functioning headlights. It did, however, give me the opportunity to appreciate the vast emptiness of of the country and the Sahara, which we skirted the southern edges of. The country is four times the size of the UK with a population smaller than that of Albania (although it does try an make up with its cows, donkeys goats and camels). As you drive through the southeast of the country you pass through vast tracts of Sahelian scrub alternating with rocky wasteland punctuated by tall, forbidding mesas that guard the way to the desert proper. There are, however, two constants: the incessant, dust-laden harmattan trade wind that blows from December through to March from the northeast and acts like a giant sandblaster; and the miserable villages composed of forlorn concrete boxes and semi-permanent tents that look as if they only offer token resistance to the driving sand. In all my travels I don't think I've seen any villages as grim and depressing as these and I was instantly thankful to just be passing through. As we approached Nouakchott the Sahel finally lost the battle against the desert and rolling sand dunes, of alternating red and white, took over. It was almost taking over the road as well and I think it's a continual battle to keep the roads clear.

Driving along one of the first things you notice are the cars. I immediately thought of Albania because the vast majority of cars (around 75%) are Mercedes; and just like in Albania they ll seem to be European imports (many still have stickers with a large D on them). It's obviously a profitable business as one of the people staying at my hostel is a young Frenchman who has driven down all the way from Bordeaux in a 4x4 to sell it on here. Although he has become so exasperated with doing business with Africans that he swears that this will be his last trip.

Nouakchott is a strange city. A place without history it was chosen by the ruling Arabs, who have their heartlands in the northeast in the desert, as a site for their capital in 1958 so that they could keep an eye on their black compatriots to the south more easily (more on this below). The Arab desert culture and disdain for the sea is evident from the fact that although Nouakchott is on the coast it's not really. A 5km strip of wasteland separates the western edges of the town with the beach and fishing port. A visit to the port emphasises this desert-centricness even more. First of all all the fishermen and people who work at the port are black, but despite the country having some of the richest fishing waters in the world the facilities are nonexistent. The fishermen go out to sea in nothing more than oversized canoes and have to land their catch on an exposed, windswept beach with no harbour. Instead of building up what could be a lucrative industry the government just sells the fishing rights to European trawlers so as to make a quick buck. Still, for want of any historical sites the fishing port is Nouakchott's main tourist attraction. And the bustle as the boats beach, the catch is carried ashore, and the fish are sliced, gutted, chopped and sold is certainly entertaining.

When walking about the town you don't get a sense of the litany of ills that supposedly befall the country (and I've got no reason to believe they don't) which sounds like a roll-call of problems faced by African countries. A non-functioning democracy (there was a coup in August), abysmal literacy rates, suppression of women's rights (female genital mutilation is widespread), and, in my view the most horrific, slavery is still very much ingrained in Mauritanian society (actually it is found to a certain degree throughout the Sahel, but the worst example is here). Despite being abolished on numerous occasions (most recently in 2007) it is estimated that up to 20% of the population live as slaves or indentured labour (all of these are black Africans). Not only is it shocking that in this day and age that such practices can still go on, but that it doesn't cause the outrage that it should.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Woohoo! I got my Mauritanian visa today. After 4 days of waiting it was a little victory made all the sweeter by the fact that it's a visa de courtoisie i.e. free. Plus I met a friendly couple from the Midlands who are passing through in their Land Rover and have offered to give me a lift. So although I've lost 3 days I have saved 70 euros - not a totally even swap, but at least it's some compensation. So once I finish writing this I'm off to pack for an early morning start.

Rereading some of my posts I think people might get the impression that I'm not enjoying myself here, but very little could be further from the truth. I'm just highlighting some of the problems and difficulties that are found in a country such as Mali which is one of the poorest in the world. There are of course signs of optimism: in a region that isn't known for the fairness of its public institutions Mali is a rare beacon of (admitedly imperfect) democracy, and in this year's index of press freedom (published by Reporters Without Borders) it came joint 31st, above its ex-colonial master France. But its greatest asset is its people who are incredibly mild-mannered and joyous. Today I wandered over to the national museum where there was a free concert by a small, tourist brass band from southern France. The music was decent but far from spectacular, but what made the event special was the gaiety (in the original sense of the word) of the crowd who really got involved with the musicians, cheering and clapping them along. Back home the response would be altogether more staid and placid.

Anyway, that's it for Mali, it's onwards and northwestwards for me now. Hopefully my next post shall be from Nouakchott.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stampless In Bamako

Getting to Bamako was relatively stress free and I've found a friendly CSer to stay with so life is cheap and I have people to talk to. I even managed to easily find the Mauritanian embassy. But that's where the plain sailing ended. On Monday morning I turned up at the embassy gates bright and early and set myself down with the other supplicants (2 French overlander couples and a Mauritanian imam with a Liberian teenager in tow to be indoctrinated into the ways of Islam) to await what should be a formality. An angelic patience is an important skill when dealing with third world bureaucracies not just those in Africa and here it was no different. After almost an hour of waiting outside we were ushered inside to a comfortable waiting room and our passports checked. So far so good I thought to myself. Two hours later and nothing had happened except for a few more additions to our group. This was beginning to get a bit silly and so I went in search of an official to shed some light on the situation. It turns out that they do not have the necessary fiscal stamps - and haven't for a week at least - to stick in our passports and so no visas can be issued. The stamp penury seems to be acute as none of the Mauritanian embassies in the region (Niger, Senegal, Gambia) seem to have them and so foreigners are unable to get in. I was particularly sorry for one of my fellow waiters, a trader from Morocco who only wants to transit Mauritania to get home and has been coming to the embassy for the past week. This is symptomatic of the aspect of life here that is most frustrating for me: the lack of commitment to good information. At the embassy we're fobbed off with "tomorrow, tomorrow" and when asking for directions I'm either told that it's too far and that I ought to take a taxi or given a vague wave of the arm to show the general direction. In the West we like to have all the data, if possible with some schematic drawing or map, so that we can make an informed decision. But people here don't seem to understand our obsession with such details. For them if something needs to be done it doesn't make much difference if it's today, tomorrow, next week or whenever. Funnily enough y old friend Mungo remarked on exactly the same thing 200 years ago!

So my sojourn in Bamako has been extended for longer than I had hoped, and although it's not an unpleasant place I would really rather be on the move. So while I have no new escapades to relate I thought I might lump together a few random observations that I haven't been able to shoehorn into my narrative so far.

For any independent traveller there are four main preoccupations that form the basis of over 90% of the problems that need to be overcome: what will I see? how will I get there? where will I stay once I get there? and what will I eat along the way? (underlying all these is the ever-present how much will it cost?) The first three have all been touched on to a greater or lesser degree in my previous posts, but I haven't really talked about food. Now Malian food may not be held in as high esteem in the pantheon of world food as Italian, Chinese, Mexican or even Slovenian cuisine; and there is a reason for it. Quite frankly it's nothing to write home about (although that's precisely what I'm doing). The main staple is rice which is usually served with some sort of sauce, usually peanut or tomato based. If you're willing to splurge they may add either poulet (chicken), poisson (fish) or viande (meat) to the sauce. I haven't rustled up the courage to ask directly but the latter generally seems to be goat. In the evenings little streetside stalls sprout up, like mushrooms after rain, where women sell spaghetti and beans (or lentils) from large tureens - a cheap and filling combination but not one to set the heart racing. That said I have been told that the Nile perch (known locally as capitaine), which can commonly be found grilled, is quite tasty, but as I'm allergic to fish I can't independently verify the claim. As far as fruit and veg go the selection is surprisingly limited and the quality is so-so. For the former there are decent bananas, dry oranges, papayas, guavas and the odd pineapple and watermelon. As for veg there is very little apart from the ubiquitous tomatoes and onions. Mali is definitely not a country you visit for the food. Surprising really as they were colonised by the French who are nothing if not obsessed by good food. Instead the only culinary traces left by them are baguettes and processed vache qui rit (Laughing Cow) cheese. No great legacy.

One thing that has disappointed me somewhat during my stay is that, despite the history of West Africa essentially being the history of Mali (at least until 300 years ago), there is very little to show for this heritage. However this is made up for by the warmth and friendliness of the people in a country where unexpected encounters, smiling faces and surreal conversations lurk around every corner.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Saying Hello The Dogon Way

Timbuktu, Djenné and Gao are all nice, but the jewel in Mali's tourist crown is the pays Dogon: Dogon Country. Situated slightly to the east of Mopti the pays Dogon straddles a high rocky plateau, a steep, 200m-high escarpment and the dusty plain that stretches from it to the Burkinabe border. The Dogons themselves arrived on the scene only about 1000 years ago, displacing the native pygmy population, the Tellem, to flee the encroaching wave of Islam. More than anywhere else in Mali this is where the traditional animist beliefs still hold sway, although their influence is waning as more Dogons convert to either Islam or Christianity. And it is precisely for these beliefs, and their associated rituals, that people come to the pays Dogon. When exploring the area the services of a guide are essential as the potential for cultural misunderstandings is great and the paths between villages are not obviously marked. It is this reason, and the fact that many Westerners seem to be unable to move their asses from A to B without a big 4x4, that sees the pays Dogon earn the lion's share of Mali's tourist revenue. A fact that is elegantly observed when driving from Sévaré to Bandiagara, the main town in the pays Dogon, along what is undoubtedly the best road in the country, with dedicated lanes in each direction, no potholes and clear markings, despite the fact that the road doesn't lead to any major population centres.

Finding a guide in Bandiagara is simple. In fact you don't find them but they find you (usually as soon as you step out of whatever vehicle you arrived in). Finding one that will give you a proper price, along with a breakdown of costs (because all prices in the area are fixed) is another matter. Finding other travellers with whom to share the costs of a guide is also tricky - of those tourists who have not organised something in their home countries before departure many get snagged long before they reach the pays Dogon, either in Mopti, Sévaré, Ségou or even as far away as Bamako. So although I managed to get myself a scrupulous guide (apparently the only one in the pays Dogon with a university diploma in tourism) but was unsuccessful in my search for trek partners. Instead, to make my Dogon experience more affordable, I decided to walk for longer. The Bandiagara escarpment, which is the focus for tours, is divided into a northern and southern section, with about 4 days hiking recommended for each section. However, when I scrutinized the distances I was certain that, for anyone who isn't too squeamish about walking, it could be comfortably done in 2 allowing sufficient time to visit the various villages.

So early on the first day (As a slight aside my daily rhythm has changed somewhat to what it is at home. With no entertainment to speak of I am generally in bed by 9pm and awake by 6am, which, quite frankly, when you're sleeping on roofs to save money as I am, is as late as you can sleep with the early morning cacophony of braying donkeys, crowing cockerels and bleating goats.) Yembila, my guide, and I set off from the charmingly named village of Djiguibombo at the southern end of the escarpment northeastwards. The villages are strung out along the base of the cliff which used to serve as a place of refuge in bygone days and where many families still maintain their characteristic mud-and-thatch granaries, in impossibly inaccessible crevices high on the cliff face one can still see the remains of the Tellem habitations. The Dogons believe that the Tellem could fly, and it's not hard to see why, although it's more likely that they used a system of ropes.

Malians throughout the country place a great emphasis on greetings and no conversation, no matter how trivial, can be commenced without a couple of ça vas. This insistence on etiquette is taken to the extreme by the Dogons who, upon meeting one of their countrymen ask them how they are, how their family is, how their children are and finally how their close friends are before the other goes through the same list as well. The phrase "is/are well" being séo (say-oh) a normal greeting goes something like this:

"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."

Change over.

"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."
"mumble séo."

Of course when crossing paths one has to plan ahead and start shouting greetings from about 10m away and finish with a few séos over the shoulder if one doesn't want to break one's stride. It's not just us toubabs who find the whole ritual funny but Dogon hellos are the butt of a little good-humoured mockery from Malians from other ethnic groups as well.

As well as being specialists of long, convoluted greetings the Dogons are also master woodcarvers. As well as statuettes and elaborate face-masks that they use during their rituals even their everyday objects are often works of art. Their doors are often particularly pretty and often show various legends from their unique mythology which is not always easy to fathom and has a very convoluted creation myth involving twins, termites, snakes, clay and plenty of others besides. Although for me, just as mesmerising as the Dogon villages were the baobab trees that dot the plain amongst the millet fields. Not only are these majestic, solitary trees incredibly photogenic, but they are considered to be magical by the Dogons for their many uses: the bark is used to make ropes, the leaves are an important food source, the seeds a condiment and herbal remedy and the fruits can be either eaten or turned into maracas. I would probably have to agree with the Dogons on this point.

That evening we stayed in the village of Yabatalou (one thing's for sure, the Dogons sure have great place names) in a campement run by a gregarious old man. Despite his patchy French he was very talkative and took me aside to show me his photo albums showing himself, his family and the many tourists that had stayed there throughout the years. I was quite surprised because Malians, and Dogons in particular, are quite reticent about having their pictures taken. So when I asked him if I could take a photo of him I was taken aback when he said no and dived into his hut ... only to emerge a minute later fully kitted out in his Dogon hunter's clothes with an indigo smock, wide-brimmed hat and armed with a spear, sabre and flintlock musket dating from at least the early 19th century and looking far more dangerous for its user than any potential target.

The next day we scrambled up the escarpment to the plateau above to visit some of the villages there. It is a stunning, almost lunar, landscape interspersed with narrow, verdant valleys where the Dogons intensively cultivate small onions which, along with millet that grows during the rainy season, forms the basis of their diet. After visiting a few villages we made our way to a rendez-vous point on a dirt track where a motorcycle had been left for us to get back to Bandiagara. Unfortunately technical maintenance is not a huge priority round these parts and the bike had various mechanical problems until the chain eventually came off. We then had to push the (surprisingly heavy) bike to a nearby village that had a mechanic who was able to repair it by torchlight - as it was now dark. The repair held out for a whole 500m before the bike came to a grinding halt once more. Instead of trying to fix it again we found a guy who had a trailbike to give us a ride for the last 15km to town. It's without exaggeration that I say that it was one of my most nerve-wracking experiences ever. Not because there were three of us on the bike, nor that we were riding along dirt tracks at night, but because the driver was more than a little crazy and drove as if he was about to miss the latest episode of his favourite telenovela. And although you may scoff at the idea it's not as unlikely as it may sound: walk down any (sub)urban street in Mali between 7 and 9pm and you'll see crowds of people gathered round old, flickering TVs mesmerised by the goings on of Argentine fictional feuding families. But anyway, I arrived safely, albeit with a slight hypertension, and left the next day towards Bamako to pick up my Mauritanian visa for the next leg of my journey.

Monday, January 05, 2009

No Roads Lead To Gao

Getting away from Timbuktu proved to be more difficult than getting there in the first place. The town only has a meagre 15km of of paved road linking it to the outside world: one branch leads to the river and another to the airport. Apart from that it's just dirt tracks. I was wanting to go to Gao, the main regional centre in the southeast of the country close to the borders of Niger and Burkina Faso. Direct transport, be it by car, truck or river is very patchy. Even after a whole day spent asking people in Timbuktu I was still unable to find anything going in my direction (when travelling previously, where time wasn't a major factor, I would probably have waited until something showed up, but my time has become far more precious to me now that I only have a handful of weeks of holiday a year). So instead I swallowed my reservations about retracing my steps (the cardinal sin of the ardent traveller) and opted for a back seat in a beat-up Landcruiser down to Douentza, a small town on the main east-west highway. It meant a detour of several hundred kilometres but at least I would be on the main road and onward transport to Gao would be a mere formality ... or so I thought.

After a bumpy and uncomfortable 200km I got off at the highway in Douentza at 10:30am (following a 4am start from Timbuktu) and asked around when the next bus for Gao, some 400km down the road, was due. I was told 7pm. I told the people to stop joking and tell me the truth, and it turned out that they were. The prospect of spending 8 hours or more at that hot, dusty crossroads did not fill me with enthusiasm and so I shouldered my backpack, walked to the edge of town along the Gao highway and installed myself beside a speed bump ready to pounce on any passing traffic and ask them for a ride. Despite it being the main (only) road linking the east of the country there was very little traffic: one battered truck; a single Landrover with German plates driven by a couple who didn't stop; and a convoy of four, new Landcruisers with Dutch tourists and plenty of spare room but no inclination whatsoever to stop. I know they were Dutch tourists because I had spoken to some of them the previous day in Timbuktu, and still they did not stop, not even to say hello. needless to say it made me a little depressed and quite a lot more angry. By 2pm it had become oppressively hot and I had slunk into the shade. An hour later I heard a low rumbling and a shiny white lorry that would not have looked out of place on Europe's motorways rumbled into view. I dashed up to the road as they slowed down to a crawl and shouted "Gao! Gao!" into the driver's open window. After a few seconds an arm emerged and indicated for me to get in round the other side. I quickly grabbed my bags and fed them up to the co-driver before following them myself.

My rescuers were Issa and Abu Jamal, two Moroccan truckers who were hauling a load of sardines from Tangier all the way to Niamey in Niger. They had been on the road for 8 days already and were in part glad to have some company I think (though not as glad as I was to get a lift). Riding with them was quite an education as it gave me a rare view into how trade is done in Africa. Every 50km or so they would have to pay a péage at some village that had erected a makeshift barrier across the road - the amount would vary and be heavily dependent on their negotiating skills. The fee was supposedly for the use of such a great road and to ensure its high quality maintenance, though I doubt this very much, as in places the road was so potholed that the lorry slowed to less than 20km/h for long stretches. They were naturally none too pleased and (rightfully) said that the poor infrastructure and corruption stifled trade. They were extremely helpful to me and insisted on taking me all the way to Gao that very day even though we didn't arrive until 1am and they were visibly tired from the long drive. It's such acts of random kindness that I will never be able to repay that become etched in my memory.

The next morning I headed into town to find my contact in Gao - a girl called Meg who ran the local Peace Corps house. As it was the New Year holidays there was quite a full house with corpists from all over the region. It was fascinating to hear their stories about life in small, Malian villages and the communication problems that arise not because of language, but from completely different ways of perceiving the world and value systems. It was also a welcome break to be able to spend some time with people with the same background as myself where the connections are easier. The town of Gao itself was definitely worth a visit. Being the easternmost town in Mali (it's actually located exactly on the prime meridian, in line with Greenwich) and quite far from other attractions it receives fewer visitors and so is easy to walk around without feeling hassled. Although Gao was also an imperial capital very little remains to betray its past, instead the sand streets are lined by simple mud-brick houses or simply walled enclosures with semi-permanent tents and various domestic animals. Indeed the local goats have the run of the town and I was amazed when I went to the post office. It must be the first public building, of any sort, to have an entire menagerie of farm animals: in the small compound of the post office building there were cows, goats, chickens turkeys and donkeys. Just outside the town, on the other bank of the Niger is the town's main attraction, a tall sand dune called the Dune Rose. At sunset it changes colours with the sinking sun and you also get an unparalleled view of the rich Niger plain on one side, and the dry Sahelian scrub on the other. The contrast could hardly be greater. My time in Gao is now over though: I'm a bit more relaxed and recharged and I even managed to have a shower! From now my road heads westwards until I hit the Atlantic.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Time Out In Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a name that, like no other, evokes images of far-off, exotic landscapes, rare, pungent spices, wise mystics and veiled, alluring beauties. Most people in the West will have heard the name before and have such 1001 Nights images in their minds. However, ask those same people to place Timbuktu on a map and you'll be lucky if they get the right continent. The myth of Timbuktu has transcended its reality and made a home for itself in our collective psyche.

The reality is, of course, far more prosaic, but certainly not without intrigue. The town is situated only 10km from the Niger river but the riverine wetlands quickly give way to the sands of the Sahara and so the own is, quite literally, on the edge of the desert. In fact, all you have to do is walk an hour or so north from the edge of town and you will lose sight of almost all traces of humanity (apart from the ubiquitous, wind-blown plastic bags caughton the thorny bushes). It is precisely this strategic crossroads location that made the greatness and fame of Timbuktu. Great caravans carrying gold and ivory from the rich mines of Ghana and Mali travelled northwards to be traded in Morocco and the ports of the Barbary Coast, whilst Arab and European goods and salt travelled south. As the gatekeeper to this lucrative international trade Timbuktu grew immensely wealthy. Under the reign of the Malian emperor Kankan (Mansa) Moussa (in the 1320s-1330s) a great mosque and university were built there along with a library the size of which hadn't been seen in Africa since the Great Library of Alexandria was burnt down. As such Timbuktu became one of the preeminent centres of Muslim scholarship in the world.

As an aside it's worth spending a paragraph talking about Mansa Moussa. A pious Muslim he brought the heretofore unassuming Malian empire with a bang when he decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. With an entourage numbering some 6000 individuals he was so liberal with his wealth that when he passed through Cairo he handed out so much gold that he caused the local currency to crash due to oversupply, and it would take 10 years for it to properly recover.

Of course the streets of Timbuktu are not paved with gold, sand with a trickle of effluent would be closer to the truth. However Mansa Moussa's mud mosques are still standing (although they're unfortunately off limits to non-Muslims again) as are many venerable old houses built of hardy mud bricks. The scholarly tradition also lives on with several venerable manuscript collections. It is also the main hub for the proud, nomadic Tuaregs, dressed in their long, flowing robes (usually blue or green) ad enveloping turbans, who live in the desert to come and sell their goods (mainly salt and handicrafts) and buy provisions.

As can be guessed the town is also staunchly conservative with a greater Arab influence than the rest of Mali - this can also be seen in the faces of the locals where the sharper Arab features and lighter skin are more common. I've therefore been making a good impression traipsing around in my keffiyeh and Pakistani shalwar kameez which is ideally airy for the desert climate. In fact I'm really happy to be able to wear my shalwar kameez as it's incredibly comfy and I love it, though unfortunately you don't really get the opportunity to wear it on the streets of London. Many locals have taken me for an Arab and it's allowed me to dust off my, admittedly very limited, language skills that I picked up in the Middle East two years ago. It's not much but it makes a good first impression and has got me invited to share some tea with a couple of Tuaregs. Tea in Mali, particularly amongst the Tuaregs, is a special ritual and follows a set pattern and involves a lot of pouring from pot to glass and back again. The pot and glasses are small. The quantities of tea and sugar, on the other hand, are anything but. The same leaves are used throughout and the same pot s used to make three servings. The first is fort comme la mort (strong as death), the second is doux comme la vie (mild as life) and the third is sucré comme l'amour (sweet as love).

Due to the shifting of trade from overland routes to seaborne ones and greater instability in the region Timbuktu saw its importance decline as it went from being at the cente of world trade to being an insignificant town on te edge of a backwater country. At least the influx of tourist money is helping to preserve the town from further degradation and restoring some of the old houses to their former glory.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Gently Down The Stream

If the Niger river is the main artery of Mali, then the region north of Mopti is its beating heart. Here, the already docie river slows down even more and splits into several branches and large connected lakes forming a giant inland delta the size of Belgium (or one and a half times the size of Wales). It provides the country with most of its fish, one of the mainstays of the Malian diet, and is also a source of a lot of the country's agricultural produce as the annual floods make the land very fertile.

The pirogues and pinasses (pinasses are just large pirogues) are the only type of vessel to be found on the waters of the Niger and they all have the same basic shape: long, low and narrow. Our cargo pinasse was no exception. It was easily 40m long from prow to stern, but only 4m wide at the middle, and the hull had a clearance above the water level of no more than 15cm. Normally that didn't pose a problem as the waters of the Niger are very placid, but on a few occasions the wind picked up causing small waves and a light soaking for us passengers. When designing these pinasses the boat builders seem to have neglected some basic human needs and functions. When answering the larger, more solid, call of nature the unlucky passenger has to hoist themselves up onto the roof (not a particularly easy task at the best of times) and walk to the back of the boat where a plank of wood above a hole above the water serves as a toilet. Luckily for me I only ever needed number ones and could just do my business out of the side of the boat. Another one of those situations where I was grateful for my male anatomy.

There was not much to do on the boat and so the African Indolence quickly took over. Apart from generally just lazing on my bed of 50kg sacks of rice I would watch the countryside go by: mainly trees and rushes interspersed by the odd, wretched village. From my low vantage point the two, vast swathes of monotonous sky and water were kept apart by the narrowest sliver of land. Sometimes the lakes were so large that I couldn't see land in any direction. Otherwise I would chat with my fellow passengers who were a pleasant bunch and always good-humoured. All this to the never-ending strains of an ageing ghettoblaster with tinny speakers and a DJ with an old collection of cassettes that centred around West African hip-hop and Bollywood soundtracks, a match truly made in hell (and when I say never-ending I really mean it, even all through the night). Failing that I always had my book: the Travels of Mungo Park. In 1796 Mungo became the first white person to see the Niger with his own eyes and return to tell the tale. In those days it was a nythical river that Europeans had heard about but had trouble figuring out, and it's not difficult to understand why. It rises in the Guinean Highlands, only 240km from the sea, and then proceeds to flow eastwards and northwards away from the sea for over 1000km, by which time it reaches Timbuktu. At this point the river realises that it's in the desert, which is no place for any self-respecting river, and makes an about turn and heads for the sea where it belongs.