Africa Lite

 

Here's one way to avoid long airport lines and add excitement to your travels: show up at the counter 20 minutes prior to your flight. It wasn't my fault: Delta was late, and then they took forever to park the plane and get a bus out. Once at the terminal, I then have to wait for the airport bus to take me to a different terminal. Wending around many terminals and much traffic consumes more time. By the time I get there, the counter is closed. Their initial impulse was to give me the New York "tough luck" kiss-off, but they relented and reopened the flight to check me in.

I am going via Madrid, which is $400 cheaper than flying direct. The routing gives me a the day to kill. Boy, Madrid has gotten expensive! Last time it was 70 cents (85 eurocents) for subway fare into the city. Now it is $1.35 (1.10 euros).

I visit the Museum of the Americas, a place I haven't been. One would think it contains the treasures looted by the conquistadors, but they melted down whatever gold they found and weren't interested in much else. The collection is mostly stuff dug up from tombs by modern archeologists. It's arranged topically and includes North America. It's very good, despite the overall and idiotic theme that all cultures and people are equal in their achievements.

Back at the airport, I am told that my baggage, although late, has made to on to the plane.

Serves Iberia right for jacking up the holiday airfares to astronomic levels -- the plane to Dakar is nowhere near full. It's a four hour flight. I figure we are getting doubly cheated when they offer half a sandwich with the beverage service, but not to worry, a full inedible meal follows.

As usual when flying into Africa, there are few lights marking the city below. And as usual, the airport arrival scene is chaos. I have never seen so much luggage come out of one plane. Cart after cart. The average has to be 8 pieces per person. But alas, mine is not among them. (The computer says it is, but at least they don't argue with me and take my missing luggage report.) There are no regular hotels nearby, so I spend the 10 hour layover at a backpacker dive in the area. What a dump! I arrive at night, so can't see the evirons. Just as well. The morning light reveals the glories of the town of Yoff -- it looks like Beirut when the fighting stopped.

Back at the airport they have located my bag, or so they say: it's in New York, or maybe in Madrid. I am flying out to Praia in the Cape Verde Islands, so I give instructions to send it there. Another travel problem solved: having to schlep heavy luggage to and from airports. Since I have no luggage to check, I grant my luggage allowance to a woman with too much. I now am officially traveling with authentic African luggage: 2 gunnysacks.

It's a 2 hr flight on a turboprop. Arrival formalities are lengthy. At first I think it is because people are filling out visa applications, (the forms are distributed only at the front of the line) but it takes just as long to get my passport stamped even though I already have a visa. Then customs inspection, which consists of a women with a giant knife slicing open the boxes of returning natives. No hassle to tourists, just a except long wait.

The airport does not offer a bank or currency exchange. The cab drivers won't accept Senegalese money, but are happy to take dollars or euros. My driver is irate when I make him give me change, which violates a cardinal African principle: "no change is ever given to a white man; whatever denomination you have, that's the price."

?I had to give a delivery address for my luggage so I preselected the Hotel Hollande. I figured it would be orderly, well-maintained, clean, and they would speak English. Once again, national stereotypes prove accurate. (The owner is a local who lived in Holland for 26 years.)

There's not much English spoken around here, so it's Adventures in Portuguese. I can sort of figure out the signs, and when dining at the fish restaurant it's not much a linguistic leap to order the "garoupa." If I speak Spanish they can generally understand me, although I can't understand a single word of their response. The gal at the tourist information booth will sell you postcards or a map, but if you have a question you had better ask it in Portuguese.

Praia has the look of Portugal and the feel of Africa. There are about 15 islands in the archipelago, ten of which are inhabited. They are volcanic and range in age from 15 million to 10,000 years, giving a great variety to the landscape. The people are an attractive mulatto. The economy is based on fishing, foreign aid, and remittance by overseas workers. More Cape Verdeans live abroad than remain; there are almost as many in the United States as here. This place is not rich, nor is it poor. It's an island economy; apart from fish, everything is imported. The selection in the shops and the corresponding price level are very european.

Interisland transport is by takes-forever ferry or the monopoly local airline. I pop in to by a ticket to one of the northern islands. There are supposed to be several flights a day, but not really, and everyone is sold out for when I want to travel. The gal at the airline office takes my name for a waiting list and tells me to come back in a few hours. Sure enough, when I return my reservation is now confirmed. They probably bumped someone who paid less. The result is fine for me, but the process of buying a ticket takes half a day. This is the African side of the country.

That evening, on the way back to the hotel, I encounter a street concert. A sound stage has been erected and the locals are bopping to the music. Cape Verdean Music is famous and distinctive, though it all tends to sound the same to me. Everyone is in their best American T-shirts, the most popular celebrating New York City and the thug life.

On Saturday I visit Tarafal, located at the opposite end of the island. It's only 42 miles distant (as the crow flies) but takes 2 hours. The destination isn't the object, it's the journey: excellent scenery as we drive across the interior mountains. I avoid the cost of a taxi or the misery of sharing a minibus with 16 other passengers by catching a ride with the hotel van. One of the guests (a gal) is leaving to sail alone around Cape Horn to New Zealand -- 5 months without making landfall! And some people consider me adventuresome.

That night the sound of music draws me to a political rally. A live band and a real stemwinder of a speech. I think it is for the ruling party, but maybe not since it's hard to get so worked up over the status quo. Young people are especially enthusiastic. The speech is in the unique Cape Verdean Creole; since everyone is friendly I figure the theme is something other than "Kill Whitey." Their Creole has a number of words derived from English like "tanqiu (thank you)," and "shatope (shut up)," but you can never go wrong wishing someone a "bum day."


The carousing in the streets lasts all night. On Sunday morning few people are going to church, and neither am I. I am heading to Cidade Velho ("old city"), the original Portuguese settlement. It was once a proper city with a cathedral and an impressive fort, but proved to be not as defensible as originally envisioned. It was sacked and burned by the English (Drake) and again by the French, after which the capital moved to Praia. Today, it's a small village amid extensive ruins. Some have been partially restored (financed, oddly enough, by Spain) but to me the "before" pictures look better. Transport is by minibus, which isn't so bad because I exercise the White Man's Privilege and ride up front.

Sunday night I leave for Sao Vicente, one of the northern islands. My suitcase did not arrive on Saturday, and the Sunday plane from Dakar is 8+ hours late, so I don't know whether it has made it aboard.

It is almost midnight when I arrive in Mindelho,the main city on Sao Vincente, leaving me victim to the taxi mafia. I take the first lodging with signs of life. It is sort of recommended by the guide book -- but the good rooms are taken. I get the best of the bad rooms -- in the garret with a large window. You get a choice: a window facing the street (light but noisy) or in the back (dark but less noisy). I have the former. No hot water. At least it's cheap: $11.

The island is barren. Mindelho exists because of its magnificent harbor. It was a major coaling station for the British, and after that a hub for the transatlantic telegraph. These days it's a windsurfing destination and a stop for cruiseships. The English influence is very much in evidence. There are numerous tropical, colonial, mediterranean style buildings in varying states of decay, and many sailboats in the harbor. It's not very large; after a couple hours walking around, I've seen it all. And to think, people come here for weeks.

It's a one hour ferry ride over to Santo Antao, the second largest of the Cape Verdean islands. The islands form a chain but vary dramatically in geography: some are flat, other mountainous. Fogo is a giant volcanic cindercone. Santo Antao is wild, rugged and green. Well, parts of it are.

The southern side looks like a moonscape. As one ascends the mountainous spine the scene changes to cool pine forest. Coming down the other side provides spectacular views of lush canyons in the mist. The road itself is an accomplishment; like all the roads in the islands it is built of cut stone. (Only recently in the main cities has the stone been covered by asphalt). My destination is Ribeira Grande, the largest (but still very small) town, located on the northern coast. I splurge: $16 gets me a nice room. This time I even have hot water!


The attractions of Santo Antao are the scenic drives and hiking the canyons. I am somewhat less ambitious and elect for two flat walks: one along a canyon floor and another along the coast to Sinogoga, a small town named for the exact reason it seems. Jews have been in Cape Verde since the Inquisition. Not very numerous but prominent. There are none now in Sinogoga, which later became a leper colony and is now just a regular village.

The canyons feature sheer green slopes covered by terraces on which bananas, sugar cane and coconuts are cultivated. This walking stuff is tiring. I am beat.

At night I enjoy my first night of peace and quiet. So far, every place has featured street noise from traffic, music, carousing, dogs, etc. Here it is absolutely silent. Only distant roosters impinge on my reverie.

In the morning another scenic ride across the mountains to take the ferry back. African travel is not very efficient: I have to wait a day for my flight back to Praia and then will have wait another day for the flight back to Dakar.

To my disappointment, my luggage is not waiting for me in Praia. On the positive side, traveling without luggage is rather liberating. The importance of clean clothes is vastly overrated.

The hotel owner tells me the news that Saddam has been captured.? At the airport for the flight to Dakar, I along with everyone else, watch the video footage from Baghdad.

Back in Dakar airport, I go to the luggage counter with my claim form and tell the guy it never arrived in Praia (I checked before I left). He points to a mountain of luggage all marked for Praia. The Cape Verdeans are returning from Europe with a year's worth of acquisitions and ten pieces of luggage each. The plane that flies to Pria can't begin to hold it all. (The backlog should clear by February.) Because my bag has "RUSH" stickers all over it occupies in a place of honor behind the counter. We have a joyous reunion.

That problem solved and my flight not leaving until the evening, I decide to visit Dakar for the day. I intend to go Goree Island, but I just miss the ferry. Studying the schedule, I figure that even catching the next sailing at best I would have only an hour there, so instead I wander about downtown.

The Dakar street scene: zillions of beggars, and a surprising number of white folk. (Unlike Cape Verde, where almost everyone is mulatto, here the faces are either jet black or white.) The place is not a total pit; there are many handsome colonial buildings along with ugly modern ones. I lunch at the 16th floor restaurant atop the Hotel Independence and enjoy a panoramic view. I order fish. What comes is definitely fish, but of the oddest sort: it has no belly; the top and the bottom halves are exactly the same. That's OK with me -- twice as much fer eatin.

Across the street is the shuttered Air Afrique tower. I can see why they went bust -- they spent all their money painting their name on every vertical surface in Dakar. The airport is littered with their detritus, including planes that must not be worth repossessing.

More time is consumed in an ATM adventure. I had been advised that they were reliable. I try one at the biggest bank on the main plaza. After I enter my PIN, it asks me how much I want. I select one of the proffered amounts, then hear a clunk as the screen triumphantly announces that my card has be "captured." I march into the bank to get them to give it back, which they eventually do after telling me that I must have "made a mistake." Did I mention that in Senegal they speak French?

Back to the airport for my flight to Banjul. A tiny plane, a30 minute flight. The other choice is a seven hour ordeal by bush taxi. (The ferry sank a few years ago with great loss of life.) Air Senegal is run by Royal Air Maroc, so it is just fine.

?I am to join a tour group. The joining hotel is unmarked and unknown; no cab driver has heard of it. It is also incomplete. If you ever wondered what happened to those responsible for the architectural abortions that marked the Soviet Union, the mystery is solved: they are here. Wiring is installed backwards hanging loose. Plumbing is haphazard. The corridor provides passersby with a clear view of each toilet and shower. Nothing fits. The most precise instruments used in construction seem to have been a sledgehammer and chisel. This place is not even finished and it's falling apart. The British had an acronym: "WEDYETIA" (What Else Did You Expect? This Is Africa.)

Banjul is the capital of The Gambia, a sliver of a country completely surrounded by Senegal. It consists of 200 miles of the River Gambia along with 10 miles of shoreline on each side. It began as a British attempt to harass the French during the Napoleonic wars. Everyone expected it to disappear, but it endured and became independent in 1965. It still muddles on. The official language is English (Hooray!). The local currency is the dilasi (30=$1), which seems to be pronounced "dollar."
The group is 14: me, a Belgie, a Canadian, a Kraut, and the rest Brits. We depart in the morning and stop in a market, where, for $10, I acquire the cloth for 5 new shirts. Then, on to Banjul proper. With a population of only 50,000, it is the smallest capital city in Africa. Its principal charm is that smaller means less awful. The highlight is the July 22 arch, a monument by and to the army lieutenant who led a coup in 1994 and is still president. He is not taking any electoral chances: "Vote for Yahyah" signs are everywhere.
For 25 dilasi one can ascend the arch (stairs only; lift broken). In addition to offering a panoramic view of the city, the arch contains an exhibit of "Treasures from the National Museum." My favorite is the folding chair from which President Yahyah announced the liberation. of Gambia. Other than altering the name of the county from "Gambia" to "The Gambia," I suspect the principal change was on the name on the Swiss bank accounts.  

We take the ferry across the river and to the border. I enter Senegal for the third time in 10 days. We reach our hotel for the night, a lovely French resort village on the edge of a national park. There is widespread sentiment in the group in favor of bagging the remainder of the trip and staying here for the next two weeks.

That night an unexpected treat: the hotel has brought in a dance troupe for a poolside performance. As I have previously noted, native folk dancing is not my cup of tea, but these kids got rhythm! Fine-looking fly girls.

In the morning we depart by pirogue (motorized canoe) for a journey through the Sine-Saloum Delta. It's four hours by boat, and longer by a very bad road. (The driver is bringing our bus to meet us.) The ride is OK, but less than thrilling. The attraction is supposed to be the birdlife, but I don't see anything that you can't see from the side of the road in Florida. Well, OK, we don't have bee-eaters, but they don't have armadillos.

At lunchtime we arrive at our next encampment, another waterside resort hotel. We are about the only guests. It seems that only Americans and Brits go away for Xmas; the French wait until after. The hordes of garlic eaters will arrive in a week.

Nothing else to do for the day. So far on this tour the accommodations have been superior but the sights considerably lesser. One thing though, these Frenchies sure got the food thing down right.

Monday morning we leave for Dakar. On the way, we stop at the giant Baobab tree, which is just that. Also, an island fishing village. For the latter we are supposed to divide into groups of four so as to give employment to four guides, but there is a problem: none of them speaks English. So we go as a single group with a single guide while the Belgian gal among us translates from French.

In Dakar we skip the city and board the ferry for Goree Island, two and a half miles out in the harbor. Goree has been inhabited by Europeans since 1442 in a succession of Portuguese, Dutch, English and French masters. It languished in isolation for the last century until recently, when it was discovered by the slavery tourism industry, or, more accurately, slavery-myth tourism. In reality,

Goree Island had little if anything to do with the slave trade. Nonetheless, the island is littered with pious monuments and the guides spout such nonsense as 26 million slaves were shipped from Goree. The power of myth and marketing makes this place the mecca of guilt tourism.

The guide and others are all so grievously wounded by what (didn't) happen here centuries ago. Hey Jack! Slavery hasn't hurt your life; to the contrary, you are making a pretty good living off of it!

The epicenter is an old house which has been designated as "Maison de Esclaves," where supposedly slaves were held and shipped to America. The wide portals of the downstairs storerooms are fancifully labeled "Men," "Women" "Children" and "Young Girls," wherein the latter an elaborate eugenics program was supposedly conducted. The house is a pilgrim site for politicians and publicity hounds the world over, as the numerous plaques and photos displayed therein prove. A more accurate name of Goree would be "Fantasy Island."

Far more real is the fort on the high end of the island on which are mounted the largest guns in Africa, coastal defense guns used by the Vichy to sink a British warship in 1940. The guns and cliff were used as location shots in 1958 for the filming of "The Guns of Navaronne."

Today there are 1200 residents, a number of simple pensions, and good seaside restaurants. The island economy is totally based on tourism. The old buildings and lack of cars make the island photogenic and a very pleasant alternative to the third world urban charm of Dakar.

Politically correct nonsense aside, Goree is a nice place to spend the night. We return by the morning ferry. It takes all day to drive from Dakar to St. Louis with a detour to Lac Rose (Pink Lake), a lagoon from which salt is processed. This is where the Paris-Dakar race ends. The race begins in Paris on New Year's Day, continues across the Sahara, and finishes here about 18 days later.

We arrive in the evening, where we check in to a very nice hotel. The next morning we start out with a visit to a another park noted for its birdlife. There are all sorts of waterfowl about, but the main attraction is the pelican colony, 25,000 strong.

St. Louis is situated on a narrow island at the mouth of the Senegal River. It is the oldest French settlement in Africa and former capital of the region before the action shifted to Dakar, which has a superior port.

 



In the afternoon is a city tour. Our guide is a friendly but angry Rasta Man with a highly developed sense of victimhood. At a wrecked old house with an "Upstairs, Downstairs" configuration he tells us that "upstairs the white people drinking wine and having a party every day while below the senegalese people crying all day because they have no food. That is why we can excuse but we cannot forget." His real grievance is that his ancestors were not among those transported. Were he so lucky, he could be another Al Sharpton.

The tour consists of the island, which features many decaying colonial buildings, and what is described as a "fishing village" on the opposite bank, but is really a horrid, smelly slum. By the way, in a complete and unrelated coincidence with the city on the Mississippi, this St. Louis is the home of jazz in Africa.

The next day is Christmas. What could be more traditional than a day trip to Mauritania? Visas having been obtained the day before, we head out in a desert truck to the border some 40 miles north. We travel in giant desert truck with four axles and monster tires that really eats up the corrugated road. Unfortunately, the super truck is on the wrong side of the border, where we switch to a smaller truck. In Mauritania, the road is no long terrible, it is nonexistent. After an extremely rough ride we stop at a Berber camp where we are given an opportunity to barter: the white people give money and valuable goods to the natives in exchange for plastic beads and trinkets. (Wait, isn't that exactly backwards?)

The next day is Christmas. What could be more traditional than a day trip to Mauritania? Visas having been obtained the day before, we head out in a desert truck to the border some 40 miles north. We travel in giant desert truck with four axles and monster tires that really eats up the corrugated road. Unfortunately, the super truck is on the wrong side of the border, where we switch to a smaller truck. In Mauritania, the road is no long terrible, it is nonexistent. After an extremely rough ride we stop at a Berber camp where we are given an opportunity to barter: the white people give money and valuable goods to the natives in exchange for plastic beads and trinkets. (Wait, isn't that exactly backwards?)

Mauritania is a big country. The northern two-thirds lies in the Sahara, and the southern part (where we are) is in the Sahel. Eighty percent of the population are nomads. Like the other African countries in its geographic belt, the people are black in the south and Arab or Berber in the north. This is the real Africa: friendly natives, extremely poor, little or no infrastructure, stark but beautiful landscape.

In the heat of the afternoon we visit the beach. Pounding surf and miles and miles of white sand. (Looks like the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.) No one else in sight. This place is so empty you can drive for hours without seeing any discarded plastic bags. Then, we drive to some sand dunes (your classic desert scene) before we begin the journey back.

The next day sucks. The next portion of the trip is the eastern part of Senegal. An infrequent flight schedule means we have to drive 12 hours along potholed roads to get there. The only break is at Touba, where we stop in at the biggest mosque, a pilgrimage site.

We stay three nights at an encampment on the upper Gambia River. The first morning we walk to Wassadougu, the nearby village. I feel like Santa Claus: I have brought my year's discarded clothing, which is all gratefully received. In the afternoon, a boat trip for birdwatching. There have been 660 species sighted in the region, making it a mecca for birdwatchers. We see a bunch, some of them pretty, but it is an aficionado's pleasure: nothing spectacular in size or quality which would cause the average joe to gape.

The camp is situated just outside Niokolo-Koba National Park. People don't come to West Africa to see animals, but this is supposed the premier game park. The day is a complete waste. Eleven hours of pointless suffering. We see a couple of monkeys, deer and wart hogs. Everything is either hiding or, more probably, has been poached.

Back to Gambia. The cries of "monsieur, cadeau?" are replaced by "mister, give me!" We stay in Georgetown, a colonial outpost that should have blown away when the British left. We stay at a lodge more rustic than the prior ones, i.e., no electricity.

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The next day we begin our two day river cruise in a converted peanut transport vessel. The 1:2 staff to guest ration suggests luxury, but that is hardly the case -- it's like a giant double-deck canoe. After a few hours we arrive at the famed Wassu stone circles. It's Stonehenge writ small; when photographing it one has to make sure that no one is in picture, which would reveal that they are only waist high. Anyway, their origin is mysterious and prehistoric. (Of course, anything that happened before 1820 is prehistoric.)

Gambia is defined by the river, yet, there is surprisingly little traffic: a few canoes, and the occasional cross-river ferry (there are no bridges). There are few villages; along the banks are mostly bush, forest, and mangroves. We spent a very quiet New Year's Eve aboard.

New Year's Day begins with an optional birdwatching shore excursion. I pass. Wisely, it turns out, cuz the others report no birds observed. (They were probably all eaten by the natives.)

We disembark. The final leg of the trip is spent bouncing back to Banjul along what was once a road. Supposedly, Kuwait gave money to repave the roads but it disappeared about the time His Excellency, President Yahyah, was able to enhance the national well-being by acquiring a new presidential plane. Also, the tourism ministry's desire to promote a positive image is not furthered by checkpoints in every village at which the police stop vehicles to ask for "gifts."


We are back by early afternoon. No more official activities. We are on the coastal strip, a hotel district catering to Brits on package tours. Nearby is the village from which Alex Haley ("Roots") deluded himself into believing his ancestor derived. (No way, but they happily go along with the lucrative game of "let's pretend.") My flight is in a few hours, so it's clean-up, pack-up, and ship-out. The route is Banjul-Dakar-Madrid-New York-Jacksonville. Four flights, three airlines. All mesh, and I arrive home on schedule and without incident.

Postscript: on the plane back to New York I find my swiss army knife in my knapsack, having forgotten to transfer it to my checked luggage. (Never mind the current Orange Alert and that it has already been through two x-ray screenings.) It's a miracle that I didn't use it hijack the plane.


Trip date: December 2003