A Travellerspoint blog

Dakar – Paris a L'Africaine

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It might not be as charming, beautiful or romantic as Paris, but you can't help but draw a sigh of relief when entering Dakar from the Sahel. Civilization at last! There are normal restaurants, pubs, grocery stores and even shopping malls. The high end stores are really expensive (way out of our budget) and the luxury hotels actually live up to international five-star standards. In its white-washed gown it is perhaps more like Lima, Peru than anywhere in Europe, still Dakar is organized, modern, pretty clean and just plain nice.

On the beaches in Northern Dakar, young men strut their stuff and show their strength by wrestling, covered in white sand. The girls, fully dressed of course, walk flirtily along the beach in flowing African dresses. People play football, beach volleyball, jog and swim – the Senegalese are way more healthy and fit than any of their West African neighbors. And to silence a grumbling stomach; there are plenty of beach side stalls that sell freshly grilled seafood for only a few dollars. Life here can feel pretty darn good!

But just as you sit down to eat a nice grilled fish, or lay down to sleep in your air-conditioned room, the electricity goes. And it doesn't come back. For hours and hours.

Dakar's biggest flaw is definitely the electricity shortage. Everyone blames it on corruption, but nobody really knows. So, sooner rather than later, you will feel the need to flee “civilization”. Luckily there are plenty of small towns along the coast in which to coop up, where electricity matters less due to fresh winds and dependable light from kerosene lanterns.

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Posted by Kristi D 11:58 Archived in Senegal Comments (0)

Senegal - Riding on the Buses From Hell - Part Three

sunny 40 °C
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They never complain. West African passengers seem to be the world's most adaptable people. Whatever you throw at them, they silently accept. It makes you wonder; are they so spiritually evolved that they never get angry – or have they been beat down so hard, that they have lost hope in even trying to improve their situation. I'm inclined to believe the latter.

After a day's rest in Kayes near the Senegalese border, Eduardo and I bought our tickets to Senegal from Bani, the best bus line in Mali. It was our last long stretch, 900 km, and 16 hours. But it was the last one, and we would be able to handle it. We were quite sure.

The rain was pouring down as we waited at the bus terminal with the other passengers. A South American soap opera dubbed into French was playing on a small TV under the tin roof, until fierce thunder and lightening made them pack away the TV. Of course the bus was delayed, so we sat in total darkness in the rain, waiting an hour, then two, then three. Four hours later, the Bani bus rolled in, looking like a luxurious, dry haven .

By now we should have known better. With no air-conditioning, and sealed shut windows, the only ventilation came through the open skylight. But as we were supposed to arrive in Dakar by mid-morning before the sweltering heat set in, we settled in to sleep. We would be fine.

An hour later we passed the Malian border, but then the bus stopped.

Dumbfounded we watched as the crew unloaded a couple of mattresses, rolled them out outside the customs hut, and laid down to sleep. Were they just taking a nap? Did they just need to rest for a while? But no. They closed the door of the bus, and all the passengers went to sleep.

I couldn't breathe. We were in the middle of nowhere, in a steamy bus without ventilation, and they just expected us to stay there and suffocate? I opened the door of the bus. I'd rather let the malarial mosquitoes in than die of heatstroke.

Someone explained that the Senegalese customs was closed for the night and wouldn't open until the next morning. There was nothing they could do.

At sunrise I got up to use the “bathroom”, an open field behind the customs hut. The crew was still sleeping. An hour later, they lazily got up, but were in no rush to move. Instead, they sat around drinking tea, smoking, chatting. Other cars and buses passed the customs, but we were still there, waiting.

Finally Eduardo had enough. He grabbed a Nigerian guy, Dozie, and went to complain. But there was no use. All they received were lies about having to wait for the head of customs to arrive. But shortly after, a tattered bus rolled in, and the passengers boarded our bus. Money apparently doesn't only make the world go round, it also make buses go.

After thirteen hours stuck in No Man's Land, we continued at snail's pace. Every five minutes we stopped to pick up passengers, or to pay bribes to the local customs check. Everyone, except Eduardo and I, had to pay extra to cover the bribes, because apparently they thought we might be CIA agents and could get them in trouble.

Instead of arriving at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, we arrived at 3 a.m. the next day, hoarse from screaming at and threatening the bus crew.

But the West African passengers never complained.

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Posted by Kristi D 11:56 Archived in Senegal Comments (0)

Bamako to Kayes - A First Class Train Ticket in Second Class

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"Don't you know who I am?" screamed the police officer. "Well, don't you know who I am?" yelled Eduardo. Uh-oh. Not good.

Only a few minutes prior, Eduardo had put up his feet and said: "Mmm... Now that we're on the train, we can just sit van relax for the next nine hours." But it wasn't meant to be. This time, it was our mistake, our error.

The previous night we had arrived at the train station in Bamako to buy the ticket, but the office had already closed. The man in the information booth offered his help:

"I can get you a ticket. If you pay for it now, I'll make the reservation and you can pick up the ticket tomorrow morning."

It sounded like a scam. No thanks.

"But if you wait until tomorrow, you might not be able to get seats next to each other..." he said, pointing to his book of reservations. "I just want to help you. You know, here in Africa we are always trying to help and make things easier for tourists, but if you don't want that..."

He sounded convincing, and I felt bad for not trusting him. We had seen him in the station before, so we knew he really did work there.

"There's no first class, but I can give you two seats each so you can be really comfortable. Especially if you have a lot of luggage. You just pay for first class, but the price is cheaper than paying for four seats in second class."

We did have a LOT of luggage, so we decided to take the risk.

And the next morning, he was there, brought us our tickets and helped us onto the train. Everything seemed just fine. We put one of our huge bags on the seats in front of us, and sat down to relax.

Until...

Suddenly there were six men all around us, angry and barking, pulling at our bag in the row in front of us. I stood up and pulled the bag back. I knew what this was about. I was NOT going to pay another dime. It was always about someone making a scandal just to draw a few extra CFAs out of you. I wasn't going to have it.

"You have to put the bag into cargo. You can not have it one the seat," bellowed the conductor, with the other co-conductors, guards, security and policemen standing by. He was joined by the rest of the passengers in the car, nobody wanted to miss the action.

I tried to argue that we had paid for the seats.

"These are not your seats!" More shouting.

"We have paid for these seats, and we are not leaving!!!" I blared.

In the background I heard Eduardo screaming at the police, arguing who is more important and powerful.

The brawl didn't subside until we showed them our tickets, our reservation slip, and a photo of the man in the information booth that Eduardo had taken the week before. Finally they started to understand that we had really been scammed.

And suddenly everyone was on our side - after we had paid $6 for the "extra luggage", of course.

We enjoyed the rest of our trip, quietly, in our "First Class" seats.

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Posted by Kristi D 11:52 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Djenné - Get Off My Mosque!

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Entirely isolated on a small island, in the middle of nowhere in Central Mali, lies the old kingdom of Djenné. Auburn, slightly Moorish-inspired houses line the labyrinthine lanes, and streams of sewage run unabashedly between the buildings. It's a hot, steamy, and stinky place, with its fair share of wannabe guides tugging on your sleeves, yearning for any dollars you may have to spare.

In the center of town, the grand mosque towers; fabulous in its height and size. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the pride of Mali. Mud-covered spires adorn the facade, with angry sticks of wood embedded in the walls, like thorns of a cactus. This house of worship resembles a fairytale castle of an evil queen. And it slyly beckons you: come closer, have a look, adore me!

But as we were climbing the stairs to admire the marvel a little closer, a shunned guide blocked our way. "You can not go in!" he screamed in our faces. "Go away!"

We stared at him, surprised. We weren't even close to the entrance. We were still outside, standing on the stairs below the landing of the main building. "Look!" He pointed at a sign below the stairs saying "Entry Prohibited to Non-Muslims." Fair enough. Understandable. But we were still outside the mosque.

"No! Go away! You cannot stand on the stairs. You are not allowed here. You have to go away or I will hit you. You are not Muslims! You must go away now! Go away! You are not allowed here! You have to leave now." And so on and on and on.

But we refused to leave. We were not inside the mosque. We were outside, and we just wanted to take a couple of pictures of the only reason anyone ever comes to Djenné – to see the mosque.

After nearly getting into a fist fight, and also a screaming match with a passing old man, we decided to walk away. They could stick their mosque up their derrière, as far as we were concerned.

Instead, we joined three French guys in search of a different kind of culture. And found a decrepit local bar in the backyard of someone's house, that had cheap beer and a fabulous toilet with neither sewerage nor a roof, but a lovely view of the Bani River.

Early the next morning, before getting on the bus back, we sneaked a last look at the mosque (from the outside!).

It is a beautiful structure, after all.

Posted by Kristi D 11:43 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Dogon Country – Wading through Rivers and Up Golden Hills

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“Where on this map are we?” I asked our guide on our first night in Dogon country. Mahaman pointed to Teli in the Southern part of the Bandiagara escarpment. “But weren't we supposed to start at Dourou?” Mahaman shrugged. “There's too much water there.”

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I was furious. While discussing with all the guides before picking Mahaman, we had been very clear: we want to do the stretch between the Youga villages and Tireli, if doable. Mahaman was one of the only ones who said “Yes, no problem.” I wasn't sure at what point he had changed his plan, but once in Dogon, there was no way to change the route. Dourou was 20 kilometers away, or a four day hike.

The problem with Mahaman was that he spoke decent English, but didn't really understand any. When we asked “How come there aren't any monkeys here ?” he would reply “There are mangoes, apples and bananas in Arou. When Eduardo wanted to know “Why do men treat women so badly here?” Mahaman answered “Women can get married when they are sixteen, but men when they are eighteen.” And when we asked to see the cave with the human skulls, Mahaman took us to a souvenir shop where we could buy masks. Even when communicating in French, he would only explain things written in the most basic guidebook. In other words, Mahaman sucked as a guide.

Dogon country was supposed to be the highlight of our visit to Mali. By far the most expensive part of our journey, we figured it would be worth it just to see the “fascinating animist culture with traditions and cosmology as complex and elaborate as any in Africa”, as Lonely Planet describes it. But Dogon, for us, was nothing like that, as we didn't learn anything new about the Dogon culture at all.

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Our discontent grew by the hour. The first night, we decided to sleep inside as the thunder and lightning in the distance threatened heavy rain. But it was so hot in the tiny mud-hut, with only a miniscule window, that we couldn't sleep. Tossing and turning for hours, we didn't fall asleep until the rain finally fell. The peace didn't last long. I woke up from a peculiar sound from inside our room. I turned to see what Eduardo was doing, but he was sleeping. A few minutes later I woke again from the same sound and looked at Eduardo. He was still sleeping. “Eduardo,” I called out, “I think it's raining in...” Eduardo opened his eyes and stared at me. “I know,” he said angrily. “It's raining on me.” The mud roof, as I guess should be expected, was not waterproof. And, no, we didn't get much sleep that night.

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But the landscape was beautiful. Due to the rainy season, the fields were lush, and there were plenty of waterfalls sprouting down the 200 meter high escarpment. Climbing up the steep path to the Benigmato plateau was tough, but worth it. The volcanic red rock obelisks carved by the wind and waters over a million years changed colors with the sun, and you could see across the plains all the way to Burkina Faso. On the third day (and unfortunately the fourth day, as well) we climbed down (and up) a narrow and murderously steep pathway through a crack in the hillside, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen.

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On the last day, when we wondered (again) where the caves with human skulls were located, a Dogon man who only spoke French, Dogon and Bambara, finally understood what we were looking for. He explained that the burial chambers are located in Kundu (where we had originally planned to go). But, to his great satisfaction, and our big surprise, he opened his bag and unwrapped a package that contained – a human skull! Photo opportunity, at last! He just didn't understand why we didn't understand why we didn't want to buy it. “On peut acheter. Ya pas de probleme!” he kept repeating.

Back in Mopti a couple of days later, we met a guide that actually seemed to know his stuff. He was born and bred in Dogon, spoke good English and could answer any questions we had about the Dogon cosmology. We almost considered going back and taking another tour with him, but decided not to because of the heat. If anyone needs a Dogon guide, we warmly recommend him: Seck Dolo, seckdolo@yahoo.fr

Mahaman, although really a nice and caring person, kept disappointing us. At the end of the trip we made a deal; I would give him my Peru football t-shirt, and he would give me a traditional African outfit. I kept my part of the deal, I'm still waiting for his...

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Posted by Kristi D 14:55 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

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