Thursday, June 30, 2011


I start the morning out with a pink torso behind me in the bush taxi. The problem with these seven-seater cars is that you have to wait for a passenger in every seat before they'll leave. We're down to one person left, and we wait and we wait. I volunteer to pay for the extra seat so we can leave, but I want the two dollars back I paid for my backpack to ride with the torso in the rear. This logic confounds the driver and about a dozen other people. "The pack will ride in the empty seat next to me--consider it a person." This is in bad French, mind you. Negotiations are quite frenzied, but they won't budge over returning the luggage fee, and I tell them to forget it. Finally, a huge Senegalese woman arrives, and she will fill the last seat. Lordy is it cramped in here!

Today is only five hours, and after a while I fall asleep because roadside Senegal is full of dead cars, occasional dead animals, and some stretches of spectacular trash on the side of the road. Please, people, any Senegalese reading this, don't trash your country; have a little respect for it.

We arrive in Saint Louis--just a short distance from the Mauritanian border. This, by far, is one of the more interesting places in Senegal. Founded in 1673, it was the capital of the French colony of Senegal for nearly 300 years. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's got a weather-beaten, dilapidated look, like something you'd see in Cuba or Haiti, but there's a hip vibe to it with an arts scene and even a yearly jazz festival. Best of all, you can walk around without crafts touts dogging you.

I'm riding with a torso behind me.

A street in Saint Louis

More Saint Louis

I have a very cool room at the Louisiane Hotel. Its owner, Marcel, is one of the nicest men in Senegal.

The Long Slog North

The Long Slog North

Part I

Guinea-Bissau marks the southernmost point on this particular trip, so now I turn around and head north. The car I’m riding in today is so dilapidated—no door handles, mirrors, padding—it gives me encouragement that I can get another twenty years out of my Miata. It’s amazing that these cars over here run. Well, maybe they don’t because you see constant breakdowns, especially with the buses, on the side of the road.

Today’s leg is only the 3-hour bush taxi repeat back to Ziguinchor, but this time I have much more colorful characters in the car. Noteworthy is an Arabic speaking man dressed in what looks like pale blue hospital scrubs with long, white filmy yards of fabric hanging off him. Well nothing stays white for long around here. And he’s got a black scarf on and a black beard. For the first few hours, he recites surahs from the Koran. Then he starts singing them at full voiced throttle up, and this clearly annoys the driver and a few of the passengers. They turn and give him hard stares, but this only motivates him to really go at it. He carries prayer beads and a mobile phone, which plays the Nutcracker Suite as its ring tone. About every half hour, the police, immigration, and assorted officials rummage through his suitcase. And behind me, someone’s mobile phone is a source of constant entertainment. This couple started laughing so hard, I have to turn around and see what it is. They show me a video of the belly of a pig or an iguana that’s getting poked, or tickled, or tormented in some way. This causes just crazy laughing, donkey laughing, and it goes on for hours.

Part II

I set out for the Gare Routiere at 6:30am to find a bush taxi for Dakar. These places are usually bedlam, and it’s worth an extra dollar to hire a fixer to push and bully me into a car. My guy takes his job seriously and deputizes two other passengers to look after me all the way to Dakar. He even rides his bike part of the way as follow up, or perhaps to ask for a little extra money for a drink. Nobody knows how long the day will be; all inquiries are answered with “ça depend” it depends—on the Gambian border. It’s hard to imagine, but there’s another country smack in the way.

What’s called the “Trans-Gambian Highway” is a little deceptive—unless you call a one-lane, rutted, dusty track a highway. I’ve read terrible things on the Internet about the corruption of the Gambian border, but I experience no such thing. Immigration could not have been nicer, and they did not even charge me the couple of dollars for the passport stamp—as they did to some Senegalese who were traveling on French passports. Maybe it’s Obama goodwill. Who knows?

Crossing the Gambia is a mess, because you have to cross the Gambia River. Two ferries go back and forth, and trucks and cars and people are lined up for some distance. And it’s hot and dusty. My fellow car passengers and I walk on down to the ferry, intending to wait for our car and driver on the other side. An enormous truck heaping with mangoes tries to drive onto the ferry but begins to tip over before sinking into the mud. This is a problem. No more cars or trucks can get on the ferry, nor can a second ferry unload. An hour goes by. Then into the second hour, a chain is produced and the mango truck is pulled onto the ferry by a truck that was already on board. We’re back in business.

Twelve hours later, we arrive in Dakar. True to their word, the deputized passengers since the morning make sure I’m in a taxi at a fair price to my hotel. It seems, too, I've missed some more rioting in the streets of Dakar. Yesterday, people took to the streets and burned cars and buildings because they're fed up with all the electricity cuts. Can't say I blame them. The military was called out, and helicopters flew around that god-awful African Renaissance statue to protect it.

The staff at my hotel take one look at me and suggest I sit and have a drink, but I tell them I am far too filthy to be in their lobby, and I head straight into a shower with my clothes on and scrub down.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Down to Guinea-Bissau

First thing in the morning at the Guinea-Bissau consulate, I’m experiencing one of the nicer visa applications ever. “No, you needn’t stand at the window. Sit down and relax over there, and I’ll bring the paperwork to you!” Not only that, but I hear an old-fashioned typewriter in the background. Ten minutes—I’m done.

I go out to the Gare Routiere, which is where all the taxis and mini-buses leave for everywhere. I’m in a bush taxi called a sept-place, or a Pegeot that holds a maximum of seven passengers, well more if you don’t count children. The road to Bissau is pretty good, and the ride is actually pleasant, once the wind tamps down the humidity. About every half hour or so, I have to get out for passport stamps, passport scrutiny, and seemingly for no reason at all.

Guinea-Bissau is quite a country! A failed state some people call it. Like other African colonies Portugal made a mess of (try Angola and Mozambique), years of a violent and bloody independence movement, civil war, assassinations, failed Marxism, more civil war, military coups, more assassinations, and just when everyone is exhausted, another civil war, coups, and another assassination or two. You get the idea. And one thing I didn’t know, South American drug lords have overrun Guinea-Bissau, since this is the main entry point of hard drugs coming from the Americas to Europe. The legitimate export is cashews. On the up side, the Bijagos Archipelago just off the coast is supposed to be stunning, but it’s very expensive to get out there.

You would think that having lived for decades in such turmoil, the people would be surly and unfriendly. Not at all. They’re extremely nice and helpful, and the touts are not nearly as aggressive as the Senegalese ones on the other side of the river. Most of Bissau is pretty run down and weathered and with garbage all over the place, and you can see totally trashed buildings—such as the presidential palace, but there’s some new construction going up and nice houses here and there, so perhaps there’s hope.

I settle into my overpriced hotel room (everything is overpriced here), and it doesn’t take long for the electricity to cut. Perhaps plugging in my laptop overloaded the grid. The humidity here is insane. I stand in the shower and sweat at the same time.

The shell of the former presidential palace

The hotel starts its generator and my Mac fires up.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Ziguinchor

To travel from the north end of Senegal to its south end is no easy task; the country of Gambia gets in the way. The civilized way of doing it is by the twice-weekly ferry--a 14-hour overnight cruise that costs $33. For an extra $7, you get a bed--a worthwhile investment since big flat-screen TVs throughout the ship blast god-awful TV shows at full volume. The ship is actually pretty nice with a lot of security, and it replaces the one that sank on this route back in 2002 with nearly 2000 deaths, making it one of the top maritime disasters in history.

By morning, we're heading up the Casamance River to a town called Ziguinchor and the end of the line. This place has a Graham Greene vibe to it; you expect lots of French expat intrigue going on. For me, I sit it out until Monday, waiting for the Guinea-Bissau consulate to open so I can get a visa. There's not much to do here (well, yes there is: my clothes stink something awful) except walk around and see how much liquid I can sweat off. I go down by the river to take some pictures and notice later on when I upload the photos to my laptop that one of the boat guys is giving me the finger.

The streets of Ziguinchor

Along the Casamance River

Waiting for the Guinea-Bissau consulate to open on Monday

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Day in Dakar

Dakar is a big, sprawling, unwieldy city, smack on Africa's most western point. Next stop: the Caribbean or Mexico.

The first thing you can't miss from the plane window is this colossal statue called the "African Renaissance." At 160-feet in length and perched on a 330-foot hill, it's gotta be the most butt ugly civic monument--ever.
If you're guessing that this looks like something out of Stalinist Soviet Union, you're not far off. This thing was built by the North Koreans. Unveiled just a year ago to great fanfare with dozens of African leaders, the North Koreans, and America's own Jesse Jackson "this renaissance statue is a powerful idea from a powerful mind" in attendance, it seems the Senegalese people don't like it either: Muslims are offended, most people thought the money could be better used to improve the electric grid, tackle sewage problems, etc. Riot police had to be called out to control the angry crowds.

This public works boondoggle cost over $27 million--just what a country with a failed electricity grid needs. It kind of looks like the guy is throwing the baby and the woman into the ocean.

The president of Senegal has also said he owns the "intellectual property rights" of the statue and wants to collect a portion of the admittance from those who pay to climb up into the head of the male figure.

Today I go to the Embassy of Mauritania to apply for a transit visa. This process takes quite a bit of time. The guy behind the desk moves at about the speed of an old Dell computer with a 28.8 modem in a hot room. He examines every page of my passport and can't find my entry stamp into Senegal. "You have too many stamps," he says. The two-page form involves lengthy questions that delve into my parentage. And then there's a box where I have to list every country I've been to in the last ten years. This is hilarious! I look up at the consular officer, and he nods yes, I must fill this out. OK! I feel like one of those Ripley Believe it or Not freaks who can inscribe the entire Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. I did leave out the really long names, like Trinidad and Tobago and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I spend the afternoon out at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ile de Gorée. The island is interesting, with some period architecture that's fixed up and some that is still in ruins, but in all it's more of a tourist excursion straight into the ranks of the crafts touts. Touts generally leave me alone, but just about everybody off the boat has somebody latched on to them around the island, which is very wearying. Gorée is supposed to be symbolic of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but very few slaves were shipped out of here; it was more of an administrative center.

More interesting is a mass demonstration today in Dakar against the government. It seems the president wants to change the re-election laws to his favor (and his son's favor), so he can be re-elected for a third term. I see all sorts of smoke plumes rising over Dakar from burnt out cars or buildings or whatever. Riot police are out with tear gas. When I come back to Dakar from Gorée, the demonstration is finished, but it takes some doing for my taxi to find a way around streets that aren't barricaded with all sorts of rocks and chunks of concrete

The approach to the Ile de Gorée

More Ile de Gorée

And more...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Day in Entebbe

Entebbe bursts with brilliant vegetation and flowers. It's clean and non-fumey--everything that Kampala is not. And to you Internet strangers who may be reading this, unless you have a bus to catch or visas to obtain, come here when you stagger off that plane.

Anyway, so once again, it's "so you're in Africa where are the animals?" Not far from my hostel is the Uganda Wildlife Education center, an animal refuge that rescues animals either injured or recovered from poachers. You always learn so much in these places. For example, a lion copulates 2000 times before producing a lion cub that survives one year. The lions here look pretty knackered, so I move on down to the white rhinos. I watch two of them fight it out over a patch of grass one wants to feed on exclusively. The info board says their horns are made of densely matted hair. Just imagine, these horns are prized by poachers, who in turn sell them to the Chinese so they can copulate 2000 times. A forest walk takes me to an area so dense with creepy crawlers, I can go no farther. Suddenly all hell breaks loose, but it's just the monkeys screaming. A gray parrot looks down at me and says, "Hello. How are you?" This place is great.

Next stop Dakar.

$20 a night gets me this villa to sleep in.

The guy on the right won the grass feeding wars. The one of the left sulked off.

Creepy crawlers are everywhere.

Monkeys have it hard.

Exotic bird life is everywhere.

Hanging out on Lake Victoria

Monday, June 20, 2011

The World's Newest Country

I stagger from the bus, and surprisingly there are no transportation touts anywhere. I find a guy with a cart that's been modified from a motorcycle. I don't know where the heck I am, and I might need an ally to help me find somewhere to sleep in case everything is full. I tell him I want to go to the Episcopal Church because they also operate a guest house. I'm in luck, and this is a great place to stay (thank you Jorge:-), and about half the price of all the other accommodations, which run well over $100 for a pre-fab. I settle in, and the power in the neighborhood goes out and stays out for days. And it's so hot and humid, I must go into the bathroom with a flashlight every few hours to wet down.

In the morning I go on a walkabout of Juba. It's Sunday, and the markets are closed, but I like it this way. Juba is considered one of the fastest growing "cities" in the world--thanks to the influx of workers and NGOs. Five years ago, there was probably not much infrastructure because of the war and a century of neglect from the northern government, but things are now booming. The city is sprawled out with all the usual ministries, housing, a university, a few hospitals, and a stadium. The main roads are paved, but everything else is rutted dirt--or mud. In the corners here and there are squatters in abysmal shanties and refugees in the more structured edifices. People are exceptionally friendly and helpful. No one bothers me as I walk from one end of town to the other. Near the Bedouin restaurant and the goat market, I notice a woman in a pair of high heels, and I'm thinking "how the hell does she walk through the dirt and the mud with those on?" and then it strikes me she's a hooker. However, the real hub of activity today is at the churches--especially the episcopal church--where the singing and hallelujahs go on for twelve hours straight.

Over the days I am in Juba, the most interesting part is the other people at my guest house. Singular is Daniel, a Sudanese guy who always wears a full suit despite the humidity. He has lived for ten years in Denver, Colorado. Recently, he has been involved with the building of four schools in South Sudan. He finally told me the morning I left that he was one of the famous "Lost Boys of the Sudan." And in case you don't know the story, during the war with the North, thousands of orphaned boys--from toddlers to teenagers--banded together and walked a 1000 miles into Ethiopia, seeking refuge. And when they had to flee that country, they walked back into the Sudan and then into Kenya, where they languished until their story became known. Shortly before 9/11, Daniel was sent to Denver. He described this to me as like "the heavens opening up and an unimaginable miracle" was bestowed on him. Now he's finished a degree and is applying for a masters program--and building schools.

I decide to fly back to Uganda since I've seen what I wanted to see, and I hate backtracking. The airport is more chaotic than any bus station. People politely help you where you need to go, and all goes well until the immigration desk. They demand 90 Sudanese pounds ($45) for a "registration." I know what this is. If you enter the Sudan--and until July 9, this is still the Sudan--you have 72 hours to register with the police and pay this fee. I go into my best stupid, middle-age woman persona: "I don't understand; what am I registering for?" "I'm leaving, not coming." "This is so confusing." "What do you guys do with this money?" "Why didn't anyone tell me this at Nimule?" "If I left by bus do the border people charge this" "Tell me again where this money goes?" "Well, what are people supposed to do who spent the last of their money?" I keep this up until I catch the guys smiling at my patheticness. Then, I knew I had them. They stamped me out free of charge.

The plane to Entebbe takes off over the White Nile, and although I can't see through the clouds, we follow the river as it become the Albert Nile, the Victoria Nile, and we land along the shores of its source: Lake Victoria.

Quién es más macho?

The goat market

If you're really bored, you can spend an evening with Dr. Hilder Man.

The White Nile. This boat was sunk during the war.

Most back streets are walled compounds belonging to the gazillions of NGOs here.

Entry to my guest house, it's safe and friendly.

The birth of a nation

Every new country needs its anthem

The Road to Juba

"I need a bodyguard," I announce at the hotel reception desk. It's after midnight, and I want someone to walk with me the few blocks through one of Kampala's dodgier neighborhoods to the departure location of the bus to Juba. My guy works well since there's the usual assortment of annoying bus yard riffraff who try to be overly "helpful." I sit at the bus line's restaurant, which is full of activity in the middle of the night, with Ugandans, Kenyans, and Sudanese coming and going and mostly sleeping--kinda since the disco next door is pounding out non-stop African electronica.

I'm on Kampala Coach--supposedly one of the nicer buses that makes the 14-hour trek north to Juba. Right on the ticket, their mision [sic] statement declares: "to exceed customer expectations all the time and every time," and if that doesn't convince you, there's a vision statement too: "to improve unparallel [sic] service and to be the truely [sic] East African Company of choice and beyond."

At 2am, the bus arrives and it clearly is not the top of the fleet. Most seats seem to be broken, and there's nowhere for people's bags except the aisle. It's OK though; my seat is more comfortable and with more leg room than the flight(s) over. My fellow passengers are all polite, quiet, and look out for each other. I make friends with Martha, a Kenyan woman who is returning to Juba, after a three-month leave to attend her father's funeral, to resume work as a pharmacist. There are many Kenyans working in Juba because there are no jobs in Kenya.

For the first six hours to Gulu, the ride is smooth, although windy since the window seals are hanging down in strips on my side. The driver is safe and cautious.

Periodically, we stop for pee breaks, which range from regular "facilities," where you roll up your pant legs, take a deep breath, and don't look down with your glasses or keep a passport of anything important in a pocket, to just stopping by the side of the road. I dehydrate myself and avoid the situation.

From Gulu to the border and all the way to Juba, the dust kicks up, and aside from putting a bandanna over my mouth and nose to prevent dust sickness, there's nothing you can do about it, and it's just easier to accept that you're going to turn the same coppery red color of the soil.

Ugandan and Sudanese border formalities are straightforward and not too chaotic, and there's time to walk around Nimule, the border town.

It's another 3-4 hours to Juba, and this is by far the more interesting part of the trip. For the most part, nothing looks like it's changed from the time General Gordon was the governor of Sudan, or when Samuel Baker staged his Nile expeditions from Gondokoro in the 19th century. People still live in the traditional, circular huts with the thatched roofs. The only hints of the modern age are the hand pumps at the wells and perhaps some concrete work. That's about it. There are lots of exotic birds and butterflies, and I saw an unusual brown-colored baboon walking about. As far as you can see, it's nature in the raw, untouched, and how it's always been.

The road to Juba is hard-packed dirt, but this will soon change, as they're out there grading and improving, and then there will be even more overturned car/truck/bus carcasses on the roadside. Since this road to Uganda is one of South Sudan's major lifelines, I wonder how different some of this will look in five years

By 4:30pm, we cross over the White Nile and enter Juba, the capital of the soon-to-be newest country: South Sudan.

Typical village on way to Juba from Nimule

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Africa 2.0

Hello from Kampala, Uganda! Let's see, where did I leave off...

Last summer it was Africa, and well, here's some more. Sadly, this won't be a grand, sweeping, trans-continental journey, but rather some random travels here and there, and this blog is as good a place to post whatever is in my head. And it's Africa, which means guaranteed color.

Starting with the street below my room (count 'em: 107 steps up or down), teeming and steaming masses of humanity swarm around bales and bundles of stuff, plastic jerry cans, recycled clothes, piles of mattresses, tires, mounds of old bus seats. Squads of motorcycles whiz by trucks spewing ungodly fumes (see post below for last year's description of the toxic shroud of pollution that hangs over Kampala). And this is before I reach the main street. One cannot walk in a straight line in this city. One dodges, twists, balances, teeters, ducks, and scoots to get from point A to B. It's a great way to get over a 10-hour jet lag. Um, sure.

Book titles piled over the sidewalks are an endless source of fascination. There are hundreds of books about financial and personal success: Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Secrets of Wealth, When Times get Tough, the Tough Get Going, Who Moved My Cheese. Makes me wonder who made this executive decision to unload publishers remainders in Uganda. Do they think the poor wretch selling this on the sidewalk might read this stuff? And my favorite lurid headline of the day: "I Carried Brenda's Body to the Septic Tank" !!

So here's the plan for the next few weeks. Tonight I take the bus to Juba, Southern Sudan (no worries, Juba is fine), and I am told that once you cross the border, there are wonderful sights to see. Then it's back to Uganda, then over to Dakar, Senegal.

A fun travel vignette to share: Upon staggering off the plane in Milan to connect to Cairo and to Entebbe, Uganda, I was told that because of the Eritrean ash cloud, all flights past Cairo were cancelled. I went into the office of Egypt Air's station manager for more information (and to use his Internet connection), and he asked me to compose in proper English the "bad news" sheet to be given the passengers as they arrived for the flight. I typed this with gusto and later watched the sheets being handed out. People did not react well. Better to be stuck in Cairo than Milan. I went anyway, and surprise, surprise, the flight was reinstated, and here I am, excited and happy for a new adventure!

This is my permit for Southern Sudan. They misspelled my name and my hair isn't black, but that's ok.