Category Archives: Travel

One Year Ago Today: An Update

One year ago today, I was somersaulting through sand dunes with Tuareg and Songhai children. I shared camels, meals, and a tent with a primarily nomadic family. Friendly turban-ed strangers offered me rides to and from Timbuktu in iconic dilapidated Toyota Hiluxes, the preferred vehicle of gun-toting desert-dwelling terrorists everywhere. Or so I thought. Like much of my trip through Africa, the sojourn up through Mali’s northern region was about dismantling preconceived notions.

409070_10100975348780033_1345201532_nHeld just outside of Timbuktu last year, the Festival Au Desert is one of the strangest and most remote international festivals in the world. Travelers I’d met in Bamako had warned me against taking the trip up north for the festival. A month prior, four westerners had been kidnapped in Timbuktu, a first for the city. The US, British and French foreign services immediately augmented their already stern travel warnings for the region, and it seemed like the vast majority of tourists had decided to reroute their plans. Despite the president’s assurance that the festival would have an unusually high level of military security, what is normally one of Mali’s biggest international draws seemed too dangerous and too remote.

P1020504After some initial skepticism, when people told me to avoid Timbuktu at all costs, I scoffed. Crises always appear more dangerous from a distance, I told myself. It’s easy to take any whiff of danger and inflate it. My friend Phil and I decided to book a last minute ride with a Tuareg tour leader looking to make a little extra on the side, and two days later we were off.

On the last night of the three day festival, during headliner Tinariwen’s set, Phil and I managed to find some satchets of cheap Cameroonian gin. In the predominantly Muslim area, this kind of beverage was frowned upon but not contraband. Mali’s constitution is strictly secular, and the local population is traditionally moderate and politically secular. In a drunken 3am haze, we discovered a conveniently-placed late-night brochette stand and stumbled our way through endless sand dunes, trying to reach our 5am bus scheduled to leave for Bamako. The bus, a sort of hybrid of an old European school bus and a reconstituted engine, stumbled through makeshift terrain as we literally blazed our own trail through the Sahel. To say that the ride was bumpy is a massive understatement.  At one point I briefly fell asleep, only to wake up to a bloody nose as my face made violent contact with the hard steel of the seat in front of me. Still, the ride only took 24 hours, which by Malian standards is pretty incredible.

In terms of the festival, I was right to go. With the exception of an extraordinarily lame surprise appearance from Bono (yeah, THAT Bono) it went on without a hitch.  In terms of the region’s long-term stability I was wrong. This was January 2012. A year later, Timbuktu is an extremely different place.

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Iconic 14th century mud mosque in Timbuktu.

For those of you who haven’t followed the news, I’ll provide a brief update. Shortly after I left Mali in late January 2012, armed militants from a Tuareg separatist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (important note: though much of the western media has taken to referring to these rebels as “the Tuaregs,” they do not represent all or even most ethnic Tuaregs’ ideologies or wishes) attacked military outposts in a few towns in the north of Mali. The Malian government responded by sending troops-largely composed of ethnic Bambara from the south who had very little experience fighting in the harsh, isolated Sahara- to quash these rebellions. The troops were underfunded and unprepared and the MNLA, allegedly armed by the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan revolution, were able to successfully defend towns they’d occupied, killing dozens of Malian soldiers in the process.

P1020511Realizing  how vulnerable and volatile the north was this time (the Malian government had successfully defended its territory in the north from several Tuareg separatist groups since the late 80s), the military began to impose “tactical retreats,” leaving large swaths of land, including a key route into Timbuktu, one of the North’s most populous cities, unprotected.

Meanwhile, a series of major protests broke out in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Though Bamako was (and still is) far from the fighting, citizens and soldiers’ wives, angry with what they perceived as poor preparation and funding on the part of the military, protested outside various administrative buildings in the capital. After a particularly violent protest in which soldiers dissatisfied with the course of the conflict pelted the Defense Minister’s car with stones, a small group stormed the presidential palace and found it relatively unsecured. Though Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was expected to abide by the constitutionally mandated term limits and step down after the elections a month later, soldiers forced him into exile.  The next day, on state television, the junta announced that they had suspended Mali’s constitution and taken over until the country had the opportunity to elect a new, democratically elected president.

P1020518The coup was universally condemned. The UN security council and ECOWAS suggested sanctions against the regime, and the World Bank and African Development Union followed suit. Starved for funds, the coup leaders relinquished control to an interim prime minister, but not before the instability in the south allowed the MNLA to secure all of its desired territory in the north and declare itself independent from the country of Mali.

In the ensuing months, Mali’s vast northern region has devolved into infighting and factionalism. It’s been hard to keep up with news because the region is too dangerous for western journalists to enter, but suffice it to say that a series of rebel groups have been steadily competing for control of Mali’s northern region. Though the largely secular MNLA were the initial aggressors, various other groups like Ansar Dine, dedicated to imposing sharia law on a largely moderate population, have since taken control in some cities. They have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO site, banned music, and instituted public whippings. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose ties to the real Al Qaeda are unclear and undocumented, has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of foreigners in the region in the past few years. They have also allegedly formed splinter groups that are competing for northern territory.

In the past few weeks, the poor, not particularly resource-rich country of Mali has made front page news. Due to militants’ attempts to move southward far beyond traditionally Tuareg territory, the French military has launched a counteroffensive. The situation is ongoing. I have my own opinions about the intervention, which I will share later. In the meantime, you can find excellent commentary from bloggers and journalists actually located in the area here, here , and here.

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Perhaps you’re wondering why I finally decided to update my blog after such a long hiatus.

There are a few reasons I haven’t updated this blog in so long. I spent some time in Europe (including 3 weeks on a goat cheese farm!), and it was hard to relate my experience there to all the stories I still have yet to tell from Africa. I also had a computer malfunction that essentially erased all my notes (sure… I’m new school), half-written stories and essays. I recently got that fixed.

This blog was and continues to be an outlet for my travel stories. I have consciously avoided using this site to highlight humanitarian crises and political instability for a variety of reasons. For one, they present a singular, oversaturated view of West Africa with which westerners are most likely already familiar. Two, they are generally not consistent with my own experience in West Africa, however limited that might have been. For better or worse, my experiences in Africa radically transformed my perceptions of poverty and instability in ways I never expected.

That’s why the situation in Mali has affected me so profoundly. And that’s also the biggest reason I haven’t updated in so long. In my dedication to provide a contrarian voice for a misunderstood region, did I miss a few steps along the way?

It’s hard to continue along the same, confining narrative, when a country that had seemed like the same bastion of peace and political stability that it had been for the last 20 years has erupted into chaos. I’d been working on a post about whether West Africa has finally become a manageable travel location. But how could I not have seen this coming? Could something this tragic also be this random?

Perhaps that’s why this post is appropriate. Since the beginning, with few exceptions, this blog has been about me. My experiences are a medium through which to examine an often overlooked corner of the world. But, in this situation, that’s a little absurd. I am not the one allowed to feel slighted here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the north of Mali. Millions of Malians are living without a real government for the first time in decades.

Still, there is hope for Northern Mali. Polls suggest that Malians largely favor the French intervention, and the French military, with help from ECOWAS, Chad, and the UK have recently driven out militants in Gao and Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s two largest cities. However, intelligence suggests that the conflict could become drawn out as rebels simply retreat into the North’s vast desert. To be sure, the North’s problems are becoming systemic. But alas, I am not there. And that much I truly regret.

Timbuktu sunsets

Timbuktu sunsets

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Mauritania and a Ride on the Second Largest Train in the World

I’m aware that my posts have now become entirely anachronistic. This post is about Mauritania, my next post will cover Mali, and the post after that very well may cover Guinea. I have much, much more to say about Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. To my dear readers I have but one message: so what? Deal with it.

Now, how many of you have even heard of Mauritania? That’s a question I heard a lot. Many Mauritanians are wary of their status as an “ignored country.” Most overland travelers treat the country as a drive-over, without spending nearly the amount of time they would in Senegal to the south and Morocco to the north. Unfortunately, I followed suit. I spent a little over a week in Mauritania. It was, however eventful.

The country is almost entirely desert. The Sahara can be comically inhospitable. Even during the winter, the days can be stunningly hot and dry, and nights below freezing. At times, it was so hot that I half expected some vegetation to succumb to the heat and spontaneously combust into flames. My exposed feet cracked and bled, and despite the heat, my lack of sweat was strange.

The most noticeable change is the silence. It’s as if you’ve entered a vaccuum. Coming from loud, boisterous West African cities, where people argue, livestock make any number of abrasive noises, and solitude is literally a marketable asset, the desert feels indescribably foreign. Without wind, the desert literally has no sound.

Looking out on the barren landscape, it looks like there is literally nothing there. There is little vegetation and no visible organisms. The land felt utterly lifeless. It’s depressing, and stunningly beautiful. Though the desert is far from the end of the world, it feels like it. Even though I was connected to piste, thousands of kilometers from the center of Africa, I’ve never experienced such profound isolation before in my life. 


I hitched a ride with a hostel owner and his nomad friends to Oudane, an oasis with important historical implications. There was no room in their car, so I had to ride out the bumpy journey in the trunk. Perhaps it was the proximity of my head to the trunk’s ceiling (the two made contact on multiple occasions), or the surprisingly soothing rhythmic gyrations of the truck, but I found myself lost in thought.

It is such a cliche to see third world travel as a vehicle by which to appreciate my own life: the possessions that I have, the opportunities I’ve been given, the things I’ve taken for granted. Obviously, being subjected to the harsh realities of global poverty is an eye-opening experience. But, embarking on a desert journey with strangers, I’d never felt so lucky to be alive before. Had I not met friends, had I not come prepared, I would have surely died. Though they were essentially strangers, the terrain amplifies the implications of these relationships. They become a matter of life and death. Out of necessity, strangers become friends, and any sign of ill will gets interpreted as the sign of an enemy.

Shaken, once we reached our destination, I turned to my travel partners. As the hostel owner looked up at me, I immediately realized that I had sentimentalized our relationship. Perhaps before, had I not been white, had he not traveled this route hundreds of times before, had I not been so unversed in custom, this may have been more of an insightful encounter. In reality,  He wanted my money, and he wanted me to give him good references. He doesn’t need to rely on me for his well-being. However, as he handed me a bottle of water, I realized that, at the very least, I’d entrusted my life with him. As much as I was a rubbernecker, able to experience this environment behind the protective chaff of a tourist, he was still the one thing standing between me and certain death. And for that, I was immensely grateful.

Still, one could argue that kindness is culturally embedded. Tourists in this region have elevated locals’ generosity and hospitality to almost mythic proportions. As with much of West Africa, sharing is often more of an expectation than an unusually charitable gesture.  I’ve heard long-term travelers joke that one only needs to pass an eating African and exclaim “bon appetite” to receive an invitation and a free meal. My experience on Mauritania’s Iron Ore Train was no different.

I’ve done very few things “just for the story.” Some travelers deliberately place themselves in dangerous or uncomfortable situations for bragging rights. For traveling in such a notorious region, I don’t think I’ve done that. I can’t hide it though, riding the Iron Ore Train, one of the longest trains in the world, sounded like a great story. Though there is a small passenger cart where paying customers can ride out the 14 hour journey, most people decide to enter the iron ore carts for free. This is the most epically harsh method, and I figured as long as I was doing something for a good story, I might as well go all out.

As I clumsily jumped into the cart, I was met with a mountain of iron ore. Imagine attempting to balance on a large pile of rocks as the floor steadily moves beneath you. You get the idea. A man had already set up a little corner with some necessary supplies. He had clearly done this before. He had his teapot and tea glasses (essential ingredients  anywhere you go in Muslim West Africa), blanket, dinner supplies, and charcoal. Since no one else had decided to bring any necessary supplies, he provided us with tea, dinner which we voraciously ate with our hands (pasta with vegetables and chicken, talk about a hardcore culinary accomplishment ) and blankets. He was also a stoic and intelligent conversationalist. He quickly challenged others’ tired claims that an American visa would “solve all their problems” and was an informed rhetorician when it came to global politics. In short, this guy was a total badass.

As the night progressed, our cart became populated with a series of colorful characters. There was the soft spoken moor who had recently finished a stint in an insane asylum (I didn’t press it), the sex-obsessed 23 year old from Nouakchott who was attempting to move to Morocco, and the older, kif-smoking shepherd with his sheep who spoke no french. Just to clarify, the shepherd also spoke no french.

Was the trip difficult? Kind of. It was insanely dusty, I only experienced about 3 hours of daylight, and the night was brutally cold. But as we all snuggled under blankets beneath a radiantly starred sky, I realized that this was one of my favorite experiences in West Africa. Could this have happened anywhere else in the world? I don’t know.

To compensate for my long absence, I’ve made you all a video! It begins as I ride from Atar to Choum in a truck bed, and ends with a taxi ride to Nouadhibou. The shepherd managed to fit his sheep in the trunk, an accomplishment in any part of the world.

At 3:45 you can see Ben Amira, the second largest monolith in the world behind Ayer’s Rock in Australia. Needless to say, it looked considerably more gigantic in person. I’ve also tried to include everyone onboard, though I am reasonably wary of filming people, even with their consent. Badass is featured at 3:12.

Soon to come: a long overdue Festival au Desert recap, as well as my brief sejour at a music festival in Oudane. The Mauritanian president was there, though he had to cut his time short due to an epic dust storm that enveloped everything in… well… dust.

A Free Haircut: Why Malians Have the Most Bizarre Sense of Humor Ever

Africa is pretty well known as the continent of over 10,000 cultures, languages, and tribes that within the course of one hundred years, were aggregated into a little over 50 largely arbitrary nation states. It’s easy to read that statistic and not grasp the magnitude. But come to any country in West Africa and discover that diversity yourself.

I’ve only been to four countries so far. Within those four countries, I’ve encountered over 20 different languages and dialects, along with myriad different tribes, ethnicities and distinct cultures. Some of them are insular, some of them, by virtue of urbanization or trade, have begun to integrate. Of course, as you are probably aware, this has provided the groundwork for a lot of conflict on this continent. Sadly, culture clash in Africa has led to violence on many occasions.

Sometimes, however, you find yourself face to face with something bizarre and beautiful. In southern Mali, when many people approach someone new, they begin by insulting each other. This line of insults stems entirely from lineage.

Say I introduce myself as Moussa Traore (one of my many given names). A person (for purposes of this demonstration, let’s say a Coulibaly, another extremely common Malian last name) might greet me with a series of customary West African salutations, asking about my family, my health, how my day is going. Then he might say something like “Traore? I be so dun” (“E Bay Sho Doon,” literally “‘you like to eat beans”). Without missing a beat, I could respond with “You’re a Coulibaly. Your family is too stupid to farm, all you eat are peanuts and horses.” The line of insults continues until both parties burst into laughter.

“What?” You ask. “How does this make sense?” To the outside observer it doesn’t. But can you think of a more bizarre and interesting way to deal with ethnic confrontation? Thus, out of sheer cultural curiousity, I became a regular participant.

Though French is the official language of Mali, like other West African states, most people speak only very little of the colonial language. Bambara generally functions as the lingua franca, a trade and media language and the mother tongue of Mali’s largest ethnic group. Though I tried, I learned very little Bambara during my stay in Mali. “I be so dun” quickly became a mastered phrase, however, as it would immediately bring a smile and an incomprehensible line of insults headed my way. Once people understood that that phrase was about the extent of my Bambara (can you think of anything more random?), they continued in French if they could speak it, or simply gave up and hugged me. “I be so dun” was key. It turned a lot of potentially awkard cab rides into social events, and was often the beginning of a conversational ticket into peoples’ homes.

In Mopti, it even got me a free haircut. I had some time to spare, so I wandered around the market area, playing tricks on touts and trying to find a decent brochette sandwich. I came upon a particularly interesting barber shop, purporting to be the “Barber Shop of Obama.” Barack’s visage is all over West Africa, from t-shirts to mattresses. Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the barber’s audacity.

We began talking, and he introduced himself as a Keita. I introduced myself as a Coulibaly and let out my line. He countered with a line of French insults culminating with “We are Bozos, you are our slaves.” Jokes about slavery might seem a bit uncouth. In the world of cousinage however, they are both fair game and commonly used. I then came up with a line about selling fish in Senegal because his family is too stupid to accomplish anything in Mali. He returned with another line about slavery and I admonished him for his lack of creativity. I also concluded that, as payment for all of our years of free labor, the least he could do is give me a free haircut.

Then he did.

BEFORE

AFTER

That first photo is actually a picture of Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) that I ran into in Timbuktu. His company is self explanatory.

AN UPDATE ON THE SITUATIONS IN SENEGAL AND MALI

In Dakar, protests have died down, though the opposition has pledged to organize more if their demands are not met. Most people I’ve talked to are so incredulous at the government’s (or overzealous cops, these things tend to get conflated) violent crackdown on the protesters that it’s really hard to determine who Wade’s base actually is. It seems like his administration has really alienated a good portion of the voting bloc, and it is hard to imagine that he would get reelected.

Of course, one never knows. His administration allegedly provided “gifts” for the supreme court judges that ruled in his favor, and only one major political figure formerly affiliated with his camp has spoken out against him. The leader of the influential Niassene Leona Muslim Brotherhood appealed by writing “power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade, we beg you to retract yourself.”

Meanwhile, the resistance in Northern Mali has lulled, though leadership has suggested that fighting will continue. Like many in Africa, the conflict is a lot more complex than a short news article can possibly communicate. Though the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), has explicitly expressed its goal for an independent nation state, there are likely several different groups all vying for similar but not always consistent objectives. Also, Tuaregs inhabit one of the poorest and most isolated regions on earth, so adequate information and decent journalism is often very hard to come by.

Here’s an article from the front page of the New York Times website that refers to the rebels as “The Tuaregs.” If the rebels had been of French origin, would they have been referred to as “The French?” I think not. The article also paints Colonel Gaddafi as the sole posthumous mastermind behind the most recent rebel incursions. Though his mercenaries’ influence is undeniable, anyone familiar with the region would rule that out as a gross oversimplification. To add to that, someone who’s never been to Mali and has no familiarity with the region reads the last line of the article, and Mali immediately becomes hell on earth. You can see why I have an endless beef with western media coverage of this place.

According to reports, Tuareg rebel forces still hold a few towns, and have apparently killed a relatively large number of Malian troops (as much as 40 in Aguelhok alone). Though civilians have allegedly been mostly spared from the fighting, I find it hard to believe that this new wave of violence will garner more popular support for a movement already lacking in that crucial category.

After the second day of protests in Bamako, representatives were granted an audience with the president who recognized their concerns. He even fired the defense minister, a move that is clearly symbolic and likely won’t do much when it comes to properly equipping the military anytime soon. Despite rumors, protests were explicitly aimed at the president’s administration, not at Tuaregs living in the city. According to friends, no violence has been directed against Tuaregs, though rumors that opportunistic juveniles were targeting Tuareg businesses and anyone Arab-looking persisted. No deaths or major injuries have been reported.

Now, to contribute my own ridiculous cultural generalization: not to be insensitive, but  the Tuaregs are perhaps the only major ethnic group in Mali that don’t participate in the cousinage ritual. Coincidence? MAYBE NOT.

It’s Not Easy Living in a Paradise

As I stepped off the tro-tro in Butre, an overly friendly rasta greeted me. Throughout my time in West Africa, I’ve learned to be wary of Rastas. Their chronically stoned demeanor and insistence on using lame catchphrases gets tiring after a while. This dude was no different. He’d written a song, “It’s not Easy Living in a Paradise,” reproaching the local villagers for hatin’ on his lifestyle. Needless to say, the title became a bit of a catchphrase.

Though I can’t speak to living, it’s incredibly easy to visit a paradise. Euphoric even. I spent four days in Butre, a beach community along the coast of Ghana. I truly cannot believe this place exists. It’s the Caribbean of old without luxury resorts, a culinary Provence before the rest of the world discovered it. It’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful beach community still has a modicum of local culture left. But really, aside from two small beach hotels, the town is incredibly bucolic. Locals are predominantly fishermen, farmers, and small-time traders.

I sound like I’m romanticizing poverty. In a sense, I suppose I am. Members of this community would no doubt bolster their incomes if Butre had a more established tourism industry along the lines of neighboring Busua beach, a haven of luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and beach bars. Like I said, I can’t speak to living here. But as a visitor, this place is a paradise. Those of you experiencing a midlife crisis: come buy property here. Now

On the advice of a friend, I decided to eschew the popular Green Turtle Lodge, an eco-friendly mainstay of backpackers and volunteers making their way through Ghana. Instead she suggested I stay in an electricity-free treehouse in a small beach town for 8 cedi a night (or about 5 dollars).

About a mile down the sand villagers spent their days pulling in giant nets of fish, which they would then smoke and sell at the market. I managed to convince the local chief to let me on to his boat at about 5 am. About 10 young men paddled in unison, chanting rhythmically as they set out nets for the day’s catch. It was beautiful and exhausting. I gave up after about five minutes, while the young men were able to keep going for another hour and a half. To say that the experience was emasculating is an understatement.

Afterwards, I tried to buy fish from their catch. They insisted on giving me their largest fish… for free… three days in a row. I’d like to think that it was because I charmed them with my newly minted Ewe, but I think they were just genuinly nice, hospitable people. I spent days casually chatting with the villagers.

By night, I started impromptu dance parties with local children. They looked like this:

They were often followed by a delightfully warm dip in the waves.

My opportunities to cook in West Africa have been rare, and I took full advantage of the treehouse’s gas stove. About an hour out of the ocean, I enjoyed a freshly grilled mackerel. I had to convince the accompanying Ghanaians, too used to overcooking fish to rid any semblance of bacteria, that a rare fish was the way to go. They were impressed. Or at least they pretended to be.

On the way back from Takoradi, after a night punctuated by conversations with prostitutes (Takoradi is the site of Ghana’s new offshore oil find… a lot of foreign clientelle here with cash to spare) and some disgruntled but gregarious Ivoirians, I found myself on a bus.

The bus itself was a sort of time capsule. Its shell was clearly poached from the hull of a European bus, one whose earlier incarnation almost certainly included A/C. Instead of retiring, its insides had been gutted to make room for more passengers.  With each progressive stop, people begin to congregate on open seats, until women and swaddling children began taking up the aisles.
Surprisingly, a pastor boarded within two hours. After leading everyone in song, the animated, perspiring man began preaching some foreign gospel to a mostly uninterested clientele. I honestly couldn’t tell if this was routine. Even though the concept of an itinerant pastor is incredibly novel to me–a throwback to days of yore in my own country– I couldn’t find the will within myself to actually pay attention to what he said. I was too deliriously hot and tired, and his excited voice began to morph into a soothingly rhythmic lullabye. I wondered if my fellow bus patrons felt the same way, or if they’d just been subjected to traveling gospel so many times that it only registered as a casual annoyance, like a pesky fly that takes a few minutes to find an open window. Either way, inspired by their disinterested stares and my own oppressive malaise, I drifted to sleep. When I awoke, he had left, and I was in Accra.

A Trip Along the Beaten Path

I’ve managed to mostly shy away from the tourist trail. Ok, that sounds arrogant. It’s been mostly an accident. My couchsurf host just happens to live in the outskirts of Accra, far from the city’s central district where expats and wealthy Ghanaians frequent hotels and trendy restaurants. I also just happened to spend a week in a not particularly remote village without any major attractions: unique in its un-uniqueness. Before this last weekend, I hadn’t spoken with a single non-African since I arrived. I don’t believe this somehow validates my experience, but it’s certainly been something I’ve appreciated. It’s also been a matter of luck, not savvy.

That’s why my trip to Mole National Park was such a strange change of pace. I spent more money in three days than I had in three weeks. I gawked at Europeans lounging by the pool about as much as I did elephants. The Ghanaians working at the hotel were tourist-wary, and practically every conversation I had with them was monetary. I would have regretted not visiting Ghana’s most popular national park, but I’m glad that I didn’t stay there for very long.

That said, before I come off sounding like a total complainy asshole, at least I got to see this:

Standing in the footprints of giants:

I also saw antelope!  I got to sleep in the forest in a tree house! My guide carried a machete and a rifle! I ate with warthogs!

The park is quite large. Tourists can only access a very small portion of it and need a ranger guide to venture beyond the hotel. The hotel is the only lodging available for miles. In two days, I went on three forest walks and one jeep tour. Jurassic Park jokes abounded. I saw countless antelope, some interesting trees, and chased some elephants through the forest. They were shy (like the toddler, they’re allegedly not big fans of white folk), so I only got a picture of one’s backside, the rest obscured by trees. Still, that chase was easily the most exciting part of the trip. For a second, I felt like an adventurer. Then I remembered that I was an hour’s walk from a pool and restaurant.

There’s a town about 6 km away from the park entrance. I rode on the back of a moto to get there. My driver, Ahmed, let me steer for the last mile or so. It was pretty awesome. The town, Larabanga, contains the oldest mosque in Ghana as well as the requisite cutest children in the world. Here are both:

The town, a part of the much poorer northern region of Ghana, makes a good portion of its income from tourism, cooperative production of shea butter, and donations from visitors  to Mole. The mosque is its most popular attraction. The Saudi man responsible for the mosque’s creation in the mid-15th century is buried about 10 feet from the imam’s entrance. Legend has it that after his burial, a giant baobab tree sprouted from his grave. Every year, on his birthday, locals gather leaves from the tree and make stew. It’s a quaint tradition.

In Tamale, the nearest major city to Mole, preparing to take a grueling 13 hour bus ride back to Accra, I stumbled into a chop bar. Here’s an audio clip I recorded:

You can tell; it’s loud, crowded, a stereo clips as it blasts high life. A few kids are dancing while workers laze around leisurely. It’s at once foreign and comfortably familiar. Imagine: it’s the tropics. The place smells like smoked, slightly rotting fish, chile, and oil. It’s hot, muggy, the air is dense with smoke from frying plantains. This might not sound like comfort, but believe me, it is. It’s good to be back.

And then finally, for some reason, for those with diminished expectations:

Ok, one more thing. I’d like to provide more photos on this blog, but as it turns out, I spend about 80% of my time waiting for photos to upload. The neighborhood internet cafe just doesn’t cut it. If you’d like to see some more Ghana photos, you can check out this public facebook photo album

My Bowels are Functional, My Spirits are High, and I Hear Drumming.

Ghanaians: always smiling except in front of a camera.

As I write this, I can hear frantic drumming in the distance. It’s soothing. Don’t get the wrong idea though. This is 21st century Africa. So far, my soundtrack has been hiplife from cab stereos, coupé décalé and kuduro in bars, afrobeat blaring from barber shops, and reggae emanating from tiny cell phone speakers. Drumming isn’t archaic, but it isn’t Africa’s only musical tradition either.

The drumming is coming from a funeral. I’ve just returned from there. Drawn by the sound, I took my flashlight and wandered about a mile through dark fields of corn. At last, I reached the house. By that point, the drumming had stopped, replaced by a DJ spinning some hiplife. Past the outdoor dance floor, in the foyer of the home, the corpse sat in a lawn chair surrounded by other chairs. Only his head was visible, the rest of his body clothed in traditional garb, his hands obscured by gloves. Behind him was a tarp that looked like a light setup for an intergalactic photo shoot. Streaks of red and orange extended toward the center where they congregated at a large orb of light. I’d like to say that I didn’t take a picture out of respect for the deceased. Really, my camera was out of batteries. Trust me, it was quite a sight.

About 15 feet away, a group of about 10 young men sat in a circle and sang songs. Aided by only a triangle and a shaker, they were participating in a sort of call and response. The subdivisions were complex, however, so it was hard to discern when one song ended and another began. The two men with instruments played a constant rhythm. I was there for an hour and a half. Throughout that time, they never stopped, and never changed rhythm.

Socialist biscuits from Anloga

Outside, a dance party was just getting started. It will last for three straight days I’m told. Except for the widow and the mother, no one seemed particularly morose. It’s an opportunity to dance, socialize with friends, and celebrate someone’s life. In this spirit, a funeral seems like appropriate closure for my stay in Anloga.

For the last five days, I’ve been staying with a family in a town in the Volta region: Anloga. I’ve been volunteering at a local school, meeting with the administration, and visiting students’ homes. My experience at the school and with the family has been mixed. I’ll save that for another post. Needless to say, however, I’ve received the same gracious Ghanaian hospitality that has come to define my experience thus far.

The town itself is gorgeous. A single road links a series of shacks hawking food, education, and Jesus. On the east side, carefully ordered plots of maize and manioc stretch for miles. Farmers plod the land in the scorching sun, their muscular shoulders glistening with sunlight. About half a mile to the east sits Keta lagoon. It’s times like this I wish I had a better camera.

Beyond the commercial stands are small neighborhoods linked by paths of sand. Homes range from palm leaf shacks to large concrete compounds. They are scattered in a way that seems to make sense to everyone except me. Wandering around, I often accidentally find myself in peoples’ front yards, backyards, and even living rooms.

One of a series of palm wine sessions with leading members of a farming community

The vast majority of residents are Ewe, which also serves as the most common language. Unfortunately, that means very little to me. Twi, Ga, Ewe or any of the tens of other languages that make Ghana so linguistically diverse are equally unintelligible to me. Though English is the official language of education and government in Ghana, one never hears it. A major language barrier exists in Accra. Here, it’s even more pronounced. Today when I walked to the beach, a young man joined me. After we greeted each other, we did not say a single word. It was futile.

Generally, when a tourist tries to learn a language, one starts with the basics: hello, thank you, I want, where is. Here, my first word is inevitably “white person.” In Twi it’s obruni. In Ewe it’s yervu (yay-voo). I hear it constantly, especially in more rural areas. It’s a playful catcall on the street, a request for a chat, a solicitation to buy something, or a warm greeting from a friend. It’s hard not to see any identification of my race as pejorative. But the word itself is innocent. Context is everything.

Ok, I need to go to bed. Off in the distance, someone’s started drumming again.  People, I’m sure, are dancing.

Some frank advice from a moto

Hey Obruni

Blessing, Benedicta and crew

I’d like to admit defeat. Those of you who fervently read my blog (all three of you) might remember how I predicted that I would never meet anyone who had never seen a white person before. Within a day I’ve already disproved myself. My first day here, I played with some neighborhood children. Their constant playful catcalls of “obruni! obruni!” were an invitation for some sloppy multilingual banter (my Twi and Ewe consist of about two words each at the moment). In the process, a child came out of one of the houses delicately balancing a toddler on her shoulder. The toddler took one look at me and burst into a fit of tears. I figured that he was either jealous of my designer shorts from Target, or that he’d never actually seen a white person before. The latter suspicion was immediately confirmed by the other children as they playfully chided me for scaring the vulnerable kid. I thought it was hilarious. I also suspect that I’m in the honeymoon phase of being a minority.

The next morning, I awoke suddenly to a chorus of roosters and goats. I looked at my watch. It was 4 am. The community’s livestock had been startled by something. All of the sudden, an amplified voice resonated throughout the neighborhood. Edem had conveniently neglected to tell me that he lived right next to a mosque. Exasperated, I thought, “I plan on doing this for four months? I thought I didn’t have to deal with this shit until Mali.”

My room for now

Though it was still dark outside, the heat seemed very close to what it had been at noon the previous day. My sleeping bag was now a pool of sweat. I had only used it underneath me as a protective chaff against the bare mattress, as its intended use would have undoubtedly left me with heatstroke. I wondered whether or not I would actually be more comfortable outside, where at least the heat didn’t have an enclosed box to unforgivingly radiate. It was far too dark to take a walk, however, and the streets surrounding Edem’s home disperse into hundreds of separate dirt paths that all seem identical to me. Also, the term “street” is kind of a misnomer, since there are no street signs and none of the pathways have names. I decided to sit outside on the cement patio and wait for the sun to come up.

A bowl of fufu and stew

Due to jet lag, the humidity, and the cruel alarm I received at the hand of the local mosque, the next day is a bit of a blur. Edem’s friend Daniel showed me around. We eat fufu, visit Makola market, a school where his cousin works, and hang out at his house (where the aforementioned childhood trauma occurred). I take a walk around the neighborhood and am immediately approached by an elderly man with a “proposition.” Intrigued, I take him up on his offer to hold court beneath a large mango tree. Here’s his pitch: he sells merchandise to clients in Benin that he makes himself, but adorns with a “made in USA” label. He wants me to lend my American vocal talents to his project so he can appear more authentic. He promises me 20%. I weigh the pros and cons: 20% of some unknown product vs getting deported for being an accomplice to counterfeit merchandise. It’s an easy decision. Still, I have to applaud the guy for his resourcefulness. His charm quickly turns darker however, when I realize how much others in the community look down on his knavery. They ask for his name and address and seem genuinely concerned. I don’t rat him out.

Daniel outside of the school computer lab he helped build

At Daniel’s house, I meet Matthias, who besides being Daniel’s cousin, holds some hilariously misogynistic views that he’s not the least bit squeamish declaring. He also espouses some interesting generalities about “white people.” As I find myself getting defensive (on both accounts! Easy there), I think of how many people process Africans in a similar way. I give him a bye, but make sure that he knows I won’t be so kind in the future. Seemingly content, he hands me a bottled drink from his satchel. As I look at the label, the men laugh uproariously and mock me for my naiveté. The label says something in French about bottled water. The purple liquid inside was clearly not water. The bottle had been repurposed. I ask myself, “what do I care about more, protecting my vulnerable G.I. tract or appreciating this man’s hospitality?” I make a quick decision and take a sip. It’s delicious. The strong ginger stings my lips as hibiscus and other unidentifiable sweetening agents sooth the burn. Matthias, noticing my initial hesitance laughs and says emphatically, “you drink tap water in the U.S.? Then you’re fine here.” I’m too polite to correct him.

I ride home from Daniel’s house as the sun goes down. The air, as always, is dense with humidity and smoke, the landscape dotted with hundreds of kerosene lamps. The tro tro, adorned with a “respect jesus” decal, weaves manically between cars and men and women hawking various goods that rest gently on their heads. In this climate, one’s head is clearly the most effective transport vessel for goods. Giant bowls of food and water, chickens and other small livestock, toilet paper and used cell phones give new meaning to the phrase “cranial capacity.” Amazingly none of them are hit by the onslaught of traffic, even though our driver does not slow down with pedestrians literally 10 feet in front of the vehicle.

View from Edem's patio at sunset

Once I’m home, exhausted, I retire to the patio where I started the day. Edem comes out to chat. We discuss his work and cultural differences. Suddenly, he looks up. “You know you are here for a reason. God has brought you here for a reason” he says. Reflexively, I make a lame joke to soften the declaration. Edem doesn’t laugh. I’ve never seen him say anything with such conviction. He repeats it again, “God has sent you here for a reason.” Intimidated by the thought, I smile politely, say goodnight, and go to bed.

The next morning, I wake up at 4. Once again, the call to prayer reverberates warmly throughout my room. I picture hundreds of neighbors kneeling groggily by their bedsides. Satisfied, I doze off smiling.

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Here’s audio I recorded of my daily wake up call:

Why I’m Going to West Africa

Whenever I tell people I’m taking a trip to West Africa, their response generally falls into a few distinct but related categories:

  • Support: “Oh that’s really cool.”
  • Confusion: “Why on earth are you going there?
  • A well-meaning but misguided warning: “Be careful, don’t get shot or contract HIV.”
  • An attempt to relate: “Oh my cousin’s friend just got back from Zambia.”

Up until now, I haven’t really given anyone a straight answer. I’ve decided to compile a short list of reasons I specifically chose this region, both to abate future conversations and to condense my own thoughts in a formal way.

Why I’m Going:

  • The Music: I have nursed a closeted obsession with much of West Africa’s musical heritage for a good while now. This trip feels like a pilgrimage about 5 years in the making. Though I intend to make music an essential part of my voyage everywhere I go, this experience will probably serve as its musical centerpiece.
  • The People: Some of my most enriching and insightful travel experiences have come from interactions with people. In general, I’d much rather be invited into a stranger’s home than visit a museum. I see this axiom as a fundamental step towards appreciating a culture. I often find that these types of experiences are enhanced by third-world travel. That’s a huge generalization, and far from universally true. However, few would argue against the fact that barriers of personal space and privacy are often less pronounced in the third world. Meeting strangers becomes an inevitability, rather than a pursuit. Thus, coupled with its solid reputation for having some of the most hospitable people on earth, West Africa seems like an ideal location for me. It’s important to keep in mind however, that as much as I value cultural immersion, I’m still an interloper at heart. Any cultural insight I gain will come from my own unique experience, which I recognize doesn’t wholly reflect a culture’s people or values.  I hope this philosophy informs most of what I write on this blog.
  • To Challenge Myself: My West African wanderlust was in its embryonic stage when I first started planning a trip here a few years ago. I was living in Europe at the time, and the region’s proximity seemed like a good enough reason to take a jaunt south. I had only a very rough idea of where I wanted to go, yet the romantic notion of such an adventure got the best of me. I bought a one-way flight. Soon after, I developed a severe case of unrelated anxiety. It shook me to my core, and made me seriously reevaluate what I was capable of. Partially as a result, that trip got canceled and I shelved my plans. In some ways, this current trip is an affirmation of how adaptable I am and what I’m capable of.
  • Natural Beauty: Duh
  • It’s Off the Beaten Path: I can’t lie, the fact that it’s a unique place to explore influenced my decision to travel here. Of course, evading hoards of tourists is a major asset. But this is a hard one for me to cop to. Let’s be honest, the ability to smugly point out in hindsight that I’ve traveled somewhere impressive is in no way a valid reason to travel anywhere (except for maybe Antarctica or Oakland).
  • I Speak French: Well, sorta.
  • A Fervent Desire to Try Camel Cheese: Just kidding (or am I? More on this later.)

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Why I’m Not Going:

  • To Volunteer: Many well-meaning friends and relatives stare inquisitively when I tell them I’m not going to Africa to volunteer. Of course, I do plan on doing some volunteering. I also plan on profiling aid organizations on this website. Yet these are not my primary motives, nor will they take up most of my time. There are some exceptional aid organizations doing great work in West Africa, yet the notion that Africa only merits exploration within the context of volunteerism is misguided at best. The continent suffers from a systemic image problem that I don’t intend to perpetuate.  Though I have no intentions to bury the truth, Africa has so much to offer beyond poverty, famine, corruption, warfare, and cultural oddity.
  • To “Conquer” Africa: I’m not visiting as many places as I can in a short amount of time, nor do I plan on highlighting a series of tourist sites. I don’t plan on getting my kicks by placing myself in as many dangerous situations as possible (though I’m pretty sure my mother thinks I do), and I very well may not see a single lion during the entire length of this trip. My experience will be enriched by the people I meet and the opportunities I have, not by how exciting or absurd my (mis)adventures are. I’m also not charging headfirst into anything close to uncharted territory. For the record, I think Henry Morton Stanley was kind of an asshole. I will not meet anyone that has never seen a white person before (unless I do a complete 180 and start delivering babies for an OBG-YN). Instead, I’m visiting a modernizing West Africa deeply entrenched in a rapidly globalizing economy.

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In short, I am about to embark on the greatest and therefore most ill-advised adventure of my life. Will I survive? You be the judge.