Thursday, February 22, 2018

An Interlude at the Sukuta Campground


After ten days and over 800 miles of unrelenting cycling since Bamako, pushing it day by day to meet various deadlines to reach a town with a hotel before dark or a border before closing time or wifi on Valentine's Day, I was ready not only for a rest, but also recovery time, when I came to the Atlantic resorts of The Gambia.  I didn't stay at a resort, but rather the lone campground among them.  It was easily the most fascinating place around, packed with veteran travelers of African who could hold forth for hours on their years of adventures all over the continent.

It had ten slots for campers and twice that many lodge-style rooms for rent in its walled in compound down a sandy dirt road a mile from the ocean.  It was filled, but the German owner found space  for me in the lone slot without a car, just a couple of tents of Germans who had driven down and sold their car.   They were leaving the next day and shared a bounty of food they had driven down with and hadn't finished off--pâté, pumpernickel bread, crackers, jam, soup, pineapple juice, a can of peaches and more.  I dove right in, as I had a lot of eating to catch up on.

All the campers had heavy-duty vehicles with a pair of spare tires and plenty of accessories, including shovels and ladders, anticipating as many eventualities as they could.  They had all crossed the Sahara to get this far.  They were a hardy and enthusiastic lot.  A Spanish guy had ridden his motorcycle around the circumference of the continent a year ago--an epic nine-month journey.  His wife joined him in Cape Town for a couple months, but was happy they were driving this year.  The three Germans, who had each driven a car and sold it, had been running such an operation for over twenty years--a car a year to subsidize a couple months getaway to  Africa.  They used to be able to drive the Sahara through Algeria and on to Timbucktu, but that is an era of the past.  They had all great advice and contacts on the road ahead to look up.  There was literally no shutting them up once they got going.  I didn't mind in the least, except when I needed to get some food in me or get off my feet if they ambushed me when I was on foot.

My first afternoon I took a nap and might have slept straight through the night if I hadn't been jolted awake after a couple of hours by a barking fit of a dog outside our compound.  None of this crowd were beach people, nor I, but I still felt obligated to give it a look.  It went on for miles and miles uninterrupted by any privatizations.  None of the long string of hotels were overly deluxe nor had encroached upon the beach with seating or bungalows.  My glimpses just revealed a handful of people walking the beach, not laying upon it.


The campground with its plethora of trees providing shade and capturing the cool breeze off the ocean keeping the temperature in the 80s was oasis enough.  I still spent most of my three days there exploring the coastline.  I went as far as north as I could, fifteen miles to the capital of Benjul on the wide Gambia River where one had to take a ferry to continue further.  And I also went a dozen miles south down the coast to an Arts Village.

I was delighted to find a woman at the turn in from the paved road to the campground with a large pot of spaghetti that the locals ate in a baguette.  I could stop and fill my Tupperware bowl whenever necessary.  Almost as good, though no bargain, was a bakery a mile away catering to the tourists that sold hearty meat and cheese and vegetable pies and also waffles along with a wide assortment of cupcakes and breads.  The greatest discovery though was a grocery store that sold Gambian peanut butter fortified with baobab fruit powder.  I was familiar with the taste of baobab as I finally made my introduction to baobab juice--a smooth, creamy white drink laced with sugar.  It was a nectar of the gods.

Among my projects, along with swapping my front and rear tires, was to get a haircut to make it easier for the heat to release from my head.  The white-haired owner of the campground had a nice shaggy haircut as I prefer but he said couldn't share his barber, as it was his wife.  In my meanderings I saw a few hair salons trying to look high-end.  My preference was unprentious.  I knew I had it when a came upon the Look Good Barbing Salon.


The barber was finishing up a very talkative guy who had worked for Sky in London and MacDonald's in Sweden, but was now back in his home country working for a hotel.  He helped explain to the barber, who only spoke a little English, that I only wanted a trim.  He was accustomed to leaving just a stubble.  He only had an electric trimmer, so had to go in search of scissors.  What he came back with were so dull they could barely cut my super-thin hair, so he used my plenty sharp tiny scissors I use on my facial hair.  He was ultra concerned about taking off too much, as his previous fluent client had told him to only take off "the tips."  But he eventually grew braver and went beyond the tips and gave me a nice tidy trim unlike any of the many samples of haircuts hanging on his wall.  He asked permission to use his clippers on my neck and then used it to even off the rest of the cut.  He was as fastidious as any barber who has put scissors to my mane.  


It had been eight months since Janina had lopped off my hair in France. When I sped off on my bike It was refreshing to feel the cooling rush of air on the back of my neck for the first time in a while.  On the way back from the barber I stopped in at mile-and-a-half stretch of thick forest along the coast in the middle of the cluster of hotels known as Monkey Park.  It is home to two breeds of several hundred monkeys who are tame enough to take peanuts from the hands of children.


They saunter along and lay about on the same trails that visitors follow, paying their human intruders much less attention than the children who come running at me in villages hoping for a handout.


They were remarkably blasé and photogenic, much like the snow monkeys of Japan.


At last I'd had an animal experience other than goats and donkeys in Africa.  The continent may be synonymous with wild game, but humans have encroached on so much of their habitat, it is only found in isolated pockets.

On either side of the park for miles was unbridled development and a cesspool of billboards advertising all manner of things for sale and accommodations for rent.  On some stretches there was a mini-billboard on every lamppost.


The traffic was equally noxious, dominated by a steady stream of pesky yellow taxis. Three miles down the coast from the campgrounds the congestion thinned out and The Gambia returned to being The Gambia.  A pair of baobabs with bird nests provided one marker.


A little further the fishing village of Tanji even moreso.  This was as far from the tourists as the moon.


Boats were unloaded of their hauls without docking.


Contents were hauled in buckets and wheelbarrows and put on tables or in piles.


A few miles further down the coast, an artist had created a small domain of his work that he called the Tunbung Art Village.  It was several huts with murals on the outside and paintings on the inside under a canopy of trees with all sorts of dangling objects--car doors and bottles and records and staple guns and bicycle wheels and more.


It was in relative isolation down a sandy dirt road that was even less bikeable than the road to the campgrounds.


There was nothing baobab related as at the truly remarkable collection of art on Gorée Island off of Dakar, but it was still provided a welcome respite from the hubbub of the tourist mania further north.  There was some development down this way, people offering places to stay, that would appeal to those looking for a Gambia experience and not just an escape from winter.  I was taking a liking to the campground culture and the various escapes I found from the resort development, but the road beckoned, so it is now back to Senegal and on to Guinea-Bissau.












Monday, February 19, 2018

Sukuta, The Gambia


The frozen bags of fruit juice were my salvation as I pedalled 250 miles across The Gambia on an undulating, twisty road in oppressive 90-degree heat. Even at 9:30 in the morning before it had heated up I could not resist these tasty treats.  They didn't come as often as I'd like, sometimes not for several towns and as much as twenty miles, so I didn't pass up a one.

I didn't flinch when an enterprising young woman demanded ten dollars (twenty cents), double the normal price. I laughed and said "five," to which she agreed, realizing I knew the going rate.  But if she hadn't budged, I would have gladly paid whatever she wanted.

She was definitely the exception as a price-goucher.  People have generally been the opposite, tossing in an extra banana or flour ball or even ice ball.  One woman brought me a bowl of rice and bowl of sauce fresh from her kitchen  as I sat on the porch of her shop drinking a bottle of cold water I had bought from her.  When I reached into my pocket, she waived her arms saying, "no, no."  One of the young girls selling ice balls gave me two extra as I sat beside her breaking up the one I had bought to put in my water bottle.

I'm not sure how much of it is simple generosity or possibly feeling sorry for me riding in such heat, that I must be truly impoverished, too poor to afford a bus.  When I asked a young girl the price of a stew she was selling, she said, "Five dollars, if you have the money."  I had presented her with my bowl, somewhat similar to raggedy young boys who hang about with bowls looking for offerings.  I'm rather raggedy myself and she and others may take me as an older version of such ragamuffins. 

As I sat under a tree in the countryside a young girl passing on her bike asked if I was tired.  Shade is a precious commodity.  People are often clustered under large trees in the villages sprawled on matts.  A couple of donkeys, who couldn't find a tree, hugged a wall and its sliver of shade.


During the climax of the heat in the afternoon I am able to take advantage of village water pumps, as during most times of the day they are a hive of women and sometimes boys filling all manner of water containers.  I can slip in on such occasions and fill a water bottle, but I can't intercede to do any wash. When no one is using them I can get enough water to wash clothes and splash some water on me.  Invariably a young boy will leave his shady spot and pump for me.  Once as I was finishing up washing some clothes I was reprimanded by an older woman for doing my wash near the pump.  She spoke no Emglosh, just pointed where I had dumped my dirty water, shook her head giving me a dirty look and held her nose.  It's doubtlessly not the only time I have violated some taboo.

Despite taking longer and more frequent breaks in such heat, I still managed to put in six hours or so a day on the bike.  The first and last couple hours of each day were fine for riding.  The northeasterly winds have persisted, though not as strongly as in Senegal and Mali or carrying as much dust and sand, but they have given me as assist other than when the road turned north on its windy way to the coast. The riding has been a little easier without any speed pumps.  There were at least two in every village I passed through in Senegal and Mali, entering and leaving, and then several extra if the village was a bigger one.  

The Gambians slow of their own accord in villages, partially thanks to a greater number of police checks, only two of which halted me, one out of friendliest and curiosity, the other by a rare young woman solider being too serious about her job, even wanting to see what was in my panniers.  I opened one and pulled out my vest, which was on top, and that was enough for her.  Motorists, however, aren't overly respectful of cyclists.  They seem to regard them as a nuisance and rarely swing wide when passing, generally holding their line and passing unnecessarily closely as if the cyclist isn't there. There was hardly an instance of that in Senegal and Mali.  Could be there are so few cyclists there, drivers don't mind giving them extra space, and it becomes a bother here.

Though the prices of food are comparable to Senegal and Mali, there is a slight degree of more affluence in The Gambia. I see aluminum cans along the road.  Homes and shops are more substantial,  constructed mostly of brick rather than wooden slats.  And many more people can afford a bicycle. 

With its small size The Gambia has one of the highest population densities in Africa.  I was concerned that might make it a challenge to camp.  Two of my four nights I was caught in a stretch of small towns  forcing me to be a bit creative, but two of the other nights I had idyllic isolated campsites with no concerns of being stumbled upon.  One was just riddled with the thorniest bushes I have encountered.  My tires survived, but my calves and ankles were lacerated. 

Now that I have reached the Atlantic side of The Gambia, I can take a day of rest and indulge in my first dose of African beach culture.  Then it will be further south back to Senegal and on into Guinea-Bissau before I take the 16-hour ferry from Ziguinchor back to Dakar.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Soma, The Gambia



I'm back to buying water in bottles, as The Gambia doesn't have those bargain half-liter bags that were so common in Senegal and Mali, possibly because they are government subsidized.  But The Gambia has something even better--home-made small bags of frozen juice. They are sold by women and young girls in villages sitting along the road with a small cooler packed with them.  I can cut them into quarters with my knife, drop them into my thermos water bottle, add just enough water to begin the melting process and I am in instant heaven for the next half hour as the drink remains ice cold in my insulated water bottle.




If it weren't for these fruity ice balls,  I could go long spells without a cold drink, as few of the villages have electricity. I don't know how and where the bags come to be frozen, but whoever is responsible has earned my great gratitude.  In one village where no one was selling the ice balls I asked if there was a place to buy cold warer.  I was directed to a guy who had a refrigerator powered by solar panels.  Cold drinks were just a minor part of his business.  Mostly it was charging phones and other devices.  His fee was ten cents.  He had a couple dozen phones laying on his floor.


I won't be in any hurry to leave The Gambia, not only thanks to the frozen juice balls, but also because of the great cordiality of its people, not to mention English being its official language.  I was given an instant warm welcome at the border with the customs officials going out of their way to oblige me.  I arrived at five, fearful it might be closing.  I knew I was cutting it close, but I had been delayed on the Senegal side by an excessively friendly soldier who kept me in conversation longer than I wished.  He assured me though that The Gambia border was open until six.  No traffic had passed me from either direction for over half an hour at this quiet crossing point, so I was concerned, but it was still in operation when I arrived at the offices a mile past the Senegal offices.  It was eight miles in both directions to a town, so there was no confusion guessing which building to go to as there were no others. 

I was a little nervous about not having a visa, hoping Lonely Planet was still correct that one would be let into the country and then have three days to acquire a visa at the capital.  They weren't fully correct about that, as one could now get a visa right at the border.  Unfortunately for me, the person who issued visas was off duty at four.  If they had wished to be stubborn and make life difficult for me, they could have told me to come back the next day, but with so few people crossing at this border they called the guy who issues visas and he was happy to come back in and do it.  I was told the fee for a visa was 3,000 dalasis, which I was told was about $80.  I hadn't converted any money and there was no way to do it at the border, so happily they would accept dollars.  

The latest exchange rate was 47 dalasis to the dollar, which would be $63.  Not too long ago it was 30 dalasis to the dollar.  If I had acquired the visa from The Gambia embassy in the US it would have been $100.  This visa official could easily demand $100, but he was not an extortionist, and agreed upon $65.  He was so friendly and obliging, he even offered to drive me the eight miles into Basse to a guest house.  I still had an hour of light, so there was no need for that, plus I would camp if I could, and so I did, capping a wonderful entry into Africa's smallest country.  It is just 200 miles long and not much wider than 25 miles as it follows The Gambia River. It is surrounded by Senegal other than its Atlantic coast line. I had entered at its eastern end, so would have the pleasure of bicycling from one end of the cou try to the other.

Changing money in Basse was as pleasant as gaining entry into the country.  Though my debit card was rejected by an ATM, a nearby exchange bureau gave me 47.5 dalasis for a dollar and without any commission.  The young man who handled the transaction was delighted to learn my nationality.  "I have great respect for the United States," he said.  Then he asked if I was in the Peace Corps, as the only Americans he had ever met were in the Peace Corps.

I was happy he gave me a thick wad of 48 notes for my $100, all one hundreds and one fifty, so I had no worries about trying to break larger bills, as the ATMs of Senegal and Mali had dispensed and were just about impossible to pass.  My first expenditures was a bowl of gruel for twenty cents and then a bottle of vanilla milk and the first pack of ramen I had seen in these travels.  I had brought two as emergency rations and had only needed to use one so far, so it was good to restock.  

It has been a genuine pleasure to be able to speak English, and have road signs in English, though many people only speak their indigenous language.  Another of the early delights of The Gambia is discovering packets of mango powder with vitamin C to flavor my water--a ten-cent pack is good for two liters.  I will stock up on those to last the rest of this trip and others to come.  They will greatly enhance my fluid intake.


The first woman I bought a frozen juice from pulled a bill from her pocket to show me how much it cost, not even knowing numbers in English.  The preferred term for dalasi is dollar, as people most frequently give a price of such and such in dollars rather than dalasi--ten dollars for a hard boiled egg, twenty cents, or five dollars for an ice ball, ten cents.

I haven't seen the river that runs through The Gambia yet, but I came upon the first swimming hole of these travels--an event to celebrate.  I didn't take a swim, but I did give myself and my shirt and neckerchief a wash at the mini-dam where the water flowing over it looked fairly clear.  A guy was fishing with a stick as a pole.


Bicycles are much more evident here than in Senegal and Mali.  Basse, the only significant city in the eastern half of the country, had at least two good-sized bike shops with a couple dozen bikes each out front.  The bikes aren't particularly well-maintained.  Two cyclists I've talked to had detached, non-functioning brakes. The highway is in fine shape with a nice shoulder that I have no need of as there is so little traffic.  The road that runs through the country is not a trucker's route, or even much of a bus route other than small local vans.  Despite the river the land is not much suitable for agriculture, just minimal grazing as in Senegal and Mali, so there is no significant traffic related to commerce. The prime entry to the country is at its western end near the capital and all the resorts.  It is very pleasurable cycling, other than the 90 degree temperatures.  And though this was an English colony, driving is on the right.  One of the more evident English influences is school children wearing uniforms, unlike Senegal and Mali--boys blue shorts and a white shirt, and girls a green dress. Another leftover of the British presence is occssionally being addressed as "sir," such as "Good morning, sir."  Not the children though.  They ask for money, some even saying, "Give me buck."

It was fifty miles before I came upon a baobab, as regal as ever, and with a green background here. 

 
When I reach the Atlantic where all the resorts are, many catering to packaged tours from Europe, I will be looking for an outdoor store with tents.  The zipper on my tent is kaput.  I initially tried using paper lips to hold the flap together, but not very effectively.  If the mosquitoes become an is sure I could use duct tape or semi-smother myself by letting the rainfly hug the opening.  In the meantime I have temporarily hung a colorful exotically-patterned wrap-around skirt I found along the road over the entry to my tent.   When I saw it I thought it was a fabric that would please Janina. Later I realized it might have been an offering from the gods to aid my tent crisis.  It pretty much keeps the flying insects out, but not the ants.

My tent isn't my only casualty. The washer on one of my pumps ruptured, rendering it useless.  I have long traveled with a spare.  I also lost two buttons on my shirt. I could at least repair it with my needle and thread and buttons off the pockets of the shirt.  My generator seems to be okay.  It was the batteries that were resisting being charged, so now I directly charge my iPad.  It's not as fast, but it is a relief as The Gambia uses the English three-pronged electrical outlets which I didn't not bring an adaptor for.



 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Back in Senegal


If I were of a different mindset I would have been thrilled to learn there were several deluxe air-conditioned direct buses from Bamako to Dakar every day.  Sounkalo's aunt takes it a couple of times a year from Dakar on a buying trip to Bamako for soap and fabric and others items she sells in Dakar.

I could have taken the bus back to Dakar and gathered visas for Gambia, Guinea-Bisseau, Guinea and Liberia and then ridden down the coast.  But I am too much a purist to have even considered the bus.  I came to Africa to ride my bike.  Taking a bus would defeat my longing. That bus ride might have only taken a day, but it would have been agony to be passing though such fascinating scenery and not being a part of it.  I would have become a tourist hopping from site to site rather than the traveler fully experiencing Africa. Plus I couldn't subject my bike to the indignity to being crammed in the cargo bin. So for the past week when one of those buses passed me every couple of hours, not once did I wish I were aboard, even when fhe afternoon temperatures had soared into the high nineties. They only reminded me how happy I was to be spending all this extra time among the baobabs.


If I had been flying past them useable to honor each with a full gaze, I would have felt as if I were committing an act of sacrilege.  


For some of the way the train tracks of the Dakar-Bamako line ran alongside the road.  If the route hadn't been closed down just a couple years ago I would have been tempted to have taken that, as it would have rolled along at a more relaxed pace than the bus and been a genuine African experience.  As it was, I camped a couple nights up and over the embankment of the tracks.  I even camped at the same spot I did coming, putting me precisely 80 miles from Tambacounda, the crossroads town where I would duck down to Gambia and where there were a couple of nice hotels with swimming pools and wifi strong enough to give Janina a Valentine's Day call.

I could recognize my campsite off in the brush by the two liter-and-a-half bottles I had left by a tree, thinking they'd make a great discovery for someone wandering through.  Obviously no one had in the two weeks since I'd been there. I was still procuring water back then in those large bottles early in my travels before I discovered the great bargain of water in bags when I crossed into Mali. They reduced my daily water expense from three dollars a day to ninety cents when I bought a gallon's worth.  Sometimes I'd have to go digging in a refrigerator to find them, but there were occasions when they dominated or were all a refrigerator stocked.


With a tailwind on my return, I accomplished those 80 miles fo Tambacounda in 45 minutes less riding time than going the opposite direction.  I've dropped a thousand feet from the plateau I was on in Mali and for the first time my thermometer registered over 100 degrees.  I was mightily looking forward to a dip in a swimming pool.  I was crestfallen when the first hotel I came to was full and so was the other.  At the second I asked if I could camp.  I could though they had no grassy area or official camping area, just space off in the corner of the dirt parking lot.  When I asked the price the semi-English speaking young man at the desk looked questioningly at his female superior.  She knew I was desperate and quoted a price of $20.  "How about ten?" I responded, but she held firm.  

Before setting up my tent or doing anything I plunged into the soupy warm pool and then retreated to the reception area to charge my iPad and catch up on email.  I hadn't been able to check in as the SIM card I acquired in Mali didn't work in Senegal.  An hour later the man behind the desk asked me if I had spoken to the Big Boss.  I was concerned that he was going to tell me I couldn't camp.  A while later the Big Boss, a Frenchmen who had been living in Senegal for 25 years, summoned me to his air-conditioned office.  He apologized for me being charged $20 to camp.  He said it should have been $10.  I could have dinner on the house or a refund.  Since I'd filled up my Tupperware bowl with rice for a dollar, I was happy for the refund.  And then when I left the next morning I was presented with a bag lunch of an apple and sandwich.

I asked if Valentine's Day was why the hotels were full or some holiday.  It was just a coincidence.  Most of those around the pool were Sengelese.  Later after dark we were entertained by a group of drummers beside the pool and outdoor dining area.  They leant an authentic African background when I Facetimed Janina.  She could share scenes of her snow-filled yard to contrast with the drumming.  

I had stayed in a hotel two nights before in Kayes, but couldn't call as its wifi was so weak it took me five hours to download a single podcast.  In Tambacounda I was stocking up with one every three or four minutes. In Kayes, the lone significant town for 400 miles from the Senegal border to use before Bsmako, I had a choice of a $35 air-conditioned room or one with a fan for $20.  I always prefer the fan even though the temperature didn't drop below 80 degrees in my room.  I was able to wander the throbbing town of Kayes stocking up on food before dark, highlighted by a woman selling slices of papaya wrapped in cellophane on a tray on her head. I also grabbed a couple bags of dough balls. I can never have enough of those.  I adddd another on my way out of town the next morning, fresh out of the pan from a woman near the school yard.


Unlike elsewhere in Africa, I haven't spotted a student in a uniform. At least none are barefoot, as was so common in Madagascar, not only among children, but also adults.  That has been a rarity here, just an occssional feral youth.  One such kid hanging around a store with a refrigerator was thrilled when someone handed him his half-drunk bottle of soda.  He didn't immediately gulp it down, but made it last with small sips. It must not be so uncommon of an occurrence, as he didn't seem particularly surprised.

It was a relatively painless re-entry to Senegal.  


The same office that stamped me in to Mali, stamped me out, but I had to go a ways into Kidara on the other side of the border to be stamped back into Senegal by a different office that had processed me when I left.  I asked at three or four offices before I found the right one.  There was a bus load of passengers including one older Polish guy being processed.  He told me which door to go through.  A young man behind a desk had a pile of passports, but he kept me waiting less than a minute and quickly stamped my passport and sent me on my way. No bullshit on either side of the border unlike the Ivory Coast embassy in Bamako. 

Among the trucks backed up at the border was a mournful donkey tethered to a cart missing a wheel.


Donkeys are the primary beast of burden. They pull huge loads.  It's a wonder I don't see more broken down, as I do see plenty of trucks disabled along the road with its drivers  laying underneath in the shade or under a tree, if one is nearby,  waiting for help.  If it's early morning or late afternoon they will have a fire going brewing tea.  Occasionally they'll wave a cup at me enticing me to join them.  If we could communicate better, I could set up my tent for the night beside them.


No flat tires for me in over 500 miles since a shard of glass in Bamako.  It's getting to be time for me to swap my rear tire for the front unless I come upon a bike store that stocks my size.  That might not be possible until I return to Dakar, though that is a couple weeks away unless I have visa issues going south.  If I return to Bamako prematurely I can ride up the coast the the World Heritage city of St. Louis and possibly cross into Mauitania for a true taste of the Sahara.  Whatever it may be, I won't be regretting in the least being denied the Ivory Coast, only that I couldn't connect with DL in Liberia.  That only means I may have to return next year if he's still teaching there.





Monday, February 12, 2018

Koligaté, Mali



For the first time in the three weeks of these travels my stomach rebelled against something I had eaten.  I was half-way through my dinner of couscous and sardines when it registered a protest and threatened an upheaval.  It couldn't have been what I was eating, as it was one of my two usual dinners, that or my preferred couscous with hard boiled eggs when I can find them.  It could have been the rice meal I had bought along the road in the middle of the afternoon and only finished eating before starting in on the couscous.  One never knows what sauce will go on the rice and how long it has been sitting, but I've seen plenty of evidence of good hygiene, from people wanting to wash my tupperware bowl before putting anything in it to warning me to eat my meal within a couple of hours.  

I feared I hadn't eaten enough, but I had no choice but to desist.  It was late enough to curl up and drift off to sleep, never a problem after seven hours on the bike.   Laying down seemed to appease my stomach.  I was relieved that I didn't wake during the night, either out of hunger or the need to expel whatever had been unwelcome to my stomach.  Evidently I had fed it enough during the day and the protest was that it didn't want any more.  That was a first and a good sign that I'd finally figured out how to get enough calories into me.  I had been lucky that day to get two solid meals along the road from the village cooks and had supplemented them with dough balls and a couple of bananas.


The next day I was lucky to find a bottle of vanilla milk in a refrigerator.  It had been days since I'd had such a quality drink, as at $1.50 it is more than the daily wage of most of the people and simply not stocked.  I'd spent less than three dollars a day the previous three days since leaving Bamako and was hoping I could find more and better nourishment and up my spending.  One way would be to indulge in soft drinks, which go for sixty cents, more than a bowl of rice.  It doesn't feel quite right though to spend so much on a drink when a half-liter bag of water, larger than a soda, can be had for ten cents.

I don't feel comfortable savoring a soda while all around me are those who can't even afford a bag of cold water, simply drinking from the town well.  But I'd also like to support the local businessman and spend more than a dime or two on those bags.  They've got to be disappointed when that's what I choose.  Anything cold is perfectly satisfying.  Every twenty miles or so I come upon a village with a store that has a refrigerator and I can have a cold drink even though the heat isn't as oppressive as it can be. It has moderated as the wind has been blowing from the north and the east the past several days, actually giving me an assist, enabling me to have back-to-back one hundred mile days.

Even without a tailwind I'd be reveling in this ride.  Aside from the occasional quagmire of potholes, the road has been smooth and there has been minimal traffic.  The terrain is mostly flat allowing my legs to keep a steady pace and my mind to wander at will.  All else other than the moment is a long ways away.  The scenery is speckled with scraggly trees and bushes, highlighted by the occssional baobab, truly the king of trees.  They tower above all else.  This is a kingdom unlike any other.


Most are solitary figures, but there is also an occssional family or harem, whatever the case may be, clustered together.


I can go miles and miles without seeing any, so I was fortunate again last night to have one to camp behind when dark fell.


Some are exquisitely designed and some are magnificently deformed.


They come in many forms and perversions.


Some may be witches or wizards, demons or angels.



What undiscovered varieties might lurk beyond the horizon  is beyond imagining.  A true fanatic could wander in distant quarters for days searching them out. There could well be many spectacular versions never beholden by the human species.  Those within site of the road truly place this 900-mile ride from Dakar to Bamako among the greats.  It is unknown because one must be willing to rough it. The pedaling is within the capabilities of any cyclist, but the lack of accommodations and the uninspiring food can be daunting.  Not being able to bath for days and days would be be an unendurable hardship for some.  There may not be any side attractions--ruins or museums or wineries or waterfalls--but it is a purist's dream ride.  

It is always most satisfying to do a ride independently, but tour operators could provide all the luxuries of an African Safari, carrying gear and setting up encampments at specific baobab sites with full-scale kitchens and portable showers and all else.  But if one is catered, it greatly diminishes the feeling of independence and autonomy that is synonymous with the bicycle.  And it would deny one the great satisfaction of the unexpected, such as coming upon someone selling slices of papaya along the road.  What a celebratory moment that was.   I had no idea what the orange fruit was, but it could not be resisted.  It was astounding to have such a tropical delicacy in this semi-desert, but it came in a small village that had the capability for irrigation.  A bite of papaya never tasted so good.

No worries about dogs. Not a one has barked or given chase.  They are too preoccupied with more serious matters, accompanying the goat herders and also jogging  along behind the donkey-drawn carts transporting wood.  I did see one chasing a rodent that darted across the road in front of me.  He was cantering along at a relaxed pace knowing the rodent couldn't outlast him.  

The biggest hazard is the dust/sand in the air blown from the Sahara.  It coats my bike, not only clinging to my chain, but my cyclometer wire and all else.  It clogged the zipper on my tent, which I was able to save by washing it clean.  A malfunctioning zipper wouldn't be a total disaster, as mosquitoes haven't been an issue except when I've stayed indoors, whether at a hotel or with Bruce and Sounkalo.  They nibbled mercilessly at my ankles.  Fortunately, when I've slept in doors, all except once, the beds have been accompanied by mosquitoes nets.  And when I didn't have one, I simply erected my tent.

I don't know if the dust/sand-laden air is to blame for my generator hub malfunctioning, but it's not fully recharging my battery packs any longer.  When I woke one morning to discover that my iPad had inexplicably drained to zero, I feared I was in big trouble, not only losing my GPS device and camera, but, most disastrously, my means of communicating with Janina.  She was concerned enough to want to send me off with a transmitting device our friend Wendy used this past summer while she was hiking the Colorado Continental Divide Trail to appease her husband's worries. Not only could it send out a signal giving her  exact location, but it could send out a signal if she was in need of help.  Janina was all for that, but I figured I'd be able to find wifi every couple of days and let her know all was well, as I've been able to do in Madagascar, Oman, the Philippines and elsewhere.  If I suddenly lost my iPad, it could be days and days before I could contact her, causing her untold turmoil.  

I had a not so pleasant day of cycling as I worried what had gone awry with the iPad.  There was no electricity  along the way that day to wake it up. though I knew I'd be coming to a town with some the next day.  I also had another battery pack buried in my panniers that might be more cooperative.  I patiently waited until that night to dig it out.  I could have given a yell of delight and relief when it worked. And the next day I was able to use an electrical outlet at a gas station to give it more of a charge.  But I'm still having difficulties with my generator charger.  Maybe it will heal itself as did my head lamp.  It was out of operation for several nights and then when I tried it in Bamako before searching out a replacement, it was back functioning.  It too is a luxury that I've grown used to.   My Katydn water filter was also on the blink for a few days, but after a rest it's back in full operation, though I don't use it that often as I'm too dependent on wanting cold water.

There is always something to be concerned about. Next up is getting back into Senegal.  Since no visa is required and I've already been there that should be no concern, but one never knows.  Then it will be getting into Gambia.  At least it is an English-speaking country.  If I'm turned away I can just continue on through Senegal and give Guinea-Bissau a try before turning north back up to Dakat, possibly by coastal ferry.

 


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Torodo, Mali


As I retrace my ride across Mali back to Senegal I am able to anticipate the few rough stretches of pot holes and don't have to fret wondering how long they will last.  But my memory has failed me in their duration.  They seemed to go on indefinitely on my first encounter, but on a second time they pass in a snap.  One horrendous stretch after Didieni I thought lasted ten or twelve miles.  It was actually only three.

Instead of suffering through them on my return I can be entertained by a theater of the absurd routine by squadrons of young boys and girls who stand beside the potholes waiting for a vehicle to approach.  They then gather up some dirt in their makeshift plastic scoops and toss it into one of the potholes, as if they are a voluntary road maintenance crew and deserve a tip.  Not once have I seen them rewarded, though they must on occasion for so many of them to persist at it.  There are dozens of these somewhat dignified beggars along the stretchs of potholes.  If they were truly at work on the potholes, they could fill each in a few minutes.  Instead they wait until a vehicle comes along and then make as if they are performing a service.  It's not unique to Mali, as I witnessed such a charade last year in Madasgascar.

There's not much else for such people to do in the semi-desert terrain of the Sahal, especially during the dry season, if they don't have a herd of goats to tend to or they're not in the business of gathering wood.  Most are living at the subsistence level and they have few options in this arid world of theirs. What wood they gather turns up in stacks along the road and is picked up by trucks and transported to urban areas, as wood is the prime fuel for cooking throughout the country.


Trees do survive in this terrain.  They provide shade for my rests.  I am surprised at times by passersby who I as surprised by as they are me out where I wouldn't expect to see anyone.  I could as well be an alien who has dropped from the sky by their reaction staring  at me in bewilderment.


Kids in particular are unabashed in their staring.  If I'm jotting on my iPad I can tilt it up and snap a photo without them realizing what I doing.


Though there are those who ask for a "cadeau," a gift, it is not as pervasive as in Sengal where they are more accustomed to encountering whites.  The people have been remarkably cordial and respectful.  Twice a bill has slipped from my pocket and dropped to the ground when I have reached in for some coins to pay for something and someone has pointed it out.  They could have easily waited for me to leave and had a minor windfall of a dollar or two.

It is nice to be pedaling without an urgency, as I was to Bruce and Sounkalo, as I knew I was going to be pressed for time to get what visas I needed and then continue on another seven hundred miles to DL in Liberia and then another twelve hundred miles back to Dakar through four more countries I'd have to get visas for. Flying might have been an option to avoid all those border crossings, but getting my bike on a plane cod have been a nightmare of a different order.  I had five weeks before my return to complete it all, which I wasn't sure was enough.  My ordeal at the Ivory  Coast embassy altered that plan and spared me from many more battles with African bureaucracy.  Now I can ride without the weight of all those concerns.  I'm riding leisurely, but even so had my first one hundred mile day of this trip.  

I wasn't intent on a century, as I had been looking for a spot to camp for several miles as dark closed in.  Though it often  seems that no one could be living in the vicinity, I will spot a mud hut blending in with the terrain, or catch site of someone trudging along either on foot or on a donkey or occasionally on a bike, so I must press on.  I have to wait as close to dark as I can when people will have concluded their commute or won't so easily spot me.  It is a nervous time for me.  Twice after I have stopped to camp someone has passed close to me but without noticing me in the dim light and my camouflage.  

At the 98-mile mark I spotted some bushes in the distance that I could camp behind.  As I pedaled through the dirt to reach them I saw some horses grazing nearby.  I didn't notice anyone tending them, but I didn't care to take the risk, so returned to the road.  It was another two miles, just as I hit 100 miles for the day, that I saw another bush far enough from the road for me.  

I've come 200 miles from Bamako and have another 220 miles to Kayes, where I will have my first opportunity for a shower in a hotel.  I'll at least be able to douse myself at the only gas station I encountered on this route that had running water tomorrow in Diema, one of the highlights of my ride to Bamako.

At least I won't be desperate to find wifi, as a friend of Sounkalo's provided me with a SIM card for my iPad.  I didn't have the consciousness to do that as soon as I arrived in Senegal, partially because I had no clue how difficult it would be to find wifi.  Now I have access to the Internet wherever I might be.  I almost feel guilty to be so connected to the world.  So far there has been no blank spots even out in this lightly inhabited region where few villages even have electricity.





Thursday, February 8, 2018

Bamako, Mali



Just when I thought I had the ways of Africa figured out, or had at least come to accept its many challenges, it became more and more complicated and frustrating. Patience remains the key, but while one struggles to be patient, it is diffuculty not to feel like a helpless victim as one is overwhelmed by stress and uncertainty. 

As I closed in on Kati, knowing I had an oasis ahead with my long-time friend Bruce, I could begin to relax a bit despite the increasingly rough road and chaos of a city to negotiate.  All I had to do was find someone with a phone and have Bruce come lead me to his abode.  I began looking for a phone in some small villages as I approached Kati to give Bruce an initial warning, but without success.  No phone was to be found either at an electronics shop on the outskirts of Kati.  A pharmacist had a phone, but when he called Bruce, we received a message that his phone was out of service. My heart plunged.  It was approaching dark so I'd need to find a hotel.  The pharmacist didnt know of one, just  to continue further into the city.  Though Kati was of significant size, just north of Bamako, it had no evident central district where I might find a hotel, just rows and rows of nondescript shops along the congested paved street that continued on and on, such as had been the story through all of Mali.

When I came to another pharmacy a mile later I gave Bruce another try with the same disheartening response that his phone was out of service.  I had them try Sounkalo in Bamako to see if he knew an alternate way of contacting Bruce.  His phone connected, but he wasn't answering.  The trio of pharmacists behind the counter had no ready answer about a hotel, finally telling me to turn left a couple blocks up. That wasn't assuring at all. A few blocks after turning when I could see no sign of a hotel I stopped to buy some bananas and asked again.  I was told there was a hotel just a couple blocks up on the left.  When I got there, I saw no evidence of a hotel. It was near dark and I was getting desperate.  How is this one going to turn out, I asked myself. 

I told a guy hanging out straddling a motorcycle I was looking for a hotel. He didn't know of any,  but he was helpful enough to ask a group of guys with motorcycles across the street who appeared to be the local version of a taxi stand. He came back with the miraculous news that there was a hotel down the alley, the first door on the left.  There was no sign for it, but yes indeed, there was a row of rooms inside the wall for rent.  Several were occupied by residents.  I was shown a room with no windows, but it had a shower and a fan.  The guy wanted $30 for it, but accepted $20.  It had no wifi, but he said the pharmacy on the corner did.  Before I took a bag off my bike, I zipped over to try to contact Bruce.

Bruce miraculously responded within a couple of minutes and said he knew exactly where I was.  It was just a couple blocks from the school where his wife worked.  Fifteen minutes later I had that long-awaited, joyous site of Bruce and his wife Kafoune.  Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

We returned to the hotel to fetch my bike and my ten thousand francs.  The proprietor was gone.  No one around knew where he had gone to, but someone gave us his phone number.  Kafoune called him.  He said to return in the morning for the money.  At this point I didn't care much.  Kafoune was adamant though.  She was appalled that I had been charged so much for the room.  That would have been the local's price for a week or even a month.

It was now pitch dark.  Bruce and Kafoune had shown up on a motorcycle, with Kafoune in command.  It was an eight minute ride to their residence in thick traffic, the last few blocks on a dirt road.  I used my lights for the first time on this trip. They shared a walled compound with several other families, some of whom were sitting outside.

Bruce and Kafoune married last July.  She is still awaiting a visa to the US.  She still lives with her parents, though is in the process of building her own home that won't be ready until next January.  Bruce is happy to split his time between Africa and California, where he lives out of a van in Santa Rosa while he administers the Arlene Francis Community Center.  He brings to Africa his organizational skills to assist the disadvantaged and promote environmental causes.  He's trying to battle the epidemic of litter in Africa, figuring out a way to recycle the tons and tons of plastic bags and bottles that are everywhere.  One start was to post non-dumping signs across from where he lives.


He lectures at the school where his wife and mother-in-law work, trying to get the students to dispose of litter in receptacles rather than haphazardly dropping it as is the custom.  The next afternoon while we hung out at the school library Bruce prevented me from picking up litter.  He said he prefers to do it in the presence of students, so they will join in.  The litter truly is a scourge, but is totally accepted.  Bruce's mother-in-law, Maria, attends educational conferences all over the world.  Her first impression of the US was how clean it was, and also that not everyone was toting guns.  Her friends were all frightened for her when she attended her first conference there in Denver,  thinking guns would be everywhere.


Maria, like Kafoune, was a genuine dynamo.  She had the urge, as did Bruce, to join me exploring Mali via bike, not this year but maybe next.  If the Issis presence in Timbucku has been cleared up by then, it woul make an enticing destination.  Bruce has yet to get there in any of his sojourns in Mali, the first in 1999, followed up in 2002, 2007, 2010 and 2017.  Now with a wife in Mali, he is working on gaining a Mali passport, which will make it much easier for him to travel in Africa, sparing him the cost of $100 visas for Americans in many of the neighboring countries.

Not only are visas costly, but they can be a monumental chore to obtain. After a day of rest in Kati, I spent a day-and-a-half in Bamako trying to get a visa to the Ivory Coast.  Kafoune was well aware of what an ordeal it would be and insisted on accompanying me to the embassy.  She was truly my guardian angel and saviour.  It was a not unpleasant twelve mile ride to the embassy, trailing her and Bruce.  She led some of the way and let me lead and set the pace on the open road before we hit the congested maze of the city.  She had no mirrors, but managed to keep me on her wheel.


I could remain calm knowing I didn't have to stop and consult my GPS as I would have innumerable times otherwise.  The internet gave two different locations for the Ivory Coast embassy.  We had to wait to leave until after nine when we could call to confirm where it was.  I also needed a visa for Liberria.  It didn't have an embassy in Bamako, meaning I'd have to go 500 miles out of my way to the capital of the Ivory Coast to get it.  That wasn't such good news, but I accepted it as an opportunity to get to know the country better than I would otherwise.

We didn't have the address for the Ivory Coast embassy other than it was behind the Radisson Hotel, which had been the site of a terrorist attack a few years ago.  Once we got to the Radiason we had to ask several times before we found the embassy.  I was told I had to lock my bike across the street and also that I had to wear long pants to enter the embassy, in a very stern manner.  And then the official we dealt with was equally stern behind his vast desk piled with papers.  He gave us a list of demands I had to fulfill, including a prepaid hotel reservation and photocopies of a bunch of my documents and also verification of where I had stayed in Mali.  

Kafoune and I went off on her motorcycle to find a copying shop and also the city hall where they could document my stay with Kafoune.  I had become a metal ball in a pinball machine.  We easily found a copy shop but had to go to two different city offices.  The second was jammed with people.  We were sent to several different offices packed with women sitting at typewriters besides stacks of paper.  It took half an hour for us to get what we needed and a charge of ten dollars.  

When we returned to the embassy over an hour later it was closed for lunch.  We had to wait 90 minutes for it to open. Getting a hotel reservation was too complicated to take care of in this time.  I hoped it would be waived, as it has been on other occasions in consideration of my means of travel.  But this official was unbudging.  He also rejected my passport photos, the same that had been accepted by Mali in Dakar. I could at least have them taken at the embassy for $5.  I was on the verge of forgoing the Ivory Coast and simply heading back to Senegal and ducking down to The Gambia.  But Bruce assured me that Sounkalo, who I'd be spending the night with, would be able to reserve a hotel for me, as he knew he had done for others.  

Kafoune led me for eight miles more through the thick Bamako traffic and left me at a school near where Sounkalo lived.


It was full-on chaos, but it was therapy to be back on the bike, somewhat in control of my destiny after hours at the mercy of the Ivory Coast embassy.  Sounkalo showed up twenty minutes later, hopping out of a taxi after a day of work in the city.  That was another joyous reunion.


It was a ten-minute walk to his apartment.  Boys were playing soccer on the wide dirt road in front of his home.  

A young woman was selling the dough balls that I continually munch.


After a shower we easily booked a hotel in the capital of Ivory Coast that I could cancel if I chose after I got my visa.  Except half an hour later the confirmation of my reservation was annulled, so we had to book another hotel.  Since we had already printed out the reservation I thought that would be enough to get the visa, but Sounkalo said the embassy would call the hotel.  I wasn't sure about that, but accepted his experience in such matters.

We had the meal of rice and peanut sauce that Sounkalo had promised me when I alerted him that I was coming to Mali.  And it was as sublime as promised. It had been two days since I had had rice, as Bruce resists it.  It had been meat and potatoes for dinner with him and Kafoune.  It was like a dream hanging out with Sounkalo after having met him at Telluride last fall, especially since he wasn't certain he'd be able to return to the US and Telluride this summer.  His work has suffered considerably with tourism near dead in Mali due to the Issis presence in Timbucku and the northeast of the country. Lonely Planet and the US State Départment highly recommend travelers staying away.  

It was eight miles back to the embassy.  Doing it on my own I had to stop several times to verify directions.  I was slow stopping at every bank I passed to try to break five and ten thousand Franc notes.  It's hard to get change from shops for any note larger than a one.  Not every bank would change money but I did change sixty dollars worth, almost enough for the next two weeks on my budget.

I greeted the embassy official with the happy news that I had a hotel reservation.  All seemed In order as he stapled my photos to the forms and checked off box after box and had me fill in a few empty blanks.  Then it was more sitting and waiting.  Three hours later I was told he had called the hotel and couldn't confirm my reservation.  And that was that.  I wasn't going to try to make another reservation and suffer the same fate.  I wasn't at all looking forward anyway to having to go trhough all this again for visas to Liberia and then Guinea and Sierra Leone and Guinea-Biseau and The Gambia, and trying to get back to Dakar in time for my flight.

I had a noteworthy ride to Bamako.  Now I'll head back the same way and then explore more of Senegal in the next month.





Monday, February 5, 2018

Nossombougoui, Mali



As I close in on Bamako and the completion of the first 850-mile leg of these travels, I am fully immersed into Africa. My survival routine has become second nature and what seemed hardships are now charming facts of life. My transition from the comfort zone of the home front for the comfort zone of the road has not been as seamless and smooth as when heading out into the good 'ol U S of A or venturing off to France, but life on the road essentially becomes the same wherever it may be.

I can now look at the above supply depot with anticipation and pleasure rather than chagrin at how meager it may be, knowing that the white chest refrigerator in the background will have something cold, or at least a little cool, to quench my thirst.  There is always the chance it will offer up a surprise, such as a bag of water that had been in a freezer and has a lump of ice within it--a gift from the gods.  It may not seem much, but it can make my day.


Likewise lifting the lid on a pot at a roadside cafe and discovering pasta rather than rice. I have experienced that pleasure just once in eleven days. And I took full advantage of it.  It was sixty cents to  fill my Tupperware bowl and then another forty cents for my smaller auxiliary container.  I was good for the rest of the day. That was a day I didn't have to worry about waking up hungry in the middle of the night.  I've just about figured out how much I need to eat, but it is still a concern.  

Even though I am on the main trucker route from Dakar to Bamako, the capitals of Senegal and Mali, the traffic has been negligible.  Rare is it for vehicles to pass beside me simultaneously from both directions.  The truckers tend to stick to mini-convoys of three or four.  When they pass from behind me, they propel me with a welcome surge of air.  The pedaling has been most pleasurable.  I have an instant smile on my face when I hit the road each morning knowing I have a full day on the bike ahead of me.  How lucky can I be.  The occssional truck bulging with passengers makes me all the happier to be on my bike.


The terrain continues to be dotted by the occssional baobab, as if overseeing its own fiefdom.


My sense of well-being biking along and being spared the nonsense of the daily Trump ruckus is heightening with the anticipation of meeting up with Bruce and Sounkalo, friends from the Telluride Film Festival.  Bruce has been a compatriot for years, but I just met Sounkalo.  Bruce has been visiting Mali for years, returning to his roots. He recruited Sounkalo to the festival this past year to work with him on the food lot.  He loved it and plans to be back this fall.    Bruce is in Kati, just north of Bamako, living with his wife.  I'll visit him first and then stay over with Sounkalo in Bamako while I acquire visas for the Ivory Coast and Liberia and see what the city has to offer.  Bruce has spoken in the past of doing some biking together.  Whether or not that happens it will be a joy to share his company and gain a better understanding of Mali.

After heading east across Mali for over 200 miles I have turned south down to Bamako.  There have been a smattering of palm trees and bananas have turned up on the roadside tables after a several day absence. They are just what I need for a midnight snack.   Though I am within 100 miles of the capital, there has yet to be a hotel.  I would have been tempted last night for a shower, to be a little more presentable when I meet Bruce's wife.  It's been nearly a week since I've been able to do more than poor water over me when I've been lucky enough to find a gas station with a faucet and not such a jug or two of water from the village pump.  Every pump I've seen has been mobbed by women filling jugs that I can't do more than stick a water bottle under the pump during a momentary lull.