Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Pair of Classic Cycle Touring Books

When I peruse the shelf of bike books at the libraries I visit in my travels, there are two books on touring that I see more than any other--"The World Up Close, A Cyclist's Adventures on Five Continents," by Kameel Nasr and "Odysseus' Last Stand, The Chronicles of a Bicycle Nomad," by Dave Stamboulis.

Both books cover seven years of travel all over the globe, Nasr's in the 1980s and Stamboulis' in the 1990s.  Nasr is of Palestinian heritage and Stamboulis Greek.  They grew up in the United States and are American through and through, but they are both clearly men of the world, comfortable in any culture.  Their books follow a chronological format, but they are less diary and more lenghty journal entries on meaningful incidents and encounters sometimes months apart.  As well-seasoned touring cyclists, they fully capture the many satisfactions of traveling by bike and how it opens the doors to much hospitality and goodwill.

They were both in their thirties when they undertook their travels.  The names they chose for their bikes reflect their differing personalities and styles. Nasr, the more reflective and meditative, called his Angel, while Stamboulis, who brought more of a conquest mentality to his biking, called his Odysseus, and occasionally refers to it as his steed.  Nasr is the humble sort, letting his achievements speak for themselves, while Stamboulis lapses into the boastful, writing that he is often told "how brave, courageous, great and amazing" he is, which he doesn’t dispute nor put into perspective as a commonn perception applied to any touring cyclist.  Some of his finest moments are of others "listening wide-eyed to my tales."

They both brought a strong curious nature to their travels and sought out encounters with others.  Stamboulis began his travels in Japan, where he lingered to teach English.  He found himself a Japanese wife who accompanied him the first two years, until they separated as their friction increased to the breaking point.  He doesn't write much about her until their breakup.  And even that merits just a couple of paragraphs.  It is the dawn of the Internet era, so they could stay in touch, but he barely mentions her again and they never reunite.  He seems to be happiest when he meets fellow travelers  who he can trade stories with and impress.  When he lingers on Crete and does some more teaching,  he is disappointed when he drops mentions of bicycling in the Himalayas and no one expresses interest.

Stamboulis concentrated his travels in Asia.  He dips down to New Zealand and Australia, but returns to Asia for another prolonged spell before concluding with a ride across Europe and the US.  Nasr makes it to South America and Africa and all five continents.  Just as was my experience, Colombia was one of his favorite places, though he makes the common mistake of repeatedly spelling it Columbia with a "u."  Stamboulis committed another common faux pas, referring to koalas as "bears."  Neither though commit the third of confusing peddling with pedaling.

Still, these books are very polished and well-edited unlike the plethora (a word that both of them use) of self-published books by those who have undertaken a single long tour that they think merits a book and tend to be riddled with typos and inanities and the thrill of getting a shower.  Nasr and Stamboulis shy away from such petty detail, though Stamboulis does exalt at one point, "I embrace the shower head like a man who has not seen his lover in years."   Nasr and Sramboulis are bonafide touring cyclists and writers. They have gone on to be journalists, though neither have yet to contribute another book to the cycle touring genre.  

Stamboulis precedes each of his chapters with a series of quotes on the traveling life.  Many will be familiar to most readers.  They largely endorse travel, though a few give it a different perspective, such as Emerson calling travel a fool's paradise and Edward Dahlberg asserting, "When one realizes that his life is worthless, he either commits suicide or travels."

Stamboulis, as an emotional sort, is much more prone to tears than Nasr.  Nasr recounts just once being moved to tears, out of gratitude to someone who is kindly towards him.  Stamboulis is brought to tears numerous times.  He cries uncontrollably at the sight of Mount Everest.  He weeps from exhaustion at the summit of a long hard climb.  He and his wife are reduced to tears after a yelling match.  Early in their travels she cries inconsolably at the side of the road, thinking she can't go on.  He cries tears of sadness at the death of his mother during his trip. He returns home in time before she passes.  He fears being bored to tears when he ends his trip, but there are no initial tears or even a "jig of wild celebration" when he reaches the end in San Diego.  He'd been preparing for the end for weeks and could control his emotions.  

Having ridden many of the roads they did, reading these books continually sent me down memory lane.  They are a good representation of the two strands of touring cyclist—the humble, self-satisfied and the chest-thumper who lets all the accolades go to his head.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Dakar Redux

"Lonely Planet" asserted that street stalls selling rice and sauce were "ubiquitous" in Dakar, one of thirteen times that it's team of ten writers covering the eighteen countries, including the Cape Verde Islands, that comprise West Africa, found something "ubiquitous."  Shockingly, litter was not one of those thirteen.  Rather, it was largely obvious and mundane items such as ATMs and power cuts in Nigeria, mobile cell phones and chop bars in Ghana, tea in Mauritania, salads in Morocco, and corn and beans in Cape Verde.  

Only once in 514 pages was litter alluded to.  It came in a blue-highlighted paragraph encouraging travelers to purify water rather than buying it, acknowledging that "plastic water bottles and plastic bags are one of the most visible scourges across the West African landscape."   It didn't specify any other scourges, though adjectives beginning with the letter "s" ran rampant through the book, led by "stunning" with 45 and "spectacular" with 35.  Among the other s's were splendid, superb, stately, sublime, sleek, swanky, sweeping, suave, succulent, serene, sensational, swishy, shabby, shoddy, scruffy, spooky, sopoforic.  One writer twice described bathrooms as salubrious.

The f's were strongly represented as well with 42 items deemed fascinating, 32 fantastic and 22 fabulous.  The f-parade continued with fancy, friendly, famous, frenetic, frosty, formal, funky, finicky, frumpy, fabled, fine, flourishing and frenzied.  It's fact-checkers certainly have their work cut out for them determining whether something is indeed stunning or just fantastic.  It's no easy task quantifying a beach or a view or some basilica. 

I was ready to call into question its fact-checkers for allowing the rice and sauce joints in Dakar to be called ubiquitous as I was having a hard time finding any.  There was virtually no street or bargain food to be found in the downtown area other than the occasional stand offering omelet sandwiches.in a baguette.  Although it looks like a hunk of food, the baguettes are so light and fluffy they do little to appease my hunger.  Besides eggs some stands fill the baguette with a bean paste or even spaghetti.  Some sandwich-makers are unwilling to put the spaghetti into my bowl as they have just enough to make sandwiches and don't want to have leftover baguettes.  And they're not very nice in their refusal.    It wasn't until I started wandering the side streets around the football stadium did I find those tiny stalls that I knew so well from the countryside with their pots advertising their fare

In the city they weren't so obvious, recessed among rows of tiny, shabby shops with their pots and seating inside.  They may have been in an urban setting, but there could still be goats tethered nearby dining right along with everyone else.

I made not my first food faux pas when I was presented with the above large bowl of rice with hunks of chicken and vegetables when I added a couple of spoonfuls of sauce from a bowl sitting on the table, not knowing it was a hot sauce of inferno proportions that one only needed a dab of.  My mouth was immediately scalded.  If I had immediately spat it out, no one would have been offended, not with two little girls unabashedly taking a pee right out front.

It was such a huge bowl of rice I was able to eat enough uncontaminated rice around the edges to reduce its volume so that it would fit into my Tupperware bowl.  I had some spaghetti back in my hotel room that I could mix in to lower the heat index.

My hotel room was as rustic as the street.  I had my own toilet, but it was badly fractured. The faucets in the sink weren't dispensing water and the shower head only gave a trickle. The door to the bathroom was off its hinges, paint was peeling everywhere and the windows didn't look as if they'd been washed this millennium.  It had once been a stately accommodation in the city center.  But it hadn't been maintained, as is the way here.  All it had going for itself was its location.

My return to Dakar on a Sunday with the traffic greatly reduced, made it not such an unpleasant ride.  My introduction to it seven weeks ago biking in from the airport and two rides out, the second after arriving by ferry a week ago, were veritable nightmares in bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles and miles on roads with little room for bicycles.  I had been reduced to a crawl, but this time I could zip right in, happy to stop at places of familiarity where I could get banana flour balls and spaghetti.  When I head out to the airport tomorrow, I'll stock up on more of those banana flour balls for my seven-hour layover in Istanbul and hopefully save a couple for Janina and be able to share some with her daughter Annia, who will actually be joining me on the second leg of my flight, connecting from Beirut.  She's coming home for her mother's birthday and also a writing project. 

It was a pleasure to meander around Dakar Sunday afternoon with little traffic to contend with able to gaze about at the shops and the sites.  The many mosques with their high towers dominate the skyline.  With my increased fabric consciousness I noticed an abundance of fabric stores, some clustered together and others on their own.

They offer an even wider array of patterns than I realized existed.

The women in their brightly colored every-day garb are a startling contrast to the otherwise run-down and drab surroundings with litter and dirt everywhere.

Their garb can be stunning, if not spectacular.

They may dress as if they're on the way to pay the queen a visit, but they're clearly not.

Though they could have been bearing gifts.

I could stand on any street corner and imagine I was watching a beauty, or at least clothes, pageant.

As I bike along here in Dakar and everywhere in these travels, my eye has been constantly arrested by a dress I'd like to stop and photograph.

During my Sunday exploration of Dakar I happened upon a side street lined with the ware of peddlers of bike parts spread on the sidewalk. There were the tires I was looking for, but not new enough.  Someone was willing to sell me a washer for my pump, but for the price of the pump that he removed it from.  I will simply rely on my backup pump as I have for the past few weeks.  I had to wait until Monday for the well-stocked bike shop, as it was closed. I was hoping it would have Schwalbe or Continental tires, but all it had were not so impressive Indian-branded tires, so I'll stick with what I have for my remaining few miles.  

It was back to being a nightmare biking around grid-locked Dakar, and more of a nightmare than I could want, as I was rear-ended by a cabbie in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.  We were just inching along, so all he did was give me a nudge and mangle my fender, but still I wasn't happy about being hit.  The driver got out and offered his hand, but of course no apology or compensation.  I stuck out my hand open-palmed and demanded a thousand francs ($2) caught up in the fury of the moment.  He just smiled and pointed at his bumper claiming I had damaged his dilapidated car.  "You hit me, you hit me," I shouted and then began calling, "Gendarme, gendarme."  

Traffic was blocked and a crowd was gathering.  A couple of guys started pulling on my bike to get me out of the way.  They were mean and surly.  It didn't look like anyone was coming to my defense.  There appeared to be no hope for me, so I tugged the bike away from them and quickly caught up with the backed-up traffic ahead and inched past them to the side, happy that the bike was rideable and to escape what was turning ugly.  Whatever luster there was biking around Dakar was now gone as well as my cloak of invincibility. I headed to the much-neglected Independence Park a couple blocks from my hotel and found a shady spot to eat an omelet sandwich and gaze upon the empty and fractured fountain that at one time had been the city's glory and was now a symbol of a different sort--minimal initiative and a tattered Africa.

I didn't mind at all this trip is coming to an end.  The hardships of Africa are many and its rewards few.  The few whites I've seen in Dakar all look like beleaguered aid workers, not tourists enjoying themselves. Despite their reputation for hospitality, the majority of Sengeleae I've encountered have been a somber, barely tolerant lot, not very welcoming at all. They seem to regard me as one of those people who have come to help them when they think they don't need any help.  Rather than being happy to see me, they pretend I'm not there.   I'm generally ignored when I enter a shop.  Those who respond to me are generally the hustlers, hoping to get something from me.  When I pulled up to the hotel I'd stayed at in Dakar before, two guys on the sidewalk latched on to me and led me to the entry, hoping to get credit for bringing me to the hotel.  When the guy I knew from my first visit greeted me with a hand shake, the two hangers-on immediately evaporated.  

When I was in China, I regularly heard the refrain, "We need to try to meet Western standards in certain matters," such as reducing their smoking and not spitting or littering.  It was a big deal to put garbage cans around cities in China.  The Africans don't seem to care to acknowledge Western standards, or only wish to defy them.  Their cities and towns are a mess.   Civic pride seems non-existent.  At least Senegal's roads were largely first rate, a major step in making a place habitable.

Unfortunately, the road out to the airport, other than the toll road, is narrow and thick with traffic. It will be an ordeal, but at least I know it well, having biked in on it twice and out twice.   I will be at it at daybreak hopefully before the traffic is too intense.  After seven miles it widens from two lanes to four with a bit of a shoulder.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Thies, Senegal

This is turning into one of my all-time great scavenging tours, right up there with Oman when I returned with a couple dozen team water bottles and half a dozen Tour of Oman course markers.  With all the fabric I've been gathering along the road, this may exceed that one in volume and as well as weight, not to mention novelty.   I've long been at capacity, but I keep spotting another dazzling piece that I can't resist, and manage to stuff it under the bungee cords securing my tent and sleeping bag and day-back atop my rear panniers.  My load of piled fabric flapping in the breeze has to cause no end of befuddlement.  I am a site akin to the occasional salesman cyclist I encounter draped with legitimate merchandise. 

I can't wait to hand my booty over to Janina and see what she makes of it--both literally and figuratively. Many of the patterns simulate her painting, which features drifting and floating squares.  She'll be fascinated by all the networks of squares and triangles and circles and may well have an explanation on their meaning and how they were derived.  Whether she turns it all into a quilt or sash or some article of clothing or wall hanging, all the dazzling colors and patterns will make it an Amazing Technicolor Dream Something or Other.  Hopefully she doesn't throw up her arms and exclaim, "What is all this?  You've got to be kidding."   But she has a scavenging gene as well.  Her garage and breezeway are full of bolts and wire and oatmeal boxes and sundry unimaginable items that she has collected, many from the roadside, with hopes of making art of it some day.  I'm eager to see what all this fabric inspires in her.

Each piece has a personal and significant story.  One can only imagine it's previous life before being discarded and not repurposed.  It is certainly a statement on the culture of Senegal that all this fine fabric has gone to waste with no one recognizing it's possible reuse until an American riding his bike around their country rescued it.  It took a while too before I realized what a bounty there was.  I was overlooking the fabric, as it was dominated by all the plastic.  But once I realized amongst all the refuse was cloth that Janina would appreciate I turned a more keen eye to all the litter.  

The fabric was often only revealing a fragment of its beauty through the dirt that had engulfed it, but I became adapt at spotting the diamonds.  I'd only gathered a token five or six items until my 500 mile jaunt up from Dakar to Mauritania where the litter was in great profusion.  I could have gathered a truck load of garments if I cared to.  I could be selective enough that if I saw a woman wearing a distinctive patterned dress that I hadn't seen before, I kept my eyes peeled for a similar design along the road.  Some of the garments have enough wear left in them, I suspect that a woman just grew tired of wearing the same dress day after day and no longer wished to be identified by it and wanted it out of her sight.  I have noticed that women don't seem to have much of a wardrobe and repeatedly wear the same dress, which at first look seems something worn on special occasions, but is actually one's every day dress. 

On my home stretch run back to Dakar, the baobabs began appearing again 100 miles south of St. Louis, distracting me a bit from the litter.

What I was most on alert for though was women along the road with packets of cold water to keep hydrated in the intense heat.  The thermometer on my watch registered 108 degrees, the hottest yet.    They were easy to spot with a large cooler and a sample bag on top.  Even in the searing, 100-degree heat, they can keep the packets cold with ice packs in their containers.  Frequently I'll drink one immediately on the spot and then buy a couple more to fill my thermal water bottle. Sometimes there are two or three women at the same spot each selling the water at ten cents a bag.  Once when I tried to spread my business around between them, the young woman who'd I'd bought my first bag from grabbed the coin I was about to hand to an older woman and said I was her customer.  She was quite adamant about it.

My Camelback thermal water bottle that holds just less than a liter of fluid may be one of my most prized possessions on this trip, keeping water cold that would otherwise be instant soup in this heat.  Cold water going down my throat as I'm bicycling along in this ovenish heat is an unimaginable pleasure.  But I recently learned that I shouldn't be so enamored by Camelback, as it is owned by Vista Outdoors, the largest manufacturer of ammunition in the United States, and maker of the MSR 15, an AR 15-style assault rifle.  Vista also manufacturers Bell and Giro helmets.  Bicyclists have been called upon to boycott these products.  Though it'd be handy to have a second Camelback, one is plenty adequate, so I won't be tempted to support an ammo-manufacturer.

Riding back to Dakar on the same road I biked up I was looking forward to a woman selling slices of watermelon for a dime and the lone shop I'd come upon in this stretch with frozen packets of water.  I bought four of the packs of ice, which hadn't fully melted after even five hours, though they had thawed enough after a couple of hours to break up one by one and put in my Camelback.  Knowing I had ice cold water on hand made the heat much more endurable.  It was positive bliss to be sitting under a tree in the semi-desert with ice cold water going down my throat.  I could savor it inch by inch as it flowed to my stomach.

Twice in the last week I have awoken to a front flat tire after picking up a thorn as I've pushed my bike across fields to camp.  I should have replaced my front tire when I passed through Dakar last week, but I feared by lingering in the city I'd have a hard time escaping its sprawl that night to camp.  So that will be one of my projects on my final day in Dakar so I don't have to worry about a flat on my forty-mile ride to the airport or my sixteen-mile ride from O'Hare back to Janina's. That ride home in thirty degree temperatures will be a shock to the system after the extreme heat here.  But as always it is a ride I'm looking forward to.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Along the Mauritania Border

Rather than trying to slip into Mauritania for two or three days and subjecting myself to its treacherous roads and nerve-racking border officials, I simply rode along its border for a hundred miles, stopping in at three border crossing sites across the Senegal River--one over a dam and the other two by ferry.

It was a relief to be approaching a border without having to worry about going through all the rigmarole, but I still couldn't help but feel a little tension, especially at the main crossing at Rosso with its swarm of hustlers and touts and money-changers.  Several jogged alongside me telling me I had passed the office where I needed to get my passport stamped.  None wanted to accept that I had simply come to give this ferry crossing a look.  

A primitive, small barge provided the transport. It wouldn't take much for an overloaded truck to capsize it. I didn't mind at all that I wouldn't be boarding it.  If I had decided to venture into Mauritania I would have chosen the dam.  It's a bit out of the way off the main highway, but said to have a minimum of hassle.

The river was rarely visible from the road that somewhat paralleled it.  The terrain alternated between barren desert and stretches where there was decent soil and irrigation had turned it productive.  There was sugar cane, rice, ochre, onions, melons and more.  One night I was able to camp on a path between rice paddies, but another night I was caught in a stretch of emptiness and ducked into a walled in compound of farm equipment when I noticed a security guard sitting at the entrance.  I assumed he was there for the night.  He was happy to let me pitch my tent inside.

Now that I'm shoulder to shoulder with the Sahara, the air has turned browner than ever with the wind stirring up the sand of this vast, ever-increasing desert the size of the continental US.  There were occssional irrigation canals where people went for water and could take a swim.  At one a cluster of women frantically waved at me as I passed.  I was surprised so see that several were topless and seemed to be beckoning.  None objected to being photographed.

No more baobabs, though I did have a glass of its juice specially prepared for me.  As I was sitting in the shade of a tree beside a village cemetery a young man, who introduced himself as Alieu, sauntered by and asked if I needed anything.  He had grown up in The Gambia so his English was fluent.  He had recently returned to the village of his grandfather and father, who were both buried in the cemetery, to farm their parcel of land.  He had been trying to make a go of it as a fisherman in St. Louis, but that is a tough life with lots of competition, so was glad to give the farming a try.  He resorted to the Internet regularly when he had questions of what to do.  I asked if there were any baobabs in the vicinity.  There weren't.  Next I asked if he liked baobab juice.  He said he did and said if I'd like some there was someone in the village who made it.  

He had already invited me to come hang out at his home in this heat for the next few hours as he would until five o'clock, when he would return to his fields.  I was actually getting ready to be on my way when he had stopped by.  I told him the breeze I created as I biked made the heat not so bad.  I would ride an hour then cool off in the shade for a spell and was just fine.  This sun though was intense.  The Brazilian cyclists said their solar panels had never worked so well as during their time in Mauritania.
I had my day planned out and didn't care to linger too long, but couldn't resist the opportunity for a freshly made glass of baobab juice.  It was a tough slog through the sand to his village on the other side of the road.  We joined a cluster of folk who were laying on rugs in the shade of a three-sided shelter.  A young boy brought me a glass of cold water.  

When I asked if I could take a picture of everyone, Alieu said in their culture the men and women sit separately, so that meant two photos of the group.  Alieu is in the middle.

I asked if I could watch the preparation of the baobab juice.  Alieu said it would take a while and it was best if I just waited with the others in the shade.  After a few minutes a woman brought me a soft pad and pillow, which I declined.  Alieu said his friend beside us had a bad shoulder and wondered if I knew any remedies for it.  I showed him an exercise I used when I had a broken collarbone and my shoulder stiffened up--bending over and letting the stiff arm dangle and then slowly rotating it like a butter churn.  Shortly after that a woman presented me with some x-rays of her son's withered arm.  Alieu said everyone assumed I was a doctor, as volunteer doctors are the only whites they have contact with.

Half an hour later Alieu said it would still be a while before the juice was ready.  I was  headed to check out the ferry in Dagan, just six miles away, and then would return to St. Louis.  I told Alieu that maybe I should continue on my way and come back in an hour or so.  He thought that was a good idea.  I was delayed though by a flat tire and more rough sandy roads through Dagan to the dormant ferry, just a pirogue that could take individuals across the river.  There was no immigration office.

Alieu and a dozen others were still under the shelter when I returned an hour later than I thought I would.  They had awaited my return for the final touches of the juice, a prolonged hearty stir and addition of sugar.  During the procedure Alieu excused himself to go pray at the nearby mosque, accompanied by the other men, while the women remained.

When the juice was completed they let me sample it to see if I would like any more sugar.  It was plenty sweet, enough so that I asked for it to be diluted with more water, which would add to the volume of the  bottle they were sending me off with.  It was the fourth or fifth time I had had the juice.  All were divine, but this was extra special. Before I was on my way we went on line and became Facebook friends.  Alieu said it was important for the Sengelese to be hospitable and was happy to have had the opportunity.  Someone the day before had also invited me to his home "to show how we live" but there haven't been as many examples of this as I was told there would be, probably because my French isn't fluent enough.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

St. Louis, Senegal

The vegetation grew increasingly sparse with the baobabs few and far between and the soil more and more sandy as I closed in on Mauritania and the Sahara.  But the litter became even more spectacular thanks to the quantity of traffic along this main road and the regular dots of civilization and the steady winds bringing it to congregating points.

With the abundance of litter strewn far and wide attracting my attention I hardly missed the baobabs.  But the kids shouting out "taubab" with the emphasis on "bab" as I passed kept the spirit of the baobabs alive.  It is a somewhat cheery term for whites in these parts, in contrast to the rather harsh "mzungu" of East Africa and the downright austere "blanco" of Guinea-Bissau.

West Africa might be the land-based equivalent of the huge gathering point in the Pacific for oceanic garbage.  It is hard to imagine so much could be generated just in this region.  Somehow the winds must bring it here from all over.

I took a slight detour after I left Dakar to Lac Rose, twenty miles outside the city along the coast.  It is an attraction due to its sometimes pink-hued waters due to red algae and its heavy salt concentration, ten times that of the ocean.  It is also noteworthy having been the finishing point for the almost mythical Paris-Dakar race.

The race was last run to Dakar in 2007 after security threats in Mauritania caused its cancellation in 2008. It had such appeal, peaking in 2005 with 688 competitors, it is still run (by the same organization that conducts The Tour de France) in South America through the desert terrain of Argentina and Chile.

At one end of the four-mile long lake by the large parking lot where the race used to end a handful of touts descended on me trying to recruit me to a hotel or a boat ride or to buy some souvenirs.  They don't get much business with no direct, easy way to reach the lake, though it does provide a welcome antidote of tranquility to the mayhem of Dakar and has a handful of hotels.

Salt production seems to provide more revenue than tourism.

There were several clusters of workers raking and sacking and loading the salt.

After biking several miles along the sandy dirt road hugging the shore of the lake I headed back to the main road for eight or nine miles on sandy roads that had me pushing my bike in equal measures to riding it, giving me a taste what it would be like to ride across the unpaved roads of the Sahara.  When I met a couple of Brazilians who'd just ridden down from Morocco across Mauritania, who said the roads of Mauritania were dreadful, requiring a considerable amount of pushing their bikes through the sand, Mauritania lost its allure for me.  I had a further taste of pushing my bike through the sand the two nights I camped on my way to St. Louis.  Unlike further inland on my ride to Mali, where I was able to ride on the hard dirt when I left the road to camp, it was a tough slog pushing my bike through the sand trying to get to a tree before a car came along.

At least the road was in tip top shape, recently repaved.  There were no broken down trucks awaiting repairs unlike all the other roads I've ridden in Senegal and Mali, just the carcasses of cows and donkeys and the occssional car.

St. Louis is on an island reached by crossing a bridge whose arches were designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Eiffel architecture turns up all over.  I saw a prefabricated church of his creation in South America, but missed out last year on a fireplace he designed in Madagascar.  This bridge was actually intended for the Danube, but when that project fell through, it ended up here in Senegal in 1897.

After crossing the bridge I crossed a second to the sister island of St. Louis, a much longer and narrower island defending it from the winds and ravages of the Atlantic where there was a hotel with a campground just off the beach.  I was thrilled to discover three cyclists who had come down from Morocco and Mauritania--two thirty-year old Brazilians and a twenty-year old Belgian, fresh out of high school on his first tour.  They had met in Morocco and had ridden together since.  They were relieved to cross into Senegal and its smooth roads after the nightmare of Mauritania, not just the horrible roads, but all the police checks and the ban on wild camping, having to pitch their tents at a police check every night.  

With the extra abundance of garbage along the road I had collected a load more of colorful and distinctive fabric fragments for Janina that needed washing.  A thirty-year old Australia woman who'd been on the road for six years was also doing her wash.  She was highly impressed by my project and found the fabrics most appealing.  I told her Janina knew what I was doing and had encouraged me, but like those t-shirts "My parents went to Sydney (or wherever) and all they brought me was this lousy t-shirt," there is always the danger Janina will say, "You spent a month-and-a-half in Africa and all you brought me was a bunch of rags you found along the road."

After doing my wash I had time for an initial exploration of the main island of St. Louis and its old colonial architecture that has earned it World Heritage status.  All the glory of the two-storied, balconied buildings that lined a few of its streets was long gone and further dampened by the dirt and sand on the streets, but compared to the utterly lackluster present-day construction they do stand out and warrant some recognition.

But the old city is relatively quiet, almost semi-abandoned compared to the nearby thickly populated shanty towns that are more characteristic of Senegal.

I'll continue my explorations tomorrow and see if I can verify that Mauritania issues visas at the border and whether I wish to give it a dabble before having to be back in Dakar in a week for my flight home. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Ziguinchor-Dakar Ferry

I had several prolonged spells of nervous suspense as I awaited the departure of the overnight sixteen-hour ferry from Ziguinchor to Dakar. The first was whether I would even be aboard.  I had originally booked a ticket for the Sunday ferry, but when I spent less time in Guineau-Bissau than I anticipated, I tried to change my ticket to the Thursday ferry on the Monday before its departure.  I was told all the cabins had been booked, but I could have a chair, without however being refunded the difference in the cost. 

The ticket sellers were taken aback that I was agreeable to that. They said there was a good possibility that there would be a cancellation, but I would have to leave my ticket with them so they could change it when it happened.  That seemed a little risky, but I had no reason to think it was a scam, so I left my ticket and headed off to Cap Skirring for a couple of days.  I was told to return to the ticket office at ten a.m. on Thursday, three hours before the ferry was due to depart.

I was back in Ziguinchor by nine a.m. after camping nine miles out of town in a palm grove.  Rather than heading straight to the ferry terminal, I bought a bag of baobab juice to pour over my remaining cornflakes and plopped down in the shoddy town park for some breakfast.  Rare was it to find a town park let alone a bench, so even though it was as unkempt as an unmade bed, it provided a nice refuge from the general hubbub.

When I arrived at the ferry terminal a little before ten it was already aswarm with passengers lined up to board and another mob in front of the ticket office.  I regretted not coming directly to the ferry at nine.  It looked like I was doomed to the Sunday ferry.  I went to the front of the line outside the ticket office to see if I could catch the eye of the ticket-seller who I'd left my ticket with.  She was blocked by a cluster of customers and a pair of security guards at the door.  The guards took my name and added it to a list of nine others and was told to take a seat until I was called.  Not a single name was called for ten minutes.  It was looking worse and worse.

Then at 10:15 one of the guards suddenly had a handful of tickets and was calling out names.  I joined the crowd around him to peer at the names on the tickets in case he had trouble pronouncing my name.  As he fanned them out I could see my name on one of them.  I was saved.  I wanted to go inside and give the ticket agent a hug of thanks, but that wasn't possible.  I had already been informed that I would have to check my bike and not roll it on to the ferry as I ordinarily do and was even able to do on the Queen Mary this past summer.  I couldn't stop making comparisons to that most orderly of processes and this semi-chaos.  I was a bit leery about leaving my gear on my bike, but had been told I had no choice and that it would be safe.  

I did take off the two front panniers and transferred my more valuable items to them and carried them on to the ferry.  Except when I boarded I was told that since I was in a cabin with eight there was no room for luggage and I would have to check it.  If I had opted for the more expensive four or two person cabins, I could have brought them on.  The guy checking was distracted by my panniers so didn't notice the pack I had on my back with my food and water and extra clothes, so I was at least able to smuggle that aboard.  The same thing had happened at the security check.  The guard looked through my panniers, but not the pack on my back.  He asked if I had a lighter.  There was a big pile they had confiscated.

There were a handful of French tourists among the passengers but none in my cabin.  I was assigned an upper bunk by the window.  There was one older couple and five single guys in our tight little cabin.  There was a shower down the hall, a tiny restaurant and a bar.  There were three levels where one could sit outdoors--one unshaded on the upper level, a slightly shaded alcove at the stern with the bar and then below it a narrow rim with no seating.  Most people crowded on the middle level.

The best viewing was on top, if one could tolerate the sun.

I was aboard by eleven.  After making a circuit of the boat I noticed my bike parked behind the ferry off to the side on the other side of a barrier from four motorcycles and another bike.  I stood at the railing for two hours waiting for it to come aboard.  When it was brought aboard I was going to run below and ask if I could reattach my front panniers, so at least all my gear would be in one place. When it hadn't budged fifteen minutes before one I went down below and asked about my panniers.  They said I could put them on the bike.  When I tried to bring the bike back with me I was waved off, but at least I had asserted the presence of my bike so it wouldn't be forgotten.  

 At one o'clock, our supposed departure time, the attendants began driving cars onto the ferry, just ten of them.  It was encouraging to see there were so few and no trucks.  The predecessor of this ferry had sunk at sea over a decade ago, partially because it had been overloaded.  It was a major disaster with all aboard perishing.  Unlike the train from Dakar to Bamako that had been discontinued after a succession of accidents with fatalities, the ferry was allowed to live on.  I had been told there was a memorial to the victims at the dock, but no one there knew anything about it.  

It was a relief to see my bike wheeled aboard, the last of the vehicles.  Our first three hours were down the Casamance River before we reached the Atlantic and headed north to Dakar.  Lush green vegetation lined the river and continued as far as the eye could see.

Before we reached the ocean we stopped at a small village and took on a few more passengers.  It had been calm going, but once we went out into the open sea a little after five the ship went into a slight roll.  So much for sitting on the deck for me.  I needed to lay down.  I don't know if the seas calmed as I was quickly asleep and was pretty much out until we arrived at Dakar thirteen hours later.  I was only aware of my legs soaking up the rest.  I heard a brief spurt of light snoring, but it didn't amount to much.  I was sorry to miss the sunset out over the ocean, but I was also happy for this much needed sleep.

It was dark when we arrived in Dakar.  Passengers were allowed to linger on board until it began getting light at seven.  When I exited the ship at 6:45 I saw my bike just ahead with all panniers and gear attached--a most happy site.  I kept remembering the friend who flew to Cuba with his bike and had it stolen from the airport before he had a chance to ride it.  I had been in a momentary panic before I boarded the ferry when I was ushered to a window further away than I realized to pay for my bike and left behind my two panniers.  There was a cluster of people milling about in the chaos of the terminal any of whom could have grabbed my unattended panniers sitting in a corner near my bike.  In Cuba that most likely would  have disappeared.  Here my concerns were unfounded.

The ferry docked at the same dock as the ferry I had taken to Île de Gorée, so I knew the way to the hotel I had stayed at when I arrived.  I wasn't going to check in, but I wanted to check to see if it still had my bike box.  I wasn't able to lay eyes on it, but I was assured it was in a safe place.  That didn't leave me fully placated, but all my ferry anxieties were a waste of energy, so I will try not to worry much in the next ten days before I return for it.  In the meantime I'm off to the northern extremity of Senegal after just being at its southern.  It's 170 miles to the UNESCO World Heritage city St. Louis, West Africa's first French settlement, and the border with Mauritania.  It is cooler, in fact cool enough upon arrival in Dakar to need a wind-breaker, at least in the early morning hour.