The End of the Ladybum Adventures

8 Jan

From Casablanca, we flew back to where it all began – Tunis.

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This capital city of Tunisia was filled with memories: Our group of SIT students’ first meeting, settling into our host families, the fateful day the US Embassy was attacked, and our program’s evacuation to France–which thus catapulted these two gals into the adventure of traveling.

And when the plane touched down in Tunis airport and we got in a taxi to Sidi Bou Said, we felt like we had come home (albeit one that was considerably colder than the one we had left in late summer).

There was even an evocative cloud of smoke on the horizon—was that the Salafists welcoming us back again?

We had nowhere to stay, but had a plan to meet Laura’s Tunisian host family for dinner. We showed up with all of our stuff, exhausted and dirty, on their front doorstep.  The three little dogs milled around our feet, sniffing us.

“How are you? Where are you staying?” Laura’s host mother greeted us.
“Uh…we don’t know yet,” we admitted.

And so it was that she offered for us to stay at their house while we were homeless in Tunisia. We gratefully bumbled into the house and were treated to spicy Bolognese pasta and clove-scented Coke (ah, how we’d missed the flavors of Tunisia!)

We spent two precious days chatting with the brothers about their birthdays and golfing, playing with the dogs (including a newborn puppy), meeting Laura’s “second host mother” for another wonderful dinner, and venturing out again to Sidi Bou Said to eat Tunisian shawarma and get clean in the hammam (Which is a public bath where we first spent time in the humid sauna, followed by some big Tunisian women scrubbing every inch of our dusty bodies. Despite no language in common, their disbelief over the amount of dirt we carried was obvious).

But the happiness of being back was full of bittersweet tears, as it also meant the impending goodbye between the Ladybums. Laura soon left to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in Germany, and Louise remained in lovely Sidi Bou Said, waiting for the family reunion (some of the original SIT Tunisia students who stayed in France had now finished their semester and returned to go on a road trip through Tunisia).

So looking back on two months of crazy unplanned, unresearched travelling, how can we finish the blog? We’ll do it in a few STATS.

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Round up of the Ladybum Adventures!

  • 8,000km traveled by road
  • 10,000km traveled by plane
  • 11 border crossings
  • 8 modes of transportation: walk, cycle, bus, taxi, pickup truck, boat, motorcycle, airplane (only from Tunis-Toulouse, Toulouse-Tunis, Tunis-Dakar and Casablanca-Tunis)…
  • 11 languages used:
    English, French, Arabic, Danish, German, Portuguese, Creole, Spanish, Wolof, Malinké, Russian.
  • 10 days for longest amount of time stayed in one location (in Dakar, Senegal)
  • 26 different beds slept in
    (Senegal 11, Bissau 3, Gambia 2, Mauritania 3, Morocco 4, Tunisia 3…plus various buses).
  • 1 marriage inquiry for every conversation with a male that lasted more than the exchange of names
    (and once from a Moroccan mother looking for a bride for her son). You do the math.
  • 4 cups of tea a day in the Diakhaba village.
  • 20 cups of tea during the Mauritanian desert trip. Each. Daily.
  • 40 cents for cheapest meal: sandwich with tapalapa bread, beans, onions, and tomato
  • 50 cents for second cheapest meal: peanuts, bananas, and roasted maize

 

Lastly:

10 reasons we should NOT be allowed back into our home countries:

  1. We’ll try to squat on the toilets, and we can’t quite remember how to use toilet paper.
  2. We’ll get grumpy without our afternoon bucket baths.
  3. We’ll try to eat with our hands. And we’ll be confused why the water isn’t in a plastic bag (or from a bucket).
  4. Fixed prices?  What?  We’ll try to haggle those prices down to something reasonable! (At Starbucks: “$2 for coffee? But you’re my sistah. Seventy five cents.  One dollar.  One dollar fifty.  Come on now, bargain with me!”
  5. `A la mode Senegalaise, we throw all our trash onto the street so it can get reused, eaten by goats, and decomposed by the hot sun!
  6. Not sure our “official” Senegalese marital status as being in a polygamous union with the same man is legal in the U.S. or Denmark…
  7. We’d be walking biohazards if it wasn’t for all the vaccines and malaria pills.  We have drunk pretty much any and every kind of tap water, and eaten food flavored with traces of such things we as can only imagine (or don’t want to imagine).
  8. Every time we see a white person we get very excited and yell “Toubab!!!”
  9. We’ll get caught wandering into old thatched shacks, or maybe strangers’ backyards, looking for a local mama who will cook some chieboudienne.
  10. Using the Arabic word for students, when asked for our profession we promptly reply “Taliban!”

 

And thus, this is the final post of our blog.

Thank you for following–we do hope you’ve enjoyed!

At least we’ve had a ton of fun writing about our weird and interesting encounters, and can only look back at all of it with a “…Did we really do that??”

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Goodbye West Africa!

25 Dec

[Note: First of all, MERRY CHRISTMAS! And then, sorry for the delay! Enjoy.]

Leaving Mauritania

After our host picked us up from the camping trip in the Mauritanian desert, we spent the night helping him cook dinner for a few friends that were coming over.  Into a large pot went a grand mélange of vegetables simmered in soft but hearty spices and juices from the large and impenetrable chunks of meat that the kittens drooled over.

On Thursday the 5th, we left Nouakchott in the afternoon on the bus north for Nouadhibou with a friend of our host, who happened to be a Spanish lawyer who now works in Mauritania (dealing in Mauritanian law, not Sharia!).

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After a comfortable bus ride up through Mauritania, watching sand and camels passing by as the sun set, we arrived in Nouadhibou in the dark and followed our new guide on a search for dinner. We assumed we’d be getting something like a simple shawarma sandwich as we all had to get up early in the morning (buses, business meetings). But we walked down the dead, dark, sandy street, turned left at an indistinctive building, and walked up some steps, found ourselves in a restaurant.  It was a warm, lively place, filled with the faces of relaxed toubabs, Spanish music, the smell of frying peppers, and the distinctive clinking of glasses used for illegal alcohol.  It turned out that we were visiting our second restaurant on this trip run by a Swiss expat woman.  But this one had wonderfully spikey silver hair, a leather vest, and sprightly cowboy boots!

As per our host’s request stemming from Spanish homesickness, she served us baguette slices spread with smashed tomatoes to eat with our tapas plates of chorizos, Brie cheese, and chicken croquettes.  With this we drank red wine that was probably Spanish and tasted nice to our untrained taste buds.  Exclaiming on how good the wine was, we bemoaned our history with wine in France:
“We went to France and all we drank was bad boxed wine, because we were all too cheap for the good stuff.”

We were told that many Netherlanders frequent this establishment, as they are employed to clean up the harbor because there are too many sunken ships in it to operate.
“Mauritania, it used to be a wild place, it was so far west, much unregulated.  When boats were nearing their insurance expiration date, people would take them and sink them out here to get the money.  And now they’re wanting to open the harbor back up again…”

Nouadhibou is on a peninsula held in half by Mauritania and half by Western Sahara (which is held by Morocco).  In this city, as in all of Mauritania, pork and alcohol are illegal, but Nouadhibou is a place of its own, and the expats in Mauritania come to the city to enjoy delicious illegality…

To prove this, our host said “We need something to digest this!  How about a whisky?” — and so we sipped that toxic golden liquid.  One of us (guess who, maybe the one who didn’t grow up in the country with the highest rate of teenage alcohol consumption) couldn’t quite stomach it and so was persuaded by the more experienced ones to man up and get a Coke to go with it.

The day after, we were up early again in the morning for another transport day.  Off to the gare routiere, choose between a whirlwind of taxi drivers, and somehow end up in a car that looks like a sept-place from the outside, but only with two seats.

We gave our driver our passports to give at the police control stops.  We noticed the Mauritanian driver flipping idly, curiously, through our passports.  His Senegalese friend motioned to him that we were watching.  Our driver put it back sheepishly.  Then he looked at Laura and beamed proudly.  “We are born in the same year!”

After a bit, they asked, “So, are you married?”

To which we replied, not even bothering to keep a straight face, “Yes!  We both are married!  To the same man!  A Senegalese man!”  We died of laughter in the back, high-fiving each other and slapping our knees.  The Senegalese man nodded and chuckled.

Off to the border to Morocco!

But no–we stay in Nouadhibou. Our driver keeps stopping the car, getting out, and disappearing for long periods of time.  “What is he doing?” we ask his friend each time. And, apparently, he had plenty to do besides being concerned with our transportation:

“He’s talking to someone.”

“He has to fix his phone.”

“He needs to get money from someone.”

“He’s buying meat and vegetables.”
– “Why, is he going to barbecue for us?”
“No, it’s for someone at the border.”

Finally, after about an hour longer than we needed to spend in the same city we started out in, we leave Nouadhibou and head to the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania.  The driver mysteriously disappears at the border but his friend drives us on through the hauntingly desolate no-man’s land marked by bumpy caked-sand roads and deserted old vehicles left behind as trash.

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At the border, he drops us off and we walk through customs. As per usual, we are asked where we are from and what is in our luggage, and as per usual the customs officer also drops a “Denmark, huh? You take me with you?”

Louise (trying out a different strategy this time): “SURE! Yeah!! Finally I get married! Of course you can! I will have to ask my parents! Should I call them now? When should the wedding be?”

Officer (very confused, possibly scared): “Ooooh it will never work…. I am too old for you!”

We then wander into a bus station eatery and eat our first tagine and Moroccan round bread. In theory, welcome to Western Sahara, but in reality, welcome to Morocco.

 

On the other side of the border, we catch the bus that will be taking us across the Sahara. The seats are comfortable, the bus has aircondition and we’ve stocked up on snacks. And as bus rides go (and we’ve had quite a few of them), this was one of the more enjoyable. The bus stops every five hours or so to let us all out for fresh air or food, and when the bus honks, we all hurry back as children running home for dinner.

And 28 hours later, we arrive in Agadir, Morocco.

 

With no couchsurfing host planned or hostel booked, we spend the evening in a café and try to decide whether or not we should sleep at the gare routiere (bus station). The waiter at the café hears of our plan and talks us out of it, and shows us a cute little hostel instead.

OK then, at least other people can worry on our behalf if we don’t.

As towns go, Agadir is not the most fascinating. It’s surrounded by hills and has beautiful beaches, and is a major attraction for national and international tourists. But having seen quite a few beaches and hills on this trip, we left the touristy town in the morning.

 

Next stop: Essaouira.

Apparently a quirky little coastal town where people do art and smoke a lot.  On the bus ride there, we had a first encounter with a local from Essaouira. He stuck his head between the seats and attempted to engage Louise in a conversation on Islam, spirituality, and astrology. Not succeeding, as we were both trying to sleep. But as he proclaimed “You know, we need to do good, or we’ll end up in hell!”. Laura couldn’t help asking:

“So, is there hell in the Islamic faith, and if so where is it located?”

“Oh, about 25, 30 kilometers away.”

What?

Oh. He thought we were asking for the remaining part of the bus trip.

Having caught our attention, he proceeded to read our palms—predicting big and wonderful things for Laura – and wishing the best and feeling sorry for Louise. Thanks.

We couchsurfed in Essaouira with the manager of a surf camp. He took us for a walk around the harbor, explaining about the tiny fishing village, pointing out the fishermen and their boats bobbing calmly in the water.

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Followed by a visit to the local fish market, where we pick and chose fish and seafood as children in a candy store. They gutted the fish for us, and we took the fish to a small restaurant with open air seating that enjoined with the tables of other restaurants whose visitors dined al fresco.  They fried and grilled the fish for us, and served it with tomato salad and round bread.

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Rabat

From Essaouira, we continued to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. On the bus trip, we had a lunch break, and seeing as we were used to the long breaks and a nice driver honking to let us know we would be leaving soon, we were very calm. But when eating our grilled meat, our bus suddenly starting rolling out of the station, and next thing we knew we were running through the bus station, shouting and balancing our bags and sandwiches.

Although not the biggest city in Morocco, arriving to Rabat and thus being back in a big city was scary! Lots of traffic, lots of people and lots of life. What?

Our next couchsurfing host was a young female engineer, and she picked us up at the gare routiere in the evening. “Are you crazy? It’s not safe for you girls to be here!!!” Weeell, we guess we’ve toughened up a bit along the way…

She then treated us to salads from a restaurant owned by a man who used to work at Kells in Portland Oregon.

We spent two days in Rabat, wandering through the souks, drinking tea with our host at an old fort, teaching Laura how to deal with curly hair, and tasting Moroccan pastries. We discovered the small streets of the souks on a mission to find jasmine perfume, which we found, along with musk perfume, which, according to the man in the purple shirt mixing things, is the most popularly sold scent in Morocco.  Who knows what the statistics are, but it smells alright.

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We found yogurt topped with sumptuous amounts of pomegranate, pear, peach, melon, and apple, and it was all topped off with a sweet green frosting that tasted like avocado. It was much more suited to our European sensibilities than another yogurt delicacy we had tried a few days earlier that consisted of a bowl of quinoa-like ‘couscous’ drenched in fermented camel’s milk.

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We met up with Louise’s Danish friend Ronja for shawarma and hot chocolate at the fancy train station café. Ronja was in the SIT Morocco program and had given us the recommendations for towns to visit in Morocco (and the ones not to visit, to avoid hassle and scams).

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Chefchaouen

A tiny mountain town, enclosed by mountains and clouds hanging low. With the houses in the medina painted in blue and white, the whole mountain town looks magical and the atmosphere feels like Christmas. The best way to see the town is to wander through the souk and get lost on purpose—even when you think, you know the way you’re going, you’re wrong. It’s beautiful, unique and almost like another time in history.

Louise was slightly carsick from the zig-zag ride in a big bus through the mountains, so Laura dined on her own that evening. For the first time through several months of travelling together, the Ladybums were split. And while Louise worried for the safety of Laura back at the hostel, Laura had couscous “that just didn’t taste the same!!”. Oh, what travelling together (well, marriage) does to you!

But what we also realized was that mountains and foggy clouds mean cold and humid air. We thought we very well remembered what it felt like to be cold despite spending several months in sub-Saharan Africa, but we were wrong. As the hills were covered in the evening call to prayer, we spent the evening under several layers of blankets shivering and discussing which one of us should be the unfortunate one to get up and switch off the lights.

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Casablanca

Our new friend in Rabat arranged for us to stay with her friend in Casablanca. His sweet mother served us dinner: cabbage salad, toasted round bread, tagine chicken, spicy ratatouille, and potato fries. Our host is an engineer, but he dreams of going to India to get certified as a yoga instructor, then conducting workshops in remote, wild locations around the globe.

After dinner we saw the mosque, which is the biggest mosque in Africa, and the Casablanca beach, and then went to a club where Moroccan musicians played covers of a wide assortment of rock music.

And then our host got hungry for snail broth.  We drove around a bit searching for one of the snail vendors, and found one with a shiny white box cart.  Our host preferred the first cup: the briny, salty broth.  The second cup is filled with snails in striped yellow and brown shells.  You take a wooden toothpick and sear the squishy thing in the shell opening.  Out come a lumpy dark brown, shapeless thing.  You eat it and it tastes spicy like Café Touba, and has a velvety texture.  It is a primordial, squeamish experience.

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So spending less than a week in Morocco proved to be enough to bring us back to hectic big city mentality, make us miss the sizzling heat of Senegal and get used to the vast majority of people being able to speak some sort of English—but still encountering amusing bus rides (with interesting and only slightly weird people), beautiful scenery and, of course, new culinary experiences.

 

The Wild West, featuring camels

8 Dec

[Disclaimer: Sorry for the long post, but there is, actually, quite a lot to say about a lot of sand.]

When we were still in Dakar, right back in our first part of our West African adventures, we joked with the idea of eschewing the first leg of our flight from Dakar to our transfer in Casablanca, and instead travelling that distance by land, through Mauritania and Western Sahara, and showing up for the second flight from Casablanca to Tunis. We’d even visited the Mauritanian embassy and gotten visas—because, well, you never know.

And finally, on December 2nd, we decided it was time to cross the border from Saint-Louis, Senegal, into the unknown of Mauritania.

We travelled with a new kind of transportation: A free ride! Our newest couchsurfing host had invited us to join his ride in a pickup truck. Travelling in an overfilled truck, Louise decided to spend the trip in the back of the truck, standing up for most of the trip with sand and hair blowing all over, having all the people we passed pointing and grinning in disbelief. Silly toubab.

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Our host was a Mauritanian man who is well interwoven into the international community of Nouakchott and who volunteers in various organizations including one for animal rights. As he explained: “You know Save the Children? I do that, but for donkeys.”

And so we found ourselves in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Nouakchott as “Neither an ancient trading center, colonial outpost or even holding a particularly strategic location, this is capital-building nomad style: a city simply plunked down as if on an overnight caravan stop and left to grow by accident.”

There is sand everywhere, the streets are sleepy, and it feels new, as if it has seen little history and has no context to identify itself. Other than being a melting pot between Arab North Africa and Sub Saharan Africa.

After a night of dinner with our hosts, and then a day of market shopping followed by an evening cooking with a charmingly quirky and philosophical woman we met on couchsurfing, we ventured out of Nouakchott into the “wilderness” of Mauritania (though even in the city of Nouakchott it feels very Wild-Westy).

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Our host had casually mentioned that he “knew a guy who could show us the desert”. Though several foreign ministries advise strongly against leaving the coastal highway in Mauritania (or even entering the country), we thought “What’s the worst that could happen?” After all, this whole trip has become a tour of travel warnings: Guinea-Bissau, the southern part of Senegal, travelling with public transportation in Gambia, and last but not least, the reason why we’re even touring West Africa: Tunisia.

So we set off on a bus, going 400 km. northeast, equipped with a paper with the name of our destination and the name of a guy we were supposed to meet. It seemed perfectly legit.

The bus ride was a quiet one spent observing the scenery, which was 99 % sand.

Seeing us looking curiously at a mining operation out of the window, a man sitting next to us fetched out of his light blue tunic a card that identified him as a member of a copper mining corporation, which answered our question about what was being mined for.

Signs of human activity also included a myriad of human-made shelters: There were the round mud huts with cone-shaped thatched roofs resembling the Diakhaba village in Senegal; domed huts made entirely out of sticks; square mud houses with poles sticking out of the top that looked very much like pueblos; fabric tents whose sides billowed in the winds; and the occasional courtyard walls enclosing spacy one-floor homes.

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Being a dictatorship, Mauritania combines its love of authority and bureaucracy in a massive amount of checkpoints throughout the country. To save time, foreigners can bring fiches for the officers, photocopies of the passport. Having no access to a photocopy machine but still fans of saving time, we decided to do handwritten fiches. Thus, we spent a lot of the time scribbling all our passport details in small notes, barely keeping up with the amount needed for all the checkpoints.

And at one checkpoint in the middle of nowhere, our driver told us to get out. “This is your destination!”

Oh, right!  Okay.

The checkpoint officers gathered around us, we could only say the first name of the guy we were supposed to meet, and after a bit of discussion among our audience, a man led us to his car. Turns out, he was the father of the guy we were supposed to meet.

He drove us further into the desert and around the rocky mountains, and dropped us off at a small village where we were made to wait in a stick hut as a woman made ataya tea for us and the children shyly watched.

We made eye contact with each other, shrugged and lounged on the mats provided for us. If we were, in fact, being kidnapped, we were being treated awfully nice so far.

After a brief lunch, we discovered that we actually had reached the right place. A guy, presenting himself as a friend of our guide’s, explained that we were in the village of Terjît, and that we should follow him to the oasis the village is named after. And unveiling itself between big red rocks and sand dunes were, indeed, an oasis in its true meaning: Bright green palm trees, water dripping down the rocks and small puddles of water, all coming from two separate springs—one cold and one hot. We had the place for ourselves and tiptoed around barefooted and drank water until our guide decided we’d seen enough.

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Then, we met our real guide, waiting for us in the outskirts of the village. And so, the three of us started walking, along with a camel carrying our backpacks and other equipment.

Were we walking to another village?
Were we fetching other camels we would ride?
Were we, in fact, being kidnapped?

Our guide didn’t explain, and we didn’t ask. We just walked.

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After a while, as if our guide had been looking for one specific sand dune, we stopped and set up the tent. And spent the evening on mats, watching our guide make dinner by the campfire lights with the camel wandering (well, tiptoeing, seeing as its legs were tied) about to find desert shrubbery to eat.

You might expect the desert to be boiling hot and with no wind. Well, at least we did. We wanted to sleep under the stars and thus tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags, to our guide’s confusion:

“You don’t want the tent?” he asked.
“No, we want to look at the stars! It’s okay!”

He shrugged, packed up everything and climbed into the tent. And so, we curled up outside on the mats, looking at the billions of stars.

Until it became quite windy and streams of sand blew in our faces to the point that it was impossible to sleep.  Stubbornly trying to “sleep under the stars,” we spent a few hours trying to cover ourselves from the cold sandstorm, until we gave up and tumbled blindly into the tent.  Our dozing guide, not quite sure what was happening, scooted to the far side of the small tent, and the night continued on.

We didn’t have a clue what was awaiting us the following day, and once again, we didn’t ask. Our guide refused to let us help him cook, or tidy things, or carry our bags. We decided to accept this lack of responsibility on our part and settle into our roles as innocent and helpless tourists. We had no idea where we were going from one hour to the next, or what time to expect lunch, or dinner.

In fact, it was just our guide taking two toubabs and his camel for a walk in the desert.

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We passed striking natural features on the desert walks.  As vegetation goes, we found small savanna-like trees, beachy grass, shrimpy dry bushes, and succulently green broad-leafed shrubs. And out of the flat and sandy, transient land rise dark brown hills and jagged cliff plateau formations.

For three days, our guide cooked all the food, the camel carried our bags, and we walked, ate and slept. Every now and then (read: at least five times a day), our guide would light a bonfire and make ataya tea with huge amounts of sugar, and hand us a cup of steaming, sickeningly sweet, stickily foaming, but much welcomed tea. In the course of those days, we swear we’ve had at least 30 cups. Each.

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Going back to civilization, we were once again instructed in taking the bus (this time just standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere) and a promise that our couchsurfing host would be at our destination.

And luckily, he was, with a fatherly smile, a hug and lunch (of fish balls in yassa sauce). Just like coming home from a camping trip.

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Six days, four countries

7 Dec

Monday

Travelling from Bissau, Guinea-Bissau to Ziguinchor, Senegal, was not just a ride, but a journey in which we were stopped multiple times and faced with a combination of tasks. Each time we stopped at a checkpoint, the entire sept-place (bush taxi) empties, and we must show our passports, wait for them to stamp the passports, answer our destination and occupation in Portuguese, French, English and Wolof, and watch our luggage get opened, emptied and searched. This entire ordeal was repeated seven times.

Reaching the gare routière (bus station) at Ziguinchor, we felt like old pros when we were able to walk in and ask for exactly the sept-place, the seats, the destination and the snacks we wanted, all the while nonchalantly dodging the pickpockets, scammers, and marriage proposals from young men helplessly in love. Toubabs learning!

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^ A very rare sight: A gare routiere where we’re being left alone!

When we reached the Gambian border, our welcoming committee wasted no time: we were instantly bombarded with “tour guides” offering overcharged trips and more bumsters proposing undying love (from one rather handsome but otherwise absolutely corny young man: “Why you didn’t answer me when I told you how I love you?  Do you think I am ugly? I must be ugly…Now you have made me so sad”).

It was not even limited to the bumsters who tried to scam us in black market currency exchange—also the police officers and drug investigators tried their luck at asking for our hand in marriage. And this time, everyone spoke to us in English! What a delightful change. Now we could joke along with the bumsters and tell them even more fantastic tales of our husband (note: singular. Very effective to say that we’re married to the same Senegalese guy!).

In Senegambia, Gambia, we couchsurfed with a German business woman working in the tourism supply industry (postcards, souvenirs, and organizing sales) and who had brought her two daughters up there. They are around our age but are both studying in Scotland now. She treated us to cocktails and dinner, helped us get to the ferry the next day, and arranged for us to stay with the family of her friend in Touba: “I’m doing these things for you because I would hope others would do the same for my daughters!”

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Wednesday

On the ferry crossing the river Gambia, we encountered a guy whom we were very grateful to meet. He was wearing an English hat with a red fabric rose sewn onto it. Turns out, he works in the Gambian Ministry of Justice—and that he was also going to Touba. Thus, we had a travel buddy to help us navigate the Gambia-Senegal border crossing (including 1 km-ride on motorbikes with our giant backpacks on our backs!).

Arriving in Touba, our friend also helped us get to our host for the night, the Senegalese family who are friends of the German-Gambian woman. A family, who spoke no English, and whom we’d never met before. The teenage girls came out to meet us on the street dressed up in boubous, the Senegalese matching skirt-and-top outfit. The lady of the house was absent on a business trip to Dakar, but her parents and children were all there, tiptoeing around to take a peek at the odd toubabs who suddenly showed up, and instructed us in using a flashlight, the door, a fan, the bucket baths and eating.

Laura had forgotten to give her Tunisian host mother the Oregon kitchen towel, so instead gave it to the mum of the family and tried to explain the significance of the pictures of the bicycle and the mountain, though having no language in common.

The town of Touba is the most important religious city of Senegal. We were there only a few days before one of the biggest religious holidays in Senegal, where the mosque and surrounding area of Touba are filled with up to four million pilgrims praying, eating and studying the Quran for the weekend. We wanted to see the giant mosque but were assured by several people that we would not be allowed to even stand outside and take a peek—naturally, we didn’t settle for this, so we asked our taxi driver to drive around the mosque while Louise held her camera button, catching glimpses of women beautifully dressed in purple and cleaning the mosque perfecty for the holiday.

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Getting transportation to Touba a few days later would have been near impossible, and not many people were leaving the city at the same time as us, but we managed.

Thursday

Moving on, we rushed to Saint-Louis, the northernmost town of Senegal, and found ourselves mentally back in the beginning of our trip. Saint-Louis was the same dirty, garbage and dirt filled, faded colonial town, but we had seen so much since being here the last time. And we knew our way around the town (unlike the episode with the missing chargers in the middle of the night, if anyone remembers…).

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We were planning on just spending one night in Saint-Louis and heading on, but being offered a lift further on in the weekend, we decided to hang around for a few more days. We met up with a delegation of the SIT Senegal program doing the Independent Study Projects in Saint-Louis and spent several days being their excuses for procrastinating (sorry, friends), being curious about their projects, and also telling about our own tales. And coincidentally, Saint-Louis hosted a festival celebrating Senegalese music for the weekend, and we attended several concerts with local bands, once again finding ourselves dancing in the front rows among expats, Peace Corps volunteers, tourists and local youth.

Saturday

Next big journey was straight north, to Mauritania, the melting pot between black skinned Senegal/sub-Saharan Africa and Arab North Africa and the country of sand and camels. But you’ll have to wait a bit for the story of this.

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Thanksgiving on the Streets

30 Nov

On what would be Thanksgiving Day in the United States, we did not have any particular plans, so we decided to do what we do best: go for a walk, eat, talk.

We have to revise our earlier judgment of West Africa’s street food scene being scant or non-existent. Apparently, we just weren’t very good at spotting the vendors because they are usually in shacks, grungy alleyways and other unassuming places. Also, we weren’t adventurous enough to a) attempt food purchases from people that probably didn’t speak any language we spoke and b) buy something we didn’t know whether to eat or wash our clothes with, nor even how to approach eating, or c) eat food from unlicensed establishments that would never pass a health bureau survey in the US or Denmark.

Stumbling out of the Danish house into the first morning light of our new city, we turned the corner and found a cart selling a delicious baguette filled with some garlicky greasy substance. We then bought another baguette, seeing as the bread in Bissau has been impressive because it is more like the mud oven tapalapa bread found in South-Eastern Senegal, and less like the squishy, flavorless baguettes found elsewhere.  Sometimes, we come across someone sitting with eggs next to the bread, and learned know that they can make us a sandwich composed of a baguette into which the vendor spreads mayonnaise, peels and chops an egg, sprinkles onions, shakes black pepper, and sometimes a bit of Jumbo- or Maggi-brand bouillon powder.

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Wandering on, we found a small shop staffed by a probable Mauritanian and bought Biskreem cookies.  We have grown a profound love for these buttery Egyptian vanilla biscuits filled with chocolate cream. We bought some of these and ate them while making our way to the harbor area to check the time schedule for the ferry to Bubaque the following day [Note: The only ferry leaving once weekly].

“The boat is not leaving tomorrow. The workers have not been paid, so they won’t sail.”

Oh.

Faced with defeat, we gave in to the midday heat and tiredness and sat down in the shade of a massive Maersk shipping company cargo container.

But soon, with a “You can’t sit there! It’s dirty! And it’s hot, come in the shade!”, we were rushed into the shadow of a small boat and placed on a piece of cardboard, next to a dock workers who didn’t seem to be working.

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Way back a few days, when we were in Senegal and talking of our creams of visiting Guinea-Bissau, worried Senegalese cautioned us very seriously: “The people of Guinea-Bissau are bandits! Everybody will try to trick you, and you’ll be robbed as soon as you step outside!!”

So naturally, we asked these new friends at the dock about banditism in Guinea-Bissau.

“Bandits? There are no bandits in Guinea-Bissau! No, it is the Senegalese who are bandits! They will always try to get money from you. And they take our FISH!”

Okay. Love goes both ways, obviously.

Moving on and also being hungry once again, we bargained very successfully with a fruit seller. She started with the high price of two guavas for $1, but got tired halfway through the bargaining ritual and offered all of the guavas to us for only $2.  The bit of humorous dialogue while having a first taste of the fruits occurred when a man accompanying the guava lady pointed at Laura and asked Louise: “You give me the little one?”

A few blocks away in the downtown area we found a curb to sit on.  We looked like we were absent-mindedly contemplating what to do next, but were really just rapturously eating guavas and observing people. Passing by were taxis shambling to the dock, coffee sellers seeking out the next caffeine-needy person, young guys selling dirty white sneakers and children selling fruits. A kid sat down next to us, we treated him to a guava and continued watching people.

Having finished the guavas we roamed on and found another of our favorite street delicacies, Nescafé, which is nothing more than instant coffee and sugar with hot water in a small plastic cup.  But the sellers pour it between two cups from dazzling heights to mix it, to create abundant froth and to cool it to almost-perfect temperature before serving.

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Coffee in hand, we moved on to another curb to continue bumming around.  As before, we were instantly approached by people passing by, mutually watching us, hanging out or following us. Our first acquaintance was a man from Portugal who was in Bissau on business. He was entertained by helping us take pictures of the African vultures that were resting on the nearby buildings and picking through the garbage heap in the traffic intersection. He waved to a grinning elderly Portuguese man, a business partner who was walking hands interlaced with a young Bissauan girl.  “That man, everyday a new woman.”

Then he left and a Bissauan man came to talk to us, and then his friend came, and then two more men came and out and put down a bench near us, and then three quiet but curious women came and sat on it.  After a 30-something man told us (as many do) that he wished to go with us to Europe, we tried to convince everyone present that it really wasn’t worth their time to desire life in Europe and the U.S.:

“But you need to have a lot of money in the West. And you have to work too much for all that money. People aren’t very friendly because they always have to make money. It’s lonely and hard to make friends. It’s rainy and cold and stressful and they aren’t very happy there. Here, in Guinea-Bissau, there is not a lot of money but people seem happier.”

Little it helped. His disheartening response:

“You know, we like to work! But there is no work! There may be problems in Europe and the U.S., but in the U.S., Obama is fixing everything. But here, I don’t have a job. My age is going up, every day I’m growing up. I used to dream about going to Europe, to go and find a job and work. I don’t have any family here, I don’t have a wife. I want something else. I want to go to Europe and never come back.”

He shrugged his shoulders and continued:

“I have to ask you a question. Is it true that in Europe there are not a lot of men? Because we have many white women here, who come to find young African men…You know, you need to take our contact so if you go back to Europe and you have women who want men, you can tell us, and we can marry, and go live there with them.”

Just leaving that out there.

Moving on through the afternoon, we finally became adventurous enough to try the thin plastic bags taut with a blood-coloured liquid, which is really just bissap, a juice made from hibiscus. Unschooled at the art of drinking from bags, Laura’s exploded all over, and this was great amusement for a Bissauan child walking alongside us in the packed marked. Oh, those brancos…

We liked bissap so much we each had two bags. We later learned from one of the Danish researchers that it’s cholera season around here, so we *might* want to avoid local unfiltered water and drinks made from it.

At the end of the day we found little round cakes and charred maize. The boy who sold us the maize plopped a big kiss on the 1000CFA (about $2 USD) bill before proceeding to give us the change.

So, we spent Thanksgiving (Louise’s first ever!!) African tourist-style: with food, that wonderful, culturally ritualized substance required to make energy for life; with people, random acquaintances who we came to deeply, if only fleetingly, bond with; and lastly, acknowledging the odd historical context of our lives that continues to plague this holiday: all of this loveliness was flavored with the faint but bitter taste of subconscious post-colonialism guilt complexes.

Cheers!

That one time with the bandits, the weapons and the drugs

30 Nov

Upon choosing our next destination from Kédougou, we moved rapidly. Off to Tambacounda, straight to Ziguinchor to get a visa to Guinea-Bissau. But doing a bit of research, we soon started doubting.

Guinea-Bissau is:

  • Recovering from a long liberation struggle from the Portuguese colonial powers
  • One of the poorest countries in the world
  • Africa’s main entry port for smuggling of hard drugs from South America to Europe
  • Suffering from frequent outbreaks of cholera and meningitis
  • In a state of uncertainty, since the military overthrew the president in a coup d’état in April 2012 (which made the UN withdraw all financial aid to the country, thus crippling the tiny country even more and forcing further reliance on drug dealing).  To quote a Gambian friend: “oh, they are always having coup d’états.”

 And Guinea-Bissau according to the Senegalese?

  • People in Guinea-Bissau are bandits!
  • They invest in weapons and drugs, not their country!
  • They will serve you food and drinks with drugs so you’ll be blinded and then they’ll take your things!
  • There’s nothing to see in Guinea-Bissau!

But then again, why not? Off to Bissau!

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We couchsurfed with a bunch of Danish medical researchers in Bissau and enjoyed days of oatmeal breakfast, rugbrød, Danish music and books and language. Louise felt she was home for a while!

Experiences included:

Arquipélago dos Bijagós

A fragile ecosystem protected as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, the 87 tiny tropical islands off the coast of Bissau are just waiting to be explored (or used by the tiny drug planes coming from South America). However, transportation to the islands is extremely sporadic and is almost entirely done by tourists on a tour. Thus, transportation is difficult and expensive, so we stuck with the main island, Ilha de Bubaque.  We spent three days in a tiny auberge, sharing fish-and-rice meals with workers from neighbouring villas, watching a French wedding planner and his brother go fishing.  The capstone achievement of our island time was the day in which we bicycled straight through the forested and villaged middle of the island to see the exquisite but eerily vacant Plage Bruce, a beach which seems to have been named after someone called Bruce. People seemed genuinely surprised to see us cycling around (maybe they knew how uncomfortable the rented bikes were…). While there are a few older brancos (Portuguese version of toubabs) who come for hotel pools and organized trips, it seems most visitors we met were fishermen, missionaries and Portuguese and French expats. In general, we found the island tranquil and unspoiled by institutionalized tourism, and its people calm.

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> Walking around in downtown Bissau, looking at the fascinating old Portuguese colonial architecture.

Louise noted: “It looks so deserted, or dead!”,
and Laura replied: “No, there´s life here, but the buildings have been well used.”

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> Eating out with the Danish crew at a Portuguese buffet restaurant, an establishment hiding its luxurious interior from the dirty streets, and presenting impressive tables of dinner and desserts. Were we still in Guinea-Bissau?

Quinhamel, walking the streets of the town’s tree-aligned mainstreet, finishing off with grilled fish and a swim in the salty river.

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> Meeting the so-called bandits of Bissau (read the whole blog post here)

Guinea-Bissau is only starting to get used to tourists, along with managing the drug dealing, the corrupt military and the extreme poverty. Once again, getting around is difficult and expensive due to bad roads and less public transportation to the areas farthest from Bissau. This makes it more fun to travel: all the little trips are far more interesting, seeing as most parts of the country seem hidden and unexplored (by tourists, anyway).

Reflections on village life

18 Nov

Read the whole story of Kédougou here

Sunday afternoon, we were able to accompany the same PeaceCorps volunteer to her village outside of Kédougou. To reach the village 35 km. away, we took a minibus—and were given Malinke (local language) names by the driver before even entering the bus:

Now we’re also known as Tigita (Louise) and Fanta (Laura) Damba. Enchanté!

The village is made up of three smaller villages, consisting of several family compounds and in all home to about 1300 people. Fatoumata’s compound hosts 25 people, including the village chief (her host dad) and three grandmothers (they were all married to the late village chief and founder of the village).

One of the grandmothers is blind, and one went to the Hajj in Mecca.
Apparently, the blind grandmother was very curious about the accommodations on the Hajj, and asked incredulously about the trip on an airplane:
– “Did they have food on it?”
And when the answer was positive, she continued:
– “But did they have toilets???”

A village chief might (if you have the same thought pattern as us) make you think of a funky guy dancing around most of the time in various traditional clothing, doing rituals to the praising villagers. Our Papa, however, was merely an elderly family dad who loved spending time in his garden, nursing all of his fruit trees.

All the villagers were beyond friendly, and we felt that for once, we had finally escaped the normal tourists areas. The village was in the middle of nowhere, and it was fantastic to be away from larger cities for a few days. The nights weren’t just dark, they were pitch-black, and thus, the morning light was even more welcomed. And it was, indeed, welcomed: Just before dawn all the animals of the village would serenade in an uncoordinated harmony, supplemented by the call to prayer from the village mosque. Morning had indeed arrived.

Walking around in the village, Fatoumata would greet everyone and chat away in Malinke. They would also try talking to us, but we would end up laughing and not understanding each other.

For once, we didn’t hear a single “Toubab!!!


^ Laura trying to poor tea the proper way.
And being corrected.
And then trying to prove herself again.
To much entertainment for the rest of the village.

Our three days in the village were a treat. Plenty of good food (eaten with our hands, obviously) and fresh fruits from Papa’s garden, and a very calm village life. According to the PeaceCorp volunteers, most of the time is spent sitting in the shade of a tree, reading books. Sounded fine to us!

Louise also had her feet and one hand covered in beautiful henna drawings. Apparently, this is done to newlywed women so the story of the husband back home is now a tad more convincing.

However, that wasn’t all we did. We were able to accompany Fatoumata to her work at the local health center, where Meningitis vaccinations for the whole younger generation (0-30 years) of the surrounding villages were taking place, with endless queues all day of colourfully dressed women, crying children and teenagers trying to man up to the forthcoming shot.

We dare propose that the people in the village were way happier with their very basic (some might say poor) living conditions than most wealthy people in the Western world. By far one of the most smiling places so far.

Our heart rates must instantly have slowed down in the village, and we began to philosophize over our own daily life.

  • Do we really need a house with electricity and lighting as opposed to the little mud hut with candlelights or flashlights?
  • Do we really need toilets, as opposed to a hole in the ground in the backyard?
  • Do we really need to get rid of so much garbage, instead of reusing it?
  • Do kids really need that many toys, when these were perfectly happy with playing with an empty bottle or chasing each other around?

 

A little story

The whole experience was (as you might be able to tell by now) delightful and much needed. And it reminded us of a story we bumped into on another blog which sums up a lot of our thoughts about the days:
(credits go to Simon Fenton)

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village.

An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

“Not very long,” answered the Mexican.

“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.

The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs … I have a full life.”

The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you!  You should start by fishing longer every day.  You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the Mexican.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers.  Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!  From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.

“Twenty, perhaps 25 years,” replied the American.

“And after that?” the Mexican asked.

“Afterwards? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing.

“When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

 

Cheers,
Tigita & Fanta.

^ Fanta, Fatoumata & Tigita. And a villager who insisted on having her picture taken with us.

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