irregular burbling

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July 15, 2009

West Africa needs change

"Eeeee" said the man behind the counter as I handed over the 10000 CFA note. Not the low, flat sound as in ee by gum, more the high pitched squeal one would more commonly expect to hear were a short, sharp squeeze administered to one of the more sensitive parts of a gentleman's anatomy.
By now you may rightly suspect that I am not trying to make a grandiloquent, bleeding heart liberal appeal for economic, social or political upheaval, but am merely commenting on the fact that, more often than not, when attempting to pay for something with a note of even a moderately large denomination one soon discovers that the vendor has no change.
Reactions can be quite entertaining. One lady held up a 1000 CFA note in each hand, both of which she had only just received from the previous customer (the notes, not the hands), and pretended to weep as she handed them over. Ususally, though, there is just a more businesslike rummaging around in drawers, hidden corners, pockets, friends' pockets, or under piles of vegetables. If that doesn't yield success, it is time to dip into the neighbourhood pool of change. I have waited for half an hour in a small shop whilst watching the owner's son go up and down three and a half different streets before returning with the necessary coins. I had only gone in there to buy a small something so as to break a note because the the street trader I was trying to buy something from had no change.
The longest wait I have faced was over 13 hours - not standing there continuously, of course, but popping back in every now and again to issue a gentle reminder. On this occasion, as on a few others, one suspects that a little foul play was involved, based on the assumption that the silly tourist would think sod it, it's less than fifty pee. It seems that the reputation of the Yorkshireman has not yet reached Timbuctoo. In the majority of cases, however, it really is the case that there is no change.
Of course one would anticipate the problem when buying bits and bobs from a roadside vendor, but the problem seems to affect all, from the small time entrepreneur right through to full blown enterprises like internationally operating bus companies. It was even a struggle in the main post office in one capital city.
I will admit that I have taken to playing silly buggers by selfishly hoarding small tender, and trying to pay with as big a note as I think I can get away with. I will also concede that it is not always because I have a need for the change, but sometimes just for the hell of it. It is a tricky game to play though, as senses are razor sharp. If you try and pay with a green or purple one but the shopkeeper sees even the briefest flash of red or blue, or hears the faintest clink of a coin, then it is all over.

Posted by jamesb at 8:00 PM | Comments (1)

July 5, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, I think, I sincerely hope, we have a winner

If my various journeys to and from and in and around Mali were no picnic, one can certainly say that the trip between Gabu in Guinea Bissau and Labe in Guinea was one. A picnic, that is, that took place in a thoroughly and freshly manured field, except for the spot where the rug has been spread, which is where the farmer's faithful yet unimaginably incontinent hound was sat for the duration of the muckspreading; and some fool at Fortnum and Masons has misread the order for the hamper and packed freshly laid dog eggs instead of the required hard boiled eggs.
At first things were not looking too bad. It only took a couple of hours for the vehicle to fill up and for a very large lady to be satisfied that all the baggage on the roof would be sufficiently insulated against the rain, for there was a very distinct possibility that it would piss it down in the very near future. The first problem arose when it was time to board. I had been feeling fairly content as the ticket man said I could have the front seat, which I had staked out with my bag. As I was about to climb in, another chap remarked "Ah, I see you have reseved that seat", and got in anyway, and I realised that what I had claimed was the doorside half of the passenger seat. Still, I suppose it was better than being one of four in the row behind, or three right at the back (discounting the two young children).
Progress to the frontier was fairly painless, and we were quickly cleared to proceed to the next bit of the frontier, and then the first bit on the Guinea side, where we had to a wait a while for the ferryman to be bothered to come and get us. It was at the top of the opposite riverbank that the first omen of trouble arrived, for we waited half an hour whilst the driver and his assistant tinkered with the radiator hoses, and refilled the radiator with river water. Half an hour after setting off again we got to the next two bits of the Guinean frontier, where we paid some money for the sake of paying some money, and waited a bit more for more radiator related tinkerings.
It became clear that the problem was not small when, another hour and a half down the road we pulled in, and within ten minutes the radiator had been removed and it and the driver had jumped on the back of a passing motorbike bound for the nearest town.
As luck would have it, we had stopped in the part of Guinea where all the flies live, the type of flies that like to walk across one's eyeball if given half a chance. They were accompanied by some charming little beasties that go by the name sweat bees, and as the name suggests these are very small bees that feed on sweat. I am not sure if Marks and Spencer have yet finalised the contract to sell their honey, for I imagine that it is no ordinary honey. They don't sting, but after the five minutes of entomological fascination have passed they do rather annoy.
After a couple of hours of lying in the woods by the roadside it began to get dark, and the flies and bees punched their time cards to make way for the night shift of mosquitos. For a while we all crowded into the car, but when the oxygen started to run out there was a mass decision to move back out to the roadside to sleep on a comfy bed of gravel and twigs.
When the sun had properly got going the following morning, some of the lads in the party decided to walk to the nearest village, shortly followed by the women and children, leaving me, the old bloke and another chap to sit and guard the vehicle, be harassed by winged beasties, and generally regret not having factored unexpected breakdowns in to the calculations for the water rations. Luckily two girls came cycling by with large numbers of mangoes for sale. As well as being the start of the rainy season, it is also the middle of the mango season, and everywhere one goes one can see small children with big sticks doing beastly things to mango trees. As well as buying a generously proportioned pile of mangoes, we also persuaded the girls to cycle back to their village and fill all the water bottles we could find.
At about 11am a taxi coming the other way stopped and informed us that the repairs were underway, and a while after another let us know that all was done, and the driver was waiting for a lift back. I the early afternoon, a good 20 hours after he had left, he finally reappeared, perched atop a taxi with the repaired radiator and a mechanic. It was not long before we were back on the road, and after a couple of hours we reached a town called Koumbia (my Lord) where we stopped to eat. It soon became apparent that we had not only stopped to eat, but that the mechanic had also decided that a couple of minor things needed to be done to the vehicle. The first job was to find some correctly shaped odds and ends on which to balance the jack, and some people to lean on the car once it had been jacked up. Then the real work of completely dismantling the transmission began.
After four hours and a couple of downpours, when night had once more decended, we were given the all clear and the car pulled out of the garage. It was then discovered that the boot would not shut properly, and after a quick argument about whether or not it was because of some chairs that were hanging off the back of the roof, we pulled back into the garage to fix it.
It is probably a good thing that it was too dark to see the length and incline of the slopes at the side of the road that wound through the darkness on the next part of the trip. Not long into this stretch, the driver's assistant decided that he had had enough of sitting on the roof, and so we became two passengers up front, with four in each row behind (again discounting infants). A small while later we switched to a more aggresive 3-4-3 formation, which I found to be very comfortable indeed. In the darkness I was not entirely sure, but I think one of the extra legs was on the passenger side, the other help the driver out with the pedals.
At 3am, after a hand operated ferry crossing in pitch blackness, we parked up in a small town and went off to find a piece of concrete in front of a restaurant on which to lie down for a few hours, before the final two hour stretch through the rolling hills to Labe, where we arrived a mere 47 hours after setting off.
Then I went to bed.

Posted by jamesb at 4:15 PM

July 4, 2009

Guinea Bissau

It took me a good two weeks to pluck up the courage to head south into Guinea Bissau, for I had heard all manner of alarming things about the place, probably pitched all the way along the specrum from wild rumour to solid fact. The military coup that took place earlier this year was quite a large worry, along with tales of road blocks and random stoppings in the street by men in uniform keen to supplement their pocket money. Someone told me that even Bissau, the capital, has no electricity or running water. Someone else said that cholera is rife in the capital and my feeble white body would certainly succumb. And knowing that a lot of people only speak Creola, a mixture of local languages and Mediaval Portuguese (in which, you will be amazed to know, I am not actually fluent) also made me think that things could be a little tricky.
A lot of things I had heard were cocaine related. Guinea Bissau is one of the poorer countries around, is managed in perhaps not the most public-spirited of fashions, and is not all that far away from South America, which all adds up to make it an attractive destination for Columbian yachtsmen. One of the nastier rumours about the consequences is that there is good crack to be had in the suburbs (and no, there is not a large Irish immigrant community). Also, there is a suspicion that the recent coup happened because the World Bank had threatened to pull the plug unless relations between Guinea Bisssau and Columbia became a little frostier, and the president was starting to see their point of view, so one of the cartels arranged a change of government. This is, of course, all just unsubstantiated hearsay, in case anyone in Medellin is reading this. There are many tales, too, that relate to a recent shipwreck, which left the local beaches littered with 25kg bags of contraband. One can imagine something along the lines of Whisky Galore, though perhaps more reminiscent of a Benny Hill chase scene than an Ealing comedy. Not being on City salaries, the locals had no idea what to do with the mysterious white powder, for it certainly was not rice, sugar, or anyhting else useful. Some people chucked it on the fields in the hope that the rice would benefit. Others mixed up a stodgy paste for whitewashing their houses. Some just threw the bags away. Until men in big shiny cars came and started offering a dollar a bag to buy back their merchandise, that is; not a big outlay for something that retails for somewhere in the region of silly amounts of money.
Anyway, the reality of what I found was far from the chaotic nightmare world that I feared. Admittedly everything in Bissau was a bit frayed around the edges, but working well enough. The vast majority of peple that I met were lovely (with the exception of some knobhead who claimed to have lived in Windsor Palace with Wills and Harry for 5 years before embarking on his career as an astronaut). People that stopped me in the street simply just fancied a chat. People that followed me around were either going that way anyway or wanted to make sure I knew where I was going. I did question why I so readily agreed to accompany a teacher I had met to his home in the suburbs, but was amazed when he insisted on paying for the taxi and the local moonshine that he plyed me with before sending me on my way.
Overall I think the level of danger I felt can be summed up by the moment in the journey from Bissau to Gabu when the taxi driver asked the man in the passenger seat to please rearrange all the soft toys on the dashboard for him.
Gabu is on the way to Guinea, the next stop, although some people refer to it as Guinea Conakry to avoid confusion. Except that some people just call it Guinea, which is confusing. I had better go and lie down.
Bye for now.

Posted by jamesb at 11:54 AM

One man (and his cousin) in three boats

To cite the Barra ferry, which connects Banjul to the north bank of the Gambia river, as an example of organised chaos would imply some sort of organisation. Having given my cousin a very pessimistic briefing as to how much of a pain in the arse the experience was going to be, I was very disapointed when, for my fourth and hopefully final crossing, we bought our tickets and were rapidly shooed onto the boat, and departed five minutes later. Previously I had been faced with waits of up to 2 hours, with no clues about impending departure other than a sudden stampede towards the gates, followed by a fight for what little space was left on board once I had worked out what was happening. The waiting time for foot passengers is nothing compared to that faced by those with vehicles. I met two Welsh chaps who had brought a Landrover all the way from Swansea, and despite paying their way into the fast queue, had a wait of 18 hours. The queue of trucks often tails back a couple of kilometres. Safety on board doesn't seem to be much of an issue. On one ocacasion a truck squeezed on at the last minute, driving through the back of someone's car into the last bit of space that remainied. On another I sat on the middle deck alongside the top of a very wobbly lorry full of very wobbly drums of petrol. One of the two, sometimes three, boats in the fleet of five seems to function better if it follows a loosely spirally course across the river.
The ferry that connects Dakar to Ziguininchor, the capital of the Casamance region of Senegal, is an entirely different proposition. It is, by the way, the best way of getting between the north and south of the country as they are separated by the Gambia. Way back when, someone in a red coat with shiny brass buttons thought it would be a wizard wheeze to demarcate the boundaries of the latter by sailing up the river intermittently firing off cannonballs, then doing a big dot-to-dot between the points where they fell, and thus carving a big lump out of what became Senegal. I digress. It is a big swanky modern boat, but there is a sad background behind its existence, for in 2002, over 2000 people died when its predecessor went under due to dangerous overloading. The upside is that there now exists in West africa at least one clean, safe and efficient means of transport. Passenger numbers and the cargo weight are strictly limited, and there is even a timetable. Safety is taken so seriously that there are regular patrols that kick awake any shabby cheapskates that decide that the seat they have bought is not a good place to sleep, and so try lying in the aisles instead, something that is left to pass on Brittany Ferries. You are, however, still allowed a few cheeky ones at the bar, and in said location allowed to dance (or stagger arythmically from side to side in time with the waves).
The dancing in West Africa is a sight to behold. In situations where there is a threat that I may have to become involved, I find myself hiding in the corner with a perhaps paranoid, but not entirely unfounded, suspicion that I have been hewn from a particularly inflexible piece of wood, then had my legs broken off and reattached the wrong way round and at slightly different and somewhat jaunty angles. Since first drafting of this I have experienced being the only white person in the disco, which comes with its own special imaginary spotlight. The rather better Senegalese dancing skills come to the fore in the presence of a style of lusic called Mbalax, which drifts along just about managably until two thirds of the way through the song, when the drums go a bit radio rental, as do the movements of the more adept gents, who execute high kicks, spins and jumps, all perfectly in time to what sounds to the untrained ear like an unpredictable rhythm.
The Ladies' dancing is also a sight to behold, quite often involving the type of goings on that, were one not aware of such things, might cause one's monocle to pop out unexpectedly. I was recently taken along to a Soiree Senegalese, where part of the evening was taken up wirth what was billed as a dance contest, but which to the unitnitiated looked more like a competition to see who could wiggle their bum the best. The first of the pre-selected aversaries did a fairly good job of combining her posterior acrobatics with what could plausibly be referred to as dancing, but the rest of the field all preferred to assume a more horizontal position in the middle of the floor, much to the amusement of all concerned, particularly the band leader. For their troubles, the two runners up went home with 5 litres of cooking oil, whilst the victrix received a sack of rice.
The dress code, particularly in Dakar, is no trivial matter. It is not uncommon to see suits and ties, and high heels are de riguer for the ladies. Shabby t-shrts and flip-flops are certainly not the done thing. My cousin and I were turned away from one of Dakar's more with it establishments (more, I suspect, as a result of my meticulously thrown together ensemble than hers), much to the embarrassment of the finely preened Dakaroises who had invited us along.
From what I have witnessed, the clubbing scene in The Gambia appears to be taken a little less seriously. There are certain establishments for which the term meat market is less apt a description than the image of a combine harvester slowly advancing thorugh a field of (perhaps not so) innocent lambs.
Back to Dakar, where we had decided to spend Friday evening at a venue that plays host to many of the stars of the Senegalese music scene. That afternoon we were at the French Cultural Institute, and saw the sound check for a band that sounded pretty good, and reasoned that we could defer our original plan until the following evening. The first song of the set on the Saturday night sounded a little familiar, and we very soon realised that our plan to see a nice variety of different bands had been scuppered. To rub salt into the wound, it turned out that on the Friday night we would have got to see Titi (fnarr fnarr), the current darling of the Senegalese pop scene. At least it was better than the band at the bar opposite the hotel, who as we passed were launching into a casio-driven version of "Wind of Change". I shall end this discussion of Senegalese music with a question: does Youssou N'Dour refer to his wife as Her N'Dours?
The last week of my cousin's visit found us stuck on the Ile de Karabane at the mouth of the Casamance River. This was in part due to inertia, for it is the type of place that induces such, but also due to the keen insistence of a lunatic French fisherman and his equally lunatic, but differently so, Senegalese skipper, who kept forcing us to accompany them on their forays into the mangroves in search of fish (my arm still aches from all the twisting). The fishing was entertaining (although we where sensibly only allowed to do the reeling in as attempts at casting would no doubt have involved catching lots of trees), although the general silliness was more so.
We were left facing a mad dash back up to The Gambia, which took over seven hours to cover 100km, and involved a boat ride, a minibus, an unexpected change to another minibus, a bush taxi to the border that the suspension dropped out of, its replacement, another bush taxi from the border, some general chaos at the bus station, another minibus, a final minibus, and then a fifteen minute walk in the dark to a place that turned out to be a bit crap. Somewhere in the middle of all this the monkeyometer registered another hit, this time the Patas Monkey, which although widespread in its range has proved rather elusive. Also in the middle of all this I had a nasty case of imaginary malaria, which was probably due to having stayed out in the sun too long. A week or so later I had a second attack, although that did turn out to be a bit iof a chest infection, which counts as a proper illness, and provided an admirable excuse (the less admirable alternatives being laziness and cowardice) to put off the continuing south into the fruitier corner of West Africa, which is where I now am.
More of that anon.

Posted by jamesb at 11:34 AM