scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Scattered Thoughts on Difficult Landscape


What is poverty, in fact (there should be a question mark here, but I can]t find one on this computer). I thought I knew what it meant, but I have found it necessary to develop a new definition. It´s frustrating to be resourceless while working on this. No access to internet, a library with books on the subject. Even a dictionary would be helpful at this point. But none of these things are at hand and I fumble through my thoughts like the lonely fish who creates a vision of the world above his frontier, the world of air and what it must be like. No chance for a real visit and no one to tell him what it~s really like up there.
Aside> I wonder, when fish take their occasional jumps out of lakes or seas into the air to shake shake shake, if they feel the same as I do when I plunge into their world. The rush and plunge and feeling of being in another element and another world, unable to see clearly and unable to breath. Both of us are compelled by force (gravity for the fish, buoyancy for me) to return to the habitat where we belong. But when i surface i am almost always smiling. I don~t know if fish can smile. <
I thought I knew what poverty mean, having nothing, being poor. But I am no longer so certain.

In Achmeddan´s village they had, pretty much, nothing. No electricity, no running water, just thatch domed houses, a fw goats, a donkey, tea, couscous... I think that´s it. They were so poor, in fact, they didn´t even have garbage. To throw something away you have to have something to begin with., If you start with nothing, nothing can become refuse. Nothing to cast off. And your garbage looks like it does in Achmeddan´s village, bits of expired flip flops and expired goats. That´s it. They were extremely poor, but I´m not so sure they live in poverty. It may be that in my four days I was treated to a very easy time there. Basically we slept under the stars, rose in the morning to feed the goats, went back to sleep inside the hut to wait the heat of the day, rose in the afternoon to make the rounds of friends, to visit and drink tea, to eat the sour couscous with chewey camel meat.
Another aside> On crunching a piece of sand in my first bite of camel I tried to make a joke. I told A that on the Pacific we say you know the clam chowder is fresh if you crunch a grain or two of sand, and that the same thing must be true for camel. As most jokes delivered out of cultural and linguistic and context, it fell flat like a dead goose. A was worried that I was offended there was sand in the food (of course, there is sand in everything there) and I said no no, I was trying to make a joke. The camel is delicious. <
And after the camel, singing under the stars! A life with very little, but not a life of poverty.
Of course, my exposure to the daily routine of hte women was less complete. And I know that A grows carrots and dates (he showed me the plots) and there must be busyness accompanying the different stages of planting, tending and harvesting. But from our conversation I concluded that this toil is not so much to keep him from the generous enjoyment of his life.
My conclusion, after the experience is that poverty is not, in fact, lack; rather it is want. If you lack nearly everything but have want of nothing, I don~t think this can be called poverty. I spoke last night with an economist from Portugal about this idea and he said that its fine to think of lack as existing in balance in a closed system, but what systems are closed these days (again, can]t find the question mark). Point taken. But this seemed to be a system without want, closed or not.

Achmeddan himself is a good example. He studied economics in Noakchott before returning to care for the family after the death of his brother in law. I was interested in how he felt about his life now, having known another life in a bigger place, having known what else is out there. He looked at me straight when he said `this is a good life`. Poverty is want, not lack.

During my protracted journey on the sea, helping deliver the giant ice machine to the island of Orakan, I had opportunity to think of this machine and what it would mean to the people of Orakan, and the larger Bijagos community as well. I don´t know the history of these islands, but I imagine there were people living on them long before they became islands, long before they became Africa´s only archipelago. And I imagine they must have always taken fish from the sea. First enough to feed their families and then (the big shift in thinking) more than they needed for their families, enough to trade to others. Then to trade for money. Each transition bringing a new range of upgrades for family and community. The structures of a community. But their community had always been there, before the infrastructure and before people started ‘investing’ in developing it. So I wonder, what will this giant ice making machine, purchased with money given by the government of Japan, do (question mark). It will make it possible for fishermen in the Bijagos to take more fish from their waters, to more easily transfer these fish to market in Bissau and to sell them. Then the extra money, the money they do not have now, they will use to buy more things for their families and their community. Maybe they’ll build a health clinic, build another school. More. As I walked through the water onto the beach of this tiny island village I couldn’t help but think that life here must depend on balance. With more money there will be fewer infant deaths, and this is a good thing of course. There will also be more children born, more surviving and more born and surviving. And I’m not sure where it stops. In all cases an increase in the availability of food means an increase in population growth. The western world with its huge surpluses and declining birth rates would be an exception were it not part of a larger system that follows the rule to the letter.

The life of the dead. When you talk to people in these societies about death there seems to be an understanding that the occasion is an integral part of life. Laye~s wife dies in childbirth. It’s sad of course, but he shrugs and says it is a part of life. The woman in Lauren’s village loses a child. There is crying and a burial but soon she is pregnant again. The occasion of death is loud and no one in the community skips the party. From where I am writing I can hear the wailing of mourners coming from the other side of a tall wall. They will do this for a week. There will be crying and dancing, the slaughter and preparation of goats and chickens, a feast. People dying in the houses where they lived, and sent on their way by the whole community.

I’ve never seen death. Even the two or three dead bodies I have seen were so wax-like in the cascading folds of their coffins that they scarcely resembled real people, especially not the real people I had known in life. We’ve banished death to the fringes. We’ve dissociated ourselves from it and no longer recognize the forms it takes and the steps along the way. Death for us belongs mostly to those far too old to be alive, and is accompanied by beeping machines and the stale antiseptic odour of the hospital. And we visit at the last moment possible, shocked to see that the person we loved for so long, the person we left in this place is gone. Could never be this folded bird on a paper bed. And we conclude that death has already happened, somewhere in a white room far from the bustle of our daily lives.
I don’t think the removal of death from the life cycle is necessarily something I want to give to others. To Achmeddan in his Saharan village. Death is already there in the frail father who lies all day in the shade, rising only to say his prayers to Allah. Do we want to give this dissociation to the people of the Bijaogs. Is this what the ice machine does. What development does. Surely it does more and things are not so simple. At any rate, it’s time for bed.

A letter to a friend.

Below is a letter to a friend. I´ve included it here and I hope he doesn´t mind.

Dear Mark,
You gave me three material gifts on my departure from Seattle, and I think it proper to describe to you their utilisation on my trip so far. You gave other, non material gifts of course, and these I hold in my heart and use every day. For them I will thank you in person next time we meet. The gifts materio:
1.Helly Hanson Anorak. Red. Folds into a pouch.
2. This journal, in which I am writing.
3. REI soft-shell. Black with pit vents and waterproof zippers.
1. Anorak
This piece I have used just once, though I will say the occasion had such great need of it that I would gladly carry the tiny red package through many months of non usage in order to have had it available. A `rain coat`by definition, its location of use was, ironically, the Sahara. There is a train which carries iron-ore from mines in the deep Sahara of Mauritania all the way to the coastal city of Noadhibou for transfer to waiting ships. On the return journey the wagons which had carried the iron ore are empty. As is only possible in Africa, such an arrangement means that the big iron wagons are free to carry npaying passengers, along with their assorted packages, livestock, furnishings, vegetables, etc deep into the desert. I joined the hundreds waiting next to the tracks in the afternoon sun for the train to stop, and scrambled onboard into a wagon near the train~s end. I don~t know what iron-ore looks like, but judging from the the thick black residue coating the insdie fo the wagon I would guess it resembles coal. There was a fine black dust covering everything, though the iron of the wagon itself was black as well. The lightest touch to any surface left the hand covered with a greasy black soot. I stretched my raincover over my backpack and brought out the first of your gifts, the anorak. It provided a perfect barrier against the blowing dust. With the anorak covering my torso and arms, the hood drawn tight around my neck and a scarf wrapped around my head and fae, the only part open to the dust was eyes and hands. The first four hours of hte journey we were enveloped in the blowing and swirling iron ore. I imagined it filtering deep into my lungs, coating them in black.After the first four hours the iron ore had mostly blown off and we were eating the desert dust kicked up by the 2.5 km length of the train ahead of us. This was far preferable, as it seemed to me much healthier and the black of hte wagon began to be covered in a layer of white dust.
We left Noadhibou around 2 or 3, in the heat of the day. The anorak, performing its intended function, kept all external elements out and all internal elements in. The wind at full speed minimized the sweltering effect, but each time the train stopped at a village I could feel the sweat starting to run beneath my protective shell. But then the train would begin again and my own temperature would level out. I would suggest an anorak, like your generous gift, to anyone else taking this journey. It was perfect.
The atmosphere in the wagon was congenial. There were perhaps 12 others, plus the three Japonese tourists and myself. Some of the men had bags of sand which they poured into the corners of the wagon to make beds for the coals which would heat the tea. Tea was made and passed around. Most Mauritanians, and Western Saharans as well, carrying with them at all times a small tea set. It consists of:
-a small stainless steel teapot, often painted with a thick green lacquer. Usually old and battered, but beautiful to my eye in its miniiarized mimicry of the shapes that poured the strong black tea of my childhood.
-three small glasses, chipped and cracking
-a ridiculous quantity of sugar
-a metal tin of green tea
-a bag of fresh, sometimes not so fresh, mint.
The third glass is for keeping the froth of the high pouring of the first pot in order to start the frothing pour of the next pot. Like sour batch bourbon.
It was too loud in the wagon for easy talking, but some communication was made shouting style. The guitar was produced and I played country music, surrounded by clapping men, pairs of shining eyes from the depths of their long turbans. The guitar was passed around and performed its function of lowering barriers and equalizing everybody. I can only say it has been the best travelling companion imaginable.

The trip lasted some 13 hours. We]d begun under the full sun, so had seen the Sahara pass through all of its daily phases, save the sunrise. As the light began to fall, the shadows of dunes and scrubby trees stretching westward, the desert took on a warm and reddish glow. It softened and revealed all the contours which had been washed away under the midday sun. Occasionally we would pass herds of camels, grazing on who knows what. Small villages went by with the men waving and the children running and shouting after the train, the women of course shut inside. I murmured quiet apologies to each little village we passed for the dust storm we left in our wake. Occasionally the train would stop to pick up more passengers. Black and dusty bodies would emerge from the wagons, the passengers scampering down to kneel in the sand to relieve themselves, quick before the thunder of the train pulling at its clanging connections 2.5km away signalled the shocking jolt of departure. The train started slow, and catching it up was no problem if you didn]t wait too long. The real danger was to be climbing the ladder or straddling the wall of the wagon when the train gave its thunderous jerking start. In my mind these have been the most dangerous occasions of my journey so far.
Oh, and the stars in the desert night are incredible!

2.This Journal:
The heat of Africa has undone the glue keeping the leather cover bound to the paper. After breakfast i will see if i have a needle strong enough to stitch the two together. I~m nearly halfway through this notebook. At this rate I will easily fill all the pages before leaving Africa. This will mark the first time in my life that i have actually filled an entire journal. What is usually a guilt-induced chore, journaling, has become a real joy. Also, the impossibility of venting electronically (bloggy style) has made these pages the sole recipients of my recorded thoughts.

Number Three. The Soft Shell (ooh, i could use a taco right about now)
You referred to this jacket as `your piece` and a security blanket. In the last six weeks it has been both of those things. I have felt that sense of invulnerability in its tight and warm hold. The design is really a work of genius, undoubtedly the best designed garment i have ever worn. I had thought it would become impractical as I moved south. I think i imagined i would lose need of it somewhere in Mauritania, but en effet I used it as near as two nights ago, lost on the sea off the coast of Guinea Bissau.

It has proven useful in all climates so far. From the rain and cold of Paris where, combined with a couple of layers and a heavy scarf, it was enough to keep me warm, to the muggy chill of the nights in Guinea Bissau. A quick explanation of the last time I used it, as I have already recorded this event in previous pages: I was in a boat carrying myself, 5 others and a giant ice making machine from Bissau to one of the more remote islands of hte Bijagos Archipelago. Our boat lost power and we were stranded at sea, the five hour trip becoming something like 27. We ran aground three times during the night. I was glad for your soft shelf figt, as it kept me warm during hte night and gave me the invincible feeling required to fall asleep, perched on a gas canister on a pitching boat somewhere off the coast of Africa.

Thank you for all these three gifts. They have all served me very well. More, thank you for the invaluable gifts of your friendship and your hospitality. Mostly, for your belief in me, for your belief that I have something to contribute in this strange and difficult world. I truly cherish your friendship and lean on the memories of my time as your employee, your friend and your houseguest.

Warmest Regards from Warmest Africa,


Lost at sea

I made the news! I think it sounded something like this:
´´a small boat transporting the fishing authority~s new ice making machine ot the island of Orakan lost power yesterday somewhere between Bissau and the Bijaogos. They are presumed to be in distress. Any boats in the area tonight please keep a watch for the stranded landing craft, its crew and its faluable payload. They are all presumed lost at sea until they are found.´
Not sure if that was exactly it, but I guess its lcose. I know from tlaking to Titi that there was no mention on the radio fo the tagalong Canadian. International calamaties in the making are best kept hush hush if possible...
Like the best journalists in the biz, I had anticipated the story, embedded myself with those destined to make the news and rode the whole lot out, always ready to record the events for posterity.. actually I spent mos tof hte 27 hours trying to remember rhte words to Gordon Lightroot~s touching ode to another lost boat, the Yarmouth Castle.
My dad started with a neat fryup of eggs, garlic, butter and tomatoes, eaten with bread. I was cooking, and wondered while I was shaking the pan back and forth if I wasn~t making the very same meal my dad might be making in his eastern European abode. Chances are good I was. He loves a good fryup, though the tomatoes were my own addition, taken from the englihs tradition, and might have thrown jake a bit. After breakfast I walked down to the docks and started asking around for a boat to the Bijagos. I was told it was impossible and that I would have to wait for the big boat which leaves only on Friday, retuning to Bissau on Sunday. TIA. This is Africa. Sometimes TIA means you jus thave to suck it up and wait for a day, a week, whatever, but sometimes it also means that if you just keep looking for a solution you wil eventually find one, probably in a manner and sense of hygiene\saftey unimaginable anywhere but Africa. So I kept asking, dialogue bing extremely difficult thankjs to my no Portuguese. Eventualy someone told me there was a boat going to Orakan, a small island near Orango, and that it was leaving at 1pm. I was told Orakan was not where I wanted to go as it has no auberge, no shops and no Blancos. I said this was fine and ran off to buy enough food to last me for a week or so. I fel t if I could just get tot he islands I would be fine, even sans infranstrucruet. The guineans are noted for their hospitality and I knew they wouldn~t let me starve. In this fine weather I could easily sleep under a tree or on the beach, making a tent of my mosquito net and my turban. I don~t eat much, so I igured the two baguettes, 2 cans of sardines, two tins of poulet presse and a roll of biscuits could easily last me five days, a week if I need it to. Oh, nd a jar of green olives. Yum. I was taken to teh part of the pier from which the boat was meant to leav. There were three others waiting there, so I sat next to them and got out my book.
Eventualy a 30 foot landing craft, rusting, battered and powered by a 150 yamaha outboard pulled up with a large square box wrapped in plastic. This turned out to be the congilateur, about 3 metres square, it was being transported to Orakan to help make ice for packing the fish caught by the Bijagan fishermen so they could transport it to market in Bissau. The others jumped onto the reasy old boat and I waited for a surly nod from the captian before jumping on board as well, with my pack on my back and my guitar in my hand. In case I needed another reminder that when travelling, light is right, here it was... my 10 kilos plus food was just ok. Anything more and I would have been in the drink.
We cast away our lines around 1pm and set off from Bissau, leaving the pier with its listing trawlers still tied fast, holed and sinking lower every year, abandoned long ago and left to rot. Amazing to have a working pier with the rusting hulks of shipwrecks scattered between the crumbling rock and the working trawlers. Like a port for ghosts and people at the same time. A port on the River Styx. We headed up the coast for a few miles before turning west into the open sea. I was amazed at the slowness of our progress but the captain assured me the trip was a simple five hours. I spent part of the time working on adding some things to the leather and sea shell charm I had bought that day in the market. I had some help from the first mate, a powerful and sinewy man who himself was wearing a magnificent waistband charm of leather and shells. No one on board spoke a word of English or French, so we made do with hand gestures and a few words of Spanish. ]
It was about five oclock when the motor started to give its first unhealthy rumbles, and 6 when we finally cut power and threw anchor into the shallow green water. The sun hung low in the sky and the suggestion of the Guinean coastline was just barely visible to the East. Through sign language I was led to believe that there was water in teh valves of the Yamaha and that we would have to just wait. To the great worry of the crew I took the opportunity to go for a swim. The guide book had said something like this: ¨Protected for ages by vicious currents and treacherous sandbanks the Bijagos have remained virtually untouched by colonial and even continental African influence.¨The part I had focused on, of course, had been the `virtually untouched`bit, but I was soon reminded of the rest of the sentence. We had been pitching in the rocking waves for hours, a good grip needed as the swells bucked bulging and unpredictable. As a lifelong swimmer I hadn~t been too concerned about the prospects of a dip. Certainly, in my first dive and splash from the bow I was worry-free, rejoicing in the feel of the cool sea washing over my sweaty skin. When I first surfaced though, I was instantly reminded of the guidebook~s warning, : vicious currents and treacherous sandbars. I emerged already far from the boat, and I could see I was being pulled quickly from its anchored location. A few minutes of strong, almost frantic swimming brought me back to the stern, where I looked up to the worried glances of the others. On my first attempt to climb back into the boat I was kinocked back into the sea by a lifting surge. The boat risthing high above me, like being in the bottom of an elevator shaft and watching a departing car. The second try saw success, with the help of the first mate, and I climbed aboard pretending not to have been worried at all. I dried in the setting sun, holding fast to the pitching boat.
We tried the motor again in the last light of the setting sun. We were at maybe a quarter power and continued this way, sailing completely blind into the dark night. I had taken a bearing of the barely visible coast on my compass, and saw we were still heading south by southwest. There was nowhere to lie down on the greasy old boat, but I eventually found a gas can to sit on, leaned against my pack and fell asleep.
It doesn~t matter if you]ve never run aground in a boat before, the first time you feel it you know exactly what it is. I had fallen asleep to teh constant and varied slap of the hull on the waves, and had a good feeling for the bottom dropping out, for the motion of hte falling boat being smoothly arrested and transferring its energy into upward buoyancy. I woke on the first slap of the hull on something solid, sand, la sable. We lifted and slapped again, again, the waves swinging the bow around, and we were stuck fast. The grumbling motor was killed instantly and I helped the first mate drop anchor. As the tide was on its way in the only thing to do was to rest on the anchor until we were lifted enough to stumble our way off the sand a back into the open sea. This took some hours, I suppose, and eventually we continued with our grumbling motor and tired and frightened crew.
I had been carrying the terrifying impression that I was more prepared to pilot this vessel than its captain. There were no charts on board. No radio. Mine was the only compass and my headlamp was stronger than the only other light on the boat, a windup flashlight. We were a bat flying in the middle of the grand canyon, certain there was something out there but unable to see it until we were already upon it. We ran aground two more times during hte night and eventually just droped anchor to wait for the dawn. In the morning light we again started to limp our way west. We were met finally by another boat which towed us to Orakan. We were greeted by the entire village, its matriarchal chieftess performing a dance in the shallow water where she took her breasts out of the billowing folds of her dress and held and pulled them this way and that. She was joined, stomping and splashing in the water, by the other women leaders of the village, the children singing, naked on the sand, and the men standing under the shade of the plams. We were all kissed with vigour, sailors rescued from the clutches of the sea, but I think the biggest thanks were given for the safe arrival, at long last, of the congilateur, the magic giant ice box.
I debarked happily and settled myself with some nice young guys who offered me a mat in their mud hut. I ate fish and rice with a man named Augusta and his family. I intended to stay until the next boat to... somewhere else. That boat brought me here, to Bubaque, a town of maybe 1000, the biggest in the Bijagos. I passed a wonderful day alone on the white expanse of beach on the island~s windward side, accompanied only by three cows and four kids who traded me cashews for biscuits and who I, one by one, managed to capture and toss, laughing, into the sea (the kids, not the cows). I am now in a bar, about to leave for the restaurant which serves spaghetti with hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. After this I will probably go straight to bed. Ciao for now.

Catching Up.


Catching Up.
I know I~ve skipped a few things here and there, but i have already had one remark about the length of my entries, so i will just carry on as is.
It was nearly a week agot that I came to Dakar, the throbbing and sweaty capital of Senegal. I~ve been staying with a young French nwoman named Virginie in the posh and Toubab neighbourhood of Mermoz. Consequently, my picture of Dakar has been pas complete, thought it has been a realy nice picture indeed. I could fill pages with records of the events, but instead I~ll just list them and move on to other things. More interesting, or more pressing at least.
-visited a fete celebrating the hopeful inauguration of a building site for a new elementary school. Surrounded by clamouring kids with puffy sores and very premature hair loss, the effets of malnourishment.
-visas visas visas. Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Cote d~]Ivoire.
-Danced till 4 to the sounds of Senegal at Balfort Bar. At the end a drunken man introduced tous les blancs in the audience...
-swam in teh piscine olympique
-visited Isle Ngor and Virginie~s relatives there, the kings of the island.
-Now on Madelaine, a deserted and tiny island, preserved for the birds. It]s beautiful here.

The voyage enbatuea from Dakar to Ziguinchour was an absolute, treat, though next time I will certainly spnd the extra 5000 to secure a bed, as there was little sleep to be had in the well-lit anteroom with its reclining chairs, crying babies and strong odour of feet. It wa a solitary journey for me, as I was feeling a strong need for some pivacy. Staying with people has, of course, a world full of advantages, but time to oneself is not one of them, and the experience can certainly be exhausting. The boat is enormous and brand new, a replacement for the one which capsized in 2002, killing over 2000 people, nearly its entire passenger load. Ther was coffee served, and a sandwich of grilled meat which I enjoyed very much. I ate alone, though I did bump into the two overloaded Canadians I~d met in Mauritania, as well as the swiss woman adn her Senegalese escort who had attended the party for the school in Dakar. The boat left shortly after sunset and arrived in Ziguinchour just before noon.
The1000 km of longitude spacing Dakar from Ziguinchour was immediately apparent itn eh new ferocity of the sun and in the style and kind of people. Moving further south has truly felt like becoming more }African^}, as ridiculous as that looks in print. This is just to say that with each km travelled towards the south the landscape and people have corresponded more with my preconceptions of what Africa looks and feels like.
AsideÇ it appears to be no problem for young guinean girls to carry large platters of bananas on their heads while dancing with vivre to some unheard internal rhythm.
There~s more in this entry, much more, but i move on to other things now

Get ready!

I have been away from a computer from some time, so these entries are transcribed from my notebook. Included is a letter to my friend Mark, which has some nice descriptions and info and whatnots. Enjoy! Take a break if you get bored!

Friday, March 14, 2008


Achmeddan and I spent our days sleeping on grass mats in the "cage", a thatched hut, round with tiny holes for doors and windows. The cage looked like a giant hershey's kiss, though slightly melting and listing to one iside. Not having Achmeddan's ability to sleep easily with heat and flies I spent my time mending my gear, installing a vent in my sleeping sheet, reading and writing. In the evenings we would join his firends four couscous, tea and singing under the stars.

It's very difficult to keep up with the recording of daily events. A lot happens and I have feelings and thoughts about all of it. I'll try to catuch us up right quick style.
I left Achmeddan a few days ago, saving money by ridin gin the back of a little Hilux from Agadir to Noakchott, a "five hour" ride that took a full eight. I shared the back with a few hundred pounds of carrots, eight adults, one child and two goats. From the looks of other trucks I would guess, impossible as it seemed, we were a long ways from setting any kind of cargo record. This time the goats were loaded into gunny sacks, the bags tied around their necks so their little heads were poking out. Poor little guys were loaded first and then some netting was stretched over them. On top the netting people and bags were piled higgledy piggledy. Kind of a tough journey for the little guys, and whenever I was feeling uncomfortable I would just watch their tired little faces and I'd feel a bit better about my circumstances. During the last few hours of the journey they'd let out occaional bleats of protest. The white goat had the funniest voice, like a person trying to imitate a goat. His poor thirsty tongue would shoot out to the side as he would shout bllEEEEEEHHH! The guitar came out at some point, but I wasn't in the mood after a long and difficult conversation about Islam and the obligatory request for help getting to Canada, despite the fact that my interlocutor knew nothing about Canada, not even that it is located in the Americas.
Finally arrived in dusty Noakchott, a flea-bitten town of sand and garbage and bustlying streets. I took a taxi to the Lycee Francaise where I met my host Chloe, a beautiful French girl halfway through a two year contract with a french development ngo in Mauritania. I spent the evening with her and her ill Mauritanian boyfriend, enjoying cold coke and my first real wash since takin the train.
I soaped and rinsed twice and was still appaled at the dust and grim left in the shower afterwards. Eventually I gave up.
That night was my first with teh mosquito net. It was awufl. There is a trick to using the net and it's one I'd yet to learn. Rather than keeping mosquitos out I kind of created a little mosquito zoo inside that net. I counted 40 bites between my left elbow and the top of my shoulder. I should get that malaria medicine.

ok. that's enough for now. as a real time update. It is the 14th of March and I'm leaving St Louis today or tomorrow for Dakar. Take care out there!


I forgot to mention earlier that what I'm writing here are the transcripts of things already written on pen and paper in my journal. I don't like writing with pen and paper, despite the romance of it, as I find it difficult to actually compose and find myself simply recording instead. These entries are recordings. Some day maybe they'll find their way into compositions. that would be nice!

March 9. Writing from the village of Tay-Arrette near Atar, Mauritaia.
Some borders are aptly called borders, others are frontiers. Crossing from Morocco into Mauritania is crossing a frontier, and the experience is accompanied by all the accoutrement thoughts and feelings associated with the term, at least for me. After getting your stamp on the Moroccan side you go through a gate and the road disappears immediately, our crumbling van trundled slowly through a dusty swirling wasteland of blowing plastic bags and debris, scrubs of grass and the hulking and charred masses of burned out cars. It continues this way for 9km before one reaches another gate and encounters the Mauritanian border officials. I had heard horror stories of this literal no man's land. The 9km stretch is claimed by neither maroc nor mauritanie and it is officially administered by the UN, though no administration is apparent. The area has beome a garbage dump for all materials which don't have the required paperwork or enough baksheesh to get into either country. It is also filled with people who have the same problem, stranded in no man's land without the papers required to leave. All are refugees, most are from Africa but some come from as far afiel as Bangladesh. They wait, trapped in this nether zone, for the chance to float their way to the Canary Islands. Because neither country claims the territory neither country claims the problem, and the refugees are left to beg for water from the few who do pass through the frontier. While the only figures I saw were far away, walking along distant dunes and silhoutted against the setting sun, the knowledge of what exists in that godforsaken stretch made me sick to my stomache. The shock that people can live in such a condition without anyone seeming to know or care is multiplied by the feeling that this must be one of many such places in the world.
The border offices themselves gave a clear indication of what the economic difference between the two countries. On the Moroccan side, a well-used but neat cement block row of two offices and a mosque served by electric lights and a toilet with a plumbed faucet. On the Mauritanian side, a shack made of sticks and used linoleum with a gas lantern for light and men working on an old board for a table.
I continuied on to Noadhibou and was treated to some fine Arab hospitality as I waited for my host Ibrahim to fetch me from the grocery store where I borrowed a phone, was given a special and comfy chair and bottles of water and fruit juice. Free, with smiles. The next dya I left for the East of the country and the deep Sahara. The trip on the train must be its own entry.

It remains a necissity for me to write about the epic journey on the iron-ore tain, but for now I will record the passing of the last three days in the village of Achmeddan. Here's a teaser for the train:
The world's longest train (2.5 km) carries iron ore from the mines in the Sahara to the coast for loading onto ships. On the return journey into the desert the cars which carried the iron ore are empty, and hundreds of people hop aboard for the epic, 12 hour journey through coal dust and sand storms to arrive in the middle of the night in Choum. It is epic. From my ore car near the back of the train I can hear the train beginning to pull up at the front, 2 km away. As the cars pull taught there is a slam of iron on iron with the passing of energy from car to car. The sound comes rolling like thunder and you hold on like hell cause when it hits your car there's a shocking shudder and a lurch forward into motion. If you're caught outside the car, or even worse on the ladder, when you hear the thunder beginning it can be a very scary thing. It's terrifying.

Like the sound of the bomb on its way to your town, or the air round his fist on its way to your mouth.

More about the train later:
The train stopped at Choum before continuing on to its next destination. It was about three or four am when we stopeed. Complete arkness and lots of scurring around, people throwing packages to the ground and jumpin gfrom the waagons with haste, making sure they got everything unloaded, bags, tea sets, stoves, my guitar, and as I learned later, goats, before hte train left again. In total darkness I descended, jumping from the ladder with my pack on my back having refused the help of Adam the Cote D'Ivoirian. I wiped out on the landing, of course. Pridefall. I said goodbye to Adam who had been a big help, and moved to a waiting truck. I loaded myslef into the back and was carried a short distance to a spot where I joined with the other four tourists who had ridden inside the train's passenger car and anyone else travelling to Atar. After some uneccessary and fear-induced haggling by the Canadians and the dutch guy we finally settled the price, the same as the price quoted intitally, and loaded 9 people with bags and five goats into the back of a tiny toyota hilux. I don't want to travel this way, afraid of everything and certain everyone's trying to rip you off. Certainly, you will pay more than you should for some things when you travel in places like Africa. But you have to pick your battles, and the middle of the night in a 1 goat village in the sahara when there's ONE truck going anywhere and the people have been generous and helpful is not the right battle. Before leaving we swung through the dark village to pick up a very elderly and ill woman for the trip to Atar. Before getting in the cab of the truck she performed what seemed to me a very efficient and interesting bathroom ritual. With one quick and smooth movement she dug a small trench in the sand with her bare foot, then squatted over the spot, her long robes touch the ground ensuring full privacy. After a few moments she stood, filled in the trench with her foot, washed her hands with sand and was helped into the truck. It was beautiful and shocking at the same time. Like real life, I suppose.
The trip was very pleasant. We passed through fields of sand dotted with rock outcroppings and thorned trees under the incredible light of the desert night sky. With no light around save the lamps of the truck, the stars were out in full force. Of course the guitar was revealed and I spent the next few hours singing for the other passengers, for the Sahara and for myself. We followed what was at times a track, a road, a collection of sets of tracks or simply nothing at all. There was a really nice Mauritnaina man travelling in our boatload. The goats were his of course. He and I traded singing back and forth and he sang with me a bit. From his manner I thought him to be younger than me. His turban covering his face made it difficult to assess his age. He spoke French and was very patient with me. We made good conversation and after a couple of hours he invited me to stay with hima nd his family in his village just shy of Atar. This is where I have spent the lat few days. His name is Achmeddan.
Achmeddan lives in a tiny village 9km west of Atar. As it turns out he is 33 years old. He lives in a little compound with his parents, his two sisters and their two little girls. We jittissoned the Toyota Hilux, the onlky truck in the desert it seems, and walked throught eh sand to the square mud house where his family was, of course, sittin gand making tea. He introduced me and I sat in silence while his family, quite happy at his return, chatted. Along with the ea I was offered my first taste of zrig, a drink made of sweetened curdled camel or goat milk. It was ok.
Over the next few days I enjoyed the legendary hospitality of the Mauritanian people, exhibited in exemplary style by Achmeddan and his family. We ate couscous, drank a kind of breakfast drink made of grain and sour milk, had heaps of tea, visited his friends in teh village and so on. His neighbours were hosting a grande fete for the marriage of one of the dauhters and there was nearly constant singing carrying through the dusty air for two of the four days I passed there. I was invited to dance in front of everyone to the frantic and savage sounds of the traditional Mauritanian wedding singers, groups of middle aged or older women singing fiercely into microphones and making driving rythms on drums, steel bowls, bottles, whatever. I love to dance, and the experience was wonderful.
On arrival at Achmeddan's I was offered a place to wash, welcome after the 16 hours en route. With a bucket of water drawn from the family well I washed an unbelievable amount of dust/iron-ore from every nook and cranny. The family lives much like they must have for hte last hundreds of years. The ony modern accoutrements I could see were the occasional plastic bowl, a butan gas burner for making tea, though coal was used just as often, cigarettes and cigarette lighters, flashlights, a battery powered radio and, amazingly, cellphones! They would need to take trips to the city every few days to charge the phones.
power just went out on the other side of the room so i'm going to publish this quick so i don't lose it. then, hopefully, come back and finish.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

one more

This is Achmeddan, walking through the Sahara in his village. The Mauritanian men wear these beautiful blue robes which make them look like kings. Also, I forgot to explain, one of the previous photos is of a type of board game played on a flattened stretch of sand and using sticks and donkey poop for pieces. Heads up Cranium, you've got some competition!

more photos

I spent four days in the home of Achmeddan and his family in the Sahara. We met on the truck from Choum to Agadir, and I just got off in his little village. It was amazing. No water or power, sleeping in a thatch hut, drinking curdled sweetened camel milk in the mornings, sleeping all day and singing under the stars with his friends in the evenings. He was a true prince of the Sahara. Also, there's a picture of a goat in a bag, perfecting for chucking into the backs of trucks. Poor little guys.


I think it's working! We'll see if these babies take.

Photoo 1: dead rabbits on the streets in Marrakech
Photoo 2: the no man's land between Mauritania and Mali
Photoo 3: jamming in the back of a dusty van. A guitar is the best travel partner I could ask for. It's been a ticket into hearts.
Photoo 4: waiting for the iron ore train to Choum
Photoo 5: on the train.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

something to chew on

HI Everbody. Sorry for the non postage lately. I have been quite off
the grid for a while now. But I am now in Senegal in what must be the
fastest internet cafe in west africa. So after many failed attempts
from... ahem, less well equipped cafes... I will try to make a huge
deposit onto this bloggy. I'll do my best to keep days and things
separated. I also have little faith in the blog site's ability to
actually post things, so if it doesn't work it doesn't work. I'll also
try to post some photos in the next few days. We will see. Inshallah.
Also, this keyboard is sticky and is tiresome for the arms. Please
excuse the spelling errors.

We start in

Well it has begun, though not without a few hiccups:
1. I missed my plane in Paris... damned 24 hour clock! I realized too
late, for sure, but beetled to the airport in great haste, running
like a madman through the metro, gare du nord and CDG Terminal 2B. Too
late. I played guitar on the RER ride back to Paris, just to take
advantage of the horrible feelings.
2. The next morning I woke to an email from my couchsurfing host in
Marrakech saying he had to run to Cassablanca for urgent famiy affairs
and could not host me.
3. Finally, on checking in to my flight with Difficult Jet airlines I
was made to pay an extra 12 E and told I had to check my utar. The
ticket agent informed me that "in this istuation I cna pretty much
guarantee it will be damaged." Are they allowed to say that?
But, I made my second flight, I connecte with new hosts on my arrival
in Marrakech and I was able to sneak my guitar onto the plane so it
wasn't damaged at all! Three hiccups, all take care of. If this is the
worst this trip can do then it's going to be pretty smooth sailing. I
bet there are more to come though.
Marrakech. I'm really feeling averse at the moment to the idea of
fillin these pages with banal and cliche statements and recordings of
the "exotic" and "enchanting", the different and the difficult. I want
to write things I'll want to read later. If I'm bored while writing
ethem I'll mos tcertainly be bored readin gthem. So if I find myself
lapsin into easy cliche i'll jusxt shut up. Maybe I'll start by makin
gshort statements, see if any catch my interest.
1. I should have listened to Zabo's advice and brought my compass
during my walks today. This city is very confusing and I've felt more
or less lost the entire day. The souks are a maze of alleys and shops.
Sections of this are completely uninteresting while others are
fascinating. I try to avoid the uninteresting and repepetive little
streets where I'm afraid of glancing into the shop windows for fear of
inviting the pesky advances of the shopkeepers. It's impossible for me
to purchase anything, as anything I buy must be carried on my back for
the next three months. No thank you. I prefer the streets with less
going on, the alleys where they produce what's sold in the shops. The
tinworkers and basket makers, the cobblers and silver smiths.
2. Colonial Africa is very itneresting. It's weird to be speaking
French here, and the little Arabic I have is nearly useless. Nearly.

this part is mostly repetitive of the bad buddhist entry, so i skeep eet.

The path so far:
Very relaxing time. Stayed with Anne Lorraine and the family for 4
days, then with the Bujons for another four. Spent most of the time
inside working on my report for HIA/Fosdick, though I was able to make
some nice rendezvous with my friends Jean Jean and Simon who I met in
Palestine, and with Isabelle, HIA senior fellow/friend.

Spent a wonderful four days in the home of Jacques and Nicolas, the
best hosts imagineable. Saw Marrakech via bicycle from top to bottom
and ate like a king.

Jematt Saim:
Stayed with my friend Pedja, HIA Senior Fellow, in his apartment in
this tiny village for three days. From his window was a view of a
muddy/dusty field where donkey carts wait by the dozen for people to
hire them for haulin things. Watched them loading twice the volume of
a truck with hay bails. Incredible. We made a hell of a tajine. I
attended his English class and was struck again by how 13 year old
kids are the same all over the world. We had a nice visit to the
seaside town of Safi, where we bought some furniture for Pedja's

Spent another four nights at the home of Barka, a lovely young
Moroccan woman with more energy than a three year old. Had a couple of
great days exploring the beaches north and south of Agadir. Borrowed a
surfboard from a kid and broke it in two. Paid him 120 E the day that
I left.

Passed two delightful evenings with Pedja's peace corps volunteer
friends Brooke and Maury. Brooke and I went on a terrific hike through
the mountains and deserts of the Anti Atlas, and even saw the goats
that climb trees!

Tafroute to Dakhla:
Spent the next two full days trying to get to Dakhla. Started out via
bus, then cauht a ride with some guys who were oing all the way to
Layounne; a golden ticket! But after the first police checkpoint where
I received some hassle they decided they didn't have the time and
dumped me in the closest town, Tan Tan. I understood. From Tan Tan I
took a grans taxi with six other men. We waited for three hours to
find our 7th person and finally left around 9pm, packed in like canned
oranges. We lost everyone except for myself and one other in Laayoune,
which menat I had the backseat to myself from about 6am till we
started pickin gpu more passengers around 11. It took another five
hours from there to Dakhla. At Dakhlah I checked into a hotel, the
first on my journey. It was pleasant enough and I was desparate to do
laundry. My washing done I headed for the sea. Dakhla is a dusty town
on teh end of a 35km sandy peninsula. The military presence here is a
bit overwhelming, as it's the last town before the Mauritanian
frontier, some 600km to the south. People seem a bit jaded, though I
made soem very nice meetings. The best was with ________, I found him
on the end of a crumbling old sewer pipe leading from town into the
bay. He was fishing and invited me to join him in his spot as I was
having a tough time fishing with my bit of line from the beach. Short
of money, I had decided that taking a shot at a bite in this
legendeary fishin gtown might just pan out. I was using bits of what
passes cheese in Maroc and was havin some difficulty keepin it on the
hook. I had a lot of bites and lost a lot of cheese, but caught no
fish. ____ had similar luck with his escargot and we eventualy both
packed it in. When I emerged from my requisite swim ____ invited me to
join him and his family for couscous, sans poisson, that evening. We
redezvoused at 8pm in front of the Al Jazeera cafe. As we walked
through teh busy evening streets filled with robed figures hawking all
manner of goods and the smoke from thekefta stands ___ and I
established a story n case we were stopped by tyeh police. Teh
couscous was amazing. ___'s beautiful wife was a tremendous cook and
unbelievably talented in the fine art of eating couscous with the
hands. She formed these amazin glittle balls, quick as could be with a
beautiful mxture of vegetables, couscous and chicken, all while keepin
gher hand nearly spotless. I looked like a two year old net to her,
food all the way up my hand and all over my face. Their baby Younus
was shy at first but came right around after a few songs on teh

Dakhla to Noadhibou:
A long day. I left at 8am, hpin to thumb an early lift south. I had
decided to wlak the 9km to the town's gendarme checkpoint and its
attendant6 collectio nof vehicles heading to Mauritani, but gve up and
took a taxi. Asking around it appeared the price for transit to
Mauritnaia was a standard 350 Dirhams. Accompanied by truck drivers'
scoffs I started walking in search of a free lift. I was picked up
after less than a click by a very strange Mauritanian man in a beat up
and severely overloaded blue cargo van I explained that |I didn't want
to pay and that I was hoping to ride for free. It wasn't until a half
hour into the ride that he quoted me the price, 350 Dirham. I showed
him that I quite literally had only 120 Dirham and that I had said I
didn't want to pay. He took the 100. I considered gettin out, but we
were of course in the middle of the sahara, and would go 30 or 40
minutes without seeing another car. I decided not to push it. The old
blue mercedes must've been the slowest truck on teh shaara that day. I
guessed we made between 10 and 40 km per hour for the next 10 hours.
We had two blowouts and at one point he told me that the road up ahead
was dangerous and thit if he shouted at me to jump I should justmp. As
in out the door. The border corssin gtook a long time but was
relatively ainless. No baksheesh, and the visa price of 10 E was a
nice surprise. The shock of crossing the border was immense, however.