Africa, Asia and Europe - To Mali

Africa, Asia and Europe - To Mali

Date sent: Fri, 12 Jul 96 11:28

Subject: Preview of future Klimagrams

From the Dragoman trip evaluation sheet I filled out in Nairobi:

What part of the trip did you enjoy the most? Zaire What part of the trip did you enjoy the least? Zaire

The questionaire covered the central Africa leg of the journey from Ghana to Kenya. And yes, Zaire represented the high and low - the best and worst - of my passage through the Heart of Darkness.

We drove 2000 kilometers on unbelievably muddy, astonishingly pot-holed dirt roads crossing log bridges I was nervous about even walking across. Aside from the usual bastards at the border, we encountered corrupt, gun-toting officials in every single town along the way.

On a good day we covered 100 or more kilometers, on a bad day 10 or 20 kilometers was the best we could achieve. I have never seen a pot hole so big that an entire truck can be swallowed up; a pot hole so deep that you can step from the bank on its side to the roof of the truck. That last statement is no longer true.

Zaire normally has wet and dry seasons. This year nature forgot the dry one. We arrived at the start of the second wet season and required 33 days to reach the Ugandan border. During that time I did not shower; I did not change clothes.

At one point I lost all control over my bowels. (Correction to the earlier - I did change my underwear once). The spousal unit came within a whisker of breaking her ankle on the first damn day.

And the bugs in the jungle? Let me quote Mary Kingsley, an intrepid English woman who ventured deep into the African bush around the turn of the century.

"I should say, looking back calmly upon the matter, that 75 per cent of West African insects sting, 5 per cent bite, and the rest are either permanently or temporarily parasitic on the human race. And undoubtedly one of the many worst things you can do in West Africa is to take any notice of an insect."

Date sent: Sat, 13 Jul 1996

Klimagram 38: Mauritania Diary (Part 2) - Ship of Flies

Friday, March 10 Campground in central Nouadhibou

The Dragoman passengers settle into the slow passage of time as Dave and Helen, our drivers, labor feverishly around the clock to disconnect the drive train and dismantle the gear box. It is a formidable task when you consider the havoc a few grains of sand. A replacement gear box cannot be sent to us because it is too heavy to air freight into Nouadhibou.

The town is hot and dry with few diversions for a stranded tourist. The only greenery to be seen is the paint on the little taxi cabs that dart up and down the main street. Was that color chosen for the fleet because it does not exist naturally here? The BARF cooking team continues to introduce classic American food to the Brits. Today sloppy joes are on the menu: Nouadhibou has a couple modest supermarkets but by modest I mean equal to one aisle in a modern American convenience store. Since most of the goods are imported by sea or air, they are often too expensive for our food budget. Let me describe a typical third world, open-air butcher shop. It is usually an unpainted shed. The key to buying meat in such a setting is to ignore the ambiance, especially the airborne part of it. Plus there are a few tricks that the Unit and I have learned:

-Always go to the market early in the morning when the meat is freshly butchered.
-Purchase from amiable butchers only. One who never smiles or one who smiles too much cannot be trusted.
-Don't buy anything that smells bad or is no longer red in colour. Bad meat can't be made good by cooking it.
-Convey to the shop's proprietor that you will return tomorrow if you do not die from food poisoning today.
-Insist on the best cuts and pay top dollar (or ougiya, in the case of Mauritania); never haggle. For beef, this is usually the filet - demand it.
-Do not be afraid of some fat in your pile of meat - you can always throw it away. Remember that many third world cuisines prize fatty meat and shopkeepers are honoring you by including it.
-Be sure to wash the meat before cooking to remove any fly eggs. Always wash your hands beforehand (and afterward unless you want the eggs on you).

We pushed the meat through the truck's grinder, narrowly avoiding the addition of my thumb several times, and cooked up a splendid pot of sloppy joe mixture. But much to our chagrin, the Brits were relatively graceful in their handling of the messy sandwich.

Saturday, March 11: same place

This morning we made banana pancakes much to the delight of all the flies in central Nouadhibou. But our group of travellers is unperturbed - they have adjusted their standards. It is amusing to watch the buzzers get stuck in the jam, honey, and syrup. Later I researched the truck's collection of travel books for advice on coping with flies.

Tonight's dinner promises to be unique - the next cooking team, Tony and Yoshi, bought two big octopuses from a fisherman on the beach. The group maxes out at lunch in anticipation.

Date sent: Sat, 13 Jul 1996

Klimagram 39: Mauritania Diary (Part 3) - Truly Gritty

Thursday, March 14: Bush camp somewhere in the Sahara

Laden with 100 small loaves of bread, I stagger back to camp in Nouadhibou with the last of the provisions needed for our journey into the void. Our drivers estimate it will take three days to reach the Mauritanian capital but, as the designated bread wallah, I have allowed for a couple extra days. Despite the presence of a native guide, we will badditional 45 buns and baguettes so the truck is awash in bread.

The truck has been repaired and the group is psyched for the 525 kilometers of open desert that lies between us and Nouakchott. We enter vast gravel plains that are absolutely flat except for a scrubby tree every mile or so. I ride in the roof seat and marvel at the solitary dunes which engulf anything in their path

The sand here, especially in the undulating dunes, is much finer than any I have ever felt. It is unlike grainy beach sand, more like tan talcum powder. When you run down a dune, it resembles stepping on a foam mattress.

At the end of the day the truck parks in the lee of a large dune. Everybody scrambles up to its lip and tumbles down the concave face. Spirits are high and we revel in the stark beauty of our surroundings.

Dave rigs the truck up for sand surfing on the smooth desert floor. First he removes one of the sand mats, an eight foot length of perforated steel. Then he attaches it to the rear of the truck using the tow cable. I must confess that, after witnessing the filthy state of the returning surfers, I declined the opportunity. While the others surfed, I chose to walk in the emptiness. My conception of space changes dramatically when the landscape is so barren that I have no way of discerning distance or direction. Up and down but no left or right - the desert stretches to infinity.

Date sent: Sat, 13 Jul 1996

Klimagram 40: Mauritania Diary (Part 4) - Almost Arrested

Tuesday, March 19: Bush camp somewhere in southeast Mauritania

We drive all morning on a bumpy road which made it impossible to read. With the windows open the engine is too loud to hear the music from the tape player. If we close the windows, the 100 degree plus temperature is unbearable. As we get further off the beaten track, the curiosity of the local people escalates. Children cluster around the truck. By noon we reach Kiffa, a small, forgotten town astride the tarmac road we are following east. We stop to buy the food we will need for the next couple days. The town is hot and dusty with rust-colored dunes swamping the northern end. Each house is a o It appears to be market day and the streets are crowded with people and donkey carts. Each cart consists of a flat wooden platform balanced on a single axle with two wheels. Up to six or eight women wrapped in brightly-colored gauze pack themselves aboard. The market, a congested jumble of ramshackle stalls held together with crooked poles, odd sheets of rusty tin. Standing at the junction of two long rows of stalls I spot several boys in the crowd carrying big stacks of baguettes on their heads. I must have a picture. As I look through my view finder, a policeman in green fatigues appears in it. He is displeased. At this point Tom, our 19 year old from Northern Ireland, shows up and uses his smattering of French to talk with the policeman.

In the police compound we are paraded in front of the commissioner. We smile and feign innocence. The officials admonish us, stating that photography is not allowed in the market. Although I know photography permits are no longer necessary in Mauritani, it's a good thing that we didn't sell Tom into slavery as we have been jokingly threatening since we crossed the border from Morocco. Mauritania did not outlaw slavery until 1980, the last country in the world with slaves to do so.

Wednesday, March 20: Bush camp in Mauritania or Mali - we don't know which

Today our driver turned the steering wheel hard to starboard and pointed the truck southward toward the border with Mali, a couple hundred kilometers away. We have entered the Sahel, the dry grasslands below the Sahara. There is still plenty of sand which Dave is navigating by compass so we are never sure quite where we are. Then we stumble into one of those unexpected, magical travel experiences - a chance visit to a remote village where the inhabitants treat us like visitors from outer space. I have been coveting a good camel photo for weeks and, to my astonishment, there is a camel market in this small village. Angus, a fellow traveler, and I approach the traders and summon up the nerve to ask permission. At first all the men shake their heads.

Returning to the truck we find it surrounded by a large mob of local women with water jugs on their heads, sunburned men with unblinking eyes and chattering children of all ages. Has some major cultural faux pas been committed? The black skin, the shining dark eyes, the gleaming white teeth, and a kaleidoscope of bright-colored clothing angularly lit by the slanting rays of the afternoon sun create a stellar photographic opportunity. I am paralyzed by temptation. We are close I stand frozen in the middle of the truck, camera in hand. Then fate steps in and makes the decision for me - I accidently hit the tiny rewind button on the underside of the camera. Since the rest of my film is stored in the back locker, I am done with. Perhaps it is for the best - no image on film could ever capture the wonder of the moment as two very different cultures bravely sought to comprehend each other. On the other hand, I may not have to rely on memory. Angus snuck up to a roof seat and snapped a picture.

Copyright (C) 1996 Jet City Jimbo All rights reserved.

These episodes were painfully written and edited in longhand since a Nigerian sewer crashed my hard drive and DHL air freight trashed the rest of my laptop. The file was uploaded using the marvelous 64 KB link of the African Regional Centre for Computing

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