May 25, 1998

Ghana: Vekima Restaurant, Kumasi

The missionaries did well in Ghana, or thought they did: I'm sitting under "Ignoring JESUS is choosing HELL!" and "Are you living like there was no JUDGEMENT DAY?" signs along with the local beer posters and omnipresent Coke/Fanta/Sprite signs.

Have moved from the land of no-small-money to the land of no-big-money: Ghana's largest bill is the c5000, approx. US $2.20 and falling, so US$50 means el-wad-o-cash.

Just hopped off the Takoradi-Kumasi overnight sleeper: 4 hours late, but, since that meant 4 hours extra sleep, most welcome. Takoradi is a shithole, but Ghana very pleasant. Weird travelling through a place where they speak English, albeit broken and heavily-accented. Feel more a part of what's going on.

Everyone here wants to exchange addresses. I wonder if they'll ever use them.

Flag tablecloths. Everyone calls you "Chef" in Cote d'Ivoire. Tar pits (well, smears) on the beach at the Coppa-Cabana. Wielding a machete in the Ghanaian bush.

Chronology: reunited with the truck, with everyone in fact except Sam & Chong, due to catastrophe - Sam's passport and money belt were stolen by a moped thief in Bobo-Diolassou and he needs a new passport and visas, and some of the latter could be tricky. Least he has Chong, reliable & indestructible, with him.

Headed out from Abidjan to a campsite in the depressing shantytown which stretches for tens of K's along the coast. Quite a nice campsite, though, and a nice if dirty beach, though waves too high and close to the coast for swimming: couple years and the whole beach will be eaten away. Farewell party for Mathias/Jorge & Jo, going home and on-their-own respectively. Did little but read & sit on beach the next day. Dropped the three of 'em off at the airport and headed back, went out for a meal that was OK as a cultural experience but not much in the way of good food.

Next day, off to Grand-Bassam, a decaying old colonial town, huge crumbling buildings and deserted streets, reminding me curiously of New Orlean's French Quarter. Statuary and coconut trees. It's situated between a peaceful lagoon and a violent (but swimmable - great bodysurfing) oceanfront.

Cooked, first time in ages, and headed off for a beer, a real horror-movie walk: a misty night, past a huge cemetery with open graves, occasional skeletons of decaying houses rearing up in the mist, power lines crackling overhead, in the Gulf of Guinea where voodoo was born...

Another, extremely peaceful and uneventful, day in Grand-Bassam followed. Stayed at same campsite, by truck, near Nick-the-perpetually-ill.

Next day - 24th, three days ago - had a final morning in Grand-Bassam, shopped at a craft market in the afternoon, camped at a different beach campsite, had an unnerving encounter with a coconut, took fire duty for dinner.

25th: to Abidjan to get news on Sam & Chong (why we had to go to Abidjan to do this still escapes me). Parked & ate at usual spots, stole a swim at the Novotel, headed to the border with a pause at Grand-Bassam for Brian to get his things and say goodbye to (pay off?) his new woman.

To the border, where two very surreal things happened: first, on the Cote d'Ivoire side, the whole world stopped between whistleblows as a soldier lowered the flag: second, on the Ghana side, official goes from "I hate all British people, your truck must stay here," to "I'm your best friend!" in 2.2 seconds (and no, no money exchanged hands.)

Camped in the bush - hacked the campsite out of a path leading to a farmer's pigpen, actually. Ants & flies & mozzies all over the place, so tented up for first time in ages.

Yesterday, stopped at Axim to look at OK castle and stunning coast, headed to Takoradi to change money, and I abandoned the BYT there. Got train ticket, ate Chinese, had a beer & talked with Mike the Sierra Leonian and Emmanuel the Ghanaian (their advice on Nigeria: "don't trust _anyone_ there"), read by the coastline for a while, ate at a second street stall (first was out of food, but a man offered me his food(!)) for c400, ditched a sob-story artist, caught train. And here I am. Plan to find a hotel, shower, get laundry done, and take a couple days in Kumasi.

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May 20, 1998

Cote d'Ivoire: Hamburger House, Abidjan

I have happily flung cultural authenticity to the wind and devoured a top-notch burger/fries/Coke. Am now the picture of contentment.

Abidjan, "the New York City of West Africa," is a fun if schizophrenic city - the Treichville near-shantytown slums and the am-I-in-Paris? Plateau downtown. Supermarkets and Citibank and skyscrapers, with rivers of sewage (from this morning's colossal downpour) and afterthought electrical wires hanging over tin roofs across the river.

Took the train from Ouaga five days ago, country getting greener and greener, some nice ridge-and-rolling-hills landscape as we approached the border, "Yield" and a lunchtime chicken passed through the window. A horse's head plopped in a bowl just outside the train's toilets. A no-hassle hour at the border drinking beers with two French guys, until... Disembarked at Ferkessedougou, no Mathias, slept at super- cheap-and-with-reason Hotel La Pailotte, ate at a maquis and drank with a Peace Corps chick 'til midnight.

Next day, hunted for transport to Abidjan, surprisingly difficult. Ate at a black-tie maquis, fear of a huge bill misplaced. At 2PM saw Andrea & Ali walking towards us - not truck, just a many-person expedition off it. Ten of us in a share-taxi to Yamoussoukro.

Which is a truly bizarre thing, a European town and national capital plopped down in the middle of the bush like it was dropped there accidentally. Hotel with air-con and American-diner restaurant. Pool of sacred crocodiles - like statues, especially after eating, but unnerving nonetheless. Wide empty boulevards going nowhere. Gleaming presidential and Congress palaces, deserted but for the gardeners. And the Grand Basilica, an oh-my-God edifice of gleaming marble and stained glass, a mindfuck anywhere but especially here. "The Pope's house" behind. Bock Solibra, drunk by the artificial lake.

Yesterday to Abidjan, a city nowhere near as appalling as its gare routiere suggests. Treichville used to be dangerous, I think - grilles and locks everywhere - but feels perfectly safe now, vibrant, colourful, comes alive after dark. Decent hotel (Le Prince) too. Ang was sick, so Ali & I wandered up to the lagoon, watched boats for a while, checked on the patient, ate & drank with Jo & Jorge & Gavin. Pleasant day, especially considering it started off looking like a disaster.

Today, roved around Plateau, took Beijing-esque bus back to Treichville for stuff, came back here with taxi driver who accusingly pointed out that les blancs own everything in this African city and c'est pas bon. Washed the guilt down with the burger. Now off to meet the truck again.

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May 15, 1998

Burkina Faso: Hotel Central, Ouagadougou

Not actually staying here, natch, but they have a dark room and a fan, and it's still pretty-damn-warm outside, though better'n Mali.

Have hopped off the truck again, off down to Abidjan with Tim, and expect to take a solo week in Ghana as well. The novelty of the truck lifestyle is by now well-worn.

Had eventful day in Mopti. After an hour's truck guarding, bought a frozen-solid bottle of water (mmm...) and went on a pirogue tour of the river up to the Niger with a stopover in a Bozo village, very traditional, facial tattoos and hand-pounded millet and cow-dung kindling. Blessed peace after Mopti's hassle.

Return to truck to find that Angela & Naomi were very ill, combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and food poisoning. (From the chicken & chips in Djenne - which Tim and I had also ordered, but we got guinea fowl). Bush-camped in dark scrub. Next day, rough roads into Bankass, where we put the patients in a hotel and sat around the compound drinking lukewarm Cokes. Walked into the low, dusty, very spread-out town - almost Wild West - and felt parched & boiled within 15 min. Had a beer at the other end of town, driven away by hideous music, slept on the roof.

Off next day on quite-cool Dogon trek. 12K walk paced by horsecarts across the dust - felt like near-desert, but is end of dry season - and slumped in shade, ate couscous, tried to convince ourselves it wasn't that hot out, drank lots of tea. Went to Ende market, charming, colourful, too fucking hot to think.

Went up to the Ende Halls of Justice - where the roof is so low you have to crawl, making fights all but impossible - and then higher still to their Ogon, or spiritual-leader/shaman/witch-doctor/ medicine-man/high-priest. Chosen at an old age, he comes down to the village only once a year and spends the rest of his time dispensing advice (to pilgrims from as far away as Bamako), helping the sick, sacrificing animals on a lightning-struck rock to bring the rain or call back city-dwelling Dogon sons.

Chilled in the Halls of Justice 'til the worst of the midday heat ended, then walked 4K to our rooftop crash pad in Tele. Sent a smallboy with a limp to get me mangoes, but he didn't pan out. Ate rice - no appetite in this heat, though, had to force myself - drank millet beer and warm Coke, slept.

Woke early to village & animal noises. Quick 5K morning walk to our guide Gabriel's home village, sat in the shade during the midday heat crunch, then up the Escarpment, rocky ground like the Canadian Shield. 2 of our members went back to Bankass due to illness. (Starting to feel like the Typhoid Truck - only 5 of us have yet to get sick.) Porters carrying 20L jerry-cans and our box-of-plates, on their heads, up steep uneven rocks. Made it up to Djigiboomboom - what a name - circumnavigated the village with Andrea, ate, chatted, crashed.

Heidi: "Is the lower infant mortality due to the vaccinations or the good spiritual feeling?"

Up at 6 for a long but invigorating walk down the Escarpment, up and down ravines, to the cliff face overlooking Ende. Met up with a few horsecarts on the ground and rode back to Bankass, where of course PK insisted we leave immediately. (Wisely stopped for ice-cold Fanta before we returned to the truck.) Crossed into Burkina Faso - first sign still says "Haute Volta" - with a minimum of fuss, free-camped, and Tim & I decided to leave the truck again.

Truck stopped in Ouahigouya next morning, and we left them there, did a brief cafe tour of the town and hopped on a bus to Ouagadougou which a) left right on time and b) took less time than we expected. Grabbed a cab to the pleasant, cheap Hotel Kilimandjaro and wandered into town, picked up an IHT, ate a 100-CFA meat sandwich (now a staple along with 150-CFA yogurts and 200-CFA Cokes), splurged on ice cream, got a couple of beers, headed back just in time to see Chelsea win the Cup-Winner's Cup on Kilimandjaro's fuzzy, often-B&W TV.

Yesterday, sent Al's letter, bought train tickets for tomorrow, saw the 5th Element (crowd smaller & less rowdy than expected) and ate at the Cafe "God Is Love" pondering its thought for the day: "The Eternal Is My Burger."

Princess Di postage stamps, as weird as Mali's Star Wars ones.

I like Burkina Faso a lot - much more relaxed than Mali, less hassle, less heat, a city it's fun to walk around in, cafe and cinema culture, and real cheap.

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May 08, 1998

Mali: Dogon Patisserie, Mopti

Nice little place - good snacks and decent coffee.

I fear this journal isn't all it could be, but I'm not really devoting enough time for more than a dry factual report.

Nice few days in Bamako - day wandering around on my own, wading in the Niger, walking way east to air-con expat bar w/black leather & tuxedoed waiters, Peace Corps base with military entrance and barbed wire. Returned and nursed my sunburn. Next day, Nick was sick with heat rash, so Tim & I hung out at "Bar Bat," a tin shack under bat- barnacled trees by the river, and sipped Coke & beers for the afternoon. Went to the jazz club at night after a few beers with Mohammed, heard a kick-ass version of "Little Wing," ate a kebab, went home.

Next, found THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY in the mission library, played cards and read until Brian(!) showed up, engaged to a different Mauritanian woman than the one he'd left for. Following day, out of money, about to get a Visa advance, when word of the truck's arrival reached me through our now well-developed Bamako grapevine. The Filthy Dozen showed up, and we three reacted with deserved smugness. Off to a nice hotel with a swimming pool, where I pretty much swam, tanned and drank for two days, until we headed out to the road again.

Camped outside San night before last, and it was a pleasant night before we noticed a few flickers on the horizon. Eventually those developed into the most oh-my-God, pull-out-all-the-stops, Steven-Spielberg-eat-your-heart-out storm I have ever witnessed: two or three lightning flashes a second dancing around us for almost two hours, raindrops hurled so hard they bruised, wind that blew our tents down like tumbleweeds. We huddled in the truck (and occasionally went out to revel in it) until it passed.

Yesterday, off to Djenne. Bold plans to take a riverboat to Mopti fell apart after a 5K walk through the sun revealed a completely dry riverbed. Djenne feels like it just stepped out of the 16th century: mud-brick buildings, narrow alleys and archways, open sewers, wide dirt market spaces, and the towering mud mosque above it all. Saw an albino girl with milk-white eyes (sighted) and very pale blonde-green hair, a freaky sight anywhere but especially in Djenne. Wandered the town for an hour, did the cafe thing w/Tim-Naomi-Ali-Ang-Heidi-Andrea, made our way home under moonlight - only half full, too - so brilliant I could read Lonely Planet by it. Trees rearing against the sky like H.R. Giger nightmares.

Termite mounds, two-toned goats, and twenty bird's nests to a tree. Staple shopping with Wendy & Mike. Fanta Citron, a marvellous invention. Wrestling with mosquito nets. Blast of heat outside Nouakchott.

Tomorrow, Bankass: next day, Dogon country.

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May 02, 1998

Mali: Cafe Sport, Bamako

The omnipresent Bob Marley in the background, in a cool little cafe festooned with African art + sculpture. Run by a Senegalese guy who travels a lot and can get by in six languages.

Bamako: not much to see, lots of hassle from would-be guides, but a nice laid-back change of pace from the social petri dish of le camion.

The hyperintensity of travelling on your own still appeals to me, but I think I headed out with Nick + Tim for the last few days just to get a break from the truck. It's fascinating to watch heat, isolation, hard roads, lack of privacy, and sheer dirty making tempers fray and shrinking our world to a 100' radius from the truck.

Spent our last day in Mauritania and our first in Mali being ambushed by trees, very Wizard-of-Oz. Drove on a tiny dirt track sandwiched tightly between trees so thorny you could have sold them to Vlad the Impaler. Branches reached their long arms into the side and clawed at us as we huddled in the middle.

To the last town in Mauritania, hot as blazes, where we embarked on a futile and highly comical quest for a cold drink while Gavin did his act outside the truck to distract the kids. Spent the rest of our ougouya on cobwebbed Fanta, there being nothing else we wanted.

Stopped in a little town for well water and had to sand-mat out, something we're becoming quite expert at. Finally made it to Mali border and chatted with a curious lot: policeman who wouldn't stop shaking hands, a used-car import-exporter (who told us Congo- Brazzaville was open and stable.)

Oh, yeah, night before, had to tent up because there were beaucoup de scorpions around the campsite.

Anyhow, made our way to Kayes - this would, I guess, have been the 26th - and there was mass exodus, as Jo + Jorge went off to Timbuktu and the rest of us left for a couple of cold beers and a night in a hotel. Utter chaos ensued, of course. After the (mmmgood) first couple rounds of beers, we were led by a self-appointed guide named Bruno to a night karate class, a concrete terrace, and then out into nowhere, when all we wanted was a hotel. We gave up and taxied to a hotel - which had rooms, but no keys to the rooms, and no way of finding the man with the keys. We gave up and went off to eat chicken-flavoured rice around the corner. It took a half-hour's heated argument to discover that both sides actually agreed on the price.

Back to the hotel-with-no-keys, where Mathias set out with a fellow Frenchman to find the keys, and promptly lost his passport. Regained it eventually. The girls showered as Chong + I waited for Nick + Tim, who had gone off with the leechlike Bruno to buy drinks. Mike + Matt + the girls taxied back to the expensive Hotel du Rail, where we'd begun the evening. Nick + Tim arrived with beers, and we ditched Bruno with difficulty and took a barely-stumbling cab to Hotel du Rail, where we'd begun the evening, irritated only by Pebbles'n'Sam's drunken shrieks and the appearance of the ever-present Bruno, demanding beer bottles.

A fairly restful sleep and supercooled water/ cafe-au-lait later, we waited for the truck. And waited. At length we learned that it wouldn't be back 'til midafternoon because the suspension needed fixing. Bored, and stupid, we sent for a long walk under the blazing midday sun of the hottest city in Africa, walking zombielike a very long way before finally arriving at a market with food & cold drinks.

Back to HQ, where the truck turned up, and had to wait for another insurance tax. Half an hour to a campsite by an old power station where nearly everyone went swimming in allegedly bilharzia-laden water: I, on cook duty, didn't have the option. Decided to head off w/ Nick + Tim and meet up in Bamako.

Next day, back to Kayes: train left at 8 PM, so we drank & played cards all afternoon before embarking. 16-hour overnight journey from Kayes to Bamako. Thank God, in this heat, we didn't go by day. Got a surprising amount of sleep in the jostling seats. At every stop, even 3 AM, the platform outside was a seething crowd of passengers and mango vendors and the just curious. In the morning, incredible numbers of people started wedging themselves into the little space between the seats, carrying sacks of rice + flour, live chickens, baskets of produce, vats of oil, babies slung in backpacks, you name it.

Finally got to Bamako and ate, famished, at the Ali Baba Cafe, before traipsing to the Hammer House Of Horrors Hotel Lac Debo. Actually not a bad place, but with its 20' ceilings, shadowy interior, and odd nooks & crannies, a very "The Shining"esque hotel. Nick crashed and Tim & I gatecrashed the 4-star Hotel de l'Amitie, sipping G+T's by the poolside and gloating about it. Out for a few beers and then to sleep.

Next day - 30th, day before yesterday - met Jo & Jorge, not yet out for Timbuktu, changed money, ordered but couldn't eat colossal burger at La Phoenicia, had some Cokes at Ali Baba, early night. Got laundry done too.

Yesterday, had to leave Hotel Lac Debo because money was getting tight. Tried to head for Mission Libonais, but they jacked the price up at the last minute, so spent the day at Phoenicia & Ali Baba, surrounded by a hostile gaggle of "guides" who claimed we owed them money because they had followed us. Played cards, read (finished LONG WALK TO FREEDOM).

Eventually made our way to the pleasant Catholic mission here, which feels a bit like a sanctuary, and has dorm rooms. Spent last night there and here (Cafe Sport, across the road.) Slept OK, though in this heat you just ooze sweat. Planning to wander down to the river now, post office at 2 for rendezvous, US Embassy reading room, vantage point.

Attempts to fix fridge & light. Sleeping under the stars and waking naturally at dawn (!). Jorge forget to pay, and we have to deal with it. The search for Marlboro Lights. "No small money?" Random power outages. Rows of empty water bottles. "Bohemian Rhapsody" as we charge into Mali.

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