Archive for February, 2006

A Day in Paris

February 28th, 2006 1:41 pm by dave from here

We’re in Paris for a couple nights in order to get over our jet lag.  We’re lucky to be here at all — we were worried that our passports might have gotten lost by the US Postal Service on their way back from the Burkina Faso embassy in Washington.  But they ultimately got found and were delivered the next day.  They had the gall not to refund our money since they didn’t fulfill their pledge to deliver overnight — they claimed that because the receipt had 2/22 3 AM -> 2/23 5 PM written on it that that qualified as overnight.  If that’s the most serious problem on this trip, I’ll be happy.

It sure is nice to be in a place where all of the normal restaurants one encounters walking around have terribly high standards and are all great.  Tonight’s was independently recommended by two of our friends — Sud Ouest Monceau, which seems to specialize in foie gras.  Last night’s, Felix, was one of the few that were open on Mondays, a universal problem.  Our hotel, Hotel Mercedes, is delightful as well.

We’ve also noticed the end of another tradition, that of banks changing dollars into euros.  First of all, there are a lot fewer people changing money since most of their countries use euros in the first place.  Secondly, most people just get money using their ATM cards.  So the banks have given up changing money entirely, leaving the “bureaux de change” to charge rapacious amounts to the poor people who don’t have ATM cards — 74 euros for 100 dollars if you’re buying them, 92 if you’re buying them.

Today we visited the Institut de la Monde Arabe, and saw an exhibit of the contributions made by Arabs to science over the years, which were many.  Especially in astronomy, which comes in useful for deciding which way Mecca is, or when Ramadan will start.  Or, most importantly, when and where the eclipses will happen.

We had a bunch of stuff saved up to post here, but technical difficulties preclude us from copying and pasting it, so I’ve just typed a few things so you know we’re on the way.  Tomorrow we leave civilization for West Africa — we’ll be in a large city for a couple days so hopefully we’ll be in touch again before escaping into the hinterlands.


Cutting it Close

February 25th, 2006 2:09 am by ray from here

We’ve been getting the usual amount of warnings against African travel. My cousin recounted the story of her friend who got an alphabet of hepatitis infections plus malaria in a Ghanaian hospital. Dave’s coworker, Tom, at Digidesign, warned him of the dangers of sectarian violence; and the next day a bullet was fired from the parking garage through Tom’s 3rd floor office window in Daly City and lodged in the ceiling.

It is not nearly so unsettling to go to poor countries now as it was many years ago. The first time I went to India was really the first time I had ever encountered free-range poor people. In California, before Reagan closed the asylums and started an international trend, they were kept out of the way. But now there are so many. While steeling myself for the shock of the beggars of Mali, I forgot to avert my eyes from the sight of two French citizens sitting in piles of blankets on the sidewalk, eating scraps (but presumably French scraps) from a cardboard tray while the snow drifted down upon their caps and possessions. They didn’t even have tents, unlike the encampment a couple of blocks down Avenue de Wagram where about four guys in four identical army surplus tents were sheltered near the Internet cafe talking to a policeman. Team Homeless. I wonder if the cop was offering them a bed or offering to dump their belongings in the river? I wonder if they read Les Miserables in West African schools?

We cut it just a little close in obtaining visas for the four countries in Africa we are visiting. Don’t you do that when you travel. Allow three weeks for each country you have to mail off to Washington for permission to visit, and schedule the last one to come back at least two weeks before your departure. I didn’t do that. We had tickets to leave on 26 February, and the Burkina Faso embassy told me they’d mailed our visas back to us Express Mail on 21 February, on 22 February the USPS website informed us that our visas had been Misrouted and they were Working to Correct the Error.
That caused me a bit of excitement. Had we wasted a Lariam because now we weren’t going to be able to go at all? I spent a day researching the really expensive alternatives to getting a passport in four days (for more than $300 paid to a couple of different agencies you can almost do this) and what our travel insurance covers and so forth; to see what might be salvaged from the trip.
The next day our passports were found and the postman failed to encounter me at my home so I went and retrieved them at the Redwood City Main Post Office.
The lady at the post office sat there with their internal tracking record in hand, showing that our package had been in Gaithersburg Maryland at 3 AM on 22 February before it went missing; and a postmark on the package showing it was mailed on 22 February. She wouldn’t refund the Express Mail fee for having missed their guaranteed delivery time. This is rubbish. The Burkina Faso embassy was not open at 1 o’clock in the morning on 22 February to hand them over a package to lose.
The passport emergency replacement agents all insist that you use Federal Express. You do this too: no USPS Express Mail ever!


February 14th, 2006 1:25 am by dave from here

We’re going to see a solar eclipse in the Sahara Desert. First we’ll take a two-week tour through Mali, visiting Timbuktu, Djenne, and Dogon country, passing through Burkina Faso on our way to Agadez, Niger. There we’ll pick up a larger eclipse tour, visiting the mountain and desert areas of Niger. We’ll see the eclipse quite close to the centerline in Bilma — the weather prospects are good in the Sahara. Afterwards, we’ll take a week to make our way through Benin, seeing the slave forts. Then we’ll fly back to Paris and spend a week with our friend Harvey, who’s there to see the Ring cycle.

I don’t expect that we’ll be posting very frequently. We’ll do our best to record what happens each day or so, and put it on the Internet whenever we have a chance.