Archive for March, 2006

Sun, Moon, Stars, Sand, and Camels

March 31st, 2006 9:38 am by dave from here

We’ve returned to Agadez from our two weeks camping in the desert, and we’re back at our favorite cyber cafe using our computer. This post and the previous one give kind of a day-by-day impression of the trip. If some arrangements we made before leaving are still in effect, we’ll be traveling in a car over the next four days to Cotonou, Benin, where we’ll check back next.

March 20 Iferouane (lunch), Tazirzet (camp)

The Air Massif appears to be several heaps of rock. Maybe somewhere there are some actual solid mountains, but we didn’t go anywhere near them. The most frequent sights are cinder cones and piles of large volcanic boulders.

Iferouane is a little village at the edge of the mountains. We had lunch at a campground, where $4 cold beers were very popular with the group, and where we jumped at the chance to take $2 showers, and to rinse out some shirts while we were at it.

The meals are reasonably uniform on this trip. Lunch generally consists of various cold vegetables (perhaps beet, cabbage, peas, or beans), rice or couscous, and little bits of canned fish, with fruit for dessert. Dinner sometimes has a tasty thin soup, followed by some rice, couscous, or pasta, often with some sauce with vegetables. On a few occasions, there’s meat — a goat and a sheep were sacrificed over the course of the trip, resulting in about three or four meals. After dinner, there’s a small dessert, perhaps fruit cocktail, and Tuareg tea served by and Tuareg music played by the crew guitarist, until 10 PM.

Sleeping has generally been delightful. There’s a mat for each guest, and we slept on the thicker ones most of the time. The mats are also used as seating for dinner, and often one has to wait until enough people leave dinner before taking a mat to one’s chosen sleeping area. The two tents brought by the tour organizer were never used — all of us slept under the stars every night. The first several days and nights there was no wind whatsoever, and there were great views of the stars. We watched Saturn hang out in Gemini, Mars move around in Taurus, and we could see Venus and Jupiter straddling the entirety of Scorpio around 2 AM each morning, with the Southern Cross visible and right-side up just over the horizon.

We made our way to a tiny village at the east edge of the Air Mountains called Tazirzet, where we set up camp. A local dog barked much of the night.

March 21, 22 Camels around Tazirzet

The next two days were entirely dedicated to hanging out with camels. There were enough camels so everyone in the group had one. We’d go out in the morning for a few hours, and the 4x4s would race ahead and fix lunch when we caught up with them. We’d hang around until it started to cool off a little, and then go back on the camels for a few more hours, while the 4x4s raced up to the place where we’d camp for the night.

The camels were theoretically more fun than the 30-minute camel ride at Timbuktu, because we were actually driving the camel. Given an obedient camel, you generally tell it to start walking by gently scratching the back of its neck with your foot; you stop it by pulling back on the rein, and steer it by pulling the rein left and right. There were two rather enormous camels that they decided were the ones for me and Ray, though they didn’t keep very good track of which one was me and which one was Ray, so we ended up switching after the first morning. My first camel was very obedient and controllable, but the other one had definite ideas about when to start and stop, and wasn’t quite as fun. However, the saddle on him felt a lot better, so it was a tradeoff.

The biggest problem with being virgin camel riders was that we really felt like hanging on to the saddle for dear life with both hands most of the time. This made it difficult to drink water, which often was tied to the camel out of our reach, and to take pictures. Occasionally we snapped a shot or two if the camel wasn’t actually moving, but in the afternoons we ended up just walking, which probably made the camels happier as well, not having to carry us.

It was a much more peaceful way to get around than the 4x4s, but we didn’t cover very much ground.

By this time, we’d had the chance to talk with most of the people in the group. There were 21 paying guests, the two European tour leaders, and the Tuareg crew, including the local tour leader, drivers, cooks, and the musician. The guests appear to range in age from 27 to 67 or something like that, and seems like a fairly interesting bunch. There are eight Americans, four Irish, nine English, and a woman from the Netherlands and a man from Norway. The thing that struck me particularly is that the group has a large number of technical women, more than I’ve ever seen at work. There’s a biomedical researcher, a semiconductor manufacturing environmental specialist, a programmer, and someone who sets up electron microscopes and other equipment in clean rooms. The men include programmers and project managers, construction managers, an insurance lawyer, and a doctor. The doctor was very handy to have on the trip, helping both guests with various dietary and pain problems, and also helping out locals with assorted complaints. (The pain problems would have been avoided if all of the 4x4s had seat belts for each guest — some of the dunes are “cut” at the bottom). There’s also a mathematics PhD with cerebral palsy who has gone with the tour leader on expeditions to Nepal and Uganda and many other places — he raced up the dune the next day much faster than either of us could. Everyone in the group is very friendly, except for an Irish 80s rock star bass player who only talks to the few people in the group who she thinks are cool enough to talk to. We didn’t make the grade.

March 23 Drive to Temet

We left the camels behind, and drove up the dunes alongside the mountains to Temet, where the largest dunes in the Sahara are said to be located. We actually drove past the dunes and up a small dry river canyon to a spring, where we reloaded the water jugs and goat skins (goat skins keep water very cool), and had another beard-shampooing opportunity. Walking up the canyon from the spring led to a few rivulets of running water. At the spring, a goat was purchased, and as we had lunch nearby, the goat was “strangled” (its windpipe was cut), skinned, and gutted to become the next few nights’ food. At this point we’d also begun to run out of baguettes, and the Tuaregs started baking bread in a meter-wide pan which probably made about 20 round pieces or so.

After resting awhile after lunch, we drove a few minutes back to the dune. We quickly set up camp, and then started a sunset walk up the large dune, trying to pick a slightly out-of-the-way route so as not to ruin the pristine front face of the dune with our footprints. It was quite a strenuous little walk through the steep sand, and by the time we got to the top most of the sun was gone, but it was still a very beautiful place.

March 24 Blue Mountains (lunch), Tenere (camp)

The next morning many people walked up the dune again for sunrise, though I slept in (until 6:30). After breakfast, we started our drive across the several hundred solid kilometers of Tenere desert. Not too far from where we started were the Blue Mountains, where we stopped for lunch. There were no trees there, so the 4x4s parked next to each other, stretched rugs across the gap between them, providing a shady though cramped place to have lunch — this system was repeated for several other treeless lunches.

The Blue Mountains are yet another unexplained pile of rocks. These rocks, however, are a bluish white color, perhaps a kind of marble. They were very pretty and we took lots of pictures of them. After lunch, we joined a couple others from the group who had found an extremely comfortable cool cave formed by some of the rocks. Fortunately the sand vipers weren’t there.

When it got cool enough, we continued driving across the desert. Sometimes the going was slow and sandy, sometimes it was quite fast on more solid ground. We ended up at a completely flat treeless sandy area where the sand was so clean and devoid of rocks and thorns that we could walk around barefoot.

There was virtually no wind at all up to this point, except that from the motion of the 4×4, and an occasional light breeze at night. It was quite hot during the middle of the day, but the rest of the time, it was quite nice.

March 25 Continue crossing Tenere

The next day was just more driving across the desert, flat, fast, unshaded, and uneventful. Around evening, we pulled up at the well called Achegour, which rates a “potable” on the Michelin map — no stars. It was the worst water of the trip, but suitable for splashing on people’s heads to remind them of what washing their hair was like. We have been assured all of the drinking water we’re encountering is safe to drink, and it seems to have been the case, but not all of it was tasty — some tasted like algae (just like at home in the summer), some had lots of sediment, but this water had a chemical taste that our water purifier was unable to remove. The coffee we had the next morning resulted in everyone turning up their noses as they drank it.

But only a couple of people have had digestive problems and we’ve all been eating everything, the salads, the fruit, water from the goatskin bags, I think we must have all come from Africa at some point to be so used to how to live.

How to live in Africa includes throwing trash everywhere. You see trees so covered with black plastic bags that they look like some perverted Burning Man installation. (Many artifacts of Sahara life would remind one of Burning Man, except not the people naked and painted silver.) Achegour was so full of rusted sardine cans, accented with axles and large hunks of drive trains, that it would have been risking tetanus to walk there at night, so we went south about 5 km to find a nice flat plateau of sand to despoil on our own.

March 26 Arrive at Dirkou

Each morning we would walk for half an hour or so, and the cars would pick us up. This morning as we walked across some pretty rocks, we passed a camel carcass, all bones and skin. The traditional version of the discarded camshafts and axles. As we continued to drive the next few days, we passed quite a few more.

For lunch we stopped nearby at a pair of mesas, with incredibly beautiful rock everywhere, particularly some flat maroon slabs on the top, and some lilac-colored flaky pieces up the sides. A few people collected some lava tube structures. The best photo of the trip was taken by Solve, the Norwegian guy, of a desert fox who happened to come out of his hole just as he walked by.

We continued on to Dirkou, which was well inside the zone of totality. Any apprehension we had about cars breaking down or fuel not showing up causing us to miss the eclipse subsided. Dirkou was described as a transit point for people from all over West Africa going to Europe via Libya. There were huge trucks which carried lots of people sitting on hay. It is the modern version of slave ships.

There was another opportunity for cold beer, which we excitedly took advantage of. We drove just out of town and set up camp.

Late that night, the wind started up, and continued pretty strong in the morning. There was lots of dust being blown up by it, and we started to get scared about being sanded out. A long call on the satellite phone to someone with the Internet in front of them revealed that the wind would die down the next day and everything would be fine.

March 27 Dirkou Market, Lunch at a house, Arrive at camp near Bilma

In the morning we returned to Dirkou and walked through their market. Ray found a great polyester shirt featuring Tariq Aziz. There was an interesting shop selling skins of various animals, and a guy carrying a scorpion around inside a gourd. They arranged for our normal lunch to be served by our normal kitchen crew in a local house, where several people washed off using water poured from a bowl, though we passed in order to theoretically get to the eclipse camp site a little sooner. At the market, the kitchen crew bought a sheep, and tied it onto the truck.

We drove on to Bilma, a somewhat larger town, where we spent quite awhile at the gendarmerie, where they insisted that everyone had to show a receipt for, or pay, the eclipse tax. We moved on to a campsite just out of town that looked like it would be nice for the eclipse.

Indeed, the wind died down, and everything became quite nice.

March 28 Bilma: Hospital, Lunch at Auberge, Give away glasses

We drove back into Bilma for most of the day, including a visit to a local hospital, and a public forum where we told the locals what to expect for the eclipse, and where we handed out eclipse viewers. There were way less viewers than people, and the handout turned into quite a feeding frenzy. A local camping hotel provided a nice place to have lunch, and a proper shower. They were selling something about the color and consistency of brown sugar which is made from dates and peanuts, and should prove to be fine road food on the next leg of the trip, to Benin.

For dinner, there was sheep two ways — braised with a nice juice, over couscous, and about an hour later, mechoui style, cooked in a pan on the ground under coals, with onions and spices. No vegetables, though. The sky sparkled with stars, the music and dancing continued until late, (late, for camping nerds), and everyone went to bed happy for the morrow.

And were very annoyed about 1:30 in the morning when to notice that all the stars had disappeared. There was no wind blowing in dust, but the stars were gone. Not a good thing to happen the night before an eclipse. Jupiter reappeared about three AM, and the summer triangle…but the air was what passes for sultry, except with possibly dust instead of mist. Or was it mist?

March 29 Eclipse, head toward Agadez, Fachi (camp)

We spent the morning worrying that we wouldn’t see the eclipse, or at least not very well. What was the haze — dust? fog? Presumably it was fog, since the dust-carrying wind had stopped over a day ago. Hopefully it would burn off.

After a call to Boris at the Internet to determine that where we were was “clear”, we embarked on a small exploratory drive to see if the fog suddenly cleared a little further from the oasis of Bilma. We concluded that the difference was minor, and decided to tough out whatever would happen at our campsite.

The sun got higher, and the sky was pretty blue well above the horizon. After awhile we could actually see distinct shadows. Eventually totality came, and it was a very pretty four-minute eclipse. Maybe there would have been a little more corona with no fog, but it was actually quite nice. There were some little prominences at the beginning and end, and the corona was entirely horizontal. Ray said it looked like gang signs on hands being held out to the side: Westside on the east side and Eastside on the west side. It will be a skillful filtering or compositing job that will show this much corona in a photograph, though. We could see Venus and Mercury, which should give an idea of how clear it was or wasn’t. There weren’t any sunset colors since the sunset color of choice in the Sahara is brown; and there wasn’t any chance to appreciate the approach of the shadow with visibility along the ground about 600 meters; but at third contact I noticed a few shadow bands which looked straight rather then ripply, scurrying across the sand dunes. I forget if there were any Baily’s beads. There was a nice third contact diamond ring. I’ve given up watching second contact diamond rings, they always leave an afterimage for the whole of totality.

The group had about five people who’d seen lots of eclipses, about five more who’d seen one or two. All the rest were eclipse virgins, and finally could understand what this experience was like that made us want to see it again and again. The doctor had three really nice cameras, and took lots of really nice pictures.

After the eclipse, we had a little lunch, and started our drive back to Agadez, camping near the oasis town of Fachi. Both lunch and dinner were basically pasta with a little tomato flavor and no vegetables or meat at all. The drive was across sand dunes, and included a pretty major bump coming off a dune. Ray hit the ceiling, but seems in good shape aside from a sore neck. A bump in a different car the next day produced more sore necks — our driver has become much more careful.

The other challenge is getting unstuck from the sand. They carry these little ladders which they put under the tires to provide traction. Sometimes people running along the car pick up the ladder once the car has gone over it and throw it on the other side of the tire to continue the traction. Once doing so knocked our exhaust pipe out of place.

March 30 Arbre de Tenere (lunch), camp near Agadez

We went into Fachi briefly to get water. We were mobbed by kids asking for gifts.

The morning drive was across sand dunes, and was plagued by continuously getting stuck in the sand. Some drivers got stuck constantly, and apparently one never got stuck at all. It’s an art, I guess.

It seemed to take awhile, but we eventually found Arbre de Tenere, where a large tree once stood, reputedly hundreds of kilometers from any other tree. It was killed in a car crash, and is now in a museum in the capital. A metal monument stands at the site now. There’s also a well with great echoes.

Now it’s the last night of camping in the desert (unless the hotels are overbooked again tomorrow, which seems likely), and the wind has died down. Tomorrow we return to Agadez, showers, laundry, electricity, the Internet, and dinner in a nice restaurant. We’ll also find out what the plans are for our car trip to Cotonou, Benin.

March 31 Hotel de l’Aïr, Agadez.

We got on the road at the usual time this morning and drove through a combination of sand dunes, sandstorms, tiny forests with nameless unnumbered tracks on which the caravan got separated, gravelly bits of sharp gravel, gravelly bits of rounded gravel, and arrived in Agadez, 140 km up the road, 6 hours later. Since then we’ve had fresh mango juice and done a bit of shopping, not nearly enough to satisfy the two dozen touts who lurk with their knives and brass camels and masks. After Bilma and Dirkou and Fachi, it’s nice to see people who have something actually to offer, rather than merely asking for gifts. Ellen bought a rock, a plain ordinary rock, from a tiny child in Fachi, just to reward the behavior of offering something in return for the cadeau that is begged.

An Adventure Alternative

March 19th, 2006 9:32 am by ray from here

March 18

It’s 1930 on the day that Gavin’s group arrived by their charter flight which stopped in Algeria during a worrisome sandstorm — any impediment to visibility upsets eclipse aficionados — and the hotel lobby is buzzing with homeless tourists. Two groups, Dunes-Voyage and Adventure Alternative, have been told there is No Room At The Inn for all of their guests, and some of them will have to make other arrangements, as we did last night.

But we were here at 9 in the morning with Souleyman Icha, the local travel agent who works with Gavin, and he made them put us in a room as soon as one opened up.

The official line on why this hotel overbooked and denied Souleymane the rooms that he said he paid for — has changed. It started out this afternoon that their rooms weren’t ready and they didn’t have mattresses. Souleymane told the assembled Gavin crowd that he had brought his own mattresses for them. Then they said: that guests this morning had refused to leave; and that they had locked themselves into their rooms and stolen the keys and the police came to evict them. You could hear this rumor telephoning around the room like a montage shot. I was aware of no police activity; but we were gone around noon.

I guess they just don’t count very closely, and it doesn’t matter most times because flights don’t come and buses don’t come. They don’t count on the ardent punctuality of eclipse tourists.

March 19 3 AM

The welcoming dinner was not the most reassuring event I’ve attended. Gavin’s assistant, Steve, an aging rock star type of no fixed address (he has a house in Cornwall and a house in the Andes, but has only recently started living anywhere for more than a week at a time), has the disturbing quality of being an Optimist. Relax, he says, everybody’s going to have a great time, eclipse or no eclipse. I tried to explain to Gavin a couple of years ago that I don’t want to have a great time, I only want to maximize my chance of seeing the eclipse. This message does not seem to have sunk in.

It seems that our plan calls for us to rely on a mission-critical refueling rendezvous somewhere in the Tenere desert. This rendezvous has been arranged by Suleymane, who has Already Paid for the gasoline, just as he Already Paid for the rooms which did not materialize last night, resulting in 8 of our party sleeping, as I write, dormitory style in the hotel’s prayer room, on mats. I hope nobody wants to use the room in the morning. I should consider praying myself.

Gavin’s plan apparently calls for us to drive in a diagonal line southeast across the Tenere so as to intersect the Bilma road. He has not said that any of his party have ever been there before. He puts out a bunch of romantic blather in his documentation about the Trackless Desert where the windblown sand covers your tire tracks as you pass. This describes any road out here; but a three-foot unmapped scarp can block your entire progress and it would be nice if the optimist reconnaissance person had ever been there in person to look.

The result is that I can’t get back to sleep.

Adding to the almost literary quality of the foreshadowing, the reason their chartered Airbus stopped in Algeria was that they didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Agadez. Of course their pilot knew this when he took off: he’s not an optimist; it was all planned. But the passengers were bringing so many kilos of astronomical crap, that he offloaded fuel in Paris and scheduled a stop in some town in Algeria. Gavin had been to the town in 1990 when he walked across the Sahara Desert. It didn’t have an airstrip then. He said, it looked like a bunch of cardboard boxes on a hillside.

What precisely is his plan, if the fuel doesn’t show? What is my plan, if he can’t reassure me? I swear, if somebody walked up to me right now with an offer to drive to Bilma and sit and do nothing but await the eclipse, I would take it. The Aïr Massif will be here for a long time.

March 19, 2006 19:19:54

18.38354 7.66943

We left our hotel at 8 and messed around in town until 9, buying last minute tissues (since it won’t be possible to wash handkerchiefs or even ourselves for the next two weeks; the primitive life requires excessive amounts of waste) and gingembre and tamarind sirop and postcards at a mini mart on the airport road. By 9:10 we were on the road out of town and by 9:15 we had been stopped by the army who demanded to see documentation that everyone in the 6 Landcruisers had paid his or her eclipse tax. This law was passed just lately — it’s 15 Euros and the rumor has it that Libya has passed a 1000 Euro eclipse tax so I don’t know what is going to happen in the center line city. Probably a lot more people going to Turkey. Those of you who are old enough to remember 1991 in Mexico will recall that the Mexicans wanted you to pay a tax to drive down Baja as well, but they wisely gave up on the matter after about two weeks of considering what it would do to their tourist business.

The Niger Army gave up as well after Gavin persuaded them to. This is good for us, since we didn’t come in via the airport and this is the first we’ve heard of such a tax.

A half hour later we were on our way again. The army people had obtained pens and some eclipse sunglasses; also had conversations about how to get an American Visa. (Befriend someone from the embassy, was what worked for Haliss.)

An hour after that we stopped at our first Tourist Attraction: a large black outcropping on which the Previous Occupants of the Sahara had built a village on the edge of a lake, since discontinued, and spent their spare time carving very artistic giraffes, since discontinued, onto the rock. Then we had lunch, a sandwich, and a nap. Oh, and campfire stories, even though there wasn’t a campfire.

Steve, one of the tour organizers, related how his assistant in Borneo had been crushed and eaten by a 30 foot python while crossing a river. Michelle told the story of when she was a waitress and forgot to bring a customer ketchup 7 times and only got tipped a penny. Steve said a mountaineer of his acquaintance had fallen into a nest of rattlesnakes and died.

Canterbury Tales, it isn’t. I think Steve is where a lot of the stories come from which end up on He said some businessman in Zimbabwe got fed up with being mugged and so filled a briefcase with baby puff adders and carried it around until he got robbed.

Steve is taking a group of Barclays Bank executives skiing to the North Pole after this trip. It will involve a costume change. There’s a lot more talk of extrajudicial execution and what really, really, rich people do for team building exercises, than I usually seek out on vacations. (You can take seven of your friends to the South Pole for 450,000 pounds. John Glenn did, and some actor whose name I recognized but forget. Steve is pretty good with the names you recognize.)

Living in the Sahara is like being in kindergarten, in this regard. The inhabitants, be they sand adders, lizards, camels, or Tuaregs, pretty much shut down in the afternoon. Afterwards they march around in a circle hitting sticks together.

The sign said that the carvings are 6000 to 8000 years old. I don’t know how you can tell that of a rock carving. That would be contemporary with the oldest kingdoms in Egypt. The Sahara at that time was not a desert. However, the pharaohs kept undercutting the EPA and now look at it. It’s beautiful of course but in a less green sort of way.

Then we drove north some more and stopped off the road having discovered that the supply truck wasn’t at the end of the train.

Another car went back for them and never returned.

They sent news of what was going on, via passing cars. Nobody in this expedition, it turns out, has a walkie talkie.

After two hours, the whole caravan went back to find out what was going on. By that time the water pump on the Toyota truck had been replaced, and we were ready to drive on to find a campsite before it got dark. These land cruisers aren’t new. The red one we are in has 500,000 kilometers on it.

Steve, the optimist, became visibly angry. I am happy that his optimism doesn’t extend to complacent idiocy, which optimism for the most part is.

We have picked a campsite a bit short of where we hoped to attain today, the well at Gougaram, but we can easily make it to the oasis of Iferouane tomorrow morning if no more water pumps fail. The sun has gone down and tiny moths are visiting the screen — no mosquitoes as you may infer from the nearest water being 50 meters down, if at all. I suspect dinner is about to be served.

New and Improved

March 18th, 2006 2:44 am by dave from here

Of all places on this trip, we’re at a cyber cafe which lets us hook our Powerbook to the Internet at pretty high speed. So for the first time all of Ray’s pending commentary about our trip can finally be posted.

So now you’ll have to go back and read the whole trip log, from the beginning.

We’ll come back to this cyber cafe on April 1 and see what’s happened. Until then, we’ll be camping in the desert, including a couple days riding camels. Wish us a clear March 29.

Agadez: Gateway to the Desert

March 18th, 2006 2:40 am by ray from here

Our drive to Agadez from Tahoua put into my head the passage from the Wizard of Oz — the book — where Baum describes the deterioration of the landscape as one leaves Munchkinland. The farms grow poorer and farther between, the yellow brick road gets more potholed — it’s a passage that comes to mind often when going from place to place, you could even think of it leaving Emeryville in some directions, but the thing is, Tahoua was pretty much the Blasted Heath of the Wicked Witch of the West to start with, and the growing desolation is relative to that. The trees grew dead and shrank and finally vanished, the grasses gave way to red dust and scattered black boulders from the cap of some long-eroded mesa, Ahmed finally decided to give up on the pavement and go fourwheeling across the sand, which had a much better surface. The intermittent wadis were replaced by continuous mirages.

You’ve read in the romances how the nomads live in goatskin and camelskin tents. For that, replace, blue polyethylene tarps of Chinese manufacture, and don’t tell me that half the fabrics in your centuries-old culture haven’t been replaced by the same material.

It’s possible that the children aren’t as desperate as you think; there seems to be literally nothing else to do in Tahoua, but to stand in front of anyone you haven’t seen before, presenting an empty bowl in front of you. The lead beggar at the gas station when we topped off for the trip to Agadez, was definitely the Tough Darkly Good Looking Guy who gets the Bad Girl in my and your and everyone’s seventh grade, except here, where the average child does not attend school. Literacy rate in Niger: 13%. And they use the Roman alphabet, no excuses. For girls: 6%. I gave the rest of my breakfast bread to a crippled retard, trying to follow the example of Kone in picking Queen for a Day.

What ever happened to Queen for a Day? I can’t imagine a TV show now based on sympathy for the downtrodden. Today’s audience wants to savage the wounded gazelle with the champion hyenas.

At 1 P.M. we drove through the arch welcoming us to Agadez. Or more specifically, welcoming the youth of 1982 to some function in Agadez. I wonder if they are all right?

And how embarrassing for our guide and driver: on the last day of the trip, when they are to take leave of us and when everybody knows that the customer is deciding how big a tip to leave; we pull up to the Auberge d’Azel after Ahmed had to ask somebody how to get to it (recast your gender stereotypes: men ask directions here at the first inkling of anything having changed), and Céline has no record of Sagatours’s reservation. And at the hotel across the street, complet. And at the next four ostensibly nice hotels, nothing. Tomorrow is the weekly plane flight to Agadez, and every desert tour in the province has deposited its ruddy load, trickling down from the finest suite at the Hotel de la Paix. Some townie joins us based on Ahmed’s Old School Tie and we drive around from place to place, finally being deposited in the Hotel Tchin-Toulos in a garret opening onto the roof where you wish the bathroom weren’t en suite.

At a certain point, sliding down the scale of construction and maintenance standards, a bathroom inside the room is no longer an advantage. The books that assign stars to hotels never recognize this. All hotels with attached bathrooms rank above all hotels with the bathroom down the hall. But, the retrograde condition arrives at a much higher star-score than Fodors might think. We’ve stayed at four star hotels — one in the town of Fes comes to mind, Justin can vouch for this — where the plumbers evidently didn’t know why one puts in a p-trap. The room I’m writing this in is small, dark, musty-plus, the walls stained and flaking, again no toilet seat, but, you know, it has its points. The floor is gravel but there’s a carpet over part of it; the light fixture with its twenty-watt bulb has a calabash-gourd ornamentation casting decorative shadows on the rattan ceiling, there is a hot faucet and a cold faucet in the shower — there are worse hotels. If I ever get busy with the scanner and post blogs describing the circumstances of the eclipses we saw before digital cameras and websites, that last will be a link to Kidapawan on the island of Mindanao.

The rattan ceiling mentioned above turns out to be the entire roof. Our Garmin GPS receiver can get four satellites, inside the room. You who are familiar with the Garmin product, will chuckle knowingly at this: you can easily make it lose reception by holding it in your hand or putting it in your pocket.

All this is what I get for not having worn anything green on St. Patrick’s Day. Although, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity (say, from here to the 6th parallel of latitude) top remind one of the Auld Sod. The desert from Tahoua to here was devoid of green almost entirely. Maybe a couple of acacias had a couple of leaves, if their roots happen to have found water.

(A note about hot and cold running water: they are relative terms. In the middle of August, water delivered from the tap at ambient temperature would get McDonald’s sued for unsafe conditions. We actually couldn’t tell the difference between the temperature of the water coming out of the hot and the cold pipes, which was neither, assuming any water came out at all.)


March 16th, 2006 2:34 am by ray from here

The hotel we’ve been booked into in Tahoua is seriously 3rd world. I can’t believe that Lonely Planet says that it costs 10000 CFA per night. It has no toilet seat, the power is intermittent, we are the only people staying here, except for Kone, our guide, and the shower has no water for the most part. Occasionally a dribble comes out. Need I even mention the physical appearance of the room — an off white box with worn out random pieces of furniture: two wire chairs, a squarish desk, a squarish bed. In the absence of electrical power, we’re sitting out in the parking lot along with 17 other individuals at least, who are for the most part not bothering us about anything (except that the second I wrote that, a one legged blind man on crutches introduced himself).

It’s pleasantly breezy and not hot, as it is evening.

Today was another travel day. We got out of the Grand Hotel in Niamey at about 8, and drove pretty much straight here to Tahoua. The only stops were the usual raft of checkpoints, at which Ahmed acts either furiously angry or playful or first angry and then playful. He invariably acts as though he knows the police there, which is encouraged by the cultural idiom of asking about the entire extended family whenever you say hello to anybody, and I think that, as a driver, he probably does know half of them. Certainly he knew the son of his cousin, who was specifically introduced to us as such, at one of the four or five unused customs stations on the Burkina-Niger border, in addition to the four or five ones that you are expected to stop at.

The route to Agadez runs very close to the Nigerian border for a long time, so there is even more checkpoint activity than usual. At least the police and army and Douane have jobs. Niger is seriously poor. I don’t know how its statistics compare with those of Burkina Faso and Mali, but in the first two countries we’ve been to (not counting England and France), we were made aware of a tremendous amount of economic activity, in the form, e.g., of tissue papers and candies thrust into the windows for sale at every stoplight and checkpoint. In Niger we stopped at a small village so that Kone and Ahmed could negotiate for some pieces of torn folded brown paper, probably pieces of cement bags, into which were placed freshly grilled pieces of sheep, omitting no part whatsoever, and hunks of the local onions, which are giant purple things, and a red tomato sauce and at least two different kinds of powder, one which was like paprika and the other like toasted cumin, but not exactly. There isn’t a lot of chili pepper used here. The one place we ate in Ougadougou that had a Habañero-like orange chili left whole in the chicken sauce — I got a little indigestion because it’s been so long since I’ve been to Rosita’s on Woodside Road in Redwood City. How quickly our bodies forget.

Anyway, the primary economic activity in that village today seemed to be begging. I don’t know how to give away money. Kone seems so good at it, he found a deserving old lady to give the remains of his sheep remains to after lunch, and he picked a legless boy out of a mob to give a couple of hundred CFA to and got it to him, too; I had set my eye on donating a hundred coin worn flat to a disk, and some change, to a boy with a clubfoot but as soon as I rolled down the window a crowd of vigorous teenybopper-aged, really you could only call them jocks, in the relative society of begging, the alpha-orphans, the ones who will end up working for NGO’s and at checkpoints if they can make it through the Hungry Season coming up — I couldn’t see my clubfoot any more, the crowd had closed in on him, and I rolled up my window in anger and to discourage the behavior.

I bet Ahmed doesn’t even try to analyze my moodiness the way I try to model his. I try to figure out what makes him wear his Tuareg black turban as opposed to his Seattle Supersonics baseball cap, too. The nearest I can imagine, is that it’s a marker of a transitional state. When he’s deeply in a city or deeply in Tuareg country, he wears his cap, unless it’s a sandstorm, which is what the turban is invented for. But in places where his identity as a Tuareg might be significant, he seems to favor his turban. That’s just a guess. It’s hard to mistake a Tuareg anyway, and he looks archetypically the archetype. Handsome like a Kennedy, too. Or the Herman’s Hermits guy.

The begging at the windows is the personal manifestation of a social commonplace. Basically, every piece of Real Property you see here, that is not made out of 1. mud or 2. straw, has a sign in front of it announcing that this is a Joint Project of the Government of Niger and 1. The European Union 2. Allemagne 3. USAID 4. CARE 5. WorldVision 6. some international association of Muslims who have donated mosques to almost every village we go through, and each has a sign on it declaring in very small print that it was built by these guys, and, a number. The numbers are four digit numbers and I have no reason to suppose they didn’t start at 1. 7. Belgique. 8. some Industrial World city which if you went there would have engagingly shuttered Solvang windows and no sand and no crippled beggars and everybody would be fat and playing with a gameboy and if the city is an American city, no clue where Niger is, or Africa is, or that they are the sister city of anybody or what a sister city is, and I sure don’t know what a sister city is 9. Not Italy. Why was the sign in the tomb in Istanbul warning you off climbing on the sarcophagus written only in Italian, anyway? 10. The Hunger Project (really) 11. France etc.

We also stopped to photograph a family of giraffes crossing the road just south of Niamey. We had been advised that they were in the area; Lonely Planet even mentions them and Ahmed had stopped to ask a couple of folks if they’d seen them. After giving up the search, because 9 AM is pretty late in the day for Giraffes to be about, we resumed full speed (80-95 kph is about what Ahmed’s catre-catre does) and were soon face to face with 5 of them, ambling along with their bad-animation gait.

Dinner was pasta and sauce on the terrasse of the restaurant “Chez Planet” in Tahoua. Slow service seems to be expected here. It can’t be an accident when you’re the only people in the restaurant and what you’re ordering is pasta. Even couscous doesn’t take that long. Meanwhile, other customers showed up. Ahmed knew them. He knows everybody in Niger, I swear. He was born in a town about 50 km from here. I try to imagine what childhood is like when the big city you go to on some special occasions is Tahoua.

Having a well connected driver is a good thing. We get waved past lots of checkpoints; and there are lots of checkpoints, on average at least one per town marked on the 1:4,000,000 Michelin West Africa map, and with all the talk about bandit rebel Tuaregs — Kone hints mysteriously that Ahmed was a revolutionary during that revolt, and whatever part that might play in the number of guys that want to be seen, by their well-dressed girlfriends, slapping our little exile chauffeur on the back — I imagine that if anyone tried to molest any of his Paying Customers, there would be Hell to pay.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Lariam

March 15th, 2006 9:31 am by dave from here

[Lariam, of course, is the malaria-prevention pill we take every Wednesday (starting a week before Mali, and ending four weeks after Benin).  It doesn’t seem to have had much side effects this time — maybe a little less sleep.  No wild dreams, though.]

We’re in Niamey, Niger, and I’m having the best Internet experience I’ve had in awhile — fast connection, $1/hour, US keyboard, right next to the hotel.  It may be the last for two weeks — Agadez, the jumping-off point into the desert probably is as well connected as, say, Timbuktu.

Yesterday we drove down to the village of Tiebele in Burkina Faso near the Ghana border.  Villages in the area are made up of little family compounds, each with a handful of two-room buildings housing a couple.  Many of them have distinctive paintings on the outside.  As we toured one, the lady of the house had just ground a bunch of peanuts into delicious-smelling peanut butter.

Back in Ouagadougou, we went to the Musee de la Musique.  After touring a series of small dusty rooms with ancient instruments that couldn’t be touched or heard, we were led into an auditorium where a live band performed on many of the instruments we’d seen.  It really put Santa Cruz drum circles to shame — these guys were great.  As well as drums, there were xylophones, flutes, and guitar-like instruments.

Our guide took us to his favorite street cook, who served us manioc paste, gumbo sauce, fish, and mutton.  It was delicious, and dinner for the four of us set us back $5.  Then we went to a club to hear more great drumming, including the flute player from earlier in the afternoon.

We’re basically done touring — now it’s really just transportation with the guide and driver.  Still, it’s only six or seven hours a day of driving, and staying at nice hotels.  On Sunday we’ll leave Agadez on a 13-day camping trip to see the Air mountains, the Tenere desert, and if all goes well, the eclipse.  The trip so far has been hot, and will only get hotter, but it beats the snow in Paris.

Dogon Day Afternoon

March 13th, 2006 9:57 am by dave from here

We crossed the border today into Burkina Faso, which went reasonably quickly, leaving us with a few hours this afternoon to use the Internet.  The computers and the connection as usual aren’t very good, so we’ll see how much is possible.  I haven’t been able to send e-mail, and I hope whatever’s causing that problem doesn’t cause problems with posting.  I guess I’ll start small and just keep editing this post until I’m done.


The weather and our spirits have both improved markedly since my last post upon arrival in Timbuktu.  The wind stopped the next day, but sand just hung in the air and visibility was about half a kilometer for about three more days.  Today, near Ouagadougou, it’s quite nice.  So the certainty of driving sand every day that we were dreading has yielded to a sense that being sanded out for the eclipse is merely a definite possibility.

The drive to Timbuktu and back again was very long on a very bad road — once there we didn’t stay long.  We had a nice little walk around town (there wasn’t much there), and at the end of the day we had a 30-minute camel ride.  During the afternoon I got some work done.  The camel ride was fun — we’ll have a couple of days in Niger to ride camels for several hours.

We returned across the Sahel to the Bandiagara escarpment, a 100 km-long cliff where the Dogon people live.  They live mostly atop the cliff and at the bottom, but there are a few villages which are built right onto the face.  They use the dwellings of a previous civilization, the Tellem, which are caves even higher on the cliff face, to bury their dead.  The highlight of the visit was the traditional ceremonial dance featuring some pretty outrageous masks.  There was the usual amount of being paraded past souvenir opportunities which we mostly resisted — we were close to buying a 30 pound mortar and pestle but fortunately we didn’t quite meet their price.

Ray adds: The little guys who hold your hand when you walk down the stairways on the cliffs, don’t let go even when you reach level ground. How could they? You might forget to give them 250 CFA when you get to your car. It is also their custom, to force upon you their names and addresses. Sometimes random village children come up to you and thrust pieces of paper with their addresses written on them, too. I don’t know how these fads get started. It clearly can’t be anything but cargo cult cultural exchange: I don’t suspect that the Mali post makes it out this far, even if the kids realize that this is what the use of their addresses would be. Kone told me that if I wanted to get any pictures to them, I should send them to the Sagatours office in Bamako and he will bring to the village these parcels, himself. He comes here on average every two weeks in the season, October-March.

Last night we went to have food with our guide at the local street place.  They served to, pounded millet, okra sauce, and a scrawny chicken leg.  For three it was $3 — we gave them a $1 tip.  He’s taking us somewhere else tonight in downtown Ouagadougou.

The next two nights we’ll be in capital cities (here and Niamey, Niger), and then it’s back into the desert.  Hopefully you’ll hear from us again before we vanish from civilization for two weeks.


Africa is not Cheap.

March 13th, 2006 2:33 am by ray from here

The lady at the post office told me it costs 830 CFA to send a post card to America. All you people I was going to send post cards to from here, forget it. And then outside the post office we got mobbed by folks trying to sell us post cards. One guy said he would sell us 5 for 6000. I swore at him for that. That’s insulting, that’s beyond African opening bid practices.

All these cards are printed in France. Or China. I bet I could go on the Internet and buy all the cards from every place I’m planning to go, even in the next life, and just bring them with and save myself the trouble travel and travail of buying post cards in the places I actually am when I’m there. next step is to omit the trip itself.

This hotel we are staying in, the Ran Somketa in Centre Ville Ouagadougou, is the first hotel we’ve been put in so far this tour which is trying not to be African; yet is one of only a couple we’ve been in that actually behaves African in the stereotypical fashion — by which riddles I mean: there is a sign in the room saying not to do laundry. This, I expect, figures in their idea of a Fancy Place: a fancy place being where you don’t bring linens from your cousin’s house to wash in their sink. I can imagine the Burkinabe version of this admonition also tells you not to have children in their beds. Or eat Durian.

And yet, speaking of Class, in the four hours we’ve been in town, we’ve been moved from the sister hotel “Independance” because their building’s air conditioning had failed; had the water fail in the room, and had the electricity fail twice already because we are attempting to run the hot water heater and the air conditioner at once. The Internet in the business center was pretty slow too. Turning on the TV killed the fuse immediately.

Kone took us to a nice African restaurant tonight. He and Mahmoud had eaten beforehand, much to our disappointment. He said, that he couldn’t afford to eat there. It was expensive, by the standards of Ouagadougou. We had mutton in peanut sauce, and guinea fowl (which they call “pintade”) in Kedjenou sauce; served with the mandatory starch portions of igname, yam, a cognate word there, and a couscous-like pasta made from manioc root. We began with an avocado salad. The whole business of watching out for our health has devolved into the Lent-like formulaic abjuration of tap water. Beyond that, It’s OK to inject into your eyes, things that have been soaking in the dry dung-filled river. Anyway. We spent for the two of us, at least almost as much as we leave for a tip on Monday nights in Palo Alto when we eat with Cyndi.
I wonder if Kone knows how much we are paying for this trip? His employer fronts him 5000 for his room each night. This is not an issue most places; since the hotels put him and the driver up for the consideration of his bringing us to them. Tonight’s hotel isn’t doing that, so they are staying in some other place. It would not exactly be a hit on Mr. Assou Segara’s life style, to put them up in the same hotels we stay at. I don’t know about their hotels, but you can do worse than eating where the tour guides eat. Last night in Bandiagara we had the best rendition of pounded millet and the fastest chicken in the world, ever. Tonight’s Guinea Fowl also pretty clearly didn’t spend its life sitting in a pachinko parlor sipping sake either.

As long as we’re talking about tips … we left a tip for the guitar player, but only so as not to shame Kone. He has to have ongoing relationships with these people, even if that lout is the only Burkinabe musician in the world who only knows four chords in four four time.

He sang things like phonetically learned versions of Down By The Riverside and When The Saints Go Marching In with the most indelicate Republican Convention thudding beat.

And “Blowing in the Wind” in French.

I wonder, every day that I am here, what the relationship is, that the artists have, with the work of the musicians of the African Diaspora. American music has a huge root, exactly here. It came across the Atlantic ocean in slave ships and it’s bounced back and forth several times here. When he plays dumbass american watered down gospeloid music, does he think of it as his, or as something he hopes to get tips for, from the Lonely Planet-carrying legions who populate the restaurants the guides and drivers can’t afford?

At least he didn’t play “a-wi-no-wep” like the band in Victoria Falls. Although, as Dave pointed out, at least that song was written by an African. I forget the whole story but I think he got a judgment in his favor when he sued the American who ripped it off.

I don’t think Intellectual Property suits are a priority in Ouagadougou. We passed a hotel called “Soritel” on the way to Akwaba restaurant. I thought it was Sofitel with a burned out hunk of neon, which is exactly what i was supposed to think, but it was Soritel.

The driver, meantimes, slept in the truck. I feel sorry for him. He works real hard. This was a 15 hour day for him. It helps us to feel sorry for him, that he is this wiry little guy who is about the cutest travel industry Tuareg I’ve ever seen. Dave thought he looked like our friend Saleem. Maybe a little; Saleem’s features are more rounded. Pakistan is a long way from Niger anyway.


March 8th, 2006 2:28 am by ray from here

The proprietor of the Hotel Hendrina Khan, hewing to a tradition among all local individuals of saying the weather is usually not this bad; has announced that the day we arrived in Timbuktu was the First Real Day of the Harmattan. This is not the month of fasting; this is the two months where you never get to see the sun because of blowing dust in the air. Deserts are prone to this kind of obstruction. Mad Magazine may not be on line, but I will bet that Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” is; go to Project Gutenberg and look up his description of the “Washoe Zephyr”.

Sandstorm Season

March 7th, 2006 10:08 am by dave from here

We’re in Timbuktu.  The entire day was spent driving here, and the air has been full of dust and sand swept up by winds from Algeria.  We won’t be rained out in the eclipse, but we might get sanded out.  Whatever — we’ve seen lots of eclipses, but never a real sandstorm, let alone two weeks of them.

Anyway, this is just a taste.  Tomorrow we ride a camel, the next day we drive back out of the desert, and then we have a week before returning to the Sahara.

Again, we have lots to tell you, but there’s only so much I can type on a French keyboard layout in 30 minutes.  We’ve seen the abandoned French colonial buildings in Segou, gone on a pirogue ride in Mopti, met a few village chiefs and tons of kids, had some good food, learned about the various West African tribes, and done some bargaining — today a guy who asked for $50 for a shirt would have let me have it for $5, but I didn’t have change and it wasn’t that great.

Yesterday we saw Djenne, with its mosque, the largest mud building in the world, and its market.  Tourist pricing is alive and well — hotels and restaurants are US prices, but we bought a huge sack of donut holes in the market for 20 cents.  Non-Muslims are not permitted inside the mosque, but “psst!” — some guys invited us in for $10 each.  The interior is supported by very large colums very close together like the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt.

This is Mali’s dry season — the rain starts in June.  We’ve made a few short ferry crossings which would be 10 times wider in September.  In April the ferry isn’t necessary crossing to Djenne.

The hotels have been very nice.  The guide, who is my age, and has six kids with his original wife, and one more with his second wife, who he took over from his brother when he died, is very knowledgeable and speaks English pretty well. We were a little annoyed he didn’t take our side in some bargaining with craftspeople. The driver, a Tuareg from Niger, drives quite conservatively on the open road, avoiding obstacles like tiny goats, motorbikes, and push carts; he gets a little more aggressive four-wheeling on the desert tracks.  Maybe it’s the tea he drinks several times a day.

It’s pretty likely we won’t post again for about a week — not only is the Internet slow and expensive and not widely available, but we have a pretty full schedule on this tour and much of any free time is spent taking naps.  Or writing postcards — Ray is trying to get Timbuktu postmarks on as many cards as possible.  Timbuktu, for those of you who didn’t know it was a real place, is a historic trade location for where the camel caravans crossing south across the Sahara from Algeria hit the Niger river.  Many visitors here join a caravan to go gather salt in the desert — we have our own desert expedition planned, and although the sand in the air makes it possible to see the partial phases of the eclipse without protective eyewear, it would probably obscure the corona.  Sigh — someone will take pictures and we can look at them later.

I’d better click “Publish” before my connection times out, taking this careful typing with it.


Ça va?

March 6th, 2006 2:25 am by ray from here

The first words out of your mouth when you meet anyone from Mali, are “Ça va!” That’s how they begin all conversations, asking how you are. No matter how casual the encounter. This is followed, in French or some tribal language, with an entire catechism along the lines of how is the wife — fine — how is the eldest son — fine — how is the second eldest son — fine — how is the 48th sheep, the one that had the croup — eaten — Nobody has robbed us at gunpoint yet but if it does happen, I am sure they will start the transaction by asking how we are, and if we are married and how our wives are and if our daughters commanded excessive dowries.

Yesterday we spent a few more hours being mobbed by children, first at a Bobo village of animists (though a new mosque has been built at the edge of town; between that and World Vision International, the franchise will be shut down in a few years and the pigs will have to go live somewhere else and the dogs will have to find another gig than being eaten and their skulls hung up on the edge of houses.) In the evening we visited Kaakolodaga. In between we walked through a pretty horrific slum where ex-slaves of the Fulani people, “freed” in 1848, live on top of a garbage dump.

The procedure is usually the same: The tourists show up in groups large or small; the guide checks in with the chief and slips him a few thousand CFA, the tourists walk around the village and check out a way of life they would never otherwise have seen, and everybody under the age of about ten tugs at his coat tails (except it’s much too hot to wear a coat) and asks for a Bic Pen and money. What is it with the Bic Pen? That has been the standard currency of begging since I was a little kid and reading National Geographic for the penises. Isn’t there anything else they need? What would they do with it if they got it? Surely World Vision International can keep them in Bic Pens.

You have to ask yourself, who are the kids who mob you? The total retards, that’s who. Somewhere in these villages, a large number of kids have already seen white tourists with cameras checking that their wallets are zipped into their pockets, five or ten times a day, and they are in their rooms playing with a Game Boy or futbol or herding goats or studying the Koran or whatever. The people who have absolutely nothing to do are the ones you get to meet. I want to take a village tour where you walk around a software development house peering into the cubicles and taking pictures of the Human Resources ladies doing their nails. And middle management follows you around asking for Bic Pens and further rounds of venture capital.

Kone actually dreads going into Kaakolodaga. It is so completely over the top, mobbing kid wise. He asked us, do you really want to go in here? It’s on an island in the Bani River next to Mopti, where the Bani and Niger rivers meet; he could have fulfilled his contract by having the Bani boatman, a Bozo named Baba, pirogue us around the island and head back to the hotel. I said yes, wondering if there would be something else. I think I am going to pass the next time I get these cues. I’m not looking forward as much to Dogon country as I might have forty years ago when I first heard of the people who worship the Dog Star and live on cliffs. I fear they have become a complete self-parody, Navajoland without the casinos, playing themselves year in and year out and the most ambitious leave to become tour guides.

Or restaurateurs: when in Mopti, make sure you eat at Restaurant Sigui. It is managed by a man named David from the Dogon village of Nonburi and the food is good and he and his staff (also from the village) are friendly and show you the murals they have painted on the walls, depicting their village.

A continuum

I think we travel too fast and don’t spend nearly enough time on vacation. This is a constant theme: it gets to me when random expats in bars say that we’re “doing it wrong” because we haven’t spent weeks or years in Zimbabwe or wherever, to actually get to know the country, the people, raise a few kids, that sort of thing. But on the other end of the spectrum — Kone told us last night over dinner, that there are “tours” of “Mali” conducted in the following wise: a group of tourists in a big chartered plane flies in at midnight to Bamako. In the morning, they tour Bamako; fly to Mopti; tour Mopti 2 hours; fly to Timbuktu; tour Timbuktu 2 hours; fly to Dogon Country; tour Dogon country 5 hours, fly back to Bamako and are on their way back to Europe on the midnight flight. This reminds me so much of the Mad Magazine satire on super fast vacations, published some time in the 1960’s. If Mad Magazine is on line, somebody google it. Mad Magazine’s staff was pretty prescient. I expect a lot of their most over the top material from 50 years ago reads pretty much like the newspaper does today.

Meet Kone and Ahmed

March 4th, 2006 12:21 pm by ray from here

There’s a man in this story we’re calling Ahmed. He’s our driver. Ahmed is the name on his Niger passport. I am unable to transcribe the syllables that Kone uses to address him or refer to him. Sometimes it sounds like Mohammed, sometimes, Mehmet, sometimes mo-MED, never Ahmed, and when we asked Kone what his name was, he said all the forms of Mohammed are the same. Kone’s name is also Mohammed. Ambiguity arises when half the people in a culture have the same first name. Or last name. Amy has a friend in Santa Cruz with an unusual not-terribly-Swedish-sounding last name, whose male ancestor got that name when he was drafted into the army in Sweden back in the day and they told him the unit had way too many Jon Jonssons or Nils Nilssons and from now on he was this other person. “If you have a diagnostic category that fits 100 percent of people, it’s not a diagnostic category,” in the words of a former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Kone, our guide, turned out to be nice. So did Ahmed.

Kone is a Samanou, which is what he says you call a Bambara person who has taken up the life of fishing under the tutelage of the Bozos; and Ahmed is a Tuareg. The Tuaregs I had heard of before. They live in vast reaches of the Sahara desert. They occasionally make war on whatever nation state thinks they can control them, and have been doing so since the time of the Umayyads and the Abassids. At the moment Mali and Niger have effective cease fires; I’ll be happy when driving across Niger to have a driver who was actually born in Tahoua or nearby.

They came and fetched us about 9 AM, as Dave was trying once again to communicate with our blog space on the computer at the Mandé Hotel. We drove a few hours to the town of Segou, which is the next major town down the Niger River. On the way we stopped to take pictures of termite mounds and so forth, and also a village where a way of life was explained and we gave the chief a bit of money to build a hospital in his Mercedes. I shouldn’t be so cynical. Yes, I should. You know, what the heck can you do to help? Maybe some of you who are reading this will think, you can spend a half a million dollars and twenty years sending your own kids to college and you still can’t be more than vainly hopeful for the outcome. They might end up an late middle age running around different continents snapping photos of stuff they have no clue what it is. So what could you possibly hope to accomplish in a half hour, other than a distraction?

In the afternoon in Segou we walked along the beach where guys tried to sell us stuff, and visited a carpet factory and dyers. Always the carpet factory. It seems to stand, in all tours and all countries, for the whole industrial life. Maybe it’s that important. Maybe carpets are just what the entire world does. It’s a little easier to get to, and to watch, than people stuffing millet seeds into the ground.


March 4th, 2006 12:49 am by dave from here

We’re in Bamako, about to leave on our tour — we just met our guide Kone and our driver Mehmet.  Ideally, we’d copy and paste several pages of text that we’ve been accumulating, but we’ve been stymied.  Putting files on the digital camera flash card hasn’t worked, and a little USB flash drive we bought in Paris mounted once on a PC in the shop, once on our Powerbook, and not again since anywhere.

Bamako is a big crowded spread-out city.  The downtown area is just one big marketplace with cars and pedestrians and carts in a huge traffic jam.  The book said everyone tries to get out as quickly as possible, and now’s our chance.

There is a nice modern museum with creative textile displays, and some amazing statues, but mostly we’ve been hanging out at the hotel.  I even did some work by the side of the pool yesterday.

At some point we’ll give up on transferring files and copy from the Powerbook word by word using the science of Retyping.  This is a useful editing exercise because you leave stuff out.  Remember always the remark attributed to Mark Twain that he could have thirty pages ready for his editor in two days, but for two pages, it would take thirty days.

The sun is beaming down upon the Niger and it’s time to depart.  People on astronomical expeditions like it when the sun beams down.


March 3rd, 2006 2:19 am by ray from here

We went out to change money from Euros or dollars to West African currency (called CFA). Immediately upon stepping outside the taxi we were surrounded by people selling SIM cards and belts and post cards, continuo as we navigated the throng, and there appeared two tall young men, one in a collared shirt and the other in a tie dyed t-shirt — colors not dead in Mali, by the way, the women especially here dress up to a phenomenal extent. Anyway, these two guys became our unofficial guides of the moment. Here comes the service economy. I used to object to such things, because I resent having people make contracts implicitly without ever negotiating the terms with you. You know that there’s going to be a fight at the end of the day when they finally unwrap the EULA agreement that they think you’ve signed, or (to take an even more absurd analogy from a contract nobody bothers to read) you conduct your divorce.

But there is an advantage to having a guide. Is it getting to where you want to go? You could do that with a map, if there were any; and they aren’t taking you there anyway, they are taking you to a carpet shop nearby. No, it’s that when you have a guide, the other guides, i.e. the population of the city you’re in, don’t hassle you to become your guide. It was the same outside the airport. This is worth the price of admission, until you find out what the price of admission is. We did get to the bank and the post office so those of you whose addresses we know can start getting postcards with fancy stamps. Let us know if any of them arrive.

Assou Sagara had already suggested to us what the going rate for guides per day was; so I didn’t feel so bad about sending these birds off with 5000 CFA (540 CFA = 1 US dollar) after a couple of hours even though they insisted that they deserved ten US dollars an hour each. They sent one of their friends out after us, whose part in this charade was to protest that he didn’t know them and they had stiffed him for a Coke at lunch and we therefore owed him 1000 CFA. Non. We didn’t buy any carpets either. The pickup guides hadn’t said anything when their bud sold us 10 postcards for what turned out to be almost three times the going rate; so what were we to think of the friend of his cousin’s friend’s batiks for 12500? They were nice. But it’s a trust issue. I still remember buying two artistic purple and white batiks in Dominica that turned out to be so water soluble that the first drop ruined them. Oh, who am I blaming? The Mona Lisa isn’t machine washable either. Actually it probably is.

But lunch was nice. A Senegalese goat stew over rice. We’ve just had a great dinner, with music, here at the Mandé Hotel, too; River Pike tajine and a lovely Malian variation on Molukkhiya followed by a mango tart. There’s a lot to be said for vacationing in ex-French colonies.

The Mandé Hotel has three stars; it’s more a quantum chimaera of a two star and a four star hotel. The rooms are basic but the location is fabulous, right on the Niger River, and the grounds almost look really great but — they are, le tired. They charged 3200 for 3 liters of water and 9000 for a minimal breakfast. The sausages were interesting but I don’t know what mefloquine moment Michael Palin was having on pronouncing it the best breakfast in the Sahara — or maybe we’ll find out why.

Assou even sent one of his boys around to change dollars for us at a better rate than we got at Ecobank. (The Euro rate can’t be beat: the CFA is tied to the Euro and nobody charges a commission.)

We enjoyed our last dinner in Bamako at the restaurant gallery “Santoro” on the north side of the railroad tracks. At least, I think we enjoyed it; I slept through most of dinner owing to the hypnotic music by the koro player. A koro is a harp that looks a little like a sitar. It has a lot of strings and can probably play a lot of notes more than the artist was choosing. When people talk about the African tradition in music they aren’t talking about his tradition. If his cultural ancestors had been sold into slavery — but they weren’t, they put the slavers into a trance — “50 Cent” would be recording on “Windham Hill”.

Adding to the lethargy was the traditional dose of African carbohydrates from a people who don’t obsess about them, at least not with the same parity that Westerners do: fried plantains, french fries … and for the centerpieces: Niger River Capitaine brochette which was just perfectly grilled and chicken in coconut sauce. I don’t know what Justin has against African food. last night’s tajine and tonight’s brochette were ideal performances.

And so to bed. Tomorrow morning a couple guys we haven’t met yet are showing up at 8 to drive us around Mali for two weeks. I hope they are nice.


March 2nd, 2006 2:16 am by ray from here

The antimalarial, mefloquine, has some side effects. Dave lost a bit of sleep and I’ve had dreams about being some large table being XORed with some other large table. Certainly not as bad as have been reported by others.

Assou, whose company will take us on a tour of Mali, met us as we got off the plane, before we had even been through passport control. The security at the Sénou Airport is casual that way. He took our passports and landing cards and gave them to a tall woman who ran into an office and back out, then cut through the line to give the now-stamped landing cards to the uniformed immigration officer crouched behind the thronged glass cubicle. He led us through the usual gauntlet of taxi touts, who could read that our MAPK had been phosphorylated and therefore relatively few of them asked us if we wanted taxis but the thing to sell now at Airports is SIM cards which we also already had. Total elapsed time from touchdown to the hotel: 59 minutes. Any of you will know this is amazing, who have landed at night from a foreign country into the airport of a pathetic third world paranoid bureaucratic corrupt satrapy, such as SFO.

“How do you do that?” I asked Assou. “You must know all those guys.”

“Cousins, friends, friends of friends…” said Assou. MySpace is about three centuries behind the social networking capacity of any African businessman.

I saw lots of people flashing SIM cards on the road into town, too. Bamako at night gives the impression of Tijuana at night, except the people in Bamako are poor. In Mali they know all about the service economy.

You can tell when things are the hardest of the hard cause you don’t see kids selling things, even trash. Adults are selling. When adults have the crappiest jobs, it’s like eating your seed corn. God knows what the kids are doing. I hope they’re all right.

Things I Have Learned From Travel

March 1st, 2006 2:13 am by ray from here

As long as I’m talking about Things I Have Learned From Travel; here are two more: the United Airlines breakfast egg and sausage croissant is bad. Don’t. The Hotel Mercedes, at 128 Avenue de Wagram, Paris 17, is charming. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful and the design is stylish. The only possible drawback is that the walls are thin. This would be more or less of a problem if the clientele were less or more interesting; as it is you get to overhear muffled cell phone conversations from Spanish businessmen. Nice if you’re into insider trading of three-star companies.

The price of gas is gradually taking us back to the era of sailing. As this applies to international jet travel; there was a period of time when airplanes would fly in a great circle route from SFO to LHR and we went pretty much over the same territory each time: Northern Hudson Bay, Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland. It isn’t like that any longer. There’s much more information about wind conditions and much less jet fuel; so pilot are instructed by their computers to fly a variety of carefully minimized tracks with lots of tailwinds, so that they can arrive with a little fuel left over at the scheduled time (notice that the schedules have stretched out a bit to improve on-time performance. They were always unrealistic before.)
The day we left, Sunday February 26, there was a wind from the south, so much so that we took off the opposite direction from usual and turned around to catch a 100 kph tailwind heading northwest all the way to Victoria Island. Then we turned to just slightly east of north and continued to the Great Slave Lake, and then made a right and caught another tailwind, which was bumpy at first. The northernmost point of this flight was almost exactly 77°N which is farther than I’ve ever been north in a plane. There was another tailwind that took us down to England. Good job, computer.
(There is such a thing as a stupid question. We all knew that. “What’s that?” “A GPS.”  “Does it work this high up?”)

Money changers have gone out of fashion and the spread they offer is .74 Euro (if you’re buying Euros) – .91 (if you’re selling them). Only one bank, the Banque Postale, has even hinted that it would change money: Banque Postale will give you .79 Euro for each dollar, provided you have an account with them, and if you have $100 bills, which is what we have, it takes one week while they have the cash printed up or send the dollar bills back to Washington to check the serial numbers, or whatever it is they do.
I brought cash because I thought that in West Africa cash was king and I wanted Euros. In retrospect, we all should have used our ATM cards here. In fact, Dave got 300 Euros and I got 400 Euros out of a machine this afternoon after we gave up trying to change the dollars. Online banking consultation reveals that his rate was 81.9 Euro cents for a dollar. Mine hasn’t been posted yet.
When the Euro came into being, three quarters of the business of the money changers must have vanished.  When ATMs took over, even though they charge 3%, another three quarters of their business must have vanished. Who needs to change cash in Paris now? West Africans and people who are looking to trade with them. The cost of protecting that much cash is spread over a tiny market and the unit cost of transaction goes up accordingly.
STOP PRESS: across from the Hard Rock Cafe on Boulevard Montmartre is a completely anomalous money changer who offers a spread of 81 to 84. I wonder how that came about?

Other Paris observations:

The phenomenon of 24 hour flower shops in Paris makes a lot of sense. If it’s an occasion in the middle of the night that a French person is going to need to be bringing home flowers, the later it is, the more he needs them.

At the suggestion of Harvey’s friend Rob, we went to the Monde de Arabe museum on the south side of the river. They had an exhibit of the arts and sciences of the Islamic world while Europe was under the thumb of fanatical religious obscurantists — quite the opposite of the situation today. My favorite part was the astrolabes.

Religion does not foster original thought even when it is less than totalitarian: the astrolabes were up to the job, but the Muslim astronomers could not free themselves of the Ptolemaic mistake that the earth was the center of the universe. They simply created more refined epicycles of second and third degree. I suppose that epicycles constitute some kind of a basis vector set, and can be used to describe planetary movements accurately in the same way that integers can be manipulated to describe pi … but … it wasn’t a predictive model, and it was left to a later scientist in a Christian country to overturn the Intelligent Design of 1200 years with a more elegant explanation.

Some of the manuscripts were illuminated to the level of any Monkish doodlings. The Arabs have always been way out front in calligraphy. If there are other people who object to computer programs who attempt to entertain you in the course of their use, with dancing Macintosh animations or transparent pull-down menus which use up endless processor cycles helping your desktop attain the visual effect of a stack of patterned placemats onto which you have spilled your drink — well it started in the middle ages — all those gilt figured capitals and nobody was expected to read that font anyway, the facts didn’t matter any more than they do for Wired Magazine (which used to be more illegible than it is today, did someone suggest to them at one point that they were to be taken seriously and ought to be writing for History? History will snicker.)