a hint of Nigeria

I have long wanted to visit Nigeria, and was delighted to have to take a full part in a three-week work assignment (followed by a one-week regional management meeting) in the country.  Sadly not in Lagos, but at least I got to spend time in Abuja and Maiduguri, plus a couple of visits to communities near to Maiduguri who are benefitting from our projects there.

However, the security situation in the country being as it is, I was under strict instructions from our local security advisor to remain in the hotel during the evenings and weekends - not even a ten-minute walk outside was permitted - so it turned into a very frustrating trip.  I did get to see bits of Abuja through the car window on the daily trip between the hotel and the office, so I saw the rather impressive National Mosque, although couldn't go inside as I would have liked.  & I do have to admit to a bit of editing of this picture - the top part of one of the minarets is copied and pasted from one of the others, as a sticker on the car windscreen blocked the perfect view...

Abuja is not really representative of Nigeria anyway, with its tall buildings, its shopping malls, and its modern streets free of hawkers and street food.  Hard to believe it is as dangerous as our security rep told me, but I have to follow the rules when I travel for work.

So I mostly had to content myself with experiencing the country within the confines of the hotel.  I even tried out the Sunday morning church service in one of the hotel conference rooms, although a room full of people swaying to "The name of Jesus will last forever" type songs from the live band was only bearable for around fifteen minutes (for balance I listened to Islamic prayers in the car on the way to the office).  As for the food in the hotel restaurant, well, a menu full of goats' heads, cows' tails and giant snails - all, sadly, swimming in a pepper sauce that was way too hot for me. Even the vegetarina section of the menu included a dish described as 'assorted meats'.  As a 'mostly' vegetarian who dislikes anything with even a hint of chilli in, I did struggle with the food.  This was served at the morning coffee break during our management meeting:

being unable to visualise

I am one of those people you may have read about who does not have a "mind's eye" - or at least I have a very poor one.  If I read a book that says someone is wearing a green jacket, I understand what that means, what a green jacket is - but I don't see a picture of someone in a green jacket somewhere inside my head.

I'm not as far along this spectrum as some, as I can (with a bit of effort) conjure up mental images of things I see commonly - like an apple, for example - as well as places that I spend a lot of time in.  But only if I have registered information about it.  For example trying to visualise my desk at work, I can 'see' the pile of old magazines that I rest my laptop on to get it at the right height to work with, but I cannot 'see' the desktop itself - and realise as I try to that I have never registered its colour.  I suppose that means it must be something neutral like white, beige or grey, otherwise I probably would have noticed.  I can't visualise people either, although I might recall the colour of their hair and eyes, if I have registered that.  Images that I can bring to mind (like the apple) are fleeting and faint.  I cannot hear sounds or smell odours in my head either, which I believe some people can.

It's hard to imagine what life is like for people who are at the other end of this spectrum - who apparently read a book and experience it almost as a film in their head.  I'm not sure whether it is something they can turn off?  Must be terribly distracting if not, when someone is trying to have a regular conversation with you and you get vivid images in your mind whilst they're speaking.

It would explain why I find long descriptive passages in books so boring, why I am totally unable to draw anything given a blank piece of paper - whilst at the same time being reasonably good at copying a picture from a photograph - and my total confusion at school when they told us to set out factual information with circles, arrows and so on across the page to help us remember it for the exams.  I had no idea that others might be able to visualise that diagram in their head!

Thinking about my time in Madagascar, however, I see one advantage for those who think like me.  We had a very near miss when driving along a road that went around the side of a small mountain, our small (12-seater) bus was suddenly faced by another small bus coming round the bend, on the wrong side of the road, at very great speed.  Braking would have merely meant a head-on collision, so the other vehicle had the choice of swerving left or right.  If he'd gone to his right, he'd almost certainly have plunged off the road and down the side of the mountain, so he swerved left, somehow (I'll never know how) managing to avoid even clipping the corner of our vehicle, but it meant that he smashed pretty hard into the rock face on that side of the road.  He bounced off and along a bit further (closely beside us to our right), then went into a small ditch and again into the rock face.  The driver must certainly have been killed and many of the passengers and the vehicle badly damaged.

Our local guide phoned for emergency medical people but we did not stop, apparently that is not advisable in such circumstances.  My reaction was, "Wow!  That was close!  Hope the people are okay.  Now, what were you saying about plans for this afternoon?"  & life went on.  Byt the end of the day I'd forgotten about it until the subject was raised over dinner.  At which point I found out that some of the others had been quite traumatised by it - our guide said that when we arrived at our destination and he got to his room he started shaing like a leaf.  Now I accept that the experience must have been a lot worse for him given that he was in the front seat - but I have realised that my lack of ability to visualise things serves to protect me in such situations.  I will never imagine what could have happened, other than in purely theoretical terms, and I will never have flashbacks of anything.

It makes me wonder whether this contributes to what others sometimes see as bravery in me.  Which I've always known was not bravery at all, but couldn't explain to people why it was not.  Now that I think about it - if someone asks "What if you were kidnapped by Al Qaida?", I might try to think in a practical way what that might mean, and then I might go off into a daydream about how I might manage to build some empathy with my kidnappers, get them to teach me Arabic, and so on - but I would not (and could not) visualise a scary-looking figure standing over me with a gun, so the thought of being kidnapped doesn't fill me with fear.  Not that it's likely to happen anyway (just so my Mum doesn't read too much into that example!!), but nevertheless I'm happy to be free from such mental images!

the lemurs stole the show

I'd been told by several people that I needed to hurry up and get to Madagascar - that it is being deforested at a rate of knots such that soon there will be no habitat left for the amazing wildlife that currently inhabits this wondrous island.  So I organised a three-week holiday there.  Super-expensive - the second most expensive trip I've undertaken behind Antarctica - but people had spoken so highly of the place that I felt it would be worth it.

I went with the birding company I use a lot, to make sure I had the best chance of seeing ground-rollers, mesites and the sickle-billed vanga, but I was equally attracted by such bizarre creatures as the giraffe-necked weevil and the hissing cockroach - and who can resist lemurs?  As you can see from the picture (these are rescued pets now in a reserve), I certainly can't!

The biggest surprise to me was the number of lemur species - more than one hundred!  & there are enormous differences between them, from the tiny little mouse lemurs we saw leaping around the trees at night and trying to sleep in the day, to the big indris with their amazing eerie-sounding (and VERY loud) call. Maybe you can get an idea of the size of the
black and white ruffed lemur in the photo.  I saw some 22 different speices, I think, my favourites being the famous ring-tailed lemurs and some of the sifaka species.  Many of them are endangered, but this is due to habitat loss and not to predation by humans, so many of them are relatively unafraid of humans allowing you to see them at close range.  At the Berenty reserve the ring-tailed lemurs, whilst wild, would try to sneak up to the breakfast tables to steal food.

But the habitat destruction is clearly evident, with charcoal on sale beside the road in every village, wetlands being turned into rice paddies, large swathes of land burnt to prepare it for crops, and whole areas of spiny forest removed to make way for sisal plantations.  Here was one sad remaining tree:

Amongst all this were also large numbers of different chameleons and geckos, a few snakes, frogs, scorpions, spiders, a couple of different tenrecs.  The landscapes weren't bad either.

a male lesbian?

Much as I love Morocco, it is one of the worst countries for hassle of foreign women, especially blonde ones, and I did have to disentangle myself from one over-enthusiastic male during my time wandering around the medina in Fes.  So when an Italian man (albeit with a Moroccan father), who told me from the start that he was gay, was keen to have someone to talk to, I was happy to oblige.

He asked me if I was happy talking to him, if I liked gay men, and I responded with a laugh, that "of course I like gay men - all women do - we feel safe with you as we know there is no hidden agenda".  It was an interesting conversation as he went on to explain that he was actually a transvestite (or an 'androgynous man' as he called it, but we established that this is 'more or less' another term for transvestite), and was only dressed in male clothing out of respect for the Moroccan culture and to avoid trouble - at home in Milan he would be wearing heels, a dress, make-up, and his feminine hair style would not be hidden under a baseball cap.

We talked for quite a while, and finally he suggested we go to his nearby family holiday apartment for a beer.  Once there he was, as I'd anticipated, keen to change into his more usual clothes, to which I said I had no problem.  To be honest I was being a bit voyeuristic - was curious to see he become she ...

The red lipstick, the earrings and the floppy hair actually looked rather good, but I was disappointed by the satin mini slip dress, with the red bra peeking through, and the long scarf round the neck twirled coquettishly.  No woman I have ever met would dress like that - this was not a woman but rather a caricature of a woman.  Still, he (now she) was happy and so I expressed my appreciation.

We talked for a while and shared a bit of food, but then she wanted to dance - to express herself and her happiness - and put on some schmaltzy music.  She asked me to dance too, so rather reluctantly I did.  But then was surprised to feel her hands not just around my back but trying to make their way up inside my Tshirt!  I put a stop to this very quickly, and we talked some more.  I asked why on earth a gay man would want to put their hands up a woman's Tshirt, and (s)he explained that she was a lesbian...

I made my way back to my hostel to mull this over, but more than a week later I am still trying to get my head around the concept of a male transvestite lesbian.  However, I met someone a couple of days later who deals with a lot of people from the LGBTIQ community in her work, and I asked her opinion about this.  She told me that (male) transvestite lesbians are not uncommon, and that those falling into the trans categories are often quite confused about their sexual orientation.

Confused (and confusing) or not, I must say that my encounter in Morocco was a fascinating one.  I always enjoy getting a window into other cultures and other ways of life, and whilst not what I had anticipatedf rom a three day trip to Morocco, this was no different!

Festival of World Sacred Music

Our annual conference was scheduled to begin the week after the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, which I had long wanted to attend, so I was very happy to discover that the cheapest way to get to the UK was on Royal Air Maroc, meaning a change of plane in Casablanca - and that there was no additional cost if I took a few days' stopover there.  Inexplicably, I decided to spend only three days at the festival (why??) - three days that were so good that I will almost certainly have to go back another year to see and hear more, even if I have to pay for my own flight next time.

This festival covers sacred music from all over the world, but I missed contributions from places such as Bolivia and Iran.  Nor did I get to see the late night performances of Moroccan sufi music as my 3am start to get to Morocco, and my 4am start to leave three days later, did restrict me somewhat.  However I attended a concert in the Jnan Sbil gardens by 3Ma (photo above), a trio of musicians from Mali (Ballake Sissoko), Madagascar (Rajery) and Morocco (Driss al Maloumi), each playing a traditional instrument from their country.  This one I knew I would like (I have a CD of theirs in my collection).  I was less certain about Mystical Breaths, a concert in the same gardens taking in Gregorian chants accompanied by harp and Indian flutes, but it was also very enjoyable.

The best of all, however, was a concert entitled "In the Heart of Sufi Africa", encompassing sufi musicians from Egypt, Zanzibar, Morocco and Senegal, that took place in the large walled Bab al Makina.  The music was beautiful, as I'd expected, but the spectacular light show was a big surprise.  Here are three shots of some of the different lighting effects behind the musicians:

Really breathtaking.

Of course I also had some time to explore the city - somewhere I hadn't been for more than twenty years.  There is rather more hassle of tourists (especially blonde, female tourists) than I would like, but still I really love this city.  It is unlike anywhere else, with the ninth century medina of some 9,000 alleyways (apparently), its only traffic being donkey- or horse-led carts, as well as countless other ancient walls, gates and palaces throughout the city.  A place where you can just wander aimlessly but know you will be rewarded. 

I did though re-visit the famous tanneries,

where leather (from cows, goats and camels) from throughout the country is treated.  Firstly in the limestone pits to the left of the picture, where pigeon droppings are the main ingredient in the solution that removes all flesh and other unwanted elements from the leather, and then secondly in the pits to the right, used for various dyes to give the leather its colour.

Apparently they still do not use any chemical inputs, with all dyes coming from natural ingredients such as poppies (for the red) and safron (for the yellow), although the latter is dabbed on sparingly on rooftops, rather than in the pits given its cost.  All the pits are owned by different families, so the work passes from generation to generation.  Tough work, by the looks of it. 

Of course the pressure to buy something made of leather afterwards is quite strong, but I already knew that I wanted a leather bum bag (following the recent attempted robbery), and was reasonably happy to get it for less than half the price the sellers started at.  Especially as my hostel in the old medina was costing me only 8 euros a night including breakfast!

motorcycle snatch thieves

When I left Senegal in 2013, a new phenomenon had just appeared - motorcycle snatch thieves.  They weren't common, but were being talked about and I did hear indirectly of one victim.  It was disappointing when I returned to be warned about this, as somehow I had hoped that it had just been something short-lived.

I'm still not sure how common it is, but I'd only been in the country two months whe I got first-hand experience of it.  It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and I'd gone out to search for a couple of chairs I could buy for my balcony.  I was walking along the main coastal road - not much used on a Sunday so very few people about - when a man who'd obviously run quietly up behind me grabbed my shoulder bag to run back behind me where he obviously hoped to jump on the back of a waiting motorcycle.  However, I had managed to hold on to the shoulder strap so as he ran back along the road I ran (or was dragged) after him, pulling on the strap and screaming for help as loudly as I could.  A couple of older men appeared from behind doorways, and I saw a taxi stopped up ahead, and suddenly my bac was released and the would-be thief and his accomplice had gone.

So I was unharmed, my bag still with me and still in one piece, and I suppose the whole experience had lasted less than ten seconds - but it was a bit of a shock.  I suppose the adrenaline had kicked in (there was NO WAY they were going to get my bag, which had my keys, telephone and enough money in it to buy balcony furniture!), as I could hardly move my shoulders or arms for the next few days as the muscles recovered, even though I'd not felt physical discomfort at the time of the attack.

Colleagues told me that the road I'd been on is particularly vulnerable to such attack on quiet Sundays, and that there is always a spike in crime during the run-up to big festivals that people need money to finance (this was the week before the Korite festival marking the end of Ramadan).

I must say that it was a good experience in a way, awareness-raising without any negative consequences and I shall certainly be more alert in future.

To end on a good note - I found the chairs I was looking for, and here they are on the balcony!

the 'not turning up when they promise' rule

Perhaps I should start this post by mentioning the exception to what seems to be the rule here.  The exception being that my boxes of stuff took only six weeks to get here from Panama.  Absolutely astonishing when you recall that it took six months to transport them in the other direction.

But then the rule kicked in.  Having told us that they had the stuff, the shipping receipt company then couldn't deliver it because they didn't have transportation of their own (really?) and so had to hire a vehicle.  Ten days later they found a suitable vehicle for hire, and somehow this managed to coincide with the apartment I'd found being ready for me to move into, so I took a taxi there on the Saturday with all the possessions I'd brought with me on the plane, and my ever helpful colleague Oumar was already there waiting for me.  The container with my boxes inside arrived shortly afterwards.  They'd forgotten to ask someone from Customs to attend - and only Customs officers can open containers - but it seemed that could be sorted out provided we paid the taxi fare for a Customs officer to get to the apartment from the port.

There was another problem, however - the driver had come alone, without anyone to help unload the boxes and get them up to my third floor apartment.  He asked my colleague for cash, which he intended to use to pay random men from the street to come and help with the delivery...  We refused this suggestion and instructed them to come back as soon as possible - which would be Monday.  The container was left parked outside for the weekend - the pic above.

I spotted that the electricity counter was flashing red, meaning I was about to be cut off, so we took the time to go out searching for a place to add credit to the meter.  We tried five places, all of which either had no printer (so the receipt I would require for my reimbursement from the office was not available), or no functioning internet connection so the credit could not be processed.  At this stage we gave up and I meandered dejectedly back to the old temporary apartment carrying essential toiletries and food so as to spend another two nights there.

On the Monday the electricity problem was sorted out, a dozen men turned up, and the forty boxes were quickly brought up to the apartment (no Customs officer in sight, but really, it wasn't my problem as to how they managed to open the container in his absence).  Now I just wait for the promised removal of the empty wooden crate that my more fragile masks had been transported in, for a carpenter to put a shelf in one of the kitchen cupboards (in the absence of one single drawer!) to give me somewhere to store cutlery trays and the like (currently sitting on a chair), for someone to come and explain why the brand new washing machine shows no sign of life even though it is plugged in, and for someone else to sort out the TV connection.  Many of these things have already been organised but inevitably that rule kicks in and I hear two hours after the promised arrival time (and even then, only after some chasing) that they cannot make it so will rearrange.

Meanwhile, when not waiting around for someone to (fail to) turn up, I make seemingly endless trips to different stores searching for all the little things I need, like hooks to hang hand towels from, soap dishes (failed with that one so far), a saucepan lid, a chopping board, a rack to drain dishes in (also failed so far to find one of those) ... whilst I've learned to live with the fact that my photo albums and half my CD collection will have to remain in boxes for the duration of this contract as I really cannot face the hassle of trying to find, agree a price for, and transport, sets of shelving.

What I will buy though is a chair or two for my little balcony so that I can sit outside and enjoy the occasional breeze, but the constant waiting in for people to turn up has so far provided sufficient excuses for me not to have to face that price negotiation process that I so hate.