Getting around

My goodness, this job is so demanding. Every time I think I have got some tasks out of the way and might be able to relax and have a weekend to myself, more tasks appear. So much for seeing Senegal, all I usually see when I am here is the insides of my house and office and the streets between (which aren't many as I have a five minute walk between the two).

But I thought I would take five minutes out from work and just write a quick post about the transport here, as I spent much of last week using it as I travelled to and from our regional conference. Like so many of the day-to-day things here, it differs so much from that in the more developed parts of the world.

For those like me without a car, there are two choices: taxi or public transport. The latter contains too complicated a mix to try to describe here (numerous different sized vehicles, all with different names), but one of the commonest is the Ndiaga Ndiaye. This is a big old white Mercedes van, with seats squashed into the back to hold some 30 people. Typically they are bashed and dented, rusty, have holes in the floor, cracked windscreens... But they work, and they are cheap.

They can be slightly confusing for the foreigner like me though. Firstly you have to work out whether one is going in your direction. There is always a young boy - the driver's assistant - hanging off the back shouting out the destination, but rather in the style of a London newspaper-seller, that is whatever he is saying is completely incomprehensible to someone who hasn't lived there for years.

Sometimes the journey is uneventful, but it is quite common for the vehicle to make several unscheduled stops as the driver goes to buy a newspaper or something. Last week on the way home from our conference one evening we pulled into the side of the road and stopped, and the driver got out. After a while the passengers started tutting, and gradually getting out. I asked someone if we were at the end of the line, and he said that the driver had gone home to get his driving license. So I got out, and waited with the others beside the road. Soon another Ndiaga Ndiaye came along and stopped, and all the passengers got out and squeezed into our, driverless, vehicle. We got into theirs and set off. You soon learn to just shrug and accept such mysteries.

Taxis are of course more expensive, especially for people like me who are no good at bargaining (in any case whites usually have to pay more as we are assumed to have more money). You first stop your taxi (easy, if you are white, as taxis constantly slow down beside you), describe to the driver where you want to go and confirm that he knows how to get you there (you usually have to direct them if you are not going to a major landmark), and then name your price. Of course it helps if you have taken the route before as you start to get to know the expected price. Even so, sometimes they can still confuse you; last week I told one driver my destination, followed by "2,500" (CFA francs) - he countered with "2,000".

The taxis - painted yellow and black to identify them - are in varying condition. Occasionally you get lucky, but mostly they are old and battered, dirty inside, with cracked windscreens and nearly always with their window-winders missing. Sometimes the windows themselves are missing at the sides. The drivers don't go AWOL but they certainly don't always go where you expect. Roads are merely a guide. Pavements are also there to be driven on, as is anything else that takes you around a traffic jam rather than onto the end of it. Last week a taxi driver drove me straight across the middle of a roundabout, presumably just because it was quicker than following all the other cars around the outside.

Thankfully there is so much traffic in Dakar that speeds are kept low, so the inevitable accidents usually just add a few more dents to the vehicles.

I may go quiet for a few weeks now, as I am off to deepest Guinea for a three week assignment - not sure how good the connectivity is there. A locally-produced guide to the region says it is known for the cultivation of coffee, cocoa and teapots, so I shall keep look-out for teapot trees, try to post a photo of one on the blog...

Roast goat

I got home from Laos to find the usual litany of problems with the house: something had gone wrong with the washing machine and we were waiting for a new part to be delivered; the kitchen wall cabinets had tried to fall off the wall (fortunately my maid heard the process begin and managed to get there in time to support them for long enough to remove the contents) and whilst they had been secured in my absence none of the doors now closed as the whole unit was skew-whiff; one of the guards had stolen an iron from the garage; and my house phone had been disconnected as my employers had neglected to pay the line rental one month when I was away. On the bright side the tomato plant had started to produce baby tomatoes and the oranges were just about ripe enough to make juice from.

It had turned surprisingly cold – not in the daytime when I could still go out in short sleeves, but in the evening when I had to dig out a jumper to put on when I went into the kitchen (the slatted windows, which seem to hold in the heat during the hot humid summer months, somehow seem to let in all the cold breezes during the winter).

As ever there is loads of work to do, so when I finally finished in the office yesterday I was looking forward to a plate of pasta and pumpkin with some cheap red wine before curling up under the bed-covers for an early night. I grabbed a warm fleece and went into the kitchen – and was most surprised to be faced by a goat. Not the whole animal – the skin, hooves, head and digestive tract had gone – but still quite a lot of goat.

When asked about Senegalese food by local people I usually bemoan the lack of goat meat available in Dakar. It’s delicious meat, and I’ve enjoyed eating it in all sorts of countries from Pakistan to Mauritania, so have been quite disappointed to find that I can’t buy it here. Apparently it is eaten in the countryside, especially in the south, but the Dakarois are too posh to eat ‘peasant food’ and prefer mutton. But it seems that one of Gloria’s sons had managed to find one for me – a live one, but I was relieved that he had had it killed, skinned, etc before he delivered it to my house as I’m not sure whether I could bring myself to kill a goat.

So Gloria and I hacked away at the carcass with my best Sabatier knife and I now have a freezer full of goat portions. I recently made a new friend here in Dakar, an Englishman who works at the British Embassy – poor guy doesn’t yet know he is about to be invited round as a guinea pig this weekend to try my roast goat leg with mashed sweet potato…

Time off in Laos

Laos has been a great place to relax for ten days – laid-back, safe and hassle-free.

I find Africa a fascinating place but it is always very demanding; you are always having to interact with people. “Ça va?” is never enough, you always have to stop, to explain – where are you going, what is your name, where is your husband, your children, etc, etc. & I always feel that I have to be on my guard – whilst genuinely friendly people, Africans rarely stop to talk to a stranger just to be friendly, they usually have some motive.

In Laos people smile, the children wave, and you have to say “Sabaidee” (hello) dozens of times a day – but it stops there. You are left in peace.

I decided it would be counterproductive to rush around trying to see all the sights of Laos, given that one of its selling points was the slow pace of life, so I opted to restrict myself to a small area in the extreme south of the country, visiting just three places.

My first stop was an ecolodge on the edge of a wetlands in a protected area. As well as seeming a good place to relax, I thought I would see lots of birds. It turns out, however, that there are no birds – the locals shoot and eat them. This leaves the countryside strangely quiet and empty – you don’t realise how much birdsong there is around you normally until it isn’t there. I did, however, hear the beautiful, haunting, call of the rare yellow-cheeked crested gibbon (or at least that’s what the guide said it was…) early in the morning in the forest. That was part of a two-day trek I took into the heart of the Se Pian Protected Area, walking through forest on the first day and a mixture of that and travelling along a river in a small pirogue on the second day. In between I slept in a small village, eating with local families. It was very enjoyable (through mixed forest including lots of bamboo and orchids though the latter were not in flower) though I have to say not to be undertaken in the hope of seeing wildlife. The most we managed was a giant centipede and lots of frighteningly enormous spiders. The type with tiny round bodies and legs that seem to go on for ever (in this case I think for 6-8 inches). They were constantly moving and quite repulsive.

It’s good that Laos are setting aside so much of their countryside into protected areas, but disappointing to see bird-hunters prowling with their guns, and signs of deforestation, within the protected area.

Logging has (at least theoretically) stopped in these areas. This means that the elephants that the locals used to use to haul logs have been made redundant. Elephants are expensive to keep, so as an alternative way of paying for their upkeep they are now being employed near the ecolodge to carry tourists about. I guess the alternative would be that they would be killed for food, as the Laotians seem to eat anything that moves, so I didn’t feel too guilty about riding on one’s back for an hour to visit a local hill-top archaeological site. It was also a pleasure, when walking around, to spot them ‘at leisure’ in the wetlands.

My next stop was a small island, Don Khon, among the “four thousand islands” (Si Phan Don) of the Mekong inland delta. It is very rustic, but also ridiculously cheap – $2 a night to stay in my own little ‘bungalow’ of wood and woven palm fronds, with a string hammock on my balcony overlooking the Mekong (though I admit the bathroom wasn’t great). I tore myself away from the hammock though to explore some of the footpaths around the island, and ended up walking for hours and hours. The scenery wasn’t spectacular, but it was pleasant – rice paddies, remnants of forest, and a couple of little villages – and an impressive set of rapids beside the island.

After a couple of days on Don Khon, my final stop was Wat Phu Champasak, a UNESCO World Heritage listed Khmer ruin. My guidebook said it was in the style of Angkor Wat, which was true, but it was nowhere near as impressive. However it was in a lovely setting on the side of the hill, with some wonderful old magnolia trees up the sides of some of the paths, and it was a great day-trip from the nearby village of Champasak where I splashed out on a $5-a-night room with ensuite hot-water bathroom.

Then on the journey back to Thailand I had a special treat, having found a restaurant serving Italian food. Those friends who know my view of chilli, and coriander, will understand why I had not been looking forward to a diet of Lao food, and why I was so thrilled to be able to lunch on spinach and gorgonzola lasagne with garlic bread...

Back in Thailand I attended a meeting with colleagues in Bangkok, my first time in that city since 1984. It seems now to mostly consist of roads and shopping malls. I managed to sneak out without my colleagues one evening to try a little local culture – a ‘ping pong show’ followed by a beer with a few deep-fried insects. The show was nothing to get excited about though I had always felt it was something I should see once. The grasshoppers were surprisingly tasty. However I also tasted a large beetle (which looked like some kind of cockroach); it took a lot of willpower to even put it near my mouth, and when I finally got to taste the gooey brown and yellow gunk in its abdomen – well, I can’t even begin to describe quite how foul it was. I think even a hot Thai curry would have been preferable.

Better to travel than to arrive?

The trip didn't start well. I hadn't noticed what a short connection time the Dakar travel agency had given me in Paris - too short, in fact, and I missed my onward flight to London. No problem, they said, take the next flight in 30 minutes.

At Heathrow there was a tannoy announcement asking me to go to the Air France desk; my luggage was still in Paris, and would not get to London for another five hours. Credit to them for announcing it, I suppose, and not leaving me to stare hopelessly at the baggage carousel for hours, but it threw out my plans to check-in for my Bangkok flight that morning.

So I went into town, pottered about, and had a lovely lunch at my friend Annnbel's flat. Back to Heathrow late afternoon to collect my luggage - what a performance! First to the Air France desk in Departures (as instructed), show my baggage receipt, passport, etc, then redirected to a small counter in Arrivals. Show my passport again and telephone Air France to tell them I'm there. Finally their rep came, only not carrying my bag as expected. Oh no, to get that I had to go into the baggage hall, first passing through security. Off with the coat, the boots, the belt, and a full search of my hand luggage including taking all the contents out (binoculars and camera out of their cases, purse opened and all compartments searched), even though the woman knew I was only going through to collect my bag and then coming back out. Really, what she thought I would be trying to smuggle just into the baggage collection hall (and then back out through customs) is beyond me.

Having done all this I transferred to Terminal 4 to check in. The flight was overbooked.

If I'd been able to check in during the morning as planned this wouldn't have affected me, but now I was unable to get a seat number so joined ten other people at the coffee bar to wait our chances - to see if all booked passengers turned up. I don't understand why anyone turning up after us would get a seat and not us, after all we all had 'confirmed' tickets - I'm not impressed with BA's policy here. But eventually, half-an-hour before take-off, we were all allocated seats - with the advantage that then we had to be fast-tracked through security to make the flight, so avoided the usual queues.

On the plane I found myself seated next to a very talkative Englishmen, on a last-minute get-away to Thailand (after another row with his soon-to-be-ex third wife) bought that morning (no wonder they have over-booking problems!). He soon mentioned his luggage of prescription pills for stress and anxiety, then later dropped into the conversation that he was on six months' sick leave for stress.

When they came round for drinks orders, my neighbour asked for wine with the meal plus two bacardi and cokes. I slept for some of the flight (having got no sleep at all the previous night) but still heard him order at least five more double bacardis. As they were closing the bar for landing he was still trying to persuade them to serve him another couple; I'm not sure by this stage if he even realised that his glass was on its side and one such drink was spread all over his tray table. I think his soon-to-be-ex-wife will be better off without him...

On arrival in Bangkok I took the Airport "Express" bus to the train station. This took nearly two hours and I got to the station only half-an-hour before the train left. It was for this reason - the possibility of not making the train - that I had not purchased a ticket in advance over the internet - but it meant that I got there to find all the sleeper seats taken, indeed all the seats taken... I was sold a 'standing' ticket for the 11-hour overnight journey, my third night in a row with no bed.

I hoped it meant I could sit on the floor on the corridor, but the train was packed so it meant trying to fight for space between people's feet. & even that seemed pointless as food and drink vendors pushed their way through the train every ten minutes or so forcing me to get up and move out of their way. Even so, I think I snatched two or three minutes' sleep now and again - just enough to make it through to morning.

On arrival I took a tuk-tuk and two 1-hour bus trips and finally I was at the Laos border. To celebrate I went into a little food store for a bowl of noodle soup and bottle of water - and a chance to use a toilet!! The first chance since Bangkok Airport 18 hours earlier, though I had avoided eating and drinking during this time so as reduce the chance of needing to 'go'! (yes there probably was a toilet on the train, somewhere, but all signs were in Thai, no-one in my carriage seemed to speak any English, and in any case, in the cheap section of a train that packed I think it was better avoided...)

I crossed the border, took three different pick-up trucks, and finally, three days after leaving home, got to the Kingfisher Ecolodge in the Se Pian Protected Area of southern Laos. Some say it is better to travel than to arrive, but in this case I had to disagree.