Happy holidays

Just back from a week in Niamey, uneventful except that the increasingly poor service of Air Senegal has left me feeling as though I haven’t slept all week. The journey there was delayed by eight hours (meaning I arrived at 4am), and the journey back by one and a half hours. Then on arrival back in Dakar at 1:30 this morning I had to wait another one and half hours until the luggage appeared. The excuse given seemed to relate to the arrival of another flight around the same time, although no other luggage arrived whilst we were waiting for ours.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Cape Verde for a two week holiday (much of which might be spent sleeping!), so the blog will be a little quiet.

Someone commented that I seem to get an awful lot of holiday, so I thought I had better explain how this has arisen.

The organisation I work for allows us to take a day’s compensatory leave for every weekend day we spend travelling or working overseas and every public holiday we miss through travel, plus one day for any trip of two weeks or more. It is very generous, although in practice (as it has to be taken within one month of the trip) it is often hard to take it given pressure of work. However this year my travels around Rwanda, Ghana and Guinea Bissau, plus the odd day of other trips, were all taken from compensatory leave.

This is a picture of a Senegal parrot, taken through my office window a couple of weeks ago:

Merry Christmas to everyone, by the way, and best wishes for 2009!

The spectacular Fouta Djalon

It was obvious that if I were to see any more of Guinea than its taxi stations, I would have to find a different way of travelling. The obvious solution was the "deplacement": charter of an entire taxi. It entailed paying the fare for each place in the vehicle - and even a regular-sized taxi (a normal car) will squeeze in six passengers.

So my money started to go six times as fast, and I finally started to see Guinea.

The first site of real interest was the Case de Palabre in Dalaba. This was constructed to hold certain ceremonies on Guinea's independence 50 years ago. It is built in traditional style (with baked mud) but elaborately decorated on the floor and walls with designs representing the 12 Fula chiefs who were present at the Independence ceremony. Apparently the ceiling had been equally spectacular, made of woven bamboo, but this collapsed a few years ago and has now been replaced with corrugated iron.

Indeed the whole building is crumbling away, as the current regime in Guinea has no interest in funding its maintenance. This is a real tragedy. Africa has very few buildings of historical significance (if one ignores the colonial legacy), and this one is also very beautiful. I shall do what I can (emails to UN, embassies) to try to pressure someone to get it preserved!

I also spent a few days walking in the hills around Dalaba, a pretty area but quite bizarrely featuring groves of pine trees - relics of a French colonial experiment 100 years ago. The scenery was nice and the villages were pretty.

From there I travelled into the heart of the Fouta Djalon, where a guide by the name of Hassan Bah is famous for leading visitors on spectacular treks near the village of Doucki. At first I did wonder if I had made the right decision, as the taxi drove further and further away from civilisation along a rough track up into nowhere. It was a harsh landscape (sometimes the track just bumped along over bare rock), made worse by the local custom of burning off any vegetation left after the rainy season, and I couldn't imagine - even if this guide was around - where one could even sleep or eat, let alone walk.

The taxi driver kept muttering about how far it was, but eventually we saw a little sign saying Doucki, and an even barer track led off to the left. As we arrived someone took my rucksack from me and motioned for me to sit in a wicker chair. Ten minutes later lunch arrived, and a man told me in English that a room was being made up for me and Hassan Bah would be along in a few minutes! He arrived, told me I must be dusty from my trip and that we would therfore go on a nice walk to a waterfall in the afternoon where I could clean up.

In fact we visited a couple of waterfalls, and a whole lot more. It turned out that not so far away from the road, on either side, were cliffs where the land dropped down into spectacular valleys. Also, less obvious, there were little pockets of vegetation here and there, some turning out to be tiny patches of jungle complete with lianas and monkeys, (and one with a grey eagle owl which flew onto a branch nearby, until it was finally chased away by two red-bellied paradise flycatchers), and there were great rock formations all around, including a wonderful slot canyon. The whole area was completely stunning - a truly wild and unspoilt place - and I spent a great couple of days hiking around it. I'm not sure what more to say about it to do it justice, so have attached rather a few more photos than normal. It was hard to photograph because of the strong sun and the haze from burning of vegetation, but hopefully these give some indication of the beauty and variety of the scenery there.
I also saw a big fat black scorpion near my feet whilst eating dinner, but I guess you all know what those look like!

Waiting for a ride

After finishing my work in Guinea, I took a few days to travel around the country, to see the Fouta Djalon region that people rate so highly. But I had forgotten how difficult it is to travel in this part of Africa, and my itinerary began to look way too optimistic.

On the first day I tried to get to the bus/taxi station early, to get the journey to Kankan, and from there to Dabola, over as quickly as possible. However no-one at my hotel was around, and my bill had to be prepared by hand, so I was late leaving. Then after a half-hour’s walk I finally got to the station a little after 7:30. The early taxi was already full and preparing to depart, and I was the first person in the queue for the next one. For those who have not travelled in this region I should explain that taxis (old Peugeots) usually operate on a fixed route basis, and the driver will not depart until all possible places have been filled. This means two (occasionally three) in the front passenger seat and four in the row behind, and lots of luggage on the roof.

If I have no fixed timetable I am quite good at dealing with this type of situation now. I know that I should choose a seat and put something (a cheap item of clothing) on it to save it, and then go and find a place in the shade to wait. There is no point asking what time the taxi will leave, no point in repeatedly looking at your watch – you just have to be patient.

I don’t tend to get out a book at such times as that would take me away from the place I am trying to experience. Instead I just sit and watch the life around: the women manning little stalls selling coffee, bread, oranges; the wandering salesmen with armfuls of men’s shirts, towels, steering wheel covers, fake perfumes, or whatever else they bought at the market earlier in the morning, hoping to make a small margin from those without the time or energy to go to the market; small children selling tissues, sweets and toothpaste; the occasional blind beggar with an obligatory small child to lead them around while they sing their prayers for alms; and assorted unemployed youths and women with babies on their backs passing through or hanging around. It is very entertaining, particularly if you enjoy looking at the women’s clothes and hairstyles.

Eventually there is movement in the taxi. My little rucksack on the roof is shoved aside to make room for big 50kg sacks of rice and bunches of plantains being loaded. The driver revs the engine and we start to get in. It is a tight fit as we all squeeze up, some of the women having to accommodate babies as well as more bunches of plantains and other packages.

Then the driver gets out and wanders off, followed soon after by most of the passengers. It was just one of those mysterious false starts that happen every so often, that I have never really understood. But it is at least usually the start of the departure process; usually we are gone within the next hour.

About an hour later we do set off. I squeeze my knees back into place and wedge my shirt against a sharp pointy bit in the seat back, to get as comfortable as possible. We back out of our parking place and go around the corner – where we stop. I think we may be getting some air put into the tyres. A couple of passengers wander off again. I get out to stretch my legs (one foot was already going numb), then jump back in quickly as the driver revs the engine and we go again. This time we drive back to our original parking place...

To cut a very long story short, we finally left at 13:00, and a journey that I had been advised should take three hours took six, so by the time I got to the first destination on my schedule it was already dark and therefore too late to actually see the place.

The next morning I was at the station by 6:00, as advised, by the driver didn’t even arrive until 7:00 and we did not reach our full complement of passengers until 11:00. We then had an hour of mechanical work on the car – and the second destination on my schedule went the same way as the first…