Christmas Day 2010


I woke shortly before 7am, for an early morning walk when the forest and the birds were just waking up. The mist was clearing from the river and a pair of Verreaux’s eagle owls sat in a baobab tree grunting at the group of tourists admiring them from below.

Finally back to the camp for breakfast, then a lazy morning reading a novel, with the occasional swim in the pool to cool off. In the afternoon the camp owner suggested a fishing trip on the river. Arriving at a suitable spot, we (well, those who knew what they were doing) attached the lures to the fishing rods and we made slow circles around the river, waiting for the fish to bite. They didn’t, but who cared? We enjoyed watching the African harrier hawks hunting over the water, and the red colobus monkeys moving about the trees on the bank.

Finally back to camp for a shower before dinner. The owner had moved the table and chairs out onto the little wooden fishing jetty so that we could dine under the stars, and one of the other four tourists there produced a bottle of champagne for us all to share. It wasn’t exactly a traditional Christmas meal – we had spaghetti bolognese followed by flambed bananas – but it was one of the most enjoyable I have had.

My fellow tourists were contemplating their flights home, hoping that Europe’s snow had begun to clear. I had a long, uncomfortable shared taxi ride back home to Dakar, but with the knowledge that blue skies and warm sunshine would continue for me until the rains come next July.

Oh, where was I? In The Gambia, at the Bird Safari Camp on Jangjangbureh Island, taking a short break. A beautiful place although I’d be giving too one-sided a picture if I didn’t mention the voracious mosquitoes that have left me with dozens of red and itching bites as my souvenir.

South Africa part two

Finally we reached Cape Town. A surprisingly small place, easy to walk around and relatively safe too. We did the usual stuff – Robben Island, cable car up Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and a day trip down around the Cape of Good Hope and Seal Island. It was all very nice, a very pretty part of the world although a little spoilt by the strong winds that can seemingly appear from nowhere at any time.

We had booked onto the Premier Classe train for the journey back to Johannesburg, but were getting a little panicky by the morning before the trip, when the money for the tickets had still not made its way to the travel agent from my UK bank (after three weeks of trying), meaning that our reservation was still not confirmed. However we’d had several near misses with transport and none had ultimately derailed the trip so we kept our fingers crossed. & luck was on our side as the money arrived that afternoon and our tickets were confirmed.

So the next morning we made our way to the Premier Lounge for check-in and a cup of coffee before boarding the train at nine. The welcome meeting was mostly a list of the meals to come (morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner…), and was accompanied by champagne and a piece of cake. Then we made our way to our private cabin where I unpacked a dress and hung it up so the creases would fall out before dinner. It was 26 hours of – well, not luxury, as the air conditioning in the restaurant car broke down, and the ride was not smooth enough to allow anyone to get much sleep – but comfort certainly, and a chance to relax and watch the scenery unfold as we trundled along through the semi-desert of the fringes of the Karoo.

The journey passed quite quickly and soon we were in Johannesburg, with just a couple of days of the holiday left. To be honest, these were only scheduled because the train timetable prevented us from arriving the day of our flights home, as Johannesburg doesn’t have the kind of reputation that makes you want to hang around there. But, to our surprise, we really enjoyed our time there, thanks mainly to a very good guide.

It wasn’t as safe as Cape Town, certainly. We stayed in the suburb of Melville which was very genteel, full of trees and flowers, and a “strip” of restaurants and bars, and even there we were warned not to walk after dark, not even the five minutes between the guest house and the closest restaurant. But we took a tour around Soweto, mostly walking, and I was really surprised at how clean, friendly and relatively developed this notorious township actually is. Cleaner than Dakar, certainly, and with the roads and pavements in a much better condition. & with a great system enabling people to move up the ladder economically. Those who can afford it buy/build a house on a plot of land. Those who can’t, rent a small parcel of land in the ‘garden’ area of such a house, and build themselves a shack on it. These shacks vary, from very basic corrugated iron structures housing too many people for their size and sharing bathroom facilities with other shacks, to some with all the facilities you could want – I saw a modern fitted kitchen in one that put my kitchen in Dakar to shame. Some of the houses are in fact very smart large villas, and what was remarkable was that none of these had high walls or electric fences around them, unlike the villas in Melville. Of course there will be unsafe parts (Soweto has a population of some two million, so there are bound to be less salubrious quarters) but it definitely doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.

We took a tour of the main city too, learning all about the history and seeing the remnants of the gold mining industry, also walking around the central business district and going to the top of the Carlton Centre. This is the tallest building in Africa, and from the observation deck on the top (50th) floor you have panoramic views across the city. Most interesting for me was the sight of little shacks and even gardens on top of all the older skyscrapers. These date from the apartheid era when the corporations wished to employ low-paid (ie black) caretakers for their buildings, but this was a white zone where the blacks were not allowed to live. They got around the problem by defining this rule as relating to the land, and accommodating their black workers on the rooftops which were not ‘land’. A pragmatic solution which amazingly still sees people living in these rooftop shacks today.

Finally, on our last morning, we took a trip out to a Lion and Rhino park, where a lot of game roams free but where there are also lions and rhinos in smaller enclosures and visitors are able to pet a lion cub. Of course we couldn’t resist this opportunity! The ‘cub’ we stroked was pretty big, at eleven months old. I asked for how long it was safe to be with them like this, and they told me up to eleven months – apparently this one was to be let out into a bigger enclosure with the pride within a day or two. It was a nice end to our trip.

A holiday in South Africa


Where else to go on a holiday with a friend who lives in Australia? Well, South Africa, of course, being pretty much halfway between Australia and Senegal! I wondered if this was actually going to work out though as I got to the transit desk in Nairobi, part-way there, to be told, “I’m sorry madam, but that flight you’re booked on to doesn’t exist any more”. We were due to meet at Johannesburg airport, our flights getting in within an hour of each other, and now that perfect planning looked to be in jeopardy.

However, there was another flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg, departing three hours earlier, and I was transferred onto that. What would happen to my luggage, I asked – already checked through to Johannesburg on a flight that no longer existed. They assured me that it would be there, and I had no option but to accept their assurances. So it was with a huge sigh of relief that I saw my little rucksack squeezed between the suitcases on the carousel in Johannesburg.

After a night in a guest house in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we started our holiday with a four-day trip to the Kruger, travelling there along the “Panorama route” with our driver/guide. This was one part of the trip where I really had to compromise, as I wanted to use the time bird-watching but was aware that my friend would be bored rigid if I did. So we spent our time watching elephants, rhinos, zebras, etc (plus a lion replete from a meal from a freshly-killed giraffe, a greater spotted genet and a couple of well-hidden leopards), and only when I saw a bird that I thought was big or colourful enough to be of general interest (a bustard, a tawny eagle, a saddle-billed stork) did I ask the guide to stop. I still enjoyed it there, although it was incredibly frustrating to see so many birds flitting about and not be able to stop to watch and identify them. The bird highlight for me though was the crested barbet, a bird I desperately wanted to see but had not expected to land on my breakfast table to finish off the scraps of toast!

Our next main stop was a farm outside the town of Oudtshoorn. This is the home of the so-called “meerkat man”, who spends his time studying meerkats and trying to promote interest in them and their conservation. We were not lucky with the weather in this place, meaning tours out into meerkat territory involved my wearing five layers of clothes and still being absolutely freezing cold. It turns out that meerkats are rather partial to warm sunny weather too, and they wisely spent their time down in their burrows keeping warm whilst we were out there looking for them. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of days on a farm.

From Oudtshoorn to Wilderness, a small town on the garden route with some nice walking trails. We spent a superb day hiking up a trail to a waterfall, and even my non-birder friend was quite impressed by the Knysna turaco we saw there. This walk was followed by the best meal of the trip too, in a little Italian restaurant some thirty minutes’ walk from our hostel, with wonderful pasta and one of the nicest red wines I’ve drank in a while, all the better for costing only $10!

After Wilderness we visited Hermanus. I really wanted to dive with the great white sharks, and correctly predicted that my friend would be happy to spend her time whale-watching while I was with the sharks. In fact “dive” is a bit of a misnomer. We donned our thick, thick wetsuits (the water temperature that day being 10°C) and our masks, and climbed into a metal cage tethered to the side of the boat. Floating in there with our heads above the water we waited for the spotter to shout warnings: “left, left!” then took a deep breath and ducked underwater to watch a real life Jaws just a few feet away.

The sharks are in the area because of a large seal colony, but to attract them close to the boat the operators use tuna (they are not allowed to use seal meat as bait, oddly), which they throw into the water on the end of a line and then drag along the surface to get the sharks to attack it. The sharks come incredibly close to the cage, so close that you feel you could touch them if only it were safe to poke your hands through the bars. Amazing looking creatures, I only wish I had had an underwater camera to capture it all as the photos from the boat just don’t do it justice.


& this is getting too long – so part two to come later

Second impressions

Despite the restrictions imposed by my employer (a ban on travelling anywhere other than in one of my NGO’s vehicles), I’ve seen enough to really like Haiti. I’m leaving today feeling really quite envious of the people working here on six-month to two-year contracts.

Sure, we had to move out of our hotel because of the violent demonstrations in the square outside, we heard gunfire as we left the office one evening, and the cholera epidemic was starting to get out of hand (dead bodies left in the streets in some towns, as everyone was too afraid to touch them). But Port au Prince remains a beautiful city in terms of its steep hills and its greenery, the atmosphere is at the same time both laid back and lively, and the people are so friendly. There are actually some really nice residential areas to the city too, like the enormous private estate of Belvil with its big villas – and nothing in this district fell down in the earthquake of course.

I did manage to get out on the Saturday evening. To my astonishment, the Ivorian band Magic System were playing a live concert, and enough people from work wanted to go that we were granted permission to extend the usual weekend curfew to 2am provided we travelled in convoy. I was so surprised that people in Haiti would have heard of a West African band, but was told that Magic System have made it big throughout the French-speaking world.

They performed outdoors, on a stage set up within a restaurant-museum complex on the site of an old sugar cane plantation, and the audience was a real mix of locals and expats. There seem to be loads of West Africans working in Haiti, as I met people from Guinea, from Sierra Leone, from Burkina Faso and from Cameroon – together with the music, the climate and the French language it really made me feel at home!

I have to admit too that I do enjoy the excitement of being in a place with a bit of danger. & I guess I’m not alone in that, as many of the expats I spoke to there had previous experience in Darfur, Afghanistan, Gaza and DR Congo. I rather wish I could be content in a 9-5 job somewhere suburban, with a husband, a television and 2.4 kids, but travelling/working in places like Sierra Leone or Haiti make me feel, what? More alive, I suppose. Or maybe it’s just the change of scene that does that?

First Impressions of Haiti


Ever since I started my job I have had my eye on a trip to Haiti. Partly because the country’s strong cultural connection with parts of West Africa has interested me (same people, language, voodoo culture, etc), and partly just that it is a place that is hard to visit as a tourist (because of the level of violence that has plagued it for so long) and so I wanted to take advantage of the ability to see the place through the protection of my employer.

However when they turned to me last month and said they needed me to take part in an assignment there, it was not the same Haiti that I had been thinking of before. The violence is still there but now there is all the devastation and hardship that has resulted from the earthquake, and as my trip approached also a growing cholera epidemic and even the threat of a hurricane.

Well I arrived yesterday, and the place has made a strong impression on me. Perhaps partly because I was a little tired and perhaps disoriented from my travel (I left Johannesburg Friday night and after flying via Nairobi, Dakar, Washington DC and Miami I finally arrived in Port au Prince some 67 hours later), but it is certainly true that this place is unlike any other I have visited.

The city has a beautiful location, set on a number of hills, with higher hills behind and the Caribbean Sea on one side. It is also very green, with tropical vegetation filling whatever space it can find. But of course the earthquake damage is so visible. There are many damaged buildings around, some just with one wall missing and cracks in what remains, some pushed over at crazy angles and some completely collapsed, where the walls obviously gave way and the floors of the building fell in upon one another. I suppose many of these must have skeletons amongst the remains – family members and friends of those who still remain. There are also piles of rubble everywhere – and amazingly, a few very beautiful traditional old wooden houses that survived the quake.

Around these damaged buildings and piles of rubble people get on with life, setting up little stalls and making new pathways between them. However there is still a big danger of further earthquakes (there was apparently a tremor just three days ago) and the buildings that remain, already damaged, are now very vulnerable. We’ve been told that the usual earthquake response, when indoors, is to remain inside and shelter under a table, but that given the fragility of the buildings here we should try to get outside as quickly as possible.

There are also the big tent cities of the homeless. The first tents you see are right outside the airport, and there are many other camps around the city.

Taking photos of all this is difficult. In common with most other INGOs, expat staff are not allowed to walk anywhere (even just to cross the road from the hotel). The gang violence that used to plague this country has returned, with robberies, kidnaps (89 reported so far this year) and shootings quite common. White people are obvious targets for muggings. In addition there is an election due in three weeks’ time, which has always led to violence here. So far there has not been much – two shooting incidents, one involving one of the candidates who was the one with the gun! – but it is expected to build up over the next week. Our hotel, the only one with space, is on one side of what was the main square (now a massive tent city), and this is where the biggest demonstrations and riots are expected to occur. We’ve been told that in such a situation we remain inside the hotel if already here, or spend the night somewhere else if it happens when we are at work. There are many weapons in the country (the gangs, some of whom are behind certain presidential candidates, even have AK47s) so anything that turns violent is to be avoided.

The hurricane largely missed the island, thank goodness, although it did cause flooding in some areas. That flooding, however, is likely to increase the risk that the cholera epidemic spreads to the capital, and if that happens it would be disastrous as so few people here have access to the kind of sanitation and cooking facilities needed to avoid it. We do have a limited supply of tinned and packet food with us just in case!

My overall impression at the moment really is of chaos, and I do wonder what on earth I am doing here…

Socialising in Dakar

A quick post here to correct an erroneous impression I have probably given about the difficulties of finding friends in Dakar.

For the first time, I think, since I moved to Senegal, I have been in the country for a continuous period of just over two months. And I made some friends! Or at least, before my travel schedule started again, I began the process of making some friends.

I had time to contact the couple of people I do know and make an effort to spend some time with them. As a result I heard about a new expat group starting up here, and I attended their opening drinks evening. During the evening I exchanged numbers with a few people, and one of those exchanges led to a party invitation. At the party I met three more nice people who asked for my contact details. One of my initial contacts also invited me to a yoga group, and told me about an English language book club, and I attended the September book club meeting (and enjoyed reading the book) and people told me to come along to another one.

And that is how one develops a circle of friends, isn’t it? Step-by-step. Meeting people you feel you might like. Reinforcing that feeling at a second meeting, at which point they start to turn into friends. Socialising with them and through them meeting more people you might like. And so it goes on.

Except that I can’t join the yoga group because they require regular attendance. And the next expat event, when I might have the opportunity to consolidate a couple of those initial exchanges, is in two weeks’ time when I will be at a conference in the UK. For the book club, I now have their schedule right through until next June but when I compared it to my travel schedule, this is what I found:

Meeting date - My whereabouts on that date
11 October - London
8 November - Haiti
13 December - Mali
10 January - Kenya
14 February - Sierra Leone
21 March - Cameroon
11 April - Burkina Faso
9 May - Guinea Bissau
6 June - Senegal!

So finally, for the last meeting of their year, by which time they will all have forgotten me, I will be available to attend for a second time.

So it is not that Dakar is “a difficult place to make friends” as I have told so many people. Nor is it that I have somehow turned into a person that nobody likes. It is all related to the travel schedule that comes with my job. My apologies to the city of Dakar and its inhabitants for misrepresenting them so badly.

Dinner with a Senegalese friend

I went round to visit a friend the other evening, and as I was sitting there waiting for him to come back from some errand, gazing around the room, I was reminded of how different life is for many Senegalese city-dwellers from our life in UK cities.

His home is a single room, about 8 feet square, with a lockable metal door and one window. The window does not have glass – that is only for the wealthy – but is a square hole quite high up in the wall, with a metal ‘door’ that can be swung open to let in light and fresh air. A flimsy floor-length curtain (of a kind of cheap chiffon-like material) hangs across the wall where the door and window are. This gives some privacy when they are open, and helps to keep out dust, mosquitoes and flies. Unusually the walls are painted white – more commonly they would be turquoise. The floor is bare concrete.

Inside this room, most space is taken up by a mattress on the floor, covered with a kind of furry blanket (in green, yellow and purple…), with a pillow in one corner. This serves as settee as well as bed. There is no mosquito net. Next to the mattress is a big plastic bag stuffed with folded clothes, and beside that a neat row of six pairs of shoes (rather more than most men here have, I think).

Against another wall is a small collection of containers – one I can see contains body lotion (which all Africans use, men as well as women, or their skin dries up and flakes), the others look empty – and a tray full of upside-down glasses. These will be used for serving tea: the West African way, which is black, very strong, and sweet. There is also a small gas burner with a teapot perched on top. Then the prize possession, I imagine – a stereo system (radio, cassette and CD player, with speakers), although I don’t see any cassettes or CDs in the room. At the moment the radio is on.

Finally, in the corner next to the door is a water container (maybe 40 litre capacity?), a small plastic cup in a metal bowl, and a plastic water container with a spout – shaped like an old-fashioned kettle, in purple and yellow stripes. This water will be for drinking and hand-washing

Bathroom facilities are communal (I didn’t visit but will typically be a hole-in-the–ground toilet, with the ubiquitous stripy plastic kettle-shaped container floating in a stripy bucket of water for cleaning oneself afterwards).

This room is one of a row of five, with the same number facing across a small courtyard (the latter used for socialising and some cooking), the whole compound being walled in with one lockable metal door. Many single people live in such accommodation, costing about $60 a month to rent, as it is all they can afford.

In family compounds the rooms of adult family members are often similar to this – and often shared, with two brothers or sisters, or mother and daughter, sharing a double mattress.

We had dinner sitting on the floor. Well, I perched on the side of the mattress, he sat on the concrete. The food was bought on the street, and eaten with the right hand from a communal aluminium bowl. We had fried fish in a sauce (probably made from onion, stock, tomato paste and various local seasonings such as netetou which have no English name – and on this occasion no chilli or hot pepper at my request) served over white rice, with a few pieces of baguette on the side. The Senegalese love their rice.

I find eating with my hand quite messy, as I’m forever dropping bits of food, but the locals seem to drop a lot too so I guess that’s just a part of the process. Only they never seem to drop it on their clothes like I do. I also find the fish difficult, as they are never filleted – you just get the whole fish, with the head, tail, etc – not too difficult with a knife and fork but with one hand, when covered with sauce, I struggle. The locals don’t have a problem as they just put big chunks in their mouths and then spit out the bones, but I’ll never learn to do that; fish bones in my mouth make me gag.

We shared a half bottle of red wine with the meal, local Senegalese wine at $3 a bottle (always served cold), that gives me a headache the next day. Many Senegalese, being Muslims, don’t drink alcohol, so would have something sweet and fizzy (like Coke or Sprite) instead.

Not an exciting event to post about, then, but it occurred to me as I sat there that such things that I take for granted now are outside of the experiences of most of you reading this.

In fact I remember the first time I ever shared a bowl of food the West African way – in Mali in 2000 – and how little I knew of local customs at the time. As a female guest I was invited to start, and the bowl of hand-washing water, with a cake of soap, was passed to me. I was so conscious of all that I had read about not using the left hand that I made this convoluted attempt to wash my right hand only, keeping the left hand well out of the water. Everyone sat there very politely, saying nothing, but when I passed the water to my neighbour, he proceeded to wash his hands – both hands – in the normal way. They must have wondered what on earth was wrong with me; I still feel embarrassed when I think about it today.

Storms

I remember watching thunderstorms in the UK when I was young, and counting how many seconds elapsed between a flash of lightning and the clap of thunder that followed, to work out how many miles away the storm was. Here you can’t do that. I laid in bed in the early hours of this morning as a thunderstorm passed through, but the lightning was flickering constantly, and the thunder rolled and rumbled and crashed without a break for a good twenty minutes. Just a pity that I am in a bungalow with a ten foot high wall around it – how I would have loved to have watched that storm from a fifth floor window.

Before I came here to live I had the idea from somewhere that a storm would somehow “clear the air” leaving it cool and fresh. However what actually happens is that as soon as the sun comes back out and its rays hit the water lying on the ground, that water is evaporated back upwards, with the effect that you are in a steambath for the next few hours. & so it was today, so I gave in and put on the air conditioning, shutting up all the windows and doors to keep in the cool air.

During the storm last night I nearly jumped out of bed with fright as there was an enormously loud clattering, crashing sound from within the bedroom. At first I could only think that the house had been struck by lightning, but in fact it turned out that my curtain pole and curtains had fallen off the wall. They’ve been there three years so in fact this is about par for the course. There are two equally likely causes: bad workmanship (put up by the same highly recommended joiner who made my coffee table with its cracks and bowed legs that developed as the wood dried out after delivery), or rough treatment by my maid.

Gloria, my maid, is probably little different from other women here, to be fair. She’s certainly not the only Senegalese woman I have seen trying to remove dust from a table top by flicking a tea towel at it – which not only allows the dust to fall back onto the table but also risks breaking any nearby ornaments. A while back she broke my newly purchased metal sieve by whacking it against a cockroach (which no doubt trotted away unharmed). She also doesn’t really ‘see’ things in the way I do – books are taken out to be dusted and put back on the shelf upside down (no, she can’t read the English writing on the cover but she can see if a picture is upside-down), and an Indian miniature which I bought on a holiday in Rajasthan, hand-painted on camel bone, now has smudged paint where she has clearly picked it up with wet fingers.

Last week she presented me with one of my favourite shirts with a tear across the shoulder. I try not to be bothered when she damages things, to tell her not to worry, that ‘accidents happen’, because I know how bad she feels about it. But this time she could see I was upset, especially as it was the second shirt she had torn through her rough handwashing in just a few months. She offered to take it to a tailor for repair and I let her do so. I have a washing machine, and I’ve told her so many times that I prefer things washed in there, but like most Senegalese women she doesn’t think machines get things really clean, also she can’t bear to let dirty washing accumulate until there’s enough for a machine load, so she continues to ignore my pleas and washes everything by hand.

I suppose I should put my foot down and instruct her to use the machine rather than pleading with her, but I’ll never be comfortable treating a maid like a servant, the way the Africans here do. So she continues to run my house the way she wants to.

But to end on a positive note, I am happy to report that the power cuts I wrote about last month have reduced substantially.

African Renaissance


I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get to August 2010 without writing about the African Renaissance. This is the name given by the President, Abdoulaye Wade, to the giant statue (apparently higher than the Eiffel Tower) that now looms over the northern suburbs of Dakar. The official opening awaits the completion of the interior (museum in the base and restaurant in the summit) but in the meantime no-one can ignore its presence, not least because of the controversy surrounding it.

The £18m cost has of course been criticised by many living in a country where basic needs like electricity, clean water, health and education have not yet been met. However there are rumours that it was financed by a donation from a businessman grateful that the government had sold him some land at an enormous undervalue.

It was constructed by North Koreans, which might explain the kind of Stalinist feel to it. It seems rather odd that the woman is showing so much leg and breast, in a traditional Muslim society where such displays of flesh, particularly the leg, are totally unacceptable. Local imams have voiced their disapproval.

Local artists have questioned why there was no Senegalese (or at least African) artist involved. The design came from a Hungarian student, the story being that the President ran a competition a few years back, on the internet, for a design for an African statue, with a prize of a few thousand dollars on offer. Neither the competition itself, nor the winning entry, were well publicised. However the winner was never paid his prize money, as a result of which he has never signed the document waiving his rights from any use of his design nor the requirement to maintain confidentiality. All rather unfortunate for M. Wade who has claimed the right to 35% of all takings from entry to the statue on the basis that “I am the designer, the one who conceived it”.

Of course the Senegalese are unhappy about this, but as with other unfairnesses in their lives, they seem to have accepted it. Perhaps this attitude explains why Senegal, alone in the region, has never experienced a coup.

So what is the point of the statue and why ‘African Renaissance’? Apparently M. Wade sees it as a money-making tourist attraction (for Senegal as well as for his retirement fund…), and as representing the hopes and aspirations of the younger generation. In that case I think it is rather unfortunate that it is pointing, not inland towards the great continent of Africa, but across the Atlantic Ocean towards the USA.

Power cuts and protests

We’re getting into the humid, rainy season now. Not so much rain yet (although it has been pouring down all day today) but the air is thick and sticky, the mosquitoes are out in force and as usual at this time of year the power cuts have started.

This year they are much worse than usual though – two to three cuts a day, each between three and eight hours long. I have a generator, but it uses lots of fuel which on the one hand is very bad for the environment and on the other hand is very expensive (I don’t believe our donors give their contributions thinking they will pay for an expat to have her air-conditioning on) so I use it as little as possible. Last night, thanks to a good laptop battery I held out until 9:30pm, sitting there watching a DVD and listening to music in the dark, until the mosquitoes just got too much and I switched on the generator so as to power the little stand-up fan I have by my chair to keep the mosquitoes away. I will use the generator when I really have to but cannot justify it just to enable me to make a cup of tea or listen to the radio.

This has been going on for two weeks now (the cuts started as soon as the World Cup was over) and it is incredibly frustrating even for someone like me with a generator. My maid says she has to rely on candles – which are expensive – and that many people end up sitting in the street as there is nothing they can do in the house. Of course it also has a terrible impact on many people’s working lives. Dakar’s thousands of self-employed tailors, for example, who cannot earn any money if there is no electricity to power their sewing machines, and those who rely on supplies of ice to keep their produce fresh (such as the women who go to the port each day to buy fish, which they then hawk around the residential areas in little cool boxes).

There have been many demonstrations around the country, an office of Senelec (the national electricity company) ransacked, and last week one protestor was killed in a demonstration that turned violent. Tomorrow a big march is planned to the head office of Senelec, which will probably end in more violence.

I kept asking people why this was happening, and there were no clear answers, but yesterday a statement was released explaining that this resulted from the purchase of some sub-standard fuel which has jammed the generating machinery. I wonder what the reaction would be in the developed world to an answer like that! They also said the problem would be resolved by the end of the month. Tempers are short and patience is wearing thin throughout the country, so I can only hope the end of month comes quickly.

Immigration

Reading what I could before the recent UK election, I could see that there was clearly an undercurrent of concern about immigration. It was rarely mentioned officially, as it seemed that an open debate on the matter carried too much of a risk that the racists would make their views heard – and no-one wants those aired publicly in the world’s press – but clearly the concern was there.

I couldn’t help but think about the way I am treated here, as an immigrant.

I am doing a job which some would argue could be done by a Senegalese (although it was advertised here, without success) – but no-one has once complained to me about that. Thanks to the generosity of the Senegalese government, I don’t pay any tax here (international staff at our NGO have a special exemption) – and no-one has once complained to me about that either, not even our local staff here who do have to pay tax. I am partly responsible for higher prices for the locals too, as like other people wealthy enough to have a freezer (mostly the foreigners) I stock up on kilos of tomatoes and vegetables in May, freezing them ready for the rainy season when there are none – this causes the price to rise a month earlier than it would without us, but no-one ever complains. Nor does anyone ever suggest, at least not without a twinkle in their eye, that I learn the local language, Wolof.

Then just recently our Regional Finance and Grants Analyst was asked to attend a meeting in our international head office in the UK. She was refused a visa. I heard she was in tears over it, and I felt so embarrassed – and ashamed. To enter Senegal the British do not need visas at all, we just get a stamp in our passports on arrival, at no cost, which gives three months in the country.

Of course I understand that we cannot just open our borders to everyone who wants to come in. But the unfairness of the current system – reflecting the unfairness of the distribution of wealth and power in the world – makes me so sad.

Jazz at St. Louis


St. Louis is a beautiful, decaying old city in the far north of Senegal, located on an island near the mouth of the River Senegal. It used to be the capital, under the French, but has long since been crumbling away into the sand. It’s partly that the revenue from tourism and fishing is nowhere near enough to fund the maintenance/restoration of the old houses, but a greater problem is the way their ownership has passed down through the generations – not to a favourite son or daughter but to all the offspring equally. Now some are owned by several hundred people, and getting them all to agree to spend money on the house, or to sell it, is a major undertaking. Only when a balcony threatens to collapse onto the people walking below does the government step in, and several buildings look beyond repair. I would imagine the serious threat to this low-lying island of sea level rise doesn’t help.

However the sense of decay does add to the atmosphere of the place. One crumbling warehouse (roofless and windowless) makes an impressive backdrop to a display of old wooden masks and statues, so what would elsewhere be just another tourist shop here becomes a kind of gallery. There are real galleries, too, in the city – of textiles, and of modern African art. & above all there is music. A jazz festival has taken place here every year for the last couple of decades, with a number of big names playing the specially built ‘Quai des Arts’, but a thriving “off festival” (off-Quai?) scene has developed too so that many restaurants and bars host live music during the festival and throughout the year.

I’ve never had the time available to go for the full four days of the festival, and this year was no different, but I decided to go up for the weekend, to catch the last couple of days of Jazz 2010.

So on Saturday even I was in St. Louis, ready to enjoy a selection of trios, quartets and quintets from around the world. On the way, I stopped for some prawns in garlic with a glass of red wine in a local restaurant – and before I had finished my meal three musicians were warming up next to me to play in the restaurant. N’Dar Afro-Jazz. They were so good that I spent three hours enjoying their performance and never made it to the official stage. & when they finished at midnight their leader took me to another venue nearby to watch a selection of local acts playing different types of traditional West African music. I got back to my hotel at 3am.

On Sunday evening however I was determined to get to the main stage to see the final night of the official festival. Three different groups performed, the final one made up of Pharoah Sanders on saxophone and William Henderson on piano, accompanied by some local drummers. My knowledge of jazz is not great (I never forget raving to a colleague about some jazz drummer I’d seen at the Village Vanguard in New York many years ago – “Roy Haines!” he said, “What, THE Roy Haines?!”) but apparently this saxophonist is well-known and has played with greats such as John Coltrane. He was good. Afterwards there was an official jamming session backstage, which I only left – reluctantly – at 3.30 to get my pre-arranged taxi share back to Dakar.

Devils

Some 90% of Sierra Leoneans are supposedly a member of one of the country’s secret societies. Not that their existence is secret, nor an individual’s membership (I saw a number of men with rows of raised marks on their backs – the scarification that indicates the society and their rank within it), but the content and meaning of the ceremonies and initiation rites must not be revealed to non-initiates on pain of death. The societies are powerful, both in the sense of favouring their own for jobs (rather like the Freemasons) but also in the magic that can be learnt by those who go through many stages of initiation.

One of the few public manifestations of the magic of these societies is on major public holidays – including Easter Monday – when some of the society “devils” appear in the streets.

When I asked about this most people responded by describing the Easter parade. I guess this probably originates from the devils, but is now more like a carnival procession. Although I would have been happy to see it, that wasn’t really what I was looking for. Anyway, killing time in the morning (the parade being late in the afternoon – as it turned out, too late for me to see before I had to leave for my flight) I wandered around the streets of downtown Freetown, an area I hadn’t seen before.

Then, coming towards me along the street, I saw a small group of men. Some in jeans and T-shirts chanting, and playing clangy metal instruments, but quite clearly the three men in front of them were devils. They had bare torsos and wore long grass skirts, with a white cloth wrapped around their middles and another on their heads, and the one at the front also had a red headdress. But what was most striking was that they, and the white cloths, were smeared with what appeared to be blood. I got closer, and then could see that the flesh on the arms and chest of one was pierced with knives and porcupine quills – clearly it was real blood. & the devil at the front appeared to have a large dagger through the middle of his body, the handle sticking out at the base of his back and some eight inches of blade protruding from his stomach. This couldn’t be real – could it?

I looked into his eyes and they were bloodshot and staring into some place where I don’t think I want to go. & I was reminded of a Chinese harvest festival I saw in Malaysia many years ago, where I watched a man slice his tongue in half lengthways while in some kind of religious trance. So I know that it is possible to rise above bodily pain and trauma, and people I’ve described these devils to all assure me that what I saw was real and not a trick.

The Sierra Leoneans ascribe it to magic. I don’t believe in magic (or religion, or anything else that seems to run counter to common sense and evidence), but the belief in magic is so prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa that just occasionally I find myself wondering if perhaps this continent works in a different way from other parts of the world and there is something here beyond what we can see and touch.

Beaches and islands

On my first weekend in Sierra Leone, a colleague kindly offered to show me a couple of Freetown peninsula’s famous beaches. We went first to Lakka, a crescent of golden sand with a few palm trees, a couple of colourful fishing boats moored in the calm water and a number of simple shacks selling grilled fish, shrimp and lobster. We stopped for a drink at the rocky headland at the end of the beach, and I found myself wondering how much it would cost to buy the little resort of clapperboard houses with shaded verandas that appeared in need of some love and care from a new owner…

Soon (too soon) we were moving on, driving 50km out of Freetown to River No.2 beach, which most people seem to rate as the best of all. This one has white sand, bigger waves, and a stunning backdrop of jungle-clad hills – as well as a small river that meanders across the sand into the sea. You can lie in this river and drift along in the current as the tide comes in or goes out, or even take a boat upstream and watch out for monkeys catching fish, using their tails as bait.

A boat trip wasn’t on the agenda that day, but I walked along the sand, swam in the sea, drifted in the river, drank coconut water and feasted on grilled shrimps with really good chips. It is a beautiful place. I wonder how many years it will be until Europe ‘discovers’ Sierra Leone. Its beaches are as good as any I have seen in the Caribbean, and it’s only a 5-6 hour flight from the UK and in the same time zone.

The next weekend, after my work was finished, was Easter, and I prolonged my stay so as to go into the rainforest. I’d organised this beforehand over the internet as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be logistically to do it independently with only a few days for the trip. So at 6am my guide was there at the hotel to start the 8-hour journey to Tiwai Island. This is a 12km square island in the Moa River, which flows through the Gola Forest in the eastern part of the country. It is known for its pygmy hippos (although they are very hard to find, and we didn’t have any luck with them), its nine species of primate (we saw four and heard three others) and its 135 species of bird (I didn’t count…).

An NGO run by local villagers maintains some basic accommodation on the island – a number of tents set up on concrete platforms, with a dining area, kitchen and toilet/shower block. Alternatively you can wash in the river as I did. I slept well there, and spent long hours walking along some of the many trails in the forest. We didn’t see the white-breasted guinea fowl that my guide was keen to show me, but I was happy enough with the black bee-eaters, great blue turacos and yellow-casqued hornbills, which are all quite stunning birds. The Diana monkeys were also impressive. I did manage to pick up quite a few mosquito and/or ant bites, but that didn’t spoil the experience at all, I just wish I could have spent another couple of days there.

FR ET WN INTER ATIONAL AIRPOR

The flight from Dakar to Freetown seemed to be full of Sierra Leonean Americans - and what a combination, the loudness of Americans (sorry about the stereotyping) and the exuberance of Sierra Leoneans making it feel like some kind of noisy school trip. As we landed safely at Lungi Airport there was not just applause but whoops of joy and a few shouts of "Praise to the Lord!".

The airport was complete chaos, but not in the intimidating way of some African airports, more that people were more interested in getting home to see their families than in bothering to follow the few rules that seemed to be in place. It wasn't helped by a power cut that left us in complete darkness for about ten minutes.

It took about an hour for our luggage to come out, even though we were the only plane to have landed during that time (you wonder how they would cope with two aeroplanes arriving in quick succession...), and there was a lot of laughter and shouting as people jostled for position by the conveyor belt. However when the luggage came, those at the back would just shout out, "That's mine - the red one" and it would be picked up and passed over peoples' heads towards its owner.

Once through the airport you have various options as to how to get into town. I was taking the helicopter so walked to the 'Helicopter tickets' counter and handed over my $80. My ticket was not given to me but to a young man beside me: "this man will take you to registration" I was told. I refused to let him take my case (I've done this before and remembered that the helicopter office was somewhere very near) but I could only follow behind him as he sped off with my ticket.

In the office he got it stamped, and returned it to me, telling me proudly that he had got me onto the next flight. Then he stood there waiting for a tip. Only ten minutes later the luggage was all carried out and loaded onto a trolley. I followed it, not wanting it out of my sight as it sat unguarded outside. Then one of the luggage handlers turned to me: "I want a tip" he said. I asked why. "Because I looked after your luggage for you". I laughed and told him that it was his job, for which he received a salary. Lungi airport is the worst of any in West Africa for requests for "tips" (excluding Nigeria, of which thankfully I have no experience), but at least it is always done with a smile, and no-one refuses to stamp your passport if you say no. In fact I left the airport for the helicopter with a big smile on my face. Sierra Leone is truly one of the friendliest countries I know.

Travelling to the world of the ancestors

According to the Senoufou people, there are three worlds: ours, that of the spirits and that of the ancestors.

When someone dies they have to travel to the world of the ancestors, a journey of three months for which some preparation is required. During the first week after a death, therefore, the community help the deceased with the preparations, making sacrifices of chickens, beer, vegetables, grains - all that the deceased might need to sustain them on this journey. The preparations culminate on the seventh day, with final sacrifices and much drumming and dancing as the appropriate funeral masks come out for the send-off.

My primary aim in spending a few days in Burkina Faso after our conference there was to see some masks in action. I see them on every trip in the tourist shops and I have several on the walls in my house, but I had never yet managed to see a real mask dance. They are hard to track down as they are held for events such as funerals and harvests which do not have fixed dates. But I had read that in Burkina Faso they mostly take place from February to April, so I made a point of asking around in every village I went to on my trip.

& finally with some success - there was to be a funerary mask dance in the Senoufou village of Sindou!

I returned on the appointed day, and when the sun began to sink and the air began to cool I went out mask hunting. Eventually I heard distant drumming, and I followed the narrow winding paths through the village until I found the ceremony.

There were two very large ancient-looking drums being beaten with sticks, plus a number of men in procession banging and scraping small metal instruments. Three masked dancers were there, covered head to toe in a brown fabric, including a triangular headdress giving the effect of pointy ears, and long trailing fronds of blonde rafia-like stuff. Apparently they represented cats, and certainly they were prowling around some of the time but also jumping, shaking and swirling to the music.

All this in the middle of a beautiful traditional village, the setting sun turning the mud houses a pinkish shade - and me the only tourist there. Photography was not allowed, unfortunately.

The next day there were further processions around the village with different masks coming out, although I must say none of them were anything like the wooden ones sold in the shops. In some places it is possible to see dances using those masks, put on specially for tourists, and I may seek one out in the future, but I know that such an performance will come nowhere near to the special experience I had of a real mask dance in this remote little Burkina Faso village.

Peaks, domes and painted houses

Burkina Faso had not exactly been near the top of the list of countries I wanted to spend time in when I moved to West Africa in 2006. However I had been working my way through the more obvious draws of the region and now I had the opportunity to spend a week or so in this “land of upright men” (as the name means!).

So it was quite a surprise to start reading through my Bradt Guide and finding a whole range of attractions, easily enough to keep any visitor busy for a month. But as my work was taking me to Bobo Dioulasso, in the south-west corner of the country, I decided to focus there. Bobo itself is a lovely town, with an old quarter full of artisans making woodcarvings, bronzes, batiks, etc (I spent a couple of hours there watching the production of three batiks), a pretty old mosque and lots of decent eating places.

From there I headed off to the countryside. The Domes of Fabedougou were deserted apart from some stunning red-throated bee-eaters, and nearby were the impressive waterfalls of Karfiguela where I had a swim and watched the wood hoopoes and violet turacos in the trees over the water. I also bumped into an English lady I had eaten dinner with a year or so before in Guinea; what a small world!

The Peaks of Sindou, also deserted, gave me another chance for a bit of exercise, and then further along the increasingly rough dirt track was the village of Niansogoni where I hiked up a hill to visit the remains of mud dwellings and granaries built into the side of a rock face. People had lived there back in the nineteenth century because it was safe from the raids of a neighbouring tribe, and the last inhabitants to leave only moved down to the plains in the 1980s.

It is an area where you can organise treks of many days, sleeping and eating in the villages, but I did not have the time. Mind you, trekking in the 40°C temperatures there would have been quite a challenge.

I also visited the Loropeni ruins. These comprise a mysterious set of big rock-walled enclosures in an area of woodland. Nobody knows when they were built or why, but they are impressive and were recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just about worth the 160km each way along a dirt road on the back of a motorbike, although I’m not sure about the walking in the dark, waiting and final two hours squeezed with four others into the front of a lorry after the motorbike broke down 40km away from the end of the trip…

My final destination was Tiebele, a small village near the Ghanaian border famous for its architecture. Houses were traditionally built in a figure of eight shape, with the entrance only about waist height. This meant anyone entering the house would have to show their head first – which was thus easily chopped off by those inside if they were unwelcome intruders!

Thankfully tourists are not considered unwelcome in the royal palace of Tiebele, nor in a large compound in nearby Tangassoko. We help them to pay to continue painting the houses in the traditional way, with a number of symbols and geometric patterns, representing various important aspects of their lives and history. The “paints”, and the “varnish” which preserves it for three years, are made of natural muds, minerals and plants, but the cost of extracting and transporting these has meant that the tradition is dying out. Some are trying to replace it with a cheaper modern alternative, painting the walls with tar, but it really doesn’t compare.

Finally back to the capital, Ouagadougou, for my early morning flight home. The evening before the flight, however, I admit that I quite enjoyed being chatted up by a charming and good-looking young French man staying at my hotel. Something to raise the spirits – that despite my apparent loss of youth and beauty (see my last post) I still have something left that appeals to someone!

In need of a facelift

Two days ago I was sitting at the dinner table at my guest house, chatting with the owner. He looked at me for a while. "I can see from your face that you must have been beautiful when you were young" he said.

I smiled uncertainly and kept my composure for long enough to finish my dinner. Later in my room I cried, then laughed, then cried some more. I've been avoiding mirrors for the last year or two as I don't like the evidence that stares back at me, but still hoped at the back of my mind that I was being self-critical, that other people wouldn't have noticed what I could see. Of course I always knew that the years of sunbathing would catch up with me eventually - and now they have. & what I also have to accept is that ageing is not an illness - something I will recover from next week - but that I will NEVER be young and beautiful again in my life.

The guest house owner was not being deliberately cruel. In Africa, the wisdom of age is valued much more than the innocence of youth, and beauty has little value. Any African man would choose a rich woman above a beautiful one, and as I am white I am obviously rich...

However whilst I am sure that I have absorbed some African values during my time here, I have clearly not lost the Western veneration of youth and beauty. If anyone knows a good plastic surgeon, please send me the details.

Northern Cameroon

Two weeks’ leave in Cameroon and a choice had to be made – the steamy tropical jungles of the south, or the arid mountainous north. I wanted to visit both, but it wasn’t possible in the time.

By the time my plane touched down I’d made a decision to head north. Cameroon is a hugely diverse country, its colonial history a mixture of French, British and German, religiously split between Muslim (20%), Christian (40%) and traditional animist (40%), and with some 279 different languages spoken, and the Far North Province is known for the mix of different traditions of the people of the Mandara Mountains. The area is also known for its scenic beauty, both of the mountains themselves and also of the villages nestling amongst them.

The first hurdle was getting a train ticket. I must admit I had assumed that I would be able to breeze up to the ticket counter and buy a sleeper ticket for that night, but in fact I had to hang around for most of the day just to get my hands on a seat (which someone had reserved but not turned up to pay for), but at least it was a first class seat so my luggage (and I) would be safe.

It was a 15-hour train journey, immediately followed by a 9-hour bus trip, so I was pretty tired when I arrived in Maroua and slept soundly in a cheap little hotel near the bus station. After a good night’s sleep I was met outside my hotel room by a guide touting for business. We discussed itineraries and prices, and I decided to engage his services for the week.

First stop was the village of Tourou, to visit the colourful weekly market. The women of this village wear decorated calabashes on their heads, and pieces of wood or bone sticking out of the side of their nose – neither particularly attractive to my Western eyes, I must admit, but interesting to see.

From Tourou we went to Rhumsiki, the tourist centre of the region. It is in a great setting, with the stumps of ancient volcanoes rising up from the dry, rocky ground, and we went trekking in this area for four days, sleeping in villages at night. Houses here are arranged as a collection of round mud huts with thatched roofs, one for each family member to sleep in plus a few others, eg to store kitchen equipment or grain in and to house guests. A wall joins each hut to the next, so the whole family compound is walled in. Within this space there is an area reserved for cooking (over the fire) and eating, a screened off area for washing, sometimes with a hole-in-the-ground toilet but more usually people go out into the bush for that. The whole place generally has various livestock wandering about (chickens, goats, in one case a donkey) as well as dogs and cats. I would be allocated a hut, usually with a mattress although not always – thankfully I had my thermorest mat with me as well as a silk sheet sleeping bag. My guide carried a supply of food and would prepare all my meals: bread and tea or coffee for breakfast, a salad of avocado, tomato, onion and tinned sardines for lunch, and various different cooked evening meals, all very tasty.

There wasn’t so much to see – a few birds, the occasional village and some nice scenery – but it was great to get out in the countryside walking. & I did get to spend about an hour in Nigeria, as we crossed over the border (the border being an almost dry river bed) for part of the walk.

After the trek we visited some stunning local villages. Firstly the Mafa village of Djinglia, in an area full of rocky outcrops where the houses – slightly different here as the huts, and their thatched roofs, were slimmer and taller – seemed to sprout out of the rocks like little clusters of mushrooms. This was a very undeveloped region. One older local man seemed quite frightened to see me, and my guide explained that these people are pretty much self-sufficient and have little contact with the outside world. The children do not go to school, the houses and utensils are made entirely from natural local materials and the families grow all the food they need. Recently they started wearing clothes (although we saw one old man without any), and for those they need to go to the market and sell the odd goat or other produce, but otherwise they live as they have for many centuries.

From there we went to the Podoko village of Oudjilla. The chief there has fifty wives and 113 children, and I took a tour around his “palace” which has a 400-year-old stone wall enclosing its warren of little mud huts and granaries – each wife having her own sleeping hut, her own granary and her own kitchen hut. It is stunningly set on top of a hill, and I was thrilled to see a pair of short-toed snake eagles gliding past almost at eye level. My guide negotiated for me to spend the night in the palace compound, not in a hut this time but in my tent, which I pitched amongst the little walled fields of millet right on top of the hill. It was a windy night and I didn’t sleep well, but it was worth it as I unzipped my tent in the morning to look out over the valleys below.

Finally we went to Pouss, a Mousgoum village next to the Logon River which forms the border with Chad. There the traditional building style was very different, with larger huts built entirely of mud, including the roof. As the mud (clay mixed with straw and an extract of some local plant) is applied one layer at a time, with one layer having to dry completely before the next is added, these take several months to build and the style (and therefore the building technique) had almost died out. However the UN stepped in and commissioned a typical house – now a museum – and those who built it are being asked to build one or two others for families in the region so hopefully this architectural style has been preserved. The houses are beautiful and it would be sad if they disappeared.

At the end of my trip I visited the beautiful Ngaoundaba Ranch for a couple of days. This is set in many acres of private land, a mosaic of grassland and gallery forest in the hills surrounding two crater lakes. It is actually in the middle of a two-year refurbishment, so is not open to the public, but thanks to the long tentacles of the internet I was able to track down both the owner and the head of the company doing the renovations and get permission to visit, and in fact they not only let me stay there, and fed me, but would not accept any money for doing so!

It was a wonderful opportunity to go walking on my own – hours and hours over the hills, alongside small woodland streams, around one of the crater lakes – without seeing another person. The only life I saw was monkeys, a cane rat, the ranch’s semi-wild cattle and huge numbers of birds. For those who are interested the birds included lots of white-crested turacos (beautiful big green birds with blue wings and tail, a white head and crest, and a bright crimson patch under each wing), Dybowski’s twinspot, oriole warbler and paradise flycatcher.


Then back to Yaounde for a week’s work, via the long overnight train journey again, made even longer as we derailed before we got there so I had to take alternative transport for the last part. We were given the option of waiting on the train for an hour or so before it was put back onto the rails, but departing fellow passengers warned me that I risked attack by bandits if I stayed, so I followed them across the field to the nearby road, to negotiate a place in a very crowded van. Travelling in Africa is never straightforward!

New Year 2010

Having switched my holiday dates to accommodate the friend who visited me for Christmas, I found myself in Dakar for New Year’s Eve. Only one friend was in town though (well, actually I have only one friend out here as the others I have made have all now left to work in other parts of the world) and she had a do with people from her embassy. My maid Gloria mentioned that there were several concerts going on, but she didn’t say where, and all I could find advertised were over-priced buffet dinner-dances. So I found myself, as many times in the past, deciding that the best thing to do on New Year’s Eve is to go to bed early so as to start the new year refreshed.

I had an early dinner (pasta with a sauce of feta cheese, black olives, cream and herbs de Provence, with a big glass of Sangria – delicious!) and watched a DVD, then went to bed and to sleep. Not for long, however. It seems that the Senegalese celebrate the New Year with fireworks. They were so loud, and some seemingly so close, that I decided the best thing I could do was to get up and get dressed, and go out to watch. There were fireworks everywhere, some distant big spectacular ones, but many small ones going off nearby. I got to the closest road but seeing children setting off fireworks at all angles (aiming at eachother sometimes – where were their parents?!!) decided not to risk walking across. So I came back home, said Happy New Year to my guard and went back to bed.

I’d made a couple of resolutions this year, and not the type you can put off until the 2nd:
- French practice every day for at least an hour
- exercise or stretching every day (to get myself firmer and more supple)

(and actually I think there might have been a third but as I didn’t write them down I have already forgotten what it was…). So before breakfast I did some stretching, and straight after breakfast got out the Rosetta Stone DVD that a friend kindly gave me a few weeks ago and started on Unit 1, lesson 1 of the French.

As I draft this it is 8pm, and apart from taking lunch and packing for my next trip which starts tomorrow, I realise I have been working on the French for the whole day!! I’m wondering now whether I should have added in a New Year motto, something along the lines of “all work and no play…”.

Anyway, Happy New Year to all of you who read this. Perhaps I should put it in the words of my guard, who got someone to translate for him and wrote me a New Year “card” on a piece of scrap paper: “Peace, Health, Happiness, prosperity and many money for you in the new year 2010”.