A regular Sunday

I realise I should do more posts about my everyday life, or there is a danger that my readers think I spend my whole time looking at Bissauan islands, Chadian deserts and Congolese rivers… Some of you probably also think I live in a big villa with a swimming pool, which is equally far from the truth.

In fact I work pretty hard. I’m drafting this on a Sunday afternoon and have already done three hours of work today. So OK, as today is probably a fairly typical non-travelling Sunday, I will share it with you.

As usual I woke early, as the first call to prayer comes before 6am. The nearest mosque is a few blocks away, but they all broadcast their prayers pretty loudly and can’t really be escaped if you live in town. I could also hear my guard saying his prayers outside the window, and then just after 7am I heard him lock the gate behind him as he finished his shift; I persuaded the office long ago that I can do without daytime guards at the weekend.

Unable to go back to sleep I got up and showered and dressed. Trousers as usual, as some protection against stray mosquitoes in the house. Breakfast was porridge with a chopped up banana stirred in. Porridge brought back from my last trip to the UK – oats are not grown at this latitude so they are imported and therefore expensive here, also they are not part of the typical French diet and so a bit hard to track down. A banana because it’s about the only affordable fruit here that goes with porridge. In summer/autumn I get very nostalgic about the plums/peaches/nectarines/berries of the UK – they are sometimes available here, but expensive and always disappointing. I think they pick them before they are ripe in order to get them here undamaged, as they never seem to have any flavour – I’ve given up wasting money on them.

I had a glass of fruit juice with it too. Another thing that is not that easy to buy here, as the Senegalese tend to like sugar added to their fruit juice – even those labelled as ‘100% natural’ often have sugar lurking in them.

After three hours or so of work, I noticed it was after midday, which is when the sun comes round to the little enclosed area beside my house. Most Sundays I lie in the sun, sometimes for a couple of hours until the shade moves round, but often the heat drives me back indoors first. Even today, with a strong gusty wind, there was only an occasional light breeze that made it around the corner to my little suntrap.
But the rest of my garden/yard is overlooked, and it wouldn’t be acceptable in this conservative Moslem country to lie out in a bikini in view of the neighbours, so I have to make do with this airless bit of concrete between the washing machine and the guards’ toilet.

I listened to my iPod while I was out there – on the old stuff today, starting with Donna Summer, then Elvis Costello and finally a bit of the Doors. I mostly listen to African music (I have an enormous collection of it) but wanted a change today.

Lunch was a jam sandwich! Sometimes I have a salad, but often make do with the quick and easy sandwich. Not an English-style sandwich though – here the bread comes in baguettes, and the jam was made from mangoes that had fallen from my trees more quickly than I could eat them.

After doing nothing much for an hour or so while my lunch went down I went for a swim at the Olympic Pool. It’s ten minutes’ walk from my house, and only a $4 entrance fee, so a great amenity to live near, although being olympic-sized the water can get quite cool (too cold for me) as we get into the Senegalese ‘winter’. Today it was still warm enough, just an initial gasp as I got in. The wind made the water quite choppy, and probably was the reason why there were only seven of us there: me, two American women, three Chinese men and a Frenchman. The Senegalese stop going once the water temperature falls below about 30°C.

I did twenty lengths, then stood in the sun (and wind) for a few minutes to dry off before putting clothes back on over my bikini – the changing rooms are badly lit and smell of urine – and wandering home feeling virtuous!

Another hour’s work, then some personal ‘admin’: editing a few photos, adding a couple of CDs to my iTunes library, and now drafting this post. Dinner will be a mix of onion, garlic, cumin, tomatoes, pumpkin and rice, all stewed up together, with a few stoned black olives thrown in. I don’t eat meat at home, and rarely even eat fish, as there tend to be so few vegetables or salads available when I’m travelling that I usually come home with a craving for them. There’s an element of laziness in there too, as I find vegetable dishes (or at least the type I eat) generally quicker and easier to cook than meat. I may have a glass of sangria with it – they sell it by the litre carton here and it’s easier to store than wine, which sometimes goes off in the heat.

Finally I’ll either listen to the BBC World Service or read a chapter or two of a book – probably the one I’ve started on my Kindle, as with the little reading light I have in the cover I find it more convenient than a physical book, easier to find a comfortable perch somewhere (whether in bed or lying on the settee) without worrying about getting enough light to read by.

You will have noticed the solitude. I spoke to the cashier at the pool, and said good evening to my guard when he turned up at 7pm, but otherwise saw no-one all day. & that is how I like my Sundays.

The Chadian desert

Our guide had focussed our attention on the chance of seeing the Saharan nile crocodile in the pool at the end of our two hour scramble through the gorge - a pretty special sighting as there are only 7 or 8 of this specialised type of nile crocodile left alive in the world, now confined to this small pool.

However after seeing one of the crocs I turned my head to look down the gorge to my left, and found myself almost speechless as I gazed on one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life. We were at the Guelta d'Archeï in Chad, one of the very few places in the whole of the Ennedi Massif (a region of eroded sandstone mountains covering an area the size of Switzerland) where there is a guaranteed year-round supply of water. In this year of low rainfall for Chad, it meant that camel owners came from far and wide to water their animals and as I looked down the Guelta from a ledge high in the mountain-side I could see and hear some 120 camels happily splashing about in the water.

I was with a party of 11 other tourists in this difficult and little-visited country. I say 'difficult' in terms of permits, etc, but also in terms of the lack of infrastructure. Only a few hundred kilometres of the 3,300 we covered in our trip were paved; mostly we were driving through sand, stone and rocks. When we made it to one of the few small towns there was virtually nothing to buy, so our breakfasts consisted of rock-hard dried up bread with jam, with milk powder in the tea or coffee. We were camping so toilets were open-air behind bushes or rocks (or on occasion just sufficiently far from the rest of the group for some privacy), and our daily ablutions were from one small bowl of water.

But lying on my mattress at night looking up at all the stars, listening to the eerie sound of the jackals calling, felt very special even when the wind was blowing desert dust and sand into my sleeping bag.

As well as the stunning Guelta d'Archeï we saw many other wonderful desert vistas (eroded pillars, camel trains on the dunes, etc) and the region is famous for its many rock arches as well as it's 3,000-year-old cave paintings of horses, camels, people and cattle, which seemed to be everywhere.

Encounters with people were difficult, as the nomadic Tubu tribe do not like visitors. When we went to look at a salt pan we were approached by three Tubu men with knives in their hands - they were only checking up on why we were there but it is the usual way in which they approach strangers. We were repeatedly warned, though, that they can be quick to use their knives, particularly if they see that they are being photographed.

We saw a surprising amount of wildlife, ranging from an amazing Saharan spiny-tailed lizard to my favourite, the beautiful little fennec foxes, as well as patas monkeys, baboons, dorcas gazelles, jackals, a sand viper and all kinds of impressive-looking insects. We saw quite a number of birds too, including nubian bustards, various storks and the national bird of Chad, the black crowned crane.

But that view down the Guelta d'Archeï, with the sound of all those bellowing camels echoing around the gorge, is one of those that I tried to burn into my brain, so I can close my eyes and imagine it again whenever I find myself in a stressful situation. I would say it is in the top three views that I have seen in the whole world.