(Almost) the end…of a chapter

So, this is my last day here…We spent our last week-end in Gran Popo, a town about 2hrs west of Cotonou, which is described as “the most touristic place in Benin”. I was a little worried since it’s right on the ocean, but it turns out that “most touristic” in Benin just means a nice hotel in an old colonial building, smack on abeautiful beach with about 12 rooms, for about $15/night. The water was warm, the beer was cold and the hammock just fine:

On the Kiva front, I posted a sort of summary of my trip which was emailed to all people that had loaned money on kiva.org via the partner I worked with in Benin, ALIDe. What I wrote wasn’t exactly Pulitzer-worthy, but the comments at the bottom made my day today:


Overall, this last day nicely summarized my time here…I am not going to expand on too many deep thoughts just yet (believe it or not, this adventure did trigger some…). I feel like I need time to process a lot of stuff.

And I also need time to pack my bag right now.

A suivre…

Mali 8: The day I had a Kalashnikov pointed at my face

Here is the last chapter of our Mali trip, i.e. returning to Bamako from Timbuktu. We took a different route, so you won’t get to see the same pictures twice.

On this route, we had to cross the Niger on a boat with the car. There were a couple of military guys on the boat heading back to Gao (way up north) and they were all toting a beat-up AK47, wearing civilian clothes on top of their uniform, and a turban (headscarf). In other words, they looked a little scary.

One of them came and sat next to me of course. He sat to my right, with his weapon on his right shoulder and across his body. His weapon was pointed straight at me, probably less then 10 inches (20cms) from my face. When I asked if he could have it point away from my face, he laughed and wondered out loud if I was scared (you think?) and whether we had some of those at home. I mentioned that while we did have some I am sure, we just don’t have them that close to people’s face, unless absolutely necessary. He also mentioned that, yes, it was loaded (of course…), but that he “thought” the safety was on. Considering we were on a rocking boat, I just said it would be great to point it away from me, safety or not, just to keep it simple.

It was a smooth trip after that.

In other news, this is my last week in Cotonou…and I am making the best of it, finding a way to get to the beach for a swim and beers every evening after work. I think it’s just my way to prepare for the frigid weather I will have to face once I am back. I think they call this denial.

This is Africa…

So yesterday, I had to go to the immigration office to extend my visa since it will expire on the 29th of January. When I got there, I was told that I needed a “certificat de residence” (ResidencE certificate) and that I could get it at the chef de quartier office (ie the neighborhood patriarch, who acts as a branch of  the mayor’s office in each neighborhood). Fine.

Today, I got my certificate of residencE and went back to immigration with my shiny piece of paper. Once there, I was told that while I did need this as the first step in the process, I also needed a certificate of residencY. (certificat d’hebergement). When  I asked what the difference was, I couldn’t get an answer. I was thinking to myself…is it like, confirming that my @ss is actually located in the house that I say I live in, in case it felt like floating around somewhere else in the country instead while the rest of my body is in the house?. Flustered, I put my paperwork away and started walking towards the door.  As I am about to exit, a civilian comes over and goes: ” a certificate of residency can only be obtained at the city hall and costs 25,000 francs ($50). There is a long wait, but I think that maybe, just maybe, I may be able to negotiate on your behalf here and save you both money and a round trip to the city hall, for 15,000 francs ($30).”

Ha, here we go I thought…let’s see what the “routine” is here. So we go back in, he has a little chat with the person I had just met with and, miracle, we can “work it out”. As I slip her my passport, bills included, she stares  at me and says: “you won’t get a receipt since you’re missing a piece of paper, you understand?”. I noded and smiled…”yes, I DO understand”. I then paid the official 12,000 francs for the visa itself ($25).

And while one usually has to come back 48hrs later to get the visa, I didn’t get a receipt and got my passport back with a brand new visa 15mn later.

Was the second piece of paper really needed? I don’t know. If it was, was it really 25,000 francs? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this rank and file person at the immigration probably makes about 40,000 francs per month in salary ($80). I also know that during my 30mn there, the “negociator” had another client already lined up and that if I had declined the “offer”, this would still go on no matter what.

Because, after all, this is Africa…

Mali 7: Timbuktu

[NOTE: you can read all the “Mali posts” on a single page at any time by clicking on the “Trip to Mali” tab in the header of the blog.]

As I mentioned, we got off the pinasse earlier than anticipated and thus had to get to Timbuktu by car from the port of Dire. Since our car had broken down between Mopti and Timbuktu, our guide throughout the night and secured another car and driver, ie a tuareg that drove down from Timbuktu in the morning, picked us up and turned around to get back to Timbuku right away.  Quite a roundtrip (600kms, 400 mi) considering that the dirt road was a nightmare: fast/ultrafast at times with large, sharp rocks, followed by soft sand dunes etc.

Our guide had warned me that tuaregs tend to drive very fast because they know/think they know the road so well. So of course, I told the driver to take it easy. Right, sure.

Once we hit the road, I felt like we were going really fast but figured that maybe, being on a slow moving boat for 3 days had altered my sense of speed. I was really puzzled by the whole thing, especially when I noticed that we were only doing 70/hr. About an hour later, because I am slow at times (lame pun intended), it all became obvious: the car was a right-hand drive. Therefore we were doing 80 miles per hour, not 80 kms/hour (115km/hr). It all made sense now.

Anyway, we managed to only come close to a couple of donkeys, cows, trees…and a motorcycle coming in the other direction which had not anticipated our speed. Those guys got out of our way at the last minute and ended up half- buried in a dune, but with the bike still standing. Did we stop? of course not!

As anticipated, Timbuktu itself was not that exciting after Djenne, but worth seeing nonetheless. We stayed at a hotel that , as it turns out, was own by a French guy, a true character: He was a retired police officer, last based in Bamako at the helm of a joint French/Malien unit. He retired at 55 (Ha, France…), got a divorce, left the wife, kids, house back in France, built the place here and started not just a new chapter, but what he called “a brand new book”. Funny guy, I told you.

When we arrived, he casually said that I was “his first Frenchman” since the whole deal with the French hostages started back in September. That was reassuring.

We decided to stay there for lunch and when we looked at the menu (goat cheese salad, duck confit, frog legs etc), I assumed that this was the typical “african menu”, ie a ton of choices, until they tell you that today they only have, say, rice and fish, or couscous and chicken. So I asked him what he had and he looked at me offended. “What do you mean what do I have?” “everything of course!”. His secret was that he had cut a deal with the pilots from Air Mali and since there were 2 Bamako to Timbuktu flights per week, they bring bring whatever he needs twice a week. They guy is able to get pork delivered in Timbuktu on Fridays…the holiest day of the week in the Muslims world. Enough said, Herve was our kind of guy.

After  3 hours on a dusty road,  we ended up having  goat cheese salads, magrets of duck with roasted apples and a fondant au chocolat for desert.  He just so happened that he had a bottle of red wine open (un Bourgueil) and so wine was on the house. Overall, we spent 2 days  eating and drinking like a king/queen. Heidi was still not feeling so great, so I did most of the drinking of course. On new year’s eve, he pulled a bottle of “alcohol de prunes” (plum schnaps-ey, after dinner drink) from the homeland that he had to smuggle to Timbuktu via Mauritania. So yes, I was *pretty* lit when midnight came around.

Going back to our first day there (a Friday), I went for a walk with our guide on the main drag (See pic) and this was the one time I felt a little uncomfortable in Mali. There wasn’t a single tourist in town and not that many locals around (this was after the Friday prayer, so most people were done for the day) but when we walked by groups of people, they would stop talking and stare. A bit odd to say the least.

Come to think of it, people would get quiet and stare when we rode our camels, but I think this was for a different reason.

Is this Africa?

This not a fun post, sorry.

There is a mechanic shop adjacent to where I work. All of the sudden this morning, I heard some extremely loud screaming next door in their backyard. I first thought that an animal was being abused, until I realized it was a kid getting beat up.  Hard. Really hard. I opened the window of my office, to make sure I was hearing right (I was…) and then ran out the door, asking everyone around if they could hear what was going on. By then, the beating had stopped (it lasted what felt like an eternity) and all I got were puzzled looks. Puzzled looks not because someone got beat up, but because I seemed bothered by it (you think?.)

The security guards at our front door said: “oh yeah, it must be Gratien, the mechanic next door” (he is probably 14, if that…). He then “suggested” that I don’t interfere, just said…”This is Africa” and didn’t move. Across the street, a woman had come out of her front door. She didn’t move either.

The backyard is now quiet and all I can  hear is a radio playing some sort of religious music. Freaky.

When one of my co-worker arrived a bit later, I explained what had  happened and he just said…”this is Africa”. Ugh. I must have looked very upset, because he said…”are you ok? this is the way it’s done here, kids need to be raised properly and if they don’t do their job right, well, they need to learn”.

So now,  here I am, wondering if I should have gone next door? I wonder why I didn’t. Was I weak? Did I think he may get beat up even more later because a white showed up? Was I worried about interfering in a culture that isn’t mine and that therefore, I “can’t understand? ” Probably all of the above.

I fully realize that this happens everywhere, not just in Africa, but as I sit here, I just feel like puking, I really do.

Happy Monday.

Mali 6: Mopti to Timbuktu

[NOTE: you can read all the “Mali posts” on a single page at any time by clicking on the “Trip to Mali” tab in the header of the blog.]

So, after our stop in Mopti, it was time to get on a “pinasse” (typical boat found on the Niger) to make our way to Timbuktu. The initial plan was to go all the way to the port of Timbuktu which is in fact 18 kms (10 miles) from the city itself, meet our driver there and then hit the dirt road that we were told was a tough one all the way to Timbuktu. That was the plan.

So about our “pinasse”. We had plenty of room since it was only the 2 of us, our guide, the cook and the boat guy. As you will see on the pictures, we passed similar boats with tens of people on them plus their cargo. These boats are built in such a way that it’s easier to use the blue planks on the side or, alternatively, the roof to get around. We stuck with the planks, and even that took a little while getting used to. The kitchen was basically a small portable BBQ pit and the bathroom a hole towards the back of the boat (the green “box” on the picture.) Standing in the box, my head would stick out of course.

As you can see, a luxury cruise.

We spent 3 days and 2 nights on the Niger,  pitching our tent at sunset in the middle of nowhere and hitting the “road” at 6am in complete darkness the next morning.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for… “black magic night!”

The second day, Heidi had a lingering headache all day and took a bunch of Advil, to no avail. That night, she woke me at about 1am with a monster migraine. She was virtually crying, very upset saying that she just could not deal, would not be able to sit here another 5 hours until the morning, let alone  stay on the boat the next day.

Now, we’re in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, and it’s 1 am. I did try to calm her down, but for those who know her, that was a lost cause right from the start (I knew that too.) So I had to woke the guide up to figure out what to do.

He basically suggested that we cut the next day short and make our way to Dire where our driver would come and get us. This was about 3 hours from where we were by boat, and we would then drive the remaining 200 km (!) (about 125 mi) on the nasty dirt road all the way to Timbuktu.

I explained that this sounded like a great plan, but that until then she would not be able to sleep (secretly hoping that we could get on the boat earlier…) and he just said: “I will take care of this and make her sleep.” I thought to myself…”yep, good luck with that buddy!” but kept quite because, really, what else could I have done? it’s 1am in the desert.

So it went down like this:

– We went to the “kitchen” on the boat where he grabbed a large kitchen knife. By that time, I was starting to wonder if “I will take care of this and I will make her sleep” had a different meaning in his mind.

– He then asked me to move Heidi towards the entrance of the tent so that he could have easy access to her head. Right. Of course. At that point, Heidi is in such a pain that she is not quite sure what’s going on, but, for once, just does what she is told.

– He took the knife and started writing some stuff in the sand, right by the entrance of the tent with the tip of the blade. Ok, this was getting weird now.

– Then, he turned around and as he placed the tip of the blade on some sections of what he had written, told me to hold the knife steady while he massages her head. Ok, why not? We did that a couple of times, as he moved the knife to a different spot on the writings each time. At one point, he  turned around and told me that we had to do it again because, you see, “I wasn’t pushing the knife hard enough towards the ground.” I of course obliged, thinking to myself: “dude, I didn’t graduate marabout school, ok?” (a marabout is defined as “a hermit or holy man, esp. in North Africa, often wielding political power and credited with supernatural powers.”)

But I did it nonetheless. Once done, he turned back towards me and went…”ok, she will sleep now.” He said this in such an assured tone that all I could say was “ok, great” when I really meant “what the *%*%^?”.

So I went back into the tent, held Heidi’s hand for about 30 seconds and sure enough, she fell asleep. Just like that. She slept through the night and the next morning, the migraine was gone.

Make of this what you wish.

The next morning, we hit the road at 6am again and made her way to Dire. We found out there that our driver would not make it because the trail to Timbuktu had gotten the best of the Land Rover (fried clutch/gearbox) and so met up with a Tuareg driver our guide had lined up overnight.

If you ever find yourself near Timbuktu, be very afraid of Tuareg drivers. You will see why in the next post.

Mali 5: Mopti

[NOTE: you can read all the “Mali posts” on a single page at any time by clicking on the “Trip to Mali” tab in the header of the blog.]

From Djenne, we made our way north to Mopti. Mopti is the largest port of Mali, on the Niger, and offered was quite a change of scenery…

For lunch, we ended up at the only place catering to tourists and I have to say that, in this town, this was quite a nice “bubble” to come back to. The street vendors were not allowed on premises, but as you will see, one of them had found a creative way to sell or least try to sell shoes.