July 23, 2008


I bet you thought Timbuktu was an imaginary city. I bet your mom used to say that she would banish you to Timbuktu if you didn't finish your plate of broccoli (in my case, my plate of endives).

Well I think I would rather eat a mixed plate of endives and broccoli, than to be banished to Timbuktu.The view from the airplane is uniform: there is sand as far as your eye can see, speckled with scrawny, misshapen, greyish green trees. I catch a glimpse of a skinny road that just goes and goes and goes.Timbuktu is probably the hottest place on earth to which you'll ever go (unless you choose to live in a volcano, and I wouldn't recommend that either).

I walked off the plane in mid day, after a difficult landing, straight into the Timbuktu sun. It is as if I had opened an oven door and walk straight in. I'm not sure how hot it really is, but inside our hotel, it's exactly 100 degrees. The atmosphere is dry though, so as soon as I take cover in the shade, the heat is bearable. February and March are the hottest months here, and a colleague says that that's when the heat becomes unbearable. I just cannot imagine how it can get hotter than this.

The dwellings are made from mud briks, and look like squarish replicas of mosques. The construction material dispenses the heat a lot better than cement or iron. The poorest people live under straw tents that are about waist-high, and rounded off like overturned cereal bowls. I see a pack of 3 of the skinniest cows I hope to ever see again. They look miniatured, and are leather and hair stretched over jutting skeletons. It's a wonder their scrawny necks can support their heads.

As we go from site to site for work, I conserve my energy by walking slowly, and making few movements. I walk in the sandy stretches from the car to the shade with a light cotton Ethiopian scarf, which has the advantage of shielding my neck and chest, and covering my head from the heat. It also gives me an air of extra piety, which helps as I walk through this predominently Muslim city.

We see a famous mosque there, made of sand and mud, and protuding pieces of wood from its main minaret, like some elaborate African hairstyle. The interior is dark and cool, with a chalk board announcing the next prayer time... (to be continued)

Note: though I never did finish this post, here are some additional photos taken by a fellow traveler...

Beautiful, intrincate, carved doors in the old city.

Tight living quarters as we get to the Ammam's place

A craftman shows me how he pounds metallic designs in hard wood.


We get to Mali and now I know that we truly, truly are in West Africa this time.

I love the mobs of motorcycles, the long flowing boubous, the miles of hand-made shoddy furniture, the overflowing buses, the mosques, and mosque-like structures. I even like the chaotic traffic here. The soil is incredibly red in Bamako (I am told it's laterite). I see an elegant woman, with a brown boubou and assorted hat scarf, with glittering gold earring, and a baby casual perched on her hip, walking in the red dust. It's a sort of disorganized beauty, reflected by the trimmed bushes along the fence of a nice house, overlooking decaying sidewalks. Bamako is a lot greener than Dakar, but this season is usually rainy.

What I learned about in Bamako:
-Our driver is Toumani Diabate's brother, the famous Malian Kora player which I saw play in Washington DC in April 2008


On the way to Bouake, we drive through a town called Yamassoukro. It's a bit odd because after miles of fields and forests, the road is suddenly quite wide, and there are huge sidewalks on either sides of it. Apparently, the current president (check) wants to move the capital from Bamako to Yamassoukro (coincidentally it also happens to be his home town), and there are impressive, half-built Government buildings begging to be finished and filled with bureaucrats.

We also catch a glimpse of the Basilica of Yamassoukro - a monstrously oversized basilica that seems completely incongruous in its bare setting. I see electricity poles along the way and apparently remote cities in Cote d'Ivoire receive mail. Bouake springs out of the grassy expanse and cement shacks, and proves to be a booming little town with impressive large apartment buildings, shopping arcades, water towers, proper residences and hotels, mixed in with bare roads and shanty houses of a typical village setting. Apparently, there was quite a large population of French people there, and only two stayed behind after the crisis. This definitely comes to our advantage since one of them is the owner of a simple, little hotel that serves great food.

On the way back we drive slowly to observe men using rough, wooden looms, making thick, cotton “pagne traditional”. I buy one that has been dyed indigo blue, with tie-dyed spot of bright orange. It stains my feet blue as I pull it over me as protection against the chilly air conditioning in the car.

In Abidjan

Abidjan is actually quite nice. Perhaps I compensate slightly in my mind, having braced myself to deal with complete disorder and dilapidation. The airport is calm, and it is smooth sailing on the road of the large capital. There are palm trees, a wide expanse of water, and slightly dirty and sandy roads. I see ad-hoc flower nurseries in the green spaces next to the roads, tended by poor gardeners. I feel like I'm in West Africa again. There are not as many goats as in Ethiopia, but a few cows, and a number of horses with sharp, jutting ribcages. I don't recall seeing horses in Senegal, and I can only guess that they are remnants of the French's passion for horse-back riding.

That day, we make the 4-hour drive to Bouake, passing by Yamassoukro.

Arrival into Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire

At this point on the trip, I am completely exhausted. I don't remember much in Cote d'Ivoire which is a big shame because recent events make it significant to the French (I am half French, half American). TheU.S. Department of State summarizes it this way:

1999 Coup and Aftermath
In a region where many political systems are unstable, Cote d'Ivoire showed remarkable political stability from its independence from France in 1960 until late 1999. [...]Government corruption and mismanagement led to steep reductions in foreign aid in 1998 and 1999, and eventually to the country's first coup on December 24, 1999. […]

Elections were scheduled for fall 2000, but when the general Guei's handpicked Supreme Court disqualified all of the candidates from the two major parties Western election support and monitors were withdrawn. […] When early polling results showed Gbagbo in the lead, Guei stopped the process--claiming polling fraud--disbanded the election commission, and declared himself the winner. Within hours Gbagbo supporters took to the streets of Abidjan. A bloody fight followed as crowds attacked the guards protecting the presidential palace. Many gendarmes and soldiers joined the fight against the junta government, forcing Guei to flee. Having gained the most votes, Gbagbo was declared President. […]

2001 Attempted Coup

On January 7, 2001, another coup attempt shattered the temporary calm. However, some weeks later, in the spring, local municipal elections were conducted without violence and with the full participation of all political parties. […] Some economic aid from the European Union began to return by the summer of 2001, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) re-engaged the government. Questions surrounding severe human rights abuses by the government during the presidential and legislative elections of 2000 remain unresolved (e.g., the mass grave at Yopougon), but day-to-day life began to return to normal. […]

2002 Country Divides

On September 19, 2002, rebellious exiled military personnel and co-conspirators in Abidjan simultaneously attacked government ministers and government and military/security facilities in Abidjan, Bouake, and Korhogo. In Abidjan, government forces stopped the coup attempt within hours, but the attacks resulted in the deaths of Minister of Interior Emile Boga Doudou and several high-ranking military officers. General Guei was killed under still-unclear circumstances. Almost immediately after the coup attempt, the government launched an aggressive security operation in Abidjan, whereby shantytowns--occupied by thousands of immigrants and Ivoirians--were searched for weapons and rebels. Government security forces burned down or demolished a number of these shantytowns, which displaced over 12,000 people.

The failed coup attempt quickly evolved into a rebellion, splitting the country in two and escalating into the country's worst crisis since independence in 1960. […] In January 2003, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) placed approximately 1,500 peacekeeping troops from five countries--Senegal (commander), Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Niger--on the ground beside the 4,000 French peacekeepers. […]

Reunification Attempts
In late January 2003, the country's major political parties and the New Forces signed the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis Accord (LMA), agreeing to a power-sharing national reconciliation government to include rebel New Forces representatives. The parties agreed to work together on modifying national identity, eligibility for citizenship, and land tenure laws which many observers see as among the root causes of the conflict. […]

2004 saw serious challenges to the Linas-Marcoussis Accord. Violent flare-ups and political deadlock in the spring and summer led to the Accra III talks in Ghana. Signed on July 30, 2004, the Accra III Agreement reaffirmed the goals of the LMA with specific deadlines and benchmarks for progress. Unfortunately, those deadlines--late September for legislative reform and October 15 for rebel disarmament--were not met by the parties. The ensuing political and military deadlock was not broken until November 4, when government forces initiated a bombing campaign of rebel targets in the north. On November 6, a government aircraft bombed a French military installation in Bouake, killing nine French soldiers and one American civilian. Claiming that the attack was deliberate (the Ivoirian Government claimed it was a mistake), French forces retaliated by destroying most of the small Ivoirian air force. Mayhem ensued for several days as anti-French mobs rioted in Abidjan and violence flared elsewhere. […]

On March 4, 2007, after weeks of closed-door negotiations led by Burkinabe President Compaore in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, President Gbagbo and New Forces leader Guillaume Soro announced they had agreed to a peace agreement aimed at reunifying the country and holding new elections. The Ouagadougou Accord foresaw a new transitional government and the re-launch of the stalled voter registration and identification process to enable elections to be held within 10 months.[…]
Government ministries (particularly Health, Education, Finance, and Interior) and officials are returning to their posts in the northern part of the country, as are important economic actors, such as banks and utilities.

Following anti-French sentiment and violence, almost all of the 20,000 French people left Cote d'Ivoire, never to come back again.

I remember reading Paris Match (the French equivalent to People's magazine, with more pictures than text, and star gossip) with pages and pages of pictures of haggard-looking French people and their battered, hastily packed suitcases, young French girls in braids and with their dolls in tow, and a general look of panic in these French "Africans" eyes, as they prepared to board their flight to leave their only known homeland, towards France, a land many of them were only connected to, many generations ago. I remember the mayhem of the situation on the news.

July 18, 2008

Departure from Ethiopia

I may make it sounds like all work and no play, but the truth is that we work very hard and have taken a daily flight everyday of the trip so far. I am pretty tired and have no time to myself to really decompress and put my feet up. It feels like my every waking hour is used working, travelling, eating and sleeping.

That day, we encounter a violent hailstorm that threatens to leave the windshield of our car pock-marked. As we gear up to leave Addis on an overnight flight, we notice that our ticket says "SBY". It also seems like a crowd of Nigerians, a Zambian football team, and a number of other passengers are also on standby, and the Nigerian passengers quickly start crowding the counter and complaining loudly. I plant myself in front of the counter, in the mob of angry Africans, adopting my preferred position (as practiced many times in Congo) and trying to stare the attendant into submission. My technique doesn't seem to work, and soon enough, the Nigerians are shoving one of the attendants, preventing him from accessing his computer, demanding boarding passes, answers or any kind of reaction from the stone-faced attendants. Tempers rise and I pray I don't get caught in a cloud of flying fists. It turns out we all get seated on the plane anyhow.

But there is another hour of delay as a mechanic replaces some mystery part inside the airplane. This gets the Nigerian passengers all rilled up again, and they challenge a poor steward to guarantee their safety while on the flight. One passenger even demands to get off the plane this very minute. We finally take off and encounter terrible turbulance (I admit I actually cried, a bit traumatized from flying after Congo). I can finally snooze for 30 mins after we land in Lagos, and shake the scary, angry passengers.

Axum, Ethiopia

Axum is much more of a small city than Lalibela, with proper store fronts and bustling commuters. The mountains here are a lot smaller, and peppered with dark, green trees.

This is a major military base, so soldiers live in and around the airport, sleeping in barracks (essentially tiny, corrugated-iron structures, no taller than me). The fields here are 2 to 5 times larger than in Lalibela, and the majority of houses are made from neatly stacked, roughly cut stones.

We visit a museum, that is built next to the long forgotten ruins of the earliest church in Africa. It is overgrown by tall sweet grass, though stone foundations peak from underneath it. Overlooking the ruins is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion that, our guide reverently tells us, holds the Ark of the Covenant. An American woman scoffs at the comment, stating the most people believe the Ark to be complete fiction. According to our guide, the uppermost floor of the mosque is off-limits to everyone, save for a priest that guards the Ark day and night. The priest will stay there for the rest of his natural life, and will be replaced by another priest at the time of his death. The current guardian of the covenant has been there for 15 years. We also see a bible that is more than 1,000 years old, written on animal skin and containing bright, full-page illustration. People finger it, to feel its age, and I wince as they contribute to the decaying of these museum pieces.

A few things I learn about Axum:

-The Ark of the Covenant has an interesting, complex story. From Wikipedia:
The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Bible as a sacred container, wherein rested the Tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. According to the Biblical account, the Ark was built at the command of God, in accord with Moses' prophetic vision on Mount Sinai. The Bible describes the Ark as made of shittah-tree wood (acacia), known to the Egyptians as the Tree of Life and an important plant in traditional medicine. It was a cubit and a half broad and high, and two and a half cubits long. The Ark was covered all over with the purest gold.

Guesses of the ultimate fate of the Ark include the intentional concealing of the Ark under the Temple Mount; the removal of the Ark from Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonians (this variant usually ends up with the Ark in Ethiopia); the removal of the Ark by the Ethiopian prince Menelik I; removal by Jewish priests during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, possibly taken to the Jewish Temple at Elephantine in Egypt; the miraculous removal of the Ark by divine intervention; and even the destruction of the original ornate Ark under King Josiah's reforms and replacement with a simple wooden box, easily lost when the Temple fell.

-There are three famous obelisks in Axium, that are about 1700 years old. When the Italian invaded the country, they decided to claim one of the three obelisk as their own in 1937, and shipped in back to Italy, to be erected in the middle of Rome. Following years of intense public pressure, Italy returned the Obelisk in 1997, in three parts to accommodate for its shipment back to Axum. The city has now built scaffolding to re-erect the structure. It’s a very weird story, with a happy ending… When we went to see if, there was some crazy scaffolding, but then project of putting them back together again had not started.

That night, we eat in an authentic Ethiopian restaurant (finally!). The local staff seems to think that I would rather eat European food, so I always have to insist on going to eat local food at least once on every trip. We have fasting and non-fasting foods, and stuff ourselves silly. After dinner, we take part in a beautiful coffee ceremony.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

We fly to Lalibela in the late morning. The terrain is mountainous with planting fields built in small terraces along the sides of the sloping hills. The locals use rocks to built the terraces' short walls and it looks a little like I would imagine Europe in the middle ages.

This is really donkey capital - I see donkeys walking with heaps of wood talker than they are, with metal scraps and improvised harnesses, with ropes tied to their necks and then to their legs to prevent them from running, or simply with nothing at all, walking slowly but surely up and down the roads.

Everyone here plows their field with three coarse pieces of wood tied to two humped cows, with a dangling machete in between them, working the earth and creating sowing ditches. Again, the roads are impressive in this town, some are even built to last with stone-paving.

We go visit the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. After initially balking at the 20 dollars entrance fee, I quickly come to eat my words. This site is protected by UNESCO, and for a good reason.

There are 11 ancient churches in the close vicinity, 10 of which are completely carved out of a single block of rock. They are all adorned with paintings dating back to the 1600, and painted, carved protusions on the walls. The floors are completely covered in hand-made Ethiopian rugs. The small windows provide fluorescent patches of light that seems to jump from the thick rock walls but don't even pierce the dark, cool insides.

We take our shoes off at the entrance of each church, and enter fumbling around until our sight starts to adjust, and catch a glimpse of a white scarf or a wooden bench. We try not to trip on the layers of rugs beneath our feet, covering the uneven ground. Our guide uses finger-thin, home-made candles to show us complex symbols on the ceilings. There is a priest guarding each church, adorned with a heavily embroidered garb (they look like the paintings of the old bishops of France, but with dark skin, and white, cotton hat-scarves).

In each cavern, people approach the priests and kiss their elaborate cross three times (mouth, forhead, mouth again). The churches are connected by a labyrintian set of hallways. As we weave in and out of hallways and grottos, we strain to stay upright in the heavy rain and quickly forming clay mud.

Legend has it that it that King Lalibela, who was a king and a priest, carved the churches in the daylight from 1166 to 1189 (a duration of 23 years), and two angels continued his work, at twice the rate, during the night. These are churches built from angels and a king. It is also said that, before King Lalibela could even suckle from his mother's breast for the first time, white bees delivered honey ("lal") to his mouth, thus causing the local population to rename him Lalibela.

The last church, set apart from the others and carved in a separate piece of rock, is called St. George's. It is built in the shape of an even-armed cross, so well proportioned that when one looks down on it from a small hill, it looks like a one dimensional carving, and doesn't betray its three stories.

Even in the rain, cold and dark, and even when straining to hear the guide, I am awed by the sheer maginificence of the churches, and the people who were inspired to build them. At this point, my camera completely craps out, and I later realize that have forgotten the charger in D.C., which nearly gives me a heart-attack for the rest of the trip.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I "wake" up tired after a sleepness night caused by the high altitude in Addis Ababa.

Even with a foggy mind, I see that it is a pleasant city - it's a typical African town with a plethora of small businesses flourishing around the main roads, housed in iron shack boutiques, painted with vibrant colors. There are piles of clothes, as well as thousands of shoes, neon-colored flip flops, and umbrellas, ready to be purchased by the next judicious bargainer.

The roads are admirably hole-less, and well-paved, flanked on either sides with treacherous, steep, side roads leading to compact neighborhoods of cement, corruguated and iron dwellings. I tense every time we pass security check points, guards or policemen, but we never get asked for a bribe. Addis strikes me as the kind of place where a "muzungu" like me could walk around comfortably during the day. A majority of women are dressed from head to toe in delicate, pleated, white cotton, preferring to layer the many scarves to brave the cold of the rainy season. I honestly didn't think it could get this cold in Africa.

The cars are all relatively nice, a far cry from the banged up vehicles of Kinshasa. There is a profusion of public buses and taxis.

A few things I find out about Ethiopia:

1-It is the birthplace of the Rastafari Movement. From wikipedia:
The Rastafari movement (also known as Rastafari, or simply Rasta) is a new religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, as God incarnate. Rastas may regard themselves as conforming to certain visions of how Africans should live, reclaiming what they see as a culture stolen from them when their ancestors were brought on slave ships to Jamaica, the movement's birthplace. Another important Afrocentric identification is with the colours red, gold, and green, of the Ethiopian flag. One belief that unites many Rastafari is that Ras Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930, is the living God incarnate, called Jah, who is the black Messiah who will lead all those of righteous livity into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice called Zion. All mankind is of African origin, as the Garden of Eden was in the fertile land of Ethiopia.

2-Injera, the bitter pancake one eats with Ethiopian dishes, is in fact fermented tiff flour

3-Ethiopia operates on a different calendar, called the Ge'ez calendar. The country is gearing up to celebrate its year 2001, and a celebration will be observed at 12 midnight on September 12, 2008, for the new year.

-The coffee ceremony is a really big deal here. Being invited to a coffee ceremony is a sign of friendship and respect, and often, communities members gather around the preparer, and sip and gossip for hours. Some elders prefer their coffee with salt or butter, but most people take it with a lot of sugar. It is performed in three steps, each cup weaker than the last. Often, you are served snacks such as popcorn or peanuts to accompany it.

July 06, 2008

Arrival in Addis

We arrive in Khartoum, Sudan, and the site from the air is a small city with corrugated structures, little to no paved roads, and expanses upon expanses of orange sand punctuated by barely-green fields. It may be just an impression, because the heavy dust in the air was obscuring the view of the ground.

We stop in Khartoum for 20 minutes, while half of the plane disembarks there. Women who had previously entered the plane with bare heads, now exit it with a collection of somber headscarves. We wait another 10 minutes because of plane traffic. The airport is completely empty.

I sit next to an Ethiopian woman who has lived in Alberta, Canada for the last twelve years. She has only been back to Addis once, and her mother has never met her four-year old child. She's very nervous and excited, and tells me that she spent a lot of money buying her family and friends perfume, clothes, makeup etc that completely filled four suitcases.

Addis' aiport is nice - what a difference with Kinshasa's one. The custom official is sloooow though, and I'm nervous that he's waiting for a bribe. I come up tp the window nad realize that he's just very thorough in his job, and he doesn't ask me a thing. On the way to the hotel, the driver points out the presidential and vice presidential palace, both built in the 1960s. I can barely see anything because it's pitch black, but I nod with interest. There are stop lights, the roads are 4 lanes and very well maintained, and all cars are decent-looking. There's a profusion of city buses.

In the evening, I order room service: Yebeg Wot Alicha (lamb marinated with tumeric accompanied by traditional injera bread) and Gouder (Ethiopian wine). The food is really bland, and I wonder if it is made bland for me, or if the dish is just meant to taste that way. The wine is quite nice, it almost tastes like it has honey in it. The waiter approves of my choice of food (it's all Ethiopian) and tells me how many more job opportunities there are in South Africa, having traveled to Pretoria, Durban and Johannesburg himself. He says that since Ethiopia has never been colonized, there is 80% unemployment rate. There are some many more opportunities in South Africa and he feels the South African don't take advantage of the opportunities. I don't quite understand the connection with colonization, thinking of Congo that won its independence from Belgium in 1960, and in very poor shape.

July 05, 2008

Love being abroad, hate travelling

I'm the least adventurous Adventurous person I know. I know it's a weird concept but though I love to travel, I get inordinately nervous and worked up about it. Yesterday, I had a friend check out all the contents of my suitcase to make sure that I had packed enough t-shirts and underwear.

Also, I had planned only 1 hour and 10 minutes between the flight to Frankfurt and Addis Ababa, and the plane waited 20 minutes on the ground because the gate was not ready, and finally unloaded us onto a bus to bring us to the terminal from a remote location. I was biting my nails all throughout the ordeal of waiting, being stuck behind a slow moving woman who overpacked and couldn't move her stuff, waiting for the slow-ass extensible stairway to unfold, and graciously letting a woman and her husband slip in front of me out of pure courtesy (a hard habit to summon when one is running late). The tip of the woman's 10 fingers were dyed black and she wore a headscarf held together with a red and a white pin.

After doing a power walk, I arrive during the boarding of the Addis flight, just in time to duck into the bathroom of the plane, get stuck in its smelly interior while an entire family (grandma and all) and their pull-on luggage block my way, and finally settle in my seat. I am hungry and my hair's a mess after the first 7.5 hour flight and I have another 8 hours to go.

I hate travelling.

July 04, 2008

How the Hell Do I Get Matt's Life

There is this awesome guy called Matt, who does a little funny dances in a lot of cool places in the world. Enjoy his two videos below:

The videos are so awesome, I had to write to him right away:
Hi Matt:

I really like your videos (you probably get that a lot). I have to say that they made me both giggle (when the crowds went wild with dancing around you, especially those in Africa because I know how excited and unselfconscious African kids can be), and a little teary-eyed for the amazing and diverse places that exist on earth.

It makes me want to quit my job and work on a travel TV show. The trouble is that I work in International Public Health and I also love working in that field.

007 in Africa

PS: I'm impressed you were able to get to Bhutan, I hear the visas are hard to get.