Sunday, March 22, 2009

Final Notes from nearly 5 months in Africa

Since reaching America I've noticed:
  • Food tastes like crap. starbucks tastes like water and the milk terrible and flat. I had to hold a chocolate muffin to my nose, literally to smell it. nothings really 100% organic here, even though its labeled as such
  • Everyone does their own thing and doesn't stare at me anymore.
  • There are rules. Lots and lots of rules. Everyone lives in a box. And with a clock. and is super dependent on electricity.
  • Clean and antiseptic. My feet are clean for once.
  • Some people make a lot of assumptions about Africa; they've never been there but assume they know what it is, including telling me what I should think about the continent after several months there. Eh, to each their own.
That's all for now. Thanks for reading if you've been doing so the whole time. There is always going to be that story I can't tell online. Actually a good part of everything I did in Africa I did not write about here. But if you know me, and want to hear, I'll be glad to share it sometime.

But, until then,

Tchau. Kwa heri. Au revoir. مع السلامة. Adios amigos.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Arab, Euro, African Collision

The worst hour of the day for a plane flight.

A word about the Accra airport at 2:00 am... There is hardly anyone awake, and because I was early for my flight - the only flight that leaves after midnight from Accra - the customs line was completely deserted and silent.

Am I supposed to walk straight through and not get my passport stamped? I wander through to security, where two guards are cracking jokes and playing poker.

"No ladyee, you have to go back to customs..."

I protest, "But nobody is there!"

"Yes there is, you just gotta go back there and find them!"

I walk back to the customs area and hear nothing but the sound of dripping rain from ceiling to bucket and the faint hum, no wait - Snoring!?! From this angle, I see a foot sticking out from behind the customs booth. And, as I get closer, I see one mattress.

And then, two, three, more mattresses on the floor, each with a customs agent barefooted, snoring and sprawled out on top!!!

So here I am, unbelievably kicking the nearest agents' mattress and hissing, "helloooooo I need to exit Ghana, can you please stamp my passport?"

The tiny male agent - only about 5 feet or so - finally gets up and wobbles around in a drunken sleep stupor, pops his hat on sideways and wanders to one booth, only to find that it's not his booth.

Then he steps to the adjacent booth, realizes he's missing his stamp and then wanders back to his neighbors' booth fumbling around for the right stamp. Finally after 5 minutes of fumbling and bumbling he stamps my book and collapses back in a heap on his mattress.

Security was a no brainer after that.

Oh my Word. Only in Africa, I suppose.



Royal Air Maroc leaves Accra, Ghana at 3:40 AM, then hops over to Coutonou, Benin, a 50 minute flight before flying back to Casablanca and arriving at 9:30 am. We land in Coutonou somewhere around 4 am... the plane doesn't take off again for a while, until maybe 5 or 6? Then the lights go off. Some hours later, I am rudely shoved awake and the tray table slams down - "Le Petit Dejuener!" I am barked at to eat breakfast.

So in one night, I am rudely awaked 3 times, and exhausted from the heat, then the cold, and the shuffle. Horrible ordeal. I will give credit to Air Maroc - their planes are clean, fairly well maintained and the staff speak french, arabic and english. Although the english at 4 am is so fast and slurred sometimes I can't even understand it.

We arrive at Casablanca airport and immediately the difference is there; its much like a european airport. Few people on this flight are actually disembarking here; most are connecting.

One Ghanian complains about lost luggage... they seem to lose the luggage here a lot. It took me nearly 2 hrs to get my luggage. He got his earlier, and it was lock broken, thoroughly searched. I know my pack was checked in at the same time; there is no reason for me not to get it. I know they are testing my patience. So I wait.

It pays off. I get my luggage by 11:30 am from the transit staff who look at me sheepishly. Much of the conversation is french/arabic. They are a bit standoffish. a lot of angry people waiting for their luggage. The line is long. I am ready to fall asleep.

I decide to take the train into casa from the airport - its well connected, convenient. Most people who run businesses speak english these days, with a few of the older generation speaking french only. it pays to know french, even if its really bad. The train costs only 35 Dhrm into the city, instead of 300 Dhrms by taxi.

At this time of year, march, morocco is really green, pastoral.


The train dumps in the city at this station called Casa Voyageurs. It is maddness again, but with light skinned people; they are suddenly hassling us, demanding where to go. I am really fed up. I just want to get to a place and sleep. I don't care and I end up paying probably triple? but after all of that it doesn't even matter anymore. There are two classes of taxis, the small red ones should operate on meters but they harass tourists that have no idea with a prix fixe. With the french influence, these taxis are all tiny renaults with a flat yellow sign on top that reads "Petit Taxi" in french and arabic.

The taxi driver is a little bit of an old kook. He doesn't know where we're going, even though he has the address. We drive across the streets and half way across a main boulevard he slams on the breaks to avoid two giant white horses, completely decked out with arabian seat covers, and a old man and a young boy riding each in traditional moroccan costume. We detour and drive into this area with lots of arches and shops. He pulls aside and says ' wait here '. I am dazed. There are people sitting in a cafe drinking coffee on one side, with silverware and rugs for sale. On the other side a donkey tries to squeeze by in a street that really looks like its meant for pedestrians only. 2 minutes pass and he's back. We drive on, through twisted streets and then on to large boulevards. All the buildlings here are white, they look a little like the ones in Dar es Salaam but in much better condition. And the climate for me, is livable and breathable - it is dry, cool.


I don't spend much time in casa, actually spend most of it trying to catch up on sleep. I only head to the mall to get some toothpaste and that is it. Just walking around - It is really hard to tell who is or isn't a moroccan. A few times Spanish or Moroccan could be interchangeable. Lots of dark swarthy looking men. Arabic looking women.

I'm on the train to Marrakesh the next day. Its a 3 hr ride south. I meet two extremely tall dutch guys who are also going there. An older brother and his younger teenage step brother. We have two hours to kill and they tell me stories of traveling through Turkey.

In contrast to the overcast cloudly and mildly polluted casablanca, Marrakesh's sunny mediterranean climate is a welcome change.

We get to Marrakesh and these two brothers look kind of lost. I know where I want to go; there is a great hostel here called Equity Point - which actually in my opinion is probably the best place I stayed, period. It is really more like a Riad, than anything else. The taxi driver is demanding 50 Dhms. I am saying, are you kidding. The two brothers look at me like they don't know how to negotiate. I keep bargaining. The guy is a hard head. I get him finally to agree to take us for 40. It should be 20-30. And I know with my directions that he can't get us to the door; I'm staying in an area where no cars are allowed, close to the famous Djemma el-fna.

Djemma el-fna.

Completely blew away my expectations.

This is a place to get lost. if you uncertainty bothers you; it might be a good idea not to travel here... The real life turns up after dark. That's when all the food stands pop open. everything from Tajine, shish kabobs, snail soup, sheep heads, to chocolate mousse, carts full of french pasteries.... you can sit here and eat forever. The food is delicious, and cooked right in front of you. Of course the sweets are good - a lot of french influence on the cuisine.
Plus, the entertainment.... it is a veritable circus of sensory delights: snake charmers, henna artists, story tellers, belly dancers, drummers, bands, people in traditional costumes strutting around, shishas blowing about. If you get bored by the happenings in the middle of the square you can always entertain yourself by shopping in the maze of souks surrounding the medina. There are spice racks, dried fruit stands, orange juice vendors, artisianal pottery, everything moroccan.

What amazes me, is despite all the foot traffic, the streets are really clean, well lit and safe to wander around. A little crowded at times, with the motorbikes, vespas, donkey carts and pedestrians all competing to get by. But it adds so much character to the place. Its not just for tourists, locals come to the souks and eat in the Djemma. Some of the storytellers, herbal fetish vendors tell their tales completely in arabic, and are surrounded by moroccans listening anxiously; of what I don't know, unfortunately.

The people, amazingly diverse, friendly. The women are allowed to dress liberally, or traditionally, their choice. As with most islamic countries you have the call to worship from the minarets, but its not "in-your-face" like it was in tanzania. They don't blast it so loudly you can't sleep. In fact, I didn't have a hard time sleeping there at all.

I did get sick for one day unfortunately. The second morning in marrakesh I ran a fever. I was really scared at first, because I wasn't sure if it was malaria from ghana. But after several liters of water, rest, and tabs of the local vitamin c fortified asprin, I was better within 15 hrs or so. We hit the hammam the next day when I felt better; this was a really neat experience - to be scrubbed, steamed and massaged in a bath house with other women; a tradition here.

DSCN1997 If I could trade another 2,3,4 weeks to stay here in morocco, I would. But, plans change.... I promise myself I am going to come back here to finish my visit someday.

My plane leaves for the states from Casablanca. On my return trip, when I get to the train station, I ask for a metered taxi. In fact, I start demanding it and everything en francais - " Il faut que vous tournez le conteur ou ..... pas irai!". The minute I say it - all the hassling taxi drivers look the other way. Some shake their heads. Plus, I only want to go a short ways. No interest. Aha! I keep asking for it, and finally get one that will take me. He has another lady in the back seat and appears to group his rides....

After confirming where I want to go, he runs off to get some change and says he'll be back in a minute. A hear a small voice from the back of the taxi, she says "er, Do you speak English?"


Ah, yes! wow, do I speak english? So I find out that the lady in the taxi is actually a local casablancan - who insists on a meter - because they would otherwise overcharge. I tell her I came from Marrakesh, and she actually the same - She asks how long, and I said I was only here for 5 days. She said it was too short. 5 days is too short for Marrakesh. Wow. I feel the same. I could spend a month in Marrakesh and it would make me happy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Americans, History & Ghana

DSCN1698Akwaaba. Welcome to Ghana, is what the sign at the airport says. I arrive with a bit of intrepidation because I have NO idea what Ghana is like. Except that I know that Marci has moved here recently. Something about traveling for several month just emboldens a person lots so you forget the "what-ifs" and just go.

The plane is freezing cold but the minute off the flight; it is a goddamn sauna. And it's nearing midnight. Customs is long; there's a separate line for ECOWAS, but even the south african shuffle though that line for West Africans; so typical I think to myself. The taxi drivers don't know where my hostel is. So Typical. But I am prepared. Armored with info. I figured this as much because I had the same trouble in Pretoria a week ago. I have to read the directions and simultaneously get smothered and hit on by the taxi driver. It is all in good fun. I just roll my eyes. Just get me there. No more talking please. I need sleep.


I think of East africa, and I brace myself for the hassle in the streets, touts and people following me anywhere. BUT - it doesn't happen here in Accra. ok, maybe only 10x less. I will explain why .

It is a lot hotter here in Ghana than it was in East Africa. I don't know if it has anything to do with the time of year but apparently this isn't the rainy season. 91 degrees Farenheit on average every day in ridiculous humidity. Rain is sporadic, and it doesn't stay wet long. People run around the street with bags of plastic water stuffed in their mouth as they work on the streets. Water in bags. Ice cream is also sold in bags. Of course you can get it in a bottle or in a box, but the cheap stuff is all in a bag. People chew off a corner of the sack, spit it out and then walk around with a bag stuck to their mouth.

These bags of water, ice cream, and more are all sold in traffic to ward off the heat. Accra has a huge traffic congestion problem. By midday expect most of the major streets through the city centre to be bumper to bumper. Cars, trucks, trotros, coaches, back to back and neck to neck. With a large percentage of the population unemployed many people make their living hawking goods on the street, as in many parts of africa. But compared to east africa, I have never seen such a large group of people and with so many diverse items sold in traffic. They really take advantage of the standstill traffic to sell stuff to people sweltering in the heat. You can buy everything in traffic.... super glue, socks, pants, notebooks, laptop cases, french-english translation dictionaries, chips, popcorn, lunch, drinks, flags of the USA, Canada, australia, ... they seem to like americans a lot here.

You just die in the heat. I fork out a 5 Cedi bill for a giant bottle of water. 4 Cedis come back through the window. I give the driver 3 Cedis, "that's for you" I said. The driver is sweating buckets, and the 3 Cedis go back out the window to buy several packs of ice cream and water. Ah, so that's where your money goes. I lay in the back, and wish for some air conditioning now.....

Accra has become a major business center. Also, LOTS of expatriates here. Tons of volunteers, peace corps, university students from abroad, hospital exchange programs, business people from the USA, Canada, Lebanon, India.... etc etc. It's a very safe city. The traffic can be a bit hectic and of course you have tro-tros ( their bus-taxi equivalent ) but I feel a heck of lot calmer here. People are pretty easy to deal with you don't have as much inflated prices for foreigners (oboroni - person who comes from beyond the horizon). In fact, I got into a tro-tro today and paid the guy 20 pesewas, and he gave me 5 back in change. I didn't want the change. I gave the 5 back to him. They see so many volunteers, business people and academics who come to study abroard, they don't bother trying to hawk more money from foreigners. Unless it is a taxi driver and a few people selling goods in more touristy markets.

But as a whole there isn't much tourism here; there isn't the draw you get for east africa, because most of the animals have been killed off. People come here for different reasons. They come for the drumming, the music, the culture, and the people. The people here are very nice, and it's really safe. It's squeezed in between several francophone countries; you can hop across the border to Togo, Cote d'ivoire and they're completely french.

The money here was recently revalued and the current exchange is 1.4 Ghana Cedi's to 1 USD. 100 pesewas make up 1 Cedi.

Accra is an odd place. Before independence, it was a British colony. But here they don't drive on the other side of the road. They drive on the same side as we do in the states. And everybody speaks English.

However, despite the English; few people here know where anything is. Is it the accent? No, because they know where major landmarks are. But once you start getting specific, like street names, places that are new or off the beaten track, they look at you and say they have no idea. After a week or so, it's not that they don't understand you; they really don't know street names.

The people here - they remember places. they remember circles, big places, gas stations, supermarkets. But they don't know the name of the street, or the number on the buildings. Taxi drivers will just look at you blankly and drive past if they don't know where you want to go. No, you don't want to make any money today?, I say. Funny.
Cape Coast
A must see if you are interested in African American history. This town was once the capital of Ghana. In the colonial days, Ghana was known as the Gold Coast. Literally there is gold here, underfoot. Ghana also produces a tremendous amount of cocoa, like its next door neighbor, Cote d'ivoire. But, despite this, you won't find a lot of chocolate made here; most of the chocolate is made in belgium, switzerland. Something about politics and subsidies and facilities. I won't get into that here.

Every major european country wanted a piece of Cape Coast - they fought endless wars over it. Strategically it was really valuable. It was the major hub for the slave trade to the americas and the caribbean. The dutch, The portugese, the french, the swedes, the british.... eventually the british got it and controlled it and built this fort to export slaves, a place called Cape Coast Castle. Its' actually a well built fort; and honestly after seeing Zanzibar, the space that the british kept slaves in appeared to be a lot better than Stone Town Zanzibar. That's the one thing I hated about stone town; i went to a lot of the historical sites and through the winding streets. It had such a contorted twisted horrible feel to it. It really left me uneasy, sick. The arabs traded slaves there as well; to where I don't know.

Some americans come every year to visit cape coast castle, and place rememberances there within the slave dungeons. As for celebrities; word has it that Serena Williams visits Elimina every year - another fort/town about 10km from Cape Coast.

But, as for Independence from colonialism.... the roots started here in Ghana. Ghana won independence in 1957, on March 06. Last friday was the 52nd year of independence. Independence celebrations are like the US, a bit more subdued.... but they do deck out the entire stadium and downtown and have a giant parade. People are very patriotic, lots of gold, red and green. The first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkurmah is known for inspirating Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in the USA. Also, W.E.B Dubois - first black american to graduate from Harvard is buried here. He actually moved here in the last two years of life to work on chronicles of african countries and to work on "pan-africanism". They were really trying to build a united Africa - one africa, not the africa like you see today with many small countries, cut up along colonial divisions... What they wanted was something massive like how China is. But unfortunately there was a lot of fall out. Also Nkurmah was exiled in his last days, some say because of mismangement, but others say because it was a CIA plot.... of the interesting characters I've met, I heard that from the son of the guy who worked as Nkurmah's personal press - reporter. How true I don't know.

Cape Coast is a small town and actually pleasant to walk around....admist the goats wandering the street and the sewage, but that's another matter. It is significantly cooler than accra, and little traffic. Outside of Accra it can be difficult to get around because there aren't as many trotros and you have to take a taxi, which adds up fast.

My gut feeling is that Ghana is still extremely valuable as a strategic point for the US. I went past the US embassy and it is one monster of a structure. Really ridiculous how obscenely big it is. Also ran into some marine corp soldiers, although they weren't soldiers...they were the marine corps band! Their only purpose - the entertain the troops. Thanks. so that's were our tax payer dollars are going.

If I had more time, I would have traveled north to Kumasi; they say there is a huge market there, and people say you can see more of the traditional ashanti culture there; although the bus ride was 5 hrs and I was too lame for that.... and then further north to Larabanga. Larabanga is one of the oldest mud structures - it is a mosque, and is known as the Mecca of West Africa.


I'm getting a bit tired of traveling. Being here in Ghana is making me somewhat immune to really enjoying africa, I feel like I've seen enough of the same thing over and over again.

Originally I had planned to go home 2 weeks ago, after vic falls. I extended it to come to Ghana. Really ready for something else, preferably home? Originally I was considering a border hop to see more of Francophone west africa - to lome in Togo, but I am so tired I'm staying put here in Accra for a few more days. My plane leaves to Casablanca on Saturday night at 3am - that's tonight.. Not looking forward to that.

I had plans to go through Europe before heading back. But the last couple of days have been lethargic..........I can't describe it - perhaps its the weather here, but I don't have the energy to go exploring, to brave the maddness of the crowds, the excitment isn't there, I have seen TOO much africa, yet at the same time, I am realizing, ironically how LITTLE of africa I actually have seen.

I am feeling really lucky that I've been able to see so much so far, but at the same time; I think I have overdosed on shooting from the hip and "just going".

Keep in mind, all of the traveling I've done since the beginning of this year has been ALONE.


Nobody is going to any place with me. Scary thought. It's so dangerous, people say - that continent africa. But its not entirely, you *can* be safe and just play it by ear. Talk to lots of travelers. Look dirt poor. Pretend that you work for the Peace Corps or just look the part. Some people think I'm nuts. Sometimes I think the same. But the rewards of doing this by yourself is really great - reap massive rewards. And see what you really want to see. Meet lots of really interesting and great people along the way. Make some awesome friends. Feel crummy when you have to part your ways. And then meet some crazies along the way. Feel relieved when you get to ditch them. And not feel guilty.

Things you learn on the road, you can never learn in school. And I mean it. 4 freaking years of university education will never teach you how to live like this, and how other people live in different parts of the world. An education from books won't teach you how to shoot from the hip; move to another place when ever you feel like it. Or to deal with touts, and the hassle and to qualify travelers and people on the road at the drop of a hat. You learn to go with your gut. And to listen to the locals and to find out what's there under the surface that the ordinary tourist doesn't want to know or doesn't care to know. There are days when I've literally packed up at 4pm and decided to haul ass to the next town instead of staying here because word is, the party's better over there. haha. Feel the freedom of not having to be locked down in one stupid country with one stupid set of rules that you might not like today.

Unfortunately my curiousity is dying. I just crashed this week. Hard. I have one more place I must absolutely see, and then...I caved. I have mixed feelings about returning to the states. But you know, there is no place like home. Today I just booked all my tix home. Yes, this whole time --- I have no valid return ticket. Until now.


A week to kill, so I go visit Soweto and the Swazis

Week of February 21 - 28

I get super lucky and manage to get all my paperwork in on monday morning for my visa to Ghana. It says 3 working days, but like everything here, it would be longer. So I budgeted a week to stay in South Africa. I can get my visa back within 24 hrs, actually for an extra 20 USD.
With time to kill, I get out of Pretoria to Swaziland, now that I have a passport.


It looks like South Africa but is governed separately. There is also a swazi king who gets to pick a new wife later this year. He already has a dozen or so wives. While the government is independent from RSA, they still share a lot of the same infrastructure. One thing that is obvious though is that swaziland is a very homogeneous culture. They all speak their own language - swazi and take pride in being an independent nation. There are plenty of NGOs that work with local communities in various crafts to help provide a living to large groups of people. The money is different but it has the same value as the rand. I meet some peace corp workers on break. I hear they get updates on their cell phones for potentially dangerous places to avoid in swaziland.


I did a short tour of soweto before climbing on my flight to accra. We learn about the history and its role in the anti-apartheid movement from our guide. Later we visit a museum named after a young boy called Hector. He was one of the kids in 1976 that was gunned down by the police because he didn't want to learn Afrikaans in school. Really horrifying the stories and documentaries. Afrikaans, a language that is similar to and created by the dutch settlers, was forced upon the colored & black populations as a form of control. We also saw desmond tutus and nelson mandelas homes. Very touristy - tutu's backyard.

Some short notes about Zambia

While I was in Vic Falls, I did the border cross to Zambia in order to get supplies, like food, money, etc.

Because of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, there isn't much to buy on the street. Most of the people cart stuff over the border

Seen at the border: Long line leaving Zim. Short line going back in. The border post has a special offer - no cost- for nationals who want to cross over to zambia for the day before 6am. Apparently so many have been going back and forth over the border to get goods from Zambia, they were trying to divert traffic.

By 10am, the border on the Zim side was packed. Waited about 2 hrs to get over to the other side. No touts, few money changers and relatively peaceful. The most excitement we got were from some of the baboons who kept running around trying to steal bread from people's bikes and bags.

The distance between the two border posts is pretty long. I would estimate that it is a 1km walk between the two, but I could be wrong because it was so hot.

It is cheaper for americans to enter Zimbabwe and then go to Zambia, then the reverse.

If you enter Zimbabwe, the USA single entry is 30 USD or 210 Rands (21USD).
Once you are in Zimbabwe, to enter Zambia it is only 20 USD for a day visa. They didn't even look twice at my visa on my way back into Zimbabwe and didn't ask for anything.

If you enter Zambia, the Visa is 50USD, and then to cross the border to Zimbabwe, it is another 50 USD.

You can walk the crossing, which includes the bridge over Vic Falls, and do a bungee jump along the way, or be lazy and cab it over to the Zambia side. Once you are past the Zambia border check, it's a taxi for about 2-3 USD to get to Livingstone, the nearest major town in Zambia.

During my walk across, I meet a woman who from Zimbabwe - she lives halfway between Harare and Bulawayo and is on her way to spend a month working/living in Namibia. There are a lot of people who are doing this. I help her carry her bags across the border. From talking to her, I'd estimate that probably a good 80% of the country has exited to any of the 5-6 neighboring countries for either temporary or permanent work.

I'm not familiar with livingstone, but she is; so we split a taxi over to the town. I ask for a place to shop and an ATM, she points me out to this giant 1st world market thing that looks like a Stop and Shop. I'm like um.... that's ok. we have plenty of those in the states. Let's go straight to town. So that's what we do. She is going to take the bus from Livingstone to Windhoek and then go from there.

There are nice commercial markets in Livingston. It is fairly busy and business is good. Tons of taxi drivers and a thriving market. I also visit a local market and hunt around for items. It is cleaner than the ones in east africa. I stumble across a zambian that actually speaks Swahili. Which is fair, since the tanzanian border is not that far away. I buy a lock from him because I lost mine. In contrast, the Zimbabweans that I run into haven't heard of sounds like chinese to them.