S: West Africa Oct/Nov 2010
BC: Wish you were here!
FC: West Africa | Photography by Laura Watilo Blake
2: Dakar is located on the Cape Verde Peninsula, the westernmost point of Africa. | Senegal
3: Goree Island is a postcard-perfect place and a great destination close to the city of Dakar. But it has a dark history . . .
4: Between the 16th and 19th centuries, nearly 20 million Africans were captured as slaves; and many of them passed through the "door of no return" at the Maison des Esclaves and were shipped to the Americas. Some never survived the journey.
7: ON THE ROCKS Goree Island
9: The ferry to Goree Island from Dakar takes 20 minutes and costs $10.
10: A rose by any other name Today, we escaped the city and headed to Lac Rose (aka Rose Lake or Lac Retba), most well known for its magic trick. At certain times, under certain conditions, it appears as if it is pink. I think it has something to do with its high salt content, which is higher than the ocean's. We should have played "I Spy" on the way there and back. I spied a monkey tied to the top of a moving bus. He was just hanging out on the tire on the roof. I spied many beautiful, brightly dressed women. Some of them carried heavy loads on their heads with seemingly no effort at all. One carried a propane tank; another wore bananas better than Carmen Miranda. I spotted multi-colored donkey carts. I saw a large umbrella with shoes hanging off it. By the time we reached the lake, I swear I’d seen it all, except for the pink color. It looked orange, which is the color of the sand and soil leading up to it. The only way to see the advertised color is to wear rose-colored glasses, I guess. Luckily, I had some with me–no lie! After ditching the agressive touts, we found a great hotel/restaurant/pool, where we had a great meal just inches from the edge of the lake, then went swimming in the buoyant water. The lake has a salt content that is 10 times greater than the ocean’s. When it was time to head back, we asked our driver to take us down to where salt was being harvested out of the lake. It was the same place that was featured in a season of Amazing Race a few years ago. The teams had to dig up a certain amount of salt before receiving their next clue. It was a lot of work; it made me thirsty just thinking about it. Actually, it must have been all the salt from my swim leeching the moisture out of my body. We sucked dry another big bottle of water on the drive home, and then drank some more.
12: LAC ROSE is so named for its pink waters, caused by cyanobacteria in the water. The color is particularly visible during the dry season. The lake is also known for its high salt content, which, like that of the Dead Sea, allows people to float easily. The lake also has a small salt collecting industry and is often the finishing point of the Dakar Rally.
13: Many salt collectors work 6–7 hours a day in the lake, which has a salt content close to 40%. In order to protect their skin, they rub their skin with "Beurre de Karité" (shea butter, produced from shea nuts obtained from the Shea nut tree), which is an emollient used to avoid tissue damage. This lake was used on a task of the Amazing Race 6 in which teams had to collect salt in a basket from the bottom of the lake floor.
14: Early morning flight to Bamako, the capital of Bamako, then a long bus ride to Mopti the next day. From there, we embarked on a journey through Dogon country . . . | Mali
15: DEAR ONE, THIS LETTER IS TO ADVICE YOU OF A MESSAGE FROM THE ESTEEMED HIGH HOLY PRINCE AGIDOU FROM THE JOKO TRIBE IN THE REPUBLIC OF MALI. THE HOLY ONE CHOSEN JENNIFER CORSO AND LAURA BLAKE TO BE SECOND AND THIRD WIVES. IN HONOR OF PRIVILEGES, PRINCE AGUIDOU WISH MAKE GIFT OF 1.000.000 DOLLARS U.S. TO MAKE POSSIBLE THIS BESTOWMENT, PLEASE SEND 99 DOLLARS U.S. TO WESTERN UNION IN TIMBOUCTOU. TO COMPLETE TRANSACTION PLEASE ALSO POST M&M CANDY, PLAIN AND NOT PEANUT, AS THE PRINCE ALLERGIC. ALSO, PLEASE TO REMOVE ALL YELLOW M&MS DUE TO YELLOW COLOR BELONGS TO NEIGHBORING TRIBE THAT WE DON’T LIKE. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. MR. HA HA jOKHANYU REPRESENTATIVE TO PRINCE AGUIDOU, REPUBLIC OF MALI | BAOBAB TREE
16: Three days in Dogon Country We trekked from village to village in the Dogon region, situated along the Bandiagara escarpment, a long ridge that stretches north to south for many miles. The landscape looks a lot like the American Southwest, with vast stretches of open land and sandstone cliffs with ancient cliff dwellings tucked in. Below the cliff dwellings, or on top of the escarpment, people live just as their ancestors did — growing crops like millet (the most important mainstay), beans, gourds, peanuts, chilli peppers and squash. To do a visit right, we hired an English-speaking Dogon guide by asking around at our Mopti hotel, Mac's Refuge, when we first arrived. That’s how we met Seydou Guindo (www.seydou.eu). We negotiated the price for three days: $40/day for both of us including all the village fees, transportation, lodging and meals.
18: We visited the villages of Djigibombo, Kani Kombole, Telli, Ennde, Begnemato and Indale. In Kani Kombole, it was market day with people trading their wares; Telli had amazing cliff dwellings; Ennde was great for shopping. But Begnemato was my favorite, not only for the incredible location at the top of the escarpment in a canyon, but also for the people. The village chief greeted us warmly, and we met the medicine man, who has a great sense of humor. He seems to enjoy giving strange medicine to foreigners and seeing what happens. He placed a powdered mixture under my nose and a few minutes latter, I was sneezing uncontrollably. He and his family were laughing at usall in good fun.
21: Each day, lunch was followed by a required siesta. The encampments in each of the villages provide mattresses that they put out on the dirt floors for napping or relaxing. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we’d trek again to the next village, where we would walk around, hang out at the “campement” until dinner, eat more onion and tomato sauce over either macaroni, spaghetti or couscous (affectionately called Spaghetti Dogonesa), then stumble in the dark to our mosquito net-covered mattresses on the roof and fall asleep sweating. Morning came early, thanks to the sounds of the village stirring. First it might be a mule braying for whatever reason, then the other mules in the village would respond, quite loudly. That might die down, but then the roosters would start in. A baby would cry, then I could hear the families begin to clank pans in preparation for breakfast. The time, you ask? About 5:30 in the morning. From my rooftop perch, I watched as the village came to life. A group of women and girls gathered under a tree to pound the millet they would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pestle was a thick 6-foot-long log that they would lift and slam over and over into hollowed wooden tree stump containing the grain that sustains them. The women are amazing — and strong. Another group is heading back from the well to fetch water for the day’s chores. These ladies can balance a five-gallon bucket full of liquid on their head like it is nothing and still be smiling and shaking hands with strange “toobabs” like us.
22: A Dogon woman raises her hands to thank Amma, or god, for the kola nut she receives from a visitor. Kola nuts, which are rather addictive, are given to village elders as a show of respect.
23: We celebrated Jennifer's birthday with a boat ride in Mopti, once we came back from the Dogon. Then, we were off to Timbuktu . . .
24: To get there, we boarded a 19-seater prop plane in Mopti, along with a group of travel agents from Europe on a fam trip, and we instantly felt like we were back in the American Midwest. There was some Jimmy Buffet being piped into the cabin. When the captain began announcements, we were flabbergasted — this guy was 100 percent American. “Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in such a way that a morning radio talk show host would envy. “We have one of the best flight attendants in Mali working for us . . . Unfortunately, she’s not here today. Instead, you have Monsieur Bamato. He’s okay, too.” Jenny and I laughed. “Wow, what is this guy doing in Mali,” I wondered outloud. Jenny responded: “He’s probably a retiree just flying to keep his license active.” When the flight was nearly over, the flight attendant told us that we could go visit the American pilot in the cockpit. But only one of us could go. Jennifer was closer to the door, and it was still close to her birthday, so I didn’t fight it. As it turned out, the guy (Noah from Connecticut) was pretty young and he came to Africa to take a job with Mali Air Express, because jobs were scarce in the United States. Instead of sending Jennifer back to her seat next to me, Noah asked her if she wanted to stay while the plane landed. “I can do that?” she asked. He simply responded: “This is Africa.” So there she was, in the cockpit, for the landing in Timbuktu — probably one of the most unforgettable experiences she’ll ever have. | From here to Timbuktu Timbuktu is not the kind of place that would stick in your mind if it weren’t for its famous name, synonymous for being in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a small dusty town, with a large number of museums, living in the shadow of its former glory as an important trading center on the camel caravan trail.
28: Dr. TRAORE Halimatou KONE Chef de Service Contrle de Qualité Laboratoire Central Vétérinaire Km8 Route de Koulikoro Bamako, Mali Bp 2295 Tel (223) 20 24 33 44 Cell (223) 76 28 69 72 Fax (223) 20 24 98 09 email: firstname.lastname@example.org | We met incredibly friendly and warm people during our travels, including Halimatou (below). We met her on our flight from Timbuktu to Bamako. We had eight hours to kill before flying back to Dakar, so she took us around Bamako for the day, fed us and gave us a place to take showers.
29: The Gambia
30: “Have you met Charlie?” For roughly a dollar, we’ve bought ourselves a guide to lead us to the Kachikally Crocodile Pool, and he’s even offered to explain the story behind the sacred spot, which is home to 100 crocodiles, that has been an important fixture in the local Bojang community for more than 100 years. Some believe the spot has magical healing powers. Infertile women from all over the country, and beyond, will bathe in water from the pool by a specially trained woman from the Bojang clan, with the hope of conceiving a child. Many boys and girls have been circumcized here between the enormous roots of a banyan tree on site. But most outsiders, like us, come to pet the crocodiles. When we approach, there are five sleeping on the edge of the green, algae-covered pool. “They look dead,” I said. “Or tranquilized.” But upon closer inspection, their eyes are open. Oh my god. I am standing next to a crocodile. This is crazy. The employee reassures us that we can touch the crocodile. “It’s okay. It won’t hurt you. We feed them very well.”
31: So I approach gingerly from behind, as far away from the sharp teeth as possible, while plotting an escape route should I need it. I reach out and touch its hard scaly back, then move my hand towards its belly, where the tissue is softer — with the texture and feel of a slightly deflated soccer ball. Wow. This is stupid. Nearby, another crocodile opened its mouth into a wide yawn and froze that way. “He is doing that to cool down.” As we walked around the pool, we hardly noticed there were several more crocodiles on shore because they blended in with the dirt. Standing on the edge of the pool, we also started to pick out the creatures lurking in the murky green water. Sneaky buggers. I could make out just the spine of one that looked like a tree branch, and the eyes of another that stared at us intently. Wow. Never in a million years would I imagine that I would be voluntarily placing myself in the path of a crocodile. I have to admit that this was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in The Gambia — except maybe for the relentless touts that follow us everywhere.
32: Stranded at the Butcher Shop On our last day in The Gambia, I thought it might be a great idea to rent bicycles. The advantages were two-fold. First, we’d get to see a lot more of the Atlantic Coast. Second, we’d be able to outrun the hordes of touts trying to devise ways to relieve us of our hard-earned dalasis. What we didn’t expect was a torrential downpour to hit just moments after we got our bikes. It had been sunny and hot all morning, but the minute we started riding, there was a thunder clap. We at least wanted to get to our chosen venue for lunch before the storm hit. My feet pedalled faster and faster, but I couldn’t outrun the rain. It began to sprinkle slightly. Within 15 minutes, we arrived at The Butchers Shop (more on that in a minute), parked our bikes and just seconds later, the light rain turned into a monsoon. Phew! I was wet, but not completely soaked. For the next two hours, we were stranded, while the rain continued. But we couldn’t think of a better place to be stuck than at a popular restaurant with a Sunday buffet that is to die for. I don’t think we had better cuisine in all of our three weeks. The restaurant is owned by Driss, a Moroccan TV celebrity chef, and he was there during our visit.
34: The view from The Brazzerade, a beachfront hotel in Dakar.
37: Artist Amadu Makhtar Mbaye (Tita) at the Village des Artes in Dakar.
39: Napping on N'Gor Pirogues, which leave frequently for N’Gor Island, are located no more than 20 steps away from my hotel, La Brazzerade. The five-minute ride (500CFA or $1), takes you a world away from the hustle, or hustlers, and bustle on the mainland. Narrow alleyways lead past beautiful mansions behind beautiful gates covered with bougainvillea. It’s a far cry from the shanty town around my hotel, where I saw a woman throw a bucket of urine into the lapping waves washing up on the beach. The island beaches, aptly name Big Beach and Little Beach, are definitely cleaner, but I steered clear of the water, but for some limited wading in a sheltered cove. As afternoon set in, more and more people arrived from the mainland to frolic on the beaches. I finally decided to leave my beach umbrella and wander around the island a bit. The Atlantic side of the island was deserted except for a few empty benches for looking out over the ocean. As I approached the main beach, I could hear the sound of djembe drums emanating from a home, while a few rasta types danced on the sandy walkway between the houses. Pretty soon, I could hear the drone of the pirogue motor approaching. The minute it comes ashore, people start piling in for the return journey home. Home. That has a nice ring to it. I’ll be there soon.