One thing that Café Sophia is good for, is meeting people. Possibly because there is nowhere else in Praia where you can sit out under a parasol, drink a beer and watch the world go by. Today passed like a tag team of people coming and going. I sat and chatted with Maggie from Zimbabwe and Debbie from Connecticut, whom I had met a few weeks(!) ago, together with their mate Tomic from Poland, who is studying Cape Verde Anthropology. Might I suggest he start by looking under some rocks?
They were relieved by Colin, an English guy who was working for a GPS company setting up relay stations and the like. Then we were joined by Margarita, a lady born in Britain, raised in Africa, a citizen of Spain now living on the island of Maio. She’s in her 60s, but still works as a builder. True! I’d been talking to her the week before, when she was with her younger friend Anna, who was ridiculously good looking. She had gone back to Spain. Shame.
Then I met a lovely girl from Freetown in Sierra Leone called Nazia and her mate, before settling down to a good old fashioned game of chess against Yuri. The funny thing is that everyone I spoke to today seemed to be waiting for something. I’m waiting for the p—ing Micau to leave, Maggie is waiting for her passport to return from Copenhagen, Colin is waiting for his GPS equipment to arrive, Margarita is waiting for her niece to get here from the Canary Islands (the CV airline wouldn’t let her on the plane without some purely needless bureaucracy – SURPRISE, SURPRISE!) and Yuri is waiting on his girl from Switzerland to get here – she’s currently stuck in Portugal. All of us have in some way been slowed down, hindered, disrupted or inconvenienced by the powers that be, here in Cape Verde.
I need to get out. This isn’t funny anymore.
Day 183: The Lost Month
So we settle into July and I have here, a blog of my time spent sitting around in Cape Verde waiting to get the hell out as soon as possible.
I’ve kind of given up a little. I don’t believe that the Micau is EVER going to leave so I’m looking for alternatives. Today, I went with Margarita to talk to all the shipping companies in Praia, but none of them go to Dakar, the closest is the Manx Lion (the captain of which, I spoke to the other week), which will be leaving at the end of the month for Banjul in Gambia.
THE END OF THE MONTH.
I met a top bloke from the Maersk Line, but the only way to Dakar would be a trip of a few thousand miles north to SPAIN, change there and head back down to Dakar. Not really an option.
Meanwhile, the crane guys turned up today to take the fishing boat to the port, only to find that there was another bit of paper (the Cape Verdeans LOVE their f***ing bits of paper) that they needed to take the Pirogue away. So Val, the rather disreputable character who had been ‘helping’ me out this week, summoned another hundred Euros out of me to pay for their time. Whether he actually gave it to the crane guys is another matter.
Day 184: Groundhog Day
SO DID THE MICAU LEAVE TODAY?
DID IT HELL!!
Yesterday, I went to speak to the Captainere Du Port and he presented me with a checklist of TWENTY things that need to be repaired on the Micau before they will let it sail.
They say next Wednesday.
I had a bit of a freak out in the port, and one of the port workers came over and poured water over my head to try to bring me out of it. Well…if I can’t have a tantrum after all that’s happened to me here, I don’t know when I can bloody well have one!
I’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS PLACE IF IT’S THE LAST THING I EVER DO.
A couple of weeks ago, I met an American girl named Callie Flood, who was ex-peace corps. After running into her again today (and the predictable “ARE YOU STILL HERE?” question that always comes up), she put me in touch – through her mate Rachelle – with a German guy named Milan who was on Maio, the island a few miles east of here. Milan has a sail boat. He went on theodysseyexpedition.com, watched a bit of the web vids, which are now (thankfully) back online. I spoke to him on the phone – I had barely finished explaining the situation before he said the magic words.
YES – IT’S POSSIBLE.
What? You’ll bring your yacht here and pick me up and take me the 400 miles to Dakar?
I danced a ****ing jig.
However, the boat required some repairs before it would be seaworthy, but he assured me we would be on our way by the end of the week.
And when a German says that, you know it’s TRUE.
I may have to wait a little while longer, but with any luck, this will be my last ever week stuck in the vile clutches of Cape Verde.
Day 186: The Bitter Pillory
Yesterday, I met a bloody fascinating American guy named Gary. He’s lived for over thirty years in West Africa, specifically Liberia and Sierra Leone. He was there during the wars, working for the UN and development agencies.
We will learn more of his wisdom later. Today, we met up at Café Sophia before heading over to one of the more swanky hotels to meet with Colin – the GPS guy – and to watch the Wimbledon final.
Freed from the shackles of being told that the boat is DEFINITELY going to leave tomorrow (it won’t), I took Colin up on his offer to head up to a place called Cidade Velha, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the location of the very first European colony in the tropics. Today is Cape Verde Independence Day, so there was a big crowd down there and some singers and a few television cameras. I even saw the chief from the police station that I was held in, the swine. Still, I gave him a smile and a wave. I’m not one to hold grudges.
Er, actually… I am.
Well, Cidade Velha was underwhelming to say the least. Aside from a couple of nice seafront café shacks and a cobbled square (complete with an old pillory for showing off your latest slave collection), there was rather little to see or do; they must be giving World Heritage Sites away like candy these days. In keeping with the rest of this remarkably unattractive island, the beach was less than impressive, but I guess it was nice to get out of Praia, if only for a few hours.
Day 187: West Africa Wins Again
Today, I was planning to go up the island to the very most northern point, Tarrafel, with Gary the American, but there is a word that you’re going to have to learn. It is “WAWA” and it stands for “West Africa Wins Again”. Gary reckons WAWA has been around since the very first Europeans landed in West Africa and started causing trouble. It goes hand in hand with “West Africa Indigenous Time”, or WAIT.
Gary is trying to get more pages placed in his passport, but this being Cape Verde, things aren’t that simple, so our little excursion to Tarrafel would have to be put off until tomorrow while he FILLS IN POINTLESS REAMS OF PAPERWORK. Which is what I’ve been doing for the last MONTH.
So with nowt much to do, I twiddled my thumbs until they were sore. Yuri’s girlfriend is now here from Switzerland and she’s lovely. Get this – her job is walking St Bernards! How good is that? I wanted to know if she was in charge of filling the little barrels around their necks with whiskey as well, but she claims that’s a myth. Bah! It’s funny – Yuri is desperate to go and live in the Swiss mountains and she wants to come and live in Cape Verde. Like I say, she’s lovely, but perhaps a little nuts!
Oh yeah, did the Micau leave? Well, you can work that one out for yourselves…
Day 188: Bound and Gagged
I set off with Gary over to Tarrafel on the far north of the island (Praia is the far south). We passed through the central mountains on the way there – in between the desolate brown, barren wastes, there were snippets of green – microclimates cause by valleys in the hills. Otherwise, it was like driving on the surface of Mars, only a little less interesting (no supergiant volcanoes on this planet, mores the pity).
The road alternated between dreadful and alright, and we stopped off at villages on the way. I attempted (and failed) to draw a smile out of some of the locals; most were happy to give me that slowly drawn-up vacant stare of indifference one might expect from a grumpy cat observing the dust in its sunbeam.
Tarrafel was okay, I guess…if you like that kind of thing (which I don’t). It’s the only decent beach on the island; there were brightly coloured fishing boats that gave the place a splash of character. The town, such that it is, represented a bomb site.
A rather silly government rule saying that you don’t have to pay tax on an unfinished property means that hundreds of buildings are exactly that – unfinished. The rows and rows of empty, half-built breeze-block hovels set out in a grid pattern vaguely reminiscent of the mock Nevada towns of the 1950s, AFTER they had done the bomb test. Nice!
Anyway, so that’s the ‘pleasant’ bit of Santiago island over and done with. We drove back along the coast road – a wonderful cobbled affair with, I will admit, nice views of the sea. We stopped and grabbed a drink at one of the many black beaches on the island – yes that’s black volcanic sand – a little like sunbathing in a coal skuttle, but the locals seemed to like it.
Gary and I had a really good talk about African history and politics (some of which I’ll draw from when I write about Sierra Leone and Liberia). He was in Rwanda just after the war to help with the rebuilding process. He made the mistake of asking his taxi driver about his family. Finding out that they had all been brutally murdered in front of the driver’s eyes, Gary spent the following few hours consoling the poor guy by the side of the road. There are certain questions you would be wise not to ask in Africa.
Arriving back in Praia, we met up with Colin the GPS guy and went for dinner. Unfortunately, my meal was interrupted by the news that [mmmm] want to [mmmm] the [mmmm] of [mmmm] to [mmmm]. Yes, I can’t actually tell you what’s happening with the [mmmm], because if I do, I’ll get sued. Nice, eh?! As I’ve just spent the last of my savings on chartering the f—ing Micau, I don’t think I’ll be paying up any time soon.
I felt sick and had a little cry. Am I not miserable enough? Hey Mario, I hear you just got out of jail and you’re stuck on a shitty little island in the middle of nowhere… here, eat this black mushroom. That’s the one – with the skull on it, yeah.
Daaaa-Ling ping ping ping ping p-p-ping ba ba bam.
Well, as predicted, the Micau didn’t leave. Christ, they must be running out of excuses now. Maybe a black cat crossed the path of the captain today, or the boatswain shot an albatross or maybe the chief engineer has grown an improbable pair of boobies? Christ knows!
Today, I discovered a hidden delight, courtesy of the lovely American girl Callie. Her boyfriend runs a great little café a little out from the city centre, which is FULL of English-language books (how I’ve missed them!). I WISH I had known about this place a month ago, it would have saved me hours of tedium stuck in Café Sophia. Callie’s boyfriend, Frazer, is a wonderful chap – he speaks with a deep, deep RP British accent that I would have liked to have bottled and taken with me.
Last night, before he left, Colin generously gave me his copy of the excellent, excellent book ‘Real England’ by Paul Kingsnorth. I can NOT recommend it enough. I stayed up all night reading it from cover to cover. It’s written by a bloke about my age, someone who is dead against the likes of the BNP and all that childish nonsense, but who is concerned with the state-sponsored homogenisation of everyday life creeping over our green and pleasant land like HG Wells’ red vegetation of Mars.
In short, we are more interested in preserving the culture of others that we are of preserving our own – to our eternal shame.
If you’ve been following my blogs since the start, you’ll know that one of my biggest bugbears is the triumph of the faceless, corporate blandification of our planet. I keep banging on about this horrible globalised architecture and commodities I find cropping up everywhere, not because I’m some crazed old fuddy-duddy who just likes to cock a snook at modern life, but because it matters. It matters to our collective wellbeing. We are not automatons, not Vulcans, not a bunch of joyless, emotionless Borgs, desperate to fulfil our days as the gimp of stone-faced economists.
We are losing all the stuff that makes us who we are. Our pubs are being taken over my vacuous chain gangs, our post offices are on their last legs, local councils of the 1960s conspired to destroy the historic centres of every single town and replace them with DISGUSTING concrete shopping malls, while the national government ripped out two-thirds of our railways. BT did a cracking job of removing all the Gilbert-Scott phoneboxes in the 1980s, the much-loved Routemaster bus has been replaced by the much lambasted bendy-buses, the countryside is being bought up by the rich as nothing more than a weekend getaway, leaving much of the rural way of life nothing more than a vacant set of houses clustered around an empty pub.
The triumph of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s has been to destroy the traditional high street for the sake of convenience. They are also squeezing the few remaining farmers tighter and tighter. When a British supermarket announces a 2-for-1 offer, it is the farmers or producers that foot the bill, NOT the supermarket. Meanwhile, when the words ‘town hall’, ‘library’ or ‘church’ used to mean the grandest building in the area, although you don’t have to be a professor of art history to realise that since we started crawling through the desert of the municipal bland fifty years ago, they now refer to the mealiest, more cost-effective clumps of Vogon-delighting concrete imaginable.
I am not the only one who despairs at the viral-like spread of these ratholes they call ‘bars’ in the UK – not quite a pub and not quite a nightclub, but somewhere in between where you can be guaranteed that there is nowhere to sit, the music is too loud to chat, you have to wear uncomfortable shoes to get in and there’s no air conditioning, or windows, or dance floor, just a moronic DJ giving shout-outs to whatever teenage mongs ask for them – everything callously planned by suits in marketing meetings to ensure that you (the witless consumer) consume as much overpriced alcohol as possible – hence the standing, not talking procedure, while you while away your time (and more, importantly, your cash) in a ubiquitous, hellish, sweaty wood and chrome capsule of mediocrity. They treat us like cattle and we pay them for the privilege.
To my eternal shame, I did not realise until I read ‘Real England’ that the Paradise Project (in my home town of Liverpool) annexed an entire third of our city centre on behalf of the third richest man in the UK. Nobody said anything about it. In short, they are not our streets anymore. Paradise is now owned by a bloke – a private individual. The council have given him the freehold of the STREETS – not just the buildings – for the next 250 years. Which means, that a large chunk of our city centre is now private property patrolled by private security guards. Great! I guess that’s somebody else’s vision of paradise, because it certainly isn’t mine.
And what happens when people stand up have a go at the directionless direction we are headed? We are told that we are ‘against change’. Like change is the be-all and end-all. Like things have to be different in the future no matter what, no matter that a good idea (sewers, chess, football) is a GOOD IDEA – timeless. Pitched roofs are a good idea, they have been for thousands of years, until the modernists turned up, declared that things must be changed and introduced flat roofs to some of the wettest countries in the world. A stupid, stupid concept that has resulted in thousands of buildings all over the UK having roofs that leak. And they always will. If you want a flat roof, come live in Cape Verde. It only rains for three days a year.
Yes, there is such a thing as progress and I’m not against that, but change for the sake of change is just dumb. Why must every generation believe it is the first to invent everything – sex, drugs, rock n’ roll? We need to learn from the past and steal all the best bits, not just ignore it on the grounds that we’re the cleverest cleverclogs that ever walked the Earth. We need to wean ourselves off this utter ridiculous obsession with wealth and convenience. We should not be busting a gut to ensure that Tesco’s shareholders can buy themselves yet another holiday home in the Algarve, we should be busting a gut to ensure we are happy, our family is happy, our friends are happy and our communities (remember them?) are happy. We should be supporting our shop keepers, our local producers, our local pubs and cinemas. We should but we don’t. The only things we’re keeping happy at the moment are the vast corporations – the Nikes, De Beers, Apples and Wal-Marts of this world. They don’t need to be kept happy, they do not have a heart and they will never experience a long dark, tea-time of the soul.
Over 10,000,000 people in England take anti-depressants. We are not a bunch of Sunny Jims. Why not? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, aren’t we? We can buy all the DVDs, MP3s, PS3s we want, and then some. We can all watch ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ on a Saturday night, drink a cold beer and be sure that we will not catch Cholera from the water supply. There are no starving people, we are exceedingly healthy, there is no war and the crime rate is very low. It doesn’t seem to add up does it? Shouldn’t Wealth = Happiness? Isn’t that what we’re always told? Won’t all our troubles be over once we win the lottery?
The old motto of the United States (before they decided that this ‘God’ fella was trustworthy (ha!) – but that’s another story) was Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness. A brilliant motto from a more civilised time. Isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what really matters? To be healthy, free and content? Apparently not, our governments (left or right, it doesn’t matter) emphatically do not compete on the world stage to have the happiest country in the world, but they do compete to be the richest. That, in practical terms, means squeezing every last penny out of every last ‘consumer’ (that’s us, baby!) and keeping us buried under mountains of debt buying crap we do not actually want or need.
Life is desperately, desperately short and there is much to do. The question is this – on your deathbed, do you want to lie there remembering the things you did or the stuff you bought?
Our government wants it to be the latter, it’s better for the economy. But it’s this obsession with squeezing every last penny out of everything, of those disgusting words – cost effectiveness – that is destroying the very things that make England English – our pubs, our small businesses, our market towns, our canals, railways, our real ale, our apples and our pears. The crazy thing is – when you sit back and look at it – they’re the things that make us happy. And we’re letting them go to the dogs by supporting vast sheds of closely monitored totalitarianism like Bluewater and The Triffid Centre. This is not progress. This is NOT progress.
It’s time to take a stand. I implore you – pick up a copy of Real England. Go down the road and buy your stuff from your local shops. Support your local pubs. It’s not hard! Purchase your fruit and veg that is grown and produced nearby, not stuff that is frozen and shipped halfway across the world. Get involved in your local community. Support it.
Because if we don’t we face the future depicted in Demolition Man – a bland, corporate Disneyland version of the world in which there is no joy, nothing unique, no chance for individual excellence, no chance of escape.
Perhaps I should have mentioned this before – Val, the guy who was ‘helping’ me last week is now demanding that I pay him €600 for his ‘services’. These ‘services’ included not getting me my passport back, not getting the pirogue to the dock and not finding me a yacht to come and pick me up. He just flapped around for a few days, spent a lot of my money on phone calls, took a lot of taxis (which muggings here paid for) to godknowswhere and generally swanned about doing nothing constructive or even mildly helpful. Which could be a metaphor for this entire island, I don’t know.
Anyway, he wants his money and has spent the last week basically stalking me trying to get it. Of course, I have no intention of giving him such a vast amount of money for doing nothing. Even the magic money trees that we Europeans grow in our back gardens have their limits. The average wage here is €1000. FOR THE YEAR.
Anyway, the hilarious thing is that Val is wanted by the police. He ripped off a fellow Brit to the tune of one-and-a-half grand and the angry Brit (David) wants his money back. The upshot of which is that if I hang around Café Sophia, Val is rather reluctant to cause me any problems, lest make a scene. But I’m watching my back, for Val and other reasons that I will divulge later.
Today was exceedingly pleasant. I spent my entire time at Frazer’s café reading and drinking Twinning’s English Breakfast. Like a drunk who has fallen off the wagon, I found myself gorging on (my until-recently, denied delight) interesting stuff to read. National Geographic was thoroughly abused from cover to cover, as was last week’s Telegraph, a copy of Vanity Fair and, just to cheer me up, Neville Shute’s epic smile-a-thon ‘On The Beach’.
I can’t thank Frazer enough. If you ever have the misfortune to be stuck for six weeks in Praia, please patronise the Cape Café. It’s the best thing here by a mile.
Anyway, things in Cape Verde are FINALLY drawing to a close. Woo and yay! Yuri and I enjoyed a final couple of games of chess, and I retired early – I have a big day tomorrow.
Day 191: Prospero, Burn Your Books
I checked out of the Hotel Atlantico, the place where I’d been hanging my hat for the last month. The first person that I ran into was Val, who was demanding money or else he would burn the papers that would otherwise allow me to get my passport back. I’m a great liar, unfortunately for Val, he is not. He knew damn well that I didn’t need any papers to get my passport back, I just needed the captain of a boat. And I had one coming.
Milan texted me that he was on his way and I spent much of the day looking out over the harbour for his arrival. When he did arrive, it was battlestations – we had to get everything sorted before everything shut for the weekend. And so I met Milan, a German national who was born in Slovenia, and his friend Sebastian, a Frenchie and a fellow ginge.
We headed to the passport office and they made the necessary phone call. The guy who made it – a Mr. Samedo – had been my sworn nemesis for the duration of my incarceration on this bloody island, so it was with great delight that I waved him goodbye, a face I hope to never see again.
Then it was down to the port to sign out and retrieve the holy grail – my passport. The port official opened the metal cabinet and my eyes lit up as I spied the golden lion and unicorn that adorns the cover. My passport.
He handed it over and I felt as if I had just been given back my legs.
After we were sorted there, and after the infuriatingly Vogon-esque authorities had denied our request to take the fishermen’s engine, GPS and fuel back with us; I headed over to Café Sophia for one final, final, final game of chess with Yuri while Milan and Sebastian stocked up on supplies. I then grabbed a drink with Tomic the Polish Guy, and Debbie from Connecticut and Maggie from Zimbabwe. When Milan and Sebastian returned, we loaded up the boot of a taxi and headed out for some chicken and chips.
Saying goodbye to Yuri was surprisingly emotional. We had formed a real bond over the weeks and his cheerful, happy-go-lucky attitude had really rubbed off on me in a positive way. He asked me who was going to help him with his text messages now. I sincerely hope that I get to see him again some day. Preferably in Switzerland.
After dinner, the representatives of the three most kick-ass nations in Europe (that’s Milan, Sebastian and I) headed out to Kappa, the nightclub near the city ‘beach’. There, I said my goodbyes to Maggie, Debbie, Callie and Frazer – I hope their respective yachts come and rescue them some day. Then it was down to the port, into a dingy and over to the Fleumel – I was escaping my own personal Dunkirk.
Prospero burn your books, for nevermore will I return to this accurs’d isle. No more Café Sophia, no more outrageously expensive phonecalls or overpriced food, no more dark and unsettling beaches of volcanic sand, no more looking over my shoulder, no more big fat lies garnished with a sinister smile… freedom.
It was time to feel the rain again.
Day 192: The Slow Show
Milan and Sebastian are two of the greatest blokes I’ve ever met. To take all this time out of their lives, leave their girlfriends at home on Maio and to come and rescue me is really the stuff of legend. It’s 400 miles from Praia to Dakar. That’s an 800-mile round trip to help a ginger in need. Cape Verde shook it to the limit, but my faith in humanity is still unbreakable.
However, our great escape didn’t go exactly according to plan.
We were supposed to leave last night, but upon waking up, I discovered that we hadn’t actually moved – we were still in the port. One thing I didn’t know – the electrics were down on the boat after Milan crashed it on some rocks last month. This meant no engine, no radio, and – worst of all – no cold beer.
We were completely reliant on the wind. And the wind was not playing ball. It was 12-noon before we set off into the blue and by nightfall, the island of Praia was still in view. This was going to be one long getaway.
Day 193: Three Men In A Boat
There was a little wind today and we bobbed along at a blistering two-and-a-half knots. Milan and Sebastian are hilarious. Neither speak English very well, but then Milan does not speak French and Sebastian does not speak German, so English was what we all had to converse in.
Milan has been living on the Cape Verdean island of Maio for the last few years. His story is not a happy one – but he’s one of the most cheerful guys you could ever hope to meet. He was the owner of a large real estate company in Germany, with a nice car and a nice house and all the trimmings. Then, one day, he left for work, kissed his wife goodbye to his wife and never saw her again. She was killed a few hours later in a car accident. Milan took a couple of months off work and decided to make a clean break of it; sell everything – his business, his house, his car and go and sail the world. He somehow wound up on Maio, liked the place, and stayed.
Sebastian grew up not in France, but in Cote D’Ivoire and lived there for almost two decades. His reasons for coming to Cape Verde are that he came, liked what he saw and stayed. He’s not a sailor – in fact this would be his first jaunt with Milan off Cape Verde. But he was a good cook – he refused any help in the kitchen and ribbed me about the one and only time he visited England – he went to Bristol to see AC/DC and stayed with an English family who fed him – get this – boiled beef and jellied mint.
What were they THINKING?! They must have known the low opinion our Gaulish cousins have of our British cuisine, talk about enforcing the stereotype. Thanks a bunch, nameless family from Bristol – I spent the afternoon running through all the great British tucker that I like to eat – our bloody brilliant breakfasts (the best in the world, I assure you), our curries (better than India! Seriously!), our delicious fish and chips and our world-beating Roast (not boiled!) Meals on a Sunday – with Yorkshire puds and everything. Yum.
But it was no good. Sebastian grew up with the impression that the British can’t cook to save their crooked teeth, and during our one and only chance to set the record straight, we feed him stuff that I wouldn’t feed my dog. Even if there was a war on, there is no excuse for that kind of diplomatic faux-pas.
Wow! I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like this before. There was not one iota of a smidgin of a skerrick of a sub-atomic particle of a whisper of a wind. The sea was as flat as it could be – more like a lake than the second biggest ocean in the world. There were no waves at all – just a swell bobbing us up and down, but that was little more than moving sand-dunes.
In fact, it occurred to me that the sea is not that different from the desert. Nothing to drink, the sun bearing down on you, no shade, no trees, no escape. Just a vast undulating landscape. Food can be found, but you need specialised equipment to catch it.
We had no specialised equipment. Just a plastic line in the water with a fake fish strapped to the end of it which didn’t interest the fish a sot. That’s not to say we didn’t have any aquatic activity. A giant Manta Ray turned up during the course of the proceedings, accompanied (some might say showing off) by a handful of brightly coloured pilot fish, the arguably smartest fish of Neptune’s realm – they stay out of trouble by hanging with the bigger kids.
Ray Charles, as I christened the ray, hung about for a couple of hours, gracefully flapping its wide delta wings and reminding me of Starfox, one of the best games on the Super Nintendo, which in turn reminded me of Super Mario Kart. How I wish I had brought my Gameboy! How I yearn to crash over the line of the Rainbow Road, coming first by the skin of Toad’s teeth (Toad is always the best, like Blanca in Street Fighter II). After finishing ‘On The Beach’ (hate to spoil the ending but THEY ALL DIE), Milan’s portable electronic chess game became more addictive than crack, especially since it was diabolically easy to beat, even on the hardest level.
Note to designers of electronic chess games: don’t be so eager to Castle. It’s a fun move, but if you’re going to leave your poor little king imprisoned in the corner behind your pawns, I will eat him for breakfast.
One other, more attractive, aspect that the sea shares with the desert is the plethora of stars that pepper the night sky. You have never seen so many. From this latitude (about 15 degrees North), you can see both the North Star and the Southern Cross WHICH ROCKS MY WORLD. Orion has gone off hunting for the summer leaving Scorpius as the most startling constellation in the heavens. One of the few star groups that actually looks like what it’s called, the great Scorpion balanced on his curving tail marked the passage south. We needed to keep the wee beastie to the right side of the boat if we were to reach Dakar.
Whenever that shall be…
Day 195: Are We There Yet?
We did pick up a little bit of wind last night, but today was another long trudge. In the afternoon, we picked up a little speed (along with some dolphins) but by the evening that dropped off (along with the dolphins). We hoped to be in Dakar tonight. We were still 300 miles away.
Excitement was to be had just as the sun was going down when we spotted not one, not two but FIVE blue whales coming to have a mosey at our boat. And what a fine boat it is – the Fleumel, named after Milan’s daughter’s nickname, is an all metal affair (quite a rarity in the world of sailing) with a keel (the bit that pokes out of the bottom) you can pull up for shallow water. This has led Milan to believe (after watching Fitzcarraldo) that he can sail it up the Amazon. I’m willing to take that bet and go one further – in the next few years, I intended to produce a television show which involve travelling along the Amazon, so if he’s up for it, so am I.
But what a commotion was caused by cetacean friends! Milan jumped up and started banging a stick on the metal rail as hard and as fast as he could.
We don’t want them to mate with us!!
After seeing the size of these leviathans, I was willing to agree. Fleumel wouldn’t stand a chance. It would be like Pavarotti trying to mate with a hamster. But it was okay, they seemed to be a family and were just passing by, fellow travellers on the same wibbly-wobbly road of bizarre and improbable blue.
Looking at the admiralty charts, we were now floating four kilometres above from the ocean floor. Crikey – it’s a long way down.
Day 196: So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish
I have never seen so many. Our mammalian cousins from yesterday had returned and this time they had brought re-enforcements. I slipped off my shoes and socks and dangled my legs off the prow of the ship as dozens of the playful tykes danced about in the water below. I agree with Douglas Adams – these guys are SMART. Very smart. While we were coming back out of the trees, their great matriarch thought it would be a good idea to return to the water. While we strive all day working, fighting, checking our emails, watching X-Factor, doing each other over, worrying about paying the mortgage and building remarkably ugly buildings, they just spend all day splashing about in the water having a good time.
They are big enough to have no real predators, and travel in large numbers just in case any sharks are on the prowl. They can communicate, chat about stuff and if they’re hungry, they just open their mouths. Brilliant!
And we still think opposable thumbs are pretty neat. Gah!
Anyway, the dolphins stayed with us for a number of hours, jumping in and out of the water, some doing tricks, not for a fishy SeaWorld treat, but just for the hell of it. It was great. As for the wind, today it was on our side and we covered some distance. Hopefully we’ll be in Dakar on Friday.
Day 197: Back In The Doldrums
Just when we thought we were making good time, we go and get stuck in the Doldrums. Not the real Doldrums – they are a few hundred miles south of us, but the Cape Verde Doldrums. Cape Verde’s last laugh. Milan had checked the long range forecast before we left and it promised a steady, northerly wind all the way to Africa. Somebody presumably forgot to tell the God of the North wind about this arrangement – where’s Black Elk when you need him?
The time had come to get the cards out and teach Sebastian the best card game in the world – S–thead. If you’ve never heard of it, you’ve never been backpacking. Like a gypsy curse or a Masonic handshake, the rules of S–thead have been passed down through generations of footloose long-haired types waiting in foreign train stations, bus shelters and the like.
Like Super Mario Kart, to win S–thead takes a bit of talent, a good memory and a fair dollop of blind luck. The genius is that the blind luck part comes at the very end of the game, which can make all of your previous cunning stunts amount to nada. It’s a great game and very soon Sebastian was hooked. Which was good, as we were both tired of beating the electronic chess game.
That evening, Sebastian made sweet popcorn for us all. He used butter in the pan so it was salty sweet, but it was still more super than Superman shouting Superlatives whilst playing Super Mario on his Super Nintendo. Milan and Sebasian had a couple of beers, but I opted not to join them, on the grounds that the beer was warm (we had no refrigeration) and it would probably make me call Hughie off the side.
Wawaweewa. Friday! Are we still at sea? It would appear so. No sign of Dakar yet, but the GPS was insisting it was less than 100 miles away.
I was particularly worried that Mandy and her over-active imagination would be concerned that I had been attacked by a giant squid, swallowed by a whale, consumed by the ghastly Kraken or frantically lopping the heads off the great Hydra only for more to grow in their place. No such excitement, I’m sorry to report. The day sluggishly went by as we yakked and played cards.
That night, there was a CRACKIN’ thunderstorm over yonder, flashes in the distant clouds every couple of seconds. I hoped Senegal hadn’t descended into war, but with no radio and absolutely no human contact for a week, who’s to say what was going on in the real world?
The storm encouraged the wind to buck its act up, and we had a night of good sailing. Milan stayed up all night battling to keep us going in the right direction (no electrics = no autohelm). The wind, being fickle, decided to start blowing from the south, usurping my usual sleeping position on deck. With the Fleumel now tilted over to the left (sorry, port), any attempt to sleep on the right (sorry, starboard) of the boat would be met with crashing to the floor-style doom and inevitable injury. I tried to secure myself with a rope (sorry, a sheet), but it was no good. I had to sleep below deck in the front (sorry, the bow), with the smell of the toilet (sorry, the head) and the unused fuel grumpily swashing about, it was enough to turn me green. Sebastian graciously gave up his bed (sorry, his berth) for me – I warned him that sleeping out on deck was all but impossible, but he didn’t listen.
After ten minutes he was back. He opted for my vacated forward berth.
Day 199: The Return of the Ging
So now we were coming up to our goal – Dakar. In the early morning, we could see it grey on the horizon – two hills, one with a half-built statue sticking out of the top like a nipple. We were nearly there. Within a few hours, we had phone contact, but British SIM cards don’t work in Senegal. Sebastian came to my rescue and allowed me to text the Mandster to let her know that her favourite ginge was still going strong.
The approach to Dakar seemed to take an eternity. Milan was shattered so I took the helm for the first time in the week. We sailed past the statue, past the sunken ships and the lighthouse. It wasn’t until we had passed the island that I realised it wasn’t Goree… we still had a long way to go.
Eventually, several hours later, Milan cruised us (just using the wind, the crafty bugger) into the ‘marina’. We were greeted by two guys in a shuttle boat eager to take us ashore. I jumped in with them and they took me over to the broken down wooden jetty. I clambered up onto the decaying wood, stood tall and punched the air with my fist.
I had made it.
Back on dry land. Back, back, back to Africa.
THANK YOU, MILAN…THANK YOU!!!
We sorted ourselves out with a beer at the marina bar before heading out to the city centre for a well-deserved slap up meal. There, I met Mentor and I got my stuff back… my clothes, my chargers, my laptop!! Woopeeeee!
Later, we were joined by an American guy named Jared, who was my couchsurf contact for the night. I utterly devoured my pizza, along with a skinful of ice-cold beer. Milan and Sebastian retired to the Fleumel for the night, and I headed out with Jared to meet with Mbeye (the captain of the fishing boat) to discuss how the hell we were going to get his damn boat back. Predictably, the Micau still hasn’t left.
It was good to see Mbeye – he asked if he would ever see me again – I said I’ll be back next year. I’ve said that to a lot of people, but to Mbeye, I would like to keep the promise. God knows, I owe him a slap-up meal.
It was great of Jared to come with me, late as it was – Jared is a good old fashioned Peace-Corp volunteer of rural Californian stock. He’s living with a Senegalese family in Dakar. It’s pretty basic – I had to stand over the squat toilet to use the cold shower with just a pocket torch for light – but it was heaven compared to bobbing up and down all night in the salty brine and at least I was clean.
I slept like an angel.
Day 200: The Gambian Gamble
Despite our late night, Jared and I rose with the lark. Jared had (wonderfully) donated his bed to his nibs here while he made do with the couch (undermining the whole idea of couchsurfing, but I wasn’t going to complain. The sassy young chick who cleans Jared’s house is called (in the local parlance) the ‘house virgin’, which is at once hilarious and also slightly sinister, but this is a sternly paternal society where you can have up to four wives, so don’t expect equal rights any time soon.
I said my thank-you’s and goodbye’s to Jared and then I headed over to the marina to see Milan and Sebastian. We sat and chatted for a while and then it was time, finally, to HIT THE ROAD.
It’s been EIGHT WEEKS since I arrived in Senegal from Mauritania. All of my Visas for West Africa have now expired and I have to get new ones. Bah!
I gave Milan a tremendously grateful hug, wished him well on his endeavours, and headed to the shared taxi stand. The Gambia was calling.
The road was good until Kaolack and then it became the nightmare I knew it was (having experienced the damn thing twice on my previous attempt to enter The Gambia). This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. I would be crossing the border and heading straight for the capital, Banjul. So we bounded over the multitude of potholes and drove on the mud at the side of the road (less bumpy) and wondered why on Earth the Senegalese government has allowed the North Koreans(!) to pay for a big pointless statue in Dakar when the main transport artery for millions of people has more holes in it than Blackburn, Lancashire.
At least now I know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I’d love to turn you on.
The border was painless – no visa required for The Gambia. My biggest worry was that the Senegalese border guys would spot the Cape Verde exit stamp – I didn’t get a Senegal exit stamp when I left and didn’t report in when I arrived on the Fleumel (naughty I know, but I’m mad and therefore this cannot be used as evidence). As a precaution, I forged the Cape Verde stamp (with a biro – cunning!) so it read 10.07.08. Unfortunately, this passport was issued on 08.10.08, so unless I’m The Doctor, there is a slight continuity error there, but (luckily) nobody noticed.
After crossing the border (and being WARMLY welcomed into the country – Cape Verde, take note), I decided to celebrate 200 days on the road without getting the squits, by treating myself to a prawn salad cooked by the side of the road. To a backpacker, eating a prawn salad in a developing country is the gastronomic equivalent of crossing the streams.
But to hell with it, I have decided that I shall not get ill on this journey and by jingo, I’m determined to see that decision followed through. Unlike my farts.
I checked my vision and my pulse then jumped into a bush taxi and headed to Barra, across the great river Gambia from Banjul. On the way, I met lots of excessively friendly checkpoint guards (who were even friendlier when they discovered my place of birth) and I instantly decided that I liked The Gambia. It also helped that everyone spoke English, cos I’m a lazy sod and it suits me to converse without having to consult the language section in the back of my Lonely Planet.
On the ferry over the water, I met a fellow scouser named Richie and a wry Cumbrian named Tony (as in TONY!!). Richie’s actually from Runcorn, but his mum and dad are from Tokky so I didn’t give him too much of a hard time for being a plazzy scouser. At least he sounded the part.
Richie and TONY!! are here to study animals as part of their university course – Richie’s studies snakes and TONY!! goes for, erm, memory fails me, was it Frogs? Or monkeys? Something like that, feel free to correct me guys.
I was planning to stay in Banjul for the night, but they convinced me to come with them for THE BEST PIZZA IN THE WORLD in Kololi near the sea. I was planning to get up early tomorrow and get myself a visa for Guinea-Bissau, but Kololi was on the way south, and I could probably get a visa from Ziguinchor in the (dangerous!) Casamance province of Senegal… but I didn’t know how long it would take to get there, didn’t know how long it would take to issue a visa (maybe up to two days) and, well, it’s the Casamance and therefore DANGEROUSGRAHAMCHECKTHEFCOWEBSITEOHMY!!
Ah, to hell with it, I thought, what matter is personal safety when there is delicious pizza to be had?
So I accompanied the guys to their hotel and we went out and hit the town. Nice place – the Atlantic resort area – relaxed, cheap accommodation and food, plenty of restaurants and nightclubs – a good place to get away for a couple of weeks. I only had one night, so I ate a HUGE calzone all to myself and drank enough to make a hippo sleep in the gutter. I’m sure Richie and TONY!! were suitably impressed.
Any country that gives itself a definite article (Ukraine lost all my respect when they dropped the ‘The’) is tippy-toppy-tip-top, but in short, The Gambia was mega-mega-double-groovycool.
Day 201: A Big Black Cloud Come
Today was brilliant – a classic slice of Odyssey Pie. I started the day (after about 2 hours sleep) with a crankin’ hangover in The Gambia. Then I took a shared taxi down to the southern border, which brought me into the Casamance province of Senegal. A beautiful, beautiful place – seriously green and lush and lovely. From there, I headed to Ziguinchor, or Zig, and made plans to stay for the night while I waited for my Guinea-Bissau visa. But good news – The Guinea-Bissau embassy in Zig gives you the visa straight away!
So I headed down (another bush taxi) into Guinea-Bissau – a Portuguese speaking country and the first of the four Guineas I have to visit on this journey (the others being Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea). Them colonists loved their Guineas. I crossed the border and got to the town of São Domingos. A nice lake and a few roadside shacks was all that awaited me. Oh yeah, Guinea-Bissau is another country that’s on the FCO’s dangerous list – the President was assassinated last March and the leading opposition candidate and his wife were murdered last month. Welcome to Africa, kids!
So… not wanting to give the locals any ideas, I threw a couple of stones in the lake and headed back to Zig. By the time I got there, West Africa had remembered that it was supposed to be rainy season and started raining heavily. I desperately needed to grab a couple of MiniDV tapes for my camcorder, which I subsequently found with the help of a friendly guy from the Bush Taxi Station. Then it was a short wait while my sept-place filled up (and for one, just contained SEVEN people, amazingly) and then it was on to Tambacounda, the crossroads of Senegal.
Now I’ve been expressly told not to travel at night, especially through Casamance. But I figured I’d be out of the region before it got dark.
I figured wrong. The road was very good – all sealed and tarmacadamed, but Bush Taxi only took us as far as Kolda, and from there I was on my own. The next taxi to Tambacounda didn’t leave for AGES and by then it was darker than Vader’s Jockstrap. But the taxi did eventually leave (I had to buy a few seats to get it to go) and we arrived in Tamba before midnight. Then I took YET ANOTHER (are you getting bored yet?) Bush Taxi to the Malian border at Kidira.
In short, in less than 24 hours I got from The Gambia to Guinea-Bissau to Mali via Senegal. Four Countries in One Day. In West Africa. Whoosh!
As the dawn was breaking ahead of us (myself and two guys from my shared taxi) we crossed over the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) into Mali. It was a Kodak moment, I wish there had been a camera op there, Matt would have loved it. From there, we walked to the place from whence we get the bus to Bamako, the capital. The bus was sitting there waiting for us, ready to leave. Although good old WAWA was on hand to ensure things didn’t run that smoothly.
The bus waited for HOURS before it was quite ready to leave, thank you very much. Isaac, one of the guys who had shared the taxi with me from Tambacounda, translated that many of the people already waiting, had been there since yesterday. This did not bode well for our chances of getting out of here at a reasonable time.
And sure enough, when the bus did get going, it had a blow-out just a few kilometres down the road. But did that stop the bus driver? Don’t be silly – this is Africa – you just keep going and hope for the best! Unfortunately for Isaac and I, we were sitting over the wheel arch as the shredded tyre went FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP around like an incredibly irate washing machine with a hangover. The banging was actually not too bad at the front of the bus, but where we were sitting, it was unbearable – even louder than some bone-headed scally playing the latest homoerotic dance love anthem on his mobile phone speaker on the number 61.
It also kicked up all the dust from the road, which entered the chassis through the many rusty holes it had to choose from.
Eventually (and after much ‘I say’-ing from your favourite complaining Brit here) they pulled over and tried to ‘fix’ the tyre. This involved cutting the length of tyre that was making the FWAP off the wheel. At first they tried this with a blunt axe.
Now you have to understand – these are BIG tyres – not quite the ones you have on your pushbike, they are a metal mesh covered in double-hard-bouncer rubber. You need a pneumatic drill to make a dent. A rusty old axe ain’t going to cut the mustard. But this is Africa and you just have to smile and nod and leave them to it. Eventually somebody got hold of a machete but it was just as blunt and just as useless.
Soon they struck on the idea (mine) of making a hole in the rubber, feeding through a length of rope and then driving forward, twisting the rope (and the unruly rubber) around the wheel. This was good for the next few kilometres, but then the rope broke and old FWAPpy started singing his song again.
My hair, my clothes and my bags got TOTALLY covered in dust (I looked like I’d been dragged by my horse), but we limped on… ever so sloooowly to Kayes, the first major town. It should have taken just over an hour. It took seven.
I got chatting with a couple of guys – brothers – from The Gambia. They asked me a ton of questions about Morocco, and before long spilled the beans on why – they were going to attempt to get into Europe through the Sahara.
I tried to put them off as best I could – by basically telling the truth – there are a TON of checkpoints in Western Sahara and Morocco – they’ll never make it. And I was also concerned that they might end up dying in the desert, as many who try this kind of thing often do.
But this is The African Dream. Almost everyone I meet, everyone I talk to, dreams of going to Europe and staying there. They all want my phone number so I can help them get a visa. This is what is killing Africa – the vast majority of the people are utterly desperate to leave. Not in a half-baked British ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live in New Zealand’ kind of way, but in a full-on death-or-glory affair in which the participants are willing to risk imprisonment or even their lives in pursuit of the (perceived) golden glittering Shangri-La that is Europe. This is, more than anything else, contributing to the Brain Drain that is ruining Africa’s chances of ever crawling out of it’s. I will return to this theme later.
In Kayes, we crossed the River Senegal in the most African way possible – the new bridge was down so we had to cross the ‘ford’. Now imagine driving along an invisible road, covered by over a foot of fast-moving water, in a bus with a missing tyre and no tread on the ones that remain. The river was about 400 meters across – I was convinced we were going to slide off into the brown raging torrent that teased inches from our left hand side.
My butt cheeks were clenched tighter than a tight thing, and we made it. We got to the coach station in Kayes and there I decided to stage a mutiny. This bus was just a joke. So I headed over to the GANA bus station around the corner and paid for new tickets for Isaac and I to get to Bamako on a better bus. Which might get us there in one piece, or, even better, there on time.
When we returned to old FWAPpy, they told us there was no refund on the tickets. Keep it – you need it to buy a new tyre. The cowboys who ran the bus seemed genuinely upset that we were abandoning them, and made a big show that they were going, now!, and that we’d be in Bamako very, very soon.
Pull the other one, guys.
We jumped ship and never looked back. The GANA bus had air-conditioning, television, space to spread out and all tyres necessary to complete the journey in record time.
In fact, we passed the old FWAPper before the first Checkpoint and when we had stopped and they had caught up, some more of the passengers were staging a mutiny and trying to get on our rather spanking GANA bus.
Ooh, it was all a bit Jerry Maguire. Only without the fish.
Day 203: The Shakedown
Isaac and I got to Bamako in the wee small hours, greatly relived to have made the decision to change buses. Isaac is from Ghana (and was on his way home) so he bore the brunt of the gobsmacking black-on-black prejudice that is surprisingly prevalent in West Africa – he got tapped for a bribe at every checkpoint just because he was from Ghana – an English speaking country. Mali is francophone. Bizarrely, they let me off the hook. But then I wasn’t really prepared for Guinea. Oh Crikey – Guinea.
I bid my farewells to Isaac and headed over to the other end of town to get a Bush Taxi to the border. It turned out to be a minibus and where I was told it would leave immediately, it left 4 hours later. I should point out at this juncture that in Dakar, I had about 4 hours sleep, in Gambia 2, on the Mali border 1 and last night none at all. But I was still going strong – you can’t keep a good ginger down.
So on arriving at the Guinea border, I cheerfully did all the usual formalities and headed out of bordertown towards the sept-place taxi rank. On the way, I whipped out my camera and explained where I was and all the usual palaver I mention upon entering somewhere new. It was then that a mean-faced old tyrant sitting at the side of the road started going ape-shit at me for filming him, like I was stealing his soul or something.
I tried to explain that I was just filming ME, and what was below ME (the ground), but before I could show this moronic jobsworth the footage, a border policeman had turned up on his motorbike and ordered me to get onboard. He took me back to the border, accused me of filming the border and demanded $200 and the camcorder as payment for the fine.
I made him watch back the footage which featured absolutely no shots of the border, the buildings of the border, the guards of the border or in fact nothing other than my big fat head and the ground behind me. He didn’t care. He wanted his money. He claimed that my visa had run out (actually, it had, but I skillfully changed the expiry date to 24 July from 21 July, it being the 22nd, it was, for all intents and purposes, still in season). He shouted and bawled and banged his fists and behaved quite like a child throwing a tantrum. The rat-faced jobs-worth man from the side of the road showed up, whining that he wanted his soul back or some such.
They weren’t keeping my camera and I most certainly wasn’t going to pay this ridiculous $200 fine for doing nothing less than bugger all. There is actually a government DECREE declaring that tourists ARE allowed to use cameras, for this very reason. But reason and the Guinean officials do not merry bedfellows make.
Then a guy from Cape Verde came in with his passport to get it stamped in.
Perfect timing or what? He recognised me straight away and spoke to the guys in French, telling them about me and what I was doing. We all know that my French could do with a little improvement, but I didn’t think he mentioned me getting arrested, held in jail or any of the rest of all that nonsense.
Or at least I hoped he didn’t.
So I stonewalled. They wanted to keep me there all day? Fine. I had nothing better to do. But then one of the guys who I had been exceptionally cheerful and friendly to when I entered the country came to my aid. We had bonded, as I bond with so many people around the world, over the topic of football. You would never guess I know less about football than your average girl, and neither do they – and that’s the way I like it. Anyway, the guy was wearing a Chelsea top, we chatted about the FA Cup Final and he asked the chief (for it was no less than the chief who had this bee the size of Burgundy in his bonnet) to let me off the hook.
After a little more sabre-rattling, he did just that, and I was back on my way.
Thinking my troubles were now behind me, I headed to the Bush Taxi ‘station’. There wasn’t a Taxi going until 6pm. It was now 12 noon, and I didn’t really want to be hanging around all day and travelling at night. I tried to get a shared taxi to the next town, Siguiri, but the taxi drivers didn’t want to let me do that, because they would lose the trick. So they did everything in their powers to stop me. After a while of circular conversations, the guy from Cape Verde turned up with his two mates. They wanted to do the same thing as me, and the taxi drivers tried to stop them too. In the end, they got someone to take them to Siguiri, but for some reason Billy-No-Mates here was not invited along for the ride. I left the taxi area and attempted to get a private vehicle to take me, just to get out of this nasty, aggressive bear-pit. The taxi drivers did not like me doing this. They did not like it one bit.
Then one of the taxi drivers broke rank and agreed to take me, but I didn’t get into the car in time. Another driver dragged him out of the car and they started fighting. Like, really fighting. I sat down and drank a Coke while the other drivers held them back from each other, screaming in the local dialect that I couldn’t hope (or much care) to understand.
Eventually, the taxi drivers reached a compromise – one of them could take me to Siguiri. What a bloody stupid waste of time and excess of bravado. I felt like Teacher from the Bash Street Kids.
I arrived in Siguiri pretty quickly (it wasn’t far) having given a free ride to a soldier who needed to get to the hospital to see his son (I was dubious, but what the hell). Once there, I was dead lucky – there was one space left in the sept-place taxi going to Conakry, the capital. Once I was on board it would leave right away. Groovy. Only this battered old Peugeot 407 was more of a neuf-place. I had to share the front seat with this other guy who pretty much took up the whole bloody seat, so I spent the first few hours of the journey sitting on the handbrake.
And the road was terrible – riddled with potholes, our driver (whose lip was fully split all the way up to his nose – I hate to be shallow, but it made me wince just looking at him) did his best and was remarkably careful compared with your typical gung-ho Bush Taxi driver, but the car was just not up to it. I could tell by the way he had to pump the brakes to get us to slow down that we had a problem, but by nightfall we had pulled over in a town and we were having the wheel taken off and mysterious things were being done in the name of car maintenance.
After a while we hit the road again. But only for five minutes. We then turned back and more tyre changing/brake pumping followed. We waited a good two hours. The journey was supposed to be 12-15 hours. This was already turning into an epic.
After the driver was happy (although with his mouth so messed up, I don’t know how one could tell) we set off again. For a few hours. And then we stopped.
I’m not supposed to be travelling these parts at night. And here I was – in the dead of night, with a laptop, a camcorder and a stack of cash – trying to get to sleep in the middle of nowhere.
Day 204: Guinea: Foul.
The morning dragged by as the driver and his little mechanic that he had summoned from a nearby village took the front left tyre off (again) replaced the bearings – seriously – and then stuffed everything back into place. If it didn’t fit, they would bang it until it did. Then the tyre was plonked back on and the brakes were tested – nope, still not working properly, no chance of an emergency stop then.
But by now it was midday and the occupants of the taxi were getting decidedly ratty, so we set off again. Given the state of the brakes (and the fact that the car was held together with bubblegum) he took it easy. But that meant that the journey took all day. And then some.
Something I may not have made you aware of is the sheer number of police/army checkpoints in West Africa. There is one every few miles. They all want to see your papers and, if possible, a bribe. You think Gatso speed cameras are an affront to your human rights? Check these guys out. They one of the main reasons West Africa is so poor, so I endeavour to give these parasites as little Johnny Cash as possible. Some countries are worse than others – in Guinea they are anonymous, unaccountable and they don’t even have a set uniform. Just nip into an Army Surplus store and buy yourself some fatigues with US ARMY written on it, cross out US ARMY with a marker pen and ta-daaa! A Guinean Army Uniform. True.
By and large, I kept up my anti-bribery stance and made it a good way to Conakry without paying a single uniformed thief a penny. The people I met on the road (with the positive exception of taxi-touts, policemen and army types) were all really good-natured types with time for a chat and a smile. It’s therefore a shame that Guinea is now in the rather exclusive club of countries that I would not return to for love nor money. Put it this way, there is only one other and I guess you can figure out which one it is.
What has Guinea done to afford such an affront to its reputation? Well, after a record-breaking 36 hours on the (bumpy, pothole joke of a) road, we arrived on the outskirts of Conakry. I had been tremendously uncomfortable since the start of the journey and I’d had precious little sleep over the previous week, never mind that last 36 hours. It was 3.30am. At a ubiquitous checkpoint, we were all asked to get out of the car, which we did, all ten of us.
We were then taken into a small army building at the side of the road, they checked our ‘papers’ and I got ready to get back in the car. But then they explained that there was a fine to pay. 200,000 Guinea Francs.
For allowing two people to share the front seat.
They had to be kidding.
But they weren’t.
And lorks-a-lordy, guess who had to pay? What a bunch of evil, greedy, brick-thick child-men. Oh yeah, here comes whitey from the magic land where they wipe their behinds on fivers and have wheelie bins made of gold; let’s fleece him for everything he’s got. There was no way I was going to give these armed thugs a penny, even if their AK-47s looked a bit scary.
I explained that 200,000GF was ALL the Guinea Francs I had. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that it was the middle of the night and I can’t pay for a hotel without the Francs – I would have to wander the (dangerous) streets until dawn. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that if they took all of my money, I would leave immediately for Sierra Leone and tell everyone I know what happened to me and to never to visit Guinea. We don’t care. We just want the money.
We argued the toss for over an hour. I tried to get their names, the name of the unit, a receipt for the ‘fine’. The swines just laughed. I told them that I was going to write a letter to the British Ambassador and the Minister of Tourism. They couldn’t give a damn. Fine, they said, just give us the money. We just want the money.
This is Guinea.
My opinion? The second-worst country in the world.
Gary, the American in Cape Verde, described Guinea as ‘a nasty little police state’, which I’m sorry to report is utterly accurate. It’s sad – the people of Guinea are as sweet-natured as anyone you could possibly hope to meet. But while Big Brother runs the show, it’s not going to be on anyone sensible’s travel itinerary. It’s a decrepit hole run by decrepit people, rotten people – the worst of humanity. The capital is a sorry mess, there is no discernable infrastructure and the people eek out an meagre existence on the margins in defiance of the will of the government, who would much prefer it if they just died.
In 1958, Charles de Gaulle offered the French colonies in West Africa a choice between autonomy as separate countries in a Franco-African community or immediate independence. Sekou Touré declared that Guinea preferred ‘freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains’ and was the only leader to reject de Gaulle’s proposal.
Well, Guinea has the poverty in spades. Shame they didn’t work so hard to achieve the ‘freedom’ bit of that epigram. The people of Guinea are little more than slaves to the whims of whichever megalomaniac dictator managed to seize power by murdering the last chap. And, while the police run the state with impunity, nothing is going to change.
A nasty little police state. I was probably the first tourist they had had all year, and what do they do? The police steal all my money in the middle of the night.
I wasn’t going to cave in, but there were two young mothers with babies. The police were willing to keep them there all night if necessary. I offered to wait there until morning and pay them then – if they would just let the others go. They refused my offer and said that they would arrest the driver. They started taking his belt and his shoelaces (Cape Verde all over again) and so I coughed up my cash.
I hope it brings them nothing but bad luck and misery – eternally.
Poverty in chains. Well done, Guinea, we’re all really proud of all that you’ve achieved, you rotten little basket-case dictatorship.
Day 205: The Freetown Roast
I took off into the night, disgusted at all things Guinea, but I was caught up by the taxi driver who begged me to let him take me into the city – it wasn’t safe he said, bandits. The guy that I was sharing my seat with gave it up and sat in the back of the car. We got to the middle of Conakry around 5am. The driver let me snooze for a couple of hours in the taxi, but by now it was pouring down with rain and as there was a inch gap at the top of the door, my right arm was getting remarkably wet. I grabbed my bags and jumped into a ‘petit’ (town) taxi which would take me to the place that I could get a Bush Taxi to the border with Sierra Leone. The driver (predictably) tried to rip me off massively – he drove me just around the corner and then demanded ten Euro. Silly man, incurring my wrath in the mood I was in.
Anyway, without having to wait too long, a taxi driver offered to take me all the way to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, as in Diamonds from. He had some people to pick up on the way, but I could have the whole front seat to myself. Fair enough. So we travelled around Conakry for a bit (it didn’t get any more appealing), picked up a lovely chap from North London and his family. He had been visiting friends in Conakry, but his family was from Sierra Leone. He assured me that once I got across the border, I would be welcomed with opened arms.
Crikey, I had no idea how right he was!
The first thing you see as you enter Sierra Leone is a HUGE sign (clearly mocking the Guineans on the other side of the border) that says FIGHT CORRUPTION! Over the border, the first Sierra Leone guy heartily shook my hand and welcomed me into his country. As did the next guy, and the next.
Make no mistake, the Sierra Leoneans LOVE the British. Every time I got my passport out, their eyes would light up and they would flash me a smile.
This outpouring of affection might seem a little incongruous to anyone schooled to believe that all the British did before World War II was run around the world planting flags and enslaving the natives, so a little history lesson might be in order.
During the American War of Independence, the British offered any slave who fought on our side their freedom as payment for their services. America, unfortunately, won the war and demanded all property that had been British, be handed over to the snotty little Yank upstarts. That included the slaves that the British had promised to liberate.
The British dug their heels in. An Englishman’s word is his honour and all that jazz. Washington, that great defender of the slave trade, is said to have stormed out of the meeting. The British got their way. Some of the slaves were re-located to London, and others to Nova Scotia. But they faced immense hardships and prejudice on the streets and so William Wilberforce and his philanthropic mates bought a bit of land in West Africa from a local chief and established The Province of Freedom – which would eventually become Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The liberated slaves from London and Nova Scotia were relocated to the settlement where they could live as free and equal men (and women, I guess). Then once Britain became the first country in the world to outlaw slavery in 1807, any American, French, Portuguese or Spanish slave ships that they had intercepted off the West Coast would have ‘cargo’ set free in the Province of Freedom. This practice continued for fifty years until the American Civil War finally proved that man was right, god was wrong and slavery is grossly immoral.
That’s how Sierra Leone got started, and so the British got off on the right foot with the place – some Leoneans even protested against independence in 1961. But then the war came in the 1990s. A conflict that started in neighbouring Liberia, brought a group of thugs over the border, who then set up the RUF – a gang of evils who, financed by blood diamonds, set about raping and murdering with impunity. The government was too weak to take them on, and the rebels managed to push all the way to the capital – thousands died, many more where maimed and injured. Disgracefully, both sides used child soldiers to fight for them. The poor kids were usually forcefully jacked up on heroin and made to commit unspeakable acts; I think we’ve all heard about this dark episode of West African history.
Tony Blair, in one of his more lucid moments as premier, decided enough was enough and sent in a number of British troops. From what people have told me, just the sight of a properly uniformed and equipped British soldier made the rebels ruin their pants and run away. The nightmare was over.
Although Nigeria and the UN were involved in restoring peace to the beleaguered nation, it is the British that they seem to remember with most fondness – as I learned from just about everyone that I spoke to. If anyone who was deployed to Sierra Leone is reading this, Thank You. You did us proud.
We reached the capital just before nightfall. Freetown is amazing – it’s like no capital city I’ve ever seen – all set out on the hillsides which run down to the sea. The roads are predictably shambolic and hilarious, and getting across town is a mission in itself. But before too long, I was enjoying the hospitality of Paul and Helga, friends of my girlfriend’s sister’s husband’s mate Matt. Six Degrees? Oh yeah baby.
And guess what – after the Odyssey week to end all Odyssey weeks, after the backache, buttache, walletache and heartache of the last five days, Helga gave me something for which there were just no words to express my appreciation.
Roast chicken, roast potatoes, boiled veg and mmm… gravy.
I was reading a book recently about a deaf guy who worked for the Peace Corps in Zambia. It was a ripping yarn, but one thing that he said stuck with me. The joke is that Peace Corp-ers who get sent to South America come back politicised and radical, people who get sent to Asia come back holistic and spiritually aware, and people who get sent to Africa come back drunk and laughing.
I can see his point. There is no other way to deal with this place. Sierra Leone is the poorest country on Earth. That is, obviously, not a title to be proud of. With unemployment running at 80%, one of the lowest life expectancies and levels of education in the world, it’s staggering that this little country cannot figure out how to make any money for the people from its vast natural resources – there’s diamonds in dem der hills.
I will come back to this point anon, but for now, I’m happy to spill the beans on what I got up to today. First up, I had a FULL ENGLISH, which was almost as exciting as last night’s roast. Then I headed off to the pub down by the beach to watch the rugby with Helga and Paul. You see, I need a visa to get into Liberia – the next country on my list – and so, I was hoping to be in Freetown Thursday night or Friday morning so that I could get one, but thanks to the taxi in Guinea taking 36 hours instead of 15, I ended up missing the embassy, so I’m stuck in Sierra Leone for the weekend. But, you know, on balance, not a bad place to be stuck.
Helga is from the south of England and works for the UN on youth development, and Paul is a Sydney-sider who currently works in the security sector, but is about to give it up (too many phone calls in the middle of the night) for his old job – cocoa quality control. In short, Paul is the man from DelMonte. How cool is that?!
I not a big rugby fan and spent most of the afternoon on my laptop writing to [mmmmm] about why [mmmmm] should not be [mmmmm] to [mmmmm]. It was an important e-mail, and well worth wasting my entire afternoon writing. I would have got some nice shots of kids playing football on the beach, but this e-mail was something that had to be immediately addressed; it couldn’t possibly wait until January or nothing. NO!
Met with Helga and Paul’s mates, and proceeded to get utterly, utterly legless. Drinks kept magically appearing in front of me, and I, being a meek and mortal man, had no choice but to ride with the devil all the way to drunkton. Drinking all day and not pausing between pints will do that to a ginge. I headed off to a house party with Helga, at which I ate lasagne (I think) but I missed out on the chocolate cake (I think). Then I headed to a nightclub called Aces, at which more of this magic beer appeared. I tried to fight it, but I lost – worse than the time Billy Faulkner bet he could beat a pack of hungry lions in a game of British Bulldog.
I chatted with a lovely girl (YES EVERYONE IS LOVELY TODAY, SHUT UP) who worked with chimps. She was really, really interested in my extensive knowledge of chimps – that they contain 99.4% the same DNA as humans and they, like humans cannot make their own vitamin C. Well, I think she was interested. To be honest with you, I can’t remember if she was a girl or a boy. She could have been a pot plant for all I know? She may not have even existed – I had lost the power of sight by this point. The next thing I knew, I woke up and it was Sunday. Hoorah for the Beer Vortex!!
Had a bloody superb Sunday. Nowt to do, I slept in, uploaded my videos, wrote some blog, chatted to Mand, HAD A BATH! Oh yeah, this is my kind of Sunday. Helga rustled up some ‘scouse’ for me to eat and it was bloomin’ marvellous. Early to bed, a perfect day of doing perfectly nothing. Ahhhhh.
It was an early start as I left the comfort of Paul and Helga’s place, said my hearty cheerios and headed to the Liberian embassy to buy myself a visa. I arrived at 8am and the Liberian embassy (it was literally someone’s house!) wasn’t quite open, and I accidently managed to wake everyone up. In the Lonely Planet guidebook, it indicated that it would take fifteen minutes to get my visa, but they asked me to come back at 2pm. I explained that I was in a bit of a rush and asked if they could ring me when it was ready, which they said they would do. Nice chaps, actually. If some ginge had woken me up at 8am on a Monday morning, I would have made chips out of him.
While they were processing my passport, I headed into town to see how long it would take to get a Ghana visa while I’m here. The taxi system in Freetown is delightfully potty – taxis ply set routes and you get in (as does anyone else who will fit) and wait until you pass by a place near where you want to go and then you get out. A little crazy, but keeps it cheap. Unfortunately, all the taxis going past the embassy were full. But then a guy in a big 4×4 stopped and offered me a free lift – he said that he hated driving somewhere with an empty car. His name was Mohammed and he had lived in America for many years as a technical consultant earning $120,000 a year, but (wonderfully enough) had returned to Sierra Leone – and taken a $110,000 pay cut in the process – because he knew he could do more good here.
Mohammed was a rare case and it’s great that he came back, because this region desperately needs people like Mohammed and I’ll explain why.
One common expression that I hear time and time again – from aid workers, UN officials, Peace Corp Volunteers; people desperately trying not to sound racist or prejudiced when they say this but feel obliged to say it anyway, “they just won’t help themselves”. I read somewhere that Europeans suffer from wanting too much and Africans suffer from wanting too little. It’s just gob-smacking how much stuff people here are prepared to put up with. You think that British people are too embarrassed to complain about a lousy meal? People here who are too embarrassed to complain about their child dying.
A lot of good, good people come from all over the world to Africa with dreams of simply helping out those less fortunate, only to be foiled by bureaucracy, indifference and corruption. After a few years, they get sick of it and leave, usually muttering that same sad mantra – they just won’t help themselves.
But why is this the case? No other place on Earth endures the same levels of suffering, hardship, disease, or premature death. For the West, it is an infuriating puzzle – nothing they try seems to make a difference. West Africa has hardly developed at all over the last thirty years. Nigeria is the one of the biggest oil exporters in the world. It also one of the poorest countries. Why?
Well, the answer is simple. Pretty much everyone here is ignorant.
Now that I’ve got your attention and before you get your knickers in a spin and start accusing me of racism, listen! This has NOTHING to do with skin colour or culture or creed. This is to do with one thing – education. Or rather, the rampant lack of it ‘round these parts. Illiteracy is sky-high. Even basic numeracy is beyond the grasp of many.
Does anyone care to explain to me how the hell these people are supposed to make an informed decision over what politician to vote for when the governments of these countries purposefully keep the people stupid by denying them any access to primary, let alone secondary, education? From this, everything flows – the wars, the deference to evil ‘big man’ regimes, the corrupt officials, the young mothers, the missing fathers, the huge families, the spread of AIDS, the spread of malaria, the lack of basic hygiene, the suspicion of inoculations, the abysmal drivers, the children taught from day one to beg, the dangerous superstitions and the overpowering dominance of religion.
And what happens to that 1 per cent of 1 per cent that manage to get themselves a degree, or to earn enough money for a flight and a visa? They leave…casualties of The African Dream. And what is mighty whitey over here doing about it? Encouraging them! Yes, I understand we need more immigrants to prop up our ageing population and yes, I understand that Britain’s NHS needs more doctors and nurses to keep doing the great job that it does, but seriously – seriously – these countries need doctors and nurses, and lawyers and engineers, scientists and artisans desperately, desperately more than we do.
The annoying thing is, that saying we should not accept professionals from Africa might well be interpreted as fuel for the BNP’s fire, and for that, I am truly sorry, but we can’t have it both ways. If we Europeans really want to help Africa, we need to send our teachers over here on mandatory sabbaticals, build some proper schools with toilets and electricity and give out bursaries to African university students that get paid directly to their bank accounts – cut the government out of the equation.
We should also be encouraging as many African university students as possible, to fly out and study in our universities – and pay for their fees, accommodation, flights everything – that way the money goes straight to the individual, not into the back pocket of some kleptocratic, crooked government official). But do it on the proviso that once they have their degree, they must return to their country of origin for at least ten years before they can apply for a visa to live in the West again.
Who has the legal weight to take a stand against government corruption but the legal profession? A doctor in the UK might save the lives of hundreds, but a doctor in Africa can save the lives of tens of thousands. Who else but black nurses have the respect and the authority to spread the word about cleanliness and the need for sanitation? Who else but engineers can design and build the sewers necessary to save the lives of the 28,000 children who die every week here from water-bourne diseases?
This Brain Drain is pretty unique to Africa – it is nowhere near as acute in other countries and nowhere else I have ever visited has so many people desperate to get a visa and escape. It’s also unique in history – most of the time countries rid themselves of their undesirables, not their clever-clogs; Britain chucked out the whinging Puritans who were trying to ban beer and shut down theatres – we wished them Bon Voyage on the Mayflower. We packed a whole load of criminals off to Oz and we all voted Labour in 1997 because Phil Collins publically stated he would leave the country if they won. Africa is losing its brightest and best, but people like Mohammed (and Dr. Eddie who we will meet later) gave me cause for optimism. They both studied abroad, saw the world and returned for the same reason – they wanted to help their country.
Mohammed dropped me in the city centre and I went to the Ghanan Embassy only to find out it would take 3 days to get a visa – 3 days! – too long, so I decided to press on and try my luck in Liberia. After lunch, I picked up my Liberian Visa and hit the road, heading for the town of Bo, as in Selector.
It was dark when I arrived and I checked into a little hotel, ready to leave for Liberia in the morning. I went out and had a mooch around the town – it was swarming with guys on motorbikes wanting to give you a lift. The sidewalk shack shops were all open into the night and I grabbed a bite to eat and marvelled at the fact that I still hadn’t fallen ill – despite all the grubby street food that I had been stuffing in my face.