Dear Friends and Family,
This is my second monthly email from Africa. The first was about my week in Spain (in which I didn't say much) and about some of my experiences visiting grad schools.
I think it is official by now. Next August (after traveling in West, East, and Southern Africa) I will go to Duke in North Carolina to start my Ph.D. in statistics.
I am in an internet cafe in Dakar, Senegal. Whatever I write is what I send. I will edit my emails after I get back [no I won't], so here is my first month of travels straight from my fingers to this African_style keyboard to you.
Right off the ferry at Tangier from Spain I let myself be attendend by a Moroccan tout, and then an hour later I was following him through unknown streets to a restaurant he said was good and cheap. I had an extra hour before my bus to Fez, so I let him lead me. The restaurant was a scam, overpriced, so I left him and his aggression and insults and wound my way back to the station, negotiating a food stall and a cheap soup restaurant in French, arriving in Fez at 1:30 am.
After the first boy/guide/pain followed me for too long along one of the medieval alleys in the Fez medina, I decided to say only "Non" or "Non, merci" to any Moroccan, young or old, who approached me on the street.
By afternoon I had had enough of being lost among the 9400 streets in the medina, and had already bought a bus ticket to the next imperial city, Meknes. So I was leaving, if only I could find my way out from the crumbling buildings, leaning towards each other so nearly every street/alley was in shadow, and corner water/wash fountains where the women and girls came to fill up their plastic jugs, and the 240 mosques--entrance forbidden to non-Muslims. Fez would have been fascinating if not for the leering teenagers, sizing me up from head to toe, not saying anything but knowing I'd be back because the way I had chosen was a dead-end.
I didn't want to ask anyone for directions because then I had an automatic guide. Sometimes I would ask a girl and I'd get no response or a finger in the general direction. I either wanted to get back into the heart of the medina with all the jewelry, shoe, vegetable, spice, and clothing shops; or get out of the medina to somewhere with cars and pedestrians. Anywhere but lost in the middle of the leering loiterers.
I came out onto a street with people and maybe a car or two. Home-free, but I was still lost. One guy (21 years-old) in sunglasses and smart clothes spotted me and raised his arms in ghetto greeting. "Yo, man, wassup? You remember me?" I didn't remember him, but his greeting and his English caused me to stop in the street, shake hands with him, and start a conversation.
His two friends quickly joined us talking. Some jokes, chit chat, it was nice to speak English. I noticed that one of the guys had knife scars over his left eye and on his chin. His English was the best and he did most of the talking. He wanted me to give them 5 dirham (50 cents) so they could buy some hashish for the party that night. He wanted to know why not I would give just him a little money. I wanted to know why he wondered why not.
"Give us 5 dirham."
"Why not you give us just a little money?"
"Why are you asking me why not? I'm not going to give you any money."
"Because I don't want to."
"Why don't you want to?"
"Because because. So I'm not giving you any money."
I took leave from them, wished them well with their girls despite their lack of hashish, and continued up the street. Scarface followed me, talking like a guide about the '9400 streets and 240 schools'.
"You want to go to the medina?" he asked when we came to an intersecting street.
(I never told anybody I was lost.)
"The medina is this way. Ask anyone."
So I went down that street. If I could get into the center of the medina I knew how to get out, but I was still lost in no-man's land.
Scarface walked with me, having long since dropped his request for 5 dirhams. Once the coast was clear, the last old woman on the increasingly narrow street passing out of sight, Scarface stopped and basically said, 'Okay, this is when you give me your money.'
And I replied by acting in such a way that said, 'No, this is not the time because I'm really not going to give you any money. So threaten me, pull my shirt, show me the rest of your knife scars and cigarette burns all up your right arm, tell me you're crazy, yell at me that I have a choice between giving you money or having problems, pick up a (blunt) stone, try to slash my throat with it, and when that doesn't work and I'm still not scared and still not giving you any money you can hit me over the head with the stone, but when I see the next old woman I will say whatever comes to mind and start walking briskly back to the street with people and you can follow and kick me and even spit on my face, but I won't give you any money and I won't have any problems. It'll just be an interesting story to tell people about my first day in Africa.'
So that's what happened. When I got back to the street with people on it I wiped the spit off the side of my face and walked directly into an internet cafe. If I had a website you could read the original email I wrote about Scarface and the attempted mugging in Fez.
Other stuff happened in Morocco. I wrote about it in weekly or daily emails. The real reason I went there was to get down to the south so I could meet someone making the Sahara Overland trek to Senegal and West Africa.
The night before I set off across the desert I had another adventure with a man with knife scars on his face from Fez. I ended up in the front seat of a 4WD driven by a drunk Moroccan; with two Spanish women, the man from Fez, and a Moroccan with shaky eyes and a bottle of whiskey in the back seat. Long story, but the guy was driving us around town, first to the camping (campground) so we could try to meet people starting the Sahara crossing, then around town driving in front of the "General's" house as often as possible. It was very late and my two Spanish friends jumped out of the car with me at my hotel. It was weird, nothing happened, but I probably shouldn't have gotten into the stranger's car in the first place.
The next morning I went out to the camping with the two Spanish women. Nobody had an extra place for us in their cars. But I walked around and tried to meet as many people as possible. One person, 6 month pregnant Melissa, with 10 month-old baby girl Melanie, started talking to me. She sympathized with my hitchhiking plight and said they'd take me if they had any room. Then her husband Mathias (both in their mid-twenties, Christian missionaries originally from Germany but raised worldwide by their missionary parents) talked about how he hitchhiked through the Kalahari Desert, even hitching rides from some airplanes.
Then he said, "Well, if you want, you could ride on the roof rack until the border."
Thirty minutes later, goodbye to the two Spanish women, I was securely bungy-corded to the rack and we set off, 100 km/hr on a paved road through the Sahara to Mauritania.
It was like a very old film, a home movie of the desert going by. I had on my rose-tinted sunglasses, and wrapped my face like Lawrence of Arabia in a sandstorm. What I saw through my blue desert headdress/facecover and sunglasses was a magenta-colored grainy image of sand, bushes, camels, and some rocks. I lay on the roof rack for five hours careful not to get sunburned and careful to hold on if Matthias swerved to avoid camels on the road.
At the border I talked about probability with a Moroccan biologist who drew up his problem of quantifying something about the desert wolf-dog in the sand and spoke to me in French. After over 300 km I felt fine, though a little bruised by the metal bars of the roofrack. The desert wind compensated for the desert sun. And I was extremely grateful for the paved road.
But at the border Matthias said he had to leave me because he didn't want me riding on top of the car when they went through the dirt/sand tracks through the minefield into Mauritania.
[In 1975 the Spanish withdrew from their occupied territory in Western Sahara. The Moroccan army came in. Maybe Mauritania was involved too. The local nomads wanted their own country. War. Mines. Ceasefire in early 1990s. Mines remain.]
I had read that as long as one stays on the track, no problem with exploding cars.
So Matthias and Melissa weren't going to take me any further, but that was okay since I just hopped on the bus.
Two Frenchmen, JoŽl and Phillippe, had bought a bus in France and were driving it to sell in Mauritania. And they were at the border waiting for their passports and documents and stamps just like me.
First thing I noticed as we went across the minefield was there were several tracks all branching off going this way and that. Second thing was that JoŽl was a very good driver. We had no map and no experience, but we didn't explode once. Some close calls, like when the track dead-ended and we had to swerve to the right to get onto another track. And always having to drive very fast so as not to get stuck in the sand. Somehow we made it to the police post where we picked up a Mauritanian guide for the rest of the minefield and the way into the town of Nouadhibou. I don't know if the guide was much help. All he ever said was, "A gauche! A gauche!" He could have just said, 'Oh, I really don't know the way. Just whenever there's any doubt, turn left!, turn left!'
We got stuck in the sand once, but I think we were outside of the mines by then. We gathered some flat rocks to put under the back wheels and pushed.
The plan for the bus was to put it on the coal train, then drive it along the paved road to the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, where the Frenchmen would sell it for a nice profit.
But the train didn't have space for buses until three days later, so JoŽl and Phillippe decided they would try drive the bus across 525 km of Sahara desert, along a direction in the sand only the best-prepared 4WDs ought to attempt.
And I decided to come with them.
We met three other backpackers--Sandro from Quebec, Fabien from France, and Christine from Switzerland--who wanted to come too.
I thought everybody was crazy. You can't just drive a bus through a desert. But I reasoned that if we got stuck I could hitch a ride with some other vehicle or maybe a camel. And I brought 30 litres of water and lots of canned fish, and why not try it?
A Senegalese man in a beat-up white Peugeot van joined our group, along with an expensive Mauritanian guide who supposeded knew the path very well.
We set off on a Thursday. The first day we only had to push the bus twice, and the van four times. We were going slower than anticipated, so when the sun set we hadn't made it to the dune where we would camp. We followed in the bus, the guide telling us we were looking for "the tree." Once we found "the tree" we would stop there for the night. And there, beyond a small ridge, was a lonely tree in the middle of the sandy desert.
I have a picture of the tree, the bus, and a star in the moonlight, but I don't know how to upload photos from my camera yet.
That day was very nice. We were passing bushes, some trees, lots of camels, sand dunes, and an occasional vehichle. Maybe the best times were when we had to get out of the bus, either to push it out of the sand or to push the van unstuck.
Everybody was in a very good mood that night for spaghetti and canned fish. No one seemed to be concerned that the Senegaleses van would no longer start on its own, but required a push start in second gear.
A note about the bus: It's a real bus, like a big bus from the 70s used to take senior citizens to Vegas for Tuesday night specials. The windows were only slightly tinted, the seats didn't recline, and it was very comfortable to have a whole bus for just six people.
Sleeping out that night in the desert I saw the Southern Cross at 4:30 am, and I pointed it out to Christine and Sandro too.
Mid-morning the second day we were stuck in the middle of a sand dune. JoŽl was just following the guide in the van in front. Why we tried to go over the sand dune, in a bus ...? After the first half hour the bus was stuck even worse. The sand was blowing and piling up under the bus, so even if the wheels had some traction (from the metal plaques we used), the middle of the bus was buried in sand.
I thought things were getting desperate. We were all digging with our hands, under the bus, while the wind continued putting it back. But we did make it. And push-starting the van wasn't too hard either.
During one stretch of particularly fine sand, the van and guide got stuck while we on the bus continued top speed around, between the sand dunes. Finally on a patch of hard sand we stopped. With my binoculars from the top of the bus I could see the Senegalese man off in the distance, walking across the desert in his flowing, white robes. Our whole bus started the trek back to the van, knowing it would need all available pushers to get it out of the sand and started again.
I'm talking the Sahara Desert, blazing hot sun, sand dunes, scrub bushes, walking toward a direction on the horizon, back to the white van to push it out of the sand. It was cool-exciting and only about a 25 minute walk.
We came suddenly to the ocean, and not long after riding the hard packed sand on deflated tires, a tire burst. JoŽl and Phillipe fixed it, but the other tires were still underinflated for the hard track we were on.
We passed through a town, then to the other beach where we stopped to wait for the low tide. All we had left in order to cross the desert was a stretch along the beach, then 50 more km of desert to Nouakchott.
Also waiting for the low tide were Mathias, Melissa, and Melanie (the cute 10 month-old). Their car had broken down and its contents being carried in a Mauritania pickup, and the car being towed by the Swiss truck they had been riding with. They had a bicycle foot pump which we used for the next hour (or more) to pump up the bus tires.
Then we got immediately stuck tried to cross the dune to get onto the beach. But we were unstuck in five minutes, very easy.
The ride along the beach might have been the best part of the journey. I imagined we were on a sailboat, because one side of the bus was only ocean. The other side was big sand dunes. JoŽl even let us each take a turn driving the bus.
Then all of a sudden the van was stuck in front of us and the guide had his arm out the window pointing us to turn left. From 80 km/hr to a complete stop in less than 20 metres of sand. I wondered why the guide hadn't warned JoŽl about the upcoming sand. It was where we were to leave the beach to go across the desert again. And all the sand above the high-tide line was as soft as a sandy beach.
It was about 5:20 in the afternoon. We first tried to push the white van out of the sand, but we couldn't, and then the motor stalled. So it was pretty much stuck in deep sand and I didn't know what we could do about it. I don't know if anyone else had a plan, but whatever, it was forgotten and everyone focused on getting the bus across the 10 metres of soft sand remaining.
The standard procedure when we got stuck was for the guide to start digging sand from under the back wheels. Then we'd put the metal traction plates in front of the wheels, dig a little sand from under the front wheels, and push while JoŽl spun the tires. The first time he maybe went forward three inches.
So the guide would dig out more sand from under the wheels. Maybe he would point somebody to dig the other side. We'd push. Not going anywhere. Dig some more. Push. Nothing.
Nothing except the bus was sinking deeper into the sand. The more the guide dug from under the wheels, the lower the wheels went, the more we were stuck. I started charting our progress by drawing a line in the grime and oil on the windows, of my eye level and the time. And over time, 6:20, 8:20, 9:00 pm, the bus was sinking deeper and deeper.
We had a shovel and it was used to dig sand from under the bus. Things started getting bad for me after the sun set because we were just getting more stuck and it didn't seem as if anyone had a plan, and everything was so disorganized.
I can hardly write about it properly know, bad memories naturally fading from the mind.
5:30--9:30 PM, Stuck on the beach.
Some French words are now indelibly imprinted on my mind. The guide
would dig sand out from the left side, fix the wooden planks or the
metal plaques in front or under the wheel, run over to the right side
and do the same, then yell at everybody:
We would stop our digging of sand from the middle of the bus, get in the back. Someone would shout:
then someone would shout:
then "OK, poussay, poussay!"
"Atan, atan! Wait, wait!" the local town kid was still under the bus. All clear, "Poussez! Push, push!" but JoŽl hadn't been given any signal. We'd stop pushing. He'd spin the tires, we would push. All we got was more and more stuck, and always, "Go! Allez! Atan! Wait! Poussay, poussay! Atan, atan!"
We had been pushing and waiting and going for four hours and no progress. I was really down on the guide, for he gave no direction. Maybe he had a plan, but I wasn't aware of it, and I was concerned for JoŽl and Phillippe's bus. I felt especially powerless because I couldn't talk to the guide, JoŽl, or Phillippe. Only the Senegalese, Sandro, Fabien, and Christine spoke English. Slowly my concerns that digging sand from under the tires was a bad idea got transmitted to JoŽl and Phillippe and they started jacking up the bus to put the wooden planks underneath.
Anyway, it was a big mess. Utter chaos and me feeling powerless to affect things. JoŽl and Phillippe finally forced the guide to stop because they wanted to eat something. The guide wanted to keep going, but everyone was very tired.
During dinner Sandro conveyed my idea that we should have two teams, for each side of the bus, and no more digging sand from under the wheels.
"C'est bon?" Sandro shouted from the left side of the bus.
"C'est bon!" I replied from the right side, if in fact everything was good.
"Allez, allez, allez" Sandro then shouted to JoŽl.
At the same time as JoŽl revved the engine, we all pushed from behind. One foot, or two feet, "Atan! Atan!"
Then I and Phillippe would fix our side for the next try, while Sandro
and the guide fixed their side.
"C'est bon?" "C'est bon!" "Allez" Push, spin, one more foot.
We repeated it until we were on hard sand. Piece of cake.
The bus rescued, we tried pushing the white van backwards onto the hard, wet sand by the water. Amazingly, we succeeded. But then it was stuck in wet sand when the waves came up to it.
Long story short: emptied all the contents of the van except for the boxes which must have been stuff even more illegal than the boxes of whiskey and smuggled sugar we carried onto the beach. Pushing through wet sand at 4 in the morning, very tired, successful. Actually pushed it fast enough to start. Then it got stuck in the sand, in the old tracks of the bus trying to cross the soft sand. Very stupid. But it was close enough to hard dirt in order to pull it with the bus.
7:30 AM, bus going across the desert, much longer than 50 km, but not stuck, into Nouakchott. 50 hours across the Sahara Desert. Maybe a miracle.
They didn't sell the bus in Mauritania. So we all went with it into Senegal.
Now I am in Senegal. In an hour I'll be on a train to Mali.
If you want to be on my monthly list (I'll try to condense better or something next time) or my weekly list (exciting stuff hopefully) or my daily list (boring stuff, but good stuff too) let me know.
I like getting replies (but don't include the original message). I appreciate any tips about Africa because I still know very little.
West Africa I:
M email ,
West Africa II: M email , D&W , Photos
Ethiopia: Both M&W emails , Photos
East Africa: M email , D&W , Photos
5th Month: M email , D&W , Photos
South Africa: M email , D&W , Photos