Travel


I would wager that some Cameroonian polygamists have discovered that maintaining two families isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I say the same thing about maintaining two blogs. When Kiva gets its dues, you lose out. I apologize. The best I can do is try to share the goods and hope to stretch them twice as far. The following comes from our Kiva Fellows Blog.

I am proud to say that I have earned two blisters in the last week: one from hand-washing my clothes (I’ve now learned to really scrub ‘em), and another from pulling the kernels off corncobs. As a woman who has earned most previous blisters from breaking in new hiking boots or rowing crew, both luxury sports of a sort, this feels different.

One GHAPE member who deserves a good, \Work in its many forms is so deeply ingrained in the culture in Bamenda that it takes shape in language. In pidgin, you would not believe how frequently the words “struggle” and “suffer” are used, usually not as self-pity but rather as matter-of-fact. When someone is getting by, they are “managing.” I suspect you may have to hear these words pronounced in Bamenda to get their full meaning.

My favorite new word is “ashia,” a way of greeting, sympathizing with, or appreciating someone who is working hard. The response, if you are a bit confused, as I was the first few times I received an “ashia”, is a simple “thank you.” The best parallel may be saying “bless you” when someone sneezes in the U.S. – although my sneezes here (which I’ve managed to suppress over the years so that they actually sound like the word “achoo”) tend to elicit laughter, since “achoo” is a favorite kind of soup in Cameroon.

Ashia has become a special word because there is no direct translation. It expresses something that I cannot express in my English – although when I tried to explain this to some people here, they tried to explain to me that “ashia” is English, meaning here that it is not from any one of the many dialects spoken in the Northwest Province, but is rather part of the common language, pidgin English.

Once I finally convinced my coworkers at GHAPE that we really don’t have the word or anything like it in the U.S., discussion ensued. Calista (the accountant) asked, “Well, how do you appreciate someone?” I struggled and pondered for the better part of five minutes, and finally offered the possibilities of “thank you”, “good work”, or “good luck,” none of which capture “ashia.” Could you say “Thank you” to a stranger on the street who you saw pushing an especially heavy load?

I’ve discovered that “ashia” is the best way to break the ice of being an obvious stranger. Naturally, as two of very few white folks in Bamenda (I may have seen two or three other white folks in the whole time I’ve been here), we stick out. By this time, five months of travel through West Africa later, we’re used to sticking out and everything that comes along with it – “You are welcome!” How is Cameroon?” “Come here!” “Where are you going?” “White man!” and many other things regularly shouted at us on an everyday walk to the market.

But, at a certain point, like one month into our stay in Bamenda, the desire to just be part of the scene grows. Since we can never be invisible, I’ve got a couple of tricks to break the ice or turn the tables. When an adult shouts, “White man” or once in a while acknowledges gender and says, “White woman,” I usually shout back “Black man!” This brings laughter that I find pretty refreshing after 26 years marinating in P.C. land, U.S.A. When it’s a child shouting, “White man!” and usually pointing, I either make faces and point back at them, or sing the song I’ve just learned, apparently a childhood favorite of everyone in Bamenda:

White man, white man, white man,
White man with a long nose,
Since my mother born me,
I’ve never seen a white man!

It doesn’t get much better than that for winning laughter and respect.

As far as fitting in goes, well, “ashia” is the best. I can catch someone’s eye as they’re toiling over some project, pronounce an “ashia,” and immediately feel some kind of communion. The communion is enhanced if I adapt the Bamenda way of addressing folks as “sister”, “brother”, “auntie”, “mami”, “pa,” etc.

The same day that we discussed the word “ashia,” Auntie Calista (the GHAPE accountant) asked me, “What do you say if you want to give someone respect?” This question also left me without a good response. Of course, we have “sir” or ma’am” but to my American ear now used to Cameroon, these both sound awfully formal. When we say “sir” or “ma’am” it is usually in a formal context, almost pushing someone away from us as we offer respect. In Cameroon, these respectful terms are add-ons to someone’s name and at least in feeling bring them closer. To an older woman or a woman I want to respect, I can say, “Auntie” or “Mami” (pronounced like mommy). To an older man, I can say “Pa.” To a woman about my age, I can say “Sister.” All these show respect and immediately break the ice for me, a “stranger” as they say here.

Not that there’s much ice in Cameroonian culture. Using these terms of respect, I don’t feel like I’m dancing the who-can-out-polite-who dance that I’ve felt in other parts of the world. I don’t ever feel like I’ve given someone offense. And, nearly every argument or serious discussion I’ve witnessed in Cameroon ends in laughter, usually a burst of it that comes out mid-rant as if someone has suddenly heard themselves talking or seen things form a bird’s eye view and finds it all hilarious.

This is a culture I enjoy settling into.

Okay, so recently, both Dave and I have been bragging that we have yet to pay our first bribe in Africa – and cockily surmising that, perhaps, we can make it through our travels without contributing directly to the corruption we’ve seen so much of.

 

Not so lucky.

 

Scene: third night in Yaoundé, the night before we should be able to go and hopefully, finally have our visas extended. We have spent a lovely day out in the rainforest visiting chimps and gorillas, getting sunburned, and thoroughly enjoying. We’ve shared an early evening meet-up with a GHAPE board member, talking politics and microfinance. As we prepare to go out for dinner – a bit late at 8:00 PM for Yaoundé – Dave says:

 

“Megan, leave our passports here; I don’t want to be out in the city with them.”

 

“But, Dave, we are required to carry IDs with us – do you have another form of ID?” (We’ve just read this in our guidebook two days ago, ironically,)

 

“Megan, they never check!”

 

Fast-forward two hours, feed Dave and I a fine Italian meal in a setting worthy of Casablanca, and put us in a cab heading home at 9:20 PM (happy that we are in time to see Jimmy Carter on Larry King Live on cable CNN – a city luxury for us.) We round a corner, pass city hall, and POOF! Five policemen are blocking the whole road. The cab driver, sighing, pulls over and provides two heavily endorsed and legalized documents. I look at Dave and Dave looks at me. The policeman then requests our identification. I pull out the copy of our passports I am carrying where our passports normally are, and explain that, for “surété,” we have left our passports in our hotel. We get the speech that I’m expecting, that if we have just copies, the copies must be “legalizés” – meaning we pay 1000 CFA ($2.50) for a stamp on the copy.

 

We wait for the bluster to pass, hoping, and I explain that we are “nouveaus” here and didn’t know. No dice – we are told to “descendez.” We walk around behind the vehicle, feeling as criminal on the dark street under bright headlights as if being filmed for “Bad Boys.” The officer explains the rule again and tells us the fine for traveling without documentation is 37,000 CFA (almost $100 with the falling U.S. dollar exchange rate). I say, “Combien?” doing my best to look wide-eyed and incredulous. He repeats the shocking figure. I look overwhelmed and say, “Mais, nous n’avons pas l’argent. Nous avons laissé l’argent et les passportes dans l’hotel pour le surété.” The policeman asks how we are going to settle this now. I repeat the above, adding, “Je ne sais pas.”

 

Then comes point-blank: “Vous-avez combien?” I say 5,000 (which is true). The policeman says, “10,000.” I pull out the 5,000 I have, to see it this will suffice. The policeman repeats, “10,000.” I turn to Dave, in English, “You have 5,000?” “Is that what it’s going to take to settle this,” Dave looks incredulous. But, he pulls out another 5,000, the policeman accepts our $25 – at least a day’s salary here, if not a month’s for a good number of the folks we work with every day in Bamenda. We thank him (really, this is what is expected) and that’s that. Deed done.

 

And, because we’ve been watching so much CNN these few days in Yaounde:

This is Davis Shuey and I approve of this message – though, I did not say, Merci!

There is a dead body in front of our house.

Megan: I know, it seems like we are always writing when the shit hits the fan, but I am starting to believe that is just human nature. We have spent a beautiful first two weeks here in Bamenda, Cameroon, working in the office of our host organization GHAPE and heading out into the field to interview microcredit recipients. But, although we don’t subscribe to the “good news is bad news” principle, those stories may have to wait.

Dave: Like previous installments, and those yet-to-be-written, this takes place during a journey. This one is a tad like Stand By Me (based on Stephen King’s The Body), though, we weren’t actively searching for a corpse whilst wrangling with angst over being too fat, too blue-collar (RIP River Phoenix), too abused, or having a deceased John Cusack for a brother. No, we just wanted to come home in one piece after another 9-hour marathon bus ride, this time from Cameroon’s capital, Younde, where we got extra pages for our passports.

M: We got off the overnight bus this morning, around 7:30 am, the time our office is starting work. Late, we gave in and hopped a cab back to our house, which, yes, is right behind the GHAPE office. About halfway up the last hill before Rendez-vous Junction, where we live, the cab driver asked, “So, you people stay up this side?” We said, yes, and before we could say more, we saw a crowd gathered just in front of where the GHAPE sign should be and, the next second, Dave said, “There’s an accident. Oh no. There’s a body.” As we drove a wide girth around the body and I looked in vain for a smashed car or motorbike, it became apparent that something far less innocent had occurred.

D: I saw the body. The broken chair. A shirt saturated in a dark reddish color (away from the body), and beyond that, a red stain stretching down the street for one meter. Hair that looks red. Nike shoes, that look weighed down by rocks. A pile of leaves? Then the cabbie spoke, “Yes, it happened 2 a.m. last night. He was a thief.” This was no accident.

M: I hadn’t seen as much as Dave, and was still just trying to piece together information, while we tried to convince the cab driver to stop, yes, really, right here, where everyone is gathered. This is our stopping point. This is where we live. And, no, we really want all 300 francs worth of change; no, we aren’t giving you an extra 100 francs just because you pretend you can’t do the math… By the time we were out of the cab, with bags collected, and turned again to face the scene, we saw one of our coworkers at GHAPE standing in the front door of the office, also looking out at the scene.

D: Then we heard the details. The man on the street supposedly cut someone across the back of the neck while stealing a cell phone. The victim died in the hospital and, within hours, the public took matters into their own hands – finding the thief, beating him to death, and leaving his body on the street for all to see. Children were gathering. Our coworkers looked rather nonchalant – not embarrassed, or sad, or even surprised. I know the police aren’t trusted around Bamenda, but is this really how things are done here? Another coworker would later ask me in the office, “So, what do you think of our Jungle Justice?”
M: Sometime in the midst of all of this, Dave and I both realized, and admitted, that this was the first time either of us had seen a body – except for the prepared and laid out bodies of family members at their funerals. The raw physicality of the dead body is perhaps the part of all this that sticks with me the most. At first, we headed straight to the office, not wanting to see. Later, after hearing the details, a group of coworkers announced that someone was bringing the picture of the boy who died – the innocent one – and everyone poured out to see. Dave and I found ourselves following along, and suddenly, standing just across the street, staring through the living, moving bodies surrounding us at the still, deflated-looking one, lying bare-back up among a pile of debris. The way that his shoes hang, scarecrow-like off the end of his two legs. The way his shirtless back does not move up and down. The way that the debris seems arranged for public spectacle – a big stone, a broken chair, some dirt and weeds and unidentified rubble – while the rest of the road remains clear for cars to pass. Finally, his face turned to the side in the direction of passing traffic – I could only look for a moment – which did not betray good or evil, right or wrong, fear or anger.

D: Seeing the body feels tawdry, forbidden, even rude. And writing about it now – perhaps even more so. But why? Is it our prepackaged, sanitized Western notion? One that will never see the Death Penalty on public display again – which would surely mark the end of capital punishment. Or white washes victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we couldn’t handle the trauma after in Mogadishu (re: Black Hawk Down) or Vietnam (re: the 60s). Death is real. The need for justice in the form of an eye-for-an-eye is real. We as participants are real. For me, the most shocking thing wasn’t the body, but how normal this seemed for everyone. During breakfast of eggs and coffee, our neighbor said this happened before, in fact when someone tried to break into the house where we are living. And in the office, we continued along with the workday, 15 meters from the body. Occasionally someone would go to the window to see the incessant crowd, or step outside for news if the family would come to recover the body.

M: Which brings us to the next point: that the body is not disappearing, leaving behind only a white chalk line and a police barricade. The custom, as it was explained to us, dictates that the body will be left there, blocking half the road and the entrance to our office-house compound – between us and the rest of the world – until the family comes to recover it. If there is a family, that is, and if they want to claim this body as their own. If it still remains after two or three days, it will be collected by the same public that left it there, to be buried down the road.

D: Yes, this was explained by the guy in the nearby shack where I buy french bread, and who a few nights ago concurred after 10 p.m., that the Rendez-vous ‘hood is sketchy, “Oh yeah, I saw an armed robbery here last year. Got the guy across the street, then me.” He said the dead guy on the street was trying to steal cell phones all night until he lethally knifed the last victim – who the proprietor knew. But even he didn’t seem shaken.

M: When we left our house a couple of hours ago – ironically, to go to the police office, which doubles as the immigration office, to have our visas extended – the body was there. When we go back, well, we shall see. In the meantime, we walked into the police office, wondering, do they know what happened just up the road? How do they figure into this justice? Judging by the stacks of paper and fully occupied desks, they don’t. The incident may be reported on the news, just as we heard last week of an incident where police beat to death a man who had stolen a car. But, the lines dividing those that can wield “justice” from those who cannot are different from the world we are used to.

However, before this starts to sound very “us and them,” “civilized versus not,” I will say what I said after the third coworker sighed, cynically, something along the lines of, “Ah, Cameroon, mob justice.” The same – or a very similar thing – happened just a few summers ago in Chicago, when a van driver and his companion passing through a Southside neighborhood jumped a curb, hitting three young women – one later died. A mob pulled them out of the truck and beat both to death. The only difference, I imagine, is the reaction of the authorities whose role was circumnavigated:

Chicago police superintendent Terry Hillard denounced the attack as “senseless,” “cowardly” and “disgusting.” “This is not street justice, this is not vigilante justice, this is not justice of any kind,” Hillard said.

D: I’m sometimes a relativist, and I understand from almost everyone we’ve talked to that the police won’t do anything here in Bamenda. In last week’s interviews with GHAPE members, I’ve heard of the poorest of the poor being robbed – so I see the frustration.

I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the body won’t be there when we get back – that’s what I’m hoping. I turned my head the last time passing. In the end, we’ll see if every so-called “bad guy” has a mom who loves him. We’re truly living in strange times, where rule of law dovetails with vigilante justice. To quote Radiohead’s Kid A, “We’ve got heads on sticks. You’ve got ventriloquists.” Sometimes the lifeless speak the loudest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first post Dave and I have attempted to write ensemble…and, long-winded times two equals, well, eight pages or so. But, find a time when you have the patience and time, and enjoy a real adventure. While not for the faint of heart, note that we are still here to write the tale and laugh in retrospect.

On the other side of Nigeria, just arrived in Calabar, we must amend one point from my blog on Lagos. Our 27-hour journey (“saga,” says Dave) from Lagos to here taught us that not all Nigerians share “infinite patience.”

Dave: That includes two Americans, too. If the 30-some-odd auto wrecks and an equal number of police checkpoints didn’t somehow reflect the insanity of this downward spiral of a trek, one of the final propaganda posters in Uyo said it best. Somewhere after the warnings of imminent road robbery and before the military police surrounded our vehicle and scared off an angry mob of 50 with AK-47s, I caught a glance of a ubiquitous regional propaganda poster featuring a politician standing next to a giant torso: “Uyo is Proud of the Nigerian Nightmare.” One of our fellow passengers, who soon threatened to call her father, the local police commissioner, reminded Dave that that torso (the “Nigerian Nightmare”) is the world heavyweight champion. It could very well be the tagline for our most notorious adventure yet.

Megan: We’ll start from the beginning, which seemed like a good if expensive start to crossing Nigeria. Dave and I found ourselves paying the highest rate yet ($43 a person) for our first ride in an AIR-CONDITIONED, comfortable-seated van, which would presumably take us (one employee said) to Calabar – 600 kilometers away – before nightfall. Ha. I had a bowl of rice, beans, and plantains before we started the journey and listened in on the conversation between several fellow passengers comparing world religions – “You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person,” seemed to be the final conclusion. From our front-seat paradise, things initially looked good for Dave and me.

It was only 10 kilometers outside of town that Megan had her first panic attack and the situation began to look a bit less ideal. We have seen some crazy driving and some crazy roads in our travels – no less in Nigeria – but the driver of our vehicle was in a whole other category. The following are some quotes which Dave recorded in his journey over the first stage of our trip:

“Dave, get us out of this car right now. This man is going to kill us. I am serious.” (Megan, 10 minutes into the trip and not even out of Lagos yet.)

“The music is too much for you. Off it now!” (A woman from the backseat calls to the driver, who may have ADD or be a coke addict, and swapped CDs and tapes every 2 or 4 songs. When finding something he liked, he would start dancing in his seat, singing along, and speeding just a bit more.)

David: I got one. Due to the man’s penchant for honking the horn 20% of the time (this is no exaggeration, and it felt like 50%) as he compulsively passed every vehicle, I said, “I think this guy dreams of honking his horn at night, one arm clenching the air, and the other arm doing this” (I press a palm in the air incessantly). Indeed, the jerky juts of uncontrolled honking, Mario Andretti speed-demon driving, the first van-to-truck scrape when merging (prompting Megan to say her wisest words “get us out”), and the eerie glassy-eyed look of a mad man … well, all these indicators could have been quite normal by Nigerian standards, so I kept trying to suspend any nervousness. Still, those car carcasses scattered along and on the road – most burned out and one of which was no later than 5 minutes before we passed, with boxes all over the road and a woman bleeding in the ditch – couldn’t have been a good sign. But there was no major accident for us. Instead, there was a little bit of a “419” possibility: an infamous reference to the spam you get from Nigeria asking for your bank details, we would soon wonder if we were all going to be ripped off. And it would be a battle of pilot vs. passengers not seen since Flight 94.

Megan: Our driver, who had done nothing to instill trust in his passengers, faced his first major insurrection about two-thirds of the way to our destination when, at about 8:45 in the evening he announced, in an inarticulate mumbling way, that he was going to stop and we would continue tomorrow. Dave and I, sitting right next to him, only picked this information up from the shouting in the back. We had no idea why he wanted to stop – Dave suspected the driver was tired, offered to open a can of coke for him, and attempted to shout back into the screaming masses behind us that he, for one, “didn’t want a sleepy driver.” The back of the van was a near riot: “You can’t do this to us. You just try. You don’t know who you are dealing with.” Our fellow passengers began to reveal various identities that ought to command respect: the daughter of a police commissioner, a “man of the cloth,” and another man with connections “high in government.” We were used as key figures in the protest as well, “What about these white people? These diplomats? What are you showing them about Nigeria?”

None of this had any deterrent effect on the driver, who, we were learning, has one of those fragile egos that cannot handle any insult or provocation. As the most riled-up of the passengers began to make it personal (“You are a stupid man.” “I will see to it personally that this car is impounded; it will never drive again in Nigeria!”), he drove faster and more determinedly to the motor park in town. It was at this point that Dave turned to me and begged me not to get involved.

By the time we pulled into the motor park, half the back of the van was standing up, waving fists and shouting insults and threats. Our obstinate driver, still with no explanation, turned off the car, got out, slammed the door, and the next thing we knew, the side door of the van was pulled open (Dave and stayed wide-eyed in the front seat) and seven or eight men, mostly other drivers who apparently “had our drivers’ back” jumped into the car, waving fists back at the most uppity of passengers. The driver had apparently told them that one female passenger had slapped him (not true, so far as we had seen) and they were after her most of all.

David: I think the driver had a face-slapping premonition, but I digress …

Megan: In the midst of the screaming, Dave slid out the front door and started talking with a bystander, trying to get the facts that were so missing from this crazy scene. He came back to me, explaining that there were apparently other vans that had stopped mid-journey, because of reports that the “road ahead was bad” – meaning, high chance of armed robbery.

David: It was some semi-believable story about a robbery, a confrontation with the police, and some gunfire. My take: all these people aren’t on the road for a reason, and Nigeria does have a reputation for kidnappings and violence near the Niger Delta, so why risk it? I could have also been fed a line of bull, but my nauseous gut said different. Plus, the sanity level and relative calm outside the van was like manna. That, and the lukewarm Sprite I found to settle my stomach from the earlier puking incident (the result of the last throes from my lone Africa illness episode in Lagos, and not the roller-coaster driving, though it probably didn’t help).

Megan: While Dave remained firmly outside the van, settling into conversation with others in the park about Nigerian corruption, and postcard writing on the same subject, the confrontation in the back died down without injury to anyone, and slowly, the information about the “bad road ahead” sifted amongst the passengers. Some seemed to accept our fate and one-by-one climbed out to get some food, but the most outraged of the bunch remained in the van and the theories abounded. The most common theory was that this was a scam to get us –particularly the white folk – to stay in the hometown of our driver or the company, presumably for financial reasons. We were told, “Do not follow these people anyplace, to any hotel or lodging.” I was inclined to stay right where I was, having no idea at all what the reality was, and as a rain and windstorm kicked up, all the passengers piled back in the van, passing around loaves of bread, gossiping, complaining, and settling in to spend the night in the van parked in the motor park.

When we flipped off the lights and were about to go to bed, the resident minister and fellow passengers began to sing Christian hymns. Hymn after hymn rocked the van, a – powerful and somewhat chilling expression of mass sentiment despite my non-participation. Then a man’s voice from the back began a mini-sermon, exhorting everyone to pray to Jesus (which they did, out loud) to keep us safe and bring vengeance upon evildoers (which presumably included our driver). Our van was repeatedly “washed in the blood of Jesus” and thus protected from all evil outside. I pulled the earphones out of Dave’s ears so that he could hear this.

David: Yes, I did wake up to a surreal stream of pronouncements that would make a Pentecostal blush: “Jesus protect this car … Jesus Christ be with us … Jesus avenge us for our tribulation.” I had a feeling this had been going on for some time. I whispered to Megan, “Did this Christian just call out for revenge against our driver?” Clearly, a disconnect of my understanding of Christianity – grace, withholding judgment, peace – and reality was taking place. Or maybe I was just naive. Megan thought I was judging the passengers. Possibly true, but a few chill pills wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Megan: Despite all premonitions, the night passed without incident – except discomfort of sleeping sitting up, mosquitoes, anxiety, and sleep talkers in the van – and we made it to the early morning. Our driver was wise enough to spend the night outside of the van.

We woke up to another uproar, again one that took a little while to unravel. One woman was screaming and crying, shouting that “This is armed robbery” and “We are going to have to live here in this park.” Some asking around among the calmer passengers and a few drivers who were there once again to back up our driver (who was nowhere to be seen through most of this) revealed that we had an empty fuel tank, our driver had no more money to buy fuel, and was asking to collect another 200 Naira (about $2) from each passenger to buy fuel to get us to the destination. It was suggested (with no apparent guarantee) that this money would be repaid when we reached the office of the bus company.

Long story short, a lot of screaming and crying and arguing later, Dave had had enough. “Not one person is trying to propose a solution,” he said to me, before diving into the fray. His solution: he takes the risk, pays for the petrol, and we get to our destination and see what happens. Note, my amendment to this plan: do not hand any money directly to the unreliable driver; find out how much petrol should be to get to destination, pay for petrol directly, and get receipt. Unfortunately, my patience was running fairly low by the time we got to the gas station, and when the driver starting complaining to the gas station employees about his “abroni” (white folks), I lost it, screaming, “If you want the abroni to pay for your petrol, you don’t go insulting the abroni, okay? We can leave you here with your passengers at any moment.” Needless to say, after that, we had Dave take my previous middle front seat next to the driver.

Dave: Apparently this guy was complaining about us the whole time, but I somehow missed these accusations – in fact, I sometimes felt like the only person giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. Sure, I thought he had problems – his eyes were like a crazed truck driver on hour #36 – and my guess was he had:

a drinking problem

a drug problem

a gambling problem

or simply can’t communicate OR estimate his gas use with his pedal to the metal.

But despite these hypotheticals, I just didn’t know what was going on. I did know that everyone in our van would have punctured this guy’s lung if a knife was on hand, and I did comment to Megan, “If there were more guns readily available to civilians, someone would’ve been shot by now, there’s no doubt.” Tensions remained high, and after securing a petrol receipt to ensure repayment of the $25 in gas (Enough to get us to our destination? We’ll soon see!), we were back on the Highway to Hell. Periodic shouts to slow down or not to hit a passerby came from Megan, and I would add, “Please, could you drive more slowly.” Those went unheeded. We were on a psychotic Disneyland ride with no end. Then, I noticed the gas tank arrow getting closer to “E” – empty – still more than 80 kilometers from our destination.

We were pulling into the city of Uyo where Jimmy Carter-era gas lines of vehicles stretched down the road and the poster about the “Nigerian Nightmare” that started this story offered an ominous sign. This was the town where supposedly we’d find the van headquarters and get my money back. But, it appeared our driver was lost, aimlessly causing havoc in already crazy city traffic, and claiming not to know the address of his company’s office. The passengers who had been just barely under wraps began to scream again, “You stupid man,” “Crazy,” and “You’re an idiot, you don’t know where you’re going?” followed by mocking laughter. The final Mutiny on the Bounty-Nigeria was at hand. It’s all too much to live through again. Megan, take it…

Megan: As readers will pick up from Dave’s commentary, throughout this adventure, I wavered somewhere between Dave’s model of enlightened nonchalance and the hysteria, anger, and panic of the rest of the passengers. Before the last leg of the journey, I took one of the more hysterical passengers (the police commissioner’s daughter, who we will meet again) aside and asked her please to try to keep calm because shouting and insults made our driver all the more reckless. Yet, I could not help but utter a shout or five as we barreled down the road, alternately threatening our own lives and those of everyone else around us.

As we circled Uyo, and under pressure, our driver hopped out to ask for directions to his company’s office, I turned to Dave and told him we were done with this: “When we get to the motor park, we are getting out and finding another ride to Calabar.”

Barely did the words leave my mouth then hell (version 4.0) broke loose. The police commissioner’s daughter had somehow followed the driver out of the van and, shouting insults about his intelligence, punched his shoulder from behind as he returned to the vehicle. Before we knew what we were doing, passengers jumped in to hold her back and do the same with the driver. Somehow, everyone got back in the van and the driver was reestablished in his driver’s seat, swearing madly under his breath as he pulled back onto the road. Then, he turned up the volume on his ranting and shouted some insult about the father of the woman who had slapped him. She responded, with much shouting, by reaching forward across another row of passengers and slapping the driver upside the head with a resounding smack. All I remember in the fury that erupted is shouting for the driver to pull over, and somehow, thankfully, it happening. We tumbled out of the van, most screaming, the driver heading like an angry bull for the woman who so boldly waved the red flag, muttering something like, “Let me at her; I must hit her.”

Dave: Though a smallish man, it took me and another woman from the back of the van all our strength to hold the driver in his seat. This African peacekeeping mission wouldn’t hold, and he escaped out his door to the gathering masses.

Megan: Naturally, we drew a crowd of spectators as quickly as a boxing match on the street would. I went straight for a couple of men standing nearby, saying, “Please, we need you to help hold this man.” About five men got on the task, Dave managed to grab the keys from the ignition, I went around to try to calm the screaming, crying, hysterical police chief’s daughter, and before our eyes, all the ingredients for a riot materialized. About 50 men surrounded our van, while a few enraged passengers attempted to explain the situation (embellishing the already dramatic series of events). The driver was held by a group of relatively calm men, while more and more of the surrounding crowd began to shout, “You are a criminal,” etc. In that amazing mix of black humor and bitter truth, I watched two men successively pick up first a log and then a cinder block and come running at our former-driver-turned-mob-meat with the object raised overhead, stopping just short of bashing his head in, and then freeze-framing and turning away with a bizarre laugh.

David: I wasn’t laughing.

Megan: By now, most of the women had been pushed back into the van to keep them away from whatever might be about to happen. Some of the wiser members of the crowd pushed the driver back into the front seat of the van, where he could be kept both confined and safe. Then, the driver realized that his keys were missing and started screaming for them to be given back to him. Luckily, I think Dave and I were the only people who knew where the keys were. I turned to the police chief’s daughter and told her to call her father or the police, which she did. There was no other way to resolve the situation. Another man in the crowd, a voice of reason who at some point had his thumb bashed in by the driver slamming the van door, had already called the police. Apparently Dave was put on the phone to convince the police of the urgency of the matter, playing the ultimate trump card: “Yes, my name is David, and I’m an American.”

David: I rue the day I had to namedrop The Land of the Free, Home of the (not-so) Brave and call for police intervention, but violence was brewing. In crisis, there’s no idealism: I know being white, male, and Western gets results. I can’t tell you the times men just don’t listen to Megan …

Megan: … And David has to say, “Talk to her, not me.” It rarely works; in fact, it only works when the conversation is in French, and David is near useless.

David: Right, so Megan was marginalized as counselor for the hysterical, and I was handed the cell phone, I asked, “Is this the police?” Answer: Yes, “Ok, there’s a crowd that’s about to become a riot; do you know where we are? Did the man before tell you?” Answer: A vague affirmation. Exasperated, I say, “Something bad is going to happen. Please come now!” Like many conversations of mine in Anglophone Africa, I think the police understood nary a word, except maybe “American” and “riot.” But within 5 minutes, the cavalry showed up, guns and whips in hand, and the crowd parted – pardon the comparison – like gazelles before the lions. It was a surreal sight, but it’s the Darwinian dynamics: don’t mess with the guys with weapons, especially in Nigeria (this may have been our 100th AK-47 Kalashnikov sighting). The representative of the company had also arrived. After our Biblically named “leader” who I was gradually losing patience with for the past 16 hours, Savior (actual name), spewed the gamut of hyperbole of what happened (“This is a 419! This is illegal!” and “This man was smoking cigarettes in the vehicle!”) as well as demanding that “the foreigner” (me) be repaid immediately. Ok, I did appreciate the passengers sticking up for us for the sake of “justice,” but I didn’t feel it should be taken overboard. I also gave Savior the van keys at this point to lessen one burden off my shoulders, saying, “I’m letting you make the decision.”

To both police and company rep, I tried to stick to the facts which were calamitous enough – there’s an untenable rift between the passengers and driver, due mostly to the following: this driver’s behavior is erratic and his road skills the “craziest we’ve seen;” he’s not communicating; he drank beer (Guinness!) for lunch the previous day; he took us to an unknown motor park overnight; he suspiciously ran out of gas money and asked passengers for cash; and finally Mr. Popular got us lost in Uyo. All this was before he got smacked.

The police deferred to the rep, the rep suggested we take this matter back to his office and not the police station, and unbelievably (!), the keys were back in the driver’s hands. With half the passengers long gone, we drove off, with Megan and myself out of the front seat, being replaced by (middle seat) a random crowd-member who seemed sympathetic to the driver and (passenger side) a stern, gun-toting police escort. It was nice touch. The driving didn’t get much better for the next mile, but it was quieter in the back.

After intervention by wel-armed police; see our vehicle in background, driver in the yellow shirt, and the daughter of the police chief in pink...

Still reading? Megan can wrap up this warped adventure, but my thesis remains the same: I like Africa; I like traveling; but I have no idea about what happens around me in Africa, even while experiencing everything. At best I can observe, but the logic of each interaction and event is a complete mystery. For example, why road rage isn’t pandemic with drivers such as ours cutting others off by inches or grazing fenders – is that driving normal? The bus rep would later take responsibility for the decision not to drive the night before, so maybe it wasn’t a set-up to be robbed by fellow drivers. The rep also would say this was a first-time driver, who obviously wouldn’t know the route, nor the Uyo office – so maybe he wasn’t stalling so the white folks wouldn’t be repaid. The rep wouldn’t even admit this driver could be ripping off the company’s gas money. It’s so unclear…

Megan: What is clear is that Dave saved the day from several near disasters and should be given more credit for eventually getting us to destination Calabar than anyone else involved. Also clear is that communication is an uphill battle. No matter what anyone says about call centers in the U.S. (or offshore in India), we are incredibly fortunate when it comes to customer service.

You might think that once we were in the hands of the bus company and the police, resolution and speedy departure to destination would be imminent. But, once we were repaid for petrol money, all complaints had been registered, the police departed, and we shook hands with all the bus companions who were staying in Uyo, it was another three hours or so before we were again on the road. We, the remaining passengers – Dave, me, and a Cameroonian woman who had been traveling with her two-year-old son overland from Algeria for over two weeks to get to her mother’s funeral – found ourselves mysteriously being shuffled back into the same van we came in while the same driver took the keys and prepared to drive. Dave and I looked at each other in disbelief and I believe I said something about how this was like regime change: a coup, some violence, and then the same actors resume their previous positions.

Before history could repeat itself, I nudged Dave to exert his white male might, and he dashed out to the representative, saying, “I’m sorry; did we not make it clear that we will not go anywhere with this driver.” The rep explained that he was coming with us to “monitor the driving.” Only somewhat relieved, we re-boarded, and began to drive around town. From our seats, we (with Dave as the mouthpiece) attempted to tell the rep that we had next to no petrol left. Hollow affirmation. Then, a few minutes later, sure enough, the van stops dead on the side of the road. Negotiations between the rep and driver and a few calls to some higher-up ensue to figure out who is going to pay for the next round of petrol. Finally, driver departs down the road to get some petrol on the black market, and the rep comes to us, saying, finally, “Just now, talking to the driver, I didn’t like the way he was talking or looking; I think he may have a problem – maybe drugs; I don’t think he should be driving.” We concurred, no longer trying to point out that this is what the last 24 hours of drama had been all about.

In quick time, once a liter of petrol was added to the tank, the rep had the driver take us to a motor park from which vans were departing for Calabar. He eyed one that clearly did not have space for our luggage and us, and sighed, saying that if it were up to him, he would like to put us into a private taxi to take us directly, quickly, and comfortably – but, he wondered whether we might be able to help with the extra cost. At this point, I could not shut my trap any longer and I gave my best, “This is ridiculous; do the right thing” speech – in short, “No, we will not pay another Naira; we will not go anywhere in a vehicle driven by this driver; we would like to get to our destination as quickly as possible; we have been en route for over 24 hours; we have not eaten in 18 hours or so; the right thing to do is to take us in THIS vehicle that we started in to the destination we paid for; find a driver, any driver that you trust, or drive us yourself.”

Dave: At this point, my fairness threshold was clearly crossed. I said something like, “Yeah! What she said,” interspersed with some less-than-elegant vocabulary. I also tried to talk to the driver one last time, saying, “I don’t know what is going on in your life. Gambling. Drinking. Drugs.” (Shockingly, he didn’t punch me, but I was trying to be sincere). “But I hope you get help. Hang in there.” He just looked at me … the look of someone who wanted to drive some more.

Megan: Finally, after cutting ahead in one of those 5-block-long gas station lines (where another near-riot was brewing), calling the higher-up for permission to buy more petrol, and waiting for a driver friend of the company rep to show up, we were on the road to Calabar. For the entire 80 remaining kilometers, we sat in the back seat, watching, listening, and occasionally chiming in, as our original driver sat wedged between the company rep and the professional driver friend, listening while the last 24 hours of Nigerian Nightmare were re-related and doses of driverly wisdom – mainly on handling customers – was disbursed.

At the end of the surreal experience, Dave and I dismounted, picked up our backpacks, and, most amazingly, shook hands with the driver. I said, for a loss of any other words, “Thank you,” and Dave, more sincerely, said, “Good luck, with everything. Really.” As we headed off down the road, we agreed that we had never before been so happy to have our 20-kilo bags on our backs and be on our own four feet.

Life is hard in Lagos.

I am certain that this could be said of life in many places in Africa, and the world. But, on day five in Lagos, the grinding frustration of everyday life has seeped into my bones just as the humid air has coated my skin. If we set up a chart with the balance of cost of living vs. quality of life and plotted points for the various places Dave and I have been over recent months, Lagos would be an outlier far off the curve – double or triple the prices of anywhere else with only a flickering of the amenities of daily life.

Blackouts: Energy shortages may be expected in a city of 20 million in a developing country, and certainly we have become used to blackouts sprinkled throughout our travels, as well as being completely off the grid. But, over our stay here in Lagos, we have seen at best 6 or 7 hours of intermittent electricity a day – thankfully, often during the night. Now, day five, we are currently going on 30 hours uninterrupted “without light.” As an energy-dependent American, and a spoiled and impatient one at that, I feel a tide of entitlement, helplessness, and empathy rising in a confusing – and yes, hot and bothered – mix.

I have never had to ration my electricity use. During all my growing up, if you had more gadgets than outlets, you just pulled in a power strip. Rationing electricity in my life has been a matter of thrift (oh, those ComEd bills during the summer fan season or the winter space heater season!) and sound environmentalism. It has never been a matter of pure unavailability. Now, I write this post from my laptop, staring uneasily at the red battery in the upper right hand corner that warns me I have one hour left of juice. I have turned off my headlamp, which has been eating two batteries a day, to conserve it for later, when the computer goes out. I will soon duck out to the street in search of another candle. It is too hot to sleep – no fan or A.C. and barely a cross-breeze. Although, I must brag that I am getting better at attuning my schedule to the daylight hours – going to bed earlier and rising at dawn with the call to prayer and the roosters.

The trouble with blackouts, I am finding, is that they get all of us living or lodging in the surrounding area at once. So, just as my pressure is rising to explosion and I would kill for an ice-cold coke, I circle the areas vendors and each has only lukewarm bottles on offer. I decline the bottle, sheepishly and apologetically, and both vendor and customer offer a sympathetic shrug – “no light.” We both know just how long it has been, but when the light will return is a mystery.

Scene: It is night in Dave and my $30 hotel room above the market (note that we pay a `10% service charge, presumably for buckets of water brought up to our room on a daily basis but no Value Added Tax or VAT, since the owner explains that the city is not providing services so he refuses to charge/pay this fee). We lie still as we can, sweating into our sheets and waiting for a breeze. We take turns bucket-showering throughout the night. Suddenly, the light springs on and our window A.C. unit sputters and rattles. I jump to close the windows, Dave pulls a mattress off one of the beds and shimmies it into place on the floor directly in front of the unit. As he wrestles with the mattress and sheets, I play with the plug and adapter (got to have the right angle) to siphon a little juice into the laptop – and then we haggle over the relative importance of using charging slot number two for my camera or his ipod.

Fast-forward five minutes or three hours or however long we are blessed with light – and suddenly we wake to find that the A.C. is off and our gadgets are half charged. All arrangements described above go into reverse – windows open, mattress back on bed frame in hopes of a passing breeze – until the next coming of the light. Speaking of electricity and technology, I like to picture the above scene in comic glory of the Charlie Chaplin silent movie era, with Dave and I clumsily tripping over each other and elbowing each other in eagerness to take advantage of each moment of god-given energy.

The careful reader will have gathered from foreshadowing the subject of my next rant: water. How does a city of 20 million provide running water and plumbing to its citizens? Answer, apparently: it doesn’t. As far as we can tell, the city and most dwellings are outfitted with complete plumbing for running water. We are in hotel number three and each has had a sink, a flushing toilet, a shower and/or bathtub and…buckets of water, carried up by hand from unknown origin. I don’t have many complaints about this system, since we are not hauling the water up three stories (except that one time) and a bucket shower (when desperately needed) is just as refreshing as its running water equivalent. But, we do wonder about those living here everyday.

On the other end of the water cycle, let’s just say that everyone knows where the water goes when it has been used. An open sewer system runs through the city. In the nicer areas, the open sewers are cemented and about five or six feet down, running between the sidewalk and the street. In our neighborhood, the sewers run along the edge of each narrow street of packed mud or patchy brick, only about an inch below street level. They pass in front of houses and occasionally cross the street, making walking quite a treacherous negotiation. I learned the hard way – no light in the nighttime streets plus rampant sewage makes for bad experiences.

The thing about sewers like these, clogged with as much trash as sewage and open for evaporation, is that they don’t exactly “run,” as one would hope or imagine. As we learned a few days back, and Dave quipped, “Saturday is sludge day.” Each household or neighborhood or some level or organization clears the sludge out of its section of sewer and leaves it in piles to dry and be collected. We learned from our hotel operator (the one who is not collecting the required VAT from us) that the sludge collection is another private expense paid for by each household rather than a service provided by the city.

Please note, dear readers, that there is an escape from this lifestyle in Lagos, if you can afford it. Just an island away – from Lagos Island to Ikoyi or Victoria Island – there is a network of air conditioned, 24-hour generator-operated, private security-guarded shops, malls, and hotels, where a ticket to a Hollywood blockbuster costs $14 and a second hand hardcover book costs $45. Dave and I have flitted in and out of this world, blessed by the presumption of wealth that goes with our whiteness (though not our outfits or cheapskate attitudes). It makes for quite a contrast in extremes.

Which brings me to the third rant, which I will keep short since this overlaps with the news you can read from many better sources: Corruption. Our trip from the Benin border to Lagos (no more than 50 kilometers) included: one Beninese border guard asking for $5 to give us a departure stamp on the same day we paid $25 for our transit visa through the country (I pointed this out and he waved us through); no fewer than six separate negotiations with Nigerian border officials, each of which could most likely have been speeded by a twenty naira bribe; and five road stops by well-armed police or customs officials, who blustered about small (invisible to the un-uniformed eye) irregularities until the our bus driver or his assistant slid a bill out the window. Never before have I seen police doing so much to disrupt rather than control traffic flow (picture five armed men taking one lane of two on a road notorious for heavy traffic and randomly waving every third car down with their AK-47 or akin).

The raw cynicism and humor of our fellow passengers – strangely shared by the officers shaking us down – was a fine introduction to Nigeria. Scene one: Officer, after flipping through our passports and eyeing the Lonely Planet on Dave’s lap asks, “So, you are tourists?” “Yes.” “You want to know Africa better…okay.” All our fellow passengers think this is riotously funny and we hear the line repeated from the back of the bus. Scene two: Another officer picks on a young man sitting next to us with a big bundle wrapped in plastic on his lap. “What you have there?” “Shit.” “Old shit or new shit?” “Old shit.” “Okay, move along.”

A last word, as my battery heads down to reserves and warns five minutes left – despite all, the disparity of wealth and wellbeing more than anything, Lagos has not impressed us as dangerous. People are friendly (sometimes too friendly, i.e. “How are you? I love you; I want to marry you,” all in one breath before I turn the corner), curious about us (“Hello, my friend, where you going?”), and regularly give us smiles, greetings, and hugs on the street. The more days that we remained in our market neighborhood (four, including an extra day for Dave’s first major Africa illness), the friendlier life has become.

Mixed with the friendliness, of course, we are impressed by Nigerians’ – or at least Lagosians’ – mix of cynical humor and infinite patience. Both are products of growing up in the environment described – and the main reasons that life in Lagos is hard for me (less so for Dave who comes with a bit more cynicism). Try as we might to focus on patience and empathy during our short stay in this world, our idealism and sense of justice (or entitlement), and need for modicums of comfort get the better of us. We have expectations, while I would warrant most in Lagos do not. The signs all over the city that exhort the public to “Keep Lagos clean” and “Pay your taxes” only underscore the realization. As the woman who makes us our morning coffee and beans and rice summed it up, matter-of-factly, followed by a smile and a laugh, “Yes, we Nigerians suffer a lot.”

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgWell, folks, time flies by and here we are on our second to last night in Dakar. I am now struggling to feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgtype on my English language keyboard (on my laptop) as I have become accustomed day by day to the French language keyboards dominating the internet café scene around these parts. My apologies for the lack of photographs in recent weeks: we live in a strange world these days – an enormous West African city with internet cafes on every corner, each filled to the brim, but all sharing a limited bandwidth so that none has the speed to upload more than a couple of images in an hour. But, we shall overcome, eventually.

A snapshot of life in Dakar: Dave and I arrived three weeks ago to the day, on February 11, and since arrival, we have been living with a kind Senegalese family in the northern banlieus of Camberene. Truth be told, I have still not figured out whether we are actually in Dakar proper or not, but we are at least on the peninsula, about one hour by bus from centre ville. Think of it as commuting from Hyde Park (south side of Chicago) to Rogers Park (far north side), then subtract the “El,” add round-the-clock traffic, multiply the bus systems by three, divide the cost of a taxi by 10 (and cap the cost at 2,000 CFA or $5 per ride with bargaining), substitute diesel for any other fuel type, throw a couple of horse carts on the sidelines, and eliminate bike lanes or any lane divisions whatsoever – and you will get the general picture.

Our adopted home is, miraculously, just a block from the beach, which is a blessing for many reasons. First and foremost, it gives us a respite from otherwise interminable city blocks. Second, it is our compass since we landed far off of our Lonely Planet map and must navigate the neighborhoods purely by sense of direction, frequent requests for mysterious landmarks that seem to delineate the city for locals (i.e. “Eglise,” or “La grande mosquée prés de la mer,” or “Pharmacie Yacine”), and pure trial and error; for me, it was a boon to discover that if I am truly lost I can just stop, wait for the call to prayer to end at the nearest mosque, listen for the sea, and head in that direction.

But, before your imaginations run away with visions of a tropical beach paradise, let me clarify the most visible purpose of the sea in this city: it is the most convenient trash dump for all the surrounding neighborhoods. So, no matter how I love bathing, I would not think of setting more than a foot in the ocean around here. To arrive at the beach from our house, we navigate a veritable levy of refuse, from broken flip-flops to fish heads and food scraps. Goats love it. Rats love it. Children seem to still be able to enjoy a game that looks like king of the castle. For our part, we plug our noses and scamper to the other side, where the sea does its part, clearing away 25 meters of sand fit for walking, running, push-ups (men here dig troughs in the sand to heighten the push-up experience), and of course, football.

We do feel close to nature. Our house boasts two sheep – one male and one female, carefully tied at just enough distance from one another to assure no hanky-panky – one chicken, a neighbor’s rooster (who shares his daybreak services with us), a bevy of mice, cockroaches, and flies. No mosquitoes as of yet, but we sleep in our mosquito tent nonetheless. Call us romantic.

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgDave and I are learning French, each with our own pace and method. Each morning, I wake up, thanks to the rooster, at 7:00 AM, make coffee, and haul derriere to school for four hours of French class. Dave tried this schedule for the first few days, but even his love of classroom learning could not overcome the early hour, and he switched to home schooling. I am trying to study for two, but find the going somewhat uphill since Wolof is more dominant here than French, and many – including our host mother – speak very little if any of the language. Thus, immersion it is not, but the important things are coming along, I have just purchased my first French language novel by a Senegalese authoress, and I am certain that I can haggle the heck out of any taxi driver between here and Cameroon.

As I read him bits from this posting, Dave reminds me to mention that we have discovered the wonderful world of bootleg DVDs. Most recently, on our five-day trip to the Gambia (English language!), we found the 25-movie-per-disc phenomenon, and we now have every major American picture made on the subjects of Africa, apartheid, and Hollywoodized ethnic cleansing on one disc. Thank you, China, for filling the developing world with such treasures! Seriously, on a side note, the percentage of products in the Senegalese markets that are “made in China” is astonishing. Luckily, we have found tissues manufactured in the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire and vats of homemade peanut butter (called “tigga digga”) in nearly every corner store, which sums up a large percentage of our daily purchases.

And so, our study of local economics and means of transportation continues…in new and different landscapes. Mali around the corner and Cameroon just appearing on the horizon. Dakar, until next time!

Many kilometers, several dramatic regions, and a pile of fine travel acquaintances later, we catch up with ourselves. Have I really not managed a blog post since before coming to the edge of Western Sahara? I hope that pictures of our beach bumming have tided you patient people over, and that no one has been worried as we crossed great expanses of sand between there – mid-Morocco – and here – Dakar, Senegal.

We have been safe and sound, if stretched to the limits of our mental, emotional, and physical strengths. Dave is the best travel partner and fellow adventurer a girl could ask for. He lets me lead the way, keeps a grounded perspective, and forever excels in that social instinct and priceless sense of humor. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the pictures! If not for Dave, there would be many long lapses in documentation of our journey. But, as is, we are rapidly filling up my 120-gig hard drive, a sample of which you can find here.

The highlight of all of Morocco came the day after my last post in Taghazout. Just about 150 kilometers (yes, thinking in kms these days!) further down the Moroccan coast – shhhh – is a relatively untouched gem of a beach town called Mirleft. My “shhh” is somewhat useless, I am afraid, since it has a mention in Lonely Planet as a “hippy paradise” and much building seems to underway along the shoreline. However, we were able to score a $14 apartment, complete with a kitchen for lentil soup cooking and CNN and Al-Jazeeera in English (the only TV of our trip so far), for one evening. We were also able to head out in the early morning for our first swim in the Atlantic on a broad sweep of beach inhabited by only three other people. We were some cold but happy hippies, indeed!

Our premonitions of the joys of being off the beaten path – leaving more touristy Morocco behind – have not been disappointed. Leaving Mirleft and nearing the filmy line between Morocco proper and the disputed Western Sahara, we ran right into the famed Saharawi hospitality. Three students from Guelmime – the gateway to the Sahara – befriended us on a bus and offered to show us around their hometown. I believe it was the first genuine (i.e. no ulterior motive) invitation of our Moroccan adventure – indeed, one of the boys, shyly testing his English, confessed that we were the first tourists he had ever spoken to.

The next day, we covered over 1000 kilometers of Western Saharan territory – but picked up quite a bit of atmosphere between the camels, dunes, and salt flats along the one tar road running down the coast. We could also not help but realize we were in a different political reality, as we passed through no fewer than nine police checks between Tan Tan and Dakhla. At each stop, particularly the six along our overnight bus ride – a mistake, to say the least! – from Layoune to Dakhla, Dave and I – the sole two foreigners on board – were the focus of the most time and interest. Our passport numbers and some French approximation of our professions has been recorded and rerecorded in innumerable police ledgers. Forget anonymity. I assume that most of our fellow passengers resented us for the frequent delays, but one kind woman, traveling with her daughter and sitting across the aisle, seemed to enjoy my three-phrase bastardized Arabic lexicon enough to invite us to her home in Dakhla. Although she did not speak French or any other language in common with us, she explained through a fellow passenger that her husband spoke Spanish, the former colonial language of Western Sahara.

Both Layoune – where we spent an afternoon between long legs of our journey – and Dakhla – where we spent a day and a half trying to find a ride to the Mauritanian border – are undoubtedly cities under occupation. There seem to be as many Moroccan military as civilian citizens in both cities, along with frequent UN vehicles. Morocco has invested heavily in building the infrastructure of both cities, so that they have crisply pressed exteriors. I understand that this investment has been partly a strategy to encourage migration from other parts of Morocco, while many native Saharawis are exiled in refugee camps over the border in Algeria, thus blurring the border in question at least as far as population goes.

To me, the outcome of UN negotiations, which should be resuming in March 2008, seems foregone, given the length and determination of the Moroccan campaign for control of Western Sahara and the way the subject is treated elsewhere in Morocco. Nonetheless, there is some fierce resentment brewing in the eyes and conversations of some native Saharawis. One employee of the camping spot where we stayed just outside Dakhla was determined to explain to me the political situation, introduce me to a Saharawi refugee visiting for a few days from Algeria, and make it clear that he still believed in independence and the Frente Polisario. Our native Saharawi taxi driver to the Mauritanian border was just beginning to warm up to conversing with us when we passed the second police check outside Dakhla and a Moroccan soldier hopped in for a free ride to the border – upon which, our driver clamped down, steamed resentment into the rearview mirror, and barely said another word for the next 425 kilometers to the border.

At the customs post leaving Morocco, we were kindly offered a ride into Mauritania and to Nouadhibou by a Dutch and English couple, Roland and Georgina, who had been at our camping spot the night before. They did not have enough space in their low-riding eighties sports car packed for the voyage from the Netherlands to the Gambia to offer us a ride all the way from Dakhla, but at the border, they were willing to squeeze us in for the last 70 kilometers.

As fate would have it, no longer were we squeezed into the back seat, happily swapping i-tunes and travel tales, and through Moroccan customs, than we got stuck in a sand trap in the 3 kilometers of no man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania. The low rider dug her engine deeper and deeper into the sand each time she went in reverse, no matter how much the four of us dug, pushed, raised the wheels, and ate sand. But, help – in some form – was on its way. Four apparent desert dwellers of unknown nationality descended from the dunes in flowing robes and offered to get us out – for the small sum of 150 euros. We, of course, refused and continued toiling with moderate success for the next half hour, while our would-be saviors lounged around in various postures of sympathy and amusement. Finally, they offered to do the deed for 20 euros and we pantingly relented, only to watch them start shoving sand back under the wheels (shock!), sit all four on one side of the car to start it rocking and rising out of the sand, and get us free and back on the rode within five minutes. If 20 euros bought us freedom and a life’s lesson in sand-trap escape, I say it was well spent.

Au revoir, Morocco, bon soir, Mauritania! We cruised into Nouadhibou just after sunset and set up in another sandy camping spot off the main drag of the center city. Stepping into the city streets, there was no doubt we were in another country – and much closer to West Africa. At least in Nouadhibou, immigration from southern Mauritania and other parts of West Africa overwhelms the Moorish populace that is the majority elsewhere. We changed 10 euros on the street – cash only economy in Mauritania – with a Pulaar- and English- (for us) speaking man who also helped Dave to purchase a dark couscous and sour camel milk combo. Then, the two of us and Roland and Georgina ate a wonderfully cheap and relaxed dinner in a restaurant run by Gambian immigrants. Highlights of the dinner were interrupting the tail end of an African Cup game and being invited into the kitchen so that we could explain our vegetarian/vegan diet – i.e. point to what we wanted and did not want to eat.

The next morning, Dave and I broke out our water filter for the first time – thanks to his parents – wandered around looking for any bank that would change travelers’ checks – no go, as we learned more about cash-only economies – and prepared ourselves for what would be the most unique train ride of our lives.

The world’s longest iron ore train – 2.3 kilometers long according to guidebooks – runs from just south of Nouadhibou (the port where the iron ore exits the country) to the iron mines along the Western Saharan/Mauritanian border at Zouereg. We – along with two new travel acquaintances, Patrick of the Netherlands and Bevy of Croatia, and several hundred Mauritanian travelers – hopped onto the empty ore cars returning to the inland mines. Then ensued the windiest, dustiest, dirtiest, coldest, and entirely most thrilling 12+ hours of my life. I leave it to pictures and the strength of your imagination to describe further.

The adventure did not end, however, when we dismounted – frigidly half-comatose – at about 2:00 AM at the midpoint of Choum. As soon as the train started to move away, a bevy of 4WD pickup trucks appeared flashing their headlights and began to run up and down the tracks scooping up passengers for the 2 hour ride to Atar, the third city of Mauritania. I wearily bargained in French for a better price for our foursome and then we waited, nibbling on candied peanuts (from Christmas in Vermont!), for about an hour for our vehicle to reload its luggage and passengers for the ride. Finally, we perched atop the luggage on the back of the pickup, holding onto netting as we bounced along a sandy road, arriving in Atar just after sunrise.

The city of Atar and the Adrar region are perhaps the places where the consequences of recent tragic events in Mauritania are most visible. On December 24, 2007, four French tourists were shot and killed while picnicking in southern Mauritania allegedly by terrorists with ties to international Al-Qaeda. The details are chilling. But, far worse is to see the devastation – we hope only temporary – of a developing tourist economy in one of the world’s poorest countries. Prior to the killings, at least four Air France flights came directly to Atar from Paris each week, bringing thousands of tourists to the edge of the Saharan desert. Our guidebook prepared us to be surrounded by French businessmen trying to “get away.” Since the French government issued a travel warning for Mauritania, this flow has dropped to a trickle. At the height of the tourist season – early February – Atar’s hotels were notably empty or, more sensibly, “closed for the season.”

We recovered from our journey at a camping spot run by a Dutch ex-patriot couple on the outskirts of Atar. The owners – clearly ex-pats of the first world for a reason – were well informed, cynical about world politics, and irate about the current situation in Mauritania. Justus articulated what at least Dave had been saying for weeks: this is one isolated incident in an otherwise safe and peaceful country; the Mauritanian government arrested nine people, including the killers and other members of the terrorist cell; and there were protests against the violence in the streets of Nouakchott. Then, Justus pointed out the double standard in stinging terms: “Nine people were killed in a supermarket in Chicago last week, and no one is told not to travel there.”

Dave and I have meditated on these subjects a lot, particularly as we read of four school shootings in the U.S. in the last week, and I write essays about the rule of law in developing countries in order to convince U.S. law schools to admit me. To me, it seems that the issue is use of the word terrorism. I do not go so far as Justus, the Dutch hostel owner, who claims that Al-Qaeda is pure political fiction. But, I take his point more broadly: we tacitly accept or become accustomed to violence of all sorts so long as it falls into “understood” categories such as crime or warfare. Violence that is called terrorism is shadowy, unknown, and makes us westerners feel like sitting ducks.

There is also a double standard. If the four French tourists had been killed, as it was first broadcasted, in an armed robbery gone wrong, it would have been treated quite differently. Also, if Mauritania were more broadly known throughout the world, this incident would have registered as just one of many impressions of the country – rather than defining it as a terrorist bastion.

As it is, Mauritania seems to capture the hearts of many who go there and end up staying. Aside from the Dutch couple, we met a Scotsman in Nouakchott who abandoned his homeland three years ago to work as a camel herder in Mauritania. We also met the most seasoned of travelers in Mauritania, the best of the road, and had some of the most genuine and positive interactions with locals along the way. We felt safe. The worst things that happened to us in our zigzag across the country were as follows:

  • A goat peeing on Megan’s backpack on board a pickup truck to Chinguetti (we don’t blame him as he was stuffed in between all our luggage and under the weight of us and about 8 others);
  • A goat lightly tinkling on David’s backpack when it shared the trunk of our taxi;
  • A car back from Chinguetti that overheated repeatedly and then only got us to the edge of town before tanking out completely;
  • Two flat tires on the route down to Boghe, with positive results (thanks to the good company of our driver and his friend);
  • Accepting hospitality in the form of camel infused rice (Dave says it tastes like Chinese fried rice) and sweetened camel’s milk; and
  • Seeing too much trash on the dunes of the Sahara.

These are adventures I can live with. See pictures for some of the highlights of the trip, including picking up trash on the sand dunes near Chinguetti, the Port de Pesche in Nouakchott, and our many forms of transportation. Oh, and, go to Mauritania.

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