Thursday, January 11, 2007

The End

On Sunday night at 9pm, my SN Brussels flight will whisk me away after 160 days on the African continent. In Nelson Mandela’s book, he mentioned a fellow inmate who commented once that, in prison, the days can feel like years and the years feel like days. I haven’t been in prison, but there have been days that were very challenging, some very, very low points, and yet five and a half months have somehow gone by. The last week has been a mixture of slow-moving tedium as I’ve counted down the days to my finish here, with various outings to both enjoy the last of the Gambia and to draw various work and social associations to a close. My next four days will largely be the same. I’ll finish packing, I’ll keep exercising. At lunch on Friday, I’m meeting up with a Calgarian Hasher who is here on some sort of oil exploration. Friday night, I was invited to some sort of house party in Brufut by another Hasher. And Saturday night, the Institute Director is having me over for supper. Perhaps a walk here and there and maybe take in a soccer game, but otherwise that wraps things up for me here.

On July 26, I posted some priorities on my blog about what I wanted to do while in Africa:

I am just under two weeks away from moving to Africa. I'm looking forward to a few things: moving on from my University life, reading books, helping the less fortunate, seeing a new world, and reexamining my priorities.

Some reflections on my trip:

READING: I managed to read 8 books on this trip, ranging from historical fiction (Dickens, Austen, Joyce), contemporary fiction (Atwood, Achebe), and autobiographical non-fiction (H. Clinton, B. Clinton, Mandela).

FITNESS: The first time I jogged in the Gambia, I almost threw up and spent two hours immobile in a chair to regain my composure. Slowly but surely, I worked my way up from short runs twice a week to running for 75 minutes 6 times a week, plus doing 150 situps and 48 modified pushups every morning, in addition to the weekly Hash runs, rugby (before I got bored with it a few months ago), and lots of time spent walking and touring. After letting things slide too much throughout law school, I return to Canada in the best shape I’ve been since my half-marathon running days of 2001. It took a whole lot of effort and sacrifice, as being in Africa provided various challenges: the stifling heat, the lure of the beach, bistro eating and cheap beer, and greater time sucked up by everything from laundry to shopping and transportation. But it was worth it. Things have slacked somewhat in the last month, what with my birthday binging, my vacation, and the unplanned farewell restaurant tour since my return last week, but I’m happy overall.

WORK: I have not been vacationing, but rather have been working full time. I had the opportunity to become very familiar with the human rights system here in Africa, both in terms of past cases of the African Human Rights Commission and in terms of how things work. I worked on cases for both the Commission and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. I worked on some policy drafting. I participated in a roundtable on legal aid in the Gambia, attended the NGO Forum and the Commission Session, and gave a presentation on the international human rights framework at a training workshop.

TOURING: I saw the Abuko Nature Reserve, Bijilo Forest Park and Katchikali Crocodile Pool. I had the opportunity to go up country to see James Island and, in the process, had my first exposure to small villages and the Gambian countryside. I walked all over, from north to Cape Point to the Tanji fishing village in the south. I ate at all sorts of restaurants and visited numerous clubs and bars. I saw the unspoiled beaches of the southern Kombos. I saw more of West Africa by traveling to Senegal overland, and experienced North Africa by traveling to Morocco.

EXPERIENCING A DIFFERENT CULTURE: I spent five months living in a traditional African neighbourhood, largely separated from the tourist, expat and diplomatic areas. I have shopped from street vendors, interacted with Gambians, and lived through the rainy season. I ate traditional Gambian foods and experienced local beach and fishing culture. I have lived in West Africa. Being by myself for four of those months, I have been immersed in Gambian living and have largely had to find my own way. I think myself better for it.

REEXAMING MY PRIORITIES: My time here has given me a lot of time to think and reflect. And while I don’t have all the answers for my life, some things have been made somewhat clearer.

HILIGHTS: The weather for the last two months has been wonderful. Seeing African villages for the first time was a very worthwhile and moving experience. Publishing on malaria in the Edmonton Journal was very fulfilling. And all of the things listed above really made the trip what it was. On the whole, I am proud that I was able to take the step to decide to come here, take a further step to travel around a bit independently, and make it through the entire time when, back in August, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever do so.

DISAPPOINTMENTS: Having my planned tour to Georgetown in the east part of Gambia fall through was unfortunate, but I got my fill of travel, villages and countryside in other ways. I never really made close friends with people in my age group, as those I met through rugby I never particularly clicked with. I wish my time in Gambia were such that I could have fully immersed myself in the experience and put thoughts of Canada away for the duration. But the various challenges of being here – living hardships, loneliness, boredom, cultural frustrations and racial division – rendered that impossible. To this day, although I go about daily living comfortably, I am still an outsider here.

I’m somewhat surprised I’ve managed to keep this going for my entire trip. 93 pages of reflections on various things, most of which was posted to the blog. Sometimes interesting, sometimes less so, but as accurate and honest as I was able to make things. Now, on to Brussels, two days of rest in Amsterdam, through to Mineappolis, and on to cold, snowy home.

Part VI: The Home Stretch

January 4, 2007

Being back feels like a welcome overstayed, or like 3rd year law school: you’re ready to leave and don’t really want to be here anymore. I’m more tired and worn out all day than I would have expected. I spent some time relaxing in the sun at the Kairaba Hotel and popped into work to try to check my email but, in fitting Gambian fashion, the internet was down. For dinner, I went to a wonderful all-you-can-eat Mongolian Grill at the Green Mamba. I ate a ridiculously exorbitant amount of food, but it was great value and a great meal.

January 5, 2007

Popped into work again. It feels like being there on the weekend, or being at work right before holidays when nothing is getting done. People are still coming back from vacation, so nothing is really happening and nobody is around. I’ve largely started to tune out the country and am looking forward to leaving. Next week will be slow and dull.

January 6, 2007

Started writing up my trip diary. Not much else I want to do in the Gambia. My thoughts are really set on leaving, not on doing a flurry of activities before I leaving. I started slowly figuring out how I might be able to pack up my souveniers.

January 7, 2007

In a change from the last couple of days, I decided to head out today and enjoy a bit more of my time here. Light-headed and feeling slightly drunk from NyQuil (I’ve caught a cold from the weather changes, presumably), I took in a good British lunch (a contradiction to be certain) at Churchill’s, then I took a leisurely stroll through the palm trees and rice fields of Kotu. I was very much alone, with just a few cars and field workers in the distance. The weather at this time of year is quite gorgeous and there are certainly some picturesque elements to this country upon which I will look back fondly. I walked back for an hour along the beach to take in the ocean. The large number of bumsters out and about I will look back upon with far less fondness. I finished up my afternoon with a daiquiri in Senegambia. An impulse purchase with money I didn’t really want to spend, I decided that I couldn’t go back to Edmonton not having had at least one tropical drink on a patio here. Happy Ukrainian Christmas.

January 9, 2007

Attended my last Hash last night, at a new-ish Hungarian restaurant up at Cape Point. The walk was pleasant, as I’m taking the opportunity these days to appreciate what I can before I leave. Dinner was fun and celebratory, and I treated the 71-year-old Brit who has kindly been giving me rides to and from the Hash since I started. I thanked the group and got a signed t-shirt as a memento. Heading home, I reflected on the familiarity of my surroundings and the various routines I’ve gotten accustomed to over the last five months. Joining the Hash was unquestionably one of the major things that helped give me a sense of comfort and belonging here in the Gambia, exposed me to various places, and provided information and helpful guidance when necessary. Young, old and older, the group was fun, laid-back, unpretentious and welcoming.

January 10, 2007

On my list of “things to do” before leaving was trying the last of a list of restaurants, The Clay Oven, the most notable Indian restaurant here in the Gambia. Headed there for lunch yesterday. It is in the tree-lined, upscale neighbourhood of Fajara. Heading inside through a long hallway filled tastefully with Indian art, I was seated in the empty dining room, an airy room with white walls, ceiling and floor, yellow chairs and window drapes, white and blue coverings on tables, and assorted Indian art lining the walls. In a nice atmosphere of music and sunlight, I had a small tasty lunch of samosas and some chicken, particularly enjoying the sweet chutney sauce for the samosas and experimenting with various others for the chicken. Tasty and enjoyable, but not great value for the meal. In this country, if you wish to venture away from the basic Gambian or tourist fare, you can expect to pay North American prices. Which isn’t a big deal, except when you’re but a few days from leaving. It was worth it, though, to have something a little bit different in a pleasant atmosphere.

January 11, 2007

I returned to the Green Mamba last night for one last all-you-can-eat, and once again enjoyed a fabulous meal in their wonderful, laid back setting. It is likely my favourite bar and restaurant here in the Gambia. I debated whether to spend the money to go back there, but when you get a soup, bread, all-you-can-eat Mongolian grill of fish, prawns, tuna, chicken, pork, beef, and various vegetables with 5 sauces (peanut, banana, spicy, sesame, oyster) to choose from, with fresh fruit salad for dessert and attaya green tea for the equivalent of about $14, I won’t be able to enjoy such a thing when I return. I enjoyed the food, enjoyed the largely jazz music, and the comfortably cool weather in this oasis just off the Senegambia cesspool. It’s too bad they didn’t open the restaurant earlier in the trip, or I would have been there every weekend. On the other hand, maybe it’s good that they didn’t, or I would have been there every weekend. I also enjoyed chatting with the Hungarian waitress there who I met a few months ago, who’s doing a Masters project here in the Gambia on the romance tourism culture before heading off to Sudanese refugee camps in a few months.

I have largely finished packing. Surprising how quickly one can store away 5 months of living into two humble suitcases. My house looks even emptier now.

Finished the last of the Dickens Christmas novellas yesterday, “The Cricket on the Hearth”. A rather interesting tale, following in the same formula of “The Christmas Carol” and “The Chimes” of downtrodden yet honest folk, contrasted with almost comically unpleasant characters, ultimately enjoying the spirit and gift of happiness. I found it a bit annoying in this particular instance as a rather interesting and compelling story was made worse for me by an almost deus ex machina-type feel good ending, with equally unbelievable changes in previously sinister characters.

Pictures from Marrakech

Marrakesh, with the Koutoubia Minaret in the distance

Djemma el Fna in the evening

Part V: Marrakech, Morroco, and back to the Gambia

December 30, 2006

An 8 hour train ride to Marrakesh. The train was packed from about before Casa to just before Marrakesh: people were sitting and smoking with their luggage packed in the hallways outside the train compartments. Another thought: as the toilets empty straight out of the train, it gives another reason not to play on train tracks.

The landscape was wonderful. By Fes there were rolling hills and farmlands. By Casa I saw the distant ocean. It then turned into more dull farmlands heading on, but became cool and desertish. The high, snow-covered Atlas mountains soon emerged, dwarfing and providing a background for Marrakesh down below.

I arrived in Marrakesh around supper. I couldn’t get a good taxi rate so I decided to walk. It was not far, but I couldn’t find the hotel as my scanned map provided little guidance. It was getting dark and cold, but I finally found it and got a nice feel for the streets in the process.

In Fes I was staying in the Medina. Here in Marrakesh, I was staying in the new town. The Hotel Toulousain was very much a change from the Riad in Fes. Everything in Marrakesh over new year’s was full when I was doing bookings a month ago, and this was the only hotel I could find. It was a very basic room with two beds, a stained floor, a barren toilet and shower with minimal heating. It was really one step above a hostel. But I just need a place to sleep, so it’s fine.

I walked around the Ville Nouvelle (also known as Gueliz). I found it to be disappointing: it was overwhelmingly crawling with tourists, was fully modern, and lacked even the charm and interesting architecture of Casa. It looked and felt a bit like Whyte Avenue. I am looking forward to throwing myself back into traditional surroundings by heading to the Marrakesh medina tomorrow, although I admittedly did enjoy sitting on a cold café patio sipping a hot chocolate and taking in my surroundings.

December 31, 2006

I awoke early with a head cold. Thankfully, there was hot water in the shower because emerging from my layers of blankets into the cold room was painful. Breakfast was included, and it was nice to see other worn trekkers like myself at breakfast, a very unpretentious gathering. I wanted to do as much today as possible not being sure what would be open tomorrow on New Year’s. It’s also a Muslim holiday now, further complicating touring matters.

I went to the Jardin Majorelle, a truly spectacular creation. Formerly a private garden created by artist Jacques Majorelle, it was opened to the public a few decades ago, and is now maintained in trust by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. You enter and walk past a fountain into the garden. If you go one way, you enter a shaded, secluded bamboo path with a quiet gazebo. You keep walking and the air opens up into a winding path through palm trees and cactus plants, a bit like walking through Kotu in the Gambia. You follow one of the paths and the imposing majorelle blue house (Majorelle’s former work studio) appears, with plants in colorful pots along the way. A large koi pond with floating plants was set off from one side of the house while the porch overlooked another pond that stretched like the Washington D.C Mall far into the bamboo wooded area, where another gazebo was situated from which the house would just be tantalizingly visible through the trees. There were various other paths, openings and resting places. The whole things was beautifully structured. With plants collected from 5 different continents, different areas in the garden seemed to evoke different emotions: open airiness, seclusion, and the dominance of the house and its pools overlooking it all. It was amazing to see what one man could create.

Marrakesh is the most pleasant, relaxing and idyllic place I’ve visited on this trip, but in many ways it is also the least interesting. The Ville Nouvelle lacks the French feel of Casablanca, and the Medina lacks the historic and authentic feel of Fes. The walk to the Medina was very pleasant but dull. Everything felt new. It felt like the suburbia of Calgary mixed with the mountain charm of Banff and an upscale Florida retirement community. It felt largely artificial. If Fes is historic Morocco, then Marrakesh felt like a Disneyland or Vegas Morocco, an artificial construction of the Moroccan experience for honeymooning couples and those looking for easy Morocco. Arriving at the Medina, it felt too new. It was picturesque, but again artificial. The place was also crawling with tourists, and there was even a prominent Club Med. There was, however, a romantic feel to it all: nice gardens, horse-drawn carriages, the slightly newer paths of the Medina, and the overall aura of Djemma el Fna.

The Djemma el Fna is a large, open square, framed by some cafes and shops. I walked through it, saw some fruit stalls and numerous snake charmers surrounded by the creatures and making cobras sway in front of them. I saw the Koutoubia Minaret, which dwarfs everything in the area and is nice, very old and imposing. The Koutoubia Gardens were also pleasant to walk through.

I waited in a long tourist line to see the Saadian Tombs. These were amazing, with very elaborate wood and plaster carvings and intricate mosaics. I then tried to find the Ben Youssef mosque but got lost in the Medina. It was not as claustrophobic as Fes. It seemed newer and was largely deserted. The same could be said for most of the streets around the Saadian tombs: was this because it was Sunday? Or New Year’s Eve? Or the Muslim Eid? Whatever the explanation, it felt like the Moroccans had closed up shop and gave the throngs of tourists the run of the place. I felt better walking through the Medina streets, as I felt a return of a more authentic feel, although it was newer, with seemingly wider and roomier streets. I popped by the Hotel la Mamounia, the most expensive hotel in the city and Winston Churchill’s former stomping grounds in Marrakech, but it was sadly closed for construction.

I returned to the Djemma el Fna in the evening. It was still full of tourists but more and more Moroccans were making their way there. It was quite an experience. Throngs of food stands were filling the air with steam, there were countless orange juice vendors, cafes filled with tourists, numerous shops selling merchandise, stalls of shoe polishers. The dusk air was lit with hundreds of bulbs from the food stands and the Minaret was lit in the background like the Empire State Building. Circles of people surrounded musical performers. Thousands of people made their way and wandered amidst old men animatedly telling stories, old men sitting on the ground selling herbal remedies. There were simple carnival type games, and two young men boxing. The air was filled with the smell of food, the sounds of music and the calls of the mosques. The steam, the light: it was all very atmospheric and fun. It was a nightlife public gathering (which I couldn’t find in Fes). It was a mixture of the Fringe, the Street Performers Festival, Klondike Days, Whyte Avenue and a market all rolled into one. After a few hours, I grew tired of walking around the square, and enjoyed the walk amidst busy foottraffic on the main thoroughfare to return to Gueliz.

Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be much by way of New Year’s celebrations. I saw various people dressed up and heading off to places unknown, and saw some tourists having fancy dinners. However, I wasn’t sure where celebrations were taking place. I asked around but couldn’t find anything out, and the hotel staff implied that the Muslim holiday was all to be had. There really was more of a café than a club culture, so I hung around outside for a while, enjoying some espresso and the street traffic. At this point of the trip, I wished my hotel was more comfortable, because I was largely tired of touring.

Marrakech grew on me. It was not as intense as the other places I had been, but it was a nice, relaxing place to visit. I worked to try to enjoy it for what it was: a more modern, smaller-town, atmospheric place. I returned to my chilly hotel room and went to sleep as some distant group in the hotel did the final New Year’s countdown in French. Welcome 2007.

January 1, 2007

I looked to spend a more leisurely day today. Much of the city and the Medina was shut down, but the touristy things seemed to stay open.

I took a different path into the Medina from the new town and managed this time to find the Ben Youssef Medersa. It had intricately carved surfaces, gorgeous corridors, a wonderful courtyard and attached prayer hall. It was like the one I saw in Fes, but this was better because we could walk around the place. It was interesting to see the student cells, which were like small, prison cells.

Next I went to the Marrakesh museum next door, saw Fes pottery, some fabrics and jewelry. I enjoyed the art displays, as I hadn’t seen any art up to this point. It was a very nicely restored building, including an elaborate inner courtyard. Walking through the art displays in the more low key hammam areas was cool.

Finally, I saw the Almoravid Koubba. It was cool, a below-ground-level excavated building, the only intact surviving Almoravid building and the root of all Moroccan architecture. The dome structure was amazing. It was interesting to see the carving motifs and the windows, which were more simple here than in the Medersa because they were done here for the first time and spawned everything else I had seen. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the various latrine and other attached water-transfer areas from the French descriptions.

I walked casually through the Medina looking for Djemma el Fna using the tried-and-true method of occasionally asking for a direction and assuming I’d be on the right track if the number of tourists increased or the path seemed busier or had more kiosks open. Eventually I found the square, relaxed for a bit there with cheap fresh orange juice, relaxed in the park by the minaret, then finally made my way back to Gueliz. I spent the evening walking around and relaxing at various cafes drinking espressos, banana-milk juice, and having supper. I enjoyed taking in the nighttime atmosphere, seeing the crazy traffic of cars, scooters and horse-drawn carriages, as well as the lights of the new town.

I am tired of touring. There are only so many examples of Moroccan carvings that you can see. But I enjoyed relaxing today and just appreciating the Marrakech ambiance.

Nightlife in a Muslim country is pretty nice. People are more laid back and level-headed when the streets aren’t filled with drunks. I appreciated Marrakech as the kind of city it would be best to live in: relaxed, clean, picturesque, a comfortable night life, and a safe feeling.

January 2, 2007

Today was going to be the start of the two-day trek to get home to the Gambia. I woke in Marrakech and took the just-over 3hr train to Casablanca (Casa to Fes takes just over 4 hours, while Fes to Marrakesh is around 8). I rather enjoy the time I spend traveling: it is relaxing and gives one the opportunity to enjoy the scenery outside the train, but the packing and moving every few days, and back-of-the-mind worry the night before of things going wrong is less fun.

I spent the afternoon killing time in Casa. I enjoyed seeing the old (decaying) buildings once more, but it was a bit like the morning after a party, or returning to the scene of a past good time, or the bittersweet end of a vacation: I was just killing time, the fun and excitement weren’t there anymore. I am in return-home mode.

After taking a train to the airport, I had an uneventful 3.5hr evening flight back to Dakar. On the flight, I found myself dreading the return to Gambia tomorrow. The travel in West Africa is certainly tiring and tedious, but I don’t so much mind the travel itself as the constant haggling over prices and the informality and uncertainty of the entire process. If I was just booking a bus ticket, I wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Coming from the airport late in Dakar, I got a ride with a man who said he was a taxi driver in an unmarked car. This was probably not the smartest thing given all my other precautions taken for safety on the trip. But it’s something of a reality in west Africa in the informal economy, as even the cars I took to get to Dakar could have been something entirely untrustworthy for all I knew.

I enjoyed the experience of feeling the brisk, evening cold air boarding the plane on the runway in Casablanca, and then feeling the warm, humid and tropical nighttime air getting off in Senegal.

January 3, 2007

Finally got to bed at 3am last night, up at 8am to head home. Dakar didn’t feel as foreign and imposing the second time around, but still very much a city of urban decay. I grabbed a taxi to the Gare Routier, found out that there was a bus headed to Banjul, so I boarded it to get to the border. I sat waiting for probably one and half hours as departure proceeded in true west African fashion. People meandered on and off board, sellers of everything from bread, watches, belts, dissonant toys playing demonic-sounding children’s songs climbed on board periodically to ply their wares. No indication was evident that we were ever going to leave. When you’re tired and want to get home, it is frustrating how slow moving everything is in this part of the world. Once we got going, it took probably another hour just to get out of Dakar. Traffic was heavy, and the bus stopped very minute or two. The bus itself was basically a transit bus fitted with extra seats in the middle aisle. Senegalese music played over the intercom, a warm dusty wind blew the blue curtains covering the windows, and a guy would lean out of the doors shouting our destination to surrounding crowds, much like the minivan buses in the Gambia.

It took about 6 hours to get to the border. If I thought the 7-seater Peugot 504 car took a while because we’d stop periodically for rest breaks, this was a comparatively aggravating process, made worse by my state of fatigue. The bus would stop constantly to pick up or drop off new people, or simply slow down or stop for reasons I couldn’t figure out. It was like taking an ETS transit bus cross-country. Wherever we’d stop, the sellers and dirty, begging children would surround the doors and climb on board. The bus was pretty packed for the entire trip, with a few dead chickens among the passengers.

I did enjoy my iPod and the nice scenery. There was lots of deserty-looking grass, many deciduous trees, and we got to pass through a fair number of small villages and larger towns. I ate cookies and shared in a street-vendor sandwich offered me by the young guy sitting next to me.

The border crossing was once again uneventful and quick, with barely a glance in my direction as my passport was stamped. Once again on Gambian soil, I took another taxi, which bounced its way down a dirt path to get to Barra. Once there, another long wait ensued for the ferry to arrive, and a longer wait to be let out of the waiting pen to be allowed to run and scramble down the path to the ferry. We were packed in the waiting area behind a gate, like 3rd class passengers on the Titanic, frustratedly watching people walk their way to the ferry who had managed to sneak their way through from the ticket booth. I was quite tired from two long travel days by this point. The ferry ride under a moonlit night sky was quite pleasant, but I was really too tired to care much. On the ride across the river mouth, I ran into my former tour guide to James Island who helped me get a good price for a taxi once we arrived in Banjul.

I finally got home at around 8 or 9. The streets were deserted and quiet: still the Muslim Eid, I think. My arrival at home found the house and neighbourhood quiet and deserted. Entering my house was a bit like when I first arrived five months ago. It seemed barren, empty and foreign. The smell I noticed the first day had returned, like tropical air mixed with the mosquito net smell.

About five minutes after I had arrived and dropped off my things, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a tremendous fire erupt and start to spread right behind the secondary building in my backyard. Smoke and flames were billowing, so I quickly grabbed the bags I had just dropped off in my room, and rushed out of my house. I went around to the backyard to see if the fire had spread and realized that, thankfully, the building was not on fire. It looked as though somebody had started a clearcutting fire on the other side of the fence behind my house. People burn things in this country all the time, which is not unusual, but I had never seen such a massive blaze. I went back inside, and relaxed again a while later when the fire appeared to subside somewhat and my house was still in one piece.

It’s nice to not be moving around anymore and living out of a backpack, but returning feels like a bit of an odd extension, as though I’ve finished but have decided to come back for a few days. We’ll see how the final week here plays out.

The trip on the whole made me realize, more than I would have expected, just how challenging, limited, and deprived my life has been since August. I also didn’t realize how long I had been gone on this little jaunt until I returned to the intern house, which felt a bit distant and strange, like something from a previous life. I’m very glad to not have to travel overland within West Africa again notwithstanding it being something of an experience. Having traveled for 16 days with just a small bag, I don’t understand what people put in those gigantic backpacks when they go trekking through Europe or whatever. I also find myself annoyed by the abuse of carry-on allowance on airplanes by stupid people. How much crap do you really need to try to stuff into the overhead compartment, you moron? Bah. I’m cranky. But at least I’m home.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pictures from Fes

A roof-top look at the tannery workers below

Fes from on high at the Merenid tombs

The kind of intricate Moroccan stucco carvings, paintings and mosaics that cover the walls and ceilings of medersas, tombs, etc.

Fes el Bali Medina

Part IV: Fes, Morocco

December 27, 2006

I was up at 6am for my desired 8:15am, 4.5 hour train ride to Fes. Moving every few days is both the best and worst part about traveling, but I relaxed in Casablanca, saw the Mosque, and didn’t have anything left I wanted to see or do. Leaving, I was mildly apprehensive about two things: whether there would be any complications with the train, and whether I would be able to find my riad in Fes.

All was fine with the train. It was nice, European-style station, and I settled into a compartment with some others for the trek. I started reading Dickens’ “The Chimes”. It proved to be a good satire on class relations, the industrial revolution, politics and pretension. I also quite enjoy Dickens’ informal story-telling style, where he will break away into an aside as though he’s personally telling you the story. He might stress or reiterate something, which I find interesting.

The train ride was relaxing. There were wonderful landscapes: rolling green fields, small villages set in valleys in traditional Moroccan style, where houses are built like jagged stacks of blocks, and sandy dunes. I mentally felt myself once again being removed from the big city into the countryside. There were also low Atlas mountains. More tourists boarded the train at Meknes. Although fewer tourists is always better, it’s also nice to have the reassurance of seeing fellow travelers on a parallel voyage.

My first sight of Fes was striking: a huge growth of Moroccan-style housing set in a valley. It was like a medieval, Arabic Calgary, with walls and large gates.

I was dropped off outside a small gate in the wall along a road and told to head inside, which I did. Thankfully, I quickly spotted a small sign for “La Perle de la Medina”, so I knew I was on the right track. I followed a short, cobblestone path and turned into a narrow, indistinguishable alley of indistinguishable yellow stone buildings that ended in a dead-end of a large, unlabelled metal door. This was my riad, hidden and undistinguishable from any other of the thousands of buildings in the Medina.

The riad was like a small palace. It was a traditional, restored Moroccan house, 4 levels high with a rooftop patio. It was amazingly ornately decorated, rooms set around a 4 story indoor tiled courtyard with a fountain, couches, a reading room and Moroccan furnishings and decorations. My room was adorned in a similar fashion. I write this while relaxing on a couch in front of the fountain, which is surrounded by small candles. Basically, this is a gorgeous, intimate guest house.

The Fes layout is confusing and intimidating, even in trying to understand the maps and where we are. The Medina is a huge, walled maze of narrow streets, small alleys, dead ends, tall, ancient Moroccan stone buildings creating this labyrinth. I did some walking to get my bearings, went up to the cemetery and up some of the major streets in the Medina. It was all very commercial: lots of stores, lots of vendors, produce, donkeys, lots of tourists. I also saw a live sheep getting stuffed into the back seat of a taxi, which was interesting. And I enjoyed a wonderful Moroccan mint tea by the main entryway of Bab Boujeloud.

The Fes Medina compared to that of Casa: seems larger and more impressive, old but not run down, traditional Moroccan rather than French adopted art deco, thriving rather than decaying, a mixture of residences and markets. This is the oldest of the imperial cities, and it certainly shows.

The Medina and markets compared to Dakar: not as filthy and pushy, pedestrian traffic rather than car traffic, merchants not as pushy. Dakar is a big city mixed with African market mentality, somewhat slum-ish with decaying European architecture. Fes is medieval in its pathways and architecture. There is modernity but in an ongoing historic setting, like an enlarged picture of Europe my sister has. There is a strange mix of modern youth, stores, old people in traditional Moroccan garb, and traditional trades.

Thoughts on Casa and Fes: both are largely modern living in a historic setting. When traveling, it is sometimes hard to find a place where the lifestyle itself remains historic and unchanged. Probably in small villages unspoilt by modernity and tourism.

Getting a guide tomorrow, should be helpful to find the sights I want to see.

December 28, 2006

Today was a full day of touring. It was rushed but fulfilling: having a guide let me quickly get through everything I wanted to see without struggling to find my way in the Medina maze. I saw:

Talaa Kebira: one of the main paths in the Medina. Atmospheric, moody main artery through the Medina, partly covered from the sun. It has a feeling of more authentic retail.

Talaa Seghira: the same route I walked down yesterday, lots of little shops, a lighter feel, lots of tourists.

Nejjarin Souk: this was the carpenter craft area. Lots of nice smells, lots of nice products.

Nejjarin Fondouk: a nice restored house with a wood museum. The museum was a bit dull, but there were some intricate carvings and a nice view of the Medina from the roof. The house resembled my riad, only it was largely wood decorated. Outside, the Place en Nejjarin was really just a small square.

Medersa Bou Inania: a gorgeous buildings of cedar carvings, mosaics, stucco carvings and wonderful Iraqi stained glass windows. I wonder what it would have been like being a high school student studying the Quran here hundreds of years ago.

Clock: a former water clock right outside the Bou Inania medersa. Unknown how it functioned, but it was lovely and intricate.

Dyer’s Souk: a smelly alleys, small rivers of dye flowing on the ground amidst hanging, drying clothes, workers with stained hands, and large buckets of dye

Tanneries: got a cool, rooftop look at the workers working amidst dozens of giant (red) paint cauldrons on the street below

Kairaouine Library: although I couldn’t enter, I saw a nicely decorated reading room

Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II: although I couldn’t enter, I caught a glimpse of the tomb of the founder of Fes

Kairaouine Mosque: a big mosque hidden behind street-bordering walls and doors, but I couldn’t see anything

Place Seffarine: just a square in the Medina; the guidebook said it was supposed to be picturesque which this wasn’t, so I’m not sure if I saw the right thing

I also saw various other jewelry areas, a carpet store, a man working a loom to make silk fabric products (like scarves), the metal workers factory, the tannery factory. It was a bit like being back in Bangkok, where you would always be led into pressure selling situations, which I resisted. Morocco certainly has a tradition of very wonderful craftsmanship in ceramics, carpets, embroidery, metals, jewelry and woodwork.

My afternoon was more relaxed. I went to the Dar Batha museum, which had much of the same sort of artifacts I had been seeing. But there was a cool Arab weapons exhibit of very intricately decorated weaponry like knives and guns. The museum had a nice garden in the middle courtyard (the Museum formerly being a royal house) although it was slightly less impressive in December. Still, I enjoyed the garden’s solitude. The Medina lacks trees, greenery and open spaces. It is very enclosed and claustrophobic, it dwarfs and envelops you, with the tightly-packed buildings serving to largely block out the sun and sky as though you’re surrounded by mini skyscrapers.

I then went to the Boujeloud Gardens, where I relaxed, walked around. It was pleasant and must be great in the summer. It was strange to see palm trees when it’s so chilly during the day and freezing at night.

Dinner was once again a tajine dish. Ate lots of bread today and indulged in cheap fresh juices available here in Fes. It was a bit dark at around 6 when I walked home. The Medina doesn’t seem like it would be a very pleasant place at night. The people in Fes el Bali are generally poorer with the rich having escaped to the Ville Nouvelle. My guide said that there is a lot of crime in the Medina.

In the Medina I saw buildings going back to the 11th century, including old brothel windows. It was cool to visit but I wouldn’t want to live here long-term in the Medina. Although old settings can be interesting to see and experience, they can prove challenging to actually live in.

Fes certainly has a more traditional feel than Casablanca (although, admittedly, I’m staying in the Medina for the whole time here and not bothering with the new town). It is the oldest Medina in Morocco, free from European influence, with much more traditional commerce, style of living, and clothing (fes hats, cloaks, slippers). Although there are modern elements, the historic setting remains, and traditional living persists. Fes is unquestionably the most unique place I’ve ever visited.

December 29, 2006

I visited the water fountain by the Mosque Bab Guissa in the north part of the Medina. It was a gorgeous, intricate mosaic work, but neglected. A short walk from there, I visited the Hotel Palais Jamai, a gorgeous, swank hotel overlooking the Medina. As with my own riad, it’s hard to balance immersing yourself in the place you’re visiting when you have amenities to enjoy in the place you’re staying. Still, Morocco has a certain mysterious, romantic charm and the hotel could be a good honeymoon place.

I climbed to the top of the hill overlooking the Medina to visit the Merenid tombs. From here, I was able to get a great view of the sprawling town and its old walls. It was a bit hazy, but I caught a good view of the rolling green hills and short mountains. On my way home, I bought some ceramics and a cedar chess set.

I wish I had another day in Fes just to relax and enjoy my riad a bit more, but Marrakesh beckons and I am uprooting once again.

Thoughts on Fes: claustrophobic, modern additions yet rooted in history. A great experience to visit to see the buildings and gorgeous craftsmanship. There was not much by way of entertainment in the old town and I didn’t visit the Ville Nouvelle. The Perle de la Medina was a charming building with a great courtyard and rooftop patio. It was innocuously hidden and conveniently close to everything.

Pictures from Casablanca

Boulevard Moulay Youssef

Inside Mosquee Hasaan II

Arrivals Gate at Casablanca's airport


Part III: Casablanca, Morocco

December 25, 2006

Up at 4am again for the early morning flight. I was up late packing and was kept awake by the apparent bombing campaign in downtown Dakar. The drive through the suburbs to get to the airport in Yof was interesting, as there was little to distinguish what I saw from another urban centre. The Dakar airport was a bit rough around the edges, but modern. There were only a few dozen of us on the early morning flight so we had the run of the plane. I stretched out comfortably in an emergency exit seat and alternated nodding off with finishing “A Christmas Carol”. It was a familiar, pleasant story. Some of Scrooge’s ass-ish lines and a few instances in the narrative for me reveal a wit in a young Dickens. Not sure if this was in fact the case, or whether he was just bitter. In any case, the Dakar airport and the flight were both very low key, like it was a special Christmas flight just for us.

Flying into Casablanca I noticed a lot of farmland. The arrivals lobby was gorgeous, the nicest I can recall. I took a train to the downtown. My first impression of the outskirts as we went through: Dakar without the negative elements. Very much looked the same but it very much felt like going through agrarian Europe, and the buildings when we reached them looked like Dakar.

On the train, I met an American man who was on the last leg of his 3-week round the world trek. I’m not sure how I feel about a rapid-fire plane jaunt all over the place. On the other hand, a couple of days is often enough to get the feel of a place. We discussed how many North Americans have little conception of the reality of the rest of the world outside of our borders.

I walked from the train station to my hotel. My first impressions on downtown Casa: it was a big, European city centre. The Hotel de Paris was in a great central location, with a very pretty interior and lovely rooms: decorated arched wooden doors, rugs, chair and table.

I walked around most of the day. It was much like going around Dublin, although the streets were a bit confusing at times. I had good ice cream from one of the various parlours for which Casa is known. I went to de Fleurs restaurant for supper, and had my first experience with Moroccan tajine, which was really just some beef, potatoes and veggies broiled in a clay pot. I also tried the local Casablanca beer. It was alright, an unoffensive lager like Flag and Julbrew.

I took a quick stroll through the medina: it was really just old dilapidated buildings, although it was more pleasant than the Dakar and Banjul markets: there were stone roads rather than dirt, less pushy salespeople, less insanity, nicer stuff. These markets are still not my thing, though.

Casa was very much a café-style city: everywhere there are people walking the streets, sitting indoors or outside drinking coffee, all day and into the evening. I had a more pleasant nighttime walk than in Dakar, where everything shuts down and you want to take a taxi wherever you go. Here, there was lots of traffic on the streets. It felt like West Edmonton Mall’s French recreation.

Getting off the plane earlier that morning at the Casablanca airport, I was hit with a welcome chill. It was not a cool, summer breeziness like in Gambia, but a light, biting mild winter child, which I’ve missed. I think the pilot announced that it was 8 degrees.

Casablanca citizens seem like a pleasant, stylish group. Casa is far more pleasant than Dakar, with none of Dakar’s madness and where I felt pretty much comfortable walking around.

There was no real feel of the movie, aside from vast amounts of architecture which evoke a French past. It was a combination of low-key (compared to the British) imperial French cool and stateliness combined with Moroccan grace and beauty.

December 26, 2006

I slept under warm blankets last night. It was a bit chilly, but the room was nicely heated.

This morning I went to the Mosquee Hasaan II. It was the most impressive man-made structure I’ve had the opportunity of ever seeing: huge, beautiful, intricate, rich, grandiose, awe-inspiring. The walk to get there took me along the port area and along the old Medina walls.

After the Mosque I went to the central market to buy fruit. It is hard to live cheaply and healthily when you’re traveling around.

I did a walking tour in the afternoon to see the architecture: from Place Mohammed V (a nice park, surrounded with the art-deco style official buildings), down Boulevard Moulay Youssef (which runs through an amazing deciduous and palm-lined park), past the Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur (abandoned art-deco), up to Place Oued el Makhazine, then casually back.

My thoughts on Casa: it doesn’t feel like Africa (which I’ve realized doesn’t mean much, since African countries are all different), the architecture and palm trees and parks feel like a cross between Los Angeles and Paris, with Arab inhabitants. I thought about visiting the Churchill Club (the British Bank Club), but decided against it: it was too far, and expat living is only fun if you know other expats. I popped into the Bar Casablanca at the Hyatt: a very swank hotel so I didn’t stay long. At night, the outside of the hotel was lit like a Vegas hotel. I’m not a big fan of artificial attempts to capture the movie. It is better to go out and experience Casablanca as it really is. Rick’s Café Americain was more than just about being swank, it was about a gathering place for expats (like Churchill’s in the Gambia).

I spent the evening relaxing at a couple of cafes, which is fun both when it’s warm in the day and when it’s bustling and cooler at night. I discovered that espresso with some sugar is rather tasty. It is more substantial than café au lait, and tastes like weak Ethiopian coffee, and warms you up nicely on the cool patio. Casablanca is like the British pub culture only with coffee. It is more stylish and less rowdy.

I’m glad to be leaving Casa: the lure of pastries and ice cream is too great. I hope to spend more time touring in Fes and Marrakesh. It is tough to stay healthy when you’re in a consumption town. The good thing about Casablanca was getting great, cheap, fresh-pressed fruit juices. There is cheaper eating and living than in Dakar, and is overall a lovely city.

More thoughts on the movie: the feeling is evoked somewhat by the combination of the architecture (worn down though it is now) and palm trees, which hint to the world that the movie took place in. You can tell that Casa used to look like 1940s Hollywood, although that world doesn’t really exist here anymore. However, you can picture in your mind when the buildings were new, and the existence of expats and sailors, and the European influence of café culture, 1940s fashion walking around amidst old cars.

It’s interesting to note that French colonialism here and in Dakar left so much more behind than the Brits did in Gambia (who really left nothing). I wonder what somebody new to Africa would think of Casablanca (or Dakar, for that matter). The Gambia prepared me for Dakar. And after Gambia and Dakar, there wasn’t much to it for me. It was like stepping into Europe.

Pictures from Dakar

A view of Dakar from a downtown hotel's rooftop pool

A street on Goree Island

Downtown Dakar

A view from the east coast of the peninsula (Corniche Est), looking back towards the downtown

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Part II: Dakar, Senegal

Note: Uploading images doesn't seem to be working for me, so I'll add pictures when I am able.

December 19, 2006

I woke up this morning at 4:45am and left the house, draped in my small backpack and even smaller sling-pack, at 6am to take a taxi to the Banjul harbour. At 7am, the ferry arrived to take us from Banjul to Barra. I stood on the main floor of the ferry beside a family sitting next to a car. Getting to Barra, the craziness of the taxi garage, the bus to Dakar appeared to be absent, so I haggled a spot in one of the several cars heading to the border, bouncing crazily over a dirt road for half an hour. Security was lax at the border: my passport was stamped by an official eating his lunch as I walked across the border. I then took a taxi to another garage a few kilometers away where, amidst the bedlam of cars and food vendors, I arranged a spot in a 7-seat Peugot 504 car (basically a station wagon with two bucket seat in front, and two three-seater benches in the back) to make the trek to Dakar. The first thing I noticed about Senegal was that the roads were more paved, and the beggars were more numerous and more aggressive. I sat jammed by the window of the back seat, as if in a 3-seat row of an airplane. The drive was a bit like going from Saskatchewan to Alberta: not too different, but the feeling of greater wealth. The drive was also like traveling through the Alberta prairies, but with more deciduous trees. We drove through several towns that were like going through Serrekunda. The trip was calm if a bit cramped and I enjoyed the scenery outside the window, although it was a bit tiring to keep making frequent stops.

We finally hit the outskirts of Dakar at around 4pm, some 6 hours later. It felt like the Gambian markets multiplied by a 1000, with a freeway moving through the middle of the bustle.

Dropped off at the garage, I arranged a taxi to take me to my hotel in the downtown core. Upon arriving at the hotel, I was rather apprehensive of my surroundings but, after an hour of sitting in my room, I forced myself to go for a walk through the neighbourhood, and am glad I did. I relaxed at Le Viking and tried the Senegalese “Flag” beer. The place was a nice British/Irish-type pub. I had shawarmas at Ali Baba’s, which was a Lebanese fast-food restaurant. The city centre of Dakar was very dynamic: I saw buses again, and more people wearing suits. A bit like Vancouver. It certainly had an African feel but with a big city vibe. It was nice, but I figured one might as well stick with western cities. Driving into Dakar, I felt a familiarity with the big city energy, but was also apprehensive about the busyness. When I got to the hotel, it felt like being dropped off in an alley in the midst of urban decay. I had heard horror stories about the city, and was particularly wary of the uncertainty of the main Avenue Pompidou just a block down from my hotel.

December 20, 2006

Spent the day seeing much of the city’s downtown. I went to the IFAN museum, which has particularly nice masks and sculptures, but not much explanation of anything. I walked along the area south of Avenue Pompidou, from the Museum to the Presidential Palace and up to Place Independence: very nice, European, shaded, interesting architecture. The French colonial influence was everywhere and, wide-eyed, I over-indulged somewhat in pastries and ice cream from various nice bakeries. My breakfast and lunch were spent sitting on small wooden benches next to Senegalese eating street vendor sandwiches, made of bread, some sort of meat, an onion sauce and butter: cheap, greasy and tasty. I saw a panoramic view of the city from the rooftop pool of the Independence Hotel, and was amazed at how far reaching the city was. I made two attempts to find the Grande Mosque and in the process walked through the north part of town, the market, the Medina. It was all crazy busy, very commercial, very hectic, very crowded.

Supper took me to Chez Loutcha, which looked like a hole-in-the-wall from the outside, but was great value and had a café feel. I had a giant dinner of calamari at this Cape Verde specialty restaurant. While being ignored by waitstaff for a long time, I ended up chatting with an American girl named Maria who was just beginning a 3-month trip through West Africa. Afterwards, I went for a beer at the bar at the Hotel Ganale, which was nice, flashy and cozy. Walking through downtown Dakar after dark felt largely uncomfortable: the streets were poorly lit, most stores were closed, and homeless people were everywhere.

I very much enjoyed the south part of Dakar: it was busy, cosmopolitan, rich, with an African flavour, but I find what that I like most are the things that are western and European. There is a different mentality among the African people and workers here than in the Gambia: they are more advanced, more modern, self-assured, sensible and competent. They seem little different from western folk, which isn’t the case in the Gambia.

December 21, 2006

Today was my trip to Goree Island. On the ferry ride over, I met an older, well-travelled American woman who had worked her way down from Morocco by land and was heading for Mali the following day. She didn’t like Dakar, feeling it to just be a city. While this is true, in getting away from the Gambia, that is exactly what I wanted and needed on this trip.

I was one of many tourists on the chaloupe. Goree was wonderful, a quiet, peaceful getaway from the craziness of Dakar. It was filled with European-style houses with window shutters that opened up over quiet cobblestone and dusty lanes. It was very much leftover from colonial influence: French or Portuguese, I’m not sure. It would be a wonderful place to rent a room for a few weeks if one wanted to do some writing.

Goree being a former slave island, I visited the Maison des Esclaves, including the Door of No Return, which opens up over black rocks on the edge of the water. It was crazy to see the cramped cells underneath on the main floor and the pretty colonial architecture where the Europeans lived just above on the second floor. I went up to the castle, which was little more than a nice view across the ocean to Dakar in the distance. I saw the police station, the oldest building in Goree, as well as the lovely Eglise St. Charles, which very much had an outdoorsy, warm climate, colonial church feel. The old town of the island, however, was very much a typical, run down African neighbourhood.

Not feeling well in the afternoon, stomach is killing me. Perhaps I have malaria. I slept and watched CNN and movies on my hotel television.

Dinner was at my hotel restaurant, the Farid, a very nice and classy Lebanese restaurant with fun music, but expensive. I had Fatayer fromage, and something called “Fatte Ijrain Fatte Pieds de Mouton” of “pieds de mouton, lait caille, pignons de pin sautés, pois chiches, pain libanais grille”, with Lebanese bread and Lebanese chocolate ice cream for dessert (which was good, but oddly sticky). Very good meal, but still feeling ill, so smaller appetite than I otherwise would have had.

There are very good restaurants in Dakar, but a bit pricey for my budget (yet still somewhat cheaper by Canadian standards). I think I will save up during the day, and splurge on suppers.

December 22, 2006

Dakar is on a south-facing peninsula. I walked the perimeter of the peninsula today along the Route de la Corniche Est, down to the Palais de Justice and Cap Manuel at the tip, then back up the Route de la Corniche Ouest, missed wherever the Village Artisinal was supposed to be and ended up walking all the way up to the University (where I checked my email from a cheap internet café and found out that my sister is engaged), then wound my way back as best I could through Fann Hock, Guele Tapee, the Medina and to the Plateau. In the Corniches and the Peninsula, because there were so many government, embassy and military buildings, there was lots of security everywhere.

Corniche Est: like Saskatchewan Drive overlooking the ocean. A quiet path along the various ambassador residences and the Presidential palace. It had great views and was very serene, but I had to be careful as apparently it’s not a place to come after dark, attacks occasionally happen, and it’s better not to go alone.

Palais de Justice: abandoned and hideous concrete slab of a building.

Cap Manuel: very quiet, I was completely alone, and spent some time simply overlooking the ocean.

Corniche Ouest: busy with traffic and construction.

The walk back through the city: very hectic, typical African neighbourhoods, lots of people and livestock, and I saw a dead rat. The smell of the city really bothered me. However, I was hassled much less than on the Avenue Pompidou. I also didn’t really care for the open markets. Walking through the Marche Sandaga at one end of Avenue Pompidou, crazy doesn’t begin to describe the experience of blocks and blocks of vendors and stalls, thousands of people acting like they’re on the floor of a stock exchange, teeming stalls, with buses and motorcycles trying to make their way through the throngs.

Dinner was at a French restaurant called La Dagorne by the market at the other end of Avenue Pompidou, the Marche Kermel. Although not too far from my hotel, walking there was probably a mistake: the streets were dark, secluded, unlit, with deserted alleys. Unfortunately, restaurants open rather late here. With nice places to go to, it’s unfortunate that the streets as a whole aren’t more engaging in the evenings. The restaurant had a nice bistro feel, with vines and a nice atmosphere. I had rabbit with mushroom sauce, vegetables, bread and peanuts and vanilla ice cream. It was also expensive, but probably much cheaper for such a meal than back home.

December 23, 2006

I went to Le Salon de The de la Galette, where I had a panini for lunch. It was a takeout bakery with tasty looking sandwiches and sumptuously enticing desserts.

I did absolutely nothing during the day but stayed in my hotel room away from the hectic world outside, slept in, took another long, hot bath, and watched movies/CNN/soccer all day. I also started reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a great, relaxing, rejuvenating day, a welcome part of my vacation.

For supper, I went back to Chez Loutcha, liking their great-value meals. I had cous-cous with fruits de mer, which had a decent variety of shellfish, with lots of prawns and calamari, something I didn’t recognize, and half a crab, which I unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to eat.

One of the main things I wanted to do in Dakar was hear high quality, live Senegalese music. It being Saturday night, I took a taxi to the Village Artisinal on the west coast and was dropped off at a dead end fence with no bar visible. I followed on good faith somebody who said he’d show me the way. It was just a short way in amongst the dark paths of the closed shops and stalls. Nothing was going on at my destination of Le Kily, so I went to Le Soumbe next door. This was a large, open-air bar, like a beer gardens in a covered enclosure next to the Bay. They played a mix of western and African music, but the place had an overwhelming smell of fish, so I didn’t stay long. It did seem to ramp up a bit at midnight when I headed back to Le Kily.

I was told by several people back in Gambia that Dakar has a great nightlife, but being on my own I didn’t really care about it beyond wanting to hear some high quality live music. Le Kily: it was strange to have a large, live music venue hidden in the middle of a dark, deserted craft market by the ocean. I sat at a booth and listened to reggae, waiting for the show to start. It was dark and nothing really got going until probably 2am. The show was wonderful: Thione Seck and le Raam Daan. The band had about 10 players, and I finally had some actual, live, west African (Senegalese) music rather than the touristy “island” fare you get in Gambia. I danced, and although the style of singing takes some getting used to, I loved the frenetic drumming.

It was a nice change from the Gambia. This was all locals simply enjoying their night out. I was left alone. The bar and music were not catered for tourists, which I enjoyed. The Senegalese at the club were also largely wearing stylish clothing, demonstrating the wealth disparity between the two countries, where in the Gambia you largely see what looks to be mismatched second hand western clothing. Being in Dakar, I was able to enjoy actual musicians who run clubs here. It’s a bit like going to Dublin and going to a Bono-owned club where U2 plays on weekends. I finally got to bed at 5am. I can’t get used to the late night starts of the nightlife here.

December 24, 2006

As expected when I decided to leave Gambia on the 19th rather than the 20th, this ended up being a wrap-up day. I did some laundry, shaved, and walked around the areas of downtown and down on the peninsula and coast that I have enjoyed in order to see them again, get some fresh air and exercise. The Corniches once again felt a bit like being in Vancouver.

It was very quiet today, either because it’s Sunday or because it’s Christmas Eve, but most places were closed and there was little foot or auto traffic, which left largely the dozens and dozens of homeless people, invalids, lepers, beggars, and disfigured people who reside on the streets.

Dinner was at La Palmeraie: delicious hot chocolate, a wonderful crepe pizza and a Grand Marnier flambee dessert crepe. The restaurant had a wonderful atmosphere: wooden chairs and tables, a few checkers boards, a wooden bar-like service area, stained glass decorations. It was a mix between a turn of the century French café and a coffee shop. The Christmas decorations and the easy listening instrumental versions of pop songs that sounded oddly like Christmas carols gave it a lovely, cozy, snowed-in Christmas Eve feel which I both loved and which caused some pangs of longing. I now look ahead to Morocco: uprooting yet again and venturing once more into unknown territory.

Reflections on Dakar: on the whole, it was a very positive and satisfying experience. I did all I wanted to do and saw all I wanted to see. I could have done with one less day but this allowed me time to relax and enjoy doing nothing either in the city or in my hotel, which was a wonderful and needed part of my vacation. Everything worked out exactly as I had hoped and planned.

Pros on Dakar: nice big city amenities: wonderful restaurants (especially the Lebanese and French influence, mixed with West Africanism), a good music scene, the wonderfully enticing ice cream shops and bakeries. The city had a bigger and more diverse population, which allowed me to better blend in and keep to myself. Everything seemed richer and more modern, and people seemed to have more to do and their own lives to focus on. Generally, the lives of locals didn’t revolve around harassing tourists so, although the street merchants were more aggressive than in the Gambia, I was largely left alone for my time here. The city had nice, European-inspired architecture. There were good coastal views and walking paths. Goree Island was marvelously quaint. From a personal perspective, the time here allowed me to reacclimatize somewhat before returning to Edmonton. There was electricity, nicer cars, internet access, water, a more cosmopolitan and accomplished feel, like the New York of West Africa. Outside of Avenue Pompidou, I was hassled very little and felt pretty safe. The Hotel Farid was great: quiet, clean, reasonably priced, centrally located in the downtown core to be convenient, had a bathtub, air conditioning and a television.

Cons on Dakar: most of what I liked was what made it more western and less African: the European-style restaurants and residential neighbourhoods. The open markets were not my thing: they were immensely hectic. After all the warnings I had heard and read about, I also never felt completely comfortable and safe in Dakar, always being a bit wary, always looking over my shoulder a bit, and I could never afford to truly slow down, relax, and be lost in my own thoughts in public. This was more than in a western big city, where you take reasonable steps against random violence rather than always wondering about targeted crime. As a result, I never really felt comfortable talking to people and really trusted nobody. For me, the best was what Dakar offered rather than Dakar itself: the nice architecture is deteriorating, the city is filled with urban decay, there are scores of homeless, sick and disfigured people. Realistically, most people would have looked at my hotel neighbourhood in the downtown as being a slum. I’ve just gotten used to it. The city was largely dirty and hectic, like Serrekundha but multiplied by 1000 and placed in an urban setting, especially around the markets and in the traditional Medina neighbourhood. Dakar was also rather expensive. The air of animals, cars and garbage made me feel ill during the trip. The culture of littering was strange to me. I also missed having a place to go running.

As Christmas Eve is celebrated with random fireworks going off from random downtown streets and balconies, making my hotel sound like it’s being bombed, and a group of small children watches in pleasure from the street below my balcony amidst the roar of motorcycle engines, I’m ready to move on from Dakar. I think once back in Gambia I will try to enjoy the peaceful, low key beach lifestyle when I come back.

Dakar was a great time away of rejuvenation and invigoration. It gave me a much-needed dose of western living and a bit of (over) indulgence as the first few days were like being let out of prison into the sunlight. I managed to get by with my French, although my vocabulary is limited and I have forgotten a few grammatical rules and conjugations. It was pretty good, though, for being 12 years out of practice. On to Morocco.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Part I: Pre-Trip

December 15, 2006

Finished “Living History”. Not as in depth as Bill’s book, but a better story structure and flow. There was also a better variety on the issues covered: first lady issues, family issues in particular. Where there was overlap I preferred Bill’s book as it was more engrossing, but I enjoyed Hillary’s independent stories, both when she was young and as First Lady.

I’m thinking ahead to the trip, but spending more time hoping that logistics (especially money) works out than really getting excited about what I’m going to see.

December 16, 2006

Went to Timbooktoo. Offloaded Hillary’s book, the West Africa tour book, Dubliners, Pride and Prejudice and The Blind Assassin for “History of Economics”, Oliver Twist, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Had lunch at a co-worker's. We had palasas, made of bissap leaves, ground peanuts, catfish, beef, palm oil and peppers sauce over rice. We ate traditionally: on the floor out of a communal bowl. I used a spoon, she used her hands.

Too full to go to my planned birthday dinner of all-you-can-eat Mongolian grill at the Green Mamba, so I celebrated my birthday at home with something of a depressed mini-binge involving a can of Fanta, an ice cream sandwich, a bottle of malbec and a bottle of baobab juice from GamJuice (which was too sweet) and watched movies. I very much felt lonely and isolated, more than I’ve felt in a long while. There was nobody to celebrate with, nowhere to go that I would enjoy, and nothing really to do. I’m quite glad to be going away, because being here for the two weeks over Christmas holidays would be intolerable.

December 17, 2006

Spent the day getting things ready for my trip. Right now, I’m still preoccupied with logistics. Once I’m out the door on Tuesday, I’ll get excited.

Did my last jog of 2006.

Hit the wine again and felt very much alone. This weekend more than any has been exceedingly lonely: the office is closed, the lure of indulgence is strong, and there is nothing to do. Amidst the wine and watching movies I’ve watched dozens of times, I felt trapped.

December 18, 2006

Finished getting ready to leave tomorrow.

Binged a bit too much on food and drink the last couple of days, but such is life. Back to normal now.

Went to my second-last Hash at Bamboo Gardens Chinese restaurant. Very tasty sweet and sour pork.

Returned home and nothing is left to be done before I leave. Everything is set. Now I’m getting excited. I paused for a few minutes outside because the stars were amazing, so numerous and bright tonight. Our world is so small in comparison.

Friday, January 05, 2007

There and back again

After 16 days of living out of a small backpack through two plane rides, two ferries, 5 train rides, 13 bush taxis, and a bus, I returned late Wednesday night from a wonderful jaunt through Senegal and Morocco. Stories to come when I write them up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

December 15

Today is a public holiday for the President’s Inauguration. The army is out and about everywhere monitoring the streets. Sirens go every now and then as convoys bring in various dignitaries from the airport. An army guy in fatigues and carrying a large gun reprimanded me yesterday for apparently having my hand in my pocket as I watched a stream of cars go by. I’m spending the day indoors.

I’m celebrating my birthday tomorrow by going for a Gambian lunch to the house of one of my coworkers. I might go out for supper as well. Beyond that, I’m just getting ready to leave on Tuesday. As it was with coming to Africa, there is a mixture of nerves and excitement as I leave a zone of comfort and familiarity to explore something new. But I’m looking forward to it.

Back in January. Merry Christmas to you all.

December 14

Went over to a small gathering last night hosted by a couple from the Hash. We, along with a few others, sat under a tent in their apartment complex courtyard by the pool and enjoyed wine, amaretto, and a nice dinner of rice, lamb, coleslaw, Christmas pudding (complete with brandy) and ice cream. Good food, good drink, good company. Wine is usually not ideal in this country as the selection is poor and the climate too hot. However, at my corner store, amidst bottles of cheap local liquor and groceries, I found a bottle of my favourite grape (Malbec) for under $10. It was a Cisca Mendoza 2003 from Argentina. Probably not the greatest wine in the world, but I rather enjoyed it. We then proceeded to Churchill’s, right next door, for karaoke. A fun evening all around, and I’m a little the worse for wear this morning.

December 13

It rained briefly this morning. The mornings and evenings have gotten rather cold, like late autumn nights in Edmonton. Thankfully my electricity is back, so I once again have hot water. I wonder what it’s going to be like coming back in January. A ballpark guess is that it will suck.

It’s odd what you get accustomed to over time. I have both enjoyed and lamented the quiet and uneventful pace of life here and have looked forward to returning to a more vibrant country. A few days ago, however, I went down to Kairaba Avenue for some banking, really the hub of modern commerce and activity in this neck of the woods. The heavy traffic, noise, and busy shops made me appreciate getting back to my quiet little suburb of Brusubi, which I wouldn’t have expected. Going to Dakar next week, an urban African centre of 2 million people, will be interesting. For that matter, so will spending two weeks traveling in French-speaking countries.

I’ve started to give thought to packing for my trip home. The small museum of collectibles that I’ve amassed should counter what I’m leaving behind. Doing laundry by hand does not serve clothing well (at least the way I do it, which is poorly). At least half of my shirts will be thrown out. My exercise clothes and towel will be burned. My sandals are hanging on by a thread. And the backs of my running shoes wore out a while ago, so I have had to pad my right heel with toilet paper when jogging for about two months.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

December 12

A few weeks ago at Hash dinner, one of our members decided to count how many originating countries were represented in the evening’s group. It was eighteen. Quite remarkable.