Falling under the category of “Never too late to get a project done”, Chris has (finally) done something with our videos of our trek through the Virunga National Forest in Rwanda in January of 2010. Enjoy!
To read about our trip, click on the link to the Rwanda post from 2010!
First, a big thank you to Joy, for being my first visitor to come see me in Chad! It was great to have Joy visit us for a week and show her around town, and totally cool that on her last day, we took a boat ride on the Chari River and saw a HUGE herd of elephants drinking at the river!
With Chris in the US visiting family, and Joy back to Sudan for work, I took off for Togo and parts unknown. As soon as I landed in Lomé I could see the ocean and smell the salt- and feel the humidity! The first two nights I stayed in a small hotel above a bar, called Le Galion, unfortunately in a non a/c room- big mistake. West Africa sure is sweaty!
I tried to visit the Lomé museum but it was closed, and after visiting the big marche, there wasn’t much else to do in town (except enjoy being out of Chad). So I hopped on a bus and went north to Kara, the gateway city to the Tamberma Valley. I met up with three Belgian volunteers and we hired a car and driver for the day to take us to see the traditional villages out in the hinterland. Very interesting architecture, but it made me sad to see the way the people live in the village- they seemed malnourished and out of step- and not in a good way, just listless and unprepared for the world around them. The next day, the four of us had the same taxi driver take us to the Burkina Faso border (a seriously bad road). After paying a whopping $190 for my visa, I entered Burkina and the four of us got a bus to Ougadougou. We arrived late at night and they invited me to stay with them at a friend’s unfinished house that night. We slept under the stars in what was to become a surprisingly chilly night!
The next day I dropped off my passport at the Ghanaian embassy for a visa, and took off for Bobo-Diolasso. I liked it better than Ouga- a bit quieter, more manageable. But both cities have this quality of a dusty, dirty, run-down city. I guess nothing on the edge of the Sahara desert stays pretty looking for long. I loved my little guest house, Villa Bobo, and sampled some great cuisine, especially a totally delicious local yogurt with honey. Mmmm. Had it three times.
Back to Ouga to pick up my passport and visa, and I stopped at the village of Sabou along the way to see my volunteer friends. We visited the sacred crocodile lake (animists in the village believe the crocodiles are the reincarnated souls of the chief’s ancestors) and we actually paid a visit to the chief himself, as one of the volunteers was new to the project and the chief likes to meet anyone new to the area. That night we slept outside again, as the volunteers’ house has no electricity. Living rough in Africa!
I stayed in Ouga for two days after that, recovering from some unfortunate stomach distress, at a beautiful little garden pensione called Jardin de Kouloubra. A great place to recover. Finally I was feeling ready to take the 8 hour bus down to Tamele, Ghana, where I spent the night at a Catholic guest house, then another bus to Kumasi (hello, humidity; I remember you!). There I visited the Asante palace and museum and learned a lot about the Asante culture. From there it was an easy bus ride to Cape Coast, where I finished up my trip with some visits to the beach, the slave castle, and a few good restaurants. The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was pretty interesting and very moving to see the actual places.
From Cape Coast, I skipped right over Accra and took my flight back to Chad. Although I’m really glad that I went, because I had really wanted to visit West Africa before we leave the continent, I found the whole trip a lot harder than I had anticipated. The infrastructure, the (lack of) hospitality industry, the huge amounts of trash everywhere- all of it is just not ideal for easy tourism- definitely not for the faint at heart. The fact that Togo and Burkina both speak French, and even in Ghana, most people spoke a native language more than they really spoke English, made getting around and getting things done just that much harder. In the end, I felt like West Africa didn’t have the amazing animals like Kenya and Tanzania did, the fascinating culture like Ethiopia did, the stunning scenery like Rwanda and Uganda, or the general together-ness like Namibia and South Africa. West Africa has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to have tourism be a big draw for their economies.
After five years living in Africa, and twenty-some odd countries visited in the continent, I finally had the chance to accompany Chris to Central African Republic on business. Having visited southern, eastern, and western Africa, it was time to venture into the center of the continent- the very heart of darkness.
On our first night in Bangui, we wandered down to the Bangui Plage, a small outdoor restaurant on the banks of the Oubangui River. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we met up with two other travelers seated on the patio. Over wonderfully ripe and creamy avocat aux crevettes, and several ice cold Mocaf beers, the pilots told us stories of flying over the jungles of Africa (“Basically, this whole continent is on fire”) and the perils of trying to get fuel with a credit card in cities such as Bangui and Juba (“Headquarters does not like handwritten receipts written on a napkin and signed by an illiterate man”.). In the darkness beyond the restaurant, we could see an occasional kerosene lantern across the Oubangui River representing small huts in a Congolese village, but not the river itself.
The next day was a hustle of activity for me as I set off to explore the small city- village, rather- of Bangui. The French called the city “La Coquette” (the beautiful), but the few signs still bearing the name were peeling, flaking, dirt-covered placards of a by-gone era. I set out to look for the Musee de Boganda, housing artifacts from “Emperor Bokassa’s” reign and more, but it was closed. I found the office for the Hotel des Chutes de Boali, a small hotel 100 km outside of town at the edge of a waterfall- the office was also closed, but helpfully listed a phone number to call to arrange a ride out to the hotel. I tried a small hotel listed in my guidebook (four pages dedicated to C.A.R.) that boasted a band on Sunday nights, but after finding the manager, discovered that the band in question no longer played in the hotel and had not for some years.
I walked along the red dust-covered streets of Bangui, shouts of “Cherie” and “Americaine” following me wherever I went. Small children walked next to me, practicing their few phrases in English that they knew, and tugging on my pants pockets for change. Around every corner, half a dozen young men stood, selling phone cards, making 2% profit on the face value of the cards. Taxis beeped their horn as they trolled the few paved streets, looking for a paying customer. Men carried flats of egg crates stacked a dozen high, only the top three flats cut and stacked with eggs to make a pyramid. Only the tops of their egg towers could be seen as they wound their way through a crowd.
For dinner that night we drove to the edge of town, to the property owned by the Oubangui Hotel (a Sofitel property in an earlier life). The tallest building in town, the Oubangui Hotel sits at the easternmost side of the city, overlooking the Oubangui River and Congo. A series of natural rocks juts out into the river, with a concrete walkway connecting them to the hotel. Atop the peninsula are a dozen covered tables, all bearing the names of French and West-African cities. We sat at the “Nice” table and sipped a cold drink, watching the sunset over the river. Sellers and workers drifted across the river towards Congo in their pirogues, calling out to each other in Sango. As the sun set, the river fell silent.
Having secured a ride to the waterfall at Boali, the next day we headed outside the city. The falls are not too far from the city, and the road was surprisingly well-paved, considering that few roads in the capital itself are paved at all. A little more than an hour after we left Bangui, we had arrived at the village of Boali. Bags of charcoal stacked alongside the highway sat next to piles of ripe papaya, waiting for a traveler with the coins to purchase one. As we passed into the village, the local outdoor church finished its services, the congregation drifting towards their homes, the women wrapped in brightly colored pagnes and the men wearing crisp white shirts, pressed pants, and freshly shined shoes. Once at the falls, a group of six young men attached themselves to us, eagerly offering to be our “guides” as we descended to the bottom of the falls, ascended the other side, and crossed back over the river upstream of the falls on a swaying, precarious vine bridge (reinforced by steel wire). Feeling rushed by our young friends, I rebelled against their hurried tour guide spiels and took off my shoes and socks, slipping my feet into the clear, cold water of the Mpoko River. Later we hiked back up to the top of the waterfall, and then crossed back over the river on a vine bridge- very scary! After our water adventures we had a lunch of grilled chicken, fried plantains, and cold beer at the water’s edge.
Also while in Bangui, I got to try two tennis lessons. I hadn’t played since college, when I took tennis as one of my P.E.’s and pretty much was terrible at it. The two lessons went well and I’m hoping to practice some more once we return to Chad.
All in all, Bangui: interesting place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.
In a surprise twist, I went back to Khartoum to do some emergency substitute work. The day I arrived, Tina had a Halloween/birthday party, so I got to be a surprise guest! It was a great reunion with my Khartoum colleagues and friends.
While I was there, the fall weather was beautiful and we were able to take a few boat trips on the Nile, have a hash on Tuti Island (at the confluence of the Nile Rivers), attend the Caledonian Ball with Joy and our friend Patrick, and go to several parties. Oh, and work! I taught middle school geography and high school geography, and since there wasn’t a teacher apartment available, I lived in a hotel just down the street from the school. Twice a week, I went to yoga with Melanie, one of the new art teachers at the school.
The last night I was there, Chantal and I hosted a Going Away/Graduation party to celebrate my newly awarded Master’s Degree. We partied hard on the roof of her apartment building, with all of my friends there to celebrate. At 2 am the party ended and it was time to get on the plane and return to Chad- just in time for Christmas!
Aside from a missed 6 am airport shuttle and a 500 yard dash down the terminal to reach my plane (last passenger on!), the flights to Chad went pretty smoothly. A quick layover in DC, one last slice of pizza, then a layover in Addis Ababa, a St George beer (8 am, y’all, that’s how I roll), and finally made it to Chad around 1 pm the next day. Of course I didn’t sleep on the plane and instead watched six movies.
In our first month here we tried a few restaurants around town- according to the “Welcome to Ndjamena” handout we got, there are about 10 here in town- and had some pretty good food. Restaurant prices aren’t too bad, about $40 (or 20,000 CFA- Central African Francs) for the two of us. We tried a casual Lebanese place, a brick oven pizza place, and an upscale French restaurant- very good beef medallions with a yum sauce at that one. There is also a couple of Chinese restaurants, a couple of Chadian places, and I think another Lebanese cafe as well.
Grocery shopping, on the other hand, was not so successful. We visited 2 tiny little grocery stores- like the size of a small 7-11 back home- and spent about $50 at each one and came home with…. not much. No fresh fruits/veg, no fresh bread, no meat. Everyone here employs a maid 5 days a week (which costs about $110 a month) and gives the maid some money to go to the outdoor market to purchase fresh food. And they drive across the border to Cameroon and go shopping there.
Speaking of the weather, it’s hot all right, (this is Central Africa) but not quite as bad as Khartoum. It’s rainy season right now, so it rains- and I mean really rains- every afternoon around 4 pm and that really cools things off, so you can actually go for a jog in the evening or something. And someone told me that the weather gets pretty nice by late October. Although, along with the rains, comes the bugs. The week I arrived here was like BUG WEEK- you can hear them crunching on the driveway as you drive up to the house. If you accidentally leave a light on inside when you open your front door- forget it; your front entryway will be COVERED with bugs drawn to the light.
The internet went out at our house Friday night, so no communications on Saturday or Sunday. I was really starting to panic by Monday afternoon, as I had a paper due in my grad class by midnight, so we went over to the Marine House and I used the computer there and we watched the Emmy’s on AFN. Ah, good old Armed Forces Network. Of course afterwards, we came home and our internet was working again.
Tuesday was a better day- I worked on my classwork a while, got all caught up, read all the requirements for my Capstone week- please, oh please let the internet work that week- and then I visited the doctor at the Embassy (he gave me some malaria pills- in 8 years I have never taken malaria pills but maybe this year I will start)- visited the CLO and her library (ooh, books and DVDs- perfect!), and finally met with the Public Affairs Officer who may have a job for me. Looks like that will all get decided soon (inshallah).
We went to a security briefing- since Chad is not nearly as strictly Muslim as Sudan was, I have to worry less about being stoned to death for not being married to my partner. However, since there is Boko Haram activity nearby, I do have to worry more about kidnappings. According to the embassy, I’m not allowed to take a taxi, ride a public bus, or walk anywhere. However, since I don’t actually work for the embassy, at least not yet, I’m also not supposed to have an embassy driver take me anywhere. It’s a bit confusing.
Chris and I went to the 531 club (5:31pm, get it?) and had happy hour with folks from the embassy. I met some more people and I’m invited to French Conversation lesson tomorrow with Mrs. B, the ambassador’s wife, who is also from Dallas…. there’s tennis lessons at the French Rec center….. yoga at the Esso oil compound….possibly reorganizing the now defunct Ndjamena Hash House Harriers….. there’s a play being put on tomorrow that we’re supposed to go to, a reception on Thursday night for the new political affairs officer, and a goodbye party on Friday night for someone that is leaving here. Mia Farrow is coming to visit Chad soon for some charity work and there will be an event welcoming her to the area. So…. hopefully between my class and getting a job (hoping to talk to Esso oil people this week, see if they have any openings- they pay big bucks), plus lots of extra curriculars, our time won’t be too hard here. And Chris is going to Germany in November, so there is a possibility I could go along for a little R&R. We’ll see how it goes!