Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Here I go Shean!

First of all, I am so glad that we were able to stay with Mohamed and Amie at their house in The Gambia! It’s always an amazing experience to stay with a local family. We ended up staying a week, enjoying their incredible hospitality. Mohamed was awesome with helping us around town, getting money, translating, making sure we got the fair prices, finding all the embassies to obtain visas for up-coming countries, transport and anything else we needed. His wife Amie is the sweetest thing. Always cooking the best food. I really loved shopping in the market with her. I simply can’t get enough of all the coconut and fresh fruit. Amie’s sister braided mom, Savannah and my hair in really awesome designs. Mine has zigzag corn rows, Savannahs has a bunch of straight corn rows that lead into a pony tail, and moms is the most plain straight back corn rows but they all look super cool. We are constantly getting compliments from the locals. My hair actually took 8 hours to complete. Yikes. It is hard to sleep on your head the first couple of days after all the yanking and pulling, but it’s worth it and really easy to take care of….so convenient! It is really hard and sad when you meet such wonderful people, become so close, and then have to leave them. I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. But, I am still so thankful to be out here doing all this.

I, being the movie freak, loved having english movies and TV to watch. Could you say deprived again? It was fun because we are all getting really into the U.S. presidential elections and were simply glued to CNN and world news. This actually got me thinking because before this trip I would never have turned on the TV to watch or listen to any type of news. Ok, to be honest I avoided it at all times…I hated the news, more then you know. But, now I can actually understand what’s going on and relate to so much more, and that makes me happy. Especially when I hear about places I’ve been to because I can picture that place. I have a real feel for what is being said and done and have an opinion that means something. For example – The violence, bombing, and riots in Kabul, Afghanistan, The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Turkmanbashi’s death in Turkmenistan, The Maoist Movement in Nepal, exiled leader Bhutto’s return to Pakistan followed by her assassination, The Dakar Rally in Senegal being cancelled due to nearby violence, World Cup soccer league action…..to name a few. It’s amazing to me that I have actually been to and experienced these places. Now my ears open up to stuff like that and also news about countries we are headed towards like Mozambique and the flooding there or Kenya’s election turmoil. Wow!!! The world is an interesting place and I get to see it first hand!! Wahoo!!

Travel days are always interesting. There really are too many police checks, passport checks, bag checks, car checks…check this check that. It can get really annoying. At the border though, every time we mention that we are a family everyone is amazed and sure gives us a warm welcome then sends us on our way with big smiles. Speaking of smiles, Africa has the best teeth. Super white and straight.

I can’t count how many times guys have asked mom and dad if they can marry the daughters. It gets old after a while. And then there’s transport…….Think of the most beat up, run down, rusted out, caved in, junker vehicle you have ever seen x 1000 and jammed packed full left, right, centre and on top with hot, sweaty, dusty, stinky B.O infested, oxygen deprived, tortured victims on an 8 hour ride on a bumpy dirt road complete with car-sized pot-holes. Not to mention the branches that kept whipping through the glassless windows as the car weaved from side to side. Or the fact that there are no rear or side mirrors, no window or door handles, no door locks, no interior padding, falling apart seats, no lights, no tread on the tires, missing nuts and bolts on the wheels, no windows etc etc etc etc You get the point. It was ugly. Recently, the small seven- seater that we were riding in carried 13 people, 11 inside and 2 clinging for dear life to the cargo strapped to the roof. Now if you can’t hack that then you just aren’t cut out for our insane type of adventure. Ahahahh!! But don’t get me wrong. The view and landscape were beautiful.

I really liked Bolama! Cute island indeed. I really like the little non-touristy villages where the animals roam around. I can’t help letting out a big “AWWWW” when I see the little baby animals. They are all so cute!! Piglets, lambs, chicks, kids, calves, puppies, monkeys etc. I love the huge trees too!! Perfect for climbing. One afternoon when our friend Domingos was showing us around, Savannah, Sky, Mom and I decided to stop and climb a tree, quickly drawing a crowd of kids who I might add couldn’t stop laughing. It was funny. I mean, how often do they get to see a bunch of wacko white “monkeys” laughing and bouncing around in a tree. I doubt very often. The kids love to yell “Blanco” (White) at us. Domingos would laugh and make us yell “Black” (in Portuguese) back at them because it was so funny. That would never happen at home. Lol. I really wish I could speak every language. That would make life so much easier. We do pick up a few words but that’s not enough. I always think it’s cool to go and see the local schools and talk with the kids. As guests of honour everyone is always excited to see us. I still get a little nervous at first walking into a crowded room but then again it’s not like I haven’t been in front of large groups of people when guiding foreign English students or competing in provincial gymnastic competitions etc. The swimming was awesome!!! I still kick butt at my flips, twists, and dives! Heehee! Dad is still famous for his cannon balls that splash and soak everyone. I agree with Ammon on how it’s really stupid to live right by the water and never learn to swim. I was having fun showing/ teaching a few friends how to swim and float.

Yes, Sky and I love to go dancing at all the little club type places they have set up. It’s so funny because everyone dances to a completely different beat from what we are used to at home and that makes us stand out even more. All we can do is laugh at each other and enjoy being goofy. The music will blast all night long and Akon is the DUDE out here, basically worshiped because his music is played so much and we love it!! You would think it would be awkward being the only two white people there but actually it was great because everyone cheered us on and wanted to see how we dance. Definitely a crazy fun time for the both of us. On one of the nights we went out with friends we actually ate monkey. Bluck. It’s gross. Oh and something funny…remember how Ammon said that there was a huge spider in his bathroom? It was freaky. After much complaining mom said “Fine, I’ll kill it. I’m not afraid of spiders”. Savannah, Sky and I were huddled together in the small bathroom next to mom who creeps up on the fuzzy beast with the mosquito zapper and attacks it. “SNAP, SNAP, SPARK, SPARK” and the beast takes off running towards us. “AHHHHH” Sky, Savannah and I scream like little girls and jump on top of the toilet while mom chases after the thing. Man, it was hilarious. I can only imagine what Dad must have been thinking when he walked into the room half way through all the action. I am glad there are termites in those huge mounds instead of massive spiders. I would die if there were. Yikes.
Ok, I think I am out of stories for now and out of time anyways.
Much love to all.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bolama Bijagos, Guinea-Bissau

Success!! I am happy to announce that the family has finally found an African country that they all enjoyed. But first we had to get there....
After a tough goodbye we left The Gambia in a very rundown Peugeot 7-seater station wagon (called a bush-taxi out here and the main form of transport). These things are often in a horrendous state of decay and with the state of the roads factored in, you're very surprised or very lucky when you reach your destination without breaking down. Then, in the biggest joke of all time, we got stopped by the police at one of their ubiquitous checks and guess what, they are testing the vehicles for safety! Can you say money grab? Ok, so that is how it all works here in Africa and we all know it. The price of transport is actually quite high compared to other poor countries around the world because they have to factor in the bribes along the way. That way we don't get hassled on the ride, just the drivers do and things move along a lot smoother and quicker. Of course if it were a real safety check we would not be continuing, but after they check the brakes (by having him stop in the sand after rolling a couple feet) and the turning signals and telling me with full sincerity that they were doing all this for my personal safety we were on our way again. Never mind the lack of mirrors, seat belts or even the skill of these reckless drivers who may or may not actually have licences. Once the driver pays the "fine", my life is apparently no longer in danger. Did I mention that we were stopped twice for these safety checks, only a few km apart? One checked the blinkers and the other the brakes. Safety, right, uh huh, I totally believe it. Good thing we are being looked after out here. Your prayers are still welcome and much needed.
The final stretch to the border was horrible but we had no problems with the border guards once again and in very un-Senegal fashion, we had good roads to Ziguinchor, the capital of the southern Senegal Casamance region. My theory is that the roads are in better shape because the Casamance region recently (only a few years ago) had a strong separatist rebellion and roads tend to be better maintained when the military has to move around quickly to put the stomp down on some people. I refer to the good roads in Rajastan, India (near Pakistan should they military have to do something) or in Afghanistan (perhaps the only thing successfully modernized since 9/11) and a few other places I've been. In true Senegalese fashion we were immediately hassled by touts on arrival in Ziguinchor as they followed us to the hotel and proceeded to wait around outside to annoy us again later. Senegal truly is the worst of the hassle countries thus far in West Africa and I am not sorry at all that we have just passed through. We also had our most expensive room in Africa so far too, a whopping $10 each!
The following morning we had to continue to argue and fight with the transport people to get a ride. The sad thing is that they are such blatant and obvious liars and we have to deal with this every single time we want to go somewhere. The Peugeots have a set price per seat, which is fine, but then they do the rich foreigner ripoff thing with our baggage fee. Some of them will try to nearly double the cost of the ride, while locals pay nothing or pennies for the same. Then they will try and get us to buy out the rest of the car so we can leave immediately and claim we'll be there for hours because other cars have to fill first, etc., stuff that couldn't possibly be true. More often than not we will wait 2 hours before we finally leave, not because we are waiting for the final passengers to fill the car up, but because we are more stubborn than they are. It usually works, though I think some members of our "itinerant cabal" are ready to kill me.
Then, across the border was something like a paradise for us, Guinea-Bissau. Not surprisingly it became a family favourite because it is the least touristy country we've been to in a long time. It is less touristy than the others because it wasn't until as recently as 2005 that the country became stable enough again for people to visit. They had one of those typically African civil war things going on. Too bad, because it is really nice.
We entered the tropical rain forest zone, though it isn't the "jungle" that you are thinking of. It's just more densely vegetated than before, with a lot of underbrush so you really wouldn't get very far walking around. Tall grasses, tall palms, lots of other trees as well as sections of flood plains and short mangrove forests, though none of it really looks original anymore. We had our first river crossing by ferry and started seeing tons of pigs again. Why? This country is far less Muslim than it's neighbours. Why? Because it was one of only a few Portuguese colonies in Africa and the Portuguese are much better at converting the locals to Christianity (because they were more violent about it than the other colonial powers). This means that we were now in a country where we don't speak any of the language because they speak Portuguese or Criollo (a mix of old Portuguese and African). Never before have I wished for French more.... Fortunately, the people were very friendly and helpful and I've noticed that there are a lot of displaced English-speakers around here from Sierra Leone or Liberia or workers from Gambia or Ghana so someone can usually help us out a bit. In true ex-war-torn-country-with-no-tourists fashion, accommodation is expensive here so we had no intention of staying in Bissau, the capital. It actually looked ok but we are definitely in need of the quieter side of Africa at the moment. Our goal was to get into the capital early enough that we could catch a boat to the Bijagos islands, the country's only tourist attraction. We were lucky and as an example of how nice the people can be, we got a ride in a public minibus and the guys not only went out of the way off their route (after dropping the other passengers off) to get us right to the port, but they even stopped and started asking around for the boat to make sure it was the right section of the port. Eventually they found someone that could speak English and then they just left us without demanding more money or anything. It was just good old hospitality and friendly people helping us out.
Tourists all go to a town called Bubaque, but we'd missed the boat so we caught a different boat (~60ft covered canoa filled with cargo including motorbikes and a cow, with the people sitting on the sides and a couple of guys in the back bailing the leakage) to Bolama. Bolama is a different and closer island, taking only 3 hours to get to, and the town of Bolama was the Portuguese capital of their colony here until 1941. The island itself is not very touristed but the captain of the boat (a Gambian that spoke English) assured us that we wouldn't have a problem finding a place to stay, etc. As soon as we arrived he made sure we were taken to the very simple and only hotel in town and basically told a local cousin of his to watch over us. His cousin was a guy of 26 with a stutter (very common around here lately) that teaches English part time at the private school here. That doesn't mean his English is very good, but it made a world of a difference for us to have a local guide.
Bolama was really great. Basically a small town that has been left to decay. The first bit is colonial Portuguese style but then it has been left in such a state of decay that all the buildings have been abandoned and are falling apart. Some even have trees growing out of them. It would've looked really nice back in the day. They even had streetlights and medians and sidewalks and nice big buildings, but it is just a dirt road now and everything is overgrown with pigs and trashed cars sitting in the middle of what were once nice squares beside the empty fountains. Speaking of cars, there is almost no traffic at all here, only the occasional motorbike and there is a pickup truck or two kicking around as well. Behind the colonial section is a more traditional village where the people actually live. Mud brick homes plastered over and the usual thatch or corrugated metal roofing. It's all kept quite clean though which is a nice change.
Because the transport was sporadic and we were enjoying the calm so much we ended up staying a week in Bolama. They have no power and we were on a noisy generator for a couple hours each night. They also don't really have much in the way of food and we kept going to the nurse's house every night for fish and rice as well as greasy eggs and bread for breakfast. Our guide was kind enough to set that up for us. And we had no hassle.
Where to begin on the island? Hmmm.... We have seen the biggest spider of the trip, in my bathroom of course! Major flight of the bats every night at dusk, don't know what they eat because there are no bugs anywhere, it's amazing to be able to run around without mosquitoes or flies attacking you all the time. They also have huge termite mounds though those are common throughout the region, reaching up to about 10ft high and 5ft in diameter though I've seen bigger. I've never seen such bright moonlight in my life. The full moon was so strong you could almost read by it. The water is really warm and salty and we went swimming a couple of times. That's actually pretty funny because it is a 3km walk (one-way) to the beach and most of the day the tide is way out so it isn't worth going over there so we ended up just jumping off the pier. This draws a big crowd of course because not only were we the only tourists in town (with our lily-white, sexy bods) but they don't swim. How can a people live on an island and be in boats all the time and not swim? That just seems like a really bad idea. Of course there are a lot of drownings here because the boats have accidents all the time too and no life jackets. I don't even know how they drown either because the water is so salty that we were floating without even thinking about it. Aside from the fish, they have a lot of little coconuts, papayas and cashew nuts. Have you ever wondered where a cashew comes from? They come from huge trees but there is also a large, fleshy, juicy fruit on top and they burn the shell off to get the nut out. Guinea-Bissau is "famous" (like anyone knows where this country is or has even heard of it) for its cashews and we even saw a cashew factory. They drink lots of palm wine, tapped from the sap at the top of the tree and a cashew wine from the fruit. Sky says the cashew wine is better. Dirt cheap too.
Our guide, Domingos was with us all the time. Got us up in the morning and went out with Sky and Bre to the little nightclub to cause chaos in the local social circles every night. He did it all from the kindness of his heart, and because hanging out with white people is such a big social boost here apparently. He also wanted to practice his English because the only tourists are Portuguese really. Apparently all English speakers are honest and rich so we are very popular. The mind set out here is odd and we try to tell them that we are just people like them but no, that can't be possible. At least they weren't begging openly but there is a lot of the "we're waiting for someone superior to come along and help us" kind of attitude out here in Africa in general. Definitely a different mentality from poor countries on other continents that I've experienced. We did go to his English classes on one of the days. That was an eye opener. Very similar and yet different from our experience in China. Here they have almost no resources and nothing but empty space in the classroom other than the desks and a chalkboard. No textbooks, decor, etc. The kids weren't nearly as disciplined either but then they do want to learn. A very significant and noticeable decline in the number of female students at the higher levels too which is not very surprising really. The students basically knew no English so we made it more of a quick cultural exchange with Domingos translating the questions and answers. A very common question was what were we going to do to help them and when would others send aid and books, etc. They really know nothing of the world so I tried to focus on a more uplifting message of hope and hard work. I don't like this waiting for sympathy attitude. It won't do them any good.
Leaving and heading into Guinea, where we are now, is a different story.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Gambia

So I haven't really properly described The Gambia yet. To be honest we haven't done a whole lot out here so far. This was mostly a visa stop for us. We have been very lucky to have been able to stay with our host out here. Mohamed is a great guy and we've had a lot of fun with him and he has helped us out so much. We have been getting the full hosting treatment and his wife is an excellent cook so we have been lucky enough to sample the traditional local cuisine. A spicy peanut sauce on fish and rice is our favourite. We are staying really close to the market area, or rather in it, since the boundaries are quite fluid and cover many, many square blocks. There have been a couple of semi-trucks park across from our place full loaded with bananas. I've never seen so many before. The rest of the market is as we've come to expect with two exceptions: 1. People here sell oranges already pealed. It's a bit weird because at first glance you think that everyone is selling onions. 2. There are a lot of shops selling second hand clothes and other things from the US or Europe. Ever wondered where all that stuff you gave away went? It's all here, but being sold, not donated.
Plumbing is a bit messed up here with usually only a couple of hours of running water each day so it all has to be stored in big buckets to be used the rest of the time. It has also been overcast on a few days so we haven't been to the beach. Actually the beach is a few km away and Mohamed has a nice tv and a lot of DVDs so we have been watching movies like crazy trying to get our yearly fix.
We've been successful in getting the visas we need here and are even ahead of schedule so we will be moving on toward Guinea Bissau and then Guinea next. We are looking forward to it as that will again put us off the usual tourist trail and into some more exciting geographical territory. The embassy personnel have been very friendly and if that trend continues we should have no major problems......

Monday, January 14, 2008

Touts and Tourists

Well Shean, I hate to say it but I have no Arabic language to speak of. I probably should've learned quite a bit by now but well, for one thing the classical Arabic is very different from that spoken on the street in each country and for another, I just didn't find the language appeal to me. Something about not having all the vowels written in it. I know that doesn't have much to do with speaking a language but I am a visual learner and need to see things written down. The reading turned me off the whole thing. French, well, it's easier to understand these people than the French themselves but I am not trying to get more than a basic level at this point. Learning by accident or necessity only at this point.
Touts were still the worst (ie. most numerous and persistent) in India. It definitely deserves its reputation. The touts (and the people in general) are more relaxed here and when you can actually talk to them they are usually willing to chat and not worry too much about selling you their stuff. The biggest annoyance here in The Gambia has been the odd drunk that has come up and started harassing us. They have said some rather rude and anti-tourist kind of things. I wonder if more aren't thinking the same and it wouldn't really surprise me. We haven't been down to the beach and clubs area where the majority are tourists are but then it is still easy to tell that this is primarily a short-term package tourist country. You can just feel it in the atmosphere. I've been doing this long enough to tell. I'm totally of the mind now that tourism and travel are a good thing when people go with an open mind and respect and a little bit of previous knowledge of where they are visiting, but that mass tourism is horrible for a country, benefiting only a few and actually exacerbating the racism issue and misunderstandings. Egypt was a perfect example. Gambia is a good one too. This country is 95% Muslim (of one form or another) and yet the package tourism down at the beach spills over into the streets and we see tourists driving around in bikini tops or with no shirts on in town. It's just blatant disrespect and pisses off the locals whether they say anything or not. Their better off at home or in Spain or some other European country where it's not offensive. They aren't seeing anything of these countries so why bother? Does more harm than good.
When I can speak English to the people up front and I don't have my bag on or my pockets full of valuables, I don't mind fighting my way through the crowd. I have the bony elbows and hips and smell just as bad as the rest. I wish I had a little more weight to throw around though one could also argue that, being thin, I can slip through the cracks better. The real problem is that it is always a push and shove crowd and it is an impossible nightmare to try and get all of us on a bus or something with all our gear under these rules. Horrible.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

English finally

Senegal was just a quick stop in a busy market town and crossroads called Kaolack. For us it was a good stopping point because we could go straight south into The Gambia from there. We did spend one day hanging out at the catholic mission chatting with or trying to avoid various touts as we deemed some of them obnoxious and others ok. The catholic mission was totally mosquito infested so we spent a lot of time everyday chasing them around :) Good thing we've started our antimalarials (doxycycline) already. The market is one of the largest in the region apparently with traders and goods from the surrounding countries. Gambia is cheaper for many goods so they come up that way. An interesting thing to note is that the goats and donkeys seem to have mutated into cows and horses out here. They have bigger animals, I guess that is a sign that the land is better and they have more fodder for bigger beasts. Senegal is one of the few countries where we can actually pull lots of money out of the ATMs so we have to stock up when we can. The machine in Kaolack didn't really like my card though because it ate it and I had to go the next morning to get it back! First time that has ever happened.
The road to Gambia was another bumpy one but although we had anticipatd possible difficulties at the border they were very kind (though it was the most thorough search of our bags on the entire trip). There was an immediately noticeable change upon entering The Gambia. The homes lining the road were no longer mud huts but looked a little more permanent and stable.
The Gambia is a bit of an odd case and the perfect example of the stupidity of the European colonization of Africa. The french controlled most of West Africa but the British with their superior naval power decided to take a little land of their own. They head up the Gambian river and started blasting whatever they could to the point where the french recognized that they couldn't defend themselves and let the British have the land they could cover shooting from their ships. And that is how the Gambia was born, totally without any real thought, centering on a river and only a few km wide and a couple hundred km long. It is the smallest African country by far and a little pocket of English in an otherwise very French area. I like it though. We had to cross the river to get over to the capital and it was pretty rough buying tickets. I really had to sharpen my elbows and fight my way to the crowd. You can totally get hit and brusied up if you really want to get up to the front and maintain your position. They have a long way to go before they understand lining up for things. On a more positive note, there are tons of anti-AIDS posters and ads everywhere lately. You can't say they haven't been warned.
I can finally talk to people and have a decent conversation with someone. There are a lot of tourists here that come for holidays on the beach. I'm becoming more convinced that my french isn't always as bad as the locals would have me believe because it is also their second language. The english here as a second language is good but you still meet lots of people that don't speak it at all well so I think there is also the equivalent in the french-speaking countries. Haven't really done much here yet though.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


We have a new record, 36 hours on the bus from Bamako to Kaolack, Senegal. Ouch. Ok, sure, maybe some of you out there are saying it's not that big a deal and it's easy to beat that on a cross-country trip in the States or Canada but I assure you, those buses are nothing like these. Yeah, it's a coach but it's still the usual packed full of people (5 seats across this time, with more in the aisle) and luggage, combined with driving on the road only enough to not call it fully offroad. Half on, half off because of massive potholes on the Senegalese roads so it felt more like being stuck in a budget airline with major turbulence in a dust storm and the windows open. Fun fun. We didn't even get to eat really, just what you could buy from people on the side of the road out the window when the bus made the odd stop, usually muffins, boiled eggs, watermelon or bananas.
As with all trips out here, the ride was not smooth sailing because something always has to go wrong. We had a flat tire, not a surprise except that it happened on a good stretch of road. Any time there is a flat tire the drivers change it and then usually get the tire repaired or replaced at the next town thereby consuming lots of time. If you saw the state of the spare tires though (tread is a luxury on those), you'd do the same. We also were "lucky" enough to have some idiot on our bus get hit by a motorcycle while we were stopped at a police checkpost. 3 hours later they had him patched up and we could continue to the border. By the time we got to the border it was late and for the 2nd time on this trip we have been stamped out on one day and then stamped into the next country the following day because it was midnight in no-man's land. Of course it takes 1 hour of standing around in the cold (to me it's cold but if you were here right now you'd probably find it quite comfortable) for the border guards to write down everyone's info and stamp you along. This is actually fast by African border standards though. We ended sleeping in the bus right at the border waiting for the tire to get fixed the next morning so the whole thing took time. We'd never have been able to sleep on the bumpy roads ahead so it was just as well. The savanna in Senegal looks a lot like that in Mali but already has noticeably more wildlife. Lots of birds. We are staying in a rundown Catholic Mission house in Kaolack right now. Everyone we've met there is Muslim though, go figure. Looks much the same here but can't say much. Haven't seen anything really. The food was a little spicier :)
Border of Gambia tomorrow. We'll try to get the visa at the border which is always a major hassle......

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The upcoming schedule

We will be leaving Bamako and Mali tomorrow heading for Senegal and The Gambia. We've actually heard so many bad things about Senegal (especially the north) that we will just pass through now as we've lost all desire to see it. We had thought of going to Cape Verde (and even reserved some tickets to that effect) but have changed our minds again at the last minute. We need to collect a lot of visas in Banjul, Gambia so will probably be there for a couple weeks. Enjoy the new Mali photos!

Friday, January 04, 2008


Most people have heard of it, but how many could actually find it on a map. As Shean commented before, everyone seems to have been threatened with being sent to Timbuktu at some point and it is synonymous with the middle of nowhere but it seems to be a surprise to most people that this semi-mythical place is actually real. Oddly enough it wasn't always the middle of nowhere but an important center of Islamic learning in the kingdom in Mali involved in the trade of gold, salt and slaves. It was in the middle of nowhere as it was an oasis and full of camel caravans. The caravans continue to this day as it is somehow cheaper and easier to maintain the traditional methods of a one-month round trip caravan to the salt mines north of Timbuktu than to just send trucks through the sand. We didn't see the caravans but there are lots of camel rides in the desert on offer.... It was at it's peak 500 years ago and up until about 100 years ago foreigners were not allowed into the city, adding further to it's isolation and mystique. Nowadays the tourists come in large groups, spend a day or two, head out into the desert on a camel, get a Timbuktu stamp in their passport, walk the sandy and decaying streets for a little while and then leave and brag to all of their friends.
We ended up staying in Timbuktu for 5 days though I was disappointed and wanted to leave after the first 10 minutes. It's just the name after all. Djenne had a much nicer feel and look to it with all it's mud brick buildings. Timbuktu has more cinder block mixed in and seems a little too run down and graffitied for such a major tourist town in this country. The reason of course is political. They don't hate us, but the government hates the Tuareg people living in the north of the country (including Timbuktu) so very little federal funding makes it up that way. The Tuareg are more related to the Arabs and were historically the oppressors and slave traders so I guess now the rest are taking their revenge. It is a common theme in Africa and all of the countries around here seem to be doing it. There have been Tuareg rebellions and disturbances over the last few decades and there is currently one going on in the north of Niger as we speak. There is a decent amount of hassle but the people were nice enough if you talked to them. You'd think that with a place as famous as Timbuktu there would be a million souvenir shops selling all sorts of tacky stuff and T-shirts but we had a hard time finding the one guy that runs around with a few T-shirts he made in a backpack. Everyone else is selling Tuareg jewelry and spears and such. Sky bought a spear, big surprise. I don't want to sound mean but I think most of the tourists are up there because of the name of the town, not out of interest in anything Tuareg or because the town itself is of any interest. They might actually make more money out of T-shirts and tacky souvenirs.
More interesting than Timbuktu itself was the journey there. We took (after a major fiasco involving the police and a very enlightening look at local party politics, started, but not to be elaborated upon, by me) public transport out of Djenne to Mopti, perhaps the most tourist hassly town in Mali. It's a hassle because there are tons of touts all offering guiding services and boat tours and everything else because Mopti is the jump off point for all the major tourist attractions in Mali, including Dogon Country, boat rides on the Niger river and transport to Timbuktu. I can't believe I'll say this but we found a nice and useful tout that ended up helping us out a bit (though it would've been at our expense had he had his way). Apparently the rains have been good this year so the Niger river has been higher than normal and the main Comanav ferry was still running it's route downstream to Timbuktu and beyond. Outside of that option are the much smaller pinasse boats, often carrying cargo and tourists at a much higher price. Normally the ferry would've finished its route a month earlier but we got on the last sailing of the season. I guess nobody else knew that because we were almost the only ones on the boat for the 41 hour ride. Good thing for us because we went deck class and ended up setting up our tents and just hanging out peacefully. It was definitely an unorthodox Christmas but we enjoyed it anyway. The boat has 3 levels, with the bottom deck being full of cargo; in our case a lot of watermelons, guavas, drying fish, chickens, a few goats and a huge stack of timber all making for an interesting smell. The river is a large delta in this region with a lot of small villages of fishermen on the banks. Often these are no more than a dozen little mud and straw huts that look ready to wash away with the next rains. A lot of the scenery reminded us of the Everglades in Florida. There are tons of fish in the river and everywhere we go in the country it seems to be all they eat. Just rice and fish. Really, without the Niger river travelling in a big loop through half the country the whole thing would be nothing but desert like Mauritania. It makes a huge difference and the only way to truly appreciate it is to travel along it for a while. The bird life was amazing and we were very surprised to find that the port is only 8km from Timbuktu so it really isn't as lost and deserty as people think. We enjoyed the ride (and the price) so much that we decided to wait in Timbuktu for the boat to make it's return journey back to Mali. By that time it was New Year's Eve and we were camped out on the ferry deck again. I think I was asleep by 10pm to be honest. There were even fewer people on the ride back and we saw two hippos too! First major wildlife sighting in Africa!
We are back in Bamako again preparing to head into Senegal within the next couple days. Gotta get a little cleaned up first before venturing back out into the unknown again :)