Thursday, October 08, 2009

International ponderings (ha!)

One of the reasons for my recent silence on this forum is that I have been in Afghanistan since January and have not been sure how to really write about that. Another is things like this in my head:

It seems I started to write a blog story a month or so back (I have no recollection). This is how far I got:

International Ponderings

1. A

Pretty much sums it up I think. With genius analysis like this around, is it any wonder that all is marvellous in the world?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Back to the UK - efficiency, sophistication. I think not

When abroad. And particularly when working in development abroad, I think back to the UK as a haven of efficiency, of achievement, a place which has gone though "development" and can now afford to send its people abroad to teach others how to do it.

I spent a lovely month back in the UK for xmas and new year before heading of for my next jaunt (more about that later). It was a wonderful period full of good food, good people and good times. Never before, I think have I enjoyed what the UK has to offer so much - the places to go, the ease of travel, the memories of old times. On the other hand, never before have I been so disappointed by so many aspects of life in the UK. With no exaggeration whatsoever, I felt more frustrated by inept processes and threatened in the UK for that short spell than I have at any time over the past two years. What has happened people?

I don't want this blog to be a rant, so lets start from the beginning. Anyone who has been away for a reasonable period of time will tell you that adjusting to life back in the UK is tricky. I'm not necessarily referring to people who do what I did and work abroad, but anyone who has been travelling for a few months etc. What most people I know find is that they become frustrated by what they perceive as the stagnancy of life at home since they have been away. The same people are in the same pubs, drinking the same drinks, having the same conversations. It used to really frustrate me too - I had seen so much of what was to offer, why are people not doing the same? Too many questions. The thing is, I have found on my last couple of trips home that this whole process has been completely turned on its head for me. The exact things which frustrated me so before are now the things that make home feel like home and the fact that I know the same people will be in the same pubs having the same conversations is a great great comfort to me. It gives some stability in my otherwise volatile existence.

Which is partly why these changes I saw recently were so disturbing. I shall now give the executive summary for three stories which happened in the space of a couple of weeks:

1. Small company can't be bothered
I ordered some soccer shirts of the nations of the various countries I had just travlled through (very creative, I hear you say. Well I am available for other gift advice). The on-line (alarm bells) retailer was not one I had come across before, but seemed reputable enough. Bank transaction went through very speedily indeed (doesn't it always when they are taking the money?)and the shirts arrived well in advance of the December 24th panic buying spree.

The problem arose when I saw that one of the shirts (Angola if you must know)was an old version which cost half the price of the version I ordered. No big deal. Honest mistake etc. Cue email to the tune that there seemed to have been a mistake, but I don;t mind that I had the 06-07 shirt rather than 07-08, but did mind the £20 difference. No reply. Ok, its xmas. Busy time. Second email sent a week or so later. No reply again. And third. Eventually a reply came. One line "We didn't actually have stock of the 06-07 shirt, are you sure there hasn't been an error?"

Yes. Yes. Quite sure. Photos then sent of the received shirt vs ordered shirt. No reply. I gave up three or four emails after that.

2. Big bank too distracted in making more money than doing job
Being prepared for another stint abroad, it seemed prudent to order some new bank cards. For some reason unbeknownst to anybody except possibly the bank owner (lets call him Mr Herbert Samuel Bartholemew Cardigan) I could only order one of the cards in branch, the other by telephone. In branch I was offered an upgrade to a different account ("at a rate of just £12.99 per month, sir. You get face to face meetings with a financial advisor" "In Afghanistan?" "Errm, no sir. But travel insurance is included also" "For Afghanistan?" "I'd have to look into that, sir"). On the phone I was offered protection for my card ("like condoms?" "No, sir").

Long story short. Both branch and phone forgot to order cards. A week before my departure and getting twitchy again I ordered again. One out of two arrived this time (branch wins). Frantic phone calls ensue and I have to wait in all day the day before I go to Afghanistan for the card to arrive by special courier. The card doesn't arrive by courier. Phonecall: - "we sent it today by first class mail, sir. It will be with you in 3 to 5 working days. Have a nice day sir"

3. Horsforth is more dangerous than Kabul. The end
Night out for new year. Fights. Threats. Intimidation. Glassing. Police. More fights. Women throwing bottles. Get me to Afghanistan, please.

I'm not naive. Of course I'm not. These things aren't new. Small businesses have and will always take the money then stall. Big businesses always "sell first, please later". And women in Horsforth always throw bottles into crowds of fighting people. For some reason it just stung a bit more this time than before.

That being said I did find time in the UK to discover pear cider, the ipod touch, the wondrous comfort (and timekeeping) of national express coaches and the capacity of my stomach to eat brandy sauces in a day. So in balance, I'd say that in the wise words on Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Please vote for me as Governor of California" (or, alternatively, "I'll be back")

So now I wander again. Those more on the ball may have picked up on the numerous references to Afghanistan. I wasn't using them to be ironic. I'm going there. Soon. I'll try to let you know how it goes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mali - laiM on the road, but then again, not so.

Six weeks of intensive, gruelling travel on public transport through West Africa and I think it is fair to say I now know a thing or two about bus services in this continent. I know, for instance, that a country with tar roads running throughout it should mean that you will get places quicker and smoother. It will also mean less wear and tear on smoother roads, dramatically reducing your chances of breaking down. I also know that western style long coaches, particularly those that look shiny and new, advertise air conditioning and run to a vague timetable rather than the usual African “leave once we are full” timetable, all suggest a more joyous, comfortable and reliable travel experience. Mali, we heard, had all of these features and how we were looking forward to utilising them.

How wrong we were…

24 hours our first journey took. To get 600km. Straight. On tar. Those astute mathematicians amongst you will have calculated that at an average speed of 25 kph. Christ. The causes for these delays were plentiful: breakdowns, police checkpoints, said police at checkpoints watching a football match, the driver stopping to sleep, the driver stopping to chat to his mates, the driver stopping to have a cup of coffee, and another. The list goes on. Despite my experiences of the past few weeks, and knowing how painfully long seemingly simple journeys take in Africa, this one just wrangled that little bit more. Rose managed to stay sane, mostly by laughing at my growing impatience, irritation and irrationalization. Which helped.

In spite of this start and a couple of shorter trips evolving almost seamlessly into medium sized ones, I still failed to believe the information that it would take 48 hours to go from Bamako to Dakar. How was that possible? Yes the first journey took 24, but that was on a pretty rickety vehicle from a border town to a second town. This new journey was a different league – capital to capital, on a coach I had seen with my own eyes and had greyhound/national express proportions. Surely this was gonna be a breeze? Surely fate was going to deliver us a merciful final leg for me and not throw up any unplanned deviations into the jungle, no unexpected 15km treks with our baggage, no rebels, no overzealous border guards, no loss of baggage, life or plot. Surely just a simple and smooth departure of Mali, straightforward crossing into Senegal followed by a mellow cruise to Dakar. What could be easier? Surely? Surely not…

The first hour went well. I won’t prattle on with the full 56 hours of the journey soon to become known as this effing journey. Suffice to say the two guys in front of us who were smuggling whatever they were smuggling eventually managed to pay enough to the police that they didn’t spend too long around their baggage, the driver did eventually realize that yes: 17 breakdowns in the first five hours is sufficient justification to get a new coach, I ascertained a number of times that no: I’m definitely not from Algeria and, woo hoo, we finally made it to Dakar.

Mali itself was pretty good. I posted some Mail, ate some meat that was particularly laMi and did not get il, Ma. Apologies, couldn’t resist – laiM I know.

It proved the first opportunity to do proper, proper tourist things. And mix with proper, proper tourists. Even of they didn’t especially want to mix with us. The thing with travellers in these sort of places – slightly off the beaten track, but still a bit touristy, is that everyone wants to discover their own thing in their own space and get away from home. Having not seen many other people for a couple of months, all Rose and I wanted to do was discover these things with other people and talk about home. What we did do was take a breathtaking 2 day trek through the dogon country – where houses are built into the cliff sides, outpacing our guide on a number of occasions, and also visit the mud mosque at Djenne, with market to boot – quite simply, quite stunning.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Burkina Faso - you little beauty

The sound of distant drumming intertwined with the atmospheric Islamic calls to prayer booming out of over cities country wide. Colourful street merchants approach, trying to sell their wares, but back away quickly when you give a polite shake of the head. "Tranquil", they say - "easy". And it sums up Burkina Faso to a tee. This is the place we had been waiting for. This was Africa in the raw, but tamed, accessible, beautiful. And easy.

All I can say is go there. Now. Seriously, right now, open a new page on the internet and look up flights. Better yet, go to you nearest travel agents and start to enjoy your Burkina experience already by watching them try to spell Ouagadougou.

If you have never heard of Burkina Faso, I don't blame you. To be honest, outside of the Trivial Pursuit question "In which continent may you meet Bikinied Fatsos in Burkina Faso?", I hadn't really either. Who could honestly have told me one fact about the country before you started reading this?

Burkina is one of of those places where no one thing stands out - there are no major tourist sites, it has rarely made international news, landlocked, dwarfed by surrounding countries. Yet therein lays its appeal - the mystery of the unknown.

Rather feebly, I'm going to squirm out of writing any more about the country to "maintain the air of mystery" for when you do get there. Happy travels.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Togo - decisions, decisions

Togo presented a bit of a conundrum. Desperate to stop somewhere, anywhere for a reasonably extended period of time (two nights in the same bed would be handy), we really wanted to explore this place. Yet time was looming and we knew we had bigger fish we wanted to fry in Burkina Faso and Mali before I jetted home for xmas. It left the unenviable decision of whether to crack on and, once again, whip through a country without fully exploring it, or whether to take a few days well earned rest for rest's sake. In the end the decision to move on was kind of made for us by unfortunate time schedules and limited visa days.

Given my limitations of exciting stories to regale about Togo, I am therefore goping to tell you about our bags or "two big bags and a bucket" as we are often described. Packing our bags has become both a skill and an artform. Like one of those wooden 3D jigsaw things hich I will no doubt be toying over on xmas day, every item has its exact place in each of our bags. When we went to clmb Mount Cameroon, Rose and I tried to combine what we needed into one bag and leave the rest of our stuff behind in the other. There was nothing new to carry, yet BOTH of our bag doubled in size. It simply wouldn't all fit in. Mine wouldn't zip up and Rose's rucksack had to be expaded so high, that a gentle blow would tip you over, let alone the winds at 4000M.

Not only has packing become mastered, but we are now so speedy that the SAS would be give a run for their money in abandoning camp and leaving without a trace. The bus to Togo demanded a fifteen minute turn around and we were ready in ten.

Who says travel teaches you nothing?

Togo is essentially a wafer. Not in so much that it goes well with icecream (which I have no doubt it would), but more in the fact that when you bite into it and realize how thin it is you think "pah. Its hardly worth it", but then you continue to eat and realize that what it lacks in width, it makes up for in length and is actually quite filling. It took less time to cross the country tha it used to take me to drive to Oshakati to do my weekly shopping. But then it took an epic coach journey (made more epic by full blast dance music through the night), to scale from South to North. Go figure.

And that really is just about all there is to say about that. We had a beer at the lake. We had a beer in Lomé. We met more travellers than the rest of the trip combined (4), and then we got on a bus and left.

Benin - first impressions last.

On the whole our border crossings throughout this trip have been problem free, bribe free and speedy. That was all about to change. As we approached the Nigeria/Benin border in our taxi, an ominous difficult air started to rise. Firstly was the row of police officers trying to stop cars with stingers just so they could claim their bribe. As our driver deftly weaved in and out of these, we stopped momentarilty for two passengers to get out. We were swarmed. Breaking through the swathes of people, we finally arrived at our Nigeria exit and worst fear - a row of eight or ten tables of "officials" all wanting a pay off to let us through. Most seemed to have defunct jobs - pretending to be official by having a piece of paper and writing details before demanding a fee. Tired, frustrated and a little bit lighter in the pocket (we actually caught on quite quickly to the ploy and stormed through all but one post and the stamping station) we finally wrestled free of Nigeria and into the calm of Benin. Or so we thought.

The Beninnoise officials seem to be taking a leaf out of their Nigerian counterparts. Hoping for a 48 hour transit visa, we were given an exorbitant price, told that they had run out of visas, told to return to Nigeria, left to wait for a couple of hours, and passage offered for just one person (quite what the other was to do, I'm still not sure). After a lot of waiting and the eventual admittance of the officials that they were just looking for "coke money", we secured our 48 hours in Benin. The two passengers who had got off in Nigeria also mysteriously reappeared. Crossing the border was possible in more than one way, it would seem.

The trouble was, that experience kind of left a bitter taste in the mouth. Also unsure as to whern the 48 hours strats and finishes and not wanting to pay for cool drinks for all officials in Benin, we darted from West to East, with just one overnight.

And a lovely night it was too. Ouidah, a former slave post and voodoo centre on the coast seemed both stunning and very interesting. Benin as a whole, in fact, did not look dissimilar. It all went a bit too quick for my liking and the opportunity to laze a few days on the beaches disappeared as fast as our money did when we entered. Sad. But it leaves plenty of opportunities fotr Togo and Burkina, our next destinations, to excel.

Monday, December 01, 2008


The Lonely Planet guide to Africa says that Nigeria "has a bad reputtion". The only two people we have met so far on our travels who had come through Nigeria effectively told us to "run like the wind and not look back".

Exactly four days after entering Nigeria in Calabar, on the South East Cost, we were stood at the border with Benin on the West, alive, well and unscathed.

In our haste to cross the country in record time (and avoid being mistaken for oil workers), we saw only two cities - Calabar and Lagos - and the countryside which whizzed by inbetween. That doesn't give a huge opportuntiy to get a well rounded, balanced view of the country. But since when have I ever been well rounded or balanced?

My findings on Nigeria can be nicely analoginalized (is this the verb for making an analogy? If not, why not?) in our bus journey between the two cities. Firstly, we got there. There were times on that journey where that seemed a distint unlikelyhood, but we did arrive safely in Lagos. As we did on the other side of Nigeria.

The journey started well. We were organised into our seats according to our ticket numbers. Imagine. Six weeks spent in free-for-all mode and suddenly we were lining up, single file, to board. Nigeria, it seemed, was trying to organise the unorganisable. And then our first taste of air conditioning. Crammed in like sardines we may have been, but Nigeria was making stifled attempts to add a bit of class. Driving out of Calabar, the Christian preaching commenced - songs, sermons and individual thanksgiving time. This echoed Southern Nigeria to a tee. Religious paraphanalia is everywhere. Whether it is exaggerated because of the muslim dominated north, or whether Nigerian people have taken Evangelicalism to new levels simply out of their own choice, I don`t know. The prayers on the bus asking God to aid the driver to take us safely to Lagos did seem to get heard, however. I can only say it must have been divine intervention which delivered us in Lagos, because the roads were chaos. Dual carriageway most of the way, there has clearly been a great deal of infrastructure planning building done here. Alas, the roads have all but disintegrated and now drivers weave inbetween potholes at upwards of 120kph. On either side of the carriageway. Yep. The central reservation has been knocked down at all to frequent intervals and cars will merrily cross from one side to the other to choose the "path of least resistance".

Yet, the underlying positive in all of this were the people. Nigerians, I would say, have been the warmest nd most welcoming of all the people on the trip so far. Beaming smiles, open handshakes and gentle inquisitiveness, thesewere not the people I was expecting and it was a wonderfully welcome surprise.

Lagos itself proved the smog-filled, chaos were were expecting, though did throw in a couple of nice surprises - The new Bond film and a "White House Pancake Breakfast Extravaganza"; and a couple of reminders that all is not pearly white - overzealous officials and a nights stay in a brothel.

All in all Nigeria had proven eventful, some might say fruitful, and I was left with the niggling feeling that I may just have missed out on something good.

Cameroon - a bit of a mixed bag

Its difficult to know where to start writing about Cameroon. In our minds, this was our Mecca, our haven between the enjoyable, but grinding world from where we had come and the impending, inevitable arrival of our next foe - Nigeria.

I would love to say that Cameroon realized the mothering role which we were hoping from her and embraced us with a big warm blanket and allowed us to suckle on her teat for a few days to gain a bit of strength, before burping us gently and sending us out into the big bad world of West Africa. I'd love to say this, but, alas, it didn't. Instead, we found oursleves huddled on the step of a shoddy backpackers in Yaoundé at 3.30 am being attacked by mosquitos and reeling over the ten police checks which had been imposed on us in the preceeding eight hours of travel. Whilst there were weakened attempts at offering us the respite we were needing: an unexpectedly easy Nigerian visa, an eye poppingly well stocked 24 hour bakery just down the road in Yaoundé, fresh seafood in Limbé on the coast and the opportunity to summit the iposing Mount Cameroon; these really masked the slight disappointment I found with Cameroon and its people.

Yet it all started so well. At least once per tropical travels, I find the need to mistakenly buy a bunch of plantains thinking they are bananas. This usually incurs the pointing and laughing of local people as I try to peel back the solid skin and bite into the raw fruit inside. Cameroon was no different: on a bus break from the border I set about my thankless fruit task and the people stood around and laughed. yet then, something completely unexpected happened: someone disappered off into the market and brought me back a real bunch of bananas, declining my offer of money. The Cameroonians appeared so confident and open compared to the Congolese and Angolans and on this evidence, incredibly generous. Alas, this was to be one of the few occasions of Cameroonian hospitality. There seemed so much on offer in the country, yet no matter how hard I tried, I found I could not warm to its people. Money was on everyone's minds and the pinnacle came in a shared taxi when a fellow passenger asked me to pay her for getting out onto the pavement so that I could get out! It wasn't said with a hint of cheekiness or even hope, just a full expectation that I would pay her.

The few days towards the end, particularly the ascent of Mount Cameroon, were splendid and the Cameoonian guides and porters were excellent with a touch of sarcastic humour I don't usually relate with Africa. Walking through hills overflowing with long grasses took me right back to the Yorkshire Dales (though, thankfully, walking through the ash laden lava flows of the 2000 eruptions did not resemble Ribblesdale, beautiful though they were), as did the stiff breezes and need for woolly jumpers when we reached the summit (4090m). My gorging of all the seafood I could find in Limbé also went a long way to appeasing the

I hope I am wrong. I was only there a matter of days and so please, please don't judge a country just on what I write. Perhaps it is a telling sign of places to come which have had much more contact with tourists, without doubt there was and element of rural/urban differences with people much more welcoming and genuine in the rural areas, or perhaps we expected too much from our haven.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Gabon - the next one which, errm, got away

Anyone who knows Rose or myself knows that neither of us are great planners. Sometime in July, a few months before our trip was due to begin a mutual friend happened to speak to both of us within the period of a few days. Both of us has clearly put responsibility of the other one to make the plans and both of us were certain that the other was doing it, it transpired.

When we met in Windhoek, just a matter of days before departure, and in between ever more frantic visits to the Angolan embassy to secure our visa, we finally managed to set in stone our one and only certainty of the trip - we would visit Gabon. "We have to see the lowland gorillas", said Rose "and Gabon sounds like the best place to do it". "Gabon." I replied, in complete agreement, "its a plan".

It was somewhat of a surprise, therefore, when we failed to turn left in the Congo, instead continuing north on our pleasure cruise towards Cameroon. There was method to our madness, however, and that method was the opportunity to see one of only two groups of habituated gorillas in the world. Those few days proved to be a veritable feast of jungle excitement and a whole lot of learning about the fascinating world of gorillas and the people who research them.

If, like me, the phrase "habituated" throws out for you images of gorillas living in a neat house, with freshly cut grass, the smell of baking coming out of the kitchen and the kids playing on the swings in the back garden, think again. Habituation means that the gorillas allow people to get close to them and not bother them. In order to do this, the researchers and guides have had to go through a two year process which staggers the mind. There is a multiple step process of behaviours which the gorillas go through before finally accepting that these pesky people are colming every day, whether they like it or not, so there no point in worrying about it really. The first few of these stages, needless to say, involve agression. The researchers just have to stand, unflinching, as the gorillas roar, charge, chest beat and even take swings at their visitors. Having seen the size of these fellas up close and heard some of them roar, I doff my hat to each and every one of those brave people who go through that on a daily basis.

The group themselves, and a non-habituated group which we were very fortunate to see in one of the jungle clearings, were nothing short of incredible (a group consists of one adult male, a few adult females and their offspring). Cliché though it sounds, it was a real pleasure to observe their human-like features, behaviours and interactions.

If this wasn`t enough, the trip also threw in our first beds in two weeks, desperately needed clothes washing, a marvellous evening of wine and stew with Hannah, the English director of the park and her Congolese co-worker, Patrick, and the small matter of being shocked by an electric catfish and chased for several hundred metres through the jungle by a rampaging elephant.

Gabon, I'm sorry to have missed you, but you would have had a hell of a lot of living up to do to beat this.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A brief note on BO

Sadly I could talk for quite some time about my Body Odour over the past few weeks (which I thought had peaked ont the trip North through Congo, yet surpassed even those levels on a bus journey in Cameroon the other day when the smell I thought was the live chicken under our seat followed me outside when I got off).

However, the BO I would like to briefly mention is the same BO that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is talking about - Barack Obama. It has been a truly incredible experience witnessing the aftermath of the US election out here. Prying into local conversations in bars or on buses and the name keeps cropping up. Walk along the streets of remote parts of Congo or Cameroon and people smile at you with thumbs up and shout "Obama!". The markets have Obama DVDs and people walk past in Obama T-Shirts. I've never known anything like it (obviously I wasn't here eight years ago when bush won, but methinks it may not be the same)

I once heard that the most commonly recognised phrases in the world are "ok" and "Coca Cola". I would add "Barack Obama" to that list now and even suggest that he has surpassed the might of "Coca Cola". Whether he is more than "ok" remains to be seen.