Saturday, January 16, 2010

Christmas Camels

Camel smiling for Einat's photo

In my last post, I mentioned plans for a winter vacation in Mali. I’m happy to say that the trip was a success, and after a month of rest, relaxation and reflections I can tack on a new post to my almost complete blog of volunteering in Ghana. Honestly, looking at my trip notes and diary, there simply is no way I can give you the fine details on my month long journey. Words wouldn’t do the trip justice anyway, so here is an abridged version of what I and my two traveling companions experienced- the rest is waiting for you to see for yourself.

Let me just correct myself before we move on- the use of the word “vacation” is more of a misnomer in this entry than anything. From day one there was lot of running around, breakdowns (both mechanical and mental), illness and the usual inconveniences one grows used to after living in Africa for so long. I was feverish to the point of hallucinating most of the days in Mali, but I'm sure it didn't help that when I was feeling better, I would give Dogon children speedy piggy-back rides. And the chapped lips!!!! We could have bought our turbans much earlier. But forget about the negative- the sheer beauty and exotic culture we came face-to-face with made every annoyance and frustration a small price to pay.

Day one started with a panicked and impromptu trip to Accra to work out a visa situation for my Israeli cousin Einat. Einat was flying in from Tanzania in a few days WITHOUT A VISA TO GET INTO GHANA. This was probably Einat’s travel agent’s joke on me, and I dealt with it the only way I knew how- puppy dog eyes to immigration. The story of how I came to find someone to help me is about 3 days long, with a lot of back-and-forths to immigration. Luckily I met a senior immigrations officer who was nice enough to drive an hour from his house to the airport to make sure Einat got in alright. Not long after, Einat had her visa for traveling around Ghana and getting back in the country.

Visa situation cleared, we set off for Cape Coast Castle and Kakum National Forest- both in the vicinity of Accra, where we would be getting a bus to Tamale. Cape Coast Castle was where the British held slaves before shipping them off in the deplorable ways many of us learned in history class. Walking around the castle was eerie, especially the dungeons; but the presence of a knowledgeable and professional Ghanaian tour guide left me feeling pride in how far we’ve come since colonial times. There was even a plaque unveiled by Barack Obama and his wife when they visited the castle last year. After the tour, Einat and I explored the coastal town, which seemed like a blend of Victorean-era buildings and typical Ghanaian tin-roofed stalls.

The next day Einat and I went to Kakum National Forest, where we took a trek in a rainforest (which boasts of having pygmy elephents (?)) before walking on amazing bridges that go from tree to tree and tower over the forest floor- see the picture below. We did not see our miniature elephants, but their size might have contributed to their elusiveness. After Kakum, it was back to Accra to for dinner with the Zagers, the family who took me in during Thanksgiving at the US Ambassador’s house. Aside from being slightly inebriated, I managed to play an incredibly fun game of charades with the kids and everyone well into the night.

The next day, we were to catch a 4 PM bus to Tamale (ugh, a 13 hour ride). The bus did not come until 6PM, which was more of a blessing since we did not have to get a hotel when we arrived; we got in around 7 AM and waited for a direct bus to Tatale- Serena’s site. The plan was to rendez-vous with Jack at Serena’s, and spend three days celebrating Christmas at her site. To sum up our time there, we hung out with the people in town and explored new territory. I had never been this far north in Ghana, and the surroundings were new to me- brownish savannah scrub and dryness compared to the humid and green environment I’m surrounded by at my site. Other highlights- eating Jelly Belly Beans, decorating a chicken-sized Christmas tree, watching Serena getting ghetto-fied at the hairdresser’s, meeting some of Serena’s adorable students, dancing every night, and pito drinking with the locals.

The day after Christmas, we headed out for our next destination: Bolgatanga and Tonga Hills. This area is known for it’s beautifully painted mud homes, and the place we stayed that night was like an entire village molded out of clay. Tonga Hills had a place called the Naked Shrine, one of the holiest spots in traditional African lore- Africans would come from all over to visit this ancestral shrine. The catch is that in keeping with the name and tradition, you are supposed to be topless to have access to the Naked Shrine. No problem- shirt off. Jack- shirt off. Einat…..she chose to opt out of this part. Up Jack and I went to the top of a cliff, where we were met with a pile of chicken feathers, empty calabashes, quivers and arrows belonging to past shamens, all shielded by an overhang. We laid on our bellies under the overhang, listening to the now squatting shamen explain the purpose and history of the shrine. Of the reasons the man gave, some of them were along the lines of providing good luck for a successful birth or marriage.

After Bolga, we took a lorry to Burkina Faso, aka The Gauntlet. Before the trip, I knew nothing about Burkina, but after having traveled through the country for over 24 hours, I now know it is a nation to be flown over while sipping margaritas from thousands of feet in the air. I feel bad because a friend of mine in college is from Burkina, and now I don’t think I could ever visit him if he invites me. Holy moly. My loathing for the country is equal to the loathing it has for me. The transition from professional Ghanaian border patrol to sloppy incompetent Burkina border patrol set off only a small annoyance alert for what we were going to have to deal with the first day in Burkina. I don't want to forget to mention that out torpid Burkina border patrol friends took our vaccination cards and forgot to put them back in our passport books; later, after the Mali trip, I was able to go back and find my sheet (but not Jack's) under a heap of papers they had me look through.

On our way to Burkina's capital, our lorry broke down an hour into the drive to Ouagadougou, where our halfway house awaited. An argument ensued where the driver wanted us to pay half the fair, even though we now had to get a new form of transportation and pay a rediculous price. There were some Ghanaians in the lorry that broke down, so I was able to express my indignations to them in Twi, and have the Ghanaians translate everything in French. We ended up paying half :( Throughout the whole trip, my vice was knowing hardly any words or phrases in French. Fortunately, Jack knew enough for us to get by the whole trip. Eventually, we managed to arrange for a random person in town to give us a ride (safer than being stranded at night in the middle of nowhere).

On the way to the capital, the driver wanted to know if he could stop at his parent's house so we could meet them. I acquisced (it was night and he was turning on a dark road that had absolutely nothing around it). We were not murdered, but invited to fresh milk from the farm, local food, and palaver, of which I could not participate in since it was all in French. It really was crazy, seeing a mud home with farm and garrulous family in their element- something the average tourist will never see. After bidding the family goodbye, we continued on towards Ouagadougou, arriving at the Peace Corps Burkina house well past midnight; we should have been there around 5PM.

Then came the next blow from Burkina- exchanging money. Jack and I brought hundreds of dollars worth of Ghana cedis, thinking only what was natural- we could exchange our money easily. In Ghana, I can exchange CFA to Ghana cedis almost anywhere. In Burkina, not one place accepted our Ghanaian currency… in BURKINA’S CAPITAL! Every major bank worker shook their heads when we held up our sweat soaked bills to the glass. Had the glass not been there, they might have even spat on the bills. Everyone said to go to the airport to make the exchange, which would eat into our day when we were supposed to be traveling closer to Mali. In our desperation, we went to the airport where they still would not exchange the money. There were some black market folks who would do the exchange, but they did not understand the concept of being fair and earning a quick buck if they actually could negotiate. But they were dumb and greedy and got nothing but looks of deep antipathy. I might as well have been trying to exchange Monopoly money. So we broke down and used an emergency ATM card I brought, possibly another avenue for Burkina to screw us on. I’ll soon find out what damage that did. Einat was lucky- she brought US dollars, which was accepted everywhere. After getting CFA, we took a bus farther up towards Mali, stayed the night in this small town, and the next day FINALLY got to Mali.

We met our Dogon Country tour guide, Solomon, at the Mali/Burkina border, then continued to the next town where we would eat dinner, discuss the itinerary, and sleep. For weeks I had been in touch with another tour guide, Omar, who has been taking Peace Corps Volunteers on tours since he was 17- many of my PCV friends back in Ghana highly recommended getting him for the trip. Unfortunately, he had another party before I could set a date, so he set me up with Solomon. Omar met us on the first night in Mali, before we set out for Dogon Country. That night a few of us, including Jack, Einat and a few other people coming from or going to Dogon Country celebrated the winter holidays by partially building a gingerbread house I snagged at one of the Peace Corps transit houses. Really we just mixed the sprinkles, gum drops, and other toppings with the frosting and sort of just took spoonfuls of it. I think after three scoops we were all sick. At one point, Jack smacked one of the gingerbread walls on my back for laughs, to the dismay of onlooking Malian youngsters. Shortly after, we were asleep.

The plan for Dogon Country was this: 6 days of trekking the same trails local farmers take from one village to the next. Actually, I’m going to save myself time and paste what I emailed PCVs who might plan on visiting Mali:

Dogon Trip Info
Info about Dogon Country

Dogon Country is located near the border of Burkina in southern Mali. Extending several kilometers, it is lined with villages at the base of or even inside a series of ridges, with the Mali desert opposite the rocky cliffs. Hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a tribe called the Tellem lived in the ridges, but because of war with the Dogon, they are now gone, and their houses are the only structures that remain- many of the Tellem structures are no longer accessible because the means for getting to them are by roots that are now long gone. The Dogon have larger structures built towards the bottom of the Tellem structures, and during the hike you could go up and see the building that are now abandoned or still in use.

The modern Dogon villager speaks mostly Dogon, with some French as well. Some of them know Peace Corps because so many of them travel there, plus there is one living in a Dogon village, working with locals for tourism. The Dogon people are so used to tourists (at least in peak season- winter), that they will have several souvenirs ready to purchase. Indigenous art included indigo dyed fabric, the cotton coming from the farm,; mud cloths, masks, and wood carvings are also readily available.

The guides I met in Mali all seemed to have a pretty good grasp of English, and have a special relationship with the Dogon people to enter their village with tourists. The entire trip (when hiking it) involves going from village to village, each one having something unique (be it crocs or incredible canyon/desert views). You can choose to sleep in a building, or on the rooftop- keep in mind it gets COLD at night. Walking the trails occurs early in the morning, then after a break you walk again around 3PM. You are walking the same trails as the villagers. Many can speak French, but if you can pick up some of the Dogon language, than you might have it made in the shade.

Ø Logistics:

From Tamale, you take a Paga car, then after the border, take a Ouagadougou car. The PC transit house is in a place called Zonzu Bua (sp. ?). The next day, you could get a bus from Ouaga to a place called Ouagihyah (sp. ?) pronounced “Wageeya”. There is a hotel in Ouagihyah, but ask one of the BF volunteers. The place is pretty nice, and is about $7 per person. In the morning, get a car to the Mali border (again, talk to a Burkina volunteer about the station).

So from Ouagihyah, you go to Bankass where you meet the tour guide, and you will continue about an hour north to Bandiagara, where you will spend the night. The next day you start your trip to Dogon Country, which could last a few days to 2 weeks, depending on you. I recommend spending at least 6 days 5 nights trekking the area (what we did).

Our tour guide (Solomon) charged 11,000[1] CFA per person (about $22 a day). We were 3, but with larger parties, the price does go down to maybe 9,000 CFA. Omar charges 10,000 for PCVs. Food and lodging is included, but any transportation isn’t. At the end of the trip, we each contributed 3,000 CFA as a tip to Solomon, a great guide- you should request him if you can’t get Omar. In total, the tour came to about $200 (without souvenirs…oi). Traveling from Accra to Dogon Country and back is about $100-$120, depending on any unforeseen inconveniences (we had many of these- tros breaking down, tro won’t fill- think 2x worse than Ghana, with French). For the trip, I would bring $400, $550 if you plan on getting lots of gifts and souvs.

Omar’s #- 0022379368531 (Be patient, if you don’t get through to him, he might be in the bush). You might also want to contact Peace Corps Burkina and Mali – see your newsletter for email addresses and #s.

Ø Here’s what our trip looked like:

Dec 26 Tamale-Bolgatanga (we stayed in Tanga Hills)
Dec 27 Bolga- Paga- Ouagadougou
Dec 28 Ouagadougou --> Ouagihyah
Dec 29 Ouagihyah --> Koro (Malian border) --> Bankass
Dec 30- Jan 4 Dogon Country
Jan 4 Dogon Country --> Ouagadougou
Jan 5 Ouagadougou --> Tamale
Jan 6 Tamale --> Kumasi
Blah Blah Blah

Including 6 days in Dogon, our trip took about 12 days, going from Tamale to Dogon, all the way back to Kumasi.

Ø Other useful info:

· Bring kola nuts from Ghana for bartering or to make friends with the locals- in Mali they are sought after by the young and old. Jack and I even found out that monkeys are addicted to them.

· In Burkina, the baguettes and sugar-coated peanuts are delic
· Currently, it’s about 440 CFA to $1, and 310 CFA to 1 GhC
· In Mali, the dried dates are delicious, and sort of make up for the lack of fruit

· *********Exchange all your Ghana cedis into CFA… BEFORE coming to Burkina or Mali- nobody takes them. We went to every bank in Burkina’s capitol, even the airport! Nothing. Even US$ can be tricky in southern Mali******************
· All the dust breaks cameras and electrical equipment. I learned this the hard way. Have a sturdy case, and lock your things away. Even if it doesn’t break in Mali, the humidity in Ghana can mix w the dust, and short circuit the cam, which is what I assume happened to mine

· Take a miniature water filter or Aquatabs (you should flavor the water, unless you like the taste of chlorine). In Dogon Country, you can drink questionable well water, or get raped on the price of bottled water.
· Bargain by thinking of a fair price, and if they say no, say final price and walk away. I got almost everything using the price I wanted, and they still made a good profit I think. They usually start at 5x what you could talk them down to. Be courteous, use some Dogon, and offer kola nuts to make a friend and get that souv you would hate leaving behind.

· Take someone who could speak French, ESPECIALLY for chain-smoking Burkina.

· Even though most villages have souvs, you might not find the same thing in each town, and some towns specialize in a certain craft, like the indigo-dyed cloths. Ask your guide about which towns are best for those.

· Bring chap stick- it is dry!!!

· Pack some warm clothes for nighttime. Or eat several sticks of butter for insulation. Either way, it’s cold at night. Mud cloths are wind- proof, and packing light might mean sticking out, getting a mud cloth, then using it as a cover- that’s what I did. I got the largest sized mud cloth for under $25 with persistence and 2 kola nuts.

· Turbans are great for all the dust- they aren’t in Dogon Country, but they are in Bankass and Bandiagara.

· People don’t like getting their picture taken. Be polite and keep that to a minimum. Sometimes if you take their picture, they will demand money.
· Try all things local (except for the pot and tobacco- blecchhh. Then again, I’m not a smoker. But I do know you will hate it).

· Pack as light as you can- lots of trekking up and down steep canyons.

· Do NOT let your friend pick you up by the waist to get a baobab fruit, they might mistakenly crush your testicles, causing a severe amount of pain.
The trail we followed throughout Dogon Country

Phew. With the pictures, I hope that help paints a small picture of what we saw and dealt with during the trip. If you want more info and pics, check out this site:

After seeing Mali and getting spat out by Burkina Faso, Einat, Jack and I were back in Ghana, moving south from PC transit house to PC transit house. Jack split from our party in Kumasi (which is where I accidentally left the Dogon walking stick I bought as my headmaster’s gift), and Einat and I headed towards Donkorkrom (Chris and Tammi’s site), where we were having a Peace Corps meeting for my region. Einat got to meet even more Peace Corps volunteers (on top of the ones she met at the transit houses). To get to Donkorkrom, you have to take a ferry that carries cars and people alike. During our sojourn in Donkorkrom, we took a tour of the Afron Plains, saw two other Peace Corps Volunteer’s sites (Nate’s place was so small, his gas burner/kitchen was next to his bed), and a small Fulani village.

When Einat came to my site, I got to show her around town and introduce her to many of my friends. Exciting, since she was the first non-volunteer-foreigner to come visit me. On her first day there, it rained after weeks of a rainless drought. Some people said she and I were lucky, bringing rain like that. I questioned where our luck was when the power went out with the storm. During the storm, I witnessed something I had never seen up to that point- millions of strange looking cotton balls floating with the storm- it looked like it was snowing in a tropical rainforest.

When Einat visited the school, it was the first day of classes, so there was a lot more free time than usual. She and some of the students organized the school library (something that was long overdue). Einat also put the cloths she bought during her first days in Ghana to good use- taking it to the tailor to get them sewn into dresses. She seemed satisfied with the result. Before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to Einat in Accra, after weeks of traveling and playing tour guide. I had to get back to school before I could see her off at the airport, but thankfully the Zager family was so nice to offer her their guest bedroom until she left.

I am now in then middle of teaching week 4 of Term 2 at the school, and things started off very well. Thanks to the generous contributions from so many people back home, I received all the money for my PCPP project to supply computers, internet, and a projector to my school. On top of this, the contractor came to evaluate what is left for the computer lab, and are in the process of finishing the building. It looks like the building will be finished by the end of February, and the teachers and I can begin teaching using the computers after over a year’s worth of work. For those who contributed, I will post a list in my next blog entry. Once I get the list of donors, my students will also be writing thank-you cards to everyone involved.

Unfortunately, and very sadly, on the same day the contractors came to evaluate the finishing touches on the building, the primary headmaster died unexpectedly. In the middle of the night, I got a call from my headmaster saying the primary headmaster, Mr. Boatwe has died. I thought I was dreaming, there’s no way. I had just been talking to him a few hours ago and he was not ill at all. Well, it was true, and now we are waiting to find out what happened, as well as when the funeral is. Just Monday, I promised Mr. Boatwe my students will supply the firewood and water for the workers while they stayed in our town; Tuesday, Mr. Boatwe and I went to see the chief on updates for the computer lab, and Thursday morning, he was gone. What disturbs me is how the teachers are saying he died. I will not go into details, but when they were with him before he died, it sounded like poisoning, particularly the bite from a mamba, but my headmaster said Mr. Boatwe said nothing about being bitten. To top it off, the teachers could not find a car out of town, and the doctor said that had he gotten there sooner, they could have saved him. The entire time, no one thought about the car only a few yards away for the Presby school. And so now Mr. Boatwe is dead. RIP.

The week before all this, Lisa came to my site with actual orders from Peace Corps because a crazy person was harassing her daily, and crossed a line when he tried to get into her place. While she was here, the power went out in my town, leaving us with one worthless electric stove to cook on. Luckily, the day before the lights went off, Lisa convinced me to get a small coal pot to use in just such a moments. I bought some charcoal, we had some kerosene, and plenty of paper for kindle; but try as we might, it took hours with little results. I could not believe I was too inept to get at least one ember from my pile of coals. Finally, my neighbor brought me one of his coals in order to ignite the other coals, and we cooked a delicious tortellini dinner (thanks mom). We also played some Scrabble by candlelight, and soon the blackout became much less annoying. But no power did not bring down Lisa's spirits much, not only did she have to contend with a crazy person, she also had no water for days because of the drought- now that she was at my site she had clean, not red, PIPED water, a shower, and internet access. What more could you ask for?

What else? For MLK day I introduced students to who Dr. King was, showed them some pictures, and played the "Dream" speech. None of them knew who he was prior to that day. Not one of them probably knew of the evils and pure racism that was simply natural for most of America in those days. I don't think my students even know what the term "genocide" means. Out of all my heroes, I want my students to appreciate MLK more than anything.

I also had to get a mattress back for a student. A few months ago, one of my students had a severe back injury from sports, and I had the family over my house to collect the matteress I usually reserve for guests. The other day the father came to me and complained that the grandmother stole the matteress from the child, relagating her to the floor (most children in Ghana sleep on the ground). The father requested for the headmaster and I to interfere. Happily, I think the grandmother caught wind of this, and swiftly made right by giving her injured grandchild MY mattress.

Hmmmm, any other highlights since my last post? Last weekend I took a quick trip to see the diamond mines at my friend Stephen’s site. To get to the mines, we had to walk on a trail through the tropical wilderness, where we came to a few ponds in an open area. Apparently these ponds were the diamond mines, hand dug at one point and now flooded from the rains. Stephen said the mines are usually in operation during the dry season, and while he was saying this, some pond bubbles broke at the surface.

Voilà. That's it for now. Thanks again to everyone who helped raise money for the computer lab and library in my town!


Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling Kabinett
Mosel Piesporter Goldtröpfchen 2007


Pride (In the Name of Love)- U2
Don't Rush- Tegan and Sara
The Puppet Show- P.M. Dawn
No Rain- Blind Melon
Stadium Love- Metric
Juanita Bonita- Quantic
Oideyo Oide-パンツ
A Beautfiul Mine- RJD2
Mais- Rosalia de Souza
Bang a Gong- T. Rex
Over My Shoulder- I Am Kloot
Hitchin' a Ride- Green Day
Molly's Chambers- Kings of Leon
Snap Yo Fingers- Lil Jon
Ain't Got Time To Waste- Aim
Just Before Dawn- blow up hollywood
サマーメランコリック- UA
Teeth- Earlimart
The EGG and I- Seatbelts
Painkiller- Turin Brakes
Listed M.I.A.- Rancid
December- Collective Soul
When I'll Be Back- Quetzal
Nights Wave- Mice Parade
Waiting for the Bus- Violent Femmes
Cold Hands (Warm Heart)- Brendan Benson
Something Is Sacred- Eels
Think About That- Dandy Livingstone
Winter Wonderland- Diana Krall
LLi Fat Mat! (What Is Past Is Dead And Gone!)- Rachid Taha
Madly- Tristan Prettyman
The Song is You- Charlie Parker
Free Your Mind- En Vogue
Green, Green Grass Of Home- Johnny Cash
Cecilia- Simon & Garfunkel
Elegently Wasted- INXS
One By One- Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Time in a Picture- Punchline
Manteca- Dizzy Gillespie

Cape Coast Castle

Outside Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast house

Canopy walk at Kakum National Forest

Dinner with the Zagers in Accra

Serena and Einat sipping on some pito


Einat's pic of the chicken-sized Christmas tree
(you should see the Christmas tree-sized chicken)

Einat took this of Jack and I.
Am I really that small?!?! Is my butt really that big?!?!?
Kid passed out from dancing too much

St. Gordon's morning sermon on "Boxers Over Briefs"

Tonga Hills

Huge Baobob, where a party was held the night before

The Naked Shrine

Burkina hates Peace Corps Ghana Volunteers and trucks

At the Peace Corps Ouagdougou house
Omar, Jack and I before the Dogon trip

On our way to Dogon Country via donkey cart
(Solomon is the one smiling)
Our first glimpse of Dogon Country
(notice the Tellem structures at the top and Dogon structures at the bottom)

Kittyhotep makes his first appearance on a bus to Mali

One of the first towns we visited in Dogon Country

Mud mosque
(Jack and I helped apply fresh mud to one of these)

Kittyhotep returns!

Where we stayed our second night

Dogon roof drainage

Dogon door

Mud cloths on display in one of the towns

Dogon market

Questionable kabobs

Jack and I did this all throughout the trip

Jack got this poor monkey hooked on kola nuts

The view from that cliff

Rolling down sand dunes:
this is more painful and dizzying than it looks

Jack, trying to get a boabob fruit

Crocs at a local pond


In Donkorkrom with Lisa and the Eastern Region Gang

Einat and some Fulani children in Donkorkrom

Einat with the tailor who made her dresses

With Auntie Obi, one of my favorite people in Otumi

Sushi and white Russians with Einat on our last day together

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow I did miss out.

Why does dogon country look so empty (i mean of people)?


I'm still really amused by that picture of you and jack where you look really small. it's because you're walking in the gutter part of the road. einat's a great photographer.