Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nouakchott has great baguettes

This past Saturday I arrived at Nouakchott Airport about midnight.  I had gotten up at 3 a.m. that morning in Dakar to catch a three-hour flight North to Casablanca.  After an 11-hour layover at Casablanca Airport, I flew back South 3 hours to Nouakchott.  Nouakchott is only about an hour away from Dakar but there are currently no dependable airlines flying between the two cities.

As I entered the arrivals terminal the chaos had started.  People were already trying to jump the long queues, with the men usually pushing their women up front.  In the very tradition-bound country, women get priority when the men want to give it to them, usually only when a man has something to gain.  The embassy expediter that was supposed to meet me to circumvent all this was nowhere in sight, so I was left to my own devices.  When a guy tried to crowd in from the side, I blocked him with my carry-on.  And as I got close to the immigration desk, I put my elbow on the ledge in front of him, preventing his last attempt to get ahead of me.  I was very proud of myself as he really seemed to think he could bluff an old American.  He moved over and went to try another line. 

Claiming my luggage was the next hurdle.  At least 50 porter wannabes were trying to catch my attention.  I got my own bag and headed for the entrance.  Now here is where I really needed the expediter because he was also supposed to drive me to my hotel.  What seemed like hundreds of people were yelling at me, asking if I needed a taxi.  The exchange office was closed so I had no local Ouguiya and nothing less than a $20 bill.  It is tough to negotiate a good price when one only has big bills.  At this point I had no choice but to decide on a taxi, but how?  I took a deep breath, walked into the crowd and pointed at the first respectable looking guy I saw.  He grabbed my roller board and told me to follow.  When I got to the curb I found that he was only an agent for a driver, probably older than myself, with a run down taxi, which was already pulling up to load my bags.   It was a 70s vintage Toyota with an engine that barely ran, no seat belts and an extremely dirty windshield. I hesitatingly got in, and after agreeing to an exorbitant fare of $20, just to get out of there, we were on our way.  I asked him if he could turn on his windshield washer, which he did.  However it smeared the dirt and made the visibility worse. We both bent down to peer through a small clear area just above the dashboard.  As we headed out of the airport, the traffic was coming from all sides. The rule of the road was whoever got their first had the right-of-way and the driver frequently slammed on squeaky brakes to avoid a collision. 

My principal contact in Nouakchott had informed me by email that I had a reservation at the Atlantic B&B.  The driver had never heard of it but said he thought he knew where it might be!  After the 15-minute ride of my life, he pulled up in front a darkened building and said he thought this was probably it.  I got out and stared up at the building to see if it had a name.  A guard woke up and came out to see what I wanted.  I asked him if this was the Atlantic B&B.  He nodded yes and as I got closer I could see that it was the Hotel Atlantico.  We knocked on the door and someone came from inside to unlock it and turn on a light.   When I asked the large African man if this was the Atlantic B&B, he smiled at me broadly and in very good English, said hello "Mr. Paul."  Very relieved I went into the hotel for a very warm welcome and was led to a clean and comfortable, if spartan room, with working  a/c, TV, Internet and shower as well as a vase of roses on the nightstand.  The bed was comfortable and I slept like a log.    

The following day was Sunday and I had expected to work at the embassy because this Muslim country follows a Friday/Saturday weekend.   When I called the embassy to inquire when a car could pick me up, the Marine on duty told me that the embassy was closed because they were celebrating President’s Day so that the employees could have a three-day weekend like Americans get in the U.S.

Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is a stark, dusty desert outpost on the edge of the Sahara.  I'm told that sand dunes often shift into the city covering roads and streets which for the most part are unpaved. Driving is chaotic and crowded with handicapped beggars sitting in the middle of the streets reaching towards the car windows on both sides.  Camels and donkeys are also common along the roads.  The city is on the Atlantic and it's biggest tourist draw is probably the fish market. Expats and diplomats can also visit nice beaches on the weekends but there are few amenities so they usually have to take a lot with them. Most of the city's buildings are single story and with the dirt roads, appear much like early towns  of the American West.  The people are a mix of Sub-Saharan African and Tuareg tribes with small French, Arab and Lebanese communities controlling much of the country's commerce.

Map of Mauritania

Last year CNN ran a program which claimed that Mauritania is the world's last stronghold of slavery, with 10 to 20 percent of the population being held as slaves.  Here is a link with pictures:

Some social scientists have protested the program's use of the term slavery, indicating it is more a form of racism with one people considering itself superior to another and trying to enforce this superiority.  This seems to me like splitting hairs.

The baguettes in Nouakchott really are good – among the best I’ve had.  A remnant of French colonialism is that the Africans in these countries love fresh baguettes and whatever other French food they can get.   The Africans really should be eating something a little more nutritious but baguettes certainly do taste good, especially with lots of butter. The best restaurants in Nouakchott are also French but since last year, owners have had to absorb a major financial hit because the Mauritanian Government cracked down on the importation and use of alcohol.  According to rumor the decision was because a member of the ruling family was involved in a serious car accident while drunk.  Drinks are still allowed after sundown in two restaurants catering almost exclusively to French and European expats who expect to be able to drink wine with their dinner.

Here are a few more links on Mauritania:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bissau: Today's African Adventure

This morning I got up at 3 a.m. at my Praia hotel to catch a one-hour Cape Verde Airlines flight to Dakar, scheduled to depart at 5:30.   When I arrived at the Airport I was informed that the flight had been delayed until 7:30.  When boarding started at 7, an announcement came that we would overfly Dakar and make a stop in Bissau before flying back to Dakar.  Apparently due to under bookings on two flights, they consolidated them into one, taking passengers to both Bissau and Dakar.

The landing and an hour layover in the capital of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, was very interesting.  The countryside has incredible rivers and wetland with a few large Portuguese farm estates, dispersed through the area. The runway was lined on both sides with dozens of the large red termite hills often seen in Africa.  I hadn’t seen any for several years and again found them fascinating.

Red Termite Mounds Near Bissau Airport Runway

 Hanging near the entrance to the Bissau Airport was a large sign welcoming  “his Excellency Ike Ekweremadu.” I had no idea who he was but just googled and found that he is the deputy leader of the Nigerian National Senate.  About 15 minutes after we landed, an unmarked turbojet arrived with approximately 50 well-dressed African dignitaries .  Next to the airport was a pretty little Catholic church and it looked to me that an important wedding was getting ready to take place there.

As we were getting ready to take off again, a regional State Department officer who was on the same flight, pointed to a decaying Learjet that was sitting on the edge of the tarmac.  He told me that  a couple of years ago, it had been forced down during an unauthorized flight through Bissau’s airspace.  He said that it had been filled with cocaine which was confiscated by the Bissau police and which disappeared into the unknown shortly thereafter.  No one talks about what happened to the pilot and crew and no one has ever returned to claim the plane.  I finally arrived in Dakar around noon.

I continue on to Nouakchott early tomorrow morning and I'm sure another great African adventure awaits me there.  


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cape Verde: Cesaria Evora and Petit Pays

I am currently in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, a small island nation and former Portuguese colony off the West African Coast. Senegal and Mauritania are it's closest neighbors. It has just over half a million people spread across approximately 10 islands with a population mix of Portuguese and various African peoples speaking Portuguese and Criollo.  Praia is a pretty little city of about 125,000 which has attractive Portuguese-style buildings, very clean streets, a central square and an entire pedestrian walking zone with cars denied access.  Such zones are common in Europe but it is the first one I've seen in Africa.

Cape Verde has long been a desirable tourist destination for the Portuguese with its European market now expanding.  The Hilton Hotel chain recently broke ground for a resort on Sal Island.  The country has a moderate, semi-arid climate with gorgeous flowers and palms as indicated in the following picture which I took at my hotel in Praia.

Hotel Pestana Tropico in Praia

Here is a map followed by several information links on the country:

Cape Verde with Praia, its capital

 I have wanted to visit Cape Verde for at least 20 years, every since I first heard Cesaria Evora's haunting song Petit Pays (little country).  Her melancholic voice and beautiful rhythms immediately caught my ear and she has become one of favorites.  I own a couple of her CD's and I love the mood her music sets. Before passing away a couple of years ago she became an icon in the genre of Edith Piaf, often with booze or cigarettes in hand while she performed.  She sang primarily in her native Criollo language, but also in Portuguese and French.  Although I'm not fond of smoke and boozed-filled rooms, much of the music that comes out of this milieu is outstanding and I especially like it late at night.  If you haven't heard Cesaria before, listen to the following and I'm sure you will be smitten too. The third link contains a fantastic instrumental introduction to an entire Erova concert.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Gambia, Africa's Smallest Country

If asked to name the smallest country in Africa, most people would not be able to. They might guess Swaziland or Lesotho but they would be wrong.  It is "The Gambia" which stretches along The Gambia River, surrounded on three sides by Senegal on the West African Bulge. Some of the island nations surrounding Africa are smaller but it is the smallest on the African mainland. Today I made a short airport stop in Banjul, the country's capital and caught glimpses of pretty much the entire country as we descended.

Not exactly a household name, The Gambia has a tragic but interesting history.  It is a relic of the Slave Trade with Portuguese, British, Americans, Arabs and even Africans buying and selling slaves here.  It has a population of about 1.2 million living on slightly more 11,000 square meters.  The country gained independence from Great Britain in 1965 with Banjul having formerly been Bathurst. With excellent beaches, a major river and fertile soil,  the Gambian economy has a good economic base for farming fishing and tourism.  I was impressed with the airport for such a small, developing country and several large planes from Europe were parked on the tarmac.  

Map of The Gambia with Senegal on three sides

Here are a few links providing more information on The Gambia and on other small African countries.

 I will spend tonight in Dakar, Senegal and fly on tomorrow to my next working stop in Praia, Cape Verde, another small country few people have heard of.  I'll post something on my blog on this country in a couple of days.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sierra Leone and Liberia: Connected at the Hip

Sierra Leone and it's neighbor, Liberia are geographically and historically joined at the hip.  As indicated in my February 3, 2010 post, Liberia was founded by freed American slaves who emigrated to the mother continent with the pipe dream of establishing a "United States of Africa."  As a parallel, Sierra Leone was settled in 1792 by Nova Scotia abolitionists led by John Clarkson who transported slaves back to Africa under the banner of "The Sierra Leone Company,"the basis for the country's name (  The first settlement was Freetown which became Sierra Leone's capital.

Both countries have struggled to achieve the dreams of their founders, having to contend with such forces as colonialism, tribalism, racism, bad management and corrupt despots such as Charles Taylor who led insurrections on both sides of the common border. Both countries are currently enjoying a period of peace which will hopefully continue despite all of the forces which could undermine it.

During Taylor's involvement in Sierra Leone the country became infamous for the child soldiers that supported the warlords  fighting over the country's high quality diamonds.  They provided the plot for the movie "Blood Diamond" starring Leonard DiCaprio.

Freetown is not an easy place to get to with the city's Lungi Airport serviced only by a very limited number of flights from other African countries and from Europe. After arriving at the airport, one must also travel by boat to Freetown across a wide estuary formed by the Sierra Leone River as it flows into the Freetown Harbor.  On Thursday of this week I had to leave my Monrovia Hotel at 1 a.m. for the long drive to that city's Roberts Field Airport to catch a 4:30 flight to Freetown.  When I arrived at Lungi Airport an hour later, I immediately bought a ticket for the boat which reached the Freetown dock after  about half an hour of sailing in the dark (I can't imagine having to do this during Sierra Leone's long torrential rainy season).  An embassy driver met me at the dock and after dropping my luggage at the hotel, took me to the embassy to work. Needless to say it was a long day, necessitated by the limited options for departing Freetown.

Unfortunately I didn't have much time for sightseeing in Freetown which I'm told has vibrant markets, fantastic beaches and great potential for ecotourism.  The city is built on several steep hills which affords excellent views of the harbor and the Atlantic.

View over Freetown from Country Lodge Hotel

While driving between the hotel and the embassy I also saw some of the very interested old colonial houses left behind by the British.  The following article contains several pictures which provide a fascinating glimpse of colonial Sierra Leone.

Here is a photo I took myself to highlight one of the incredible support structures that hold up some of these houses.

Freetown - old colonial home on support pillars
Here is also a Tourist Board video which highlights some of the country's tourist destinations with catchy local music playing in the background.

The remaining links are worth glancing through for information on Sierra Leone's history, geography and culture.