Just when we thought all the excitement was over and all that remained was a steady drive north....enter the Pyrenees. As we climbed to 1500 metres on the Spanish side we encountered a light dusting of snow, but after passing through the 3km Bielsa tunnel we felt we'd been transported into a snowy Narnia!
As always it is the people who have made this trip so special for us and the last 2 weeks have given us the opportunity to meet up with friends, family and family friends who, in some cases, had at least 10 years of catching up!
Friday, 27 February 2009
When we were last here (in October) we were writing about the unseasonal storms and rains causing much damage across the country. It seems things did not improve much and Moroccans are describing last winter as one of the wettest on record.
Fortunately we managed to time our return with the arrival of spring so our vista was one of lush greens and blooming spring flowers as we drove north through Western Sahara and across the snow-capped Atlas mountains.
It does feel strange, however, to think that by this time tomorrow we'll be back in 'doom & gloom' Europe where everybody's depressed about their economic future having spent the last few months amongst people whose financial struggles continue on a day to day basis. We look forward to our journey through Europe catching up with friends along the way and will hopefully bring the spring all the way across the English Channel with us in two weeks time!
Thursday, 12 February 2009
What happens when Jonnie goes to the bank (or why you must always buy insurance as soon as you enter a country)
We had been in Mauritania for only an hour when we pulled up in Ayoun el Atrous, a typically sandy Sahelian border town, in order to change some euros into ougiya. Jonnie pulled over to the left hand side of the road to leave me parked in the shade while he popped into the bank. I was cheerfully and steadfastly ignoring the boy by my window who was trying to sell me a phone card whilst he was equally cheerfully and steadfastly ignoring me ignoring him when suddenly he uttered a cry of horror and leapt back into the shelter of a nearby shop doorway.
There was a shriek of brakes, the high pitched screech of tyres and a sickening crunch as a white Mercedes crashed into the back of Jemima. The boy in his doorway rapidly disappeared out of view as Jemima and I careered forward at a rate of knots finally coming to a halt inches from another Mercedes parked a few metres down the road.
I leapt out of the car (having first remembered, bizarrely, to lock all the doors) shouting and gesticulating wildly at the dazed Mercedes driver (who luckily didn’t understand English) while a crowd rapidly gathered most of whom were also gesticulating at random, more due to their love of drama than for any specific reason.
The police were quickly on the scene which was lucky because the driver was now trying to reverse his car out of Jemima’s rear and disappear off down the road until I rushed over and, now speaking in more coherent French, asked him what on earth he thought he was doing. Amid the craziness I looked up and saw Jonnie strolling back from the back serenely unaware of Jemima’s newly designed behind.
Somehow Jonnie had also picked up a policeman along the way, or more accurately had been picked up by a policeman, called ‘General Hassein’ (who we later found out was a bit mad, but who was still allowed to wander round the streets of Ayoun el Atrous in uniform and misinform tourists). General Hassein had assured Jonnie he could change money at the Western Union bank which turned out not to be possible; he then assured Jonnie he could definitely change money at the insurance office which also turned out not to be possible. Jonnie finally lost patience and was on his way back to the car when he looked up to see me waving less than serenely and gathered all was not well.
He immediately grabbed his camera and started photographing the accident site (see pic 1) while I produced the relevant documents for a new, rather large, policeman who had just arrived on the scene. We then all decamped to the Commissariat, with the rather large policeman squashed into our front seat, where Jonnie and I hoped to get a ‘declaration’ for insurance purposes.
And this is where African bureaucracy and confused reasoning kicked in. When we asked for a written statement of what had happened we were told that ‘in Mauritania’ accidents are dealt with orally and no written declaration is made. When we pushed them to write at least something and then stamp it with their official stamp we were taken to the office of the Commissar who informed us that our insurance (which we had luckily bought at the border instead of Ayoun el Atrous which had been our plan) did not come into effect until the following day. We pointed out that the valid from date and time was 2 hours prior to the accident, but he insisted that the insurance dealer had made a mistake. We pointed out that, even if it was the case that ‘in Mauritania’ insurance comes into effect 24 hours after buying it, it was still not our fault, but the fault of the insurance dealer. Much more pointing out on both sides terminated with Jonnie telling the Commissar in very clear English that he was plainly incorrect.
The Commissar, not to be outsmarted, then demanded to know why we had parked on the wrong side of the road. We queried which side of the road one was supposed to park on since we had just parked behind another car facing the same way and were informed that ‘in Mauritania’ one was only allowed to park on the side of the road that you were driving along. We had apparently contravened this very important part of the Mauritanian highway code and had therefore invalidated our insurance anyway and were also potentially liable to be sanctioned (presumably in the form of a large fine). Aware that pointing out that every other car on the road outside the Commissariat was also contravening this rule would probably not have the desired effect, it dawned upon us that it would hasten proceedings considerably if we just told the Commissar that we had no intention of making a claim against the driver or for damage to Jemima. The reason, I informed him, that we needed the declaration was in order to claim off our insurance when we returned to England. Jonnie then apologized for parking on the wrong side of the road and the Commissar broke into a broad smile and ordered the rather large policeman to go off and write our declaration albeit stating clearly that we were parked on the left of the road.
After a little gentle persuasion with a blow torch and lump hammer Jemima made a full recovery (see pics 2 & 3) and Jonnie now has a smile back on his face again!
Saturday, 7 February 2009
So after a month in Mali and Burkina Faso we're preparing to leave Bamako first thing tomorrow and drive up through Mauritania in about a week. Hopefully we'll update the little green line regularly for all you avid route watchers!
It's been an amazing 4 weeks and I think we saved the best until last: a trip into the 'Pays Dogon' [see pics]. The area is quite unique - a long cliff face with abandoned dwellings and tombs built high into natural crevaces within the rock. So high up in fact that some locals believe the previous inhabitants (Tellem) could fly! The area is now home to the Dogon people who continue to live in the cliffs retaining a lifestyle and traditions unchanged for hundreds of years.
Monday, 26 January 2009
So what is it about Burkina Faso that made us want to return for a third time this trip? If you were to look up its 'vital statistics' you'd soon learn it is the third poorest country in the world with a life expectancy just above that of present day Zimbabwe. Yet both the country and its people have hidden depths.
Around the Banfora region in the south-west of the country (where we've spent the last 9 days) are some incredible rock formations and waterfalls [see pics 1&2]. Meanwhile the sense of pride held by the people for both their past and present is striking. This can be seen throughout the country in the order and cleanliness of the towns and villages and by the importance they continue to attach to the upholding of tradition in the face of change and modernity. Many of the villages conform to a matriarchal structure and the women like nothing better than sharing their stories and the latest gossip over a calabash of millet beer [pic. 3].
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
Festival of the Desert
The festival held in the Sahara desert some 50km north of the 'mysterious' Timbuktu and accessable only by 4WD or camel has held allure for both Sanna and I for many years.
The event, situated amid sand dunes at the very edge of the desert, successfully combines its origins as a Touareg gathering with its newly acquired status as an international world music event. Artists this year included the great Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Toure, Bassekou Kouyate & Habib Koite. A fantastically organised event with all the facilities you would expect (running water and clean(ish) toilets) and some you wouldn't (the Malian army providing festival security with AK47's and tanks patrolling the perimeter!).
After 3 days though we were ready to hit the sand again and took the lesser travelled northern route ( 2 days, 630km) through the desert to the town of Segou on the banks of the river Niger. From here we plan to travel south into Burkina Faso again to visit the Banfora region before returning to Segou for the festival here at the end of the month. (www.festivalsegou.org)
Saturday, 3 January 2009
Wishing all of you a very Happy New Year!!
We spent the new year period travelling north through Ghana's eastern 'Volta' region [above pics] between the Togo border and Lake Volta - the worlds largest artificial lake. 84000 people were displaced by this hydro-electricity generating project when it was started in the 1960's. At the time it was estimated enough electricity would be produced to supply southern Ghana with a surplus to sell to neighbouring Togo. Unfortunately the funders (an American company) placed such high dividends on the project that it never realised it's potential. By the time these financial restrictions were lifted, the ever reducing water level of the lake coupled with rising demand means Ghana will still need to import power from it's neighbours.
We left Ghana amid election fever. After a closely fought Presidential election, the two main parties had a run off scheduled for Dec 28th - the day we were driving through Accra. After 3 days of counting the outcome was announced: one constituency had rumours of vote rigging so they would have to re-vote as without them the balance stood at 49:50! This process could run and run........