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Saturday, Nov. 8
Antsirabe, Madagascar

Pull-carts are one of the main forms of transportation in Antsirabe, the first town south of Madagascar’s capital.

But the pousse-pousses, as they’re called in French, are not pulled by a horse, a donkey or even a zebu, the Malagasy equivalent of cattle. These carts move through the streets solely on manpower.

It struck me as a scene out of a fantasy film, men running barefoot around town, pulling carts behind them, some men overtaking others just like cars in traffic. I couldn’t imagine what kind of crazy shape one would have to be in to pull that kind of weight, to do an animal’s work all day to make a living. Installing a system like that in a U.S. city would be a sure-fire way to combat obesity, I thought.

Pousse-pousse-ing it to our hotel.

Pousse-pousse-ing it to our hotel.

I watched the form of the runner who pulled me and my bags from the bus station to my hotel, working hard alongside two other pousse-pousse guys who pulled my new French friends, Anna and Alexa, women who I met during the bush taxi ride. It didn’t feel right, being pulled around town by a local. If a runner could move both me and my bags to my hotel, I could surely walk there with my bag on my back.

But the pull-carts aren’t a luxury just for tourists. That’s how many locals get around, particularly if they have luggage to move, or chickens or even a lounge chair. This is the livelihood of many Malagasy men, and if I want to support the locals, I best take a pousse-pousse.

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Wednesday, Sept. 10
Douala, Cameroon

I remember, vividly, the first time I arrived in Cameroon, six years ago for a study-abroad program.

From the airplane, I saw a fire on the ground near the runway, and I figured a small plane had crashed. I didn’t know then that fires are set intentionally all over West Africa to burn trash and clear fields of old crops.

I was downright scared in the Douala airport, even though I was with a group. Men hassled us, trying to carry our bags or give us a taxi ride. Belongings had been stolen from several students’ luggage, and one girl’s bag didn’t arrive at all. I pitied her, all the while thankful my backpack was safely on my back.

Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, wasn’t safe, so we immediately piled into a bush taxi destined for another city. The air smelled strongly of exhaust and burning trash. Our driver pulled off the highway, then reaized he had taken a wrong turn. He reversed the van all the way back up the ramp, as cars whizzed by us at full speed. I held my breath until we were going forward again.

This time around, I knew what to expect (even though Douala still scares me). I packed everything that would be difficult to replace — medication, glasses, computer, guidebook — in my carry-on bag, and strategically placed tampons in the top of my checked luggage to deter any curious baggage handlers.

At the airport in Douala, I headed straight for the ATM to get CFA to pay a taxi. The machine didn’t work, so I exchanged dollars with a guy who lurked around the airport. Another man followed me, saying, “Vous etes belle. Tres blanche.” Translation: “You are beautiful. Very white.” It’s lovely to know my whiteness is my best feature.

It was nearly midnight by the time I took a taxi to the hotel, and the highway was mostly empty. The first car we passed made me laugh. The driver must have missed his turn-off. He was reversing right in the middle of the two-lane highway.

Saturday, August 23
Hamale, Ghana

In my quest to get to Ghana, I stumbled across a journalist’s gem.

It started, of course, with a ridiculous day of transport. What I was told would be a three-hour ride from Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, to Hamale, Ghana, ended up taking all day. (Yes, Suzanne, the road is paved! It was just the rain and many, many stops that took so long.)

I expected a bit of trouble because I was taking the back door into Ghana. The few travelers who go there overland from Burkina usually take the direct route south from Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital. That was my original plan. But I so loved Burkina that I detoured west to Bobo-Dioulasso, then attempted to enter Ghana from the northeast, via Hamale. (I wanted to show a map here, but Google doesn’t know Hamale! It’s in Ghana’s northwest corner.)

Day turned to night before we had even reached the Ghana border, and I knew immigration probably would be closed. So I stayed the night in Ouessa, a tiny Burkina town just a few kilometers from the border, at the invitation of two Spanish guys who worked there for a non-governmental organization.

It was an exciting day for Ouessa, they told me: electricity had made its way to the town and the streets were lit up for the first time. Indeed, modern-looking, albeit above-ground, electricity poles dotted the landscape. I smelled a story. But I had already spent way too much time in Burkina, and it was time to move on.

Easier said than done, since few cars pass through Ouessa toward Ghana. The next morning, I made my way to the main road — the only paved road, that is — but was told I’d have to wait until evening for any sort of bus or transportation.

So I got some freshly-made donuts to munch on and stood by the side of the road, waiting for a car to pass. In America, we call this hitchhiking. In Africa, it’s simply catching a ride.

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If this entry seems disjointed, it’s because a huge rat with a long tail just ran across my desk in this Internet cafe. Ugh.

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Friday, August 15
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Burkina is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Half the population lives on less than a dollar each day, my Lonely Planet guide tells me, and more than a third don’t live to see their 40th birthday. (Check out this BBC News country profile.)

And yet, in the capital city of Ouagadougou (see where it is on a map), pronounced Waga-doo-goo, the government has organized a project that smells of wealth, a neighborhood of mansions, expensive hotels and fancy boulevards.

They call it Ouaga 2000 (See Wikipedia’s explanation). I had to see it.

Since I’m still too much of a wuss to rent a motorbike and drive it in the free-for-all here they call traffic, I hired a guy to drive me there on his moto, just before dark.

On the way there, we passed: a Catholic parade in celebration of some unknown holiday; a motorcycle driver wearing a helmet (first I’d seen in Ouaga); men on bicycles with goats slung over the handlebars; and Muslims lined up along the street, bending over in prayer.

I, too, was praying as my driver darted in and out of traffic. A car came so close to us at one point it nearly brushed my leg. (My driver announced that the guy at the wheel didn’t know how to drive. I guess that’s universal.)

Our arrival at Ouaga 2000 was obvious. Huge streetlights dotted the beautifully paved road and large houses — mansions even by U.S. standards — were under construction on both sides. I laughed out loud when I saw the Christmas-like lights in delicate shapes on the posts in the middle of the boulevard, a sight straight out of Houston’s upscale Galleria shopping area.

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Monday, August 11
Dogon Country, Mali

After a chilly Saturday night sleeping on a cliff in Dogon Country, we awoke to the sound of music, voices singing and the beat of a drum.

Salif had told us there was a church nearby, so we followed the sound until we arrived at the mud structure with a cross over the door. A service was in progress. That’s right, I thought, it’s Sunday.

Church in Dogon Country.

Church in Dogon Country.

Until then, I had seen only Muslims praying in West Africa. I had visited more mosques than I could count, but no churches, since most Senegalese and Malians practice Islam. The Dogon people, though, are more diverse; some practice Islam, some Christianity, and others have animist beliefs.

I identified with the Sunday worship, having been raised Catholic, so I stood by the entrance to the church to watch the service. A woman inside motioned for me to enter, then made room for me to sit on her mud pew.

The room was decorated with trinkets that resembled Christmas tree ornaments, and several photos of Jesus adorned the wall behind the alter.

I waited until after the service, when the Evangelical church had emptied except for the priest, to take photos.

Evangelical church in Dogon Country

Evangelical church in Dogon Country

This church may have been made of mud, but it was the same model as the one I attended every Sunday as a child.

That’s when it hit me: while the Dogon worshiped in this cliff-top church in West Africa, the church family I grew up with was kneeling in upstate New York, praying to the same God.

Wednesday, August 6
Timbuktu, Mali

By the time I disembarked in Timbuktu (click here to see where it is on a map) on Monday afternoon, I was no longer traveling on my own, but in a group of five.

My latest posse included two Americans, a Brit and a German. The latter two were traveling alone like me, but had teamed up two weeks ago in Mauritania.

Our Timbuktu sleeping quarters

Our Timbuktu sleeping quarters

After dropping our bags at the house of a young Malian guide who lets travelers sleep at on his terrace for cheap, we set off to explore Timbuktu. We saw the post office, the mosque and a monument or two, but quickly discovered what other toubabs had warned. Ed, an English university student, was the first to say it out loud: “There’s nothing to do in Timbuktu.”

Nothing that is, except ride on a camel, which the five of us did the following day. Turns out it’s quite uncomfortable, but makes for great photos.

Riding a camel in the desert near Timbuktu

Riding a camel in the desert near Timbuktu

We rode the camels to a nearby village, which consisted of three huts and a water pump, and we spent most of the day under a tent avoiding the hot sun. Lunch was included in the trip, but it was a sore disappointment: sandy rice with bits of something we surmised was goat stomach. Only two of us — myself not included — could choke it down.

Sandstorm approaches.

Sandstorm approaches.

We had hoped to return to Timbuktu at sunset, figuring the setting of the desert sun would be beautiful. But we got something better: a sandstorm!

The sky began to turn orange and suddenly we were in the middle of the storm. I was working hard to keep my face covered, but I managed to get a few shots of our hurried ride back to the city.

Ed and Cedric during the sandstorm.

Ed and Cedric sporting their turbans.

Headed back to Timbuktu in the sandstorm.

Headed back to Timbuktu in the sandstorm.

Monday, July 28
Djenne, Mali

I’m getting into the backpacking grove now.

I’ve ditched my sleeping bag, a pair of shoes and some clothes to decrease luggage. What I need has taken on a whole new meaning since I have to carry it.

I’m torn over my fleece, which is taking up a good section of my bag. I bet I’ll be able to count on my two hands the number of nights when I need it. But I suppose I’ll be pretty sorry on those night if I don’t have a warm layer, particularly since my sleeping bag is no longer an option.

Losing those items made room in my bag for toilet paper, since most bathrooms here don’t have it, and jam, which I add to bread some mornings for a quick, cheap breakfast. I’m also slowly replacing some of my western clothes with African ones.

I still have a few luxury items with me, including a pillow that packs up quite small. My best friend convinced me to take it with me just before I left, and I’m glad she did! I sleep with that every night, on top of a sheet my mom sewed for me like a sleeping bag.

My money belt has gotten uncomfortably thick, partly because I’m carrying a large stack of CFAs with me since I’ve heard ATMs are sparse in northern Mali. But my pregnant-looking belly also can be blamed on my passport, which has grown in thickness since I left. I got pages added at the American embassy in Bamako because I was running out.

Oh, how I love seeing new stamps in my passport. I now have a visa for Cameroon — picked it up in Dakar — and Burkina Faso — got that one in Bamako. I’m visa-less only for Ghana, and for that I plan to apply in Burkina’s capital.

And yes, i’m taking my malaria prophylaxis, Malarone.

Thursday, July 3
Saint-Louis, Senegal

Blogging throughout this trip is going to be harder than I thought.

I’ve got all the proper equipment, but I keep hitting seemingly minor technical issues that prevent me from posting. The biggest problem is uploading my photos to Flickr; the Internet connection in some places isn’t fast enough to do it!

I’m continuing to write in my notebook and take lots of photos, but it may be a while before you get to see them. If my posts are sparce, know you can look forward to a bulk posting once I’ve got a good Internet access.

I’m saving Saint-Louis posts until the photos are ready. Tomorrow I’m planning to leave the city and hopefully head to nearby Zebrabar for a few days. Check out the link!

Wednesday, July 2
Saint-Louis, Senegal

I came to this Internet cafe tonight to tell you all that Saint-Louis is lovely, and to upload some photos and videos of life here.

But technical difficulties prevented me from doing that, so I decided to wait to post until tomorrow.

And just as I prepared to move onto e-mail instead, I heard a screeching of car tires and a huge CRASH. Some yelling. Everyone in the cafe ran to the door to see what was going on. “Un enfant!” someone proclaimed, and my cyber-colleagues stared. A child hit by a car. I’m back at my computer, not wanting to watch. A friend says the kid is ok, going to the hospital.

Never a dull moment.

Tuesday, July 1
Saint-Louis, Senegal

My dad has a rule about car windshields. One little crack makes it weak, he says, so even that has to be fixed before driving.

So I’m glad he didn’t see the car I rode in from Dakar to Saint-Louis last night. The windshield had not one crack, not a dozen, but was so full of cracks I don’t know how it was even staying together.

The vehicle was a sept-place, or seven-seater, a major form of transportation here in Senegal. It’s basically a beat-up station wagon that fits seven passengers – three in the middle, three in the back, one up front – plus the driver. I ended up sitting in the back seat, near the left window, my luggage directly behind me in the trunk.

As soon as I crammed into the spot, I wondered how I would possibly get out if we were in a wreck. The window next to me didn’t open, and the window next to the man sitting in front of me opened just a bit – manually. And by manually, I don’t mean he had to turn a handle to open the window. I mean he had to force it up with his hands and do the same to push it back down. All the windows in the car worked that way. (No, Dad, there weren’t any seatbelts.)

I was heading up Senegal’s coast to Saint-Louis, a city that’s cooler, calmer and smaller than Dakar. I was with a friend of a friend of a friend (got that?) named Fallou, who would be serving as somewhat of a guide for me for a few days. We planned to stay at his friend’s house in Saint-Louis while he showed me around town.

But first we had to get there. (more…)

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