Welcome to the Home by the Sea…

Down at the beach, I see a familiar sight…the local herd of African cattle. Wandering along the beach at a leisurely pace, they seem completely content in their surroundings, oblivious to everyone.

After the struggles trying to write the blog yesterday,  today’s is likely to be short and sweet…

My second day in Abene, I take the opportunity to take a walk around the village. Down at the beach, I see a familiar sight…the local herd of African cattle.  Wandering along the beach at a leisurely pace, they seem completely content in their surroundings, oblivious to everyone.

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Sitting on the sand (beer in hand of course), this seems a million mile’s from home, with its myriad problems…which when put in perspective, are seemingly unimportant when considering the hardships of life in West Africa. My minor irritation that despite trying to escape work, through the wonders/bane (you choose) of the internet, I am still expected to deal with queries about work – the disclaimer on my emails that I am uncontactable seemingly falling on deaf ears!

Whilst the majority of people in the UK are concerned about their standard of living, worry about being paid the minimum or living wage, whilst the Government publishes meaningless statistics about who is deemed to be living in poverty, for Africans, the bleak reality is that they would all be deemed to live in poverty.

For a vast number of Africans, there is no regular work, instead living hand to mouth on what work becomes available. Given that a typical day rate in Senegal might only be 1,500cfa (or about £2.60), or if in a full time job 30,000 to 50,000cfa (£50 to £90) per month, it no wonder that the Toubab is seen as an easy target for extra money.


The loose change in my pocket is some 70,000cfa…

 

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…doing a Baldrick

In the immortal words of Baldrick, ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

In the immortal words of Baldrick (for non UK readers, a character from the TV sitcom “Blackadder”), ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

An early start at the Gare Routier (could have been earlier if I could manage to set the alarm), and breakfast on the hoof – hard boiled eggs in a roll, washed down with cafe Touba (a liquorice tasting sweet coffee).

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Having eaten half the roll and shared the rest with some kids, I finished the coffee. Being English and always taught not to litter, despite my travels, I instinctively look around for a litter bin – despite the sea of plastic that is common place in Africa…almost guiltily, I discretely drop it on a pile of rubbish. Strange mentality I know.

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So the plans goes something like this – I would make a one night stop over at Kaolack. Me and Kaolack have a love hate relationship following my last encounter when passing through there in 2014 enroute to Dakar. Then I described it like a Mad Max 3 town – solely on the basis of its Gare Routier, which to put it mildly, is absolute chaos and a fitting description in light of the film.

I decided that I would stay at the rated budget Auberge de Kaolack, which despite its budget tag, boasted a swimming pool. Anyway, arriving at Kaolack, and after a short scooter ride, I pitch up to what was actually a rather nice hotel – but crammed full of expats. Needless to say there was no room, nor at either of the 2 sister hotels in town.

Decision time…do I risk wasting another hour or so trying to find a room (the alternatives being distinctly unattractive), or make a run for The Gambia before the border closes?  Cutting my losses, I head to the Gare Routier, where a giant African kindly helps me find the right car, sort ticket, and water in short order. Happy to tip him 1000cfa.

Heading out, the driver gets side swiped by a truck, removing the protective grill from the rear light cluster. Bearing in mind that a sept places are beaten up old cars, with doors held on by string, barely road worthy (surely that’s a contradiction in terms), so what does it matter one further scratch?  Anyway, a heated exchange follows…police…money…more heated exchanges and after a mere 50 minutes we’re off, heading to the Senegal border.

After an uneventful 80 odd kms, arrive at the border, clear Senegalese formalities and “cross” into The Gambia. Immigration first…write out details in a ledger, usual question as to why you’re coming to The Gambia, occupation, etc etc. The guy then has the brass neck to ask what I had for him. Why??? So I told him I did have something for him…Advice. The advice being that he should help prevent bribery and corruption as it was bad for The Gambia. Perhaps not the wisest thing to say in the circumstances, but it suitably perplexed him and he waved me on my way to clear customs.

A lucky encounter with a local policeman who kindly gave (read for a fee) me a lift to the ferry terminal at Barra, and a chance to relax with a local beer Jul Brew. Well I say relaxed because this is The Gambia, home of the bumster/hustler/fixer…

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Isle N’Gor…Time to Chill

The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

Travelling on from the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, a short pirougue trip (500cfa, or 80 cents return) and I’m on the Isle N’Gor.

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An escape from the city, the island offers a chance to chill out, enjoy a beer or two and chat to the locals (or foreign nationals – predominately NGO workers).

The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

After a frenetic 4 months leading up to the trip, it’s a nice change of pace, time to recharge the batteries and relax into Africa.

P.S. Being Africa, if you need something, you only have to ask. Need to change currency, someone will take you to the local money changer – here in Senegal, they are part of the West African monetary union and use CFAs, which are pegged to the Euro at an official rate of 650cfa to €1, so it’s easy to ensure that you don’t get short changed.

Likewise, need to charge your mobile, someone will oblige – try that in the UK!

On The Road…

Not a reference to Jack Kerouac’s book, but the more mundane pleasures of getting to the airport and onward travel to West Africa…

In this case not a reference to Jack Kerouac’s book, but the more mundane pleasures of getting to the airport. ..in this case London Gatwick.

It’s some 12 years since I first travelled through West Africa, and a lot has changed. Where before it was feasible to travel to Timbuktu and even to the Festival in the Desert,  now it’s a no go zone.

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My first trip to Bamako was the start of my child hood dream…following in the steps of such famous explorers as Mungo Park en route to Timbuktu. Having said that, it was somewhat easier flying than directly there, rather in Mungo’s days, even if it was in a dilapidated Russian crate of a plane. Just as well the runway at Bamako airport was very long.

Moving on to the present day, I’m supposed to be jumping on a plane to head off to Dakar in Senegal shortly, but as ever, life’s not straight forward, particularly as my ‘day job‘ requires me to go to Ipswich to give expert evidence in the Crown Court case.

What had been carefully planned for some months, is now threatened by a demand to appear at short notice – despite having told everyone that I wasn’t available. No consideration is given for my travel arrangements or work to be completed, whatsoever. Still, I know the pitfalls, and as we always used to say in the Navy, ‘that’s life in a blue suit!’

If I’m lucky, my point blank refusal to attend will be accepted (as any reasonable person would expect), however we are talking about the English justice system, just hope the Judge has a good breakfast and is considerate! If not, it’ll be an order to appear or face contempt of Court (travel plans will definitely be on hold then).

Still on the bright side, I hear prison foods quite good these days now that Jamie’s involved…but being a glass half full sort of chap, I suspect it’ll all pan out alright.

Moving on to my current plans, first stop Dakar, then Saint Louis and onto Touba and Tambacounda before crossing into The Gambia and travelling along the river to Banjul.

Now that the former president Yayah Jammeh has departed, I’m looking forward to seeing the changes that have started to appear…certainly the national spirit is on a high, and hopefully this will auger well for the economy. How Adama Barrow is going to deal with a nigh on bankrupt state remains to be seen…we wish him well.

Continuing from Banjul will take me into the Cassamance region, an area neglected by tourists over the last decade or so, partly due to the separatist movement in the region, coupled with over zealous warnings from the FCO about the dangers of travelling in the South of Senegal…seemingly unfounded given the peace that’s prevailed for many years. Yes there are checkpoints, and on occasion the odd request for ‘la cadeau’, but all in all a smile will ease the way.

From the Cassamance it’ll be a return trip to Dakar for a flight to Freetown in Sierra Leone…a country I missed on my last trip due to delays in getting a visa in Guinea Conakry. Failing that, it’ll be overland via Guinea Bissau and Guinea, with a side trip to the Fouta Djalon reigion. 

In Sierra Leone, I’m looking forward to a side trip to Bunce Island, one of many slave islands in the region (probably less well know than Goree Island off of Dakar).

Travelling in West Africa is tough; there is no public transport or railways (mineral trains are generally off limits), so travel is invariably by the ubiquitous “sept place” – old Peugeot 504s, which will be crammed with many more the the ‘sept’ (7) seats, together with mounds of luggage and other goods. These 504s have definitely seen better days and would instantly be condemned and sent to the crusher in the UK. Still, if you’ve a sense of adventure and a strong constitution, there are undoubtedly worse ways of getting around!

Travel in West Africa is not something that can be planned to any degree, which it so much more exciting than the daily commute…

If anyone would like to contact me on my travels,  email vagabondingafrica@yondercot.uk

Be great to hear from you to to meet enroute.

Shaun – 01/02/17

The Flying Carpet – A Step Beyond

In 2005 I fulfilled my childhood dream of going to Timbuktu, a trip inspired by Richard Hallibuton’s book “The Flying Carpet – The Record of a Great Adventure”

In 2005 I fulfilled my childhood dream of going to Timbuktu, a trip inspired by Richard Hallibuton’s book “The Flying Carpet – The Record of a Great Adventure”

Since 2005 a lot has changed in the world…where before it was safe to travel off the beaten track, now you have to think twice, and then think again.  However, despite the threats – real or perceived, we all need to step outside our “comfort zone” now and again…

Whilst Timbuktu may be off-limits (according to the FCO), and with Al-Qaeda, Daesh/Isis etc. dominating the news, its enough to deter anyone from leaving the comfort of home!

But don’t be deterred from travelling, as by staying in your comfort zone, you’ll miss out on so much the world has to offer.

Travel brings you into contact with people who are not so very different from you or I. They have the same basic needs – food, shelter, jobs, money etc. – above all, people (in general) are not out to harm, but are more than willing to help.

In my travels, I have been shown extreme generosity and welcomed into homes by people who, quite often, could ill afford to put me up.

In some small way, the chance to travel allows me the opportunity to repay the kindness people have shown, by telling their story.

Travel allows that opportunity – to meet people, experience new cultures and to open your mind to new possibilities, so if you’ve got itchy feet, get out there and experience life.

Pico Iyer writing in Harper’s in 1993, said “I am simply a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility, living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multinational globe on which more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”

Open your mind and the possibilities are endless.

Shaun Walbridge (January 2017)

Dakar – moving on

Penultimate full day in Dakar before catching the ferry Tuesday evening for the overnight sailing to Zinguinchor and on to Kafoutine for a few days.

Its been an interesting few days – Dakar is in your face. There is constant noise, be it taxis, the blaring loadspeakers on roadside stalls reciting verses from the Koran, or just the sheer volume of people. In the evening in my room, I can hear a constant hubbub of people and its rarely quiet before midnite.

A thick skin is a prerequisite for a foreigner in these parts, but a smile and good humour will see you through.

Even with my lack French, I’ve coped – the only time I’ve had anyone blatently refuse to comprehend was today in the Post Office. She was not going to understand my request for stamps, even though my request was perfectly ok (in both French and English – which she spoke). Resorted to the use of fingers lol, much to the amusement of the locals.

Dakar, like many places in Africa will have a stall selling everything and anything- paws, claws and jaws, to that part for your vintage car! However, “le papiere de toilet” is a different matter – thankfully Kleenex tissues saves the day!

Saturday evening/Sunday morning – I managed to catch the respected Senegalese musician Pape Cheikh in concert at the popular Just4U restaurant/niteclub. Dakar nite life starts late, with the gig kicking off at 01:00 and finishing just before 04:00, the group playing solid with no breaks – great evening.

Sunday –  after a late start, off to Isle Goree, the former slave island just off the coast from Dakar. The island played a small part in the slave trade before its abolition.

The weather has been good, although less hot than expected. Typical day time temperatures are in the mid to upper 20’s. It’s noticeably chilly in the evening with the need for extra layers.

I hope to be able to add an update once I arrive in Kafoutine.

The Gambia

Monday 20th January 2014

Two days in Banjul before heading north to Dakar.

Luckily managed to secure a room with a family on arrival, with Ismaila acting as a guide for the duration. Good start as its ly intention to avoid hotels where possible.

Tuesday started with trip to Senagalese consolate for visa. Despite pre registration on line, still needed more formalities…biometrics &another photo. Collected late afternoon, I arrived late, but just managed to get passport back! The biometrics are in sharp contrast to the procedure at the border the following day when the details were hand written into scruffy ledgers!

Spent rest of day travelling around and had the great luck of meeting the fabulous kora player Sona Jobarteh and her son Sidique. Sona hails from a griot and is unique in being the first female player of the kora.