Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Out of money; still in Africa!

I got through the border of Ghana on the wise-mans [link] motorbike and upon reaching the Burkina Faso side I stepped off in an awkward way and burned my leg on the exhaust pipe. Within seconds a huge blister had formed.
“Stay there! I’ll get some ink!” shouted the driver as he jumped back on the bike.
He came back five minutes later and poured blue ink all over my wound. Then another man had the opinion that toothpaste would help and before I knew it he was spreading toothpaste over my blue-ink burn with a tiny corner of toilet roll.

That day I managed to reach Banfora, a small town in the south west area of Burkina Faso. A guy I met in Mole had given me a phone number of a Couchsurfer in this town. With no money for access to
the internet, I had no choice but to take opportunities and chances like this. I phoned Soma and explained my situation and without any hesitation he took me in for a few days. He even accompanied me to the hospital one afternoon to sort out the blue-toothpaste-burn on my right leg. The doctor said he could sort it out for me, but first I needed to buy him some clerical gloves from the pharmacy across the road. He peeled away my skin, and the blue toothpaste mess along with it, which definitely made the list of the most painful moments of my entire life.  One day, driving there on his motorbike, Soma and I visited the famous waterfall where we spent the whole day swimming in the most beautiful location for a bath which you could ever imagine.

Over the next few days I had to cross Mali. Still officially at war, I decided to miss out on the tourist attractions which are concentrated mainly in the north of the country, and where the danger is apparently still lurking four months after the burst of terrible kidnappings and killings of foreigners and the beginning of the French military intervention in the country.

I'm not sure exactly where I spent the following few nights; I was given free rides on public buses all the way across the country, but as I mentioned previously, typical African transport is pretty unreliable. One night I had to sleep rough under a tin roof in the parking area of the national buses. Others who were also waiting for buses the following day slept beside me so there was no reason for me to feel alone or scared. Another night, after more burst tyres than I could count (and more heart pouncing moments of me thinking that the sudden bang was a terrorist gun-shot) we found ourselves stuck in the middle of the desert in the darker than dark night with no more tyres available. The bus was too hot to sleep in so everyone lay together on the desert floor until the morning when another bus drove past. I only realised later on how dangerous this was; hyenas, wild dogs, snakes, and scorpions all call the desert their home!

I made it across Mali alive and into Senegal just as easily. They say you never really travel without money until you really have no money. It’s true. I'm a budget traveller and when I say budget I really mean budget. I can go days without spending a penny but in the end I still spend a penny. This time I had no more pennies to spend. And the result was that I found it easier to get on with no money than on a budget. I didn't have to think about budgeting because there was no budget.

Getting from Mole National Park to Burkina Faso and onwards to Mali and Senegal was probably the some of the easiest travel I've ever done. People understood my situation and passed my story on to others who could possibly help in more ways; I was given further rides and meals at cafes and drinks from shops. After feeling slightly sick for weeks and with not much appetite since the fish basket incident in Tamale [link], this gave me the chance to offer the bulk of my meals to kids living on the street. Sure, they were grateful for the food, but they always gave the idea that the huge never-ending smile was because I was a rare white stranger who sat with them whilst they finished the meal.

For the entire few weeks I made this trip with no money, I had this incredible sense of sharing and giving and just how powerful that was. I think I just found the answer to world peace.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Elephants with no money

Hitchhiking into a national park is probably one of the most impossible things to do, so I settled with the bus, which runs once a day, the time unspecified.  The few white people I saw at the bus station were, as I correctly predicted, also heading to Mole.  We waited all day for the bus and when it finally set off it had broken down within ten minutes of travel.  We set off again once fixed but had to make a short stop because the driver then wanted to do his prayers.  Three words: typical African transport!

Naughty baboon playing in the hotel grounds

We finally arrived in the park at around midnight.  As I was coming to the very end of my supply of money, I had to look for the cheapest option available.  To pitch a tent in the campground was almost the same price as taking a bed in the dormitory.  Except the dormitory wasn’t pitch black and waterlogged. I struck lucky as the Finnish girls I had met on the bus offered me a place on their hotel room floor.  To get the ‘included’ breakfast in the mornings, I tried my hardest to confuse the hell out of the waiters and succeeded mostly due to their kindness in turning a blind eye to my changing room number each day.

I used the very last of my money on a safari walk, where we saw plenty of monkeys, antelope, warthogs, and birds.  A group of people collected together to take a jeep safari, which would reach further out into the park and improve the chances of spotting elephants, and after hearing my situation they let me jump in on their jeep tour.

Within ten minutes of driving we were climbing off the top of the jeep and following a huge male elephant through the trees.  Compared to seeing an elephant in a zoo this was something special.  It was an incredible feeling to see this wonderful, giant creature pushing its path through the dense greenery and being completely at peace in its natural home.

Hitching into the park may have not been possible but hitching out was.  A military car was making its monthly food-supply trip from Tamale to its isolated destination in the north-western region of the country and had to pass through Mole.  This proved to be very lucky for me, as when we reached their destination they used their superior attitude to easily convince the driver of a public minibus to take me to the border town for free.

I say for free, but I ended up working for the cost of my travel.  The young woman sat next to me got tired of her baby falling asleep in an uncomfortable position, so she just handed him to me.  No words were exchanged. Typical Africa; someone has handed you a baby so just deal with it.  Five hours later I handed him back to her; we had reached the woman’s final destination.

I tried to catch some sleep at the border town, where I had a little trouble but was taught a very valuable lesson by a very wise man.  I don’t want to go into details here because both the situation and the resulting lesson feel very personal; but I will tell you that, sometimes, a plain old human being can make it very easy to believe in angels.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Dancing and bananas

I reached the capital city of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, the day before my 24th birthday.  Coincidentally, the sister Amy of my Couchsurfing host was to celebrate her toddlers 3rd birthday that night at a club
downtown.  Celebrating a kids birthday in a nightclub?  Yes.  I didn’t ask questions, except “what am I supposed to wear?”  After being dressed by the women in tight leggings and a one-shoulder sparkly shirt, I came to the conclusion that only black women can wear these clothes and look good.  I resembled something similar to a gypsy traveller from the British TV show ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’, except I didn’t have the fancy attitude to match.

The night was full of entertainment, provided mainly from the young women shaking their booties and the occasional man with the confidence to show off his body popping skills.  Young boys less than ten years old gathered outside the open aired club, their one chance to listen to a variety of loud, fast-paced music, and competed to find the best dancer between them.  They saw me watching and reverted back to their daytime shyness of giggling and waving at the sight of a white person.

Manitu, the man who owned the house I was staying in, was a professional singer widely known through Ivory Coast.  Although his English was very limited, he still managed to make the list of the funniest people I’ve ever known.  Cracking the top off a beer bottle top with his teeth and slyly pushing it back on, he then handed it to a woman asking her to open it.  On her attempt it opened too easily and spilled all over her front. She scowled angrily at him as he rolled around in fits of laughter.

Just after midnight, the group around me attempted to sing ‘happy birthday’ in English, but failed miserably, singing something like “happy baaaahaaa la laa, happy baaaahaa la daa...” at least the happy part was right!


My impressions of Ivory Coast were mainly that it was much richer than the past few countries I had been in.  Compared to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, all of the roads I encountered were fully paved and one massively noticeable difference was the variety of food in the markets.  These may not sound like reasons a country is more prosperous, but they are in fact huge factors which affect the level of poverty people live with.  Roads ensure that business and jobs are accessible to everybody, a big benefit to those who live in rural areas, and therefore reducing the concentration of wealth in the cities and the difference across the country.  The variety of food reduces the probability of children or even adults of becoming sick from malnutrition.


My time in Abidjan revolved around the four visits I made to the embassy of Ghana, all comprising of lies from the workers about visa laws changing and resulting in my stubborn arguments, the last one being hassle-free only because this was the time I collected my passport with the visa fixed firmly inside.  With not much time left to spend, I headed straight to Ghana the following day, a mix up in the transport meant I was sent straight to the capital Accra more than half way across the country.

Fati and her brother Mubarik hosted me, showing me around the city and entertaining me every day.  Our favourite spot was LA beach, were it seemed Fati had endless energy enough to jump up and down in the waves literally all day long!  We took a short trip one day to the Volta region and found some monkeys in the forest, then enticed them with fruit to come closer but kept ended up in a struggle of who could grip each banana the tightest.  Stubborn me always won, forcing the monkeys to squash the banana and lick it from my hand.

Fati even accompanied me to a town in the north of Ghana, Tamale, where her boyfriend invited us both to stay in his apartment.  A short stay there included a trip to the local market, where I was shouted at for taking photos of the produce and got stuck in a human traffic jam with a basket of dried fish shoved in my face for ten minutes.  From that moment on I can no longer eat fish.

I was now a few days away from using up the very last of my money.  What was eating me alive was the fact that I had come to Africa but still hadn’t seen any large mammals living in the wild.  The devastating civil wars in West Africa had caused poaching for financial gain; therefore where wildlife was once abundant it is now almost non-existent.  For that reason I decided my next destination would be Mole National Park, the largest national park in Ghana, where, despite my lack of money, I was determined to tick off one last objective for my trip in Africa.