Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Nothing could be finer,
Than a slow boat on the Niger

The mighty Niger River is Mali’s major aquatic artery, flowing from Guinea, through the heart of Mali then into Niger and Nigeria towards the Atlantic. When we arrived in Mopti, the mere sight of the Niger was refreshing after eleven hours of dust and heat on the eastbound bus from Bamako. In fact, the river looked so inviting that we hired ourselves a motorized “pinasse” boat, a guide/chef and a captain for a voyage. The plan was to sail north for two days, stopping at several villages along the way and finishing our trip at Konna. Our pinasse was about 40 feet long with seating for fifteen, a dining table and even a toilet cubicle (think square hole over flowing river with walls). With Hamallah (who reminded us of a young Stevie Wonder) navigating, we quickly settled into life on the Niger, enjoying the steady pace of travel and the constant breeze.

Captain Hamallah (left) and Chef/Guide Ayuba, with some freshly caught Niger fish, sitting at the rear of our pinasse.

The water looked cool and inviting. However, judging by the swollen bellies of the children living on the banks and the waste we saw going into the river from all manner of human and animal activity, it was anything but clean or fresh. Nonetheless, the river was calming and the Niger scenes captivating. On the banks we saw anything and everything being washed – babies, children, pots & pans, clothes, goats, furniture and even a Mercedes. We observed, smiled and waved and almost all the locals took a moment from their fishing and bathing to smile and wave back.

Friendly waves from two children. Note the tiny feet of a young sibling being carried on the girl's back.

The traffic on the river consisted mostly of small black pirogues – canoes propelled by pushing against the river bed with long bamboo poles. Some had makeshift sails; many had cargo as diverse as produce for market, motorbikes, fridge freezers and, of course, people. Some were laden to what looked like sinking point, just like every other mode of transport in West Africa.

A typical Niger pirogue.

These two sailors give their bamboo poles (and arms) a rest, letting the sail do the work.

Passengers rest on solid ground by their pinasse. Surely there is a kitchen sink packed somewhere on this vessel.

Every so often we stopped to visit a Niger village, and our presence proved to be quite the novelty for the local children who invariably followed us everywhere, shouting “Toubab!!”. We bought fresh (still alive) catfish in Barundaga from Bozo people, visited the Songhaї people and their salad farm in Nantaka, admired the mud mosque in Sekoubangou and accepted an invitation to dance with the Fula people in Gumina, much to the amusement of the villagers watching the spectacle.

We enjoyed a delicious catfish lunch, thanks to this family in Barundaga who caught and sold us the fish.

We had a great time with the children we met along the Niger, but left without attempting to take any of them with us. We'll leave that to Madonna & Guy and Brad & Angelina.....

These two young Fula women gave us a great welcome in Gumina. The black circles around their mouths are decorative tattoos, typical amongst Fula women.

Having fun and shakin' some booty with the women of Gumina.

This boy proudly poses on his shiny bike.

By the time we set up camp for the night we’d been welcomed in five villages, learned and practised greetings in three new local languages and had our arms grabbed by several hundred children. We camped on a quiet bank near Kotaka, the peace only disturbed by big pinasses travelling by night with radios cranked.

Lunch, anyone?

The next day we continued along the Niger to Koubi, a Fula village where we watched an elder weaving wool cloth and spent a good hour trying to find a chicken for lunch. Ayuba, our chef and guide, finally found a bird for the “good price” of 1,200 CFA (about $2.50), and by the time we pulled away from the waving village children, our feathered friend was killed, plucked and ready for the pot.

Enjoying the breezy shade of our pinasse.

It was refreshing to forget buses, trains and bush taxis for a couple of days and savour the peaceful topaz waters of the Niger without the distractions of honking, swerving, dust and other passengers. Next time we’ll make it a three day trip and sail all the way to Timbuktu.

Merci et au revoir!

Next on Donkey Crossing: stories & pictures from Mali’s magical Dogon Country. Check back soon!

Friday, March 30, 2007

(Sunday in Bamako)
As mentioned in the previous post (which is now complete with photos!), our time in Bamako was spent avoiding the heat and using the couple days to catch up on personal business such as e-mail, banking, booking tickets, etc.
I took the first chance I could to get a well-needed haircut and shave in Bamako. I unfortunately had to wake up our new friend (Joseph from Ghana) from his snooze under a mango tree, but he was pleased to speak English with the two new toubabs in town.
It wasn't until later in the evening on our first day in Bamako that Rachel subliminally reminded me it was Sunday...Sunday in Bamako. Those remotely interested in West African music will immediately recognize the significance of arriving to Bamako on a Sunday, as one of the most famous songs to be exported from Mali in recent years is titled Dimanche a Bamako. Performed by Amadou & Miriam (often referred to as "the blind couple from Mali)" and produced by international sensation Manu Chao, the album Dimanche a Bamako has been frequently played on our iPod stereo system ever since we entered Africa a few months ago.
As we listened to the album, and had a bit of a bop in our Bamako hotel room, I came to realize it was once again time to report on recent "Listenings & Readings". Reports from the iPod (commonly known on Donkey Crossing as NJiPE, or "Neal and Jen's iPod Experience"...named in honor of our friends who gifted us the fully loaded iPod) haven't appeared much recently, but the tunes have certainly continued, and I never regret lugging around the little extra weight that is our portable iPod speaker system.
Since entering West Africa we've appropriately found ourselves listening to a fair share of, well, African music. Artists such as Fela Kuti, Babatunde Olatunji, Femi Kuti and Amadou & Miriam have been top picks, while Anglophones such as Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, String Cheese Incident, Dave Matthews Band and Jerry Lee Lewis have all found themselves randomly selected in shuffle mode.
A recent long haul bus ride from Bamako to Mopti introduced us to a variety of Malian musicians we had previously never heard. Since we were sitting directly behind the driver and his apprentice, we were able to observe the ancient cassette tapes come in and out of the player throughout the ride. New artists to our ears such as Dayele, Samaya Djeli and Almamy Bah are a few that stuck out.
Ever since our French and Arabic studies concluded in Morocco back in January, I've been able to concentrate a bit more on leisure reading. Traveling through West Africa doesn't provide much in regard to English language book exchanges, however there's usually at least one tolerable title in which to swap a finished book for a new one. Recent completed books have included:
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
Quarantine by Jim Crace
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Going Solo by Roald Dahl
The Knack of Life by Trisha Rainsford
All of the above titles come highly recommended, except for The Knack of Life, which is a tolerable read if it's the only English title in a West African book exchange.
I'm currently out of reading material and anxiously await finding a selection of English titles ASAP. It may prove a bit difficult as we just arrived to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso yesterday and the only English I've read so far was in the right-hand column of the menu at the Chinese restaurant we ate at for lunch.
Dimanche a Bandiagara
Our "Sunday in Bamako" was certainly a great one, but not nearly as special as last Sunday in Bandiagara. Bandiagara is one of the gateway towns to Dogon Country, which you'll read about in the next few days, but that isn't what made last Sunday so important. Last Sunday, March 25th, was Rachel's 32nd birthday!
We had a great time in a very nice hotel situated remotely in the middle of the barren African plain. We had a private stone hut and the grounds were equipped with a swimming pool and a miniature golf course! We were sure it was the only mini-golf in all of West Africa and it provided us with many hours of sweltering putt-putt.
The birthday girl poses between shots.Here I am lining one up on the final hole.
The self-timer has been used in a variety of environments, why not a miniature golf course in the middle of nowhere!?
We hope you have enjoyed our latest reports from West Africa! We had been without an internet connection for over a week, but we look forward to updating everyone on our slow boat up the Niger River, our three day trek through Dogon Country and our final African border crossing into Burkina Faso.
Take Care!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Unfortunately our time on the beaches of La Somone had to come to an end and we began our journey inland toward Mali. We knew we had a tough trip ahead, as numerous bush taxis, a border crossing, an overnight train and a long haul bus were all in our plan. The trip to the Malian border took two nine-hour days on the road in ten different bush taxis. The weather was steaming, the cars were cramped and the roads were by far the worst we've encountered since starting our travels. The first day of the journey was on a road that was more like a slalom ski slope, with the driver taking a winding, curvy route through endless miles of potholes in the tarmac.

You may look at this photo and think: "Oh, that's nice, a roadside vendor selling locally pressed vegetable oil, or maybe even honey". No. This would be the local gasoline station, selling liters of the motion potion for nearly one dollar a bottle.

The second day of our push toward Mali had slightly smoother roads, and we quickly learned the difference between Senegalese bush taxis and Malian bush taxis. Senegalese bush taxis are reasonably crammed with eight passengers (including driver). In Mali, the same style of vehicle is crammed with eleven passengers! That's a big difference for an already uncomfortable mode of transport. Nonetheless, we reached the border without a problem and cleared Senegalese border formalities quickly before hiring a car to take us to the Malian side of the Senegal River.

The typical African bush taxi...a Peugeot 504. The seating configuration in Senegal is two in the front row (including driver), three in the middle row and three in the back row. The seating configuration for Mali, in the exact model car, is three in the front (including driver), four in the middle and three in the back. There also seems to be at least one young child sitting on a lap. Additionally, Malian bush taxis seem to lack door handles, ceiling tiles and functioning radiators.

Once in Mali, we were led to the police post where we had to clear Malian immigration. No problem there either, other than having to promise, like we did when we entered Mauritania one month earlier, that the next time we visit we'll have at least two children with us. (African border officials aren't whatsoever shy about making it quite clear we should have children by this point in our lives.)

We finally arrived to Mali's first Western town, Kayes. It's a rather uninspiring place with dusty roads, a hectic daily market, amazingly hot temperatures and little to offer in regards to culinary options. We arrived a couple days before the next train was due to depart for Bamako (the capital of Mali), but were able to occupy ourselves with catching up on plenty of reading and writing, as well as a fair share of seven card gin.

The Kayes-Bamako Train: a classic African journey

We were told the best and worst way to travel from Kayes to Bamako was by train. We were warned of robberies, derailments, uncomfortable seats, poor sanitary conditions, etc...therefore, we bought our tickets with enthusiasm for the Saturday afternoon departure.

Upon arrival to the station we read: "The weekend train will probably arrive at 11:30 AM". We knew it probably wouldn't, and it didn't. It arrived around 12:30 PM and we were on our way, not really knowing how long the ride would take, by 2:30 PM.

The train made numerous stops along the way, always causing a flurry of activity for the locals, as the arrival of the tri-weekly train is a major source of local income.

Rachel gazes out the window, with cool beverage in hand, toward the dry African landscape.

"Here comes that damn train again."

The local kids are always looking for an opportunity to have their picture taken.

One passenger gazes out the window as we make one of many crossings over the Senegal River.

Taking a breath of fresh air through the window is always a good idea.

We finally made it to Bamako after seventeen hours of sticky and grimy train travel. We decided to stay put for a couple days in Bamako before heading north. We spent our time making travel arrangements, catching up on some e-mail and frequenting, oddly enough, two excellent Lebanese restaurants. They chopped a fine salad and offered a nice air-conditioned escape from the 100°F+ oppressiveness occurring out in the streets.

Leaving Bamako, headed toward Mali's northern regions, we experienced our first West African bus. As with all other modes of transport on this continent, it was long, hot, sticky and unpredictable. The windows didn't open, the A/C was non-existent, the music was phenomenal and we sweat like we had never sweat before all the way to Mopti, the major port town on the Niger River. The coolest part of the journey was definitely our driver: decked out in a purple wool suit, black leather shoes, dark sunglasses, smoking Dunhills for the duration of the trip and looking awfully similar to Isaac Hayes, he was definitely the "dude".

The "dude" during a brief stop in the middle of Africa.

We made it to Mopti after eleven hours on the bus and have spent the last day making plans for a slow boat journey up the Niger, followed by a trekking expedition through Dogon Country. Stay tuned to hear about these upcoming adventures and our next border crossing into Burkina Faso!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Petite Côte, Grand Relax
Our few days on the beaches of Saint Louis (see “Meet me in Saint Louis”, March 8th 2007) whetted our appetites for Senegal’s Atlantic coastline. From Dakar, we traveled south to La Somone, a low-key village on the Petite Côte to try a different flavor of the coast. As if quiet, immaculately natural gold beaches licked by emerald ocean aren’t pleasing enough, La Somone boasts a beautiful lagoon, reserved for pelicans and other birdlife just a few minutes walk along the beach. There’s not much human activity on our preferred spot of beach, except for young boys playing, chasing and splashing nearby, women carrying buckets and bowls of bagged peanuts & fruit on their heads and the odd trinket salesperson passing by.

La Somone, where the lagoon meets the ocean.

Closer to the lagoon there’s a small resort full of French holidaymakers, many of whom (male and female) have breasts oiled and splayed across loungers, scorching in the Senegal sun. As the foreigners recline, the local males exercise on the beach with military discipline. We see them jogging, doing squats and push ups, and some strange backwards walk move, sort of like the moonwalk, but not really. All follow a similar exercise regime which, combined with the physical graft that comes from living in a fishing community, treats them well judging by their lean and athletic physiques. I wonder if Senegal is quietly preparing to take the world by storm at the next Olympic games.

Restaurant Thiokam - our exclusive La Somone hangout.

Across the lagoon is a simple straw floored hut serving drinks and fresh fish lunches. What it lacks in sophistication is more than compensated for in location, exclusivity (it’s a swim or short pirogue ride away from the resort beach) and hospitality. The local guys who run the place are a friendly, welcoming bunch who play djembe drums while we drink cold sugary beverages.

The restaurant's private taxi service in action.

Mmmm - Delicious!

There’s another wildlife reserve seven kilometers away and we decide to walk there with Omar, one of the guys from the beach shack. We pass through another village where we are the star attraction for the local kids. They run towards us, shouting “Toubab!” and grabbing at our hands optimistically, looking for money, sweets or “un cadeau” (a gift), as they’ve been trained to by the tourists who give them stuff. The reserve is dry, barren and meditatively quiet. We see a few birds and baobab trees, but in the midday heat the prospect of getting out of the sun is of more immediate interest, and we press on towards Popenguine village for anything liquid that might come from a fridge.

Local fisherman are assisted by a plethora of young helpers as they haul in their nets.

These cliffs are on the edge of Popenguine wildlife reserve - an eerily calm place flanked by buzzing fishing communities.

Back in La Somone, we find a promising restaurant owned by a French man who looks like Albert Einstein and delights in telling us the story of his grandmother who married an American soldier and moved to Chicago. I order a pizza with smoked salmon, white fish and crème fraiche - a divine concoction that only a Frenchman could have come up with. As we dine, we observe two prostitutes at the bar being accosted by drunk and obnoxious French men. Neither patrons nor proprietor are impressed, but the messy scene continues to unfold. Clearly the profession is extremely tolerated, perhaps even legal here. Arguably it’s better for the women to solicit in the relative safety of a respectable restaurant than out on the street. However, one older French couple look as if the whole thing put them off their prawns.

Enjoying some Senegal rays by the lagoon.

Of course, there are no shortage of donkeys here. We couldn't resist a shot of this cute one when it crossed our path.

The next leg of our journey across Senegal, then into and around Mali, will involve long distances on bad roads and old trains in extreme heat, with no coast for hundreds of miles. La Somone is our last chance to taste fresh seafood and breathe sea air for a while. Watch this space for memoirs from Mali, in the heart and heat of West Africa.

Another hectic day at the beach......

Thursday, March 08, 2007

(The Diop Family)
One event we had been looking forward to since we added Senegal to our itinerary was visiting the family of our friends Chris and Ngone Vaught. Chris grew up in Naperville and met Ngone while working in West Africa for the Peace Corps. They currently live in Los Angeles, but we contacted Ngone's brother, Abdou, shortly after arriving to Senegal and he was a tremendous help to us during our stay in Dakar. After a late night out dancing to mbalax music, we met Abdou the following day for a trip to the family village, Boukhou, fifty kilometers from Dakar.

Abdou in the family home in front of a traditional plate of fish and rice. Before we barely had two feet out of the car, or met a single person in the village, we were whisked away to a house and placed in front of a delicious meal. "First we eat, then we say hello", Abdou quickly explained.

So what does one bring as a token of appreciation to Boukhou? We suspected flowers or a box of chocolates might not be quite appropriate, but thought it best to ask to avoid embarrassment on either side. We were advised to bring a bag of we brought the biggest bag we could find! The 110 lbs. (50kg.) bag would apparently last two weeks in the kitchen of our hosts, a family of nine.
The matriarch of the family is a wonderful woman called Fatou. She was very happy to have us visit her family and even offered us a piece of land in which to build our own home if we decided to stay in Boukhou. Fatou and I pose for a shot in front of the house Chris and Ngone are building in the village.It was difficult to keep track of all the children in the village, but never too hard to help them crack a smile.
As if the gracious hospitality wasn't enough, Rachel and I were presented with a gorgeous collection of traditional West African clothing just before we left Boukhou. The giving, receiving and trying on of outfits turned into quite the occasion, with Fatou being the first on her feet, singing and dancing. Soon everyone under the mango tree was joining in - clapping, dancing and singing. The Senegalese truly have music in their spirit! Rachel, Fatou and one of Fatou's daughters get down to a traditional song. The family congregate for a photo by the heart of the home: the shady mango tree.
This is a tight knit community, and we observed a particularly strong bond between the women.
Our time with Abdou and the Diop family in Boukhou has been one of the biggest highlights of our visit to Senegal. We cannot thank them enough for showering us with unforgettable experiences, great food and beautiful outfits. If any Donkey Crossing readers are contemplating a visit to Senegal, the Diop family will no doubt be pleased to see you in Boukhou. If you stop by the village, maybe you'll find us building our home there on the plot that Fatou so graciously offered us!

On our last night in Dakar, we played host for a change and took Abdou to a fabulous Cape Verdean restaurant. This was a small token of our appreciation for his generous hospitality.

Impressions of Dakar
After a few days of refreshing repose in idyllic Saint Louis, Jason & I were ready for the madness of our first black African capital - Dakar. We traveled from Saint Louis in sweaty discomfort (nothing new there), squeezed into the smallest seats of a banged up Peugeot. These sept-place (seven seats) vehicles are ubiquitous here, and are bizarrely considered one of the more luxurious public transport options.
Daily life in Dakar - a typical street scene.
Approaching Dakar we drove through mile after mile of adhoc urban sprawl. We were glad to arrive at the Gare Routière (bus station) after the hot, dense traffic, although the onslaught of hustlers jostling to get to us quickly erased the momentary relief of clambering out of the car. We were accosted by touts filling Peugeots with passengers, teenagers selling watches, phonecards and bananas and taxi drivers who all quoted double what we were expecting for the ride to our hotel. We eventually decided overpaying was preferable to loitering anxiously around the Gare Routière, our body language undoubtedly screaming “New Toubabs (white-skinned folk) in town!”. As our taxi, one of the many here with broken windshields, crawled into the traffic jammed town, we stared out at the busy street scenes and their characters.
A young boy fishing for his supper.
Our first excursion was a wander round central Dakar to suss out the city’s vibe and explore a bit. Around town we were approached by a stream of surprisingly unaggressive vendors, touts and passersby. Many were trying to sell whatever they could to make a living, and amazingly managed to do it with a smile. Others simply welcomed us to Senegal. As my ‘just arrived in unfamiliar big city’ paranoia began to subside, any sense of hassle transformed into respsect for these determined, hardworking and friendly entrepreneurs. We had picked up on Dakar’s positive, laid back personality straight away and soon found ourselves going with the city’s flow.

The attractive view approaching Île de Gorée from the ferry.
Our next outing involved a short ferry ride to the Île de Gorée, a pretty isle with a tiny beach and bright colored houses built during colonial times. However, looking beyond the picture postcard aesthetic revealed a gruesome history which made for a sobering visit. Île de Gorée’s location off the west coast of Africa rendered it strategically important for slave trading across the Atlantic. Slaves seized from all over West Africa were brought here and kept prisoner before being sold and shipped to the USA by European traders.
The building in which they were imprisoned, the “Maison des Esclaves” is now a museum. Listening to the passionate 81 year old curator gave us a disturbing but fascinating insight into the cruel injustices that took place on Gorée for over 300 years. He explained how the slaves were jammed into boats like sardines with the expectation that 25 to 30% would not survive the Transatlantic crossing. We learned how the slave traders force-fed the underweight and threw the weak and sick into the sea to be eaten by sharks, and how the big and strong – West Africa’s "best stock" – were sought after and fetched the highest price. It is no coincidence, noted the curator, that so many of the world’s best athletes can now be found in the USA.
The "door-of-no-return" in the Maison des Esclaves. Walking through this door, West Africans sold as slaves took their last steps on home soil before boarding ships bound for the USA.
With such a poignant landmark to the atrocities of our white ancestors on their doorstep, one could forgive the people of Dakar for harboring some bitterness over this most evil and bleak chapter of history. We have encountered no such bitterness, and have been warmly welcomed here.
An innocent looking street on the isle.
On a brighter note, Dakar is famous for the excellent music created and performed here. My first taste of it was hearing prayer in a local mosque, and noticing how melodic it was. But Dakar’s musicians truly come into their element in the nightclubs, and we couldn’t wait to put on our best backpacker clothes and head out on the town. What made our night out even more exciting was being escorted by Dakar native Abdou Diop, a relative of our friends, Chris & Ngone Vaught, from back home. Abdou and his friend Umi took us to a great music venue, Alizé, where we were blown away by a fantastic ten piece Senegalese orchestra. The line up included guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, congas, vocals and tama, the distinctively high pitched Senegalese drum, held under the arm and played with a curved beater. The band took to the stage at 2am and we didn’t hesitate to get on the dance floor and get down to the mbalax music with great enthusiasm, to the amusement of Abdou and Umi. By 4.30am we’d worn ourselves out and were quietly relieved when the last song finished so these tired Toubabs could get to bed before sunrise.

Beautiful people are everywhere.

Dakar is an impressive city, with it’s attractive coastal setting, historic monuments and world class music. But the jewel in Dakar’s crown is definitely it’s people. Almost everyone here is exquisitely attired in Western clothes or stunning, colorful West African outfits, usually made to measure and modeled elegantly by the striking people who wear them. Jason and I agree that the Senegalese are the most naturally beautiful nationality we have ever encountered. Male and female, young and old, on the streets, in the sept-place cars and on the dance floors, beautiful people are everywhere. Furthermore, almost everyone we have met here has been warm, open and smiling. They are great people to be around.

If there's a bike to be ridden, Jason will find it and ride it!

As you can see, we've made ourselves quite at home here!

Dakar is a mixed city with a large number of expats. It is not hard to see why, and we have definitely speculated on the cost of living, employment opportunities, and whether our French is good enough for us to live here. A kind French doctor we met described Dakar as “a very special place”. After nine days here, we understand what he meant. Since day to day survival is a struggle for so many here, the positive and uplifting spirit that Dakar exudes is truly special. We are in love with Dakar and one day, we will invade it’s dance floors again.