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

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Out of Africa:
Reflections on an unforgettable continent

Looking back upon our time in Africa, the three months we spent in Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso were bursting with amazing sights, sounds, flavors, textures, cultures and experiences. Here’s a selection of some of the most memorable.
Rocks, dust and baobabs
We became extremely familiar with arid, rocky terrain scattered with shrubs, baobab trees and termite hills, travelling through hundreds of miles of stark landscape. However, we encountered several distinct topographies, and soaking in scenes like majestic mountains in Morocco, mystical dunes in Mauritania, delicious beaches in Senegal, the Niger River in Mali and semi-tropical vegetation in Burkina Faso made even the longest stretches of barren scenery worthwhile.
Stunning scenery in the Anti-Atlas region of Morocco

Coca-Cola: a delicious vice
With temperatures ranging from below freezing to well over 100°F (40+°C), we picnicked on sardine sandwiches both in the snow of the Rif Mountains and the shade from the midday West African sun. In spite of some chilly nights in the Rif Mountains and the Sahara Desert, we will predominantly remember our time in Africa as oppressively hot. As soon as we left the coast of Senegal, heading inland for Mali and Burkina Faso, the mercury shot up, as did the appeal of swimming pools, air conditioning and Coca-Cola. High temperatures made for stinky feet, outbreaks of acne and raised stress levels. At times, it was too hot to even think straight. However, heat is a fact of life for Africans, and the extremity of it made our experience challenging but authentic.

Look closely, you'll see the acne.

Enjoying the shade of mango trees.

Trains, automobiles and other vehicles with cracked windshields
We watched foreigners blaze by us in their well-maintained 4WD vehicles on many African roads, occasionally with envy. Such luxuries as windows that open and close, sufficient space to assume a normal sitting position and the freedom of not having to wait for sixteen more passengers to show up and buy tickets before departure certainly have their merits, although we have no regrets about opting for local transport all the way. In Africa we travelled by bus, taxi, mini-bus, freight and passenger trains, pick-up truck, bush taxi, horse & cart, motorized & paddle canoes, bicycle, unofficial taxi, moped and we even walked a bit too, between cold sugary drinks. We endured lungfuls and showers of dust, hours of discomfort in intimately close quarters with strangers, bald tires, welded Peugeots, numerous cows in the road and the odd reckless driver. But we also made friends, soaked in a million scenes and experienced first hand how Africans travel. We also now have definitive proof that it is possible to drive a Mercedes 190D in a straight line with eight people in the car. A Mauritanian taxi driver demonstrated this when he gave an old man and his walking stick a free ride, squeezing him into the only available space which happened to be on his own lap.
This mini-bus was probably loaded up with another layer of cargo before departure.

Tasty treats & household brands
Morocco was a true culinary adventure, especially our time at the Ajana family home in Fez. Copious amounts of quality seafood were consumed on the coastlines of Mauritania & Senegal, and delicious mangoes dominated the trees and markets of Burkina Faso. Maggi stock cubes, Nescafe, Coca-Cola and Guinness (brewed locally) were everywhere, though perhaps not quite as ubiquitous as the mobile phone top-up cards from companies like Orange and Celtel which we purchased in even the most remote “one donkey” towns in Africa.

A typical Senegalese dish with rice, veggies and fresh fish. Gorgeous!

A coffee on the street can be yours for just 20 cents. Don't expect freshly ground beans or clean water though.

Parlez vous Anglais, anyone?
We picked up bits of Arabic, Wolof and a couple of other local languages, although most of our communications in Africa were a blend of optimistic gesticulation and rudimentary French. Thankfully we were managing more comprehension than confusion towards the end, in contrast to frustrated and often fruitless attempts to communicate when we entered the Francophone world back in January. We’ve also chalked up watching the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and The Masters in French, although we’d be lying if we claimed we were actually comprehending the commentaries.
Beauty Queens and Kings
As we travelled south, the people and cultures began to change. In Morocco, we encountered mostly people of Arabic descent, whereas Mauritania was more mixed, with blacks from various ethnic backgrounds, Tuareg (nomadic people) and Arabs. The populations of Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso were predominantly black African, though with many variations in language, customs and appearance. We enjoyed observing the transition in local attire from Djellaba robes and Babouche slippers in Morocco, to Bobo robes in Mauritania to made-to-measure outfits in colourful prints in West Africa. We were particularly impressed by the elegant, proud appearance of West Africans who invariably looked pristine, in spite of the heat and dust, in sharp contrast to our ‘sweaty mess’ look.

Moroccan women in Tafroute keeping a low profile.

A colorful apple vendor in Kayes, Mali.

Making it work

We noticed that the locals we met were masterful at making things happen with minimal resources, and we never had to go far to find assistance in Africa. Sometimes it came in the unsolicited form of a mob of touts, whom we became proficient at fending off, but we were thankfully helped on our way by countless generous Africans, anxious to please. The openness and warmth we experienced was quite an eye-opener.

Two friendly Burkinabe women pose for a photo after selling us a tasty bag of cashews.
Africa’s next generation
Meeting African children was a poignant experience. We found them to generally be welcoming, beautiful and fun. They were also incredibly resourceful and resilient. However, the hardship that many of them live with is disturbing. Up to one in four children in the West African countries we visited will die before their fifth birthday. Tragically, such is life in much of Africa. As visitors, we found spending time with local children to be a humbling experience.

Fatima and I became friends over a couple of digestive biscuits, as she took a break from selling hibiscus juice. She lived with her father and siblings, and was selling the juice to support her family.
Ça va?
We were fascinated by social rituals including tea drinking in the Arab countries and music making & dancing in black Africa. We found African greeting rituals particularly thought provoking. People actually took the time to greet each other properly – an amazingly civilized and embarrassingly alien practice to us. The Dogon people deserve a special mention for having an impressively involved standard greeting. Instead of simply asking ‘How are you?’ the Dogon people greet friends and strangers alike with inquiries after one’s spouse, children, work, home, cow and chickens in a lengthy exchange. It’s a proper conversation which suggests a level of basic human concern between people that we are often too busy to bother with in the West.
This DJ played a mix of West African favorites at a disco in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

A window into Islam
Perhaps the most universal rituals we observed in Africa were associated with Islam, which was a constant presence. We saw mosques ranging from the splendid Hassan II in Casablanca, to basic mud huts in Mali. We heard hundreds of calls to prayer, and witnessed the faithful praying by the roadside and in trains. Perhaps the most impactful observation of Islam in Africa was its peacefulness. Seeing Islam as simply a way of life for people was refreshing, and could not be further from the rather threatening image of Islam often presented in the Western media. A butcher shop with a silhouette of a minaret in Tafroute, Morocco.

There is definitely more for us to explore in Africa, and we will be back one day. In the meantime, we will enjoy the memories and the photos, while recovering from the heat and the hardships in the South of France - quite the contrast!

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Pardon me Rach,
Is that the Ouagadougou choo-choo?
Although the train network throughout Burkina Faso is limited due to the political crisis in neighboring Ivory Coast, we couldn't resist the reference above.
The last time we wrote we had just finished our Dogon Country trek in Mali and have been in Burkina Faso ever since. Though the world's third poorest nation, Burkina has delivered lasting memories of hungry hippos, an unlimited supply of pastis, an unforgettable day of motorbiking and some of the finest tailored clothing in Africa.
Ouagadougou (pronounced waga-doo-goo and commonly known as "Ouaga"), the capital of Burkina Faso and the coolest named city in the world, is a fairly laid-back locale with scorching temperatures, plenty of mango vendors and horrific air quality. There's not much for sights, however we were impressed by the National Music Museum and a darn good pizza joint. Did we mention the poor air quality? This photo was taken at 9.15 AM the day we left Ouaga for the more tropical part of Burkina Faso in the south of the country. The sky, as well as our throats and eyes, began to clear up about 120 miles out of town.
One of the highlights of our time in Burkina Faso has been making friends with fellow travellers. We hadn't met many other travellers since we landed in Africa over three months ago, primarily because there aren't too many of us down here. We met Caroline and Patrick in the courtyard of our hotel in Ouaga. They are both from Quebec, Canada and have been travelling for over two years. They recently finished a volunteer project in Morocco and are now setting up a new project in the sugar cane fields of Burkina Faso. You can read about their life and adventures on their fantastic website: Above is a photo of our newest travel friends, Abra and Gavin. We met these fun Canadians as we waited (and waited and waited) for a bush taxi to Bandiagara, a gateway town to Mali's Dogon Country. We later bumped into them at a police station in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, where they were waiting, like us, for visa extensions. We coincidentally found ourselves on the same bus headed for Banfora, Burkina Faso and rented bicycles together the following day to visit Lake Tengrela, a popular place for hippo sightings. And...we saw a whole family of hippos! Our fearless pirogue driver navigates Lake Tengrela in search of the deadly and "hungry-hungry" hippos.
After our successful search for hippos, we settled under a mango tree for a picnic lunch. This young boy enthusiastically climbed a neighboring tree and gathered at least fifteen mangoes for dessert. After the five mile return bike ride in the gruelling afternoon heat, we found a local watering hole with shots of pastis for 50 CFA (about 10 cents). We spent the rest of the day, and a good chunk of the night, cooling off and getting more acquainted with each other...and our bottle of pastis.
The following day, we traded our pedals for motors. It was the first time either of us had dared to take control of a motorized bike and it was fantastic! After the initial anxiety of navigating the chaotic streets of Banfora on our way out of town, we had an absolute blast visiting waterfalls and being chased by screaming children through the sugar cane fields and remote villages of southern Burkina Faso.

Here we are on our trusted "Peugeot P50 Junior" motorbikes. Not exactly motocross, but we felt quite hardcore nonetheless.

These waterfalls were a very welcome contrast to Africa's arid landscapes.

After our time in the Banfora region visiting the hippos, waterfalls and sugar cane fields, we returned to Bobo-Dioulasso for some last minute shopping before our departure from Africa. One thing we both wanted was some tailor-made clothing. Burkina Faso is well-known for its talented tailors and unlimited selection of beautiful African fabrics.

This expert tailor handles his antique Singer sewing machine like a true pro.

The proprietor of our preferred tailor shop (Wassa Couture) and an ever demanding client take a pause between fittings and alterations.

Our time in Burkina Faso has been an excellent finale to over three months in Africa. The contrast in landscape was startling and we were glad to be in a lush and tropical setting after weeks of barren, arid horizons. We are currently back in the capital city of Ouagadougou and will say good-bye to "L'Afrique" in the middle of the night as we fly off to the next stage of our travels in the south of France.

A final shot of a typical Burkinabe street scene.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Dogon Days

One of Mali's treasures is a 150km long rock escarpment called the Falaise de Bandiagara, located between Timbuktu and the Burkina Faso border. Although the escarpment is an impressive sight in itself, it is the villages on, below and in the escarpment that make the place magical. The Dogon have populated the escarpment since the 14th century, displacing the Tellem people. Nowadays the Dogon live a simple life that has barely changed over the centuries, grounded in their ancient culture and animist religion.

Having prepared ourselves for basic rooftop accommodations, bucket baths, simple food and extreme heat, we set out with Lepe, our Dogon guide and Ali, with his horse and cart for a three-day delve into Dogon Country.

Benigmato, the first Dogon village we visited, is a tranquil community surrounded by awesome cliffs. There are separate Muslim, Catholic and Animist areas within the village, although there is considerable overlap in beliefs and practices between the three. Ancient animist rituals are observed and polygamy is practiced throughout the village.

We were shown around the Catholic church by Daniel, whose father was the first Catholic in the village.

Hunting is one of the few activities Dogon men engage in, leaving farming, trips to market and domestic work to the women. This home is a typical Dogon hunter's home, decorated with souvenirs from successful hunts including the skulls and skins of monkeys, cats and snakes.

The village of Yaba-Talu with its breathtaking backdrop.

The sight of women and girls pounding millet is a common one throughout Dogon Country. Millet fields stretch for miles at the base of the escarpment, and the crop is used for millet beer and porridge. The Dogon eat the porridge with neon green sauce made from baobab leaves.

Ali guides our horse and cart past this baobab tree.

The views from Yaba-Talu were particularly memorable. By sunrise the village was already wide awake and the sounds of birdsong, braying donkeys, crying children and sizzling oil echoed around the escarpment. Jason gazed out over the plains as women carried water up from the well and the smell of something sweet and oily being cooked drifted over our rooftop boudoir.

Nearly at the top of the escarpment are dwellings left from the Tellem people. The Dogon believe the Tellem were able to fly in order to reach their extremely high abodes. Our guide said they most likely climbed vines and trees that covered the previously forested area hundreds of years ago.

Lepe and Jason pause for a moment after climbing halfway up the escarpment.

This woman was more than happy to pose for a photo after we gifted her a couple kola nuts. The mildly hallucinogenic, and surprisingly expensive, kola nut is the preferred gift to members of the Dogon community.

Here we are pausing for a quick moment as we scrambled up and down the escarpment above the village of Teli.

Typical remnants of Dogon houses strategically placed halfway up the escarpment.

This Dogon mosque in the village of Kani-Kombolé is an eye catching example of Sudanese style architecture typical in this part of West Africa. The mud construction is supported by wooden beams, which are also used to access various parts of the exterior in order to make repairs after the rainy season.

We came across these boys on our first day in Dogon Country. They were making music with traditional percussion instruments at a crossroads. Apparently this is a required activity for boys who are preparing for their imminent circumcision. We were invited to attend a circumcision ceremony in a Dogon village on Rachel's birthday, although we opted for a cool swimming pool and mini-golf, rather than the snip and slice festivities. We may have passed up a once in a lifetime opportunity there.

Garamond, the proprietor of the roof we slept on our first night in Yaba-Talu, proudly poses next to one of his houses. He was a very kind man and keen to show us the honey-making expertise of the local bees. When he learned we lived in the USA, his first comment was "George Bush. Crazy man."

Garamond takes a few moments to relax in the shade with two of his mates. The man in the middle is Ali, who managed the horse and cart which carried our gear during the three day expedition.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Dogon Villages was the wood carving. The Dogon doors and ladders were unique in design and of high quality craftsmanship.

Our visit to Dogon Country was certainly not without hardship. The heat was debilitating for at least six hours of each day, and draining even in the early morning and evening. Furthermore, we found ourselves in a harmattan (Saharan) windstorm during our second night, which made trying to sleep a fairly fruitless and very dirty experience. However, meeting the Dogon people, exploring their villages and learning about their fascinating culture made our visit well worth the effort.