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!

Thanks to all the Donkey Crossing readers who have been posting comments. Please feel free to post a comment and let us know what you think of the blog. There's no need to register, and we'd love to hear from you.

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Blogger Chris said...

well put.

12:08 PM  
Blogger MidWestCowboy said...

thinking of you two very much, and like others have said, thank you for bringing us along...
this post, the end in particular, is portrayed almost identical to a book i'm reading at the moment...that's so weird how things happen like that...anyone interested in an inspiring book, try, "Three Cups of Tea"
love ya's rach and jas

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey guys!

Keep up the great posts! How did you manage to post so frequently in rural Africa and not so often now that you are in France? Eh? You must be enjoying yourselves a whole bunch.


Emily from Oak Park

10:51 AM  
Blogger Donkey Crossing said...

Greetings Donkey Crossing fans!

Emily actually brought up a very good and valid question. How did we manage to update so frequently from rural Africa, but now that we are in Europe the posts seem to have stopped?! The answer is that high-speed, public internet access is simply far more available in West Africa than Western Europe. It´s strange, true and somewhat sensible. We were able to publish our final Africa posting from Kate and Roger´s house in France (you´ll be meeting them in our next post), but ever since, a high speed connection, that will also permit us to download photos, has been non-existent. We have plenty to share during our time in Spain and France and will be able to publish a couple entries within the next week...we hope.

QUICK UPDATE: We are currently high in the Spanish Pyrenees, only a few miles from the French border enjoying what way quite simply be the most beautiful place on Earth. We´ve been driving, eating and walking ourselves all around Southern France and Northern Spain for a few weeks now and next stop is Chicago for a couple weeks, before returning to Europe en route to Russia and Asia.

Stay tuned and thanks for the comments!


12:09 PM  
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