Monday, March 31, 2008

Beating the Heat

I was thinking today how everywhere I’ve lived if the temperature reached 105 it would be the top story on the news. There would be shuttle buses for old people, runs on air conditioners, extended hours at community pools.

I don’t know what today’s high was but someone mentioned at lunch today that yesterday was 110. It didn’t feel much different than it has each day these last weeks but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel hot.

I’ve adopted the hot-weather lifestyle of early rising and lazy afternoons, building a schedule around beating the heat.

My next stop is Benin but I don’t have a visa and they don’t have an embassy here so I tried to get creative this morning before it got too hot. Just after 8am I walked from the western side of Ouagadougou to the east, eventually stumbling on the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire (which recently I would have called the Ivory Coast Embassy). Benin and Côit d’Ivoire are two of five west African nations which issue a visa that is good in all five; I thought I could game the system and get this group visa to use in Benin.

I’m not actually going to Côit d’Ivoire. Best I can tell, no one in their right mind is going to the war-battered country.

The consular section of the embassy was a predictably empty place and while there was no wait to reach the window there was a short wait for the woman behind it to finish her cell phone call. She couldn’t give me the regional visa but she said the Burkina national police could back in town.

The nice thing about walking back into town was the sun was at my back instead of in my eyes. It was a straight shot on the map but the road back to town was blocked. I looked at my map to confirm my assumption: the barricaded street was home to the U.S. Embassy.

It was on this continent, of course, where two American Embassies were bombed and the threats to U.S. Officialdom are real. But it’s still profoundly sad to me that the places where we represent ourselves abroad resemble military bases. It’s less noticeable in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, or the other rich, often-fortified cities of the first world. But in Africa the contrast is more imposing and ostentatious. They certainly don’t need to fly a flag to make clear who owns the fancy fortress in the leafy section of town.

Even the leafy section was hot by 10am as I navigated around Avenue de John F Kennedy. Maybe it felt hotter because of those five minutes in the climate-controlled bliss of the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire. Working at that embassy must be strange. I wanted to ask the woman behind the desk what it was like and have her answer honestly. I wanted her to tell me she was happy to be out of Côit d’Ivoire and working in a good paying, air-conditioned job. I wanted her to tell me how she didn’t feel guilty that people back home were starving or fleeing because it was hard for her too, or whatever.

Embassy row is a funny place in the third-world. And the Land Cruisers and the swimming pools are all a little obscene. And the white people and the expensive restaurants and the NGO headquarters. It’s a little patronizing and obscene.

But after a couple months slumming it in food stalls and 100-degree guesthouses I can see the appeal. I can see why the aid workers and diplomats would make a nest within that bubble of wealth and air-conditioning. I can see why the Africans who are given the chance would live there too. I don’t imagine it increases the chances of any of them helping the poor people but maybe turning off their air-conditioners wouldn’t help either.

The biggest difference isn’t in the way people live in the third-world vs the first world; it’s in the proportion. If you split the richest 95% of Americans from the poorest 5%, you’d get a decent approximation of the differences between the richest 1% here and the rest. Whatever the breakdown, it seems uncommon for that group of winners to make a priority of helping out the losers.

It was legitimately hot by 11am in the world’s third-poorest country and the police office didn’t have a visa for me but they told me who did. I walked another mile back west and found an office with a sign on the door advertising one visa for five countries. I filled out the form and gave them my $65.

I walked back towards home and told Madi about my five-mile adventure. “You should have taken my bike,” he said. “It’s too hot for all that walking”

His vat of lunch was empty so he cut up a potato, an onion and an avocado. He fried them with an egg and Maggi seasoning and insisted on running out for some frozen bisap. He retuned with the sweet bisap and tried to speak to me in French and truly wouldn’t have cared if I repeated my performance from last night and forgot to pay.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dinner on the walk home

Madi was eating dinner behind his table tonight after a day of serving others. Avenue de la Cathedrale was nearly empty, with cars and motorbikes passing but the stalls on either side shuttered. The inkjet printers and used computer cables would go back on sale tomorrow.

Only Madi was there, with his giant tin drum of riz all but empty. I walked up and made some noises to indicate, “I would like dinner, do you still have any?” It was 9:30 and only the proprietor was eating.

I looked under the lids and there wasn’t much left. He asked if I was hungry and I said yes and he asked me something else I didn’t understand. Then he walked back to his little booth and pulled out an egg. “Avec pan?”

I said sure. First though he scraped what was left of his rice, sauce, fish and other sauce and handed it to me in one of those shallow green plastic bowls with the tie-tied yellow stripes. “This will be fine,” I conveyed somehow.

Madi must be in his mid-20s and he wasn’t especially deterred by my complete inability to speak French. Finally, I communicated my hometown and current place of residence.

“I’ve seen you walking back and forth on this street,” he said using words and gestures I understood.

“La blanche,” I said, because I am indeed white and that was why he recognized me.

Madi wrote his name on a piece of paper because I thought he was saying “midi” which means half or noon or something. I wrote my name on the paper too and said I couldn’t come back for breakfast because I was meeting a friend but I would come back for lunch or half or noon or something.

Some people stopped by on their motorbikes to say hello or learn that all the food was gone and I picked out the bones from the piece of fish and dropped them on the bricks below the short, wooden bench we were sitting on.

When I said I spoke a little Spanish Madi grabbed a cookbook from his stall and flipped through the Spanish and French recipes so I could pronounce them in Spanish. He took out a notebook with names and addresses from Germany and France. He didn’t ask but I tried to tell him what Aix-en-Provence is like.

The notebook was also a photo album with a dozen 5x7s taken last year on an old film camera. In most of them Madi is in his stall cooking and smiling. Or he’s posing in front of different parts of the city or in formal clothes, maybe as part of a graduation. There was one of his two sisters posing around a new, small TV that I found strangely, powerfully heartbreaking.

Madi would have talked all night but I finally got up and asked how much. He charged me a little less than $.50. I asked if the mangoes on the table were for sale and he nodded but when I asked how much they were he refused the money. I put 12 cents on the bench and then, reconsidering, doubled it.

Under the dim, yellow-orange streetlights I walked close to the traffic along Avenue de la Cathedrale, so I could jump into the road if someone tried to mug me. I had my laptop in my bag which I could sell and eat all my meals at Madi’s stall for five years.

But no one bothered so I turned into the courtyard of the cathedral complex and walked towards my room in the convent. I’m alone now because the boys from The World by Road wanted to push on towards the south of Africa. They left too soon to meet Madi.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso

In the center of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso there’s a dense, busy market with food and cloth and auto parts. The market is ringed by hundreds of motorbikes and more vendors and I was walking along one of those streets when a young guy came up to me and offered me something in French which I of course didn’t understand. I finally shook his hand, thanked him for stopping by, and went on my way.

I kept walking towards where I hoped the Grand Mosque was as the sun sank behind the market. There was the noise of motorbikes and vendors and friends along the very busy street and it took me quite a while, I think, to realize the Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso was walking along side me.

When I finally glanced to my left I saw him walking step for step with me, speaking French I didn’t understand. I must have betrayed myself somehow because after a glance and a grunt the Rote Man began speaking English.

“The first day of 1987 is Thursday, January 1. The last day of January is Saturday, January 31, 1987. There are 31 days in January.”

He continued to outline some facets of a 21-year-old calendar before switching to an exploration of regional travel.

“Regina leaves Bamako at 3pm on Thursday and arrives in Ouagadougou on Friday. Jeremy leaves one hour later from Dakar…”

I thought there would be multiple-choice options at the end but the Rote Man forged on with something else.

“Do you want to take a break?” I finally asked him after he had followed me down a small alley towards what I hoped was the mosque.

“No,” he said and kept going.

The Rote Man was an asset of sorts because he appeared to be guiding me around the mosque, which helped keep the other potential “guides” at bay.

After a couple months in countries where you don’t speak the language you get very good at non-verbal communication but I couldn’t pick up any more meaning from the rest of the Rote Man than I could from his empty words. His eyes were glassy and expressionless, his walk steady, his body a bit rigid or nervous.

His catalogue seemed well-known and sometimes a passing countryman would mouth a sentence of the monologue as we passed, like joining a nursery rhyme. It was amazing how much he had memorized, it went on for more than 15 minutes with no sign of exhaustion.

I paused to take a couple pictures of the mosque and waited for the Rote Man to pause between stories for a few fractions of a second.

“Stop,” I said. “Can you understand English or only speak it?”

“I can understand.”

“Why do you speak like this?”

“We need the white people to practice speaking. I study for third years.”

“Yes, but to practice you must speak to me, not just say these things.”

“What is your name?”

“My name is Brook, what is your name?”

He told me his name, which I don’t remember, and smiled as he extended his hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Brook,” he said, and walked away having offered little and asked for less.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Night in Africa

A lot of the nights in Africa are like this one. We’ve set up camp off the side of a bumpy road. We pulled out the tent and the table as the sun set after ten hours and 700 kilometers of driving. I put together the two long, copper-colored tent poles and the two smaller orange ones and assembled our big orange and grey home.

Steve and Mark chopped up veggies and made dinner. The moon is full tonight so there wasn’t much wrestling over headlamps. Our campsite is sandy farmland or pastureland. There are plowed ridges of soil and much evidence of passing cattle. There are wide-branched trees every couple hundred feet. Some are full of leaves and most aren’t. Some cows passed just before dinner but no people.

We started in Timbuktu this morning and took a ferry across that river to the very bumpy road south. After four shaken hours we found lunch in Douentza—rice and a brown, greasy sauce with a couple potatoes and a little beef mixed in.

We kept going south and east towards Burkina Faso, which is its own country. I may or may not have known that a few months ago but now I can trace the route we’ve taken from Morocco to Mauritania to Senegal to Mali and tell you something real and unimportant about each place.

After dinner we went back into the trucks—as if we hadn’t spent long enough in them yet—and Mark and Bouey typed away. I read a copy of the Economist that a guy sold me in Bamako for $7 a few days ago. I read about Hugo Chavez and NAFTA and India. They never write much about Africa, not even in the Economist.

Steve has gone to bed in his little, personal tent and now Bouey has gone to bed too. It’s ten o’clock. There’s a rustle to my left. It’s half a dozen cows stomping around under the big tree with the interesting branches that I shot a few hours ago as the moon rose up behind it. Hopefully they won’t eat the cigarettes or bug repellant we left out. I guess I’ll put them in the truck to be safe and go to bed too. The battery of my laptop is drying and the air is wonderfully cool after another very hot, dusty day.

Tomorrow the fuzzy red orbs on the tree above our tent will fall as the sun rises. They’ll splash a cool, clear liquid on our sleeping bags and faces that when we wake will have solidified like wax. We’ll cross some modest shacks marking the Mali/Burkina border as our African odometer clicks past 5000 miles.


People do a funny thing when they visit a place. They recommend it. It doesn’t much matter if it’s worth recommending; if they weren’t robbed or made ill they’ll sing its praises every time.

So I’m here in Timbuktu, Mali to tell you not to come to Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is a fine town with fine people and it is certainly, unequivocally, not worth the punishing two-day trek from Bamako to see. Just about everything along the way on that bumpy 20-25 hour journey is more interesting than the destination.

There’s a mud mosque near the center and squat homes surrounded by desert. It isn’t the best looking desert but you can take a picture with a camel if you want. It’s not easy to transport things here and maybe that’s why the lunch I just declined is 3500 CFAs when it should be 1000. But probably it’s because I don’t speak Bambara or look Toureg.

People come here to say they did. They come here because they happen to be in West Africa and they don’t see much else on the map they’ve heard of. I don’t have to make excuses because the Steves outvoted me to come here so they could say they drove from the U.S.A to Timbuktu and now they can.

They had some other choice things to say when they came back from swimming just now. They had asked our guide Mohammed how much the swimming would cost and he said it was free if they bought a drink so they did. When they were toweling off Mohammed instructed them to pay the pool attendant 4000 CFAs each for his time and they instructed Mohammed never to come near them again. In a huff they forked over 5000, which is about $12. That also happens to be the amount 90% of Malians get by on each week.

It’s off-season for tourism in the region and there aren’t many travelers here. When I see other tourists it feels a bit like making eye contact with someone at a strip club; you both want to explain what you’re doing here but its probably best just to pass and pretend you didn’t see each other. They know why you’re here and you know why they’re here; there’s only one reason and it’s a regrettable one. The boys got back from swimming and decided they didn’t trust the Malians anymore and we’d be leaving on the bumpy road tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Fool to Eat

Someday I’ll get sick. I’ll double over with cramps, vomit into a smelly toilet, and wish I hadn’t eaten that thing I shouldn’t have eaten.

But it didn’t happen yesterday when I filled our 30-liter jug with a hose from a village near the Senegal/Mali border. The locals didn’t seem to be paying but I gladly handed over 100 CFAs (about $.23). The rest of the crew went with bottled water and could have shook their heads if things went differently and I tried not to shake mine when they didn’t.

It didn’t happen tonight either and tonight was a fun night.

Mali doesn’t have many touts or hassles but outside our guesthouse there are a few and I asked the drummer in the teal shirt if he knew someone who could change some money. His friend offered me 415 CFAs to the dollar and the banks are giving 440 so I declined. But my drummer friend offered to take me somewhere else to get a better rate.

The sun was just setting in a very beautiful way and it streamed down the east-west streets and blasted through the tree branches and lit up all the dust a warm orange. It was getting dark now and in a lot of places I wouldn’t follow an un-known tout to an un-known moneychanger but I decided I felt okay about it.

I feel safer in Africa than almost anywhere else I’ve traveled.

I certainly feel safer in Mali than in Spain, safer in Senegal than in Brazil, safer in Morocco than in Thailand. I can’t fully explain it but I sense it like I sensed the water was okay to drink. The hose ran under a fence to a freshly painted medical clinic and the villagers were all filling their big jugs and there was nothing to fear.

So the teal-shirted drummer and I headed east into the Bamako dusk looking for a moneychanger or an ATM.

I asked him if he knew who Barack Obama was and he said no.

Then I explained he might be the next president. “Bush and then Obama,” I said, gesturing.

“Oh, yes. Obama,” he said. “The black man.”

He didn’t say anything else directly about Barack but what he chose to say next was very interesting to me.

“People from Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, they go to the U.S. or France and when they come back they are white,” he said, and as he said it he turned his forearms upside down to show the light skin there.

“They never come back to Africa. They send some money to their mom and dad but they never come back here to live.”

The first bank didn’t give me money and the Western Union was closed for the night and the tourist restaurant was offering 400 CFAs for my dollars. So we went across the street to one more bank, which took my card and gave me money even though the Lonely Planet said Mali was a country without working cash machines. God help anyone researching a guidebook here.

I asked the drummer if he wanted to grab some food and we stopped at a street side food stall in the full darkness. The woman filled a wide bowl with pasta and a good bean sauce. She fried some potatoes and put them on there too. She had a bowl of warm, soft plantains and she inspected them in her hand—as she did the pasta—and then put each chunk of plantain in my plate with the rest of it.

Just behind her were coals under a clay bowl, warming irons made of iron. A man there was pressing the patterned fabrics and the drummer and I were eating our food.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A trip to the Sahara

The middle-aged South African arrived from the desert in the outfit he’d wear if he were coming out of the desert in a movie. Except his shoes were made by CAT, which otherwise makes heavy machinery, and probably wouldn’t spend the money on the product placement in a movie.

He had a wide-brimmed safari hat and a million-pocket safari shirt and below his safari shorts were leather-tanned calves. He and a few others like him rolled into our campsite in Nouadhibou a few days ago and you could tell they were hardened by the trip (or had made the trip because they were already hardened) and when they turned their eyes in your direction they didn’t look at you so much as through you and they could see you weren’t really one of them.

It was then that I got to thinking about that kind of adventure travel. The kind where your GPS, a very good four-wheel drive, and giant quantities of water are all requisite for survival. When you come in from that kind of stretch you can stagger up to the four-star hotel and take a bubble bath because there is no need to prove your travel stripes by staying in some cheap guesthouse. No, you’ve proven yourself where they don’t have guesthouses or roads or people.

The next day we headed for the desert with a tattered map of the national park with suspect GPS coordinates. The smooth, black paved road headed south and the map sent us west into the nothingness of our adventure.

The sand was packed down with tire tracks and we followed our directions towards the ocean until the sand got loose and we got stuck. We un-stuck the car with the wooden planks we had bought the day before and headed on and true to promises and plans there were no guesthouses, roads, or people.

Once or twice a day we’d reach a very small village of crumbling, almost empty shacks and you’d wonder who could live in a place so harsh and inaccessible. But a few people do and if they were to see how you and I live our lives I don’t think they’d be mad so much as amused. Why do we need to be so pampered? Why can’t we do more things for ourselves? We’d look to them like we live within the walls of a five-star hotel.

The functions of their lives are much like ours—getting food, maintaining a home—but all the frills and excesses have been stripped from their lives until the most basic answers to questions like “Food?” and “Shelter?” have been given.

The desert is like they say. It’s very hot in the day and cool at night and when you turn on a flashlight all the tiny bits of sand float by and explain why your camera lens is grinding. You feel weak and tired as soon as it gets dark and you keep drinking water whether you’re thirsty or not because you know you’re dehydrated from those stretches you spent baking in the sun to push the car free or take pictures outside the comfort of the air conditioned cars.

When its time to leave the empty desert you use the map some more and it leads into powdery dunes that the cars can’t cross. You run out of water and buy more from a village and then nearly run out of gas. But you cross back onto that smooth, dark black road two days after you left it and leave behind the people who are even more legit than the people who survived the desert for a few days in a safari hat.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Morocco to Mauritania

There’s a line in the sand just below the Tropic of Cancer where we rolled up yesterday around 5pm. It marks the border between Morocco’s Western Sahara and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The 200 meters of gates and guard posts at the end of Morocco took us two hours to cross and illustrated as well as anything the difference between my year of solo travel and these four months driving through Africa.

We had our passports and exit forms and the car registrations. We had the carnet de passages for the cars too, which guarantee that we won’t sell the Toyotas while we’re in Mauritania. We brought all this to a window in the building at the border and waited an hour or so for them to copy our info. While we waited an officer in street clothes rummaged through our cars and asked if the flask in the passenger side door was the only vino we were bringing into dry Mauritania.

We got back into the cars finally and drove toward Morocco’s exit gate and were held up again and lined up in the sun on a whitewashed wall where we sat for another half hour. A man at a plastic table under a shady, low-hanging tree was interviewing the driver of each car before departure.

My turn came and as I sat down he flipped to a fresh page in his book and used a ruler to draw columns down the page. When he finished he filled the first lines of the new page with our names and passport numbers and sent us on our way. The power was out and it had become an exceedingly manual operation.

It was just before 7pm when they raised the gate and we drove into three kilometers of unclaimed, untamed desert. Even with four-wheel drive we staggered over the tumbling path, past mysteriously abandoned cars and towards Mauritania.

We weren’t sure if Mauritania would be accepting visitors after 7pm but the guard post was still open and the guards wore smiles. They told us the bandits in Mauritania were gone and we didn’t need to hire security for our drive even though four French tourists were massacred on the side of the road while they picnicked a couple months ago. While the guards looked over our passports we changed a leaking tire on the Tundra.

The sun had set when we reached a kerosene-lit shack a hundred meters down the road, where some other officials took our passports and asked us our professions. The angular man with the turban and giant reading glasses asked me what the Mauritania consulate in Washington, D..C. was like and I had to tell him I got my visa through the mail.

Only at Mauritania’s third shack were we asked for money. When we refused they rummaged around the cars for a while and found a bottle of booze. Steve told the guard he could go ahead and confiscate it but he seemed afraid of what would happen if he took it—or maybe they’re just being nicer to tourists after that unfortunate picnic incident. Regardless, they sent us on our way.

It was after 8pm when we drove on to Nouadhibou. We had covered five kilometers in three hours with the promise of another 15 or 20 borders in the next 100 days.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Far from a TV set

When I took out my tripod and set up the camera it never really sank in that anyone else would see what I framed in the lens. When I spent hours transcribing tapes and more hours writing scripts and more hours editing all that footage I never really believed anyone would see it.

I sat in common areas like the one I’m sitting in now in Nouadhibou, Mauritania and worked away in anonymity, at best a curiosity to the others in the room. “Oh you have computer,” a woman just back from the desert just said to me.

So it’s strange but fitting I guess that even as that thing I worked on relentlessly for 18 months finally meets an audience it doesn’t seem real to me that its happening. When “A Map for Saturday” airs on MTV tonight I’ll be lying sleepless under an open, cloth tent at the edge of the Sahara desert. I’ll probably be thinking like I was last night that I’d rather be home with my friends watching the show and having some beers.

I’m sending this from a dank, third-world internet café and though I’m traveling in a group through Africa, this weekend I feel some of that loneliness I grew so accustomed to on my yearlong trip. It’s not loneliness really but a sense that I’m missing my own party and there might not be another one.

But it’s true too that while I worked hard for the movie to succeed, I never made a decision based on what some critic or TV executive would say. I made it for me and did the best I could and promised myself that no matter how well or how poorly it was received I would remember that it wasn’t as great or as bad as someone else might say.

That’s an easy promise to keep tonight because no one nearby will be watching; there’s one TV channel here and its not MTV-Mauritania. But I’m posting this on the day my little movie finally airs in the U.S. because it stands to reason that as many people will find my blog tonight as in the 40 months since I started this project.

But I won’t even know if that happens either, because before the premiere finishes on the west coast the sun will be up in Nouadhibou and we’ll drive into the dunes, away from the internet, and back to the familiar routine of framing shots I’m unsure anyone will see.

Who's Afriad of HIV?

We Americans were sitting at the café with our new South African friends; seven guys driving across Africa in different directions. They’ve spent a year surfing their way up the coast and on this night were debating the relative physical merits of the female populations of various African nations.

This was how we came to the topic of sex in Africa and the threat of AIDS.

We’re all in our late-20’s and came of age at the same time as the disease. One thing that’s become clear to me as I’ve met more young people from all over the world is how much more vigilant Americans are about having safe sex and how much more worried we are about HIV/AIDS.

One night a couple years ago, as this difference was becoming clear, my German friend Jens asked me how many people I knew with AIDS. None, I said, and he said that was his point. It’s someone else’s concern.

But that’s not the case in South Africa, where one in every three women in their late-20's is infected.

You might think that would scare the South Africans celibate but it sure hasn’t. Even if you sleep with someone who is HIV-positive you’re not likely to contract the disease, they say, and it’s easy enough to be safe.

“There’s only one guaranteed way to be safe,” Lex said, and my health class mantra kicked in: abstinence.

“Yeah,” Tim agreed, “use a condom.”

It must be mentioned that these were white South Africans who know that while 13% of blacks in their country have the virus, only 0.6% of whites do. So it was curious to them that we’d be so worried about it, an expression of fear out of proportion to the actual risk, like being afraid to fly in a plane.

It was curious to me too that they could be so unconcerned.