Sunday, March 27, 2011

African Adventures

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wal-Mart of the Wharf

Land Ho! We have docked in Banjul [ban-JOOL], the Gambia, our first port in Africa. The temperature at 8:00 was 66° with a high of 95°+ predicted. On a map, The Gambia looks like a splinter stuck in Senegal in the extreme west of the continent. Needle-like, it is divided right down the middle by its river. Jon says there are no land routes connecting north and south. He also told us there wasn’t much to see and that we would be well served to stay on the ship.

Of course we ignored his advice. We did not take an organized tour [in such a thing exists in this less-than-Third-World country], but hopped on the ship’s shuttle at 10:00. We apparently had a guide on board the bus for the ten-minute drive to the market area and then discovered that he was going to stay with us until we returned to the shuttle for the drive back. He led us into a warren of paths from which we might never have escaped on our own, but more about that later.

For the most part, the market was uncovered which is to say the walkways were open to the ever-warming sun but the vendors had mostly covered stalls. Much of the produce and seafood, however, was out in the open with the produce typically spread on cloths on the ground. The fish were in galvanized steel containers for the most part. Some of the fish seemed to have been smoked; some were fried; and there were vendors [all female] who were stripping the flesh from some of the fish. We didn’t get pictures of the fishmongers because the self-appointed guide was moving too fast, but there were perhaps a dozen varieties including crabs, shrimp and something reminiscent of a flounder.

As soon as we entered the market, we lost all sense of direction. In this it was like the medina in Marrakech except we were not surrounded by buildings, just assorted stalls. The market was part crafts market and part local market where the populace of Banjul came to buy their groceries “fresh from the farm” even if some things were imported. The two markets coexisted but we could tell when we crossed from one to the other. Cloth vendors tended to be grouped together as did wood-working merchants. The same is true of other crafts. Of course, we enriched the local economy. MA bought small woven baskets and D added not one but two masks to his collection. You should have seen the ones that got away!

To some extent, the Banjul market combined the essence of the Ben Tanh market in Saigon with “beauty” of the Russian market in Pnom Penh. It was dark, smelly, exotic and well worth the time.

In the good news/bad news department, it was while we were making the last purchases that we discovered that our guide had disappeared. We never did find him so, like Moses wandering the desert, we tried to find our way out of the maze which was the market. It was all guess work, and we would be there still if it were not for a Good Samaritan who offered to help us find both the outside of the market and the shuttle bus. We wandered behind him like the Pied Piper’s rats through dark and twisting pathways. We were well away from the tourist area and surrounded by the stalls that the Gambians would patronize for shoes, clothing, etc. At one point we came to a large area filled with foot-treadle sewing machines where, he said, men, women and children were learning how to make the kind of clothing sold in the market.

Soon after the sewing center, we were outside but nowhere near our bus. True, there was a HAL tour bus there, but it was not available to us. So we walked and walked and walked. Let’s just say that we saw the even seamier side of Banjul. With perhaps more luck than skill, we found a group of HAL passengers who seemed convinced that they were at the shuttle stop. We thanked our new-found friend, tipped him generously and watched as our bus bounced toward us.

The Gambian infrastructure may not exist. We saw no rat’s-nest of electric lines the way we have in Shanghai indicating that the use electricity is not universal [there was no 3-G signal this morning, either]. The roads we traveled in the city were more pot-hole than roadway and the driver tried valiantly to steer around the gullies in our path. Walking through the market was just as exciting and uneven.

Nonetheless, we arrived home none the worse for wear, full of the sights, sounds and smells of one little corner of Banjul. By the time we got to the dock, local merchants had set up shop selling many of the same crafts and goods we had seen in the market. Had out goal been simply to by souvenirs, we could have done so right on the wharf, but it would not have been the same.

We went to the Lido pool to read and update, as we usually, do and were surprised by Peder, the Beverage Manager, who stopped to tell us he had identified all of the CC members save two. There was a couple listed with no last name and no cabin number. D immediately told him it was Ed and Roxanne who do not yet have a cabin number but who are joining us in Venice. Peder does not need their info for the March 28 meeting.

Trivia was not as crowded as it is on sea days because some of the Trivials were still ashore. We managed a respectable 17/19 today with a teensy assist from Ken and Lois’s team which scored our paper. In the musical scale, what note follows “fa?” We wrote “sol,” but the substitute emcee wanted either “so” or “soh.” Close enough. We lost a tie-breaker when D did not share his quick answer with the team [or they with him – In the song, where are you supposed to put your troubles? The correct answer is “in your old kit bag,” but someone wrote “an old kit bag.” So we only got one Grand dollar today, not two. Oh, the horror!

Tomorrow – Dakar, Senegal

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dakar Daze

Once again we were up at 6:30, an hour fit for nothing. We were chugging very slowly into Dakar. There was some confusion with the pilot boat, so we were fifteen minutes late arriving in port.

D had arranged the first in the series of group tours. We were to share the trip with Bill and Louise from upstate New York who will be with us on all five of the tours prior to Venice; Anita and Howard, friends of theirs from Canada; and Charles and Lynne from Delray Beach. The latter joined at the request of Ken and Lois who then canceled because their travel agent offered a free trip in Dakar.

Although the ship had not been cleared, we met in the Stuyvesant Lounge down the hall from our cabin at 8:00. The Senegalese officials were to use that room for passport control, so we knew before the rest of the passengers that we could disembark when Firmin left the officials to alert the bridge. Even though we were among the first off, we stood and waited because our guide was nowhere to be found. D even returned to the cabin, going against the departing guests like a salmon swimming upstream, to get a cell phone number which he didn’t have. By the time he returned to the group, our guide and driver were there and ready.

We started by driving around Dakar while the guide, whose name was unpronounceable, told us what buildings we were seeing and pointing out monuments and fountains. We stopped outside the presidential palace for photographs of the guards, the gates and the palace itself. We laughed about the fact that HAL tour groups were doing the same thing for a lot more money. Next on our agenda was the local Catholic church, a building dating only from 1939. It dramatic in its simplicity – there were no statues and no Stations of the Cross decorating the facility. There were a number of side chapels, as is customary, many with abstract stained glass, some with recognizeable figures. When we left, we started out for the Goree Island ferry which was practically next to our ship.

Our drive through Dakar was interesting because it highlighted the dichotomy of the city’s heritage. In the “official” section near the palace and church, and, indeed, in much of downtown, the city reminded us of Paris or some other European city. Street level shops were topped with apartments, trees were abundant and divided roadways were not uncommon. But the street hawkers who flocked to us were definitely not French even if their language often was; the curbs were trash-filled; and there were merchants selling things on the sidewalk, not in stores. We thought of Cambodia and Jakarta. The French may have left a decent infrastructure but the local flavor was equally present.

We arrived at the ferry dock with time to kill and waited in the terminal until everyone started to race to the exit door. We didn’t race but were still right in the thick of the crowd as we headed to the ferry. Our group of eight plus the guide stayed at the prow [the pointy end] of the boat so we could see Goree Island as it appeared out of the mist.

Why visit Goree? It is a UN World Heritage Site because it houses the infamous Slave House from which thousands of Africans were exported like so many bags of rice. Most died on the journey to the Caribbean and the US. The Amistad, about which a movie was made, began its odyssey at Goree Island. Today, the Slave House has been rebuilt to resemble what it would have been in the early Nineteenth Century. At that time, what is now Senegal, along with the slave trade, was controlled by the Portuguese. The top floor of the Slave House is now a tiny museum giving information about the history of slavery on Goree and showcasing some of the shackles worn by the slaves. It is the first level that is most disturbing. Here, we could see small rooms which held 15 – 20 male slaves at a time in a space large enough for maybe two people. There were rooms for infants, children and women, too. Several rooms were especially noteworthy. One was the room where under-weight slaves were taken to be fattened up, like cattle, because the minimum weight for a saleable slave was around 60 kilos, about 135 pounds. Other rooms were set aside for the recalcitrant slaves, those who were not docile and cooperative; these were like “the hole” in dungeons, completely without light or air.

We left there and for reasons unknown went to see a demonstration of sand painting. For us, it was pretty much a waste of time but the stop did afford everyone the chance to use the toilets. Louise has hip and knee problems, so she was directed somewhere with better facilities. Once we were all finished, we walked to the Catholic church. This one was dark with age and filled with icons, the Stations of the Cross and the raised pulpit from which the priest would deliver sermons. It was interesting for its existence but not particularly attractive. Nonetheless, we donated toward its upkeep.

We started back to the ferry but were accosted by a woodworker who had struck up a conversation with us on the ferry on the trip to Goree. He half-dragged us to see his hut in an artisan’s encampment near the church. We were not really interested in buying anything, especially at unrealistic prices, and eventually were able to escape. He followed us and, we think, said derogatory things about our mothers, but he did it in the local language, not French, so we are not sure. He even insisted that D return his business card since we did not purchase anything.

Goree Island is more than the Slave House and church although these are the tourist highlights. It is home to about a thousand residents and has a small hospital of dubious quality and schools for the children. There are many cafes and innumerable street vendors trying sell cheap beads, knock-off watches and t-shirts to the tourists. There are also vegetable sellers whose customers are the residents. There were probably other products available but we didn’t see them. Travelers have to remember that there are no grocery stores and few specialty stores despite the Aldo shop we saw in Dakar. People buy what they need on the street just as they did in Banjul.

Following a boisterous return on the ferry – where we were entertained by a percussion band celebrating tonight’s soccer match between Senegal and Cameroon – we drove perhaps 40 minutes to the area known as Les Almadies, the resort area of Dakar. Lunch was included in the tour [but not drinks] and we had salad with shrimp and shredded chicken; either fish or beef kabobs; and fresh fruit. The food was marvelous if not Senegalese. The drinks were a bit overpriced [$3 for a coke and $7 for a Heineken beer] but in the grand scheme of things, it was a trifle.

The trip back followed the coast and brought us at one point to a monument to the African Renaissance. There must have been 150 or more steps up a hill to the base of this gigantic statue which was itself probably 100 feet tall. At least that’s what it looked like. As we approached the ship, Anita voiced her dismay that we had not visited the market area because she wanted to shop for tchotchkes. We turned around and retraced our path before finding “the market.” Unlike Banjul’s enclosed market which we visited yesterday, Dakar’s is blocks and blocks of vendors crowding the sidewalks and even the roadway. One enormous intersection was wall-to-wall vendors wherever we looked. Jewelry. Fabric. Shoes. Produce. Meat. Whatever Joe or Josephine Dakar wanted or needed was available somewhere. It looked like a scene from The Amazing Race, and could have been dropped into most Asian cities as well. We were fascinated – this was the real Dakar, not the European food we had just eaten. We stopped but no one wanted to venture forth. We were not interested in shopping and, those who were, were too intimidated by the scene to venture forth. When Anita said that the people smelled, D reminded her that we smell to them. “I don’t smell,” she replied. “Yes, you do, but you smell of deodorant and soap, but that is still different from what they are used to.”

We circled back over now-familiar streets and returned to the ship. While the others went to shop for crafts on the pier, we boarded and hurried to Trivia [why not?]. We got there in time for question #9 and joined some of our regular teammates and two strangers. Working together, we managed 10 points, enough for a 4-way tie for second. Once again, we blew the tie-breaker and received no ship’s dollars. We sought solace in iced cappuccinos with teammate Sandra and then went to the cabin to read and write [and nap].

While we were eating, this year’s dining room captain, Gildus, came to the table to ask if we would like to have dinner at the Captain’s table tomorrow. We would have been fools to decline and accepted with gratitude. Sure enough, the invitation to his quarters for cocktails was in our mail slot when we got back to the room. After dinner [veggie/Thanksgiving dinner], we checked e-mail and Facebook before going to the show. The ship’s singers and dancers did a Broadway retrospective but we didn’t think it was as good as their show last week. Maybe things will get better.

Tomorrow – A day at sea, formal night and the Captain’s table

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