Pictures of West Africa
Preparing for the West Africa trip of Oct 16- Nov 19
Monday, September 3, 2007, 07:25 PM
The general plan is to land in Senegal and then travel east.
A lot depends on visas. Every country has different requirements.
When i arrive in Senegal, i will apply for visas to Mali, Guinea
and Gambia. Which ones i get will determine where i go next.
The only countries i *don't* plan to see are Liberia, Sierra Leon
and Ivory Coast.
Friday, October 19, 2007, 11:04 AM
Senegal is the 109th country that i have visited.
After the New York subway (two days ago) and the Paris airport (yesterday), Dakar does not look so bad.
I got the visa to Mali in two hours for 35 dollars (in the USA they wanted 100 and one week). Sigh of relief.
Hot but no mosquitoes. Got malaria pills for three dollars (same pills that in the USA cost 60 dollars and require paying bribes to doctors).
Everything else is expensive by African standards.
I am staying in Yof, the city of the airport, which is much safer than Dakar itself. There is a hotel just a few kms from the airport, La Lumumba (15.000 CFA, or about $40) and a cheaper nearby "Campement Toucan". I am staying near the beach at the Keur Mouna ($25), a bit far, but convenient for commuting with the Corniche of Dakar (where the embassies are).
Tuesday, October 23, 2007, 04:25 PM
Mali is the 110th country that i have visited in my life.
Valeriane arrived and first day she took me to a disco till 2am (i know nobody will believe me but it was her idea not mine).
I took my revenge the following day: wake up at 5am and travel 600 kms through Senegal to the border with Mali. It took two days of moderately uncomfortable buses to reach the capital, Bamako.
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Monday, October 29, 2007, 07:40 AM
We crossed Mali from west to east, visited Djenne and the Dogon villages. See the notes on French WEst Africa in the right column.
We were stuck one night at the border town of Koro. Then we took the bus to Burkina Faso.
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Tuesday, October 30, 2007, 05:55 AM
Burkina Faso is the 111th country that i have visited in my life.
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is just very hot. A big big market.
Very primitive. I am waiting to get the visa to Ghana.
Friday, November 2, 2007, 09:19 AM
Ghana is the 112th country i have visited in my life.
I finally have a qwerty keyboard so i will be posting notes about the
last week in the right column.
Kumasi is the ancient capital of the Ashanti empire, before the British invaded them. It's my first stop in Ghana. Later i would like
to see some of the forts of the slave trade, and Accra, where i will
apply for one or two visas.
Ghana is perplexing to say the least. It has the reputation of a booming economy, but what i found looks wildly different.
The trip from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) to the border was uneventful.
But the trip inside Ghana from the border to Kumani was a nightmare.
Te president of Ghana must haev a passion for police checkpoint.
I stopped counting after 20. Sometiems there is a checkpoint literally
500 meters after the previous one. Most of them are bribe collecting
points, where the bus driver simply hands out a tip to the police
officers. The trip was unbelievably slow (more than 12 hours) not
because of the bus or the road, but because of this endless series
of checkpoints. paying for a faster bus would be pointless: they were
all in the same lines.
Ghana now ranks as the most ridiculous country of the last 17 years (previous record holder was China 1990, and rpeviously the Soviet Union in 1987).
They tell you that you need patience in Africa, but the amount of
patience needed in Ghana is superhuman. By the end of the trip you
wish the presidents and all his egnerals drowned in a pond of
Once in Kumasi, i had more bad news: the hotel didn't have running
water. Today i changed hotel, to make sure it wasn't just that
hotel. It is indeed the main pipe of the city, that gets water
only now and then. I had running water all the time in Burkina Faso.
To find this internet cafe i had to try different places as all the
others didn't haev connections.
So it's a bit weird. Burkina Faso is supposed to be one of the world's poorest countries but it actually had paved roads, good internet, running water, and billions of cell phones.
Ghana is supposed to be West Africa's booming economy but so far
all i have seen is crumbling infrastructures.
Anyway, the good news. The people of Ghana are unbelievably kind,
honest and friendly. They must be related to the people of southwest
Burkina Faso, who were also like this. This is basically the opposite
of Dakar, where you are continuously attacked by sellers, beggars,
hustlers, touts, etc etc. Here nobody stops you in the street. If
you ask a question, they go out of their way to help you.
Ghana seems to be cheaper than French West Africa. Senegal was horribly expensive by African standard. Mali was probably cheaper
(i am not sure because i spent most of the time in the remote
villages of the east). Burkina Faso was even cheaper. But Ghana
seems to be even cheaper than Burkina Faso, at least for the things
that tourists buy (eg, restaurant, hotel, etc). As i said, though,
you also get a lot less for the money.
Kumasi is their ancient capital. A very pretty city.
It has the biggestm market in West Africa.
A very friendly "cultural center" (that extends for almost one km)
provides an excellent introduction to Ghana.
Gold Coastof Ghana
Saturday, November 3, 2007, 11:10 AM
Today is visited the forts built by the first Europeans who arrived in
sub-Saharan Africa.These forts were built to trade with the natives
(who were ruled by several rich kingdoms) but eventually became
famous mainly for one kind of trade: the slave trade. So it's a bit
emotional but also educational,like visiting concentration camps
in Germany and Poland. The interesting thing is that i went
looking for forts but i also found something else. In Elmina (the
first European building in black Africa) i found one of the nicest
villages ever. I took endless pictures of the harbor full of
fishing boats. In Cape Coast i found a town built on a hill that
has a lot of churches of all denominations (the Catholic one is the
one on top of the hill, probably because the Catholics came first).
The good news first: the people of Ghana are definitely the kindest
ever with the Syrians and the people of southern Burkina. This is
one of the safest countries in the world.
I was shocked to be suddenly surrounded by white people. Security
does make a difference. There are hundreds of white tourists,
including girls traveling with girls.
It is nice to be left alone. I can finally take notes as i walk
around. (In most African countries you are immediately surrounded
by people who want to sell you something the moment you stop).
So i am enjoying the high level of security, although i realize
that the price to pay is this quasi-police state of frequent
One bad news is that moving from one place to another place is very
slow. From Kumasi to Cape Coast the bus took four hours and it felt
perfect(although the bus was air-conditioned,something that Valeriane
would have died for, but actually a mixed blessing in Africa, where
they make you freeze to death - luckily i still had a sweater and
a scarf). I found out that STC buses (the state buses) are not
stopped at police checkpoints.
Alas, from Cape Coast to Accra was another agonizing trip, even
with STC. This time the problem was traffic. It took four endless
hours to go 100kms.
There are other things that i would like to see in Ghana but i just
cannot afford to travel so slowly. Monday i will apply for my visa
to Guinea and then head for Togo (hopefully i can get at least that
visa at the border).
When we finally arrived, Accra was a ghost of a city. It was
a saturday evening (7pm) and absolutely nothing was open.
I managed to get some bread and water from street vendors.
I couldn't find a restaurant (open or otherwise).
I had decided to pay three times more to get a better hotel room,
but for three times more you get a towel and soap but still no running
water. All the internet cafes were also closed (saturday at 7pm).
So the infrastructure seems to be much much worse than in
Burkina Faso. By comparison, Ouagadougou (which i defined a "very
primitive city") feels like a metropolis full of life and amenities.
The weather is much cooler than Burkina Faso or Mali. The humidity
still makes you sweat a lot though.
Sunday, November 4, 2007, 11:50 AM
Accra is not the kind of place where you want to get stuck.
It feels more like a very very large village with the most basic
services. Hard to believe that this country is experiencing an
economic boom. I see exactly the opposite here.
I walked several kms and took maybe three pictures. Each block
has low humble shacks. Occasionally there is a big government
I wisely downgraded to a cheap hotel ($7 for a single) and finally
got running water. So i took my first real shower since i arrived
I added more notes about French West Africa in the right column.
I have two more weeks. Tomorrow monday i will apply for the visa
to Guinea (what a drag all these stops at embassies and what a drag
that each country takes up two pages of the passport) and i will
ask the USA embassy to add pages to the USA passport (alas,
Italy does not do that, so i have to change passport in two
The new plan is to see Togo (3days) and Benin(2?) that hopefully
should give me a visa at the border, then fly to Conakry
(Guinea) where i will start using teh usa passport.
Then continue overland back to Senegal via Bissau and Gambia (both should be visas that i can get at the border).
Then visit north Senegal. If i still have days and the visa is
easy and cheap, 2/3 days in Mauritania.
I found an excellent restaurant at reasonable prices. There is hope.
Towards Lome, Togo
Monday, November 5, 2007, 07:09 AM
The embassy of Guinea wanted $100 and three days to deliver a visa.
They are totally out of touch with reality.
I'm going to Lome, Togo. Back to French...
I couldn't find a single bank in Accra that changes traveler checks.
I tried eight, each the head branch.
A foreign bureau was willing to change them for a 10% commission!
It is a mini-rain season in Togo and Benin so i won't travel much
in those countries. It's unlikely i make it to Nigeria. Most likely
i will head back to Senegal and then try to see Gambia, Bissau and
Guinea from there. Hopefully cheaper than from here. Viuas greatly
complicate the life of the tourist...
Monday, November 5, 2007, 01:11 PM
Today the highlight was crossing the border from Ghana into Togo, one
of the coolest border crossings of my life.
The road from Accra to Aflao runs first through the savannah and then
on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the Volta Lake.
Literally only the asphalt separates the two.
The bus ride ends right at the border post. It is as casual as it gets.
There are vendors eevn beyond the police checkpoint.
The Ghana side is a bit formal but the Togo side has to be seen to be
believed: The border post is o the beach and the officers have tables
outside. You can hear the waves as you fill the form.
It feels more like you are checking in at a beach resort:
Then you walk straight into Lome, the capital of Togo. My hotel
is 4 blocks from the border post.
This side of the border is quite decadent between prostitutes and extremely expensive French restaurants with neat only menus run by very French white people:
Togo seems totally westernized, more than Ghana
Porto Novo; Benin
Tuesday, November 6, 2007, 01:26 PM
I crossed another border: Togo to Benin.
First i reached the big city, Cotonou, very spread out very westernized (polluted and congested).
Urban transportation here is by motorcycle. Very cheap fast and efficient.
The coast from Accra to Cotonu basically feels like a European road.
Then i went to Porto Novo, the capital but a small colonial town.
Sleepy town; colonial architecture, friendly people, a much better place to stay than Cotonou.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007, 01:22 PM
This morning one of the highlights of the trip: Ganvie, a city built on water, literally in the ocean. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive to take the two-hour tour, and the price is non-negotiable (set by the government). The guide, needless to say, expects his own tip on top of the ticket price (even if it is illegal to ask for one).
Now i reached Ouaidah, the voodoo capital, mostly a ripoff for naive tourists. Anyway i learned that voodoo means god. One voodoo, two voodoos, etc.
The visa issue is really getting on my nerves. In every country i have to waste time (and money) to get the visa for the next country. But still feasier, aster and cheaper than getting the visas in the USA.
Saturday i will fly out of here to Senegal, the only one that does not require a visa. I will skip Guinea and Mauritania that require more lines at embassies, forms, photos, waits, etc. Tired of all of this.
Saturday, November 10, 2007, 05:21 AM
Abomey was the ancient capital of the place before the French invaded.
The palaces are quite disappointing (the most undeserving UNESCO world heritage sites that i haev seen so far) but the town has lots of voodoo activities. I saw men (or women?) completely covered in vegetation walking in the streets as if it was normal (passers by hardly noticed) and every now and then a stone or a tree with strange signs on it. Probably interesting, but the tourist infrastructure does
not exist, so no guides or any other type of explanation.
Last day in Benin: Tonight i fly to Senegal and then will try to reach Ga,bia and Bissau. Not sure if i have ti,e for anything else
because each country requires applying for a visa at thr r,bassy except hopefully Gambia.
All in all, Benin is a booming economy. They tell me very good things
about its president. Surprisingly, the influence of its giant neighbor
Nigeria is minimal (English is hardly spoken at all).
I would rank Benin as one of the safest countries in the world.
Virtually nobody tried to cheat. Absolutely nobody bothered me.
The only glitch came at the very end when an officer at the airport
asked for a bribe. I will write to the Benin ambassador to let him
know this fact. It was totally inconsistent with the rest of the nation.
Sunday, November 11, 2007, 01:01 PM
Actually i'm in Serrekunda, a town slightly north of Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Gambia is English speaking so i have my favorite qwerty keyboard.
Arriving at the Dakar airport yesterday night was the usual nightmare.
It is hard to describe the degree of corruption. Even the police officers wanted to be bribed. At 3am in the middle of the night
the Dakar airport is just about the worst place i have experienced
in all my trips.
However, i followed the natives and found that there is another exit,
not advertised to foreigners, that is absolutely safe. Get it?
The police forces you to exit through the hundreds of thugs who
are waiting for you and doesn't tell you that there is another exit
that takes you straight to the street. Luckily it was a saturday night
so there were plenty of taxis around.
This morning the journey from Dakar to the Gambian border was fairly
uneventful. Senegal is one hell of a flat country. The scenery
Gambia is more foresty. To get to the capital you have to take a ferry
because they never built a bridge on the river. Tomorrow i would like
to see a natural park north of here that has 300 species of birds.
Benin was rich and modernized. Senegal is getting there. Gambia
appears to be lagging behind. However most of the tourists are the rich European tour-oriented tourists that head for the beach resorts.
I did need a visa for Gambia just for every other country except Senegal, but i was kindly given one at the border for one month.
The officer was much more interested in watching the football/soccer game on tv than checking my status.
I switched passport because the Italian passport is full. Benin used
two pages: the smaller the country the bigger the visa.
So now i am travelling on the USA passport. They don't really seem to care much where you are coming from.
This is the second country where i've seen white toursts (the other one was Ghana).
jungle walk, Gambia
Monday, November 12, 2007, 01:03 PM
Dust. That's one thing you have to know about Gambia: dust.
Other than that (and other than the usual scam artists), it's a good
place with more to offer than the beaches. Today i went to the jungle
(Abuko Park). The 5km loop is very easy: they put a number every 50
meters so dumb tourists like me don't get lost and eaten by crocodiles.
I did not see crocodiles (or better the one crocodile that was around in a pond never put its head up, so i could only see the top of the head) but saw billions of monkeys and i think i have a good picture of a red one. The red ones don't like us and are truly acrobatic. I saw
one diving from a tall tree (totally free fall). So you don't really
get more than a split second to take the pictures. The other kinds
are much calmer. Lots of birds. I wisely waited till dusk (of course
the chances of getting lost increase with darkness but it was worth it) and saw a lot more birds in the last hour than in the previous three hours.
I am impressed that the mosquito repellent that i bought in California
works wonders with Gambian mosquitoes. They really really don't like it.
When i was waiting for the crocodile to look at me (one long hour),
i was completely surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes but not one
dared to bite me.
Alas, the price you pay for wildlife is that your room looks more like
a nest of cockroaches than a hotel. And of course i just ran out of
my nuclear insecticide that i bought years ago in Latin America. Life is not perfect.
thursday, November 15, 2007, 08:52 AM
I went to Bissau and now i am back to Senegal: In an hour i take a boat to Dakar.
The road from Ziginchor to Bissau is excellent, with virtually no traffic and excellent views of jungle and villages. The one ferry though can take hours. Most travel around Bissau involves ferries.
Bissau is the smallest of the western African countries and also one that speaks Portuguese. the journey from Ziguinchor to Bissau (the capital) is worth it through lagoons and jungle. Bissau itself does not offer much. It is way more expensive than Senegal. The cheapest hotel was a "campement" outside town in the jungle. Charming location (i had my private night walk in the jungle) but the most basic room and unusable toilets for 10.000 CFAs, which in Senegal buys you a midrange room (PontaNeto Aparthotel at the border between PontaNeto and Quelele).
Ziginchor is the place to get the visa for Bissau, but it is also worth a visit by itself because it is on the Casamanche river and there are several opportunities to explore the lagoons.
Saturday, November 17, 2007, 09:16 AM
Ready to go back via Casablanca, Paris, New York. I should arrive in san Francisco monday night. Now that i survived West Africa lets see if i survive Paris (there are strikes again).
The overnight boat trip from Ziguinchor was uneventful.
Then i saw Lac Recba, a pink lake 40 km from Dakar. Very touristy.
Pictures of West Africa
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