Pictures of Uganda, the two Congos, Gabon, Cameroon
Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 07:31 PM
Preparing for my trip to Africa.
I will land in Kampala, Uganda and then apply for visas. Depending on which visas i get (in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of money), i would like to visit Sudan (at least southern Sudan but possibly also the pyramids of Meroe in the north), Burundi, Congo, Cameroon. Unfortunately two countries i really want to see are probably too difficult in terms of visas: Chad and Angola.
Saturday, November 7, 2009, 03:31 PM
Stopping in Dubai for just one night... new airport... new metro... wow
Monday, November 9, 2009, 07:03 AM
Judging from Kampala, Uganda is doing much better. I heard that growth rate was 12% last year, which would be higher than China's. Roads are clean (unlike San Francisco), and there are no beggars (unlike San Francisco). I'm sure the villages around the country are still very poor, especially in the border areas, but a big chunk of the population lives in the big towns.
Kampala, in effect, is the ideal city to start a trip in Africa. The country issues visas upon arrival (so you can leave your country without a visa). The city has several neighborhoods like the one near the Parliament that are safe and have all sorts of comforts at a reasonable price. It's easy to move around with the boda-bodas (motorcycles) or private hires (taxis) or taxis (minibuses). There are decent and clean restaurants of several ethnic cuisines and some expensive European ones.
The only annoyance are the mosques that have been built on top of the surrounding hills (officially they are "gifts" from Arab countries). This is a Christian country that wakes up with the "call to prayer", which for most of us is a truly annoying noise.
Anyway, it sounds like i will get the visa for Congo, and it wasn't even too painful. I already booked the bus from Kampala to Goma for tomorrow afternoon via Rwanda, a grueling 15 hour bus ride (and i'm sure it will last a lot longer). It's a night bus, so i will arrive in Congo in the morning of the 11th. There is very little information about Goma, but the lady at the embassy gave me the name of three hotels and the name of a friend of hers who could help me out.
Besides being in an area that has been frequently been overrun by Hutu rebels, Goma was also the site of a major volcanic eruption that apparently covered the town with lava. Definitely not a lucky place. But the easiest entry point in Congo.
So now the plan is to enter Congo at Goma, then fly to Kinshasa (the area in between is in the hands of countless warlords), then get visas for the other Congo, Cameroon, etc.
For those who know him, met Paul in Kampala. Emily was busy with school in the village where they live. Hopefully i'll see her at the end of my trip. They're doing well and say hi to everybody.
Uganda is de facto banning plastic bottles. All your favorite drinks that in the West come in your favorite plastic bottles here are only available in glass bottles. Unfortunately westerners (the planet's number one polluters even when they are away from home) are passionate about buying water in plastic bottles, so those are still available.
* Visa at the airport: $50
* Annex Hotel near Masala Chat House 30,000 shillings for two
* Bus from Kampala to Goma 30,000 shillings
* $1 = 1,760 shillings
* Bigger notes get a better exchange rate. Traveler cheques get lower rates.
* Internet is 1,000 shillings per 30 minutes (and it's as fast as in the USA)
Notes about Uganda in general
Monday, November 9, 2009, 12:21 PM
Some sociological remarks after talking with my friends who are in the Peace Corps.
1. Kids in school who are given a laptop for free don't know the value of a laptop, and negligence destroys a lot of them. They did not have to save money for many months in order to buy a laptop. Therefore they don't realize its value. Conclusion: an object by itself does not have the complete meaning. Its meaning comes from knowing how you obtain it. If that history is removed (if somebody gives it to you for free), something important is missing from that object, something that is not material but is important for the use of the object.
2. A child got malaria because the father did not buy mosquito nets. When asked why he didn't buy the mosquito nets (he has the money), he politely replied that you don't buy mosquito nets: the foreign aid organizations give them to you for free. So he was just waiting to get one for free, rather than "wasting" money to buy one right away. His daughter might die because of that delay. A quick poll in the school showed that almost no children was sleeping in the proper mosquito nets. Note that some of these children have cell phones: a mosquito net costs a lot less than a cell phone. When you know that you might get something for free, common sense is diasbled.
3. There are wind and solar-powered lamp-posts in the streets of Kampala. They were donated by Scandinavian countries. The kids throw rocks at them and break the lights. The government does not have the money to replace the bulbs, nor money to hire police to guard the lampposts. Therefore they are there but they don't work. Again, because they are free of charge, the community does not perceive them as something valuable that must be protected (the way, say, a water well is protected: children would not even think of throwing garbage in the well because they would skinned alive by their families).
This is not all too different from the problems that the West has with social programs that sometimes end up discouraging people from working and therefore "condemn" them to a life in poverty. So it's not just Africa.
It is noble and generous to give something for free to the poorer people, but the implications are not trivial. When you have to buy an object with hard work, your relationship with that object is different than when it is just given to you.
Another side effect of the numerous aid agencies that flock to these countries is that they create inflation. I am not sure if anybody has done any study about this, but the numbers are scary. Cities like Gulu (northern Uganda) and Juba (capital of southern Sudan) are so expensive that only very rich people can afford to stay there. The foreign workers can afford to spend a lot of money (and they are really bad at bargaining), so the prices keep going up until they reach the same cost of living as in the West. Most foreigners are paid by NGOs (aid agencies)(although notice the amazing waste of charity money) but how can the natives survive when prices double and triple and quadruple within a few years?
Why the Congo
Monday, November 9, 2009, 12:33 PM
What's special about Congo, that makes one wish to visit it even if it's in the middle of multiple civil wars.
Congo is a historical and geographical fault-line between:
* an arid zone and a tropical zone
* the land of great deserts and the land of great rivers
* the Arab world and the "black" world
* the land of the slave traders (first Arabs, then Europeans) and the land of the slaves
* the land of the gold traders (first Arabs and then Portuguese) and the land of the gold
* Islam and Christianity
* the land of the desert oases and the land of the jungle villages
* the Anglosaxon world (East Africa) and the Latin world (West Africa)
It's difficult to find another place on the planet that marks the border between so many different cultures and historical backgrounds.
And maybe that's the very reason that this country has always had so many problems.
However, i tend to think that the original blame goes to Belgium. Congo was worse than a colony: it was a personal territory of the king of Belgium, the evil Leopolde, who proceeded to exterminate the Congolese and steal the gold. The country never truly recovered from that trauma.
Then Belgium (with help from France and the USA) also engineered the coup that overthrew Lumumba and installed Mobutu, one of Africa's most corrupt dictators.
European corporations still control most of the wealth of the Congo that is currently being stolen out of the country by Rwandan, Ugandan and local militias since the 1997 civil war that ousted Mobutu and that has already killed 2.5 million people.
Nobody really has an interested in stopping the war: an honest central government would mean higher costs for the European corporations that today benefit from this situation.
Congo is cursed with all the mineral resources that the world wants. First it was gold, then diamonds and now coltan (columbo-tantalite). Coltan is a key ingredient of your cellular telephone. The booming demand for cell phones has caused a shortage of coltan. Guess what: that caused a surge in the civil war of Congo. To control the situation 90 international companies joined in a "Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center" http://www.tanb.org . And guess where it is based: Brussells, Belgium.
Read this good summary of the "coltan" war and how indirectly we are all helping the war continue:
Kampala (Uganda) to Goma (Congo) via Rwanda
Tuesday, November 10, 2009, 01:16 AM
This evening i leave for Congo with a Horizon bus.
My concerns are
* Photography is not allowed, apparently. This of course is very annoying. I'll have to get there in order to find out how strictly they enforce the law. But unfortunately i have heard other French-speaking countries that have the same restrictions on tourists.
* Police corruption in Congo is colossal, apparently. It's not the Hutu rebels or the various warlords that you have to fear but the people in uniform.
* The cost of living could be very high, as all places that have a lot of foreign aid workers (see the notes on Uganda below).
* I still have no idea if i can fly from Goma to Kinshasa (the capital). Traveling overland through a dozen civil wars is not an option, of course.
* Bus from Kampala to Goma: Horizon bus, leaves at 7pm, arrives at 10am, 30K shillings ($17)
* Tourist visa for Congo: $80, one day (the embassy is near the air strip)
Why not Sudan
Tuesday, November 10, 2009, 01:20 AM
Sudan was on my list of desiderata, but the situation is really a bit too complicated.
Sudan was engulfed in a 20-year civil war between the government and the "rebels" of the South (this was before Darfur). Two million people died, mostly civilians of the South. If you put together all the people who have died in all the other wars of the Arab world (including all the wars with Israel, the two intifadas, the Algerian and Lebanese civil wars, the current civil war in Iraq and the Iraq-Iran war), you still don't get two million deaths. More people were killed in Sudan than in all of those wars combined. Still, that massacre is not widely known. I have my own ideas about the bias of the media. We support a homeland for the Palestinians but somehow don't care much for other people whose land is "occupied" by governments that they never wanted. The media even spent more time on Darfur (that killed "only" 200,000 people) than on South Sudan.
South Sudan is mostly animistic ("pagan") and Christian.
The peace treaty that followed the civil war granted the south a referendum in 2010. I suspect that the Sudanese government hoped to solve the issue before 2010 without a referendum, but instead the South is preparing to declare independence and all. The South is mostly run by the SPLM, the old rebel army. The North has little control over the South.
In Uganda there are physically two embassies, and most people only know the SPLM embassy (Uganda borders on South Sudan).
To visit Khartoum (Sudan's capital) and the pyramids, one needs a visa from Sudan (northern Sudan). This is extremely complicated and they vastly exceeded my patience. I may try again at the end of the trip if i still have a few spare days.
To visit the South (e.g. Juba, the capital), one needs a visa from the SPLM, which one can even get at the border. The catch is that Juba has become an extremely expensive city (see below the notes on Uganda for what happens when foreign aid agencies flock to town). The other catch is that a visa to South Sudan by the SPLM has no validity in the rest of Sudan.
Everybody is afraid of what will happen in 2010. The people of the South are clearly pro-independence. But the government of Sudan is unlikely to accept that 1/3rd of the country secedes. It would be a first in the Arab world, and only the second time in the Islamic world (the previous time was when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and that caused 600,000 deaths).
If the government of Sudan does not accept the referendum and invades the South, there is a serious chance of a bigger war, with Uganda and Ethiopia supporting the SPLM while Libya and Eritrea support the north.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 09:05 AM
Got to Goma ok.
Internet insanely slow. And only one place has it.
Congo is the 125th country that i have visited in my life.
I *love* to cross borders and today i crossed a few. None was trivial.
The bus left yesterday evening at 7pm. We reached the border with Rwanda at 6am after crossing the mountains. Immigration in Rwanda is a delight for people like me who hated plastic already 40 years ago: plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda and Rwanda strictly enforces the law. Therefore all passengers must open their bags and remove all plastic bags, no matter what. All plastic bags are confiscated by the customs officers. I saw women cry when they were told that all their bread, vegetable, etc had to be unwrapped. Rwanda's customs provides paper bags though. This took easily two hours. I have seen such a thorough search of the passengers only in Tibet.
Unfortunately, plastic bottles of water are still allowed. Those are by far the main offenders. In Uganda plastic bottles are de facto banned: all your favorite sodas are available only in glass bottle.
That was the Kisoro border crossing. The bus company didn't tell me that i had to go through real immigration in Rwanda: a transit visa for Rwanda is $60. Luckily i have the USA passport. USA citizens are the only ones who are exempt from visas. Otherwise this trip to Congo would have been quite expensive.
Rwanda is the success story of this part of the world. Since the 1994 genocide, it has had spectacular progress. It's hard to recognize it.
The streets are clean, the road are paved, the villages are neatly organized in grids. And, lo and behold, they have a relatively honest government. This has become the model country of Africa.
The next border crossing was with Congo. This would have been a breeze if the border officials had cooperated, but they found a problem in my visa. Luckily the Rwandan officials cooperated and did something illegal to make my Italian passport legal (i have my Congo visa on the Italian passport, which in retrospect was a bad idea).
I had to argue a bit and of course you realize that you are arguing with guards who probably used to be soldiers and have killed people with machetes. All's well what ends well: after 15 minutes the Rwandans solved the problem and suddenly, realizing that there was no way to get a bribe from me, the Congolese became very friendly and helped me find a cheap hotel right by the border (downtown Goma is 2 kms aways).
Goma, the Congolese border town on the Lake Kivu (Lake Tanganyka), looks like a peaceful town, despite the civil wars (plural) that are raging in the jungle nearby. The infrastructure is very basic, but a few months of peace have already made a difference. There are new hotels by the beach. The currency is the dollar. The only banknotes that are accepted are those that are in perfect conditions. Keep them in your pocket for five minutes and nobody will want them. The war is visible: i have never seen so many United Nations vehicles and i hear planes every 10 minutes. Unfortunately today is a cloudy day so i cannot see the volcano that covered the town with lava. In many streets the lava is still there and you walk on it.
There are basically two tiers of prices. One is expensive and is for the United Nations and foreign aid workers: hotels, restaurants, flights, etc. The other one is very cheap and is for the locals: street food, market items, motorcycle taxis, etc.
Check-in at the tiny airport is an adventure in itself. You have to check in early in the morning for a flight in the afternoon (that will almost certainly be delayed by many hours).
Then you keep the luggage with you. All of this should be simple enough but the confusion is such that de facto it's best to hire one of the many kids and ladies who offer to help you.
Then you can go back to town and return one hour before flight time.
In the evening you can see sparks coming out of the volcano. Quite a show.
The border official told me that one can get a visa at the border for $35. If true, this makes it a lot cheaper and faster than applying for a visa in a nearby capital.
However, one border official's law is not necessarily another border official's law.
The road to the airport is probably the most interesting. Unfortunately don't even think of pulling out your camera.
First there are the slums. Then the refugees (entire trucks full of them). Then the United Nations military camp with lots of tanks. Then the airport.
Now i'm going back to the airport for my flight to Kinshasa...
No photography: this is a war zone.
Motorcycle around time for foreigners is about 500 francs. To the airport is 600.
Internet $1 but extremely slow.
Restaurants are actually cheap. There is virtually no difference between a restaurant and a hotel, as only hotels have food and only restaurants have rooms.
Favorite restaurant: Soleil Place (buffet or main entrees for $5)
Hotels by the lake include: Mukata Lodge, Breeze, Linda. The cheapest in town is Tony's Guesthouse $20.
But all of them can be bargained down to a reasonable price. The Breeze is brand new and had no customers, so it was willing to give me a $60 room for $30.
To reach the Mukata lodge when coming from Rwanda, it is located just after the border post with Rwanda on the lake.
Walk no more than 100 meters and turn right into a narrow alley and walk to the end of it.
A motorcycle to the center is 500 francs (half a dollar).
It's safe, quiet and cheap.
All hotels have mosquito nets.
Thursday, November 12, 2009, 03:43 AM
Reached Kinshasa and it was my lucky day: on the plane i met two missionaries who took me to their hostel, so i didn't have to look for a hotel and i have the cheapest room in town.
If you can picture a city with 8 million people and no running water, welcome to Kinshasa. Quite an experience.
Everybody had told me how corrupt the police officers are. It took about five minutes from landing to find out in person. I narrowly escaped arrest (i'm not sure for what offense). This time they explicitly asked me for money. It was actually quite funny.
The good news is that the Internet is a bit faster than in Goma.
Tomorrow i desperately need to find a way to get some cash. This is a cash0only country and i am rapidly running out of it. And most of the cash is not good because they only accept immaculate USA banknotes. One scratch or a little stain and your money is worthless.
Now i realize that the climate in Uganda, Rwanda and Lake Kivu/Tanganika is really nice. Here it's what i was expecting: extremely hot and humid.
Unfortunately everybody keeps warning me that photography is a serious offense. You can be detained for it.
Ordinary people will alert the police if they see you pull out a camera. This regime is raising a generation that will think taking pictures is a crime. It will take decades to change their attitude, even if they clean up on police corruption.
I'm too tired now and it's getting dark (not a good idea to be out after dark). Tomorrow i'll figure out how to get cash and what to see.
Brazzaville (the capital of the other Congo) is just one ferry away across the river, so i have an easy escape exit.
I am staying at the Centre Lasallien in Kintambo. The room is normally $40 but i bargained it down to $20. No running water.
The neighborhood is safe and has several internet cafes and stores. No real restaurants but plenty of grocery stores. Transportation to town takes a while, whether through Magazine or Bandal.
Friday, November 13, 2009, 10:56 AM
I spent the day exploring Kinshasa. It's a colossal city, even just the downtown area. Blocks are very long. It is difficult to walk because things are ten times farther from you than you'd guess from the map. By evening i was exhausted and had destroyed my shoes.
It's a relatively quiet city. Until you get to the real downtown, the vast boulevards absorb traffic very easily and so noise is relatively low. People are very friendly. I steered away of police officers, who rarely miss a chance to ask you for money. Everybody else is polite and helpful. Even in the market and at the port i never had the perception of danger. As far as i can tell, there is no crime in Kinshasa. The only major annoyance is the police. This is a city that does not have beggars, but has police officers begging.
It is also a city without postcards.
Not only is photogrqphy illegql but they don't even have postcards or books with pictures of the city.
It is hard to estimate how cheap or expensive it is. Some things (like the local "taxis" which are really buses) are very cheap.
Other things are not, from food to internet.
The one thing that is expensive (for what you get) is accommodation: it is virtually impossible to find something below $30, and for that price you get the most basic of rooms with no bathroom and no mosquito net.
Unfortunately i picked a really sunny day to be in Kinshasa. When there are no clouds, the temperature is astronomical.
The plan for tomorrow is to cross the Congo river to Brazzaville, the capital of the other Congo. In theory i can get the visa upon arrival.
In practice there's a chance they will send me back and i will be stuck in between two countries (my visa for Congo is for one entry only).
I will spend the weekend in the other Congo and then apply for visas to Gabon and Cameroon and see what i get.
Between Microsoft software, the French keyboard and the slow connection, entering my notes is a nightmare. I'm going back to the hotel to eat my dinner and hopefully take a shower (with the bucket). I'll check email tomorrrow from Brazzaville.
There are cheap hotels in Matonge (Ave de la Victoire) and in just about all the suburbs.
There is an ATM at the Grand Hotel.
Lots of banks downtown have the signs for credit cards.
Change money in the street: money changers have a little booth and openly display huge piles of banknotes. Obviously no thieves around.
There are three supermarkets in town, best one being City Market.
There are two ways to cross the river: the fast ferry $25 and the big slow ferry. Either way you have to go through hell first. The place where they sell the tickets (the Beach) is heavily patroled which means lots of cops. The fast ferry departs every 30 minutes.
Saturday, November 14, 2009, 09:56 AM
The plan was to cross the river but this morning it was raining heavily (first day of rain since i arrived in Africa) and i figured being a saturday i could as well stay where i was.
Later i spent another tiring day walking around Kinshasa. I literally had to buy new shoes after yesterday's marathon.
All in all, downtown Kinshasa is expensive by USA standards. A soda is $1 at the supermarket. Internet is $1.50 per hour. Etc.
I think there are very few places left on the planet when one feels rich with USA dollars.
It might also be the effect of the african franc from across the river: most Francophone countries in Africa have a common currency, the CFA (Centrafrican Franc), that is more or less tied to the euro, and therefore much stronger than the dollar.
After a few days the while SUVs of the United Nations and the European Union begin to get on your nerves. These are spoiled people from Western countries who get a highly-paid vacation in an exotic country but will never experience the real Africa. And why does it have to be an SUV? Can't they drive a small car like everybody else? Your tax dollars at work...
Sociological note. Here the government is making no effort to spread the English language, but another factor is having the same effect: Google. In every cafe i see the students searching for articles and most of what they found is in English. That's how they become more and more fluent in English. Their spoken English is terrible but you can tell that their vocabulary is quite rich.
Brazzaville, the northwestern Congo
Sunday, November 15, 2009, 07:42 AM
Quite a bit of turmoil at the immigration, but everything else is fine (very fine in fact).
Of course the worst part was leaving Congo Kinshasa. The police do not miss an opportunity to show how corrupt they are. Literally every single person in uniform i encountered during the procedure asked for money. I did not give any but it is not a relaxing experience.
After the hell with Kisnhasa's immigration and customs, you take the ferry from Kinshasa across the Congo river (no photos allowed, of course) and the other side is the other Congo. Same name, different country. I thought i could get the visa upon arrival but the chief of police was inflexible. Eventually he gave me a 3-day transit visa. Three days is pretty much what i wanted. Of course it is safer to have a three-month visa, in case something goes wrong, but three days should be enough to see the city and exit the country.
At the immigration office i met the first tourists since starting the trip (i don't count my friend Paul as a tourist, nor the crowds of United Nations and foreign aid agencies). They were exiting and i was entering, so we only had ten seconds to speak but we exchange as much information as you can exchange in ten seconds. Most importantly they told me that Brazzaville is a very safe city and there is no police corruption. What a sigh of relief. Unfortunately the news i gave to them was exactly the opposite, but they had already heard.
They told me that a visa for Gabon is virtually impossible to obtain. We shall see. Worst case i skip Gabon, but it would mean another flight. I prefer to travel overland to see the country and the people.
So the good news is that this is paradise compared with Kinshasa. I can take all the pictures i like. People could care less. Police could care less. I just crossed the entire market, narrow alley by narrow alley and nobody was upset that i used the camera. No cops asking for money.
And my perecption is that there is absolutely no crime and no hassle in this city.
Best sight in town is the Cathedral of St Anne, built in 1949.
There is also a prominent mosque in the middle of the market and you do see quite a few women wearing the burqa.
I found a decent hotel in the Poto Poto district, which is walking distance from the ferry landing.
The infrastructure does not seem to be much better. Every business has its own generator, so it looks like there is no city-provided electricity. For example, to get water, the hotel needs to run the pump which requires running the generator. There are millions of green taxis in the street and a few minivans (the ones confusingly called taxis in Kinshasa).
People are way more elegant in Kinshasa, especially girls. Here they look like provincial people compared with Kinshasa.
Also, there is a lot more garbage in the street. Kinshasa was quite clean for being such a big metropolis. Brazzaville is filthy, mainly because of the plastic bottles and plastic bags. I saw a little creek that was completely covered with half a meter of plastic debris.
Congo Brazzaville belongs to the CFA area, and the CFA is stronger than the dollar, so here they are not easily impressed by a $100 bill
and they don't change anything smaller than a $10.
Change in the streets, like in Kinshasa.
The plan for tonight was to eat a good meal at a real restaurant but i haven't seen any. I just bought some bread and cheese. My hotel has a restaurant but, again, it works only when the generator works...
The plan for tomorrow is to go to the embassy of Gabon and inquire about a tourist visa. If denied, go to the embassy of Cameroon. That visa should be easy to obtain. (If denied i would be in big trouble because i MUST leave the country in three days and i have no intention of going back to Kinshasa).
Internet a lot faster if you find a place where the generator is running. Otherwise no Internet at all.
Brazzavile transit visa: $70 plus 4,000 CFA of taxes
Hotel Siringo1: 12,500 CFA (good value with bathroom and A/C walking distance from the center)
Gabon 15-day visa: 65,500 for same day delivery
Cameroon visa: 50,000 in one day or even same day
Second day in Congo Brazzaville
Monday, November 16, 2009, 09:57 AM
I got the visa for Gabon in four hours. This is notoriously difficult to get, so either i am unbelievably lucky or unbelievably stupid (because there's something i don't know).
Tomorrow morning i will take a bus to the border post of Evo and i will find out. On the other side i should reach the city of Franceville in Gabon. I have no information about it. Then i will have to reach Libreville. In Libreville i want to apply for the visa to Cameroon (so it is important to arrive before thursday) and ask if Equatorial Guinea also requires a visa.
Funny that these countries that desperately need tourists make it so difficult to obtain a tourist visa.
Assorted notes on Brazzaville:
* Downtown is about 50% more expensive than Kinshasa, which means it is approximately European prices (more than USA)
* It is getting difficult to find a country anywhere in the developing world where you feel rich if you are carrying dollars.
* It is getting harder to find drinks in glass bottle. I am surviving on grenadine (big glass bottle)
* The ubiquitous packets of purified water are a great invention because here all the streams of water are heavily polluted. However all the plastic packets that people thrown in the river contribute to pollute it even more. Without the water packets, they would all be sick. With them, they have good water but the environment suffers even more. Hard to choose.
* It is a relief to walk in streets without any white SUV of the United Nations or European Union
* I cannot tire of taking pictures of Kinshasa across the river. It is my personal revenge against Congo Kinshasa.
From Congo to Gabon
Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 11:31 AM
When one travels to Africa one expects adventure. In most cases it is not you who go to the adventure but adventure that comes to you when you least expect it.
So i just had 24 hours of really intense adventure.
After obtaining the visa, i asked around about going to Gabon overland. Almost everybody advised me to go through Evo, which i will never know where it is.
Then at an Internet cafe i met a kid from Rwanda who lives in Jambala and swore that it's a short cut.
On the map it made perfect sense. Early yesterday morning i took the bus to Jambala and then on to the last town called Lekana.
Lekana will remain for a long time in my memory. After six hours we arrived to the town and by then i had learned that there was no way to go back.
Therefore i had to cross the same night. Alas, the natives informed me that transportation to Gabon was close to zero. You have to rely on someone organizing a car.
I felt lucky when a lady borded the bus and told me that she had such a car waiting for her.
Once in town, we headed for the "formalities". That's when the adventure began.
It turns out that this Lekana is a nest of thieves. The town itself is just a short strip of homes. Then there is another strip of buildings and those are government offices.
There are three for foreigners who are passing by: the gendarmerie, the commissariat and the immigration. They are run by the three gangsters who own the town.
The first one informed that i will be asked to pay at each of them. I protested that my passport was perfectly ok and i had a valid visa for Gabon. He could care less.
At least he was kind. The second one was the worst: a fascist police officer who would have gladly shot me after i insulted him by pretty much calling him a thief in front of everybody.
He told me that i was denied exit and would be detained in town for an unlimited amount of days.
The lady who was with me begged me to pay the amount he was asking, otherwise her own trip would be compromised.
I paid swearing to myself that i will report it to the first embassy of Congo Brazzaville. Then the immigration officer was by far the nicest of the three, all smooth talk and no threats, but at that point,
after four hours of excruciating psychological torture, not many people are in the mood to start another fight.
I am skipping a lot of details of the confrontation.
Finally we were ready to leave. The driver of the car got his papers approved.
We got on the car, and then i finally found out how far the border was: 200 kms!
Yes, i know, how can one be so dumb not to enquire about the other side?
Well, normally the town on the other side is walking distance. This is the exception to the rule: between Lekana in Congo Brazzaville and Leconi in Gabon there is a grueling 200 kms of jungle tracks (and sometimes no track at all),
and yes just as muddy and devastated as in the movies.
The car was a 4WD, of course, with 8 passengers. I paid more to sit in the front. I am not sure how people survive in the back.
The car had a left tire at the very start so the driver had to change the tire while we were still in the range of the chief of police, whom of course i was not in any mood to meet again.
After an excruciating 30 minutes, we left, and of course we came back right away because they had forgotten something (this is normal in Africa).
It was almost getting dark and, while i was beginning to understand the dimension of the journey, i was a bit upset that the two owners of the car were arguing whether to go or spend the night in Lekana (imagine how little i desired to spend the night there).
Finally the driver won (mainly he was completely drunk and probably did not appreciate the danger of driving that route in the dark).
After one hour i was amazed that i was still alive. I had begun to realize the condtions of the road.
Luckily the other man prevailed and we decided to sleep in a village. And this was really an African village like you see it on (old) movies. No electricity, no water, no nothing.
We slept under the stars (except there were no stars because it was cloudy).
I slept near the car, thinking if it starts raining i'll crawl underneath.
I was the first one to wake up. It took forever for the others to wake up and get ready.
Finally we left again. Then the dimension of the trip became even more obvious: i could see absolutely nothing but vegetation to the horizon. The border between the two countries is basically a vast uninhabited plateau.
The tracks get better and worse depending how muddy they are, but the speed is rarely more than 30 km/h (and you definitely don't want the driver to go faster)(even if he was now sober).
The car had to stop countless time because it was overheating (luckily we always found water) and every time we had to push because the batteries were dead.
At 2pm i had a vision: a paved road. It wasn't a vision: we were finally in Gabon.
The moment we hit the town of Leconi the landscape changed dramatically: perfectly well paved roads, nice buildings and even two French engineers who were planning a new road.
Maybe they had the same experience i had.
I was ready to have another confrontation with another corrupt official, and insult Gabon and all. Instead guess what: the most friendly immigration official ever.
He welcomed me to Gabon with a smile, stamped the passport and even let me use the restrooms.
I was shocked he didn't ask for money. I was free. Even better: he stopped a shared taxi for me and told them where to take me and even told me how much i should pay.
Suddenly i was a privileged white tourist again.
First of all, i have to say that this was the only negative experience in Congo Brazzaville. Everybody was super-friendly and honest. You don't even have to bargain the price of a taxi.
I will write to the embassies of Brazzaville both here in Gabon and in the USA.
The experience of Lekana is surreal. It was like a town coming out of an old Hollywood movie or one of those terrible exotic novels.
Second, i have to say that in retrospect i liked it. I am still very angry at the corrupt officials that run it like their own banana republic,
but in retrospect it was interesting that for one day (the hours i spent in their offices and the hours i spent on the road to Gabon) i was no longer
the privileged white tourist who can always hope for help. I was absolutely nobody, at the mercy first of these crooks and then of the natural elements.
Now i am a privileged tourist again: after that experience, i really notice.
Everything is easier for us. The police did not search my luggage at the first police stop. The hotel manager went out of his way to selling me one of his best rooms for a very reasonable price.
Everybody wants me to dine at their restaurant here in Franceville where i just arrived.
You really appreciate the value of honesty and decency and security when you lost all of them for 24 hours and you were little more than a scared animal.
Brazzaville-Lekana: 7000 CFA from Mikuli station about6 hours
Lekana-Leconi in Gabon: bargain at the border if there is any car that is going. I paid 35,000.
Make sure it's a 4WD or you'll never make it.
There is a nice hotel in Lekana if you are stranded there.
Anyway, everybody told me that the best way to get to Gabon is via Okoyo and Edo and now i know why.
Once in Leconi (Gabon), it's a piece of cake. The immigration formalities take a few minutes.
Then the officials themselves will summon a car for you.
Shared cars cost 2000 CFA to Franceville (almost 100 kms but excellent fast road)
Another 1000 CFA and you are in the Potos market area of Franceville, with plenty of accommodation and restaurants and shops.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 03:08 PM
Gabon is the 127th country that i have visited in my life.
Franceville is a nice relaxed town in the mountains of Gabon, quite far from the capital Libreville.
It doesn't feel African at all. It is not crowded and it is not olluted. I don't see much poverty.
Not sure if all of Gabon is like this, but i wonder why the visa for Gabon is notoriously difficult to obtain.
I was amazed at the efficiency of the train station, where i purchased a train ticket on my own (usually you need to hire a native to fend the crowds, and that's assuming there is a train at all) and where they even issued the ticket using a computer.
This really feels like paradise compared with Congo Brazzaville.
Franceville is spread out. It looks more like a federation of small towns. I am staying around the market of Potos. It has a strong Arab influence. I can tell an Arab market because the variety multiplies, the quality increases and the prices decrease (if you know how to bargain).
Tomorrow i will be on the train to Libreville. I am not sure if the train arrives the same day or the following one: i was so surprised by their organization that i forgot to ask.
A couple of meditations.
When i take the African "bush taxi" with six passengers in a compact car i always think of how spoiled people are in the USA: most of my friends insist on renting a bigger car (probably twice the size of an African car) just when we are four. It feels weird to squeeze four people in a car in the USA. We need a much much much bigger recession.
Maybe it was the consequence of my scare in Lekana, but the other thing i was thinking while on the way from Leconi to Franceville in
the bush taxi was that most of these people are actually richer than the average USA citizen. The average USA citizen has a net worth that is negative: she or he owes more money than she or he has.
Here nobody owes money: there are no credit cards and there are certainly no mortgages. You buy what you have cash for.
By definition they have a net worth that is positive.
And still the average USA citizen can afford (and actually takes for granted) a lot more than these people, from a midsize car for four
people, to AC in the car, from nice clothes to (gasp) a personal car.
When i focus on this paradox, there is no doubt in my mind that a massive crisis has to hit the USA to restore the balance.
It is just common sense. The debtors cannot possibly live a nicer life than the ones who have no debts at all.
Something is very rotten in Western society.
Which brings me to a political meditation. These countries are clearly catching up. The gap between the middle class in the West and the middle class in the developing world (and even in Africa) is shrinking by the day. The roads are paved, the sidewalks are clean, everybody seems to have a job. Compare with New York, for example, where you see rats in the streets and crowds of unemployed teenagers roaming the neighborhoods at night. Gone are the days when the streets of Africa were full of naked children begging for food (and it wasn't that long ago). The problem is that we (the West) desperately need these countries to remain poor in order to guarantee our standard of living. Our standard of living heavily depends on the easy and cheap availability of their mineral resources. Our favorite electronic gadgets, our appliances and our cars would cost a lot more if these countries charged a lot more for their raw materials. The reason that the prices are not adjusting as fast as they should (as fast as oil did, for example) is that the West (especially Europe, that has few minerals of its own) keep in power corrupt governments. They sell us their precious minerals very cheap and we sell them arms that help keep the government in power. The average person gets an indirect benefit because this system creates jobs, both in the private sector (a fallout of the Western or Chinese exploitation) and in the public sector (governments get richer and bigger). But the truth is that this system mainly benefits the Western consumer, who keeps enjoying a much higher standard of living based on materials that the West does not own.
However, this system cannot continue forever. The middle class of these countries demands more and more honesty from their governments. This will inevitably lead to more awareness about the natural resources of the African countries. Your cell phone would not exist or would cost 10 times more if Congo did not sell coltan very cheap. Something is wrong with the fact that you can afford a cell phone and the people who live near the mines of coltan cannot afford a decent meal.
For the record in 2004 one dollar was 600 CFAs: in 2009 one dollar is 450 CFAs. The CFA has risen 22% in just five years.
Practicalities for Franceville
Leconi to Franceville 2000 CFA in shared taxi (bush taxi). One hour.
Very fast road.
Lots of shared taxis around.
Franceville entrance to Potos market 1000 CFA.
Hotel Pere Meduba in Potos market 11,000 with AC and tv
Near the Potos market there are cheap hotels (mine is the most expensive) and several restaurants, from very expensive ($7 for a pasta dish) to very cheap.
Train to Libreville 39000
From Franceville to Libreville, Gabon
Friday, November 20, 2009, 11:19 AM
The 12-hour train ride from Franceville to Libreville (the capital of Gabon) was a delight.
Thankfully they only have a day train on thursdays so i was not tempted to take the night train. The landscape started with the same deserted plateau that i knew from the Congo-Gabon ride. Then we started coasting huge rivers, one after the other, with related jungle. Still no people. I had to wonder where the people of Gabon live. And still no animals. The whole way from Congo to Gabon across the huge plateau i could only see a couple of birds and two "shacals" (something in between a coyote and a rabbit). I have to assume that wildlife was exterminated by humans because otherwise it wouldn't make sense (there are plenty of water and vegetation).
Note that the train left on time (10:15am), a rarity even in Italy, and we had assigned seats.
We arrived in Libreville at 10pm and i was a bit concerned about finding a hotel. Libreville is notoriously expensive and the train station is far from the center. A very nice passenger and a very nice taxi driver ("taxi" here always means "shared taxi") helped me find a terrible place halfway between the station and the center, but at least it was cheap.
This morning i moved to a hotel for Catholic missionaries. There is lodging at the cathedral of St Marie itself, but it was full. They sent me to the nearby hotel where they send all of the missionaries, called Maison Liebermann. The official price is 30,000 CFAs (like most places in town), which would be about $70 but i easily bargained it down to 10,000 CFAs ($22), which is the lowest i've been able to bargain in Francophone Africa so far. I have the best hotel of the entire trip: large, clean, excellent bathroom. I even even hot water (not sure what for, since it's very hot outside).
As an additional bonus, i realized only now (evening) that the hotel is located right next to a huge market. It is very reminiscent of the Arab bazaar. I bought new underwear for less than $1 each, short pants for $2, etc. Libreville might be an expensive city (i still haven't found a restaurant that has any entree for less than $7) but the market is incredibly cheap. I found it at the end of my tour of the city, so i had the backpack with camera, passport and lots of money, and i didn't feel any danger.
So far crime has never been an issue during this trip.
After changing hotel and getting money from an ATM (this is still a cash-only country), i went to the embassy of Cameroon to apply for the visa. I got it in two hours.
Next i went to the embassy of Equatorial Guinea to ask if i need a visa to go there (the idea was to go from Gabon to EG and then to Cameroon in one or two days). Alas, the border of Equatorial Guinea is closed to tourists because they are having elections. I cannot enter the country until wednesday. Hence i have a new plan: on sunday i will travel from Libreville to Oyem to Bitam, sleep in Bitam, then cross the border on monday and take transportation to Yaunde (capital of Cameroon).
Train from Franceville to Libreville 39,000 CFAs 12 hours (arrives in Owedo, 8 kms south of the center of Libreville, only one expensive hotel nearby)
Hotel New York 10,000 CFAs Quartier Dzangue (carrefour "Un Peu de Tout")
Hotel Libermann 10,000 CFAs near Gare Routiere ++
Visa for Cameroon: 51,000 CFAs ($110) in two hours
ATM for international banks at BIGIG/Prestige Agency.
Friday, November 20, 2009, 11:38 AM
Libreville is an interesting city. I expected some boring faceless capital, Instead it has the most impressive architecture of any city i have seen in Africa so far. I am not sure how legal it is that i am taking pictures of every government building (and i'll try to burn a CD here tonight) but those buildings are truly impressive. They would be major attractions even in New York.
Gabon obviously has money. This is a richer country by any African standard. It was already famous for gold and diamond when it was a French colony. Then they found oil (although not as much as neighboring Equatorial Guinea) as well as countless minerals that Western Europe and China need (chrome, manganese, etc).
The country has been ruled by the same president for almost 50 years: Bongo. He is probably the longest serving leader of any country in the world. Apparently he has a bodyguard of about 1,000 French and Moroccan soldiers. There are many white people in town and i suspect they are mostly French. They are definitely not tourists. They drive around in big expensive cars. I would guess they are all businessmen staying in the big hotels or in private residences.
Whatever the politics, Gabon is clearly more modern than the neighboring countries. Even Uganda looks primitive by this standards.
I found one neighborhood (where the amazing church of St Pierre is) that feels totally like a quiet relaxed village in Provence. Nobody ever approached me to sell anything. No hassle no crime.
I don't know how much of the wealth trickles down to the middle class, but the train from Franceville to Libreville was $85 and it was full.
I had seen no plastic from Brazzaville to Franceville. Here in Libreville it's everywhere. I'm back to the Western world of hyper-pollution. I still found juice in cartons and sodas in cans but plastic bags and plastic bottles are everywhere (and completely cover every stream of water). The reason for plastic of course is that the manufacturer makes a little more money by packaging his drink in plastic instead of glass. That profit is not passed on to the consumer, because the cost of the drink remains the same. It is just a little more profit for the manufacturer. However, the counterpart is that all this plastic is a huge cost for society: someone has to clean up. In the West we pay taxes so that cities can set up expensive services of recycling (which pollute anyway: it does pollute to drive all those trucks around and it does pollute to burn plastics). Here they haven't done it yet, but soon these cities will overflow with so much plastic garbage that the government will have to do something about it. So in the end plastic is a profit for a few but a cost for all.
I was re-reading what i wrote about the rule of law. I have written a note for the embassy of Congo Brazzaville and will deliver it tomorrow, hoping to help clean up corruption in Lekana. However, i honestly feel that i am the wrong pulpit. We (Western Europeans) like to lecture everybody but lecturing Africans about honestly is laughable. We (Western Europeans) are the number-one crooks in the world, responsible for most evils of the world (fascism, communism, colonialism, slaverym and now global warming that started with the mass deforestation of Europe). On top of it, it is pretty obvious that Western Europeans still run the show in Africa through corrupt proxy governments. (Western Europeans love to blame the USA for all of this, but the truth is that the USA has most of its own natural resources, whereas the likes of France and Germany and Britain depend much more on African resources, not to mention oil, than the USA does, and the USA is visible only in Equatorial Guinea, otherwise it's all Western Europeans and Chinese who control the economies).
Of course the counter-argument is that Africans were not using any of their resources until the Europeans came, so why shouldn't Europeans take advantage. Both arguments have some foundation, as long as we don't hide the facts.
Hotel Libermann 10,000 CFAs near Gare Routiere ++
Visa for Cameroon: 51,000 CFAs ($110) in two hours
Bus to Oyem/Bitam (border with Cameroon) leaves from PK8 carrefour.
Saturday, November 21, 2009, 11:11 AM
Mostly a day of rest. Gabon is really an island of peace and honesty in this region.
I bought the bus ticket for Bitam (border with Cameroon). I will be traveling the whole day tomorrow the 22nd.
I explored the "quartiers" to the south and to the north. They are even wealthier than downtown. It is difficult to meet the white people in town because they travel in their own vehicles. I met one at the biggest supermarket. He said he works for a bank and didn't really want to say much. I think they are all businessmen from France.
Anyway, he complained that sometimes he needs to bargain a price. That's why he shops at the supermarket. I politely commented that this is one country where one doesn't need to bargain (relatively speaking). In Congo they easily ask you three times more than the running price. Anyway, he said that bargaining is not a civilized manner and that it wastes his time. I asked him what he does in France when the price is too high, since he cannot bargain. He said that he just tries another store. And if the price is still high, he tries another store, and so on. But that led me to a thought. A Westerner who lives in a country where you cannot bargain the price will spend hours and maybe days "shopping" for a cheaper price. This involves time and money (for transportation). What makes this system more "civilized" than bargaining in an African market? When i bargain, i usually get a good price within a few minutes. If i don't, i still have the option of trying another store. But the big advantage is that in most cases i will leave the store with the good that i wanted to buy at a price that i was willing to pay. It sounds more efficient to me.
Incidentally, the supermarket where he was shopping is definitely overpriced, and it's one place where you cannot bargain on the price.
I think the reason that most Westerners prefer a system without bargaining is that bargaining requires some skills. It is a lot easier to just "shop around" than to negotiate a price. Shopping around is actually more time consuming, but it's something that does not require any skill other than knowing how to go from A to B. Bargaining instead requires a lot of psychological skills.
Bus Libreville-Bitam 12,000 CFAs (9 hours)
From Libreville to Yaounde, Cameroon
Monday, November 23, 2009, 11:03 AM
Yesterday i spent the whole day traveling by bus from Libreville to Bitam, the last town of Gabon before the border with Cameroon. I finally found a place without Internet. Bitam has several small hotels, two restaurants and a market, but no internet cafe. No electricity at night. That's how Africa used to be not many years ago. But the roads were excellent. Too excellent: Toyota has no idea that its minivans can go that fast.
This morning i walked two blocks to the immigration office to have my passport stamped. Then i boarded one of the many shared taxis that were heading for the border (pronounced Kiosi' but i found out later the spelling is quite different). There's just a bridge in between the two immigration areas. The Cameroon side was a bit scary because of my bad memory about leaving Congo: i had to register in three different places and each time i was afraid the officer would ask me for money. Instead only one person asked me for something: a cute (female) custom official who wanted my mosquito repellent. I replied that i'll buy her all the mosquito repellent she wants if she comes to visit in California. That was it. To go from one office to the next one i hired a kid on a motorcycle for a dollar. He also watched my bag.
On the other side of the broder the market is ten times bigger. Cameroon appears immediately a lot poorer than Gabon. The good news is that prices are also a lot lower.
My motorcyclist left me at the first bus agency. I had to wait two hours for a minibus going to Yaounde. Then another four hours of anxiety because there are countless (eight? ten?) police checkpoints and every time the police would single me out and check my passport. Asides from sheer incompetence (one policeman asked me why my Cameroon visa had been issues by an embassy outside Cameroon...) there was no attempt to extort bribes. The waste of time was colossal though.
Yaounde is Africa again (compared with Libreville that felt like France in many places). Again, the good news is that i get more with less money.
The really bad news is another one. The first thing i did just minutes ago was to go to a travel agency and inquire about flights to Kampala or Kigali: they are extremely expensive. I don't have that kind of cash. A major task for tomorrow. I need a way to get back to Kampala without spending more than i spent to come here!
Gabon to Cameroon:
Bus from Libreville (next to Libermann Hotel) to Bitam: 12.000 CFA 10 hours
Hotel in Bitam: Djakarta, next to bus agency, 8000 CFA
Immigration opens at 8am, two blocks away
Shared taxi to the border 1000 CFA
Motorcycle to Kye-Ossi (Cameroon side) 500 CFA
Bus Kye-Ossi to Yaunde 3000 CFA
Shared taxi from Yaounde bus station to center 400 CFA
Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 10:48 AM
Cameroon is the 128th country that i have visited in my life.
Yaounde is quite easy to explore. It is relatively quiet and most people leave you alone. There was only one guy who pretended to be from the secret police but it was pretty obvious that his id was fake.
I am waitlisted on a flight to return to Kampala but Kenyan Airlines could not charge my credit card the whole day. I was at their office early in the morning, then at two-hour intervals. They kept trying to call Nairobi (the only way to charge the credit card) but with no success. At 3pm (which is closing time in Nairobi) they gave up. I think tomorrow i will take my chances and just go to Douala (the big financial city and the main airport). Hopefully somebody somehow will find a way to charge my credit card.
The best thing for me here is the taxi system. It's the same system in all of the countries of this region, but here in Yaounde it is at its best. Basically, you just stand by the curb and wait for the taxis to show up. If they are not fully, they honk and slow down in front of you. You shout where you are going (here it's the carrefour that matters, i.e. the intersection/square). If the taxi is going in that direction, it stops and picks you up, otherwise it just drives to the next person waiting by the curb. The route of the taxi is therefore decided dynamically, based on where the current passengers have to go. It is an interesting Darwinian system.
Tonight won't be easy to eat in a quiet place. They watch 2 or 3 football games per day, and tonight it's Champions League night, so probably dozens of people watching and screaming in every restaurant.
Very little time for internet. Still lots to see. Tomorrow will be another intense day.
Too bad i won't have enough days to visit the mountains.
Hotel Ideal (carrefour Nlongkak, behind Clamantis Hotel) 8000 CFA with tv, bathroom +
Internet 300 CFA (so far it had always been 500)
Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 09:05 AM
There are three factors that make Cameroon difficult to visit
1. The frequent police checkpoints become a torture (especially for the tourists, since they are usually singled out for a thorough check). So traveling overland is a real pain. Never experienced such a pain before.
2. Domestic flights are very expensive.
3. It is not really camera-friendly (several people, with and without uniform, told me that one or another thing should be not photographed)
I met lots of tourists in town. None of us made it to the mountains, which all of us wanted to see. Just too annoying to travel by bus and too expensive to travel by air. Or, put it this way, i am not meeting the ones who accepted to pay the price and are already there.
On the bright side, my experience is that people are extremely honest and friendly. It is particularly unusual to meet taxi drivers that are honest ("taxi" here is a shared taxi).
I should be in Nairobi tomorrow. Then it shouldn't be too difficult to get back to Kampala.
For the record, Douala is hot and humid (as hot and humid as it gets), whereas Yaounde is just about right.
There is no bus to go to the airport of Semale'. If you flag a taxi downtown and ask for a "course" to the airport, they ask about 5000 CFA. Take a (shared) taxi to Mvan Carrefour (400 CFA or so) and then from there take a shared taxi to Semale' (offer 1,000 CFA or so).
Good restaurant: Pizza Roma inside the Euro supermarche' 500 meters from the Nlongkak carrefour.
Thursday, November 26, 2009, 08:55 AM
Back to Kampala. There was a flight to Juba in south Sudan but the airline insisted that i need a Sudanese visa to board a plane bound for Sudan (Juba is the capital of semi-independent south Sudan and is controlled by the SPLM that does not require the Sudanese visa, but there was not way to argue with airline regulations). Second best choice was to come back to Kampala.
Tomorrow i'll head for a village in the north where my friends Emily and Paul work for the Peace Corps. Then i hope to travel to Murchison Falls, the main attraction of the 6,000 km long Nile river.
I gave up on Sudan (see above) and Burundi (too expensive to get all these visas for these small countries, and i would have to pay $50 again to reenter Uganda that does not have multi-entry visas).
Now that i've done with my tour of Francophone central Africa i have to say that it was easier than it looked on paper, although certainly not for the faint-hearted. The number and size of obstacles is certainly significantly higher than in Eastern Africa or Francophone Africa of the west. Biggest regret was that most of Congo is off limits. Lots of terrifying stories to share that i didn't have time to enter in the blog. What you hear in the media (if you hear it at all) is just a fraction of the truth. But it is an adventurer's dream and it's too bad that one can basically visit only two cities.
The trip from Lekana to Gabon was the (involuntary) highlight of the trip so far. I will remember Lekana for as long as i live (not a good memory, but nonetheless...)
I am back in the land of bodabodas (motorcycle taxis) instead of the route-driven taxis of French Africa.
In British Africa a "taxi" is a minibus that leaves when full. In French Africa a taxi is a compact car that
drives a route and picks up passengers along the way.
The other big difference is that Uganda is a lot cheaper than French Africa (just because the CFA is so strong).
The most visible difference between my African trips at 2-3 year intervals is that more and more roads are paved.
Africa at independence (1950s) had a good infrastructure. There were railways everywhere and many roads were paved.
Then Africa plunged into half a century of warfare. Everything was destroyed in the process. What survived the wars
did not survive the corruption and ineptitude of the governments. Only recently have governments begun the process
of rebuilding the infrastructure. It doesn't take much to pave a road and it makes a huge difference for the villages
at the other end. One of the reasons why so many millions of people moved to capitals is that the capitals were the only
place with some degree of security and essential items. A paved road makes it easier to spread both to distant towns.
On the other hand, one can see the effect that "civilization" has on the local economy: as a tourist, i don't find
"typical" souvenirs anymore. Their markets have Chinese-made shirts and purses. The local artisans survive when
their villages are relatively isolated. The moment a paved road brings the goods of globalization the local artisans
make no sense anymore. Why wait two days for a tailor to sew a shirt for you when you can buy a Chinese-made shirt
at the market for the same price?
Hotel Annex 18,000 shillings ($10)
Friday, November 27, 2009, 05:23 AM
I left Kampala at 7:30am on a "taxi" to Masindi (the 18-passenger minibuses). Reached Masindi at 11am and taken
a shared taxi (the 6-passenger compact car) to Kinyara, where my friends Emily and Paul live and work.
I am at their place. Veeery small and peaceful village near a sugar plantation.
Kampala-Masindi from the central car park: 10.000 shillings ($5) 3.5 hours.
Masindi-Kinyara 30 minutes 3.000 shillings.
General notes on Central Africa.
The heart of an African city (no matter how small or big) are its bus stations and markets.
These are amazing Darwinian systems that self-adjust and self-control.
The density of people and the noise are intimidating, but they are actually a lot safer than your guidebook says.
Each driver and each seller have a vested interest in your safety. Thieves are despised: they deter not foster business.
In fact, a bus station (taxi station, gare routiere or whatever it's called in each country) is often the only place
where you can safely leave your bag visible and walk away: nobody will touch it because the driver and his coworkers
and his friends and all the passengers and even the various sellers who wander through the vehicles will watch it for you.
The difference between the market and the bus station is not obvious. A bus station "is" a market. Where there are people
(especially people who are waiting) there are sellers. A bus station is the best possible "window" for your goods: people have
nothing else to do but wait. Even a bus stop is a market. In those few minutes while the bus unloads and picks up
passengers the sellers can show the passengers their goods. ThThe store is on the road. The goods come to you.
Again, it's a Darwinian system that self-adjusts.
Even the price is Darwinian: you have to bargain it. The price
depends on how much you can spend. In the places where people have more money the prices are higher because they
are less willing to spend an hour bargaining for a discount.
You certainly see poverty in these markets and bus stations but it has become rare that children come and beg for money.
They certainly insist that you buy their goods, but they rarely simply want money.
This is a colossal change over the last decade. This continent was a continent of beggars. Now it is a continent
of traders (admittedly some of them make only a few dollars a day).
This relieves the traveler of a thorny dilemma. In the past it was difficult to say "no" to the children who
begged for money. There are two reasons to say "no". The first is obvious: if you say "yes" once, all the other
children will want money too. By giving money to one child you don't get rid of them, you attract many more of them.
The second reason is more serious: children who beg for money in the streets are children who don't go to school.
In the past very few parents would understand the long-term investment of education. They all understood the
short-term investment of sending the children to beg in the streets. Whenever a tourist gives money to a child,
the foreigner encourages the family to keep the child in the street instead of sending her/him to school.
Luckily the governments seem to be doing a good job of forcing families to send their children to school,
and those who don't go to school find it more profitable to sell goods at the bus station than simply beg.
The infrastructure is improving rapidly. Not only are roads being paved and Internet cafes can be found everywhere, but cell phone coverage is almost 100%.
Murchison Falls, Uganda
Monday, November 30, 2009, 08:35 AM
Murchison Falls is the main park for wildlife in Uganda: elephants, gyraffes, antelopes, hippos, etc.
Murchison Falls itself is a place where the Nile river shrinks to a few meters wide.
$30 entrance ticket
About 2 hours from Masindi
The main place to see animals is the Delta Point
Sesse Beach, Lake Victoria, Uganda
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 10:24 PM
Last day of my African trip.
Entebbe Backpackers 30,000 shillings for a double
Kampala restaurant Habesha (Ethiopian) on Kampala Rd
Pictures of Uganda, the two Congos, Gabon, Cameroon
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