Always in the deep woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is an ancient fear of the unknown and is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. -- Wendell Berry

The TRIP: GUINEA - wonkifong --> MALI - bamako, djenne, douentza, Dogon Country --> Burkina Faso - ouagadougou, bobo-dioulasso, bala, ouagadougou --> GHANA - tamale, mole national park, tamale, yeji, volta lake ferry, akosombo, accra, green turtle lodge, elmina, cape coast, accra, hohoe and wli falls --> TOGO - kpalime, atakpame, lome --> BENIN - cotonu (transport stop) --> NIGER - niamey, tahoua, agadez, camel trek in aiir mtns, niamey --> BENIN (abomey, grand popo, ouidah, ganvie, cotonou) --> CAMEROON (douala, buea, top of Mt Cameroon, limbe, sangelima, yaounde, kribi, douala) --> MAURITANIA (nouakchott, atar, chinguetti, camels into the sahara, terjit, choume, ride the coal train, nouadhibou) --> MOROCCO (western sahara, dakhla, agadir, essaouira, marrakesh, imlil, summit of jebel toubkal, fes, chefchaouen) --> cross the Strait of Gibraltar --> Malaga, Spain --> fly to Geneva, Switzerland --> Les Grangettes, France
Click for a map. Updated April 30, 2007

samedi, juillet 21, 2007

Home in Portland

After a year of being in Africa, I have finally returned home to Portland. At the moment, I am bouncing from friend's house to friend's house as I wait to hear about employment and then find a place to live. I am hoping for news on the job front within the next week or so.

Some people have asked where they can find all of the pictures from my trip as the Flickr site only allows 200 photos at a time. Good news! The photos have been moved to a new site where a "highlight" reel of the trip can be viewed. Enjoy.

Link (or click on the right):

dimanche, juin 10, 2007

New Photos from Morocco

Chefchaouen, Fes, Jebel Toubkal and Marrakesh
(click the link at right)

Nearing the End

It's hard for me to believe that the crazy year I began last July is almost coming to an end. Through learning how to live in a new culture, trying to learn a different language, teaching math in French to classes of over 85 Guinean students, being evacuated from my site in Wonkifong, and traveling through Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Cameroon, Mauritania, and Morocco, I am almost at the end of this adventure. Ahead, I have a few weeks visiting my parents in France before returning home to Portland. Once in Portland I am not sure what the next step will be.

Overall this year has been a fantastic one of experiences and adventures and I thank all of you who have supported me with your love, enthusiasm and ideas over what became a roller coaster of a ride.

lundi, juin 04, 2007

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

After a few days of enjoying the coastal beauty of Essaouira, Patrick and I headed to the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh. Not being the city and shopping type we quickly toured the markets and other sites before heading out to Imlil which is located in the Atlas mountains. Our goal here was Jebel Toubkal, which at almost 4200m is the tallest peak in North Africa. The hike was absolutely beautiful and the summit amazing with sunny conditions and some snow to play in on the way down.

mardi, mai 29, 2007

New stories and photos: Mauritania and into Morocco

for photos click the link at right

First Impression that I'm no longer in W. Africa

Kids are being kids, playing and hanging out.

Journey into Morocco

Signs warning of the danger of hidden mines periodically appeared along the side of the ribbon of asphalt that the car was traveling down. After an hour of inspection at the Mauritanian-Moroccan border where the car was unloaded, all bags searched and then sniffed by a dog, we were finally moving through the disputed land known as the Western Sahara.

This overland journey had been on my mind for a few days. Not counting the idea of driving through an area scattered with mines, my mind was occupied with the thought of endless hours crammed into a car to journey through Western Sahara, southern Morocco and arrive in Agadir, Morocco.

The first hurdle was met with a wonderful surprise. Those of you familiar with West African transport will realize that I scored big when my car appeared packed and ready to go with only three people in the 9-place. Could I be so fortunate? A 9-place is a station-wagon like car that typically contains place for two in the front (not counting the driver), four in the middle row and three in the back. Patrick and I were placed in the back and wondered who the third person would be. The car left and no one appeared. Surely we would pick someone up. With hopeful glances around we realized that there was no one else and the ride would be in comfort!

The other passengers were gems. They were all women with the two sitting in the middle row obviously friends. They laughed and gave each other high fives while chatting on expensive cell phones. They joked with men at the border stop and, to top it off, smoked in public. What's odd about this behaviour you may wonder. Remember that I'm not in the States but in Mauritania, a Muslim country where women are typically not at liberty to act like this. It was great. The women joked and laughed and smoked through the trip that instead of being miserable was OK except for the finale. With only 50 km to go to Dakhla, Morocco the car broke down. It was near 9:00 pm and Patrick and I had an 11:00 pm overnight bus to catch. Fortunately, we were able to hitch a ride and get to the bus station in time to board the bus that would take us to Agadir, Morocco. It left at 11:00 pm and by 4:00 pm the next afternoon, we finally arrived in Agadir. The next morning we boarded yet another bus for the amazing coastal town of Essaouira which will be a non-transport destination for a few days.

On the Coal Train

"It's coming don't worry. Maybe 6:00. Maype 6:30. It will be here. Just wait," was the advice given to me when I asked about the train.

I was in the small desert outpost of Choume, Mauritania waiting for the ride known as the coal train to arrive and take me to the coastal town of Nouadhibou. Choume is desolate. The heat soars and a midday glance down the main street may provide you with a view of a goat strolling about but nothing else. Daily, a train arrives from the east laden with iron ore. Stopping for 10-15 minutes, people are able to board for the 12-hour overnight ride to the coast. There are two boarding options:
(1) buy a ticket and fight for a space in the passenger car
(2) climb up and into an open air cargo car containing iron ore

Guess which one I did... A little after 6:30, Patrick and I were throwing our trash bag wrapped backpacks into the top of a car and climbing into the iron ore. We were in luck. Our car contained a mixture of powder and small cobble to pebble sized chunks of rock. The rock was small enough to sleep on and there was not so much powder to give us the appearance of coal miners after a long, hard day in a dirty mine.

The train soon began moving and I was provided with a preview of the upcoming night climate: cold and windy. The iron ore had been dumped into the center of the car creating a pile that peaked in the middle and tapered on the edges. The ore level in the front of the car was quite low and I was able to sit snug against the wall and be somewhat sheltered from the wind. But first, there was a beautiful sunset to watch. As the train chugged west, the sun slowly dipped under the horizon. A combination of the wide open desert only sparcely occupied by large rock outcrops and the western travel extended the sunset for what seemed an eternity. Then, without any artificial light blurring the view, stars began to pop out and glow with a brilliant twinkle.

Without the warmth of the sun the air quickly chilled and I positioned myself in the ore at the front of the car. I was wearing pants, a shirt, jacket and long robe and was then wrapped in a blanket to stay warm. My head was completely covered in a turban (sunglasses still on) to keep me warm and to minimize the amount of dust entering my eyes, ears, nose and anywhere else. Surprisingly, I managed to get some sleep on the rocky ore waking occasionally to glance up at the stars. The Milky Way was truly a glittering path in the sky that eventually gave way as the warm glow announcing the arrival of the sun began to color the day.

Sixteen hours later, the train arrived in Nouadhibou where a couple of Peace Corps volunteers allowed my ore covered body into their home and hot shower.


To the south of Atar, Mauritania is a little piece of paradise known as Terjit. This place is an oasis supporting hundreds of date palms nestled at the head of a canyon. The canyon necks down as towering cliffs meet. Water bubbles out of the rocks and at one point flows down where it is diverted into cool pools tat are refreshing during the heat of the day. Date palms, laden with clusters of fruit that will soon ripen, provide shade. Life here consists of lounging under tents drinking tea until the temperature is cool enough to scale the cliffs and explore the high plateaus.

The Sahara

My body lunged forwards, backwards, forward again and backwards. Suddenly I was sitting uncomfortably approximately 6 feet off of the ground. I was again on top of a camel though instead of looking towards the Aiir Mountains of Niger I gazed out into the endless sand dunes of the Sahara.

The early morning began with prayer call a little after 4 am. Mauritania is much farther north so the sun rises earlier, leading to the sleep-shattering calls in the morning. The camels outside of the compound were equipped with the same single-hump of fat storage as those in Niger and were quite vocal. We walked the camels through the town of Chinguetti and into the dunes before getting on for the trek into the Sahara.

The dunes are amazing. Standing at different heights, they continue into the east as far as the eye travels. Sweeping slopes, fine razor-sharp ridges, and sublime humps provide the shapes for these shifting mountains of sand. The effect of the endless dunes is one of disorientation as the eye loses depth perception. Golden sand follows golden sand follows golden sand blends in with the blue sky.

I was curious to see how much life would be visible among the dunes. As I rode on top of the camel, I was provided with a good view that contained a surprising amount of green specks. Scattered in low spots among the dunes and in plains are small bushes and shrubs and I was eventually in for a surprise as my camel exited a series of steep dunes to find the jewel of the desert. An oasis. The instant flood of green among the golden-yellow is spectacular. The camels slowly made their way to the oasis, knowing that the day's work was over. The wash of green color was due to date palms. Unfortunately, it is not quite date season and the palms taunted me with clusters of bright green, unripe dates. The shade of the palms provided a cool refuge as the temperature in the sun began to soar and I enjoyed the peacefulness until the heat broke and I could venture out to explore the dunes.

"I can't believe it. It's not possible," were the exclamations around 11:oo that night. Rain. I had successfully dodged early rainy season downpours near the equator and was now getting rained on in the Sahara. It's a desert here! Locals think it's rainy season if they get 2 to 3 days of rain in a month. But here I was, sleeping out under the desert sky and having rain fall on my head. Fortunately, the rain soon stopped and I gained a few hours of sleep before being awakened by the camels for the return trek.

jeudi, mai 17, 2007

In Mauritania

After a long day of travel on the "bush taxi" plane, Patrick and I reversed climates from the increasingly humid and wet Cameroon to the dry, sunny and hot Mauritania. Our travels included leaving Douala, Cameroon early in the morning to return to Cotonou, Benin. There, the "nice" border official did not even pause to notice that our Benin visas were expired and let us into the country. We had 12 hours to burn and sitting in the airport would not have been fun.

The next leg of the travel including getting back on the plane and making short, hour-long jaunts to Bamako, Mali followed by Dakarm Senegal before finally arriving in Nouakchott, Mauritania. We are currently stuck here trying to get a visas. Next stop is hopefully a trip into the dunes of the Sahara.

vendredi, mai 11, 2007

Sangelima Market (Cameroon)

Click at the right to see photos that I took exploring the market in Meghan's city. Tomatoes, peppers, bananas, fabric, and much more...

Mt Cameroon

Over the last week, I have been in Cameroon visiting a friend of Patrick's when he was in PC Gambia. Meghan has been great, showing us around and got the trip started with a trek up Mt Cameroon. We took three days to summit the mountain (4,095 meters) and hike the back side. On the first day, it was all about going up. Switchbacks? Nope, this concept has not caught on in Africa. Just head straight up the mountain. The first night was spent in a mountain hut where we had to get creative to keep the mice out of our food. The views from the hut were spectacular. Fortunately, the night was clear and we could see the ocean and many cities below.

Day 2 started where the first stopped: moving straight uphill. The climb was quite chilly and the wind was howling as we continued up into the clouds, sometimes only able to see 15-20 feet in front of us. The stop at the summit was less than 5 minutes as the wind was blowing frigid gusts all around us. After the summit, a run down the scree on the backside quickly got us out of the wind and into warmer weather where we could enjoy the varying terrain of green hillsides, former volcanic flows and cones formed during volcanic activity in 2000. That night, we slept in grass huts and were joined by a French couple exploring the back of the mountain.

Day 3 took us out of the moutain area and the hike began through beautiful, green hills sliced up with old volcanic runs. The fresh air quickly turned heavy as we entered the forest. The dense understory kept us busy navigating muddy trails as we descended the remainder of the way.

After the mountain, we took a quick ride to Limbe which is the location of beautiful beaches for a few days of relaxation in the ocean to soothe the sore muscles. Then, off to Meghan's site to get away from the tourist traffic.

lundi, avril 30, 2007

Updated photos, stories and map

The sun sets over Ganvie, Benin a stilt village north of Cotonou.
Check out the new photographs (click link at right) and updates below.
Also, the map (click link above) is starting to look good!

Stilt Village of Ganvie, Benin (April 29, 2007)

In the 17th century, the land that currently makes up the southern portion of Benin was under the rule of the Dahomey kings. The seat of power for the Dahomey Kingdom was Abomey, which is a few hours north of present Cotonou. In general, the Dahomey kings were a violent bunch, with each king pledging to leave their children a larger kingdom. This pledge required constant war in order to expand their territory.

Today, a museum in Abomey pays tribute to the Dahomey and provides a taste of their ruthlessness. One tapestry shows a king using the dismembered leg of some poor guy to pound in the head of an enemy. In another room, my attention was drawn to a king's throne. At first glance it appeared to be a normal wooden throne but it was held up by four human skulls.

To the southeast of Abomey, there lies the stilt village of Ganvie. The village is located in the waters of Lake Nokoue. As the Dahomey kings were expanding their kingdom and simultaneously pressing conquered people into slavery, they came upon the Tofinu. To escape, the Tofinu fled onto the lake where they began constructing homes and living suspended above the water level of the lake. Fortunately for the Tofinu, the slave hunters pursuing them were forbidden to give chase onto the lake due to a religious custom not allowing people onto water.

The Tofinu have lived there since and today approximately 30,000 villagers live on the lake. The people live almost entirely off of fish which they catch in the lake by building artificial reef-like areas out of palm fronds. The fronds are stuck into the lake and as they decompose attract fish. After a period of time, the villagers construct nets around the area to haul in the catch.

As an overnight trip from Cotonou, Patrick and I visited Ganvie. We took a boat ride out and then stayed overnight in a hotel positioned near the market. The best part of the trip was taking a small canoe to explore the village. Everyone travels by boat. The houses are not connected so boating is a must. In the canals, there are ladies paddling around selling items, boat taxis kids on errands and anything else you could imagine in a village. Fresh water is dispensed by pump and boats full of containers queue up to get their fill. at night, the village shut down quickly but early in the morning boats were already beginning to start the day's business.

Voodoo Python Temple (Ouidah, Benin - April 27, 2007)

A single doorway led into the small, circular hut inside the walled compound of the python temple in Ouidah, Benin.

"Are you ready to enter?" the temple guide asked as he pulled a 3-foot long python off of my neck. In turn, the necks of Patrick, Joyce (another roaming PC Guinea volunteer who we happened across while walking the "Path of Slaves" in the morning) and I had been draped by a python from the temple. The guide had finished explaining how the python is an important aspect of voodoo in Ouidah.

Originally known as vodun, the voodoo religion is practiced by at least 50% of people in Benin. The historic center of voodoo is Ouidah, but voodoo was not formally recognized as a religion by the government of Benin until 1996.

The walls of the hut are made of concrete and the center contains a recessed area resembling the shape of a keyhole. Several steps lead down from the floor level to the base of this key-shaped area, which is used by the voodoo priest. A sequence of paintings depicting the arrival of voodoo and the python relationship cover the walls of the hut. However, it was the floor that grabbed my attention and provided a somewhat creepy feeling.

Snakes. Lots of snakes. Pythons were all over this temple. Some were by themselves but the majority laid together piled in a mass of long, muscular bodies with snake heads popping out everywhere. One appeared to have recently finished a meal and was bulging in its midsection as it digested.

"How many pythons are there?" the guide was asked.

"Thousands. Thousands," came the reply that I have top believe is inflated. "However, they are not all here. At night we leave the door to the temple open and the pythons are free to leave and go hunt where ever they wish. If a person finds a python in the city, they will return it to the temple."