Category Archives: Africa

Why I Do Not Make a Good African Woman – Reason #2


The actual bird is not problematic.  Chickens are actually kinda cute, some are downright beautiful.  I’m not afraid of chickens or anything.  I’m okay with them being alive.  I’m okay with them dead all ready to be cooked.  And I’m especially okay with eating them.




Bake it, fry it, roast it, whatever.  Yum yum yum.

Where I fail as an African woman is getting said chicken from that live state into that ready to be cooked state.

Throughout Africa, it is not unusual to see a woman on the bus or minibus carrying a live chicken (the eating kind, not the laying kind) tied into a plastic bag with only its head out, or in a basket, or the like.  This chicken is for dinner.  The African woman will kill it, pluck it, and break it down in order to cook it for her family.  (And it will be amazing because African chicken is soooo much better than any chicken I’ve ever eaten in America).

The only time I’ve been faced with any part of that process was in Zambia back in 2006.  In case you’re new to my story, prior to my summer in Zambia, I had done very (VERY) little actual cooking.  Didn’t really know how.  I had never even made fried chicken.  However, being very brave, I had purchased a number of chickens in order to make fried chicken for my team of TWENTY SEVEN people.  Knowing it was likely that I wasn’t accustomed to slaughtering chickens, the woman from whom I purchased them quietly did that business out of my eye- and ear-shot and brought the now-dead chickens to me.  She must have seen the rather horrified look on my face when I saw the pile of white feathered headless bodies as she immediately smiled and asked if I knew how to clean them.  Which of course I didn’t.  I also didn’t have a knife that would cut through bones even if I wanted to tackle the butchering part.  So I paid her a little bit extra to do the job for me (and told her she could have all the “insides”).  Less than an hour later, she returned with a big bowl of chicken pieces that looked a whole lot more like what I was used to seeing at home.

How I was used to seeing chicken for sale...

How I was used to seeing chicken for sale…

...what the chickens I bought in Zambia looked like...

…what the chickens I bought in Zambia looked like…

I would have tackled the plucking part, but it would have taken me about a day or two to do the job.

I’m not sure I would ever be able to do the killing part.

And for that, I would not make a good African woman.


Why I Do Not Make a Good African Woman – Reason #1

And this is a big one!

In many parts of Africa there is a form of transportation called a “bike taxi”.

The bike taxi strikes fear into my heart.

Take a battered bicycle and put a “seat” on the back of it over the rear tire, and you have a bike taxi.

Like this one?

I wish.  No.

Like these ones.  (These have really good seats on them, by the way).

I recently went on another adventure to the African continent.  The trip in a nutshell went like this:

Fly to Dubai, meet up with Abner, hang out in Dubai for a bit waiting for our next flights, and sleep in the airport.  Fly to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania…me via Qatar, Abner direct.  Meet up with Abner again.  Spend night in DAR.  Take boat to Zanzibar.  Spend time in Zanzibar.  Take boat back to DAR.  Spend night in DAR.  Take buses and minibuses from DAR to Malawi.  Spend time in Malawi.  Take buses/minibuses to Mozambique.  Spend time in Mozambique.  Fly from Mozambique to South Africa.  Say good-bye to Abner as he heads to Lisbon.  Fly home.

This post is about the middle part of the trip.  The part where we meet up with friends in Sani/Nkhota Kota, Malawi.  There’s a lot of stories to tell up to this point, but this is as good a place as any to start.

In Malawi, especially in the rural “bush” areas, women wear skirts.  So, I was in a skirt.  And we were backpacking, so I had a big pack on my back, and a smaller one on my front.  And I’m not a young thing anymore…pushing 50 in fact.  And we’d been on the road for over two days, so I was tired and sore.

As we neared the place where our bus would drop us off to meet our Malawian friends, I began to wonder how, in the dead of night (it was after 10 PM) we would get from the roadside drop off point to Sam’s house (about 10 km) into the bush.  Is it too remote for a regular bush taxi?  Would we walk?  Or, please God, no, would he have arranged for bike taxis?

As you have probably guessed, it was the latter.  I took one look at those taxis and pictured myself trying to jump up onto the back to ride it sidesaddle with all my gear, and in a skirt, and I nearly died.  That was SO not going to happen.  “Fortunately”, once the “taxi drivers” saw the color of my skin, the previously agreed to price all of the sudden became seriously inflated.  I took that as my opportunity to encourage their immediate dismissal, opting instead to do the long walk.

Sam was quite amused.  African women have literally no problem with this form of transportation.  Even the very old ones with a parcel on their heads and one grandbaby in their laps with another one their backs.  And they are graceful while doing it.  Of course, they’ve been doing it their whole life.  This would have been my first time.

I seriously hate being a “problem” like that.  I try very hard to do the best I can to just quietly do what needs to be done.  And normally, I am extremely “game” in most travel circumstances.

But not this time.  I just couldn’t do it.  So we walked.  So I made all of us walk.  😦  And I was glad we did.  It was so very dark and the dirt road was bumpy and full of washed out areas, rocks, and potholes.  Even if I’d have gotten up there, I’m pretty sure at some point I would have fallen off, and possibly injured myself.  This is what I tell myself to make myself feel better about not doing it.

Perhaps the next time I find myself faced with a bike taxi I won’t be in a skirt, I won’t be loaded down, it won’t be dark, and there would be a step stool.  I’d give it a whirl if so.

But not this time.

In this particular case, I did not make a good African woman.


Calling someone a hero is such an overused thing anymore.  Doing so has nearly lost its’ power, at least for me, at least in my country.  Too often, we throw the word around like it is nothing.  When I was young, a hero was someone who rushed in without thought of their own personal safety, just on instinct or habit or natural inclination; to save the life of another, like Superman stopping an oncoming train from hitting a car of children stalled on the tracks.  Or it meant it was someone who would make the life of another something so much better than it would have been if not for that heroism.  True heroism can be a single act, or it can be a lifetime of action.  Heroes don’t mean to be humbling, but they are.  They make us look at ourselves and wonder if we could ever be heroic like that.  I don’t think that Harry and Echo VanderWal would be all that comfortable being called heroes.    But if they are not, then who is?

If you ever find yourself talking about how something needs to be done about this or that problem in the world, how do you respond to yourself?  Do you just talk and make demands of others, or do you actually DO something?  Or perhaps you are simply struck with analysis paralysis finding that despite wanting to help and wanting to do something VERY good, you do not HOW?  Well, here’s a how you can help some real heroes do their heroic work.  Support the work of the the VanderWals and the Swazi people.  Give to The Luke Commission and help their work not just to save one life at a time, but to save an entire country from the ravages of HIV/AIDS and from REAL lack of access to even the most basic of healthcare services.

The VanderWals run hundreds of clinics, year after year, reaching into every nook and cranny of Swaziland.  They treat many hundreds of patients at each of these clinics.  They facilitate ongoing care year after year for those with chronic medical problems.  They bring health and they bring hope.  They help failing eyes see again.  They bring mobility to those who otherwise would be stuck in their simple homesteads, unable to manage the rocky streets without durable carts.  They screen for and treat hypertension, diabetes, and tuberculosis.  They treat everyone for intestinal parasites which rob people of whatever meager nutrition they are able to obtain.  They are performing hundreds of adult male circumcision, a procedure that is proven to reduce the risk of spreading AIDS.  At each of these clinics they stay well into the dark seeing every single person who comes for help, no matter how late into the dark it gets.  No one, not one person, is turned away.  Never.  Harry and Echo see patients and operate in the darkest of night until every last patient is cared for.

Trust in Swaziland is hard to come by.  The Swazis trust the VanderWals because the VanderWals have proven themselves trustworthy.  Because of that, the Swazi people get tested, get treated, get life.  No one has been successful like they have been in helping to turn the tide for these beautiful people.

I’ve seen them in action.  It is humbling.

YOU can help #192.  You can help hundreds of #192s.  Your money could simply not be more well spent.

On this World AIDS Day 2012, do something tangible to make a difference.


“You Ver” What???

I ver mectin!

If you are, like I am, blessed/lucky enough to live in a place where the thought of contracting river blindness, malaria, and even head lice, are things that you think about…. ummmmm…like pretty much never…take a moment and be thankful about that.

With the eradication of disease comes prosperity.  Did you know we had malaria (a mosquito borne illness) here in the United States in the South until it was eliminated in 1947?  A million people around the world die from malaria each year.

Did you know that we had major outbreaks of Yellow Fever (also a mosquito borne illness) here in the States until 1905?  Due to the highly infectious nature of this illness (despite attempts at reaching 90% vaccination rates in endemic regions around the world) there are still 30,000 deaths (and 500,000 cases of it) a year.

Did you know that the last major outbreak of cholera (spread through contaminated food and water) to hit the United States occurred in 1911?  Since cholera was introduced to Haiti by an aid worker after the massive earthquake of 2010, there have been about 350,000 cases of cholera and over 14,000 deaths.

How about diphtheria?  Diphtheria is a respiratory illness that has been largely eradicated in the United States (only a rare few cases in the past decade).  Did you know that the tetanus shot you get for skin injuries is usually a Td?  You probably know the “T” stands for tetanus, but did you know that the “d” stands for diphtheria?  Since the diphtheria vaccine was introduced in 1920 and high levels of vaccination rates were obtained, diphtheria for U.S. citizens became a thing of the past.  Not so for the people of Russia in the 1990’s and more recently the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic where large epidemics have occured.  And speaking of tetanus, there are hundreds of thousands of deaths annually worldwide from tetanus.  Only 50-100 of those many deaths occur in the United States.  Those cases are nearly always in unvaccinated/undervaccinated individuals.

These diseases are shackles to poor and developing nations and is one of the causes of keeping them impoverished, uneducated, and with seriously limited opportunities .

Because our medical system and our society in general is not constantly plagued by these expensive (both from the medical standpoint as well as the economic standpoint) diseases, we are free to grow and expand our economy and to put finances towards treating things that in developing nations are often not addressed at ALL!  Like cancer, depression, osteoporosis, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, etc (etcetcetcetcetc.)  There are diseases of aging in our country that are not even SEEN in other countries due to short life expectancy.  For 2011 the life expectancy for a Swazi is projected to be 31.88 years.  No, that is not a typo.  This is in large part due to a completely preventable and most often untreated, disease, HIV.

People in the United States actually have access to a drug called Latisse…this drug treats the condition of “inadequate, or not enough lashes”.  That’s eyelashes, people.  We have a drug for growing EYELASHES.  Now, part of me is absolutely appalled by such an apparent lack of perspective by the American public.  Another part of me is thrilled that we have the time, resources, and overall health to be able to treat such a thing as a problem!  I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone from Swaziland, or Zambia, or Ethiopia (etc.) who ever THINKS about having inadequate lashes.  But I digress.  Back to real diseases…

There’s all manner of diarrheal illness, and pneumonias, and African Sleeping Sickness, and polio, and meningococcal meningitis, and bubonic plague, and tuberculosis, and hepatitis, and typhoid, and ebola, and tetanus, and lymphatic filariasis andandandandandand.  I could go on!  Many of these diseases fully, or almost fully, preventable through education, simple medications, and vaccinations.

On a personal level, I have friends who suffer from chronic malaria.  People with chronic malaria become symptomatic a few times a year.  When sick they cannot work, and it drains their already meager finances when medications and sometimes hospitalization are needed.  It is hard to get ahead in life when one single disease has such negative effects.  Imagine facing ALL of these diseases (and so many more) on a regular basis?  It’s nearly unthinkable for us in developed countries.

So, you might be asking, what does all of this have to do with ivermectin??

And what do river blindness, malaria, and head lice have to do with each other?

Well, just one of the feared diseases of West and Central Africa is river blindness.  River blindness is the result of a chronic parasitic multi-system inflammatory disease caused by a worm that inhabits fast flowing rivers.  Black flies breed in these rivers and are the vector for this worm.  As rivers are often the primary water source in this part of the world, thus the potential for becoming infected.  Around 35 million people are currently infected with river blindness, and roughly 300,000 of them are already irreversibly blind. Approximately 140 million people in Africa are at risk of infection.  Being blind in most parts of Africa is nothing like being blind in the developed world.  As so many of those at risk for river blindness are from agricultural societies, being blind (or even visually impaired) can leave a person incapable of farming and providing for his/her family.  It’s hard enough to get any sort of education in these countries…imagine trying to get an education in most of Africa if you are blind!

Ivermectin is one of a family of drugs called “anthelmintics or antihelminthics”.  They treat worm infestations in people.  Worms are an extremely common finding in many populations in Africa (and around the world).  Among its other uses, ivermectin can be used off label to treat lice and scabies.  Taking a single dose provides 24/7 insecticidal protection.  The lice are killed when they bite and consume the now insecticidal blood of its victim.  Invermectin is also used in Africa to treat the worm infestation that leads to river blindness and filariasis.  In 2008 and 2009, a team of researchers to Senegal found that in communities where ivermectin was being used, the numbers of malaria carrying mosquitoes dropped off dramatically two weeks following treatment!  In similar communities where ivermectin was not being used, numbers of these mosquitoes had doubled in the same time frame.  To me, this is a fascinatingly unexpected and positive outcome to the use of ivermectin!!!!  To treat river blindness, an individual takes a single dose of the drug annually for 10-15 years.

I have this scenario in my head where communities would be tested and treated en masse for malaria infection, given insecticide treated mosquito nets, and maybe vector spraying would be done to eliminate mosquitoes.  To me, it seems, that with an aggressive multi-directional assault like this on malaria, malaria could be DRAMATICALLY reduced and maybe even eradicated.  With the addition of ivermectin into the mix, it might be an even more effective war.  Imagine…attacking malaria, river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, scabies, lice and other worm infestations all at the same time!

If “the west” could coordinate all of its currently disparate efforts and wage a full out assault on malaria, I think we could see a huge victory.  It would take massive coordination of services and some pretty specific timing, but if one generation of mosquitoes and malaria cycles could be disrupted, imagine the effect it could have on people who live with these plagues on a regular basis.

Why can’t we do this???  Is it possible?  How much DDT would be needed to spray all of the homes in affected areas of Africa?  How many mosquito nets would be needed?  How many doses of ivermectin would be required?  And how many people on the ground would be needed to make such an assault possible?  How many cycles of treatment and spraying would be needed?  And perhaps the biggest quetion is would the governments of these countries even be willing to allow such a program??????

We have put men on the moon.  We have built impossible dams and bridges.  We built the Panama Canal.  We have eradicated smallpox.  Computer power that used to occupy a room now occupies nearly microscopic space.  Why can we not do something spectacular like free the world from the prison of malaria?

There are organizations doing great things to combat malaria and bring hope to a sick and dying world.  There are a multitude of NGOs, plus faith- and government-based operations involved in the fight.  What if they all worked together, in concert to pool resources, work towards a common goal, reduce duplicated efforts, reduced waste, and increased  efficiency?  What an amazing thing that would be!

Is it just a dream?

Don’t Buy a Fish in the Water

Day 17, April 2nd, 2011

Mopti, Mali

Early the morning that Abner and I were to travel from Mopti, Mali, to Ouagadougou (love saying that!), Burkina Faso, we encountered two young peace corps volunteers who were returning back to Ghana after spending time in Mali.  We hung out with them at the “bus station” waiting for our transport to be ready.  Lara and Raphaela were in their early 20’s and were from Belgium and Germany.  They would be on the same bus as us.  Because of all their time in Ghana, they’d gone a bit “wild”.  Raphaela had gone swimming in the Niger River (wow, a really bad idea) and was sporting a pretty “nice” case of impetigo (bacterial staph infection) on her face, neck, and torso.  They ate with (exceptionally) dirty hands.  I don’t know how wild I would go if I spent a year in a place like Ghana…but I think I would probably always eat with clean hands.  🙂  The girls were fun to be around for the next day and a half.  Westerners were a rare thing to run into on our particular itinerary.  It can be rather exhausting trying to communicate in a language (French) that you don’t speak well at all, and these girls were kind enough to speak with us in English.

Anyhow, while I cannot remember exactly what precipitated their sharing this lesson, I remember the lesson.

“Don’t buy a fish in the water” I was cautioned by one of the girls.  This was something they had learned from the Ghanaians they were living with.

It’s an excellent warning on knowing what you are getting before you invest in it.

Two young buys fishing the Bani River in Mopti, Mali

Hôtel Saint-Louis Sun

March 17th and 18th, 2011

Days 1 and 2;  Dakar Senegal

We’d originally planned on staying in Senegal for a few days, but because we were blowing our budget by the hour, we decided that once we had our Malian visas, we’d head for Mali where we knew the cost of things would be much less than in Senegal.  We’d looked into finding cheaper accommodations than the Sun, but weren’t successful.  Besides, the Sun was centrally located and pretty nice, all things considered!  So we splurged and stayed there.

The hotel was located on a very narrow, very busy street in the inner city of Dakar.  Doesn’t look like much from the outside, but upon entering, there is a peacefulness that is palpable.  Very friendly front desk people.  We initially had to wait in the courtyard for our room to be ready.  The wait turned into a few hours long, but it was a pleasant few hours spent discussing our plan of action, talking about how we couldn’t believe we’d actually made it to Dakar and were starting our grand adventure, and updating facebook statuses, that sort of thing.  I needed to check in with the young lady who was watching my cats to see if Mew Ling was taking her antibiotic pills okay.  Mew Ling every once in a while develops a urinary tract infection, which she did apparently in the days leading up to my trip.  The only time I could get her in to see the vet was the day before we left, so I was worried that she would give Lisa a problem taking her meds.  Lisa got back to me…Mew was fine, and taking her pill hidden in treats.

And we started taking some of our first photos of the journey, of course.  After shaving the next day, Abner decided he was giving up shaving for the remainder of the trip.

The rooms were upstairs and over looked the small open ceilinged courtyard.  Downstairs was a bar, a restaurant, the lobby, and a couple of meeting rooms.  We were in room three.  To enter the room required opening two doors.  The outer door was wooden slatted to provide privacy and allow in a small amount of light, the second was panes of glass.  I struggled getting the keys to work.  Why is it that African keys are always a problem???  Anyone else out there who has spent time in Africa find that keys and locks are a challenge for them?

The open courtyard was quiet despite the very busy city right outside the main entrance.  There were birds, weaver birds maybe, building nests in the trees which provided light shade from the heat of the day.  The walls were decorated with peeling but brightly colored murals.

This is the  first of quite a few very interesting key chains.  And check out the keys!  They look very similar to each other, but there’s a different one for each of the doors.

The room was a bit small, but very clean and completely adequate for our needs.  No evidence of bed bugs here!  We turned on the AC immediately figuring we should probably enjoy a little bit of cool when we could.  We had decided to come at the hottest time of the year because it:   1)  worked well for both of our schedules, 2)  would mean the least amount of mosquitoes as it was well into the dry season, and 3) would be the lowest time of the year for other travelers, so we wouldn’t be fighting as many people for the better hostel rooms, etc.

Our room was en suite…no shared bathroom facilities…not yet anyway!

We even had a closet and more wall art to enjoy!

If you ever get to Dakar, this is a good place to stay!  The food at the restaurant was good.  The beer (Flag was our choice) was COLD.  You can walk to the docks to catch the ferry to Île de Gorée.  The cost for taxi rides to the embassies for other African countries or to Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine are reasonable.  And you feel VERY much like you are in Africa!

Fear of Falling

April 10th, 2011

Day 25:  Kakum National Park, Ghana

When I was younger, I was kinda fearless.

I’m older now, and I have phobia baggage.

I’m afraid of falling.  It’s kind of like being afraid of heights, but not exactly the same.  I am fine with being in planes.  I love roller coasters.  I’m fine up in REALLY tall buildings.  As long as I am enclosed in some way I’m okay.  No, it’s not really heights that bring me to near panic…I’m afraid of falling.  There’s a couple of types of fear of falling.  There’s basophobia, which is the fear of falling, but it leads people to not want to stand up at all.  That’s not what I have.  There’s climacophobia, which is the fear of falling down stairs.  That’s incorporated into my phobia, but mine is bigger than that.  There’s bathophobia, which sounds like the fear of taking a bath (that’s called ablutophobia), but it’s actually the fear of falling from a high place.  THAT’S what I have.

I came by this fear rightly.  There were two specific events that took place in my life that set me up for my fear.  The first was when I was 16.  I was on a mission trip to Haiti.

(Me, laying block in Haiti)

While standing on a rickety scaffolding and concentrating deeply to lay concrete blocks, one of the missionaries’ kids grabbed my ankles and shook me.  The fear got a hold of me then and grew over the years.  I eventually began to struggle with getting up on my stepladder to retrieve items from upper shelves in my kitchen.  Ridiculous.  I got tired of being that afraid, so I worked on desensitizing myself.  I got over (mostly) the worst of it…I could climb my stepladder!  🙂   And then some years later, the second event took place.  On a trip to Chicago with my big bro, his wife/my best friend, and one of my other good friends, we went to the top of Sears tower.

(Taken from the top of the Hancock Building, not the Sears Tower, but close enough!)

I was deep in thought and standing by a window looking down down down at the ground so very far away, and my brother came up behind me and shook my shoulders and made a “aHAHAHahahah” yell.  The fear returned with a vengeance.  Since then I have been challenging myself to get better, again.  I am better with being high up, but still very fearful in certain circumstances, especially if there are people anywhere behind me.  I just don’t trust them.

My high up place doesn’t even have to be very high.  I don’t like looking over cliffs.  I don’t like walking across bridges.  I don’t like open ferris wheels (closed ones are just fine).   I want to sky dive.  I want to bungee jump.  I want to walk over insanely high bridges.  I want to not feel like I can’t breathe and that I’m going to die if I need to jump over an open ditch.

Abner also has a fear of heights/fear of falling thing.  Which begs the question…”why on earth did the two of us decide to go on a canopy walk in the rain forest?”.  Excellent question!  Because we NEEEEEEEEDED to.  And because I trust Abner with my life, I decided if I could walk across swinging rope and wood bridges high up in the trees with anyone, it would be with Abner.  You’d have to ask him what his impetus was!

While we were in Cape Coast, Ghana, we were very close to the Kakum National Park…and they had a canopy walk there that we heard about.  The walk was comprised of seven of these “bridges” hundreds of feet up in the air over wild jungle.  We hiked up to where the walk started.  It was rather hot and humid.  I’m very sweaty, BUT I’m an official green card carrying NGA!  A Non Ghanaian Adult.  🙂

Since a major component of my fear is having someone behind me, we waited until the rest of the people in our group had set off across the first bridge.  Abner went before me, and I went last.  I was confident and walking without my legs shaking beneath me until I felt the bridge shaking behind me.  Oh great.  My biggest fear, and it was making ground behind me.  There’s no place to pass on these 10″ wide bridges.  And this guy ended up so close behind me that he was clipping my heels as I walked and he was stressing me to move faster.  I called to Abner to make the guy back off before I freaked out.   He did, and I collected myself.  I let the guy pass me at the first opportunity, and once he did, I was able to actually enjoy myself.

We walked all those seven bridges.  We didn’t see any wildlife, but we heard the birds in the trees.  It was really a cool thing we got to do.

Five years ago I tried to walk across the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge here in Colorado.  I got out about 15 feet and I started to panic.  I want to conquer that bridge!  Abner and I will get around to trying sometime in the near future.  Cuz we’re rock stars!  And we can do it!

Old Women Should Not Ride Camels

Day 13, Timbuktu, Mali

An integral part of our plan for our time in Timbuktu was a trip further into the Sahara Desert.  Ever since reading “The Little Prince” in high school, I had visions of going to this faraway place.  I wanted to be in the place where the crash-landed aviator met the strange blonde headed traveler from asteriod B-612.  And I wanted to ride a camel to get out there.

Unfortunately for me, a perfect storm of situations came together at just the wrong time to make my camel ride something that was a painful and just slightly excruciating experience.  An experience I was VERY glad to have had, nonetheless.

I wasn’t afraid of the camel, or of riding the camel, or of anything at all about the camel part of the experience.  But my body was rather irritated from all the time on the buses, and in the 4×4 and from the sleeping on the ground on the way out….from all that great adventure of getting to Timbuktu!  However, the position in which you have to sit on the camel externally rotoated my right hip into just the exact wrong position for comfort.  Plus, the saddle was tilted slightly to the side, so I was trying to stabilize myself from slipping to the side, which aggravated my hip even more.  I had the sensation of an taser constantly going off in my groin and shooting down my leg.

For this picture, I made the worst face I could.  This was at the beginning of the camel ride.  The ride was only about an hour and a half.  And I was making my camel nervous because of my constant shifting, and with my moving my feet away from where they were supposed to be.  But me and Abzaabaa stuck with it, and I made it the Tuareg camp.  I had to!  I had to say I rode a camel into the Sahara Desert.  My camel’s handler Ibrahim was also very patient with me.  “You’re  much like a Tuareg woman.”, he told me.  Tuareg woman, he explained, don’t care for camel riding.  They prefer to be closer to the ground and so they ride donkeys instead.  I think he thought I was afraid.  I don’t think he quite appreciated the pain I was in.  He would come back and try to reposition me by moving my right leg and my foot into the right position for riding, and each time he would do that my pain would increase four-fold, and I would try to explain why I was having troubles, but in the end, I think he thought I was just afraid.  “We’ll fix it in the morning for the ride back”, he promised.  Even in this picture you can see me holding my right leg in my hand, trying to keep it from externally rotating out.  For days after this, when I was externally rotate my hip, I got taser’ed!

So, I gritted my teeth, and I rode that camel out of Timbuktu and into the Sahara…

And Ibrahim straightened the saddle, but I walked back!!!

Dying To Get A Visa

Days 5 & 6, Bamako, Mali

Figuring out which countries you will need a visa for and how is the best way, or only way, to get them, is one of the challenges of international travel.  Abner figured it all out for us for our trip.  Ghana, the last country we’d be visiting, was going to be the trickiest visa.  Ghana requires that visitors obtain their visa in their country of residence.  So we’d need to get in the States before leaving for our trip.  The embassy is in Washington, D.C.  So, we mail off our passports and all the requested information and the application in duplicate along with passport photos and pray for the best.  Which normally wouldn’t be cause for much concern…however I needed my passport for my trip to Haiti, and would have to send it in when I got back…which would give me less than two weeks for the turnaround.  Abner did most of the legwork, including coming to my office to pick up my paperwork and taking it to the Fed-Ex office and doing the calling to check on the status.  I got my passport back with my faboo Ghana visa in it just a few days before leaving for West Africa.  What a relief it was to have that in hand.  Only two more visas would be needed for our travels.

Senegal did not require a visa for Americans.  We’d obtain our Malian visa in Senegal.  We’d obtain our Burkina Faso visa in Mali.

Hyperbole aside, I nearly died getting our Burkina visa in Mali.  I was as close to being in a medical emergency as I’d ever been.  It was well over a hundred degrees in Bamako.  That was just the air temperature.  There was scorching heat coming up from the ground beneath us.  The air was toxic.  People riding motorcycles often wore medical masks to help filter the pollution from it.  On our first day in Bamako we left our hostel, La Mission Catholique, in the late morning to head to the Burkina Faso embassy.  Lonely Planet did not provide an exact address, but gave seemingly good directions on how to get to the location.  It was just a few miles from our hostel.

We’d arrived that morning after a 36 hour bus trip (that story is another post!) and we were tired.  The cabbie we’d hired to bring us to our hostel didn’t know quite know where the hostel was, and didn’t know any of the street names provided on the map we had.  He got us to the general neighborhood and then after asking around, finally pulled up to our location.  We thought his not knowing his way around well was a fluke…wrongo.

We flagged down a taxi to take us to the embassy because it was already oppressively hot and we didn’t feel like walking even a mile in the heat.  This taxi driver had literally no idea where the embassy was.  We had a map, but he did not read and could not understand maps.  We found this over and over again with the subsequent cabbies we’d hailed.  We finally decided we’d just walk there…seemed easy enough…well, easier than trying find a cab was turning out to be.


Getting our bearings wasn’t too difficult.  We each had a Nalgene bottle of water with us.  We figured we’d find the embassy before our water ran out.


Man, it was hot.  I live at altitude, and so I am naturally blood doped.  Despite that, I needed to stop frequently to drink water and try to stand in whatever shade I could find to try to cool down.  It didn’t take us too long to get to where we knew the embassy had to be close…only we couldn’t find it.  We asked and asked, but no one knew where it was.  Down one street that seemed to be the one the embassy was right off of, we saw a guy in a uniform.  Turns out he was a private security guard for some nice secured housing.  He knew where it was and sent us off in the right direction…”down the road, cross the big street, and then go down the street on the right”.  He said it in French though.  It wasn’t far.

Sooo,  off we went.  My water was gone, but we’d come back to the little store we passed along the way once we’d dropped off our passports.  Only that’s not quite how it went.  We went down the road, and we crossed the big street, and we found a road on the right, and we walked down that road, only there was no embassy.  We walked around a bit seeing what we could see, only we couldn’t see anything ebassyish looking.  We found an official looking building with official looking uniformed men and so I asked them, in rather clear and concise French thank you very much, if they knew where the BF embassy was.  By the way they looked at me, you would have thought I was speaking Bikya.  I asked and reasked, slowwwwwly and clearly…nope, nada, or should I say, rien!  But then a groundskeeper who overheard my attempted conversation approached us and said he knew where it was and that he would take us there, and that it was close.  HE understood my French.  I understood HIS French.  What was with those military guys anyway????  He took us back down the road we’d abandoned, then turned down another dusty little road, and there, just a few hundred meters down THAT road was the embassy!  Woo Hoo!!!  We’d found it!!!  Thanks groundskeeper guy!  Here’s a nice tip for you for your help!

By now I’m hot.  And beet red.  Abner is sharing his precious water supply with me, and soon, his is gone too.  We approach the guardhouse and make our request.  We are told to return in about two hours, that this is when the passport office is open again.  We head off in search of fluids.

IT IS REALLY HOT.  We realize that there is a bit of a short cut if we take a different route, so we head back to the little store we passed on the way to the embassy.  My heart is pounding and pounding fast.  I’m getting redder, and hotter, and drier by the minute.  My pulse is 140.  My usual resting heart rate is half that.  I’m feeling woozy.  It’s at this time that I tell Abner that I’m not feeling well at all and that we need to get to some liquids pronto.  The shortcut takes us past rotting chicken remains alongside the road.  The smell of death makes me even sicker.

I’m about a minute away from delirium and heat stroke when we make it to the store.  A couple of men outside the store take one look at me, and they give up their lawn chairs for us.  A few liters of fluid and soda and an hour later, my heart rate is down to a hundred, I’m sweating again, and my color and skin temperature has returned to normal.  Crisis averted.  And lesson learned.  No matter how tired I am and now matter how heavy it is, both Nalgene bottles need to go with me all the time.

We trudge back down the road, across the big street, through the shortcut, past the rotting flesh piles, and back to the embassy we go.  A short wait and we are allowed access to the embassy’s passport office…

Where we learn that passports are picked UP in the afternoon, but they are dropped OFF in the morning.  We’d have to come back tomorrow.

TIA, my friends…This Is Africa.

Since we are pretty certain that no cab driver will know how to get us back to our hostel, we decide to walk back.  I was feeling fine to make the walk.  Only our walk back didn’t quite go as planned either.  At first it was all good.  We walked with confidence!  We found our way back to the neighborhood we were staying in.

And then we were lost.  We got disoriented and turned around.  Nothing looked familiar and everything looked familiar.  We knew we were close, but we couldn’t find where we were supposed to be.  We asked a dozen people for help.  No one knew street names.  No one knew where the mission was.  Abner was getting frustrated.  I was starting to panic.  I was overheating again.  And as all the life-saving water I had imbibed earlier had worked its way through my system, I was now nearly in a bathroom state of emergency.  I’d been praying often on this trip already…but now I’m praying out loud.  “Please, Jesus, send us someone who knows where we are and how to get us to where we want to be”.  I was begging.

Then, like a beautiful black angel, a young man,  working a jigsaw puzzle of all things, motions us over to him.  Without even asking him for help, he tells us that the place we are looking for is down this street, turn left at the corner, and then left at the next corner, and it will be on the right.

And it was.  And we were safely back to where there was water and a bathroom.

The next day we returned to the embassy early in the morning and dropped off our passports.  And we made it back in the afternoon to pick them up.  And we stopped for shawarmas on the way “home” where we took victory photos of us and our freshly minted Burkina visas.

It was looking like we’d both be filling all the pages of our passports on this trip!  I’ve never filled up a passport before!!  At the shawarma restaurant:  my Ghana visa on the right, our hard won Burkina Faso visas on our lefts!

None the worse for wear in the end, but getting this visa was a bit scary there for a minute.  This was a good place to learn the water lesson.  Further down the road, having plenty of water was going to be even more important as finding it would be more difficult.

After shawarmas, and without making a single wrong turn, we made it “home” once again.  Feeling a little contented, and a lot jubilant.

Top of the World

Day 15

Ya Pas De Probleme Hotel, Mopti, Mali, Second Stay

When asked what kind of music they listen to, you know how people often will answer “I listen to ALL kinds of music.”?  But then they really don’t?  Well, Abner actually does.  Abner is a Filipino-American who moved to the states as a teenager.  He’s in his late 20’s.  I had more surprises scrolling through the music playlists on his iPod!  I needn’t list the genres as they’re all pretty much represented there.  On the day we got to enjoy a leisurely day lounging and reading by, and swimming in, the lovely Ya Pas pool, I came across the Carpenters!  I pressed play for “Top of the World”, and Abner told me he was juuust thinking about listening to this very song.  I didn’t exactly believe him, but he knew more of the lyrics to the songs than I did…just like he knew all the lyrics to allll of his music.

We stayed at the Ya Pas when we were in Mopti before going to Timbuktu.  I didn’t find the pool that time around, but did so when we stayed there on the way back through after leaving Timbuktu.  I didn’t have high expectations in what the pool would actually be like.  Much to my absolute delight, the pool was located in a bit of an oasis in a very dusty land!  When I passed through the double sets of curtains into the pool area, I found myself in a walled in area filled with plants, and flowers….

…and a lovely blue tiled pool.  A pool that smelled of chlorine…which means it would be safe to swim in!

In a place where the color palette is largely made up of lovely dusty tans, browns, sands, yellows, and grays, the pool was a sparkling topaz hidden away behind mud walls and in the shadow of bougainvillea…

Ahhhhh….la piscine…..

Abner’s leap…..

…..and of course, our feet!

We’d just returned from our time in Timbuktu and were still in that “did we really just do that?” place when we spent our day poolside.  I think that this day, on the tail of those days, simply added more to the unrealistic nature of our journey!

Listening to Abner’s great music, in this oasis of a place, after having had one of the coolest experiences of my life…Well…I was on the top of the world!

Slogan Fail

When in Accra, Ghana, we went to a local cultural arts center before leaving Africa for home, to see if there was any sort of souvenir we just couldn’t live without.  Despite there being a labyrinth of stalls, the stalls didn’t have much variety from one to the next.  Much of what was offered for sale was less than spectacular.  And the salespeople were overly aggressive.

The stuff was made in part by local craftsman, though some was clearly imported.  These articles are designed for the tourist population.  In addition to paintings, carvings, jewelry, fabrics, etc., there were lots of religiousy tchotchkes and collectiblely stuff for sale…buttons, magnets, key chains, that sort of thing.  Most were made of carved wood in the shape of Africa, or Ghana and painted in green, yellow, black, and red.

Some had religious symbols or sayings on them.

My personal favorite?  The ones that somehow got through quality assurance that said:

” Except Jesus”

In hindsight, I wish I would have bought one of them.  🙂


For most people who live in the United States there is no specific circumscribed societally appropriate method of greeting others.  Whether it be friends, or family, or strangers, or new acquaintances, greetings can take any number of forms.

And for the most part, you’re probably not going be completely offensive to the other person.

One hand shake, taking both hands, hugging, cheek kissing…it’s all mostly okay given various circumstances.

Not so in many other parts of the world.  When traveling, it’s a good idea to find out how greetings are to take place.  How do you greet people younger than you?  How do you greet those who are your elders?  How do you greet those who are “equals” to you?

Make a mistake and you can really offend.

In the Western African countries that we visited, you never shook hands left handed or for that matter, ate left handed, or took something from someone with your left hand.

One of the local languages, Bambara, incorporated this custom into their words for left and right.  The word for “right” is kinibolofe…translated as “rice eating hand”.  The word for “left” is numanbolofe…”nose picking hand”.


15 Spices

Day 11

Shortly after our arrival in Timbuktu and getting settled in at the Sahara Passion, we were invited out into the courtyard for dinner.

As I scooped up small amounts of seasoned rice and bits of meat out of the communal bowl with my right hand, compressed and rolled it into balls and popped them into my mouth, I was only slightly taken aback by the somewhat gritty feel and crunchiness of the food as I chewed it.  No one else seemed to either notice or mind the sensation, so I continued to eat the food as they did.  It was, afterall, very delicious and flavorful!

It was after we were finished eating that the mystery of the gritty was solved.

I learned that there’s a saying in Timbuktu……….

Timbuktu is the land of 15 spices………and the 15th is sand.


“I Don’t Like Mangoes”

Finding fresh fruits in Senegal and Mali was rather difficult.  Bananas we could find, but that was about it.  Most of the fruit available was overripe, underripe, or just plain gross looking.  By the time we got to Burkina Faso I was dying (okay, maybe not DYING…maybe aching, yeah, that’s it, ACHING) for something fresh to eat from the plant family.  On one of our walk-abouts in Ouagadougou (I love that I’ve been to Ouagadougou!) we happened upon a street full of excellent produce stands.  Abner saw some mangoes that he had to have.

“I don’t like mangoes.”  (That was me sayin’ that)  There’s something about the flavor, something that lingers in my mouth that I really don’t care for.  But, since it had been a long time since I’d had a mango, I figured I’d try one again.

I’m very glad I did.  I didn’t have any idea what it was that I’d tasted in the past that put me off of them so badly.  But wow, were those mangoes unbelievably delicious.  Maybe I was just that hungry for fruit…but maybe not!

Abner, who took prodigious care of me on our journey, did THIS to the mangoes to make them easier to eat!  Apparently it’s not some new invention or anything, but I’ve never seen it done!  And I was terribly impressed.  🙂

Yummy mango! Who knew????

On another fruit shopping trip, Abner picked up some more mangoes.  He wanted some that weren’t quite ripe yet as he loved them that way, too.

When I tried one of those, I got that taste in my mouth, the one that made me not like mangoes…

Note to self:  you do not like GREEN mangoes… you LOVE ripe ones!



Working on just what it’s gonna look like…and deciding on just where it’s going to go…

(P.S.  I googled the word “timbuktattoo”.  No results.  Hard to believe I’m the first person to coin that word….perhaps that’s just indicative of how few people 1:  go to Timbuktu and 2:  go to Timbuktu and then want to get a tattoo to celebrate going!)

Update:  Three seconds later…I googled “timbuktattoo” and this post showed up as the single result.  I literally pressed “Publish” and went and googled and there it was…that’s insane.

I Wish I Was In Ouagadougou…

Days 18, 19, and part of 20

I’d never heard of Ouagadougou before Abner and I started to plan our trip.

Best name for a city EVER!!!!

Capital city of Burkina Faso.

Even though there’s not exactly a whole lot to do there…we put it on our list of places to spend time mostly because we liked the way it sounded when we said “Ouagadougou”…

We wanted to take pictures of ourselves in front of some sort of  “Welcome to Ouagadougou” sign.  But we couldn’t find one.  Best Ouagadougou sign we could find was the one on a big trashcan downtown.  See????

It was rather awkward taking this picture…there was a cop across the street that made us nervous…like he might wonder why we were taking pictures of a trashcan…and it would be difficult to explain.  So we tried to look nonchalant while each of us surreptitiously tried to take a picture of the other.  I am casually sucking on a water sachet…I don’t look out of place at alll!!!!  🙂

Since getting to Timbuktu and back was a bit draining, we planned on relaxing in Ouagadougou.  We had a great room at a great hostel.  Hotel le Pavillon Vert.  I’m sure I’ll post on that at some point.  If you ever go to Ouaga, and you’re on a budget, you probably can’t beat the place.

Abner decided to not shave on this trip.  He started out being confused by people with being Korean…a little bit of beard and he became Japanese…a little more…Pakistani…full beard by the end of the trip and he was completely Saudi!  Oddly, not a single person thought he was Filipino!  When people would ask him, and he would tell them where he was from, very few people even knew of the country or where it was.

By the time we hit Ouaga, and were as tired as we were, I thought he was looking like a Laotian refugee…


Veggie Tales…West African Style

We stopped on our bus rides across West Africa.  We stopped (and broke down) a LOT.  Most of the stops have blurred together in my mind.  But, it WAS somewhere in Mali.  I’m sure of that.  I see a guy walking down the street towards Abner and me and he was wearing a white shirt with what appeared to be a familiarish cartoonish green cucumber on it.

Me to Abner:  “Look!  How funny!!  That guy is wearing a Veggie Tales shirt in the middle of nowhere Mali!”

Abner to me as the shirted man gets closer:  “Uh, that’s not a veggie, that’s a condom!”

So it was.  (It was an HIV education shirt).  And much laughter ensued…


Bon Anniversaire, Abner!!

Happy Birthday, Abner!  Thanks for bringing so much awesomeness into my life!  🙂  Here’s to the next visa and the next stamp in our passports…

Three Glasses of Tea

“The first is strong…like death.

The second is sweet…like life.

The third is sugar…like love.”

~  Aziz

Tea is a fundamental component of the Tuareg way of life.  The tea they drink is  Chinese Green Tea.  Apparently through extensive trial and error, this has been determined to be the best tea.  And among the Tuareg, it’s a universally held opinion.  We had seen these small glasses of tea for sale all over Mali.  Vendors would sell it by the glass either from small stalls or on foot.  We had one bus driver who frequently purchased a glass during our innumerable stops.  We wondered what it was, but because the glass was a shared glass and the liquid within looked turbid, we declined…that is, until we were in Timbuktu.

Our hostess at the Sahara Passion where we staying made us aware that tea would come to us regularly and in a series of three glasses.  I guessed then that tea was something important in this place.

The tea is served hot, even though the weather is stiflingly hot already.  Despite this, it’s somehow refreshing.  The glass it is served in is reminiscent of a slightly oversized shot glass.  Each of the three glasses of tea is different, but all have many ingredients in varying amounts.  The first cup of tea is somewhat bitter, and yes, strong.  The second is my favorite.  It’s plenty sweet and a little bit minty.  The third is crazy sweet and crazy minty.  It is made in very small pots on very small charcoal braziers.

For the Tuareg, there is a tea ceremony of sorts in the brewing, mixing, and serving of it.  Aziz, a young Tuareg man who was our guide and became our friend, shared a story about the first time he was allowed to go on a salt caravan.

“You have to be eighteen to go.  And everyone has to have a job.  My job was to make the tea.”

Tea is that important…important enough to be a whole job.

Ghahahahana!! :-)

My recent adventure to West Africa started in Senegal.  From Senegal we traveled to Mali and then on to Burkina Faso.  These three countries are French speaking and largely Muslim.  The final country on our itinerary was Ghana.  English speaking and largely Christian.  I’m skipping to the end to do a little bit of an easy chuckler post.  🙂

The minute we crossed over the border from Burkina into Ghana I started chuckling!  And the chuckles continued throughout our time there.


Well, the names of the businesses which lined the road pretty much cracked me up!  Most of the time you really didn’t know what the place sold by the name.  Sometimes you’d get a hint in the name.  Sometimes you could tell from the sampling of wares you could see…from caskets to tires to bread…

Here is a few of the names that were on my side of the road as we drove by:

  • Power House of Cement
  • The Blood of Christ Can Do It Better
  • Born Again Supermarket
  • No Sweat and Joy Drinking Spot
  • God’s Will Enterprises
  • No Bribe At Heaven
  • Patience To All Enterprises
  • God’s Grace MTN
  • God First
  • I Thank God
  • God Is Good
  • By His Grace Perfect Touch Beauty Salon
  • Maranantha God
  • Pray For Life
  • Great God of Wonders
  • Ps 121 Home Cooking
  • Jesus Never Fails
  • Iddi(sic) Amin Enterprises
  • In His Time Store
  • Christ the Redeember Beauty Salon
  • God is Our Strength

And my favorites…

  • Patience Fast Food
  • With God All Things Are Possible Beauty Salon
Pictures on loan from Abner…best travel partner EVER.  🙂

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