Pop Goes the Wheel

Six months into the second leg of our journey, after more than 18 months on the road, everything is slowly but surely falling apart. Big Reg sat through two rainy seasons during his sojourn in Liberia; as a result of all that mould, rust and corrosion, Sampson is forever stripping down and bodging things back together: the gas cooker in Kendeja, a new sink-holder in Robertsport, the cutlery drawer in Guinea, the fridge in Guinea-Bissau, a leaking shower pipe in the Gambia…

In Liberia, Sampson had replaced...

In Liberia, Sampson had to replace…

the rotten wooden sink-holder...

the rotten wooden sink-holder…

with a custom-made brushed aluminium version.

with a custom-made brushed aluminium version.

Not bad for a blagger.

Not bad for a blagger.

Parking on slopes means that washing-up water constantly runs over the side of the worktop in the kitchen and the drips are slowly warping the wood of the cupboard doors below. Plastic crockery is cracking, and the foam in mattresses and seat cushions has ceased to be springy. The tabletop made so lovingly by Groundswell wooden surfboards has split with the pressure of being swung up and down every day when it is turned into a bed. We are having to jam wood chips under control switches on the cooker to keep the hobs lit. Most terrifying of all, the toilet pump keeps sticking, threatening to break down once and for all.

Cupboard door warped by constant washing up drips

Cupboard door warped by constant washing up drips

On the way to the Gambia Coral Beach Hotel one day, Sampson accidentally knocked a switch that stopped the vegetable oil returning from the engine to the tank and broke two of the four solenoids. During the hour-long meeting I had on Skype he replaced one and stripped and replaced the other with a kit. I’m very proud of my no-mechanical-skills-whatsoever-when-we-set-out husband. But now we have no spares left, which is a bit worrying.

Leaving the Gambia, it felt like Big Reg was on his last legs: the tyres were all shot, the exhaust brake kept sticking, and the jumping-out of second gear, which was happening occasionally in Liberia, was now constant. We were limping towards Dakar and the specialist Mercedes garage highly recommended by our saviours Tractafric, just praying we could make it.

The crossing of the border from the Gambia back into Senegal was very smooth, probably because so many people are doing it all the time. But it was still weird to drive just a few metres forward and find everyone suddenly speaking French again. African borders imposed as a result of squabbles between colonial powers seem more artificial here than anywhere. The ongoing tensions between the nations created as a result bear witness to their illogicality.

It was notable for the fact that Senegal is the only country so far where narcotics officers have come to check inside the truck, possibly because of the amount of cocaine coming up this way from Guinea-Bissau – it first happened when we entered Casamance, and again here in Karang. We didn’t know if the cats counted as contraband so stuck them in the food storage cupboard with the tins to be on the safe side. We needn’t have worried: when he saw our picture of Madiba, the gentleman checking was too overcome to search for anything, just put his hand on his heart and told us Mandela was also his president.

It was a relief to be out of the urban atmosphere of Banjul...

It was a relief to be out of the urban atmosphere of Banjul…

and back in the bush...

and back in the bush…

even if it was slightly disconcerting...

even if it was slightly disconcerting…

how near the mangrove swamps were coming to the road.

to see how near the mangrove swamps were creeping to the road.

But throughout the Siné-Saloum delta...

But throughout the Saloum delta…

the views...

the views…

and the birdlife are spectacular!

and the birdlife are spectacular!

We followed the hot and bumpy road north through the Siné-Saloum delta region to yet another ferry at Foundiougne. It only took 13 vehicles at a time, so we worked out we had two more to wait for. We were sat in the sweaty queue in direct sun and were talking about making lunch when “PFFFFfffffffffffffffffttttttttttttsssssssssssss”…

I thought that the coach next to us had its air brakes stuck but realised the noise was coming from underneath me. I opened the side door and looked down – eeeek – the tyre below me was subsiding, tipping us towards the ground at a rapid rate.

Hmmm. Time to cancel all plans for the day...

Hmmm. Time to cancel all plans for the day…

Shoo.

Shoo, that’s FLAT.

So, breakdown no. 13. Sampson was notably cool: he knew what to do about this one. I asked a motorbike taxi man to go fetch the nearest mechanic and soon Yancoba was back and fetching blocks of wood to jack the truck up with.

At least we were providing some entertainment for others waiting

At least we were providing some entertainment for others waiting

While one team struggled to get the flat off...

While one team struggled to get the flat off…

the other battled rusty chains to get the spare down...

the other battled rusty chains to get the spare down.

It was absolutely filthy as it had been horizontal since Angola...

It was absolutely filthy as it had been horizontal since Angola…

when it had nearly wobbled off the hub in Dombe Grande.

when it had nearly wobbled off the hub in Dombe Grande.

First time we've had parts delivered by horse and cart.

First time we’ve had parts delivered by horse and cart.

Thanks to Yancoba Sané (2nd from left) Omar Sané, Kolli Gueye and Lamin Djob with Sampson giving thanks for their Leathermans

Thanks to Yancoba Sané (2nd from left) Omar Sané, Kolli Gueye and Lamin Djob with Sampson giving thanks for their Leathermans!

Couldn't have got the new spare secured without them.

Couldn’t have got the new spare secured without them.

In a few hours Yancoba and his crew took the back wheel off, put the spare back on and skipped off with time to get ready for their Saturday night out, all for R300. We decided against making the crossing in the dark, and spent the night on the dockside.

Back in the queue...

Back in the queue…

waiting for the ferry from Foundiougne...

waiting for the ferry from Foundiougne…

but our hopes of crossing before dark...

but our hopes of crossing before dark…

receded into the dusk.

receded into the dusk.

Officials punished our reluctance the night before by making us wait for the second ferry in the morning, after the buses delivering people to work had crossed. Sampson was a bit peeved, but I was in no hurry – the delay gave me time to take some spectacular pictures. I felt the calm and dignity of Senegal reasserting itself over the scramble of the Gambia to pander to tourists.

Dawn through the mosquito screen

Dawn through the mosquito screen

revealed the calm of the delta

revealed the calm of the delta

I felt very privileged...

I felt very privileged…

to be feeling at one with it

to be feeling at one with it

To wander amongst the workers that morning...

To wander amongst the workers as a witness that Sunday morning…

while Sampson stretched and the children snoozed...

while Sampson stretched and the children snoozed…

According to Wikipedia, the Serer kingdoms of Sine and Saloum are two of few pre-colonial African Kingdoms whose royal dynasty survived up to the 20th century.

I had a chat with M. Tejan, a man of about 30, who was unloading several cartfuls of bags of straw which were to be transported out to the forty or so Iles du Saloum as animal feed. He was very interested in our journey and our family, and quizzed me closely about Zola’s adoption. Finally he seemed satisfied with my explanations that, due to the prevalence of HIV, there are many babies needing to be adopted in South Africa and not enough Africans keen to adopt; especially as I had committed to bringing my son up to be conversant in the language and culture of his Xhosa forebears, and both my children as proud Africans, knowledgeable about their continent.

It cost Big Reg 7500FCA (R150) to cross the Saloum; we were surprised to find nothing on the other side, no town or even food stalls just a giant empty building with a brand new carpark as yet unused and a queue of traffic waiting to board. Thank goodness Sampson had bought their tapalapa baguettes that morning already.

The other side was a vast expanse...

The other side was a vast expanse…

of salt pans and...

of salt pans and…

not much else...

not much else…

Lovely road - let's get to Dakar!

But a lovely road – let’s get to Dakar!

We drove straight out onto the salt pans and soon pulled over for breakfast and to check how the new wheel was running. Sampson’s face was pale when he looked up. Bad news: the holes in the wheel hub made wobbly in Angola were starting to shear the bolts off. It would be dangerous to go any further.

Uh-oh...

Uh-oh…

Dodgy hub holes shearing off the bolts

Dodgy hub holes shearing off the bolts

It was Sunday and we hadn’t seen a single car pass us since we left the ferry. The peace and tranquility of the Siné-Saloum suddenly felt very ominous.

Sampson went straight into cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof mode. He ignored all my appeals to Eat Breakfast First before trying to decide what to do, and started stalking up and down outside in the heat without a hat or sunscreen. It upsets me very much when he deliberately goes deaf and won’t listen to reason like this. Many times, in calmer moments, we have spoken of the wisdom of his Dad Reg’s mantra “Panic slowly”; many times he’s promised to try an implement it when the shit hits the fan, for the benefit of the kids if not himself. I was honestly more worried about the future of  our relationship than the future of the wheel when he flagged down the next car and we were blessed to have Mamadou Sarr delivered to our door.

Alhamdulillah for Mamadou Sarr!

Alhamdulillah for Mamadou Sarr!

In my diary, I described him as “the cheeriest man in Senegal” and my first instincts were so right. We’ve known Mamadou for a while now, and I have never seen him in anything less than ebullient mood. His optimism is infectious and his good humour restored Sampson to his better self within minutes.

Mamadou jumped out, grinned and introduced his companion, a mountain of a man called Abdul Aziz, who turned out to be a mechanic he’d brought from Dakar to fix his Land Rover, which had broken down this side of the ferry. Abdul had sorted out the problem earlier than they’d thought, so now Mamadou was quite willing to take a three hour detour to help us.

Abdul got the punctured tyre wheel off the back (a job that had required three men in Foundiougne) but while trying to lift it into the jeep, realised it wasn’t going to fit. “We need a bakkie” said Sampson, and at that very moment, I kid you not, one arrived, driven nogal by a Senator of Mamadou’s acquaintance with his industrial tycoon party-funder in the passenger seat. They slung the wheel in the back, Sampson jumped in with Mamadou and off they went in convoy to the town of Fatick 9km away.

The moment just before "Hmmm... we need a bakkie...oh!"

The moment just before “Hmmm… we need a bakkie…oh!”

The rescue team set off to Fatick

The rescue team set off to Fatick

Zola had mild food poisoning, possibly from drinking an iced baobab/orange juice Ruby had ill-advisedly bought them in a market the day before, although she was unaffected. I set to making the most of our Gambian supermarket goodies and fried up a pile of French toast (corn cakes dipped in egg) with Marmite to tempt him to eat. We demolished an entire packet between us, listened to Cabin Pressure and played with kittens…

Killing time teasing kittens

Killing time teasing kittens

Until everyone was flat out

Until everyone was flat out

It was staggering how much hotter it was inland. The temperature gauge I bought for my birthday was reading 38˚C by the time they got back at 2pm. They’d got the inner tube puncture fixed and came back with the wheel strapped on the roof. But even the mighty Aziz couldn’t get the former spare wheel off because the bolts were so embedded, so Big Reg had to limp on into town, escorted by Mamadou.

In this couple of hours, Mamadou and Sampson had bonded fast friends. In between making each other laugh, Mamadou told him that, where he comes from in Joal, if someone travels north or south to the next province, they will be cared for, and given free accommodation and food. As far as he knew, this reciprocal arrangement between Serer people and their Fula and Diola neighbours has been in place forever. What a brilliant idea – like a free AirB’n’B!

Fatick is the birthplace of Senegalese President Macky Sall and it seems he’s been investing heavily in vanity projects in his hometown. We drove along a huge empty boulevard past a vast Hôtel de Ville to a deserted grandstand. The scale of them seemed wildly optimistic for such a one horse town. I’m afraid I didn’t take any pics as I was too hot and distracted at the time looking for the garage.

Once we found M. Koumar, we let Mamadou and Abdul go – Mamadou had already paid 7000FCA for parts but refused to take a refund. “I’ll sponsor you” he said, so we passed a large note on to Abdul for his efforts. I want to thank Mamadou from the bottom of my heart, not just for what he gave us of his time and resources, but for the gracious and open-hearted way he did it. He is such an ambassador for the spirit of Dakar, he made us even more eager to get there. We pray we may be there to help Mamadou the next time he breaks down on Chapman’s Peak Drive…

M. Koumar and his team got stuck in. Metalworker André cut off the stuck bolt and made three washers for the duff remainders, while Sampson went looking fruitlessly for new ones. He did a fair bit of magic to entertain hangers-on and I did a lot of explaining of our mission in basic French (which is all we all had) while they got the dodgy wheel off and the repaired punctured one back on.

Culprit no. 1

Culprit no. 1

With this bodge job, this wheel went back to being the spare, to be used only in an emergency

With this bodge job, this wheel went back to being the spare, to be used only in an emergency

Thanks André the welder, M. Koumar, Ebrahim and Abdoulaye

Thanks André the metalworker, M. Koumar, Ebrahim and Abdoulaye

Come on, smile!

Come on, smile!

That's better!

That’s better!

As dusk fell, we said goodbye and set off again into the tranquil bush. The cold shower that night was bliss. My feet had gone through so much sweat and dust that day, by the end of it I felt like I was paddling in mud inside my sandals. I was increasingly aware of the encroaching dryness of the Sahel – the inside of my nose was sore and we all had cracked lips.

Back to the peace of the bush

Back to the peace of the bush

With such a dodgy spare, we were really flying by the seat of our pants to Dakar now. But Sampson was high on the human interaction of today and revelling in the rewarding outcome of the challenge he’d been thrown. With him back feeling positive, anything was possible.

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The Gambia Part 2: On Baobab Beach

Big Reg parked happily outside the Coco Ocean for a couple of nights, but behind the huge windbreak of the hotel, the mossies were tucking into us so determinedly we had to put nets up inside. With hotels on board and waste oil collection underway, we set out south to find an empty beach. Once again, we picked a random turn off and lucked into a perfect spot: it was opposite the village of Brufut, but we christened it Baobab Beach.

This looked promising...

This looked promising…

but was better than anything we could have hoped for!

but was better than we could have hoped!

We couldn’t believe these enormous trees were growing this close to the sea.

We couldn’t believe these enormous trees were growing this close to the sea.

Wow

Wow

WOW.

WOW.

What a view!

What a view!

And hardly anyone else here

And hardly anyone else here

You can’t argue with the Gambian climate. The balmy temperatures, golden mornings and blue skies were a breath of fresh air for us. The pouting mouth of the Gambia sticks out into the Atlantic and the stiff wind along the coast seemed to banish the harmattan as well as the mossies. It was a shocker for us more used to the heat and humidity of Liberia. I had to dig out my Cape Town winter clothes. British walkers sweating in T-shirts were somewhat surprised to see me in socks and a hoody, shivering in sub-25˚ temperatures!

Meeting and greeting the locals in a chilly wind

Meeting and greeting the locals in a chilly wind

The wind was so cold, we started shutting the door and sleeping in ‘jamas in sleeping bags. It was a bit dark behind Reg’s tinted windows when closed. We all took hot showers for first time since Angola. Washing was taking forever to dry i.e. all day, instead of 10 minutes.

The wind down by the sea was too strong to hand washing so we moved back up the slope

The wind down by the sea was too strong to hang washing so we moved back up the slope

We couldn't see the sea, just the gorgeous bougainvillia

We couldn’t see the sea, just the gorgeous bougainvillia

which was a wonderful windbreak

which was a wonderful windbreak

On our morning walk I was testing Zola on irregular French verbs because he knows his times tables better than me now. How times have changed since we first left!

Check the size of the cuttlefish here - as big as Dad's slops!

Check the size of the cuttlefish here – as big as Dad’s slops!

It might be known as the Smiling Coast, but to me the Gambia will be remembered as the Chatty Coast. How these people love to talk! That might sound ironic coming from Sampson and me – you know we can both talk the hind leg off a donkey – but we met our match in Gambia. Everyone wants to gab. In the tourist areas, hearty greetings tended to be a prelude to hustlers trying to persuade you to visit their bar or shop, but even on practically deserted Baobab Beach, you had to keep your head down and march on determinedly or else the morning walk could take the whole day. The three people you bumped into could chat for an hour each!

I made an exception for our lovely neighbours.

Our dear friend Ebrima Touré

Our dear friend Ebrima

and his friend Julia

and his faithful friend Julia

Ebrima Sanneh is a special human being. When, during our second conversation, I said “I love your necklace” he immediately took it off and offered it to me. “No!” I said, horrified he’d taken it as a hint, “It suits you much better, and I hardly ever wear jewelry” but that was Ebrima. He was completely genuine and spontaneous. If he knew a way to make you happy, he would.

Ebrima lives on the beach when it’s warm and squats in a half built house at the top of the slope when the wind is too cold. I saw his pallet tucked between the palms, next to his charcoal burner for green tea and a couple of rickety chairs. He seems to get by providing certain herbs to the community, but his dream is to build a restaurant in the perfect spot he inhabits between the baobabs.

During the few weeks we stayed there, he and a handful of friends dug the foundations and made bricks ready to build. His place is going to be called Tiana’s, after his British sponsor. Much love to you Ebrima, and thanks for your hospitality. We wish you all the luck in the world and hope to come back and have sundowners at your place one day.

These are the bricks Ebrima made but I'm not sure where the aura came from - it's purple so that's auspicious I'm sure

These are the bricks Ebrima made, but I’m not sure where the aura came from – it’s purple so that’s auspicious!

What a view Ebrima's beach bar will have

What a view Ebrima’s beach bar will have!

The second Ebrima used to come past on his bike between his two jobs. I found his accent fascinating. Unlike Liberian, Ghanaian or Nigerian English, the Gambia has a Jamaican lilt that sometimes verges on Welsh. One Sunday he hung out with me while I did the handwashing, discussing the state of the world while listening to the BBC World Service on his radio. He was a softly spoken apologist for colonialism and apartheid, though that was probably less what he believed as what he thought I’d want to hear. He was equally cautious when I asked his opinion of the current Gambian government. While he didn’t look over his shoulder, his slight hesitance, and cautious comment “They’re doing their best” suggested, if not fear, certainly unease.

Gentle thoughtful Ebrima Jassey brought us presents of coffee and a sim card

Gentle thoughtful Ebrima Jassey brought us presents of coffee and a sim card

In the month following our stay in the Gambia, President Jammeh was criticised internationally following the death of an opposition leader in detention.

Big Man/Brother is featured on a disturbing number of billboards

Big Man/Brother is featured on a disturbing number of billboards

including several put up to congratulate himself

including several put up to congratulate himself

Big Reg was driving down the highway one day when a man leaned out of passing car, hollered something and saluted us emphatically. I didn’t catch exactly what he said (it was “BOKKE!” apparently), just turned to Sampson and commented “Well, he was pleased to see us”. A few days later, the same guy turned up outside the truck and invited us down Baobab Beach for a drink. His name’s Ryan Visser and he’s from Durban. He told us he lived round the corner behind the Madiba Mall.

For real!

For real!

Ryan Visser, candidate for South African Superhero

Ryan Visser, candidate for South African Superhero

Daíre's Bar

bid us welcome to Dáire’s Bar

where the locals are as cool as the beer...

where the regulars are as cool as the beer (very)…

and the solar-cooked sausages are smoking hot!

and the solar-cooked sausages are smoking hot!

Sampson felt right at home

Sampson felt right at home

Ryan is the President’s pilot. His colleague Sammy, the Kiwi with the tattoos, is the co-pilot. I wish I could show you the pics they showed me of the interior of the presidential plane; plush is too inadequate an adjective.

Ryan seems to know everyone, and everyone in Banjul knows Ryan. (Even the SA Ambassador in Dakar knows Ryan.) He was on his phone immediately, pulling in oil for favours, while his Irish wife Mary told me of their whirlwind romance, recent wedding and her imminent departure back to a top job in hospital management in UK. They are a high-octane couple with a high fun quotient and, truly, it was a tonic just to hang out with them. The biltong was a bonus.

The kids also had immense fun with Cian (8)...

Zola also had immense fun with Cian (8)…

and Daíre (13)

and Ruby loved hanging out with Dáire (13)

Brave boys brrrrrrrrr!

Brave boys brrrrrrrrr!

Despite her sore back, Mary generously did a big wash for us, blitzing filthy towels and sheets in her machine. This was a candidate for my best birthday present. She even gave us some of their bed linen, bless her.

Ruby's truck decorations included heart-attack-inducing exploding balloons

Ruby’s truck decorations included heart-attack-inducing exploding balloons

On my birthday itself, my husband gifted me with his presence on our early morning walk, a very rare occurrence. Sampson took a brilliant self-timer pic by balancing Tim’s camera on a boat – which is why the horizon’s a bit wonky.

Sampsons selfie 16th March 2016

Sampsons selfie 16th March 2016

He decided that standing in a line looks rubbish so told us to run towards the camera to give the picture some movement. We’re laughing because this is his third attempt to get back to the line and look spontaneously in tune with our movement before the shutter goes off!

taken from this boat

It was taken from this boat

After a delicious breakfast of juicy Gambian grapefruit, we drove back to the Coco Ocean to find Osman, Natalie and Terry waiting for us at the gate. Osman had offered Sampson a couple of nights free in the hotel and he’d asked to delay it for my birthday – what a present! I was mainly looking forward to taking a luxuriously long shower, but I got rather more than I bargained for…

When a smiling Gambian welcome meets South African largesse...

When a smiling Gambian welcome meets South African largesse…

They escorted us through to the VIP section and led us down the steps to Royal Suite 54. It was HUGE.

Feeling like Royals at the Coco Ocean

Feeling like Royals at the Coco Ocean

The bedroom

Check the size of the bedroom…

The lounge

and the lounge…

The bathroom

and the one of two bathrooms!

The 'dressing room' was bigger than the living space in the truck!

The ‘dressing room’ alone was bigger than the living space in the truck!

It not only had two bathrooms, a kitchen, lounge and patio, but also – its own private pool.

NO WAY!

NO WAY!

Yes way!

Yes way!

All thanks to these angels: Terry, Natalie and Osman

All thanks to these angels: Terry, Natalie and Osman

Blossoms all

Blossoms all

I have to admit, I was sobbing just a little bit at this point. Their generosity was quite overwhelming.

Exquisite

Everything was so… exquisite

and majestic

and majestic

Glorious

Glorious

There was more: breakfast was included! WOW. You can go all day on a Coco Ocean breakfast. Especially if, like Sampson, you have your Norwegian smoked salmon and poached egg with a side order of bacon. AND a waffle with fruit and cream. We were the only table not to leave a morsel of food on any of our plates.

Sumptuous breakfast at the Coco Ocean

Sumptuous breakfast at the Coco Ocean

Only Sampson could manage to squeeze in dessert as well...

Only Sampson could manage to squeeze in dessert as well…

We went to thank Chef Guido for the waste vegetable oil and found out he had Italian parents but was brought up in Leamington Spa and was a Coventry City fan! When I reminisced about Cov winning the FA Cup in 1987, he told me he flew back from sous-chefing in Dubai every weekend for that glorious season!

The Sampsons' present...

My present from the Sampsons…

was this inner tube...

was this inner tube…

which everyone but me...

which everyone but me…

had a jolly fine time...

had a jolly fine time…

playing on!

playing on!

I had another appointment...

I had another appointment…

To top it all, I was given a voucher by Layla Idrissi, Terry’s wife and Coco Ocean Spa manager, for free spa treatments.

Darling Layla is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside

Darling Layla is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside

Oh my word, I have never felt so spoiled. Not only was I gifted a massage from the talented Touria, I was also given an hour long Hamam treatment, a specialty of Layla’s native Morocco.

The spa is the ultimate in luxurious calm

The spa is the ultimate in luxurious calm

with elegant individual treatment rooms all tiled in marble

with individual treatment rooms all tiled in marble

Did I mention how much Auntie Juz would love it here yet?

Did I mention how much Auntie Juz would love it here?

Pardon?

Pardon?

Oh I did.

Oh I did.

Therapist Sarah led me into the Turkish bath area and sluiced me down with bucketfuls of hot-springs-warm water, before slathering me from head to toe with ‘Savon Beldi’: black soap made from virgin olive oil and essential oils of eucalyptus, cedar, cinnamon and extracts of algae. She then left me lying on a heated marble slab to soak up the scented steam for 15 minutes.

Despite being naked except for a paper G-string, I felt surprisingly relaxed and comfy on the warm marble plinth watching the humid haze condense into droplets on the dark tiles. But just before I dozed off, Sarah appeared with a ‘kessa’ exfoliating glove and went to work on my body, sloughing off several layers of dead skin I didn’t know I had on me. Blurgh! She splashed me again with bowlfuls of bath-hot water then daubed me with detoxifying Rhassoul Clay, which removes impurities and replaces them with nourishing trace minerals. Another 15 minutes at 43˚C and I began to feel like I was back in Liberia – my lungs love it. My skin was lapping the treatment up as well, and felt baby-soft and baby-new when I slipped into a cool shower afterwards.

The ten minutes of perfect peace sitting wrapped in a warm robe sipping iced water after I floated out of the treatment room was the most blissful I’ve felt in years. I’d never had a spa treatment of any kind, but I absolutely loved the Hamam and will be saving up to do it again – hopefully in Morocco itself!

So this is what it feels like to be pampered

So this is what it feels like to be pampered

Ahhhhhhhhhh....

Ahhhhhhhhhh….

Immediately after that moment of perfect peace, I realised I missed my Mom terribly. With a pang, I remembered an abandoned attempt we once made to go to a spa together and thought “She should be here with me, experiencing it in style.” Luckily, my daughter turned up for verbena tea, and we went for a lovely wander together through the grounds, gathering hibiscus blossoms and counting our blessings to be sharing such a day as this.

What a wonderful birthday!

What a wonderful birthday!

Layla also treated Ruby to a facial, which has inspired her to concoct several of her own since from egg whites or cinnamon and Gambian honey! Thank you Layla and Terry for all your kindness and may blessings rain down upon you both.

Ruby and I were thinking...

Ruby and I were thinking…

we could seriously get used to this

we could seriously get used to this

On our second evening we went out to dine at the Kasumai Restaurant next door.

Somebody feeling a lot cleaner than usual...

Zola feeling a lot cleaner than usual…

and looking like...

and looking like…

an Egyptian prince courtesy of hairdresser Ruby

an Egyptian prince courtesy of hairdresser Ruby

Coco Ocean's resident monkeys came to greet us...

Coco Ocean’s resident monkeys came to greet us…

ever optimistic for a snack...

ever optimistic for a snack…

on our way out...

on our way out…

to the beachside restaurant next door

to the beachside restaurant next door

I had fresh fish domoda – a Gambian dish with groundnut sauce, which was scrumptious – and a naughty-but-nice baobab juice shaken with water and condensed milk for a delicious dessert!

Check the band...

Mmmmm…

The first of many delicious baobab juices...

The first of many delicious baobab juices a.k.a. bouye

A straggly band of musos gathered themselves together very slowly and looked like they were about to play reggae but surprised us with a Dire Straits medley. They kicked off with Romeo and Juliet, which was amazing as the kids and I had just read the balcony scene. As the gravelly-voiced lead guitarist growled out a bizarre pidgin version of the lyrics, I was remembering how my Dad used to sing along to this album while driving me to school and how much I loathed Dire Straits in 1984. Meanwhile Sampson was recalling hanging out smoking bongs in the back of his van with his mates at 17. We found ourselves gripping hands across the table and gulping back nostalgic tears. It was hardly the romantic nuance Shakespeare or even Mark Knopfler had envisaged evoking, but it was ‘a moment’.

The Sultans of Swing

Gambia’s Sultans of Swing

The Gambian music they played was even better and we embarrassed the kids by dancing shamelessly round the tables.

Oh MOM...

Oh MOM…

Back in the truck, unpacking, I was surprised to have a ‘relieved to be home from the holidays’ feeling. Staying at the magnificent Coco Ocean was such a treat, I felt like a queen swanning around the VIP areas for a couple of days. But for those of us not effortlessly elegant like Natalie, it was exhausting to be surrounded by mirrors. I realised I was worn out with having to monitor my appearance and keep my hair looking vaguely respectable. It was great to be back with an excuse for looking like a gypsy!

Big Reg headed north for the swell. Sampson had found a promising spot next to the military base of the Gambian Armed Forces in Bakau. Ever more like his Dad, Zola was much happier after a surf. A long paddle out to sea revealed a left hand reef break that they suspected had never been surfed before; they christened it ‘Bubbles’.

Sampson and son surfing outside Bakau New Town

Sampson and son surfing outside Bakau New Town

a quiet spot to park off

a quiet spot to park off overlooking a windy cliff reminiscent of Cornwall

except for the wildlife

except for the wildlife

The battalions of GAF stationed nearby could have had a problem with Big Reg on their land...

The battalions of GAF stationed nearby could have had a problem with Big Reg on their land…

But they didn't: Staff Sergeants enjoying banter with Sampson

but they didn’t: Staff Sergeants Babukar and Ballow enjoying banter with Sampson

While the boys were in the water, I gave Ruby’s hair a trim. Two young boys passing picked up strands of her golden clippings like they were precious. Maybe I should start selling them!

Ruby spent the afternoon making jewelry

It was the end of term, so Ruby spent the afternoon making jewelry

There was a call centre on the corner and the young staff used to come down to the sea for a breath of fresh air during their breaks. Mohamed was playing a Martin Luther King speech on his phone when he sat down to watch me do T’ai Chi and we got talking. We had a very interesting conversation about life and what it was all about. He would like to be a journalist and is frustrated that he was born in Spain (his Mom works there) but is struggling to obtain a Schengen passport. I suggested he could go train in Ghana or Nigeria instead. At the end of our chat, he told me that, even if I professed atheism, in his eyes, my positive outlook revealed me as a Believer.

Me and Mohamed Camara, journalist of the future

Me and Mohamed Camara, journalist of the future

I regret not travelling beyond the tourist belt of gritted teeth to the genuine smile behind them. I’m quite sure the rural villages of the Gambian interior are far more charming than the urban sprawl of Serecunda and the Atlantic Coast, which reminded me rather of Midrand or a very sunny day in the Midlands.

Is it just me or could this be Village Walk?

Is it just me or could this be Village Walk?

Say no more

Say no more

But the benefits of the city cannot be denied. Thanks to Dentist Desmond Pyper for giving us all a check up and only charging Sampson to fix his broken filling. Dr Des is from Jersey and works as a volunteer at the Swedent Clinic for several months each year.

Dr Des the volunteer dentist

Dr Des Pyper, volunteer dentist

We are super grateful to the Gambia Coral Beach hotel for not only donating waste oil but also letting us access their wifi: I was able to have management meetings on Skype and Sampson caught up with his brother, while Ruby was researching school projects and Zola was finding out what poetry was.

Many thanks to the Gambia Coral Beach, our home from home

Many thanks to the Gambia Coral Beach, our home from home

with some interesting pseudo-Malian architecture...

with some interesting pseudo-Malian architecture…

and some fabulous murals...

and some fabulous murals…

featuring scenes of life...

featuring scenes of life…

along the river Gambia

along the river Gambia

Many thanks to Chief Security Officer Mr Lamin Janneh a.k.a. Banna

Many thanks to Chief Security Officer Mr Lamin Janneh a.k.a. Banna

for letting us hang out so often in the car park

for letting us hang out so often in the car park

In the carpark, we were intrigued to see this Land Cruiser:

Check the number plate

Check the number plate

and the spare - wow!

and the spare – wow!

A couple of days later we met adventurous Polish family, Jacek, Kasia and Konrad Piwowarski, who had driven down to Cape Town in 2012 and were now on their way back to Krakow!

Konrad, Jacek and Kasia Piwowarski from Poland

Konrad, Jacek and Kasia Piwowarski from Poland

They didn’t speak much English, and of course my Polish is pathetic, but when I took this photo, an amazing dialogue took place.
Jacek: “Your first camera was stolen, yes?”
Me: “How did you know?”
Jacek: “I read your blog”
I couldn’t believe it! No one had ever said that to me before! Thanks Jacek and hamba kahle.

Thanks to Lamin S.J. Jabang and Samba Jallow for schlepping Coco Ocean's waste oil to us

Thanks to Lamin S.J. Jabang and Samba Jallow for schlepping Coco Ocean’s waste oil to us

Our last day there, dear Terry arranged for Coco Ocean’s driver Mohamed Cham to chauffeur Sampson around to collect waste veg oil from all the other donating hotels: Ocean Bay, Senegambia, Kairaba, Coral Beach, Kombo Beach, Sunset Beach and Lemon Creek. Sampson had offered to do a comedy show at Coco Ocean to thank all contributors and we’d arranged an interview at West Coast Radio to promote it.

Sampson enjoyed his interview at West Coast Radio

Sampson enjoyed his interview at West Coast Radio

with On The Spot anchor Jimmy Hendry Nzally

with On The Spot anchor Jimmy Hendry Nzally

arranged by station manager Therese Fatou Gomez - loving the owls Therese!

arranged by station manager Therese Fatou Gomez – loving the owls Therese!

For an hour charming On The Spot anchor Jimmy Nzally entertained us with his constant refrain of “POWERFUL” in response to anything vaguely meaningful Sampson said. Sadly Coco Ocean was forced to cancel the show amidst security fears for Brussels Airlines staff who regularly stay there after the bomb attack in the Belgian capital.

Ryan and Mary popped in for a goodbye drink with Osman and Natalie at the same time as I was posting a blog in the Coco Ocean reception lounge. It did my heart good to see what genuinely good friends these young South Africans are. They were discussing their next holiday together, to sights in and around Dakar. Natalie’s quick wit made me laugh as she took the mickey out of the men. Mary had brought creme eggs for the kids as an Easter treat, and left Dáire flirting with Ruby in the truck. How lucky we were to fall in with such a caring and fun bunch.

On 25th March we finally set off north. Just before we left, I gave Ebrima my Zulu necklace as it seemed to suit him far better than me.

Ebrima wearing a hat he plaited from palm fronds and the necklace Ruby’s godfather Bheki gave me - I know he would approve.

Ebrima wearing a hat he plaited from palm fronds and the necklace Ruby’s godfather Bheki gave me – I know he would approve.

Bless you for your kindness

Bless you for your kindness

We drove through the weirdly empty centre of Banjul central, past Arch 22, built to commemorate the military coup of 22 July 1994 when ‘His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh’ came to power.

Arch 22 in central Banjul

Arch 22 in central Banjul

As we drove around the roundabout I noticed the Arch seemed to be all front with nothing much behind it, which rather sums up my impression of the President himself. He seems to have a rather inflated sense of his own significance in the history of the Gambia. With a sense of satisfaction, I read that the Arch has been closed to traffic because “the stability of the structure is in doubt“. Now there’s poetic justice.

Big Reg headed out to catch the boat to Barra and arrived at the terminal just before lunch. Five sweaty hours, two James Bond movies and three ferries later, we managed to get on. You can’t complain at only R160. Later I was told that this is public transport and thus free to tax-payers – what a marvellous model, wish we could emulate that in SA.

I was soothed by the sight of the passing crowds, and wished I could have done a photo study of the waiting women. Their clothes were so beautifully colourful, their style suddenly more Arabic, the scarves more sparkly and diaphanous. It was Friday and proud Muslim men were spruce in full length robes and caps.

Three times we watched crowds sprint for the ferry int front of us...

Three times we watched crowds sprint for the ferry in front of us…

having been penned in the port terminal for a couple of hours...

having been penned in the heat of the port terminal for a couple of hours…

when the doors were opened they would race to get a seat...

when the doors were opened they would race to get a seat…

crammed alongside a few hundred others...

jammed alongside a few hundred others…

on the ferry from Banjul to Barra

on the ferry from Banjul to Barra

Finally Big Reg was crammed on with another 17 vehicles and around 500 people. I felt quite euphoric up on the roof in the blessed cool at last.

Bye bye Banjul

Bye bye Banjul

Big Reg heading north again at last

Big Reg heading north again at last

Hooray!

Hooray!

The horizon looking tempting

The horizon looking tempting

We landed and drove out of Barra to a quiet spot in the bush. In the middle of the night the nearly full moon woke me blasting through the open hatch like a spotlight. After an hour, I gave in, got up and started editing. I was consoled by the smell of crushed wild basil under the truck tyres.

Wild basil scenting the road north

Wild basil scenting the road north

After driving for an hour in the morning, Big Reg was overtaken by a kombi with a big guy in the front seat waving madly at us. When we pulled over five minutes later to have breakfast before we hit the border, he jumped out of the taxi and came back to greet us – it was Mohamed the driver from Coco Ocean, and we’d stopped right outside his house!

Mohamed Cham, Coco Ocean driver and generous spirit - so glad the universe gave me another chance to take a photo to remember you by!

Thanks Mohamed Cham, Coco Ocean driver and generous spirit – so glad the universe gave us another chance to take a photo to remember you by!

Posted in 17 The Gambia | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Gambia Part 1 : Too Much Toubab

Coming into Banjul was a bit of a culture shock. Firstly there were hundreds of advertising hoardings. Sampson found it surprisingly difficult to drive at first, he was so overwhelmed by them. It was browbeating by billboard. The information overload meant he was struggling to distinguish between roadsigns and adverts. You only realise how exhausting modern urban life can be when you’ve been out of it for a while.

Typical array of signage on Demba Doo Drive

Typical array of signage on Demba Doo Highway

Secondly it was shockingly touristy. We knew of course the Gambia’s reputation as a package holiday mecca and had expected it to be more like Ghana than Guinea, but as we entered Banjul, the kids were gasping at the fleshy expanse of sausage-skinned types outside the window.

Welcome one and all

Welcome one and all

The ubiquitous slogan for the Gambia describes it as ‘The Smiling Coast’. Gambia may be the crooked smile in the squashed face of Senegal (with the Dakar peninsula as the pointy nose) but I felt her put-upon people were often smiling through gritted teeth. They have a lot to bear, what with an increasingly erratic dictator and a never-ending stream of ignorant guests. They seemed lovely but weary.

JulBrew: even the beer is Smiling in the Gambia

JulBrew: even the beer is Smiling in the Gambia

At the border, I had the same disconcerting feeling as when entering Ghana, Nigeria and Anglophone Cameroon – that I was put off my stride by suddenly having to switch from French to delivering my patter in English! It might seem bizarre to feel at a disadvantage in your native tongue, but sometimes the shield of being seen to be incompetent can be useful, as you can choose what you want to understand.

The British influence was immediately apparent when we were told You Can’t Park Here. At first we were excited that perhaps that meant we had to cross over because they drive on the left hand side of the road (as in UK and SA) but no, officials were just being uptight and inflexible, and made Big Reg shift to and fro till they were satisfied to the inch.

In the biggest office, there was a Big Boep who was totally uninterested in our Letters of Introduction, just showed me a list of countries requiring Visa And Clearance, the latter being a pointless letter costing, apparently, 3000 Dalasi each (+/- R1200). I remarked that it was funny the SA Embassy in Bissau hadn’t mentioned this while we were arranging the show at the British High Commission in Banjul. When he found out we were dual citizens (there’s no visa or ‘clearance’ necessary for UK passport holders) he appeared to cave in and said “So I’m letting you off 12 000D… how will you show your appreciation?”

Big Boep resisted being ‘given’ a magic show by Sampson despite the delight of all the other blokes in the office. When he reiterated his request, I slowly and sadly said that the Dept of Arts and Culture did not allow us to show our appreciation in any other way except through arts and culture… Finally he took the passports, asked how long we needed and said “I’ll give you a month” like he was doing us a favour.

We were so glad to be out of there.

Fulsome friendly greetings from Rastas by the side of the road at every junction made up for this rude introduction. Banjul was a joy to drive around, even less busy than Bissau, with public buses and pony traps pottering along together.

Welcome to Banjul

Welcome to Banjul

The donkeys pulling carts in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau were replaced by horses in Senegal and the Gambia

The donkeys pulling carts in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau were replaced by horses in Senegal and the Gambia

The Senegambia Strip sounds glamorous but it was about as salubrious as half a high street in any seaside town in Blighty. That first morning we went scouting for oil and called in on a few hotels nearby, at one of which pink Brits were sat round a huge blue pool sinking beers or snoozing on beach loungers. Ruby said, “Oh my God, it’s just like Benidorm!” referring to the old favourite sitcom and Zola piped up wide-eyed “Did they really film it here?”

They could have.

Typical Gambian Atlantic Coast hotel

Typical Gambian Atlantic Coast hotel

a holiday heaven for the sun-and-pleasure seeker...

a holiday heaven for the sun-and-pleasure seeker…

full of typical British tourists

full of typical British tourists

as far as the eye can see...

as far as the eye can see…

I couldn’t help but feel shame at what the British have bequeathed to the world. Post-French-colonial popular tourist spot, Cap Skirring in Casamance, offers a range of cute bistros, sidewalk cafés, bijou art galleries and elegant hotels. Post-English-colonial popular tourist destination the Gambia provides tacky fish and chip restaurants, Indian takeaways and supermarkets full of overpriced crisps and chocolate digestives. The things the British can’t live without even for a week. Oh and did I mention beer?

On the plus side, I was able to replace the Marmite (hangs head in shame at irredeemable Britishness)

On the plus side, I was able to replace the Marmite (hangs head in shame at irredeemable Britishness)

Thanks to kind Jainaba Bau at Kotu Supermarket who gave the wistful kids a free ice cream!

Thanks to kind Jainaba Bau at Kotu Supermarket who gave wistful kids a free ice cream each!

We found our way down Bertil Harding Highway to the five star Coco Ocean Resort and Spa whose GM was the sole person to have replied to Sampson’s blanket email enquiries to all the hotels of Banjul. Osman Bezuidenhout is as gloriously New South African as his name would suggest, and did us proud in every way possible. Not only did the Coco Ocean donate more waste vegetable oil than any other hotel in the Gambia, Osman and his team made our stay unforgettable.

A very different experience awaits at the Coco Ocean

A very different experience awaits at the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa

Shamiel Sampson (our cousin no doubt) and Osman Bezuidenhout

Shamiel Sampson (our cousin) and G.M. Osman Bezuidenhout

Hospitality manager Terry Langenhoven came down to visit later that night – he couldn’t get over seeing a CA number plate in the Gambia! He’s been working abroad for 18 years since he left Cape Town at the age of 20. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by our compatriots; they made it feel like a homecoming.

Sampson, Terry and Osman

Sampson, Terry and Osman

Osman started by taking us on a tour of the hotel at the end of his busy day. We were stunned by the difference in ambience at the Coco Ocean compared to the majority of Gambian hotels we’d seen so far. As we entered the magnificent lush green setting, Ruby said it smelled like Kirstenbosch Gardens. It looked like them too – the hotel was designed by a German landscaper who trained as architect, so the gardens play a central role in creating his vision of a mini-Moroccan walled city. It’s an oasis of calm.

Scheherazade’s Arabian Palace would be a better name for it

Scheherazade’s Arabian Palace would be a better name for it

The luxury is so gloriously understated

The luxury is so gloriously understated

It's like a fairytale of peace

It’s like a fairytale of peace

The décor is mostly in a monochrome palette, with deep turquoise and crimson touches. It’s breathtakingly elegant and infinitely restful.

Check the sofas in reception...

Check the sofas in reception…

below the soft lights of the dome

below the soft lights of the dome.

and the terrace of the main restaurant

The terrace of the main restaurant

Auntie Juzzie would love it here.

Fairygodmother Juzzie would love it here.

Actually who wouldn’t?

Mind you, who wouldn’t?

Osman told us tales of when an actual Moroccan prince came to stay – he booked out the whole hotel but declined to sleep in the presidential suite in favour of a giant tent they had to set up on the lawn. The prince even shipped in silk brocade drapes and Persian carpets for the week.

Each little haven feels so secluded

Each little haven feels so secluded

This is the VIP pool

This is the VIP pool, if the first two were too crowded for your taste…

The Coco Ocean has also hosted the Nigerian President, and the President of Guiné-Bissau. When the President of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, was celebrating his 50th birthday at the same time as the Gambia’s 50th independence day, the wind carried hundreds of sparks from the huge firework display onto the thatched roofs of the hotel buildings. They lost two of them and caused so much damage, Osman was nearly arrested as a fire starter. Luckily it had been the President’s idea, and he did cover the costs. Eventually.

Osman said that during the Ebola pandemic, occupancy dropped to 5-10 guests at times, despite the fact that the Gambia was hundreds of miles from the infection zone, but thankfully trade has recovered and they’re busy again now. However, the Coco Ocean is so beautifully designed that even when it’s full, it’s peaceful.

Osman manages 300 staff, can’t be older than 35, and is on call 24 hours a day for his guests. I only realized later just how very busy he is, and how kind he was to take the time to show us round. Luckily he has his wife Natalie to hold the fort at reservations – she’s even more capable if anything – and superhost Terry at his right-hand. We are so very proud of these guys, flying the flag for SA excellence at a world-class resort.

The next morning, walking on the beach with Zola just past the Coco Ocean, I stopped to do T’ai Chi. It was a cloudy day so I hadn’t taken the camera. Of course, this would be the time when a fascinating ritual took place right in front of us. A little further along the beach appeared a figure dressed in orange grass skirt layers from head to toe, like the vertical spinning mop in a carwash. He was circling a group of boys and howling occasionally like a hyena. The cries were plaintive rather than threatening, but still clearly warning you off. It was another version of the Egungun figure that we first met in Nigeria, and have seen similar examples of through Benin all the way to the Netos de Bandim show in Guiné-Bissau.

Zola and I sat and watched bigger boys chase smaller ones into the sea with lots of laughter. A clutch of the smallest ones were already sitting shivering wrapped in thin cloths as the eldest, a Rasta youth, rinsed and hung their wet clothes out. When the ceremony seemed over and the Giant Mop had departed, we went to greet them and Rasta Moussa a.k.a. ‘Admiral’ was very pleased when I whipped off Zola’s orange hairwrap to reveal his dreads.

He told me he was looking after the younger sons of his brother while he took the older ones to the bush. They’d spent two weeks together and his brother was returning today so they’d all come down to “the river” for a cleansing ceremony in case of “any wounds… the water is good for them”. He explained gravely that when you do something like this some people come to lift you up and some people come to destroy you, so you employ (what sounded like) “Sadonka” to protect you during the ceremony: “No one bother him”. They were Fula, but said the Mandinka and Wolof do this too.

Later, my friend Lamin Ceesay at Brufut echoed this account of the role of the figure he called Kankurang. As a group of around 20 boys aged around 7 were escorted past me by another headless fringed figure while I was doing T’ai Chi one morning, Lamin told me how newly circumcised boys were protected from evil spirits by his presence for 40 days.

Lamin Cissay, my cultural interpreter at Brufut beach

Lamin Ceesay, my cultural interpreter at Brufut beach

He also described other characters: Zimba from Casamance, the lion-man who entertains with a powdered face; Agugu, who is also found in Sierra Leone and Liberia; Kumpo, who has a long stalk on his head and his face covered with reeds. I am dying to do some research into the origins and commonalities of these figures in carnivalesque rituals across West Africa.

Semantic pedantic me was also fascinated to see how the most common surnames had morphed from Guinea to the Gambia: from Jalloh to Jallow, and Cissé to Ceesay. Same name, different colonial master writing it down.

Veronica

Veronica

This is Veronica from Lewisham whom we met on the beach and whose accent reminded me so much of my friend Lorraine! Her daughter got married at the Coco Ocean – a brilliant idea if you’re looking for a wedding venue… While sat outside the Coco Ocean, Big Reg was admired by Geoff Cann, the most charismatic and cosmopolitan Jehovah’s Witness I’ve ever met.

Geoff Cann: 6ft 3” of tall stories

Geoff Cann: 6ft 3” of tall stories

Geoff spent 25 years in East Berlin, smuggling copies of The Watchtower over the border, and had a particularly amusing anecdote about peeing on a Stasi interrogator accidentally-on-purpose. He has a Filipino wife, a Brazilian son-in-law and once drove a truck like ours to Tblisi. Geoff was the obvious candidate to undertake the challenging task of getting my long-expired UK passport back to Blighty for renewal, and he gamely agreed to act as courier. Bless you Mr Cann-do, you are our hero! Without your intervention our journey Africa Clockwise would have ground to a halt – to discover why, read on …

(Roger, your €20 donation came in handy here to cover postage, thanks a million!)

Like Conakry, the Gambia proved to be another place with an annoyingly small limit on cash withdrawal amounts (3000D or R1200 at a time) which means ABSA was doing well again charging us a R50 fee rather than a percentage every time we access our account.

We started celebrating my birthday early, on the Sunday before: a day on the Strip kicking off with a full English breakfast. We wandered up and down the road with the toubabs in an attempt to appreciate the benefits of the British colonial hangover.

Our first bacon since home.

Tucking into our first bacon since home.

‘Toubab’ is what the Gambians call tourists and is used similarly to the Cornish word ‘emmet’. Debatably, it comes from the ‘two bob’ Gambians used to beg of their colonial masters.

The 'Senegambia Strip'

The ‘Senegambia Strip’

Some Gambians argue that they do well out of the former relationship. They have better roads and their economy is certainly healthier than Guinea Bissau’s. But is it worth it, for this Muslim country to be swamped with bacon and beer? Not to mention the unattractive hordes that demand them.

Sex tourism in the Gambia is well documented; we’ve been appalled by wizened ‘scrumpers’ pawing 20-something goddesses over dinner since the Congo and Cameroon, but this was our first time to witness so many middle-aged European women with African toyboys. By far the scariest couple, however, were the seedy new retirees in outrageously short shorts on the next table who somehow managed to be scrawny and fat at the same time.

Ruby and I abandoned our brief wander in the very touristy craft market when one man said “I’ll give you my shop for your daughter” and was only half joking; it was too tiring to keep fending off the feigned friendliness to explain we seriously didn’t have enough spare cash for trinkets. Instead we indulged in a supermarket stash of birthday goodies: Libby’s orange juice, cheddar cheese, olives and Crunchie Bars. Thanks Nana!

Wandering the Senegambia Strip...

Wandering the weirdly Euro-world of the Senegambia Strip…

from the eponymous hotel at the top...

from the eponymous hotel at the top…

to the greasy spoon at the bottom...

to the greasy spoon at the bottom…

via Nando's. Who'd've thought?

via Nando’s. Who’d’ve thought?

It was fun pretending to be Proper Tourists, just for one day

It was fun pretending to be Proper Tourists, just for one day

Sitting in the Senegambia Hotel in the late afternoon, poaching their wifi, I caught sight of a BBC news flash scrolling across a nearby screen with details of the recent bomb attack in Côte d’Ivoire, at the sleepy coastal resort of Grand Bassam where Ruby had her ill-fated horse ride. This was a worrying shift to targeting Euro tourists that didn’t bode well for the Gambia or Senegal.

Around the same time we heard news of another brutal murder of a teenager in Cape Town, while out with her family in the Tokai forest, which had rocked our south peninsula community. I held the kids a bit closer to me that night. Again, I felt keenly how lucky I am on this journey to be able to cherish every day as the precious gift it is with the ones I love.

Our new companions

Our new companions

Scary

are all around

Vultures have been visible in increasing numbers since Sierra Leone, coming quite startlingly close at times, but we hadn’t seen anything like this group, outside one of the hotels, feasting on a dead donkey.

Drop the dead donkey

Drop the dead donkey…

...or is it bacon?

…or is it bacon?

Sampson reckons that, with their bald red heads, they look a lot like British tourists.

Posted in 17 The Gambia | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Truck Cats

This blog is especially for all the people, like me (prior to Mar Azul), who could never understand the internet’s obsession with cats. I’ve bundled up all the kitten stories and cyoot pics together so they can scoot right over this one.

Brace yourself, they're sickeningly adorable

Brace yourself, they’re sickeningly adorable

Before we set off Africa Clockwise, the Sampson family lived happily in Cape Town with two rescue dogs, Pollyanna and Spud, who scampered about on a walk with me across Noordhoek beach every morning and with the kids on the common at weekends. We thought long and hard about bringing them with us but decided that, although calm Polly would cope fine, Spud was just too excitable to live without such guaranteed exercise, and it would be too cruel to split them up. It was very sad for us to have to leave them behind, but wonderful for them as they are now living in our old house with the darling Eckley family, being loved by Bjorn and Tariq and eating far better than they ever did with us.

Zola, Ruby, Polly, Spud, Bjorn and Tariq

Zola, Ruby, Polly, Spud, Bjorn and Tariq

Can't believe these photos were taken less than a year ago: how she has changed!

Can’t believe these photos were taken less than a year ago: how she has changed!

On the second day the kittens were with us, gamboling around inside the truck parked on the baking pavement outside the SA Embassy in Guinea-Bissau, Ruby was doing the washing up and all at once caught her breath, then sighed happily: “That’s what was missing – it was animals. Now I feel at home.”

Contentment

Contentment

A Day in the Life of Tiger and Cleo

Our day now begins with the scrabbling of claws against the catproofing® sometime around 7am. Sampson makes milk from powder and puts it down before releasing the kittens, so they can get their noses straight in it – if he doesn’t, Tiger starts caterwauling with a level of indignation more akin to an outrageous wrongdoing.

Tiger muscling in for milk

Tiger muscling in for milk

King of the truck

King of the truck

After breakfast, it’s exercise time in the corridor i.e. the 4m long space we have between the cab and the toilet. Jousting is the cats’ favourite pastime. They begin by standing at either end on tip toes with arched backs and freeze, checking each other out for half a minute. At a silent signal they fling themselves towards each other, claws out, skittering kittens under our feet as we’re trying to get washed and dressed.

Standing on their hind legs with paws up and claws splayed, they sometimes look like they’re kung-fu fighting – those cats ARE fast as lightening. It can be a little bit frightening…

(Sadly, there are no action pics. Too blurred.)

Their second favourite game is wrestling. While Tiger is undoubtedly stronger, Cleo is quicker and often uses her superior speed to outwit him and get on top. Yay for girl power.

Don't mess with the Queen

Don’t mess with the Queen

School time signals pre-nap cuddling. Tiger has an unerring instinct for going straight to the page of Maths we’re discussing and sitting on it.

Attention seeker 1

Attention seeker 1

Attention seeker 2

Attention seeker 2

Whaddya mean 'writing'?

Whaddya mean ‘writing’?

What about OUR needs?

What about OUR needs?

Their morning doze requires them to circle the truck to check where the sun is today – then they park off, flat out in the corridor or curled up in the cab. If they wake upstairs, they might have a quick game of chase-me-round-the-curtains.

Catnaps 1

Catnaps 1

Catnaps 2

Catnaps 2

Catnaps 3

Catnaps 3

Catnaps 4

Catnaps 4

Catnaps 5

Catnaps 5

They’re quite used to the roar of the engine by now, though Tiger will still run to Ruby for reassurance. If we’re driving, Cleo likes to use me as an escalator: she comes up onto my lap, over the cushions onto my shoulder and then steps off my head into the net above the passenger seat. She snuggles down there, taking comfort in the swinging as we rattle along. Sometimes I forget she’s there and she scares me when she decides to hop back down.

Catnaps 6. Sometimes Tiger squeezes in too

Catnaps 6. Sometimes Tiger squeezes in too

If we pass a market, they may be lucky enough to get fresh fish. Then all sibling fondness is off the agenda as Tiger, with a stiff tail and hair standing up on his back, lives up to his name and snarls at his sister if she dares to come near his portion. They both love fish, but he wolfs it down, practically choking in his enthusiasm to get the lion’s share. He reminds me of Ruby at birthday parties when she was 3 or 4, standing at the cake table and eating until she was sick. I had to stop taking her in the end.

Cuddles 1

Cuddles 1

Cuddles 2

Cuddles 2

It is quite disconcerting how often the attributes of the kittens mirror those of the kids.

We regularly feed Cleo an extra portion to stop her brother hogging the nourishment. Now he’s only 20% bigger than her, as opposed to the 50% he was threatening to be. One day Ruby impressed me by displaying an unprecedented enthusiasm for sewing, making three kitten toys including this fetching mouse from cotton wool and old pyjamas.

Ruby gets creative in the name of cats

Ruby gets creative in the name of cats

When we eat lunch, cats must be off the table, but are usually under it, playing with string, a plastic bag or a leaf. Cleo is incredibly quick and nimble. Tiger is quite dof, and often ends up watching like he’s stoned. He’s very clumsy, the only cat I’ve ever seen who falls off things. He’s had some hilarious tumbles, one particularly spectacular one off the indoor ladder, backwards, that had Sampson choking on his cornflakes.

Chase the lump round the table leg...

Chase the lump round the table leg…

Tiger is constantly outmanoeuvred by his quicker sister

Tiger is constantly outmanoeuvred by his quicker sister

Tiger loves cucumber. He treats it as if it were fresh fish, guarding every morsel jealously. Cleo is as bemused by this as we are. The other day I caught him on the table with his jaws in half a cucumber, trying to pull it out of a bowl and battering it into submission with his paws. Is he even a cat?

Catnaps 5

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 6

Catnaps 8

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 9

Cleo likes to keep you company on the toilet

Cleo likes to keep you company on the toilet

Zola's going to hate me for this...

Zola’s going to hate me for this…

But it's hilarious AND cute, how can I resist?

But it’s hilarious AND cute, how can I resist?

We haven’t stopped laughing since they arrived.

My brother will be delighted to know that the advent of cats has allowed me to tap into my inner Johnny Morris: as kids we used to love his voiceovers for anthropomorphic antics on Animal Magic. I’m quite proud my improvising can have Zola crying in silent hysterics.

Heartfelt thanks to our cat mentor Sean Pike for teaching us the usefulness of a water spray to preserve curtains – or mossie screens in our case. Also to threaten incessant mewlers!

Afternoon naps are the best, when they curl up on my bed or in the washing bowl. Tiger might come for a cuddle, pushing his head under your hand to be stroked. Cleo plays much more hard to get but is far more rewarding when she choses to grace you with her presence. She is the softest being alive.

Catnaps 6

Catnaps 10

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 11

Catnaps 11

Catnaps 12

Catnaps 8

Catnaps 13

It has been a revelation to me how fastidious cats are, and how tiny kittens instinctively use a litter tray (or in our case, the bottom of an oil container full of sand) and kick over the traces. Still, cat poo is the worst. In the confined space of the truck, in a hot place with no breeze, it could be considered torture. I don’t know how the kids cope overnight crammed in the nosecone with the upstairs tray at their feet…

Tiger and Cleo are usually given their supper before ours so they can have a play and get the energy out of their systems before we settle down for the evening. Someone might swing a knotted string for them to have a good sprint round. If we’re watching something on the ‘laptop cinema’ (Sampson’s Mac Book suspended from the clothes cupboard on bungee cords) they will usually come to join in the snuggling. You may be fooled into thinking they’re very fond of you especially – Cleo has a divine way of poking her nose into yours like she wants to kiss you – but this myth is quickly dispelled when she suddenly runs up and over your face in response to a call to play from Tigger.

It is amazing how they pick up on our tension. During the last but one episode of Broadchurch, the kittens suddenly started racing up and down from one end of the truck to the other, leaping over an obstacle course of beds, from nose cone to book box to mattress to headboard onto Sampson’s stomach and back again. We all felt like cats on a hot tin roof at that point.

Finally it’s time for bed, and all the bairns clamber up into the nosecone. Cleo likes to spend at least part of the night on Ruby’s head, though they alternate sleeping on each of the children. They always have one wrestling bout in the middle of the night, which may or may not involved hanging off the nets, and usually end up fast asleep in her clothes cupboard.

Ruby doesn't get to sleep late anymore!

Ruby doesn’t get to sleep late anymore!

One morning, Sampson and I were lying in bed having a cuddle in the peace before the kids woke up, watching the kittens tumble at our feet. He was repeatedly dragging his big toe along the wood and they were staring at it in fascination as it kept coming back to get them. “Cats really are peanut-brained” he said “They would sit here and watch my toe for hours”. We chatted a while, as Tiger and Cleo scampered about, then stopped and lay in silence once more, marveling at their antics. “You do realise” I said “that we are the peanut brains: cats are God’s Big Toe.”

Parental lie-ins became a problem in week four of our new cat-life when Tiger started getting up earlier and earlier to demand food. After a couple of pre-dawn landings on his head, haggard Sampson started experimenting with cat proofing the nosecone to keep the kittens locked in with the kids. Wedged-in curtains didn’t work… but believe it or not he then discovered the spare seat cushion left over from his bed fit like it was designed for the space!

Catproofing® prototype 1: curtains...

Catproofing® prototype 1: curtains and cardboard…

didn't work.

…didn’t work.

Catproofing® version 2: more solid seat cushion plus a couple of trays et voilà!

Catproofing® version 2: more solid seat cushion plus a couple of trays et voilà!

This new catproof ‘wall’ has the added bonus of providing a bit more privacy that we’re used to… It’s a sad indictment that Sampson’s first thought on realising this was: “Hooray, I can sneak an extra pack of Biskrem without the kids noticing!” Sigh.

Tiger and Cleo are not quite old enough to want to venture outside the truck, and we’re not sure what will happen when they do. Tiger the tom is definitely a more intrepid explorer than his sister, but so far, the constantly changing scenery of Outside The Door has been confusing enough to dissuade him from crossing the threshold.

Hmmm… wodja think?

Tiger: Hmmm… wodja think?

Cleo: Nah...

Cleo: Nah…

Tiger: Maybe!

Tiger: There’s a Big World out there waiting for me, I know it!

Things I Have Learned From Cats

  • I am a cat person. Who knew?
  • Humans are not top of the food chain.
  • There is always time to stroke a kitten or cuddle a cat.

This final point goes for children as well as cats, but all too often we forget to indulge in that impulse. During the Ebola pandemic, when we were forced to return home and the kids were back at school, I found I missed them physically during the day. I resented the fact that their teachers and peers got the best of their energy, and that they only got back to me hungry and tired with a pile of homework. There was so little time to play or just lounge about cuddling. The cats have reminded us all to revel in the freedom of Being not Doing, while we can.

Like babies all over again

Like babies all over again: infinite fun to play with

No greater peace

and no greater peace as when they’re asleep

Now, to the tune of Hanna Barbera’s classic cartoon Top Cat:

Truck Cats, the most delectable
Truck Cats, whose intellectual
Close friends get to call’em TCeees
Providing they’re giving a feeeeeed
Truck Cats
The indisputable leaders of the gang
She’s the boss, he’s a wimp
They’re the jousting kings
They’re the most tip top
Truck Cats!

Just reminding you who's in charge here

Just reminding you who’s in charge here

Going...

Going…

going...

going…

gone.

gone.

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Romance in Casamance

In the late 80s, one of the characters in the Harry Enfield and Chums sketch show, Waynetta Slob, would respond to a request to open the door or answer the phone with “I am Smoking a Faaaag”. It was always delivered in a tone meaning “I am way too busy, do not disturb me”.

On the day we left Guinea-Bissau, my response to most demands on my time was “I am Cuddling a Caaaat”. Tiger was so terrified by every jolt of the truck and every zoom of a passing vehicle, he ended up in the crook of my arm, adored and adoring being tickled under his ears and chin. Cleo meanwhile found the darkest corner of the bed behind a sleeping bag to hide and snooze.

Tiger and me, chilling

Tiger and me, chilling

On Sat 27th Feb we set off to cross into our 16th country, Senegal. I lay down after lunch, conserving energy for the border crossing at the end of day, but it turned out to be the easiest one ever. There was only one set of police at the immigration post (writing our passport details into a book and stamping passports), then a carnet stamp at the customs post, and the same again the other side. Was it so quick and efficient because they have far more tourists passing this way or because it was nearly 5pm? Either way, we were through in less than an hour altogether, an absolute record.

We swiftly arrived in Ziguinchor, a surprisingly big town, where we were impressed by the number of traps drawn by donkeys, and bikes with massive loads. Senegalese people were looking better fed and better dressed. Women appeared more assertive; a supermodel-type passed us on a cream moped with long flowing hair flying looking like an advert. Men were definitely taller and better looking. The first soldier to stop us made his uniform look HOT. AND there was a patisserie. Sampson had to stop and buy a chocolate-covered pastry to celebrate being back in the Francophonie.

Impressive balancing act

Impressive balancing act 1

Impressive balancing act 2

Impressive balancing act 2

Driving through savanna...

Driving through savanna…

and salt plain...

and salt plain…

to river

to river…

and arable land

arable land…

and urban centre

and urban centre

A detour to check the surf was next on the agenda, so we pulled off by the side of the road to stay overnight by a mangrove-laden tributary of the Casamance river.

Ruby cooling off in the silky mud of the delta

Ruby cooling off in the silky mud of the delta

We were braced to take whole of next day to reach Cap Skirring but the wonderful tar road continued the whole way, so we arrived in time for lunch. We were shocked first by the poshness of the buildings, and then by the number of restaurants and tourists sitting in them. Ruby was horrified: “There are whities everywhere!”

Welcome to the holiday homes...

Welcome to the holiday homes…

of Cap Skirring, Senegal's prime tourist destination

of Cap Skirring, Senegal’s prime tourist destination

delightfully unpretentious

a delightfully unpretentious town

surrounded by beautiful countryside

surrounded by beautiful countryside

With the increase in the number of Europeans came a decrease in the African tradition of hospitality. For the first time since Ghana we were treated with suspicion by gatekeepers. At Club Med, Big Reg was forced to park outside the premises on a dangerous corner despite there being an enormous empty carpark available. Then we were left standing at the security boom for hours, not allowed to cross the threshold, waiting for staff that never came. The notable exception was M. Sega, who works in their IT dept and made contacts to get oil for us, bless him.

M. Sega, our friend at Club Med

M. Sega, our friend at Club Med…

shared a sense of humour with Sampson!

shared a sense of humour with Sampson!

Jean Charlemagne

Guide Jean Charlemagne was also very kind

While sitting in the truck outside the first day, a Boeing 737 came over low enough to block all light from the doorway for a moment. Sampson shrieked so loudly people across the road came out to see what was the matter! Zola couldn’t stop laughing…

We found the increased number of tourists and hence hustlers a bit overwhelming, so on the second day we headed out of town looking for a more remote spot. About 10km later, we took a random left down a sandy road hopefully towards the sea. Bouncing along 2km further down, I was half worried that we were about to get stuck and half loving this way we do things, striking off into the unknown on a whim, full of optimism. Of course we lucked out again: it was perfect.

Our own 'private' beach between Cap Skirring and Boucotte

Our own ‘private’ beach 10km from Cap Skirring

Not bad.

Not bad

We were welcomed by laid-back local Lamine Ndiaye

We were welcomed by laid-back local Lamine Ndiaye who came to chat most mornings

This spot, between Baie de Boucotte and Maya Plage, Sampson christened Kitten Point, as he and Zola managed to get a couple of waves that week.

Not big waves, but the boys had some fun...

Not big waves, but the boys had some fun…

But the water was a few degrees colder than we were used to - wetsuits were back!

even though the water was a few degrees colder than we were used to – brrr!

Ruby and I preferred to bike or walk

Ruby and I preferred to bike or walk

over the firm expanse of sand of a colour she characterised as 'chocolate spread'

over the firm expanse of sand of a colour she characterised as ‘chocolate spread’

with the other strolling...

with the other strolling…

mother and daughters

mothers and daughters

It wasn’t quite as quiet as we first supposed as there was a constant stream of passing lorries collecting shells and rocks for building materials – a labour one step more grueling than harvesting sand.

The bay to our right was pickled with shells

The bay to our right was pickled with shells

where a score of workers such as Mamadou here spend their days in the back breaking labour...

where a score of labourers such as Mamadou here spend their days in the back-breaking work…

of scraping shell fragments into piles, which they carry to bigger piles, to be taken by lorries for building materials

of scraping shell fragments into piles, which they carry to bigger piles, to be taken by lorries for building materials

Holidaying Europeans ventured out of their villas to wander up and down the beach, or thundered past us on quad bikes, but they never stopped to chat. The exception was Frenchman Dionsys Portheault, staying in the village with friends, who came every day to swim. He plans to buy a truck and invited us to stay with him near Nice, fingers crossed!

The vast beaches of Cap Skirring are perfect for quad biking over, if you don't mind disturbing the birds

The vast beaches of Cap Skirring are perfect for quad biking, if you don’t mind disturbing the peace…

… or the birds

… or the birds

We were eating much better. Cap Skirring had a lovely market, with a vast increase in the quality and range of veg on offer, huge tomatoes and carrots and even haricots verts, so we’d stocked up. But I was battling hot flushes and insomnia, struggling to sleep on the slight slope with my head down.

Children being kind to their ailing ma...

Children being kind to their wimpy ma…

Ruby even attempted to make me gluten-free versions of their favourite biscuits...

Ruby even attempted to make me gluten-free versions of their favourite biscuits…

the legendary Biskrem, from Turkey - quite an achievement with only a frying pan

the legendary Biskrem, from Turkey, R2 a pack – quite an achievement with only a frying pan!

One day Ruby was taking photos of the kittens dozing on my feet, and I had a shocking revelation that my ankles looked like an old lady’s. Sampson told me he’d had a similar reality check recently on catching sight of his upper arms. We did well to seize the day and set off on this trek when we did – I’m not sure we’d get it together now!

Definitely verging on the senile already

Definitely verging on the senile already

Zola was stroppy. He was having his first real teenage sulks for no reason other than to assert his independence. Thankfully, he responds well to a firm reminder of lines not to be crossed. Unlike his sister…

Morning exercise is vital to launch Zola's day in a cheery mood

Morning exercise is vital to launch Zola’s day into a positive mood

Zola asked me whether I’d ever thought about having a tattoo done and I said I was once very keen but could never settle on one design that I knew I’d love forever. He said simply “I’d have you on one arm and Dad on the other”. I tried not to squeeze him to death.

Back in town on the hunt for waste vegetable oil, we located La Paillote, the diametric opposite of Club Med in atmosphere. We were given a warm welcome by Lucie Jacquot and her father Christian, who not only donated oil but chased up others for us and sent his driver to collect it.

Big Reg just squeezed into La Paillote

Big Reg just squeezed into La Paillote

Lucie reminded us of Audrey Tautou's Amélie, both chic and adorable

Les Jacquots, pére et fille. Lucie reminded us of Audrey Tautou’s Amélie, both chic and adorable

What a gorgeous hotel...

What a gorgeous hotel…

the definition of tranquilité...

the definition of tranquilité…

with superb views...

with superb views…

and style - I highly recommend it for a holiday

and style

Overcast skies don’t allow the pics to do justice to the beauty of the place; I would love to take my Mom there for a holiday. Thanks to their kindness and wifi, I was also able to load a long overdue blog.

Cap Skirring is located in la Basse Casamance, the region below the river

Cap Skirring is located in la Basse Casamance, the region below the river

This southern, greener part of Senegal is isolated from the rest of the more Sahelian country to the north by The Gambia and its river snaking between. Casamance feels very remote from Dakar and only five years ago there was ongoing conflict in support of independence for the region. I was sad we didn’t have more time to explore the delta around the Casamance river, and learn more about their unique cultural traditions, as I felt we didn’t fully tap into the romance of the more rural areas, beautifully expressed by others.

There was free wifi on offer in many of the cafés in town, our first return to an almost first world feeling, with free peanuts and everything. When the kids arrived after school, a local rasta greeted us and his friend, about 25, was so delighted to see Zola’s dreadlocks he came over with a “Respect!” and hugged him. I said that was all very well, but it was me who made ‘em – so he hugged me as well!

Cap Skirring's main drag...

Cap Skirring’s main drag…

does quite a line in Rastarants

does quite a line in Rastarants

and a relaxed vibe

and a relaxed holiday vibe

Big Reg felt quite at home

Big Reg felt quite at home

The kids and I had a wander down the main drag checking out the bijou art galleries, clothes shops and cafés. At the ‘Maison de Cuir’ Zola was fascinated to see a cobbler cutting soft leather for sandals by hand.

We bumped into Edwige Sarandji who we’d met the day before and I said “Oh I’m so glad to see you again, I so wished I’d taken photo of you” and she said “Me too!” They came inside to eat their lunch and when I saw her improvising with La Vache Qui Rit and walnut sandwiches for her toddler Gaia, I knew Edwige was one of us.

Edwige and Gaia have lunch

Edwige and Gaia have lunch

Edwige was born in the Central African Republic, and her parents moved to France when she was a child. She feels her own daughter can’t be brought up to fully appreciate the diversity of her cultural background in Paris, so this single mum was brave enough to bring her 3 year old on a 24 hour bus from Dakar in search of a vrai African experience for her.

Edwige was excited because she’d just found the perfect little place to rent, a ground floor flat with a garden, twice the size and half the price she pays in France. She hopes to come back in 6 months to live here for a year and farm vegetables. We wish her all the luck in the world and hope she keeps in touch.

Bonne chance ma courageuse!

Bonne chance mes courageuses!

That afternoon, Cleo fell asleep on my lap. It felt like such an achievement – to attract her, I had become the epitome of Calm. A week in Casamance can do that for you.

On the road back to Ziguinchor, Sampson stopped a little late at a Halte Gendarme sign that hadn’t been there on the way in. A 6ft 3” burly uniform came bearing down, hoping to bust us for brake lights but they were working perfectly. So he asked to see papers. It was an ‘Everyone out, time to put on a show’ situation but as we crossed the road, Burly came between me and Ruby and said to her suggestively “Are you up for it?” in English. She was behind me and I didn’t hear him say it, only saw him lean in over her as I turned back to check what was happening.

She stopped dead in the middle of the road and totally stood her ground, looking him coolly in the eye. She told me afterwards she clenched her fist but restrained herself from punching him. I prattled on through my ‘merry ignorant’ routine and eventually Burly ‘let us off’ for not stopping immediately and we clambered back into the cab feeling a bit wobbly.

This sounds far less challenging than other situations with officials we’ve been in on this leg of the journey, but it was by far the most intimidating, because of the threatening-rape vibes emanating from this guy. I realised if Burly had wanted to, he could have made an excuse to take Ruby off somewhere and there was practically nothing I could do about it. I felt thoroughly shaken.

Suddenly he was at my window, up on the step: “Does this really use palm oil?” Sampson showed him the drips on the tank and invited him to smell the smoke as he revved. Burly cracked a huge smile and waved us on. Sampson tried not to screech away.

That evening we stopped at the side of the same river as on the way here, and Zola had a go at being a flow-rider i.e. tried to surf the tide going back out to sea.

Sampson challenges Zola to surf the running tide

Sampson challenges Zola to surf the running tide

anything for a laugh

anything for a laugh…

not wildly successful...

not wildly successful…

but a wonderful way to cool off and chill out

but a wonderful way to cool off and chill out

Check the difference between my camera on full zoom...

Check the difference between my camera on full zoom…

and Tim's camera close-ups!

and Tim’s close-up!

Tim's camera has inspired Sampson...

Tim’s camera has inspired Sampson…

to become a bit of a twitcher!

to become a bit of a twitcher!

He was chuffed with this one

He was chuffed with this one

In the morning, singing along to Aretha Franklin, I was feeling so happy, so looking forward to next bite of the journey, this fascinating Senegal/Gambia/Senegal sandwich.

Back in Ziguinchor, we found ourselves outside the ferry port – a huge boat had just arrived and there were hundreds of people spilling off. I had to wait for an official to come through the chaos to check the size of Big Reg. Finally I was taken to the ticket office where a bloke on a computer asked details of the vehicle and quoted me 350000FCA – R7000. Whaaat? Just to cross the Casamance? I was considering whether we could appeal to the ferry company for sponsorship when the penny dropped. The journey time was 16 hours – this wasn’t nipping across the river, this was the sea ferry to Dakar! Derrrrrrrr.

What a fool – I remembered asking at the Guinea-Bissau Embassy in Conakry about how to cross the rivers en route, and the answer was all were bridges until the ferry to Banjul. How had I forgotten? It was hilarious – feeling great to have ‘saved’ such a lot of money, we got back in the truck and drove straight over the bridge!

The ferry port at Ziguinchor

The ferry port at Ziguinchor

So relieved we only had to drive over this bridge to cross the Casamance!

So relieved we only had to drive over this bridge to cross the Casamance…

and not take the Aline Sitoe Diatta after all!

and not take the Aline Sitoe Diatta after all!

In September 2002, the Ziguinchor-Dakar ferry MV Le Joola capsized, with a loss of 1863 lives, several hundred more than the Titanic. It was operated by the Senegalese military and official capacity was 580 people. The majority of those on board were students returning to school and college. The Prime Minister was disgraced and sacked. If you’ve not heard of this disaster, ask yourself why no-one’s yet made a movie about it?

The next policeman was much more amenable and warned us that the border with The Gambia was closed to lorries because of an ongoing dispute between governments. This was the second time the possibility of being denied access had been mentioned to us, so it was a bit worrying. He said you might be lucky, particularly if you could, you know, “Jouez le jeu” i.e. play the game. Did he mean ‘follow the rules’ or ‘talk your way through it’? I think he could tell we were better at the latter.

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Carnaval Consolation Prize!

Flashback to Bissau

At the Senegalese Embassy, the day after Carnaval, we were delighted to discover that their tourist visas are FREE! When the lovely bilingual Mohamed told us, Sampson and I threw our arms in the air and shouted “Poulet!” In The Gambian Embassy across the road, Fatou told us theirs cost 25000FCA each (only R500) and would take 2 days. We were certainly going to be eating a bit better this month! How we long for the AU’s dream of an African passport to be realised.

I took a pile of forms back to the truck and set to filling them in while the kids did school in the baking truck parked outside the SA Embassy. Senegalese visas were issued by lunchtime, then Sampson took our passports through to Fatou and charmed her with magic tricks into having them ready in 24 hours rather than 48. We were desperate to get out of the city and down to the coast for a rest.

Big Reg parking off outside the SA Embassy in Bissau...

Big Reg parking off outside the SA Embassy in Bissau…

with a super view of the Presidential Palace across the Praça

with a view of the Presidential Palace across the Praça

Thanks to security guard Mario Baina for keeping an eye on us

Thanks to security guard Mario Baina for keeping an eye on us

A lovely young German couple, Niels and Clara, popped by. They are travelling from Germany to Ghana in their Mercedes 11/13 ex-fire truck – with their dog Tia. We didn’t get to meet Berta this time, but hope we might bump into them again en route!

Berta is appropriately fire-engine red

Berta is appropriately fire-engine red

I was on a deadline for an article I’d been asked to write for Mercedes Benz magazine, so Zola cooked supper that night.

The next day Sampson did a show for the Ambassador. At five to 11am, I had to send him back to the truck to put long trousers on. Sigh. But I have to admit, although his cluelessness about basic etiquette drives me up the wall sometimes, my husband did a really great half hour show about the trip for SA Embassy staff, with the lovely Mamadu Baldé murmuring a simultaneous translation to Portuguese speakers at the back of the room. Everyone was very enthusiastic and kind – and what a spread!

Mini-pizzas!!

Mini-pizzas!!

Sampson blurred with speed at which he's stuffing his face

Sampson blurred with the speed at which he’s stuffing his face

May blessings be heaped like their mini-quiches on the kind folk of the SA Embassy in Bissau

May blessings be heaped like their mini-quiches on the kind folk of the SA Embassy in Bissau, with His Excellency the Ambassador Dr Noel Lehoko (right of Sampson) leading by example

The Ambassador generously offered to pay for the kids to go swimming with Elisa that afternoon to a nearby hotel, which was very thoughtful because the truck was like a furnace.

Our favourite ladies: on the right, Mrs Elisa Barbosa Bonghi who was so kind to the children...

Our favourite ladies: on the right, Mrs Elisa Barbosa Bonghi who was so lovely to us…

The following day, I submitted my Mercedes Benz piece thanks to the Embassy wifi; even then it took me the whole day to load high res photos to Dropbox. I sat on their stoep long after they’d all gone home until it was finally done. The Ambassador, who’d left in gym clothes on his daily 6km walk, came back at 8pm with a pack of awesome sandwiches and a citrus sponge cake made by his wife as padkos for the children. Bless them both for their kindness, and we pray Dr Noel is recovering from his recent health challenges.

Ruby with Political Secretary Alexandra Sofia Pimentel. We call her the Yoghurt Fairy because she kept magically appearing at the door of the truck with bagfuls of delicious blueberry greek yoghurts.

And on the left, Political Secretary Alexandra Sofia Pimentel. We call her the Yoghurt Fairy because she kept magically appearing at the door of the truck with bagfuls of delicious blueberry greek yoghurts!

Thanks to homeboy Mr Kenneth Nerdzuziga and homegirl Nomfuneko Ngoqo for all their help

Thanks also to homeboy Mr Kenneth Nerdzuziga and homegirl Nomfuneko Ngoqo for all their help

And much love to Mamadu Baldé, who brought his children round to visit at the weekend...

And much love to Mamadu Baldé, who brought his children and cousins round to visit at the weekend…

much to the delight...

much to the delight…

of passers-by!

of passers-by!

When Sampson asked the Embassy for carnival contacts, logistics manager Larin Napoco arrived almost immediately despite being exhausted after 5 consecutive days of Carnaval on only 2 hours’ kip per night. His French is about as good as mine, so we could just about communicate! Later that day, Larin picked me up with translator Alfredo Sonda, a pan-Africanist DJ who has lived in Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, London and Jo’burg and was full of enthusiasm about all of them.

They chauffeured me to the government buildings to meet the President of the National Carnival Commission, Spencer Embaló, a slight guy with thick dreadlocks to his waist wound into a thigh-sized pony tail, wearing an elegantly beaded silver-grey dress shirt. He was attending an official ceremony to hand over prizes to the Carnaval competition winners in the presence of Guinea-Bissau’s President and several ministers. I immediately warmed to Spencer – not only does he share a name with my brother (HAPPY BIRTHDAY SPENCE!), but all passionate carnival people feel like family to me.

Government buildings of Bissau

Government buildings of Bissau

Spencer Embaló and Larin Napoco of the Carnival Commission

Spencer Embaló and Larin Napoco of the Guinea-Bissau National Carnival Commission

Translator Alfredo Sonda (about to change his name to the more authentic Kideliqueia Pindjiguiti) and me with what Ruby calls my 'muppet face'

Translator and Pan-Africanist Alfredo Sonda (about to change his name to the more authentic Kideliqueia Pindjiguiti) and me doing what Ruby calls my ‘muppet face’

While waiting for Spencer, I quizzed Larin via Alfredo and found out the details of Guinea-Bissau’s annual Carnaval: 9 provinces send winners of regional competitions to Bissau, a group of 105 people each. With 3 winners from the capital, that makes 12 troupes, with the total official number of performers around 1300. The biggest day is Monday when all 12 troupes parade from the airport roundabout where we entered the city and are judged when they reach the stage by the Catholic Mission. On Tuesday there is a winners’ parade of just the top 3 groups. The foundation of the judging criteria is authenticity: unlike other carnivals where novelty of spectacle is prized above all, Bissau’s Carnaval reveres its traditional rituals and honours their preservation.

My mind boggled: 1300 is several hundred fewer participants than eMzantsi Carnival at its biggest (before Main Rd works began) but whereas we struggle to get an equal number of people to watch as to take part in our parade, Bissau has half the population of the city (200 000) out on the streets! Nothing speaks louder to the ancient heritage of Guinea-Bissau’s Carnaval and the extent of national pride and identity bound up in its performance than this astonishing number of spectators.

The Prime Minister, Carlos Correira, suddenly swept out of the chamber, a very tall, dark-suited presence with a wound dressing around his throat. I was surprised Kideliqueia was so proud of him, until he told me this octogenarian was a great freedom fighter, who knew both Mandela and Castro, and has been PM three times before. “We keep calling him back when we get in trouble” he said ruefully. He seemed to have a lot of respect for the old man, but less for his colleagues.

There was a notable lack of visible security; no phalanx of suits around the PM, and no bodyguards at all for the ministers who greeted Alfredo on their way out. It all felt somewhat surreal: only three days ago I’d been crawling along dirt tracks by the border; today I was hanging out at the Guinea-Bissau equivalent of the Union Buildings.

Alfredo posing outside the ministers' chamber...

Alfredo posing outside the ministers’ chamber, where the chandeliers…

all the artwork was on a grand scale

and the artwork were on a grand scale

Meanwhile Alfredo was telling me how effective Guinea-Bissau’s secret police are, with such a reputation for tracking down terrorists, France asks them for help. (Interestingly, the first time my Mom called me on our Guinea-Bissau phone number, she got cut off and the next 3 times she tried to connect she got the first 2 minutes of our initial chat replayed to her… Was somebody warning us they were listening in?!)

The Carnival Commission took me out to supper at an outdoor restaurant on the site of a half-finished building where the traditionally prepared chicken in lime sauce was absolutely delicious. As the conversation became more passionate the more wine was consumed, I began to realise that Alfredo tends to get carried away by his enthusiasms and thus was neglecting to translate mine. At one point I interrupted his torrent of Portuguese to say, “Hang on, I definitely didn’t mention the First World War, I asked you to ask Spencer what his ambitions for carnival are!”

I found out Spencer is planning a two day conference to show footage of carnivals past, invite old stars and ask why the ‘Golden Years’ were back in the 1980s. What happened? Apparently the event has gone downhill since the civil war of 1998-9, and is another victim – alongside the economy – of continuing political instability. Since 1980 there have been nine attempted coups, and since independence in 1974,  not a single president has served a full 5 year term. Last year, Guinea-Bissau experienced three governments in four months.

Spencer’s team faces a lot of criticism, for everything from being determinedly non-political to wearing dreadlocks with pride. But they have been granted a 3 year mandate to develop the carnival and aim to achieve longevity. Larin certainly has the passion for it. Spencer was understandably shattered and ducked out home to his family at 9pm, but Alfredo and Larin were there with me until nearly 11 discussing the young man’s dream of holding a Carnival World Cup in Bissau.

Anthropologist Roberto DaMatta famously said “It was not Brazil that invented Carnaval, but Carnaval that invented Brazil”. I have a sense that the same could happen for Guinea-Bissau, but in a very different style. The carnivals of Brazil, especially that of the slave-landing point of Salvador, look to West Africa as the source of the spirit of their celebrations. Guinea Bissau is situated at the very heart of those traditions, almost the very source of that source. You don’t get African carnival more authentic than Bissau’s – these ritual celebrations have been performed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. It was a privilege to be present at the dawn of what I hope is a glorious new era of appreciation of its heritage.

After Mar Azul

Nearly two weeks later, after our recuperative stay at Mar Azul, Sampson dropped me back at the SA Embassy to load blogs, while he found a mechanic on the outskirts of Bissau to replace four broken thread bolts on the left back wheel with modified tractor bolts.

We spent another couple of nights on the pavement outside the Embassy. While it was unpleasantly hotter back in the city, with mossies dive-bombing us all night and burning plastic smoke choking us in the mornings, this time Ruby was just thrilled to have kittens sleeping on her bum. When I checked in with my carnival brothers, Larin invited me to a presentation at the Portuguese embassy that evening, just a kilometre away. At 6pm I walked through the centre of town to be treated to a fascinating display.

The theme of this year’s Carnaval was ‘Guinea-Bissau: Tera di N’Turudu’ – the Land of the Mask. I couldn’t understand the speeches but it was fascinating to see the winning creations, all made from papier-maché and wood.

Carnival theme 2016: Guinea-Bissau - Land of the Mask

Carnival theme 2016: Guinea-Bissau – Land of the Mask

'Modern traditional' mask by Elisário Cassamá

‘Moderna Tradiçao’ by Elisário Cassamá of Bissau

'Nha Kudadi' by Serifo Cassamá of Tombali

‘Nha Kudadi’ by Serifo Cassamá of Tombali

'Fora di Nôs' by Elisário Cassamá of Bissau

‘Fora di Nôs’ by Elisário Cassamá of Bissau

'Mama Guiné' by Anónimo of Bubaque

‘Mama Guiné’ by Anónimo of Bubaque

'Valores Perdidos' by Miksonde Beles Gomes of Tombali

‘Valores Perdidos’ by Miksonde Beles Gomes of Tombali

'Mosaico Cultural' by Anónimo of Cacheu

‘Mosaico Cultural’ by Anónimo of Cacheu

This one deserves...

This one deserves…

several close-ups...

several close-ups…

from different angles...

from different angles…

in order to appreciate...

in order to appreciate…

the detail paid to depict cultural activities...

the detail paid to depict cultural activities…

in each of Guinea-Bissau's provinces

in each of Guinea-Bissau’s provinces

When snacks were served, a Director in Ministry of Culture recommended I try the fatoba juice – I didn’t know what it was, but it was delicious, thick like guava but tangy like jackfruit I remembered from Indonesia. When Larin told the Director how we had arrived at the end of carnival and missed most of it, he invited me to see a performance by the winning troupe at the Hotel Azalai the following evening. It meant spending an extra day in town, but I was thrilled to have an opportunity to get just a flavour of what we missed.

The winner: 'Deus de Sonho' by Alberto Augusto Oliveira of Bubaque

The winner: ‘Deus de Sonho’ by Alberto Augusto Oliveira of Bubaque

Close-ups to show...

Close-ups to show…

the fabulous detail in the pyrographic decoration...

the fabulous detail in the pyrographic decoration…

of this gigantic wooden mask representing the God of Sound

of this gigantic wooden mask representing the God of Sound

Back view

Back view

Sampson had found Bissau a very easy city to drive through, and I felt very safe walking across it alone in the dark. It was great to feel absolutely no intimidation while passing through groups of young men sitting on corners. There was a lovely breeze wafting up the Avenue Amílcar Cabral but it was stifling in the truck, so I took my daughter out for a drink at KBar across the road. This city just felt so relaxed, it was very alluring.

KBar's festive lights and vibe made it feel very Christmassy

KBar’s festive lights and vibe made it feel very Christmassy

Out drinking with my daughter (Sprite!)

Out drinking with my daughter (Sprite!)

Bissau marked an end to the dominance of the previously ubiquitous Nigerian hip hop: as in Guinea, local radio was proudly playing only local music, or regional sounds from Mali and Senegal. KBar played everything from Afro-soul to jazz and swing, I loved it.

In the morning I walked down the Ave. Cabral towards the docks at the bottom. As I passed the cathedral, I reflected that, with the harmattan dust hanging in the air, Bissau somehow has the sepia-tinged feel of a sprawling town rather than a built-up city. The crumbling colonial vibe of the centre reminds me of Havana-in-my-head (I’ve never been to Cuba’s capital, but it’s what I imagine it looks like). The long Mercedes taxis everywhere add to the feel of a faded Kennedy-era glory.

Avenue Amílcar Cabral in Bissau

Avenue Amílcar Cabral in Bissau

Avenue Amílcar Cabral in Bissau

with the new Presidential Palace at the top

Certainly the shining promise of independence is long tarnished. Alexandra told me that the island of Cape Verde, a fellow ex-Portuguese colony, has less than 35% of the resources of Guinea-Bissau yet is outstripping it in terms of development. The petty intrigues of the political elite, scrapping for tidbits of the failing economy, are creating never-ending instability for this country and discouraging foreign investment.

Guess what this is?

Guess what this is?

Sampson giving you a clue

Sampson giving you a clue

At the bottom of the road, I was amazed to discover this sculpture, which I think represents a Black Power fist salute, but looks rather more like a Rubik’s cube version of it. The statue was a bit run down, and needed a wipe. Next to it were some disturbing blown-up photographs of dead bodies, which I worked out must commemorate a watershed moment in Guinea-Bissau’s history, during a dockworkers’ strike for a living wage.

On 3rd August 1959, police opened fire at point blank range, killing 50 men and wounding more than 100. The massacre and police interrogations that followed lit the spark for armed conflict and the War of Independence raged until 1974 when Guinea-Bissau became the first Portuguese colony to gain full sovereignty.

These disturbing pictures of the massacre...

These disturbing pictures of the massacre…

next to a photograph of the dedication ceremony

next to a photograph of the dedication ceremony

in this public commemorative space

in this public commemorative space

Amílcar Cabral, the founder of PAIGC (the Pan-African Independence movement of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and the inspiration for their struggle, never got to see the realisation of his dream: he was assassinated in 1973.

A banner honouring Amílcar Cabral...

A banner honouring the inspirational Amílcar Cabral…

outside the HQ of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) which he founded in 1956

outside the HQ of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) which he founded in 1956

which is currently situated just to the right of the Presidential Palace

which is currently situated right next to the Presidential Palace

Walking that evening in an otherwise spotless Praça dos Heroïs Nacionais I saw a group of cockerels prancing about on a pile of litter just opposite the Presidential Palace. As I watched the scavengers stalking each other across the rubbish heap, I was reminded of my conversation with Alexandra.

Cocks fighting each other for the scraps

Cocks fighting each other for the scraps

After a hot day doing chores such as typing up scribbled contacts from the little notebook I always carry, I dug out The Dress from the back of my clothes cupboard. Spruced-up Sampsons got a taxi to the Hotel Azalai, where we found out we were three hours early for the celebratory showcase of 2016 carnival winners Netos de Bandim. I wasn’t taking any chances this time.

Me and Ruby, ready to party... three hours early :)

Me and Ruby, ready to party…

in the luxurious surrounds of the Hotel Azalai

in the luxurious surrounds of the Hotel Azalai

where the kids went swimming before

where the kids went swimming before

Three-hours-early Sampsons bagged front row seats

Three-hours-early Sampsons bagged front row seats

But boy was it worth the wait. The troupe of around 100 performers, almost half of whom were children, were so superbly professional: so smiley, so focused, so present, so living it, so loving it and so uncompromisingly good. And this isn’t just my obsessional carnival-self talking. The rest of the family were as entranced as I was.

Our glamourous MCs: Tania and Diaraye

Our glamourous MCs: Tania and Diaraye

World-class drummers of Netos de Bandím

World-class drummers of Netos de Bandim

Sampson loved the humour of the ‘Lords of Misrule’ while Zola loved the stripey-trousered tumblers (and was inspired to try handsprings on the beach the following week). Ruby was just going crazy next to me, out of her seat hooting at charismatic dancers beaming their delight while shaking their thang, or as acrobatic performers somersaulted off the stage.

President Ector Diógenes Cassamá, who has already taken Netos de Bandím to Portugal and Brazil

President Ector Diógenes Cassamá, who has already taken Netos de Bandim to Portugal and Brazil

I was glad she was expressing enthusiasm on our behalf as I was hampered by having my Olympus stuck to my face – I was trying to get some decent video footage despite poor lighting to support my forthcoming proposal for a Cape Town-Calabar-Bissau carnival collaboration. What do you think? Would you come out on the streets to see it?

I was honoured to meet the team behind Netos de Bandím

I was honoured to meet the team behind Netos de Bandim

as well as the team behind the Bissau Carnaval itself. OBRIGADA!

as well as the team behind the Bissau Carnaval itself.

OBRIGADA!

OBRIGADA!

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Marvellous Mar Azul

With the expanse of whitewashed walls, cheery blue paint and splashes of hot pink bougainvillea, at the Mar Azul resort Italians Anna and Giuseppe Maggio have created a southern Mediterranean vibe in the midst of Africa – just 50km from Bissau, on the banks of an estuary outside the small town of Quinhámel.

It's...

It’s…

just...

just…

so...

so…

so...

so…

lovely.

lovely.

The first time I saw Anna, she was striding away down a pathway, a slight figure in a bold print smock with a shock of curly hair surrounded by streaking cats that had just heard the dinner bell. I guessed she was my age or younger. She’s 62.

Giuseppe is a great bear of a man with a restless energy who moves like a buck. It wasn’t a shock to discover he is Sicilian, and learned to sail before he learned to read. I was however surprised to learn he trained as a lawyer and worked as an accountant for years before chucking it all in to sail to Guinea-Bissau.

Our kind hosts Anna and Giuseppe Maggio. This pic doesn’t do justice to Anna’s beauty and style – she’d been up at 3am to welcome guests from the airport with a cooked breakfast

Our kind hosts Anna and Giuseppe Maggio. This pic doesn’t do justice to Anna’s beauty and style – she’d been up at 3am to welcome guests from the airport with a cooked breakfast!

The Mediterranean trade winds blow past the Canary Isles and down into the Bijagós Archipelago off Bissau. This is the largest group of islands on the West African coast, numbering more than 40; a fascinating community that was never conquered by the colonial government and defies central authority even now – the islanders are infamous smugglers. Giuseppe and Anna sailed here from Spain in a 30ft catamaran, with the wind and without an engine. The whole journey took them a month.

Mar Azul is surrounded by beautiful trees, including the African calabash

Mar Azul is surrounded by beautiful trees, including the African calabash…

Anna, switching effortlessly between Portuguese, French and English with guests, explained their route while Giuseppe gesticulated wildly with his cigarette and spoke fluent Crioulo with their staff. She worked in publishing in Milan before they launched Italy’s first offshore fish farm in Sicily. It was very successful but stressful to manage and after they lost all their stock in devastating storms ten years ago, they decided to quit while they were still ahead health-wise.

not to mention the stunning range of palms...

not to mention the stunning range of palms…

They sold the business, paid off their debts and bought a boat with what remained. After testing it along the coast of southern Spain, in autumn 2008 they set off into the Atlantic doing tiller shifts of 3 hours on, 3 hours off, all day, all night. From Gibraltar to Gran Canaria it was cloudy and their solar power failed. Their instruments lights weren’t working, so they had to navigate using a sextant only. Giuseppe said it was “no problem” – they arrived only 2 miles off course.

Giuseppe's beloved boat...

Giuseppe’s beloved boat…

a 30ft catamaran designed in Truro!

a 30ft catamaran designed in Truro!

He still dreams of sailing on, along the paths of the trade winds to Brazil, but Anna is not so keen. I wasn’t surprised after she described their worst moment, when the nuts and bolts connecting the two hulls of the catamaran came apart during a squall. She was on the inside of one hull and he on the outside of the other trying to screw it back together while negotiating the choppy seas. It seemed like a helluva metaphor for how the challenges of long haul travel test a relationship to the limit. Anna laughed that they now have a back-up cable system to make sure they never risk coming apart again.

She showed me pictures of their living space inside the one hull – the other carried spares. It made Big Reg look positively palatial. She must love this man very, very much.

Mar Azul cottages are much roomier

Mar Azul cottages are much roomier

That was seven years ago. They’ve been managing Mar Azul for the last three, when they brought their cat Pat to join them from Sicily. They now have 12.

Oh, and a pizza oven!

Oh, and a pizza oven!

Escape to the Sea

We got up at 5am and were off out of the poisonous plastic fumes of Bissau to Quinhámel by 8. At the market, Sampson was bowled over when he bumped into Mademba, who spent 7 years working in Worcester, just north of Cape Town. Mademba helped us to fill up with water at his neighbourhood well.

Sampson with Mademba, who speaks better Afrikaans than any of us!

Sampson with Mademba, who speaks better Afrikaans than any of us!

We were looking for any road to a beach but the trees were all bit low, when I caught sight of a turn off marked Mar Azul and remembered the place had been recommended by our Swedish friends Fredrik and Suzanna. Talk about serendipitous. I couldn’t face even another 20kms being bounced about on a dirt road right then. Big Reg just squeezed by under the cashews and down into the shady haven.

Couldn't get the truck under all the low trees

Couldn’t get the truck under all the low trees to the beach

Thank goodness we saw the sign

Thank goodness we saw the sign

Ahhhhhhhhhhh...

Ahhhhhhhhhhh…

We spent 11 days there, recalibrating after the triple whammy of serious illness followed by a hard road and a crushing disappointment. I’d also had a brush with gluten in Bissau and didn’t eat much the first few days to avoid pain. We spent the first week resting, washing clothes and catching up on school. My ability to do algebra improved exponentially in ratio to the number of hours slept.

Big Reg parking off at Mar Azul

Big Reg parking off at Mar Azul

Appropriately in this romantic Italian environment, we started reading Romeo and Juliet, one of Ruby’s set texts in Grade 9. Zola surprised everyone including himself by becoming an enthusiastic participant, particularly in the more swashbuckling scenes.

The kids got the Merida bikes down and whizzed about exploring the resort area. I can’t believe Zola has grown so much he can now handle either comfortably. Three times they biked 7km to Quinhámel market and back to buy bread, fruit and veg. That was 2km up the dirt road then another 5km on the tar to town.

Getting the bikes down...

Getting the bikes down…

proved quite a challenge in itself...

proved quite a challenge in itself…

what with all the dust from the road to Foulamori still covering the tarpaulin!

what with all the dust from the road to Foulamori still covering the tarpaulin!

Pumped, oiled and ready to go!

But they were soon pumped, oiled and ready to go!

Our ‘missed call on arrival and as a signal to return’ system on our faithful JCB phones served to keep my anxiety to a minimum, but I needn’t have worried. One shopkeeper minded the bikes while they went shopping in the market and Ruby coped fine, even in Portuguese. Not for the first time, I was forced to acknowledge how much more confident I feel about the safety of my children here in rural West Africa than at home in urban South Africa.

Merida bike-warriors! Conquering heroes of Quinhámel market!

Merida bike-warriors! Conquering heroes of Quinhámel market!

The road to town was well populated by other bikers

The road to town was well populated by other cyclists

Ruby’s sole blunder was to buy several kilos of lemons thinking they were oranges – but what do you do when life offers you lemons? Make lemonade! Her added sugar levels were dangerous for me but the lemonade was utterly delicious, and the powerful Vitamin C boost was much needed.

Easy mistake to make when they're this golden

Easy mistake to make when they’re this golden

While I was busy editing a magazine article, Sampson spent a happy few days editing his Liberian surf highlights video – check it out here. Zola looks very cool in it, and they spent hours admiring their turns in slow motion and the close-up shots taken by Ruby in the water. Everyone was feeling smug. At last it seemed we had achieved true truckulence, with Ruby genuinely content and very loving – just as Zola was threatening to become more teenagey, sigh.

Sophisticated technical means were employed to estimate the exact size of the huge waves in the video...

Sophisticated technical means were employed to measure the exact size of the huge waves in the video…

On Valentine’s Day Sunday I granted myself the gift of complete rest. I started walking again, and read some of my book for the first time in weeks. Sampson fixed my ‘broken heart’ – my favourite hook had snapped off, and he managed to glue it back together, and screw them all more solidly to the wall. It was a truly thoughtful present. Ruby bought my favourite bissap tea from Quinhámel market and made me an iced version of this hot pink drink from hibiscus flowers. We watched Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and I felt blessed by the peace of the day.

My Valentine's Day present - mended hooks

My Valentine’s Day present – mended hooks🙂

Mar Azul’s swimming pool was refilled with water from hot springs – it was bliss to relax in it like a bath. The water was very soft, lovely for washing, not so nice for drinking, but another good excuse to make lemonade. Ruby bought another few kilos of lemons!

The pool filled with water from hot springs at Mar Azul

The pool filled with water from hot springs at Mar Azul

We tried over and over...

We tried over and over…

but couldn't quite manage it at the same time!

but couldn’t quite manage it at the same time!

Bliss...

What a blissful spot

This is our friend LIndate who brought us a bag of green bananas and...

This is our friend Lindate who brought us a bag of green bananas and…

THE most enormous green papaya which we feasted on for days

THE most enormous green papaya which we feasted on for days

This feller came too!

This feller came too!

The Sampsons all suffer from hay fever and had been sneezing a lot since re-entering the savannah but Zola was the worst. He had a blocked nose and a terrible cough verging on asthmatic. Ruby told me he was also grinding his teeth in his sleep, so I asked Zola if he was anxious about anything.

He admitted that he’d been scared by the lines of faded photos, on the wall of Ms Anthropic’s interrogation room in Gabu police station, of murdered corpses including children’s. I told him they were probably relics of the civil war and he was not to worry about that being our immediate fate. Later a dentist told me he was grinding because he was about to lose teeth in preparation for his molars coming in. He’s growing up in front of my eyes…

My growing boy...

My growing boy…

a bit too old for the playground these days

a bit too old for the playground these days

Ten days later, Giuseppe was flicking through Zola’s schoolbooks and wincing with me at Ruby’s Maths. He says Guinea-Bissau’s main problem is not its narco-status or toppling governments but a lack of textbooks. Education here consists solely of teachers dictating to children and them rote-repeating back. He told the story of a 12-year-old local girl who was admiring his map of the world pinned to the wall of the restaurant. She said she’d never seen such a thing before. He pointed to Africa and asked her if she was proud to be African? She shook her head violently and said “I’m not from Africa, I’m from Quinhámel!”

More worryingly, the local skipper of a ferryboat was equally challenged when faced with Giuseppe’s GPS. He knew Guinea-Bissau was in West Africa, but he couldn’t identify where it was on the continent. What hope is there for any nation whose youth have such a limited idea of their place in the world?

Lovely shady spot to do school

Blissfully shady spot to do school…

and what a view!

and what a view!

The Bijagós islands are famous for birding and fishing

The Bijagós islands are famous for birding and fishing

and their preservation of Guinea-Bissau's pre-colonial heritage

and their preservation of Guinea-Bissau’s pre-colonial heritage

By the end of our stay my strength had so increased, I could walk half way down the dirt road and back. The climate was feeling more temperate, with early mornings chilly enough to wear a hoodie, but sweltering afternoons. I had to dig out all our moisturising lotions as we suddenly had chapped lips and heels again.

Cupboards sorted and fresh pics of missed loved ones added...

Cupboards sorted and fresh pics of missed loved ones added…

Historic last use of Marmite stash as stock in veg soup. A sad day.

Historic last use of Marmite stash bought in 2013 as stock in veg soup. A sad day.

We spring cleaned the cupboards, and wiped the heavy dust of the road to Foulamori off the mossie screens. When the fridge stopped sliding, Sampson took it apart and fixed it, good as new!

Mr Fix-it cleaning the sliders

Mr Fix-it cleaning the sliders

and repainting our 4x4 Mega World fridge, one of our most valued possessions

and repainting our 4×4 Mega World fridge, one of our most valued possessions

Tightening the bolts after the road from Guinea loosened them...

Tightening the bolts after the road from Guinea loosened them –

Have I mentioned already that Ruby is officially the strongest...

have I mentioned already that Ruby is officially the strongest…

of all the Sampsons now?

of all the Sampsons now?

Her massages have the power to leave her Dad limp - putty in her hands!

Her massages have the power to leave her Dad limp – putty in her hands!

Emma and Eve will be happy to hear that Ruby attempted to make home-made Tunnocks teacakes by melting dark chocolate and dipping marshmallows in. I shouldn’t have had any but they were just too tempting to nibble while watching the James Brown movie Get On Up – and well worth the headache.

Who could resist? YUM!

Who could resist? YUM!

Mar Azul was visited by two Ghanaian Reverends looking for an Easter conference venue, and the Nigerian Ambassador’s party. Such lovely people, so interested and so interesting! These challenging conversations reminded us how we enjoyed chatting with the dynamic people of those nations.

Rev Lawrence of the Igreja de Pentecostes, Guinea-Bissau

Rev. Lawrence of the Igreja de Pentecostes on the right

The Nigerian Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, Mr Ahmed Maigida Adams, second from left

The Nigerian Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, Mr Ahmed Maigida Adams, second from left

Mar Azul was so peaceful during the week and so packed at weekends. The second Sunday we there, I was just out of the pool in a towel at the end of the afternoon when I heard a familiar accent outside: “I love your truck, and if you don’t keep an eye on it I’ll steal it”. Tim was so chuffed to be invited in for a look round Big Reg. He’d gone on a 6 month adventure with his family on retirement but his wife was not keen to do longer. He turned out to be from Newquay, and even went to the same school as Sampson!

When I took this pic of Tim Poat, he asked me to take another one with his camera. I exclaimed to Zola at lightness of it, and zoom power.

When I took this pic of Tim Poat, he asked me to take another one with his camera. I exclaimed to Zola at lightness of it, and zoom power.

That night, we did a little show to say thank you. The audience included a group of British birdwatchers that Tim had come with to Bijagós – one of whom had apparently caught a record-breaking-sized fish!

Sunday show for Mar Azul guests

Sunday show for Mar Azul guests

James Wigglesworth caught this fish, at 263 pounds, just short of the world record of 284!

James Wigglesworth caught this fish, at 263 pounds, just short of the world record of 284!

This was the size of one of its scales!

This was the size of one of its scales!

Sampson busked it beautifully, throwing in a bit of stand-up for the Brits, and directing the magic at the young daughter of another Ambassador, Senhor Rogério Herbert. Ruby and I did fire with diesel provided by Giuseppe. The Ambassador tipped Sampson 10000 FCA with which he immediately bought a celebratory round of Mar Azul’s baobab icecream mousse. Brit Roger pushed 20 Euros on me, which came in very useful two countries later. But Tim came with the best gift of all: his camera. He said he was going to buy a new one when he got home so he’d like me to have this one.

Whaat???!!!!!!!

I just couldn’t believe it. That very week my trusty Tudortech Olympus had been showing strain from all the jolting of journey recently: a few times it hadn’t responded when I turned it on. I hadn’t wanted to face up to the implications of that for the blog. Sampson said he was delighted he wouldn’t have to stress about a present for my upcoming birthday, but I was so touched, I couldn’t speak. I threw my arms round Tim – not easy, he’s a very tall feller – and just managed not to sob. Sampson said he made him really homesick for Cornwall and the kindness of country people there – it was like Tim brought some love from the family back home all the way to us here.

Baobab ice-cream mousse. Another one for the things-I-want-to-import-from-West-Africa list!

Baobab ice-cream mousse. Another one for the things-I-want-to-import-from-West-Africa list!

N.B. Exactly a month later, my camera died. BLESS YOU TIM POAT – WITHOUT YOUR GENEROUS DONATION, THIS BLOG WOULD IMMINENTLY BE PICTURELESS!

The difference between the zoom on my camera...

The difference between the zoom on my camera…

and birdwatcher Tim's - epic!

and birdwatcher Tim’s – epic!

Mar Azul was populated by hundreds of these gorgeous birds living in nests in the palms

Mar Azul was populated by hundreds of these gorgeous birds living in nests hanging from the palms – maybe Tim can enlighten me as to their name? 

Anna showed Ruby three kittens in a box. The silver grey one with the blue eyes was already promised to one of the kitchen staff for her daughter’s birthday. But Ruby immediately fell in love with the other two: a black female with green eyes and a beautiful grey tabby tom. What do you think happened next?

Of course she begged me to keep one, and I found myself lobbying my husband in support because it would make her so happy, even if there were a crazy lack of space in the truck. Ruby was beside herself at the prospect, and kept kissing me.

On our penultimate day, Giuseppe made a box for the kittens to come and spend the night with us, to see which one we should take. Ruby preferred the tabby, whose personality was exactly like hers, but Sampson was adamant the female was less likely to pee to mark territory and more likely to catch rats. They were christened Tiger (or Tigger when he’s hyperactive) and Cleopatra (in homage to their mum).

That night, Anna asked us to do the show again for the staff that had been too busy to see it the day before, so we had an intimate gathering just for them. Signor Albino nearly jumped out of his skin when Sampson made a cigarette disappear into his shirt without burning a hole in it.

Monday show for Mar Azul staff

Monday show for Mar Azul staff started with video…

followed by magic...

followed by magic…

and ended with fire, for very appreciative crowd

and ended with fire…

for a very appreciative crowd

for a rewardingly appreciative crowd

Ruby predicted that her Dad, who was originally most anti-cats-in-the-truck, would be the one to fall heaviest for them and, sure as Bob, he was claiming play rights from the word go. The next morning as the kittens tumbled on the bed we all just stood and watched them, mesmerized. It was such a great way to start the day; I’ve never seen Ruby so perky first thing!

Good morning!

Good morning!

We had a lovely last day of idyllic calm. Sampson and I had just persuaded the kids that Cleo was the sensible choice, bringing less aggressive energy into the confined space of the truck, when he started fixing Ruby’s cupboard with a drill. I took the box of kittens outside away from the frightening noise, sat on the steps and watched them for ten minutes, stroking them behind their ears. Tiger looked up at me with his enormous eyes and purred like an outboard motor.

Suddenly the terrible realisation dawned that I just couldn’t leave him behind. Even though I knew I’d probably live to regret it. Perhaps when Tiger pees on my bed, scratches holes in the mossie screens or hisses at a customs officer. But for now – he was just too beautiful.

So I sat here with the kittens in a box on my lap...

So I sat here with the kittens in a box on my lap…

looking at them, so lovely together, just like our two.

looking at them, so lovely together, just like our two.

What would you have done?

What would you have done?

It was like deciding to have kids, I sighed to myself: if you’re going to mess your life up with dependents, you might as well go the whole hog and have two so you have the joy of them entertaining each other. Anna was delighted at the news, while Giuseppe told us that Pat as a kitten had run to him from amidst a field full of sheep and never left. She gave birth to these three kittens on his chest.

When we left, they hugged us like we were family.

The happiest girl in the world?

The happiest girl in the world?

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