Earthly riches in Guinea

Let’s start with some statistics.  Over 25% of the Worlds bauxite reserves, aluminium ore, are in Guinea.  An impressive figure based on the fact that it is the Worlds’ 78th largest country, so not very big at all.  Most foreign visitors I met were hunting for one natural resource or another, including gold.  Being mineral heavy makes Guinea one of the richest countries in Africa, yet adult literacy rate stands at just 41%.IMG_7545

A relatively stable country, but coordinated unlawful barricading of roads combined with targeted attacks on the wealthy occur almost weekly and almost always on a Thursday.  Unsure why a Thursday, but that’s the way it is.  Top tip – on these days it’s best to say in situ and avoid main thoroughfares.

Travelling in Guinea is arduous and time consuming, nor for the faint hearted.  Ancient battered and bruised seven seater cars, are the mode of transport here.  Loading luggage is a skill, as the cars are often doubled in height with various packages.  Often a sofa or motorbike is precariously added to the top, and maybe some more passengers.  Meaning the centre of balance is no longer where it was designed to be.  But this is Africa – no health and safety concerns here!  After having waited up to three hours to sell all nine tickets, the arguments over who sits where now starts.  Remember the car has seven seats, but ten of us need to get in.  The worst seat is the shared passenger seat, squished between the driver and another passenger.  Not only is the seat insufficient for two, there is no leg room due to the gear stick.  Over the eight hour journey every change into fourth gear means a whack in the thigh.guinea

The journey itself is fraught with challenge, namely being no road surface and drivers playing chicken with oncoming traffic to score the best bit of road.  So slaloming at speed on untarmacked roads, in an unbalanced car with a bruised thigh is how I spent a few days of my time in Guinea.            

Despite having travelled extensively this is actually the first country where I was requested, and not particularly kindly, by a senior police official hiding behind sinister sunglasses to pay for my visa (again).  All occupants of the car crossed his palm with silver.  I got stung for US$1.14 in local currency.  And yes the decimal point is in the correct place.

I seem to have painted a most bleak picture of Guinea, which is not my intention.  I enjoyed my time here with beautifully scenic countryside.  Plenty of hikes to waterfalls through the lush greenery, in the central highlands.  Plus extremely friendly people who I become very closely acquainted with during my numerous car journeys.  A challenging destination, particularly with bare bones French.

 

 

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Hello Mr President….Sierra Leone

Mention visiting Sierra Leone to anyone and initial questions after “Is it safe?!” typically cover blood diamonds, civil war and Ebola.  A reaction which reinforces the fact that Sierra Leone is indeed still far from the tourist trail. img_740228229

A lack of information, infrastructure and fellow travellers; teamed with recent storms and mudslides partially destroying some tourist attractions, does make it a hard destination to explore.  However beaches are plentiful, and in the 1980’s one of Sierra Leone’s featured in the Bounty chocolate bar “taste of paradise” advert.  So perhaps one for the bucket list!

On my first day I managed to meet the President when I was caught in a cordoned off area alone with his security entourage.  We stood together and watched him approach the airport terminal from the mainland in his private boat.  Meanwhile a couple of people quickly laid a threadbare red carpet along the deck.  When the president arrived there was myself and several armed soldiers all standing in line to salute and bid him good morning.  Quite surreal…

A definite highlight was the chimpanzee sanctuary.  It rescues orphaned or enslaved apes and educates them through a staged process to be able to live back in the wild.  Sadly due to continued risk of being captured for a household pet, being poached for meat or killed for alleged medicinal purposes; these endangered chimpanzees remain here in the next best thing – an enormous enclosure with minimal human contact.  Signage before you enter the sanctuary reads “beware of the chimpanzees throwing rocks, they have a very good aim”.  How reassuring!  Thankfully the juvenile chimpanzees were too busy chasing each other to work on their target practice.  I loved watching these intriguing intelligent animals, who just sat contentedly and just watched me back.  I wish I could have stayed longer…bounty

Exasperation came with the money situation.  The maximum ATM withdrawal amount was 400k Sierra Leonean Leone’s, which equates to 40 notes and just US$47.  There are two issues with this; the first being that ATMs rarely have any cash in as everyone extracts the maximum 40 notes, and secondly the cost of daily living for tourists exceeds US$47.  You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this situation is untenable.

So for those interested in the facts, and why Sierra Leone is indeed safe and worth a visit:

– The civil war started in 1991 and spanned 11 years leaving over 50,000 people dead and millions displaced, at a time when the population was approx. 7million.  And yes, it was partly funded by the greed for diamonds though this is rarely spoken about.

– The Ebola outbreak is thought to have been initially contracted by a family in Guinea through their diet of bats in December 2013.  It quickly spread across the border and left 2,536 dead in Guinea and 3,955 in Sierra Leone.  The survival rate after international aid boosted local medical care was 64%.  It was the most widespread Ebola epidemic ever recorded, and was declared eradicated by the World Health Organisation mid-2016.

– In August 2017 heavy rainfall lead to severe mudslides which killed 1,141 people and displaced a further 3,000 people in the capital, Freetown alone.

Categories: adventure, Africa, beach, culture, wildlife | Leave a comment

*The Place The Sun Sets….Morocco

Unsure if it was the narrow dark twisting alleyways, the traditional cottage industries, or the old men dressed in dark hooded cloaks in the cold misty mornings; but there is definitely a mediaeval feel to Marrakech. img_7100

As the day commences and heat rises, it becomes evident how the modern world has encroached on this ancient city.  Motorbikes tear through the maze of laneways, films crews shoot their next cinema blockbuster, and lost tourists navigate by google maps rather than instinct.  But the resilience of tradition shines through with the tannery area and the manual dying of wool.  Amongst the Moorish architecture rugs hang from balconies and colourful medicinal potions are sold.  Every corner turned reveals a new hidden area of Marrakech to explore.  And whilst it is somewhat of a cliché it truly is an overload of the senses.

Surprisingly for me Yves St Laurent chose this city as his second home.  This is where he lies at peace, in his serene blue garden surrounded by cacti plants and water features.  An entirely different mood from the cacophony of sights, sounds, and ambience of the central medina.

Did I feel like I got under the skin of Morocco?  No.  It’s a tough nut to crack, and Marrakech with its extreme tourist polish was unlikely to reveal its true self over the few days I was there.  Perhaps I will return and explore its other enclaves; when I have more time to do this country justice.  Or perhaps I continue and venture elsewhere…

*the literal translation of Morocco

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture | 1 Comment

Made in Taiwan…

…. Well 70% of the world’s computers, communications technology and consumer electronics are actually made in Taiwan.  Less of the tacky plastic nowadays it was famous for, although this is still evident wherever you go.

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Gorge trek

Taiwan is a mix of Japanese and Chinese, possibly taking the best of both worlds.  Having been ruled by both empires, the Taiwanese continue to struggle for true independence.  For all practical purposes Taiwan has been independent since 1950, but China still regards it as a rebel region that must be reunited with the mainland – by force if necessary.  So you can imagine, politics is a hot potato on this small island.

My favourite destination was Taroko Gorge.  A stunning 19km marble gorge carved out by the Liwu River.  I am not a geologist, so the fact that the gorge is marble bypassed me completely.  Being in its natural form it’s far from looking like a bathroom suite, an image the word marble immediately conjures up.  Trekking through this lush green land alone except for nature was simply perfect.

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Taipei Skyline

Taiwan is spick and span compared to several other countries, this is hugely surprising based on the shortage of rubbish bins.  Perhaps it’s due to their approach to rubbish collection.  No leaving your dustbin on the roadside for regular collection; instead when you hear the daily truck arriving you run out and throw your rubbish into the back as it passes.  My favourite part of this process is the tune signalling its arrival – it’s the Western Worlds ice-cream van music.  Hugely disappointing when you fancy a Mr Whippy, run outside with your money and a rubbish truck arrives!

 

Lastly, towering over the city I can’t fail to mention Taipei 101.  Designed to resemble bamboo, this architectural triumph was the tallest building in the world for six years following its completion in 2004.  The lift shoots (pun intended) you to the top at a speed of 60.6km per hour which was also a record breaker.  Now that’s fast!

So Taiwan, worth a look?  Yes I’d say so.

Categories: adventure, Asia, trekking | 1 Comment

Oasis of Stability – It’s Jordan

A difficult country for me to get excited about, as I have to admit I didn’t love it here.  An expensive destination, yet no evidence of where the tourist money goes.  Littering is a national hobby, as is charging exorbitant fees irrespective of quality and service.  With so many historical sites and biblical drawcards on offer I feel Jordan can up its game to IMG_5487deliver a great visitor experience complete with bells and whistles.

Nestled between several countries who are experiencing tense political turmoil, Jordan has been labelled the “Oasis of Stability”.  This is ironic as it’s the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources per capita and at current usage levels it will soon run out.  The Dead Sea is living up to its name and rapidly shrinking.  Luxury resorts originally built on the shore are now a walk away across muddy sands, with cheap plastic chairs scattered along the salty waterline.

Predictions alarmingly state that the population of Jordan will double by 2047, due to high birth rates and welcoming Arabic speaking refugees with open arms.  Already consuming more water than they are collecting Jordan is in strife!  Real strife.  Can they overturn this drought predicament?  We can but hope.

So what about the good parts of Jordan?  Petra.  Definitely Petra.  An ancient city in the Jordanian desert; known to most by featuring in the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.  Wandering along the siq, a narrow rock gorge, you start to wonder when you will first glimpse the sight you have flown to Jordan specifically to see.  Then rounding a corner magically a slither of the façade of the treasury appears in view.  Carved into the sandstone rock some two thousand years ago, the tomb looms over you resplendently basking in the bright morning light.IMG_5641

What surprised me about Petra was the enormity of the site, and how everywhere you look there are carvings in the rock.  Whether it’s the grandeur of a tomb, an amphitheatre or a series of caves.  A colonnaded street runs along one area with remains of Roman temples either side.  Being in a rocky desert there are plenty of opportunities to climb to majestic heights and peer down on the city below.  I spent two and a half days exploring and loved every minute.  Well, except for the painful walk back up the steep hill to the new town and hotel epicentre.

One last point, I want to shout out the generosity of locals.  Whilst people were very reserved and conversation was stilted, they demonstrated hospitality by continuing to surprise me and pay for things on my behalf.  This could be your bus ticket, or a cup of tea.  I was even invited to a home cooked dinner with a family I met in the main square in Amman.  I felt very welcome by Jordan where it matters most – at grass roots level.

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Trip trapping in the Philippines…

The Philippines is synonymous with beaches and diving; neither were the focus of my most recent trip.  I went instead for the nature onshore.  Most people found this an odd choice.  In hindsight maybe it was……IMG_5045

So what did I see and do?  Well not as much as I’d hoped – I visited in December as it coincided with our office shut down, unfortunately it also coincided with incredibly wet weather.  Not to be deterred I still managed an extraordinary amount of rice terrace trekking.

The Philippines rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The sheer volume, scale and height of these terraces is really breathtaking.  These ancient narrow manmade vertiginous plots of land are designed for communal living with an elaborate watering system.  Trekking them calls for thighs of steel especially in the wet and muddy conditions.  I became somewhat of a mountain goat trip trapping up and down the steep slippery terraces with the locals.

Definitely the most interesting aspect of my trip was the Filipino attitude to death.  In one area of Northern Luzon traditional beliefs and Christianity merge; with an ongoing practice of hanging coffins on the side of rock faces.  Strict rules determine who is eligible to be “buried” in such a manner.  These include being of Igorot heritage, reaching an old age, and having grandchildren.  The deceased’s religion is reflected by their coffin shape and size.  Christians are interred flat on their backs, whereas non-Christians are placed in their coffins in a foetal position.

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World’s smallest primate – Tarsier

Now for the really unusual part……  The deceased partakes in the funeral ceremony, by witnessing proceedings whilst tied upright in a chair.  Yes, that’s right – the deceased individual is sat watching their funeral.  This concept is rather ghoulish.  As were the photographs I saw!

With the coffin already in situ suspended on a rock face the next step is to get the body there.  The deceased is wrapped in a blanket and carried aloft by local villagers to a place called Echo Valley.  Individuals tussle over who will carry the body, as it is considered good luck and a passing on of wisdom if any of the decaying body fluid drips on you.  Once at the site the body is winched into place up the rock face to join other revered members of the community.

Lastly I want to give a shout out for the unusual natural phenomenon known as the Chocolate Hills.  In central Bohol 1,268 perfectly formed rounded hills nestle together resembling goosebumps on the landscape.  Albeit rather large goosebumps, but the hills are of uniform shape and size.  Apparently they were formed by an uplift of coral deposits and then shaped by a combination of rainfall and erosion.  However they were formed they have a certain charm about them and are worth a visit.

So would I have preferred beaches and relaxing?  No.  I think I saw some pretty amazing things away from the mainstream island hoppers.

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Tournament of Shadows….. Kazakhstan

People have asked me what there is to see and do in Kazakhstan.  This proves a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular answer.  Perhaps because it’s the 9th largest country in the world, or perhaps because of rapid development in select pockets of the country; but Kazakhstan is diverse.  Very diverse.

Astana.  The capital since 1997 provides a skyline of lavish architectural oddities. This includes the world largest tent and a glass pyramid partially set below ground. The expansion and creative building construction in the city continues.  As the host of Expo 2017 the government invested $5 billion and controversially built what has been dubbed “the Death Star” in which to hold the event.

Crossing the seemingly never-ending steppe by train to the former capital, Almaty, took me 20 hours.  On arrival the mountainous backdrop creates a picturesque setting, though a layer of smog and the soviet era concrete block buildings nestling at the base are less ambient. Almaty is a decidedly more cosmopolitan and livable city with coffee shops, parks and a level of tourism.  It also interestingly boasts the world’s shortest metro system, with just nine stops.

As you’d expect with such a large country and population of 18 million it is mainly devoid of life, with vast open spaces.  This is a country on the infamous Silk Road, invaded during the reign of Ghengis Khan with many towns razed by his army. Resulting in a number of abandoned settlements eerily scattered in the Kazakh desert.  The wilderness also boasts snow topped mountain ranges, canyons and National Parks of great beauty.

Worth a visit?  Yes, but familiarise yourself with the 42 letter Kazakh alphabet or better still, learn Russian!

*for those interested parties (you know who you are!) the worlds largest tent is 150m tall and contains a shopping centre, a man-made beach and a roller coaster 

Categories: adventure, Asia | 1 Comment

Voodoo Central – Benin

One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height.  Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region.  National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.IMG_2435

The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section.  This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find.  I eventually found it.  The potent smell should have been a giveaway.  Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal.  I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast.  Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display.  This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.

Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year.  But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin.  It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.

I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant.  But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:IMG_2361

  1. Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat.  The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air.  How the goat lands determines the future.

The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth.  The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music.  The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting.  When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat.  Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.

The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth

  1. The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.

After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine.  The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath.  Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements?  Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic.  The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground.  This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.

I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment.  Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away.  Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.

At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers.  Pandemonium breaks out.  People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens.  However they are running for their lives.  For if the spirit touches you, you will die.

How crazy, scary and fun?  The voodoo religion simply has it all!

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture | 1 Comment

Let’s go to Togo

The 124th smallest country in the World doesn’t have much of a tourism infrastructure, and being sandwiched between more popular destinations (Ghana and Benin) it appears to be overlooked as somewhere to visit in its own right.  Playing transport roulette away from the key arterial roads, and a need for basic French makes this a more challenging and yet rewarding destination.img_1197-2

The countryside is beautifully unspoilt, and zipping around experiencing the rural side of West Africa was a joy.  So much greenery and full to bursting with a variety of crops.  On a hike through small villages in the hills I saw too many to name, but I will call out the loofah plant, which is part of the courgette (or zucchini) family.  Surely loofahs are underwater crops?  No, apparently not.  Who knew?

Once abundant with wildlife numbers have sadly dropped, though this doesn’t appear to apply to snakes.  The dangerous mamba continues to thrive, and indeed there was a green mamba on the path during my hike.  I have to admit whilst the guide was urging me forward for a closer look, I did think that freezing on the spot was the best option.  Or perhaps my legs just forgot how to move….  There was no way I was getting my face close to a green mamba!!

As always it would be remiss if I don’t mention a few interesting snippets:

  • Travel is typically in shared taxis. Not so unusual.  However the seat you pay for isn’t
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    Baby pineapple

    what I would actually call a seat, it’s more of a tiny portion of a seat.  In the front of a normal sized family car there are two passengers, and the back seat holds four passengers.  Add in the driver and overload with luggage which may, or may not, include wildlife.  Then cue a rather uncomfortable journey for the next two or three hours.

  • Palm wine is terrible. Enough to make your eyes water.  This didn’t stop people buying it at the bus station from an entrepreneur with a plastic jerrycan full of the noxious drink on the back of his motorbike.  It was not yet 10am!
  • Every year around Christmas time, the change in wind direction blows sand from the Sahara desert across the southern part of Western Africa. This dusty orange phenomenon is called the Harmattan.  During this time the sun is barely visible behind the thick dust, and distant features are hazy.
  • And lastly, pleasingly the government has recently launched an environmental scheme to reduce the amount of waste. They are advocating recycling to tackle the litter problem, particularly the plastic strewn along the roadside.  Great news!

Oh and voodoo is followed in Togo, though in a lesser extent than in Benin.  So I will cover this most interesting spiritual belief in my next blog.  Stay tuned…

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Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.

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Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever

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Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!

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    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture, people | 1 Comment

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