Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Down the dirt road: Northern Ghana

Pop quiz: What country has towns called Mole and Tamale, and big vats of rice and beans for sale on every corner? No, it's not's Ghana! (Which is nothing like Mexico otherwise, as far as I can tell.)

Ghana was something like a promised land for me and Andy. We tried to resist building it up in our minds too much before we got there, but since our book and everyone we talked to who had been there couldn't shut up about the air-conditioned buses and glittery Accra Mall and English-speaking population, we had sort of high expectations. Too high.

I will admit that we were warned that northern Ghana was like a different country from southern Ghana, and that certainly is true. We entered in the north, and it definitely had just as many malnourished children, awful dirt roads, and uncomfortable packed bush taxis as any other country we've been to in West Africa. But it also had its good bits. Here are some snapshots from our time in the north and central parts of the country.

We entered Ghana from Burkina Faso at Hamile, a remote border crossing in the northwest of the country. We crossed there because it was the nearest point to the even more remote Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary, which we were excited to visit. The hippos turned out to be cool, but after a full day of travel to get there (and then another long day to get away), we only got to spend about 30 minutes observing them in the protected part of the Black Volta river where they live. Also, our "ecotourism guide" was a 17-year old girl from the village who didn't really know anything about hippos. So, overall, we decided it wasn't really worth all the effort of getting there, but here are a few shots of our new hippo friends.

Stealth hippos.
Ferocious hippo roar. Or yawn. You decide.
Our next destination was Mole National Park, which is definitely the wildlife-watching highlight of Ghana. We had an excellent guide on our three-hour walking safari, and saw all sorts of cool creatures. (Too bad it's down an abysmal dirt road and the motel in the park is usuriously priced...still worth the visit, though.)

The park has three types of antelope. We forget the name of this one, but it's the most common.
While we were watching some warthogs from afar, a troupe of mongeese dashed across the path! We named the one in this picture Rikitikitavi (sp?), of course. Special note: I think I took this picture.
Warthog faceoff! Our guide told us that these ones are brothers, and sometimes brother warthogs will live together once the king warthog forces them out (all males except the dominant male get forced out, but most of these then live solitarily).
Brief break from the animals to show you the bathroom signs in the park. I would like to learn how to pee like this woman.
This is an African pintail butterfly. If you knew how long Andy has been trying to get a picture of one of these, you'd feel very happy for him right now.
I took this picture, too! It is a termite on a termite mound. The mounds are huge and everywhere in West Africa. They look like castles.
Monkey rides bigger monkey! The red butt identifies these specimens as baboons, which my cousin Merrie reminds me are monkeys, not apes. Pretty big monkeys, though. They are all over Mole and aren't scared of humans at all.
I call this one the baboon madonna and child.

But the highlight of our visit to Mole was undeniably the elephants we were lucky enough to come across. Andy didn't get to ride one, but we got quite close to them in a big open field space at the end of our walk. They had just had a swim, it seems, but didn't manage to wash up their upper third or so.
Here's one we saw at the nearby watering hole shortly after. We learned that an elephant can't just put its mouth in the water and drink, it has to suck it up into its trunk and then squirt into its mouth. Ever since learning that, I have also refused to drink water unless it's been up my nose first.

After Mole, we continued down the worst road in Ghana to Tamale, the largest and most Muslim city in the north, where we spent one night. I don't think we have any pictures from there--there's not too much to see--but we did make a bunch of new friends at our hostel, including Tim the Canadian volunteer and Lily the British med student doing an internship at a local hospital. We also met up with Corey, a Peace Corps volunteer we had met in Mali who invited us to get in touch when we reached Tamale. Ghana is absolutely crawling with volunteers and we probably made more friends traveling there than any other country.

Anyway, we all went out for a great meal and then some drinks at a bar that was also having an amazingly energetic African dance performance. You should have seen the muscles on these shirtless male dancers...oh, and the women were good, too.

From Tamale, we continued south to Kumasi, Ghana's second-largest city. Not the most exciting place in the world, but it's known for having the biggest market in West Africa, which dominates the city center and spills out into all the surrounding streets. It's a crazy place, but we managed to buy some good fresh groundnut paste (a.k.a. peanut butter) there. Here's a view of just some of the covered stalls from above.

Andy loved the shoe vendors, mostly because they appeared to often be selling single shoes, not pairs. I surmised that they must have the second shoe hidden somewhere, like as an anti-theft precaution, but Andy disagrees. Your thoughts? Anyway, here is a typical pavement shoe display.
We took a break from the market to visit the museum in the quiet grounds of the city's cultural center. It had a lot of interesting artefacts of the Ashanti, the major ethnic group in southern Ghana. In the heyday of the "Gold Coast," they used brass weights to measure out gold dust, but each different weight was molded into a beautifully intricate little figurine of an animal or person or other symbol. Each symbol was a different weight.

But the most fun thing about this museum is probably how many receipts they gave us. Here and at Mole National Park, receipts only come in the denomination of 1 cedi (about 75 cents) and they insist on giving you one receipt for every cedi you spent on admission. Here I am displaying our stash of receipts from Mole--20 of them, since admission was 10 cedi each. Funerals are a really big deal in Ghana, and people will advertise them by posting flyers around town. They always have a picture, the name and age of the deceased, and a long list of "principal mourners" and the many services and celebrations that are planned on behalf of the person who died. And everyone is invited.
We have read that funerals often cost more than weddings and put a huge financial burden on poor families. We also heard that if you are wealthy, you may hire a "professional wailer" to wail for the duration of the funeral so that you can be free to go enjoy the food and the music.

Wailing is apparently a very important part of the funeral--we learned this firsthand when we were in the tro-tro (crowded, falling-apart minibus) out to the hippo sanctuary and as we pulled into a village, one of the women on the bus suddenly burst out wailing and scared the heck out of us. The car stopped, and we frantically asked the driver what was wrong, thinking we must have hit someone, probably this woman's child. He told us not to worry, that she was going to a funeral and they'd just reached the village, so she had to start wailing. It was like we had crossed a certain geographical border, so the mourning sounds got switched on.

Kumasi had a lot of good signs, but my favorite was this billboard. If you've ever seen women (often with babies on their backs) pounding yams for hours to make them into gooey fufu paste, then you might understand the appeal a stress-free, instant fufu mix...
So, that's all for the parts of Ghana most vacationers don't go to. We'll check back in soon with pictures from the capital (Accra) and the fantastic beachfront eco-lodge where we (and about a zillion Peace Corps volunteers) chilled out for a few days.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Baobab juice, millet beer, fresh yogurt, and other delicacies of Mali and Burkina Faso

I hope you'll forgive us for lumping together the foods of Mali and Burkina Faso in this post. Food in West Africa definitely has variations by region (which sometimes line up with country divisions, but often don't), but as I think Andy mentioned in his Senegal/Gambia food post, there's definitely a continuum and much you'll find in common as you move around, too.

OK, here we go with foods of...


Our first meal in Mali was eaten in a food stall in a bus station during a short dinner/pickup stop our bus made between the Senegal border and Bamako. A giant bowl of slightly sweet-tasting haricots, or beans (yum) with some fresh tomatoes (yum) and an unexpected splash of fish sauce (yuck, but we survived). One spoon each for me and Andy--communal eating is big here, and people often share a plate. Total cost in US$, 60 cents.

When we finally arrived in Bamako almost 24 hours later, we decided to celebrate and treat ourselves to a fancy meal out on the town. Our main dishes at San Toro (sounds Spanish, but it's a West African specialties restaurant) cost $10 each, which is kind of astronomical for us, but they were very good.

Andy had chicken in coconut sauce with some fries...

And I had wonderfully tender lamb in "sauce feuille," made from the leaves of the sweet potato plant. I believe this is actually a Burkinabé specialty. Note also our drinks--my purple was made from hibiscus flowers and ginger and was quite strong, while Andy's was ginger and maybe lime, we can't remember, and it could clear your sinuses with one sniff. Good stuff.
Not pictured were our much cheaper lunches the next day at Restaurant le Gourmet downtown, where we had rice with delicious peanut sauce and lamb (me) and even better curry sauce and chicken (Andy) for less than $2 each. Included was a bonus giant pitcher of cold water, too. If you are ever in Bamako, you must have lunch at this place.

While waiting for the bus to Ségou, we bought these muffin-looking "gateaux" (cakes) from a woman with many such bags on her head. You see these all over West Africa and make a decent cheap breakfast when you can't find anything else to eat.

Mmm, fried balls with spicy sauce. These were made from a batter of some kind of pounded starch, probably millet, and could be found in many places in Mali and Burkina. When the heat breaks in the late afternoon, many women build a fire and set up a mobile fryer (i.e. a big pot full of oil) on the street and start frying things up, like these or plantain or banana chunks.

In Djenné, I bought our first mango of Africa. It was amazingly sweet and juicy and delicious. Since we don't have a knife, you can see me doing my magic with my spork here...

(Two tangential notes about mangoes...

1) Djenné is the most touristy town in Mali, and I paid about 25 cents for that mango. A few days later in another town in Mali, a woman was selling mangoes to our bus and they cost only 5 cents each, and I felt like I'd been ripped off in Djenné. Now, in Ghana, where it is apparently mango harvesting season, I have been able to buy mangoes for about 1 cent apiece, making all of Mali look darn expensive...though I will say that the 25 cent one was by far the tastiest one I've had.

2) Andy is quasi-allergic to mangoes (and cashews)--he can eat them, but if they touch his lips, his lips get all crazy chapped for days after. This means that whenever I get a mango, I have to cut chunks for Andy that he can pop into his mouth in their entirety, bypassing the lips. It's kind of amusing to watch.)

A popular snack that people sell to bus passengers in Mali are these slightly sweet sesame balls. Not bad if you like sesame, though one really is enough--they're kind of dense.

If you're looking for cheap street food in West Africa, you can often find stalls selling spaghetti. I would say it's in some sort of tomato sauce, but the red may just be from palm oil. The balls on the top are not meatballs, but some sort of starchy fried dumpling they were selling at the same stall in Djenné, so I had the woman throw some in to my to-go bag.

Hiking in the Dogon Country, our guide found a baobab fruit on the ground and broke it open, letting us all taste the fruit inside. Don't judge from my expression here, it's delicious--kind of sweet-and-sour, though, strangely, it has the exact powdery texture of freeze-dried fruit. Not surprising, I guess, given the very dry climates baobab trees often grow in...

You can see a whole fruit here--the big white chunks are the flesh. The bottle beside it was later used to make baobab juice, or bouyi, for our whole group. You just break the baobab flesh into small pieces and push them into the bottle, add water and sugar, shake it a lot, and voila, juice!
(Side note: Trader Joe's already sells freeze-dried mango and dried hibiscus flowers...I suggest that they get in on the baobab trade next!)

More beverages of Mali: Here is some homemade millet beer, brewed in a Dogon village for the next day's Easter celebrations. Considering that it's uncarbonated, served warm, and only weakly alcoholic, it wasn't so bad. (That's our Ecuadorian tripmate Estefania in the background.)

And here's one of my favorite bottled beverages of West Africa, Fanta Cocktail! Tastes like a can of fruit cocktail made into soda. It's no Lemon Fanta, but after two hours of hiking in 125-degree heat in Dogon Country, it sure hit the spot...

The last place where we had a meal in Mali was at a street stall in the border town of Koro. We have no pictures, but we were served absolutely enormous portions of tasty beans and spaghetti for maybe 50 cents each by a woman who we privately dubbed "the fattest woman in Mali"--she wasn't even that heavy, but I guess we didn't realize until we saw her how long it had been since we had seen an overweight person at all. (Let's just say that Mali has more of a feeding-itself problem than an obesity epidemic going on.) Anyway, based on what she apparently thought was a reasonable portion size, we can kind of see how she managed to pack on a few extra pounds.

On to foods of...

Burkina Faso!

In the capital city of Ouagadougou, a popular and cheap breakfast served on the street is French bread with avocado chunks that have been tossed with oil and onions and some spices. Based on the size of your French bread, you pay between 20 and 50 cents for your sandwich. Delicious.
Yogurt is also extremely popular in Burkina, moreso than in any of the surrounding countries. Every town sells cups and bottles of some locally-made yogurt, and many towns also have big vats of it out on the street alongside a display case full of millet, which gets mixed in. I got this enormous bowl on the street in Ouaga for 40 cents--the lady even threw in two ice cubes, which was ingenious because it was probably 115 degrees out. (If I kept mixing and made sure to only take bites from near the ice cubes, the whole thing was actually refreshingly cool.)

Also, I was full for about six hours after eating it...that millet is fibrous!

Since Andy doesn't eat yogurt, we had to find him some lunch, too. We didn't have to go far to find a vendor selling rice and sauce on the street to hungry locals. $1 got him a big bowl, and he went at it with his right hand, African-style.

Here is a weird Ouaga find--pineapple milk. Pretty sure it was imported from somewhere else. I didn't like it, but I had all that calcium from the yogurt, anyway, so I let Andy enjoy.
In Ouaga, I was really excited when we stumbled upon an Indian restaurant near the airport. Unfortunately, the food was only so-so, and then they really ruined it by tacking on an extra $3 charge for rice. Boo.

The next day, we arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso hungry. Luckily, we didn't have to go far to find a lady frying stuff on the street. We got our first yam (aka cassava, or manioc--a dry and starchy tuber, not to be confused with sweet potato) chips there, with plenty of salt and some sauce. These are popular in Ghana, too, though the chunks tend to be longer and bigger. In both places, they are usually priced by the piece, with prices ranging from about 1 to 7 cents depending on size.

Throughout West Africa, Andy had I have enjoyed little cold baggies of juice--and sometimes if we're lucky, we can even find them still frozen. You just bite the corner off the bag and suck. In Bobo, Andy got a bag of mystery frozen juice that we think turned out to be bouyi (baobab juice), though this color is also similar to gingimbre (ginger juice) and to a slightly gingery millet drink called zoomkoom that is only found in Burkina.
We bought these mystery nuts in Bobo thinking that they would be savory, but they turned out to be strangely sweet, almost like little bites of coconut. Based on that, we concluded that they were probably palm nuts. I didn't like them, but Andy did. (Moments after we bought them, the first big rain of the season hit, and we spent an hour huddled in a sewing shop, snacking on nuts with some locals and admiring the monsoon.)
Mmm, sweet Burkinabé yogurt. (Too bad the flavors are usually limited to vanilla, strawberry, or "nature sucree" (plain sweetened).) Got this cup for 40 cents at a little shop in Bobo that specializes in dairy products, meaning that the whole shop is basically a table and a fridge case with yogurt and milk.
From this picture of a restaurant meal we had in Bobo, you can see how meals in West Africa often work--you get a starch, and a bowl of sauce, and eat with your hands (or maybe a spoon). That's rice in the background, but in the foreground is tô, a starchy paste here of pounded corn, though it can also be made of millet or other grains. It usually has the consistency of mashed potatoes, and I really like it. You grab a bit of it, dip it in the sauce, and eat. Variations of this have many other names in different regions and countries--it is similar to fufu, foutôu, TZ, and banku, and I'm sure we'll learn new names in Togo and Benin!

Outside of Banfora, here I am with a gourd full of palm wine, the slightly fermented sap of the palm tree. It's not strong, but still, this picture was taken around 9:30 AM, so I only had a little sip.

At the Banfora market, more baggies of juice. That's bissap, my favorite hibiscus drink, on the left, and some crazy ginger juice on the right. Baggies like this usually cost around 10 cents or so.
Significantly more costly was this Tetrapak of Twist brand banana nectar that Andy found in a little shop in Banfora. It was imported from Egypt and refrigerated, so it cost something like $2.50. Our treat for the day. It was thick and very sweet, kind of like a banana smoothie. Andy looks forward to trying it again in Egypt.

There you have it--many drinks and a few foods from Mali and Burkina. Both of these countries represented a serious step up in street food availability and quality from Senegal and The Gambia, so it was easier to find snacks and cheap meals in both countries. I especially enjoyed all the yogurt in Burkina, and the avocado sandwiches, but we found actual restaurants to be better in Mali. (Of special note is that peanut sauce in Mali tended not to have fish in it, while the same sauce in Burkina often did taste very fishy.)

Ghana, where we are at the moment, is a whole new kettle of fish. Literally. More on that one day when we find Internet access again!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Burkina Faso: As good as the name Ouagadougou?

The guy who wrote the Lonely Planet section on Burkina Faso is either an incredibly laid back person or an idiot. Possibly both. He writes about Burkina Faso as though it is some kind of African paradise where everything is cheap, clean, and amazing. As it turns out, Burkina has some high points, but the low points for us began with Ouagadougou. With such a great name, the city had a lot to live up to. It didn't even come close. Let's see some pictures.

As with many cities, Ouagadougou (aka Ouaga) has open sewers flowing through most of the city. However, Ouaga apparently thought it a good idea to only put a bridge over the sewer every ten blocks or so. Tara and I had to decide to walk ten blocks out of the way to get to a bridge, or take the "local shortcut". Here was the choice:
We tried to find the coolest thing in Ouaga to photograph. It was this sculpture dedicated to West African film making. Ouaga is somewhat of a center for artsy African films. That doesn't mean that it actually has a movie theater or anything--just that some film people like to come together there for a film festival every year.
Burkina Faso really likes what are locally called mobylettes. This term includes mopeds and small motorcycles. This picture is probably the nicest store in the entire city and it is devoted entirely to selling mobylettes.
From Ouaga, we went to a small city called Boromo. The main attraction is a small national park with some of the northern most elephants in Africa. After walking about five miles to the park, we did see a mother elephant and a baby elephant, but they were far away and they ran away before we could get a picture. So, instead, we present you with this gray hornbill. Maybe we have a few birdwatching readers who will be more excited about this than an elephant...
In our hotel in Bobo, we had this fun tiny gecko on the bed. Lizards in Africa are everywhere, indoors and out. They are harmless and eat the insects, so no one really does anything to keep them out.
In Bobo, we experienced the first downpour of the year, which officially welcomes rainy season. It was quite a bit early this year. We first took shelter under the entrance to a tailor shop, and soon found ourselves crammed into a tiny shop with the door closed and a half dozen people from the shop. They were very kind to help keep us dry. Women in Africa carry huge loads on their heads, and apparently even the deluge could not slow down these women.
Also in Bobo is another mud mosque. They offered to sneak us into this one for a fee, which is somewhat tempting to see the inside, but non-Muslims are not supposed to enter, so we stuck to the outside. This picture is right after the heavy rain, so we thought it might have melted like the wicked witch of the west.
Outside of Banfora, a formation exists called the Domes of Fabedougou. They used to be at the bottom of a sea bed and rain and wind has slowly eroded the surrounding areas. The most interesting part is how tiny the layers are that make us the rock. And that they are in the shape of domes. We had never been anywhere quite like it.
Further west, in the corner of Burkina Faso, are the Sendou Peaks. They are similar in rock composition to the Domes, but are a different shape. A lot like the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in the American Southwest. They go on for miles and miles.
Near the Domes is a well known waterfall. The waterfall is much taller, but we were there during dry season and it doesn't look that impressive. Given the oppressive heat, the most exciting part for us was the chance to swim in the pools at the top. Just look how happy Tara is.
While waiting for a boat ride in the nearby lake, we had the chance to take this terrific picture of a monkey riding a goat. The goat seemed not to care at all. When we get back to the States, we are going to start goat racing with monkey jockeys. I think a fortune could be made.
At Lake Tengrela near Banfora, the real attraction is the possibility of seeing hippos. We were lucky enough to see a few hippos, though even with binoculars, we thought they were giant rocks until we got close. This is the best picture we have. They were all out in the middle of the lake during the heat of the day, so this is about as far as they come out of the water.
That wraps up the excitement of Burkina Faso. Not the worst country ever, but not nearly as exciting as Lonely Planet makes it sound. We will add that bus transport between major cities is fairly good in Burkina, which us taking the first air conditioned bus we had seen in a couple of months. People in Burkina are also generally nice and the people trying to sell you something give up very easily. A firm no and they generally leave you alone. The food will be in a separate post, but the plentiful street food is also nice.