Saturday, July 11, 2009

On the road to Timbucktu

March, 2009

If losing your baggage is on your travel to-do list, please refrain from doing so in West Africa. In almost all situations it isn’t your fault, unless of course you feel your camera and the various lenses are more important than an extra set of clothes that you could have packed in your carry-on luggage. So there I was in the market in Bamako, haggling for underwear from a wicker basket with my translator Sekou Camara waxing eloquence in native Bambara. At that point, I failed to comprehend who was more hassled; me, who had never worn anything that was covered in a four inch layer of dirt or Sekou, who probably never ever bought lingerie for any of his three wives. After taking care of that awkward detail, we proceeded to buy the rest of the ‘outerwear’. Sekou, who had an idea what I would care to wear, took me to a section of the market loosely known as ‘Dead Toubab’s Closet’. Toubab meaning ‘White Man’. These clothes are donated by the west and are sold in the streets as 'dead white-man’s clothes' because Malians are convinced that nobody in their right mind would discard their clothes unless they are in the grave. One of the many eye-openers I would witness in the world’s fourth poorest country.

So from a huge pile of T-shirts ranging from second-hand Tommy Hilfiger to Levis, I chose a green T-shirt that said, ‘MARDI GRAS PUB CRAWL’. It came with some gentleman’s body odor (is all, I hope) as an add-on bonus. I found a fabric for a native skirt, which was basically a colorful wrap-around that was to be tied around the waist. After a day of frolicking around in my skirt all over Mali, I was politely reminded that the slit should be on the left to signify a lady of decent standings. ‘I am sorry, where I come from, we don’t wear skirts.’ I tried.

We boarded the Bani bus to Segou on this 100 some degree afternoon (It gets hotter in May). Just before embarking on this four hour journey, Sekou asked me to buy myself a hand fan. ‘I have a book to keep myself busy,’ I assured him. I wish I had listened to him and bought two. Now this bus was supposed to be Belgian import and the Belgians didn’t design it for Malian conditions. The A/C had stopped working eons ago (to save on diesel) and the windows were sealed shut (for A/C efficiency of course). To make sure the passengers didn’t die of suffocation, the officials had punctured a few holes on the roof of the vehicle for inadequate ventilation. The whole scene reminded me of a frog in a bottle. Very soon, I started to feel dizzy and very uncomfortable. If not for the umpteen stops the bus made (for checkpoints, prayer sessions, food breaks, toilet breaks, god-knows-what-else-thanks-to-language-barrier), I would have definitely perished in this very unglamorous way.

Outside the bus, poverty was in open display everywhere and even in the capital city of Bamako, infrastructure is limited to the main roads and a few brick and mortar structures that are used as government buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants. Most of the buildings were made entirely of mud and held together by sticks and tin roofs. Garbage was being burned in every conceivable open space and many plastic covers survived the cremation process. Some kids rummaged the vast fields of garbage for treasures such as a used plastic bottle. What they needed was a good waste management program. Fortunately for Mali, the population was under control and they didn’t produce much trash as the reused almost everything. The scenery was really nothing much to gloat about…just vast stretches of brown and some dirty green (occasional baobab and acacia trees). Every check-point greeted us with a surge of hands of young women thrusting grocery on our faces. You could buy anything from a choice of water-pouches, boiled eggs, carrots, meat, cakes, peanuts, juice, apples, bananas etc.

This was my second trip to Mali on this Engineers Without Borders Project and the tragedy of the most friendliest country hits me each time. More to come..

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Crime, Sex and Book Clubs. Lagos, Nigeria.

Alpha's diary- January 19th, 2008

With a population of 24 million, crime rate hitting the roofs, corruption and huge environmental concerns, I guess I can say I am feeling completely at home. From the sky, this sea of a city looks flat except for the occational cell phone towers that rise higher than the modest sand-color settlements. While driving us to our home from the airport, the driver says that if you don't know the 'blood-language' of the locals, you would be termed as 'goats'. 'You know that they do with goats right? They slaughter them.' I just hope to learn the blood language sooner than later.

Huge population of Christians in the south of Nigeria, this part of the country is not really conservative by any standards. I wonder why I brought only long skirts and kurtis while women are walking half naked. 'Oh, she is a prostitude,' said Dennis, the driver. I saw another skimpily dressed woman and expressed my concerns about a city laden with sex workers. 'Oh no, can't you see, she isn't one. She looks like a Goddess. The last one we saw was my ex. Hence I call her that. That bitch, she slept with me and now says she is pregnant.' [I could write a book on this driver and his shenanigans]

English speaking and trying hard to make a living, the city is distinctly poorer than many Indian cities I have seen. We live in a real nice part of town called Ikoyi Islands. The place has fairly new roads (paved) with open drains. This is due to the fact that the governor is our neighbor. Nigerian food is definitely not the greatest I have eaten and the sentiment is shared by all. They eat pepper soup and interesting bread that needs acquired taste. They eat this bread for breakfast (a whole loaf) with water. I am sticking to my honey bunches of oats. They live on cassava that is eaten in the form of gari (cold and flowy) or eba (hot and lumpy). Jolof rice (tomato rice), fried plantains is something I liked. I don't eat meat and they have a variety of suspicious looking (and highly suspect smelling) meat dishes.

I am spending my time exploring the city on foot. It's not that unsafe as people had scared me. Yes, in the nights you sometimes could be looking at a barrel of the gun and handing all your valuables. But that is in the night. Even our Nigerian driver pees in his pants if he has to drive at night. Daytime, its fine, especially in the neighborhood when we live. I sometimes ride on the 'okada', a two-wheeler public transport that gets you from place to place for a dollar. So you hail an okada like you hail a taxi, he hands you a helmet (safety first always) and expertly weaves through the traffic, sometimes crashing to the asphalt as we avoid a mini bus with more people than there are in Pittsburgh and its suburbs. Most of these bikes interestingly are Indian makes like Bajaj. People are not overtly friendly like the Malians, but are friendly enough if they trust you. Once they do, they are loud, funny and very friendly. There is a general mistrust among the expats…and its both ways. The resentment is due to the fact that even after colonialism, they feel that they end up being subordinated to the wealthy Expat community. You will not see an expat walking alone on the streets. They get carted by cars everywhere and do their shopping in Dubai. They socialize with other Expats and this is but natural. Most of the crime in Lagos is towards the expats by the poorer locals. Just for a few bucks, they apparently kill.

Interestingly I went to this book store where I got chatting with the book store owner and Tundum (her name, I just like saying it) hooked me up with the African Book Club of Lagos and today I was in a room with 20 women, all expats. As much as that was not the Nigeria I came to experience, it definitely helps me gain some perspective on what the 'oyibos' (white people) think of Nigeria. And also get me to read a lot of African Literature.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A little bit of India in Africa

Last four months I spent in Africa. I met strange people, ate stranger food, walked into juju markets of Nigeria, lost baggage in Mali, danced and sang with Nubians in Egypt, got lost in the medinas of Morocco, dined with Zulus of South Africa, made eye contact with the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, relaxed in the beaches of Ghana, cheered for the lioness as she pounced on the wilder-beast in the vast Serengeti plains, and managed to completely avoid winter in Pittsburgh. And here I am, kicking myself for not seeing Ethiopia, Namibia and Bostswana. Life is calling me an ingrate!

I may or may not get into all the details of my trip in this blog, but you shall hear snippets for a long time to come. I met lots of Africans and this was their reaction to India:

'Man! You Indian people never part with your money even though you sleep in golden beds. If we get one Naira (equal to $1/150) from an Indian, we throw a party. By the way, if you didn’t get it, we don't like Indians.’

South Africa
'My great-grandpa was Indian; from Madras. Is Aishwarya Rai from there? One of these days, I would love to see what India is like. We Indians have thrived here from generations, keeping our culture alive. If you think Cape Town is infested with Indians, go to Durban. Can I offer you some chai? '

'India? Hind? aaahh! (glazed far away look) Where ever you are from, your skin color and hair is great. Wish all Malians could have brown skin and straight black hair.' (touches to see if I am real)

'Indians control all big businesses and keep to their own community. They never let their daughters marry localites and are forever suspicious of us. but you both are very different and friendly.'

'You know Amitabh Bacchan? You look like heroine! What eyes! What body! Be my wife. I will give your husband 1000 camels in exchange for an Indian bride. He can have my fat sister too for free. '
[I plan to go to Egypt everytime I need ego boosting]