Route change update: We’re in Mali!

This post comes to you from Bamako, Mali. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, this might come as a surprise because Mali was not on our route. We didn’t have visas for Mali. We never bought a map of Mali. We weren’t going to Mali.

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We seriously started planning our route for this trip about two years ago. There were two big contributors to how we planned our route at the time. One was that we learned that the summer (when we were originally traveling until Jackie’s accident) was the rainy season so we needed to stay away from the coast lest we get mired in mud, literally. That put the route through Sierra Leone and Liberia out of the picture. The other thing that happened in January 2012 is that Tuareg rebels started a rebellion in Northern Mali, eventually resulting in a coupe that ousted the Malian president and left Al-Qaeda affiliated rebel groups filling in the vacuum and taking control in the north of the country. This meant that we couldn’t go through Mali either, much to Jackie’s disappointment.

That was all ok, though. We set our course through Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire and that was our plan until a couple days ago. Thursday night, we sat down on our last night in Senegal to plan our route in Guinea for the next morning. We knew that roads weren’t supposed to be good, but some examination of Google Earth showed us we were headed for several hundred miles of dirt roads through remote mountains. And that was just days one and two of Guinea. Côte d’Ivoire didn’t look much better, so we made a game night decision and headed for the Mali border. Ever since we got back on this trip in mid-December, everyone we’ve met, both African and European has assumed our route was taking us through Mali. When we told them we were going through Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire they’ve been confused. Everyone wanted to know why we weren’t going through Mali. Mali has been quiet for the last 6 to 12 months, so we went for it.

We’re happy with the new plan. The roads through Mali have been great, Bamako seems like a cool city, and the people have been really friendly. We’re still not going through the North for safety reasons, but our new route brings us right to the part of Burkina Faso where we’ve gotten a bunch of recommendations. Plus, we’re shaving off about 1,000km of riding, which should let us enjoy more time in Ghana with people we know.

Senegal in (inadequate) summary

We just spent what is planned to be our last night in Senegal. We realize that we’ve been a bit negligent with blog posts but hopefully you’ve all been too preoccupied with the holidays to have noticed. In order to make up for the impression of Senegal you may have based on only stories of harried border crossings and ferries run aground, we present you with the highlights of our time here in list form:

  • The main roads in Senegal have generally ranged from good to excellent. This is especially true the roads from the north border down past Dakar and until our ferry to Foundiougne. Starting from Foundiougne to Kaolack to Tambacounda we’ve hit patches of dirt road (that looked like it was being prepared for paving), areas where giant potholes appear with slalom-able frequency, and a few stretches of pothole fields where weaving left and right across both lanes or standing on the pegs and sucking it up were the only ways to go. That said, most of the country has been navigable at 60mph+ (100km/h+) and outside Dakar traffic has been pretty light.
  • We spent Christmas Eve at ZebraBar, south of Saint-Louis, Senegal. It was a lovely dinner with a bunch of other overland travelers from Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. We relaxed and traded stories and traveling tips.
  • Christmas day was spent hanging out, chasing birds that walked like tiny dinosaurs, kayaking, and running on an empty beach accessible only by boat. That night was spent with Jackie experiencing flu-like symptoms and 101.5°F (38.6°C) fever.
  • We got on the road to Dakar in the morning with Jackie feeling better, full tanks of gas, and almost no cash. With only about $20 on us, we decided to skip the toll road into Dakar. This meant that we sat in two hours of traffic getting into the city, but we got to see the street vendors, people hopping on and off on minibuses, and life on the outskirts of town. (We took the toll road out of the city. It was cheap and really nice.)
  • In Dakar we followed excellent recommendations given to us by our Senegalese friend, Aminata. We walked out to the Westernmost tip of all of Africa and then took a short taxi ride to our lunch spot for the day and one of Aminata’s best recommendations. We ate at La Cabane du Pecheur situated on the water across from Ngor Island. Those of you who know Aron know that he doesn’t eat seafood, but the meal was so fresh and well prepared that he broke down and just enjoyed the excellent food.
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  • After lunch came a trip to Gorée Island which was one of the smaller ports of departure for the slave boats that headed towards the Americas. While waiting for the boat we met Kane and Abdel, a Dakar local and his cousin who moved to the US at the age of seven and is now a college football player and CS student at Ohio State. Abdel heard our American accents and responded with his own American accented question asking where we were from. We talked to two of them on the boat and then Kane conducted our tour of the island. We also met up with him for dinner last night in Tambacounda where we were staying and where he is living and working as a doctor.
  • We bought a small, hand carved wooden chair, the “petit chaise”. We usually have different styles and we both liked this chair. It cost about $30 and we got to see where the guys on the street were hand carving them. Our intent was to ship it home. We tracked down the DHL office and brought our “chaise” there only to find out that it would cost $250 to ship it home. The “petit chaise” is now in Aron’s motorcycle case for another 2,000 miles or so of traveling through Africa and will be one of our carry on “bags” for the flight home.
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  • After Dakar we met up with Aminata, her sister, husband, and friends at her family’s beach house outside Saly, Senegal. They all left after we had lunch together, but we stayed and spent the day swimming in the ocean, doing an oil change on the bikes and resting. We were really happy to be outside Saly in “our” private villa. (Note: Saly, which is a pretty small town, has its French Consulate due to the huge numbers of French expats there. We probably saw more white French people in Saly than we did in Paris last summer.)
  • We did a two hour mini safari in the Bandia Animal Reserve, where they bring animals from other parts of Africa, but we got to see antelopes, water buffalo, giraffes, rhinos, and zebras.
  • Then we headed for Foundiougne, where our ferry across the Saloum River got stuck in the sand (blogged previously), where we spent New Years Eve, and where Jackie got taken out by food poisoning for about 30 hours. With an unplanned recovery day behind us, we got to Tambacounda last night.

Nouadihbou, Volume 1: West Africa

We’re south of St. Louis Senegal at a place called ZebraBar. Having left Mauritania two days ago, we’re official in sub-Saharan Africa. When we headed home after Jackie’s accident in the summer, one of the biggest disappointments (and therefore one of the biggest reasons we decided to return to the trip) was that we had crossed a into a new continent, but not yet crossed a cultural border into sub-Saharan Africa.

Morocco is very clearly part of Arab influenced North Africa. The parts of Western Sahara that we saw were largely similar. At least outside the big cities, women are covered or not seen walking alone.

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After our journey through No Man’s Land, we got to Mauritania and the city of Nouadhibou, or as the graffiti at Camping Auberge Abba said, “Volume 1: West Africa.” Mauritania is an Islamic Republic, but it has a mix of Arab (Berber-Arab?), Berber (Arab-Berber?, we’re not really sure), and black (some of them Berbers as well) ethnic groups. Two unifying factors between all the groups seem to be Sunni Islam and Mauritanian mint tea, green tea with mint leaves and sugar poured back and forth from high heights between a tiny metal tea pot and three little cups until the right taste and level of foam (lots of foam being the right amount) are achieved.

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We shared tea with the man who worked at the “camping” place where we were staying along with his friend and a Saharawi man who spoke in alternating sentences to Jackie in perfect French and then to Aron in perfect Spanish. The next day on the road, we also stopped to fill our gas tanks from our gas cans in front of somewhere we thought was a hotel and ended up having tea with several women and one man in one of the women’s home. Overall the western parts of Mauritania seemed perfectly safe and calm. People were warm and might not know any other English, but still would say, “Welcome to le Mauritanie.” Because people had us concerned for safety we stayed in a fancy hotel in the capital of Nouakchott (pretty much the only other city in this country besides the much smaller Nouadhibou in the north). We didn’t get a homey welcome with tea at the fancy hotel, but we did have a suite that was larger than our apartment back home.

Even in a strongly religious, Muslim country things started to look different. Many of the black Mauritanian women, while still covering their hair, wore brightly died fabrics. We started to see people carrying large bundles on their heads. The food began to change also. Tagines were only to be found in the “Moroccan” restaurants. Round loaves of bread disappeared, becoming soft French baguettes,something that has carried over to Senegal.

Senegal is fully across the sub-Saharan cultural divide. While the country is about 95% Muslim, you can easily find beer and liquor and we’ve seen ham on a menu (all of which were illegal in Mauritania). You hear loud music in the streets, women in bright dresses walk around freely, and luckily for us there are lots of small motorcycles and scooters, so gas is easy to find in places that would have only had diesel in Mauritania.

Western Sahara to Mauritania through No Man’s Land

After leaving Dakhla and Ocean Vagabond, we crossed hundreds of miles through the Sahara on smoothly paved highway. It was desolate and empty, but easy travel through beautiful sand dunes and desert scenery. So why were we so anxious and worried about our next few days on the road? Because of the ominously named No Man’s Land, a roughly 4km stretch of unclaimed, unpaved desert surrounded by land mines (if you stray too far off the track) between where the Moroccan military’s control of Western Sahara ends and where Mauritania begins.

The day before leaving Morocco and entering Mauritania, after some off-road riding practice with Colin, we set off for Hotel Barbas about 85km north of the border. It’s pretty grand and tall building for the area (the middle of nowhere), situated behind the second, more run down looking gas station you pass when coming from the north. They pretty much insisted that we pull our bikes in to the gated and tiled courtyard of the hotel, which was fine with us. The hotel is pretty far south and seems more removed from the Moroccan control we saw in Dakhla. We got the impression that speaking Spanish gets you just as far as French.* (see footnote) The next morning, we set off around 9am for the about an hour ride to the border.

The politics of Morocco and Western Sahara are beyond us, but in sight of border checkpoint it’s clear that the Moroccan military is in charge here. There was a long line of cars waiting to be shuffled into the border control area, and we got in line and waited. And waited. And waited some more. It was a long line, and we were pretty surprised at how slowly it moved.

Then one very nice, or maybe just surprised, man who was walking past us to his car (which was parked behind us in line) shouted (in French), “You know this line is for cars only, right? You can go to the front of the line.” So Jackie rode up to ask the Moroccan police officer at the front of the line if this was true, and it was! Apparently motorcycles are treated differently than cars, and so we got to form our own line. We were first.

We made it into the border control area, and went through more passport checks than we ever thought imaginable. The man at the gate checked our passports. A man inside checked them again. He brought them to another man, who stamped our passports. Then the second man spent 30 minutes writing down every detail of our information by hand onto a piece of paper (a nice little paragraph in red pen). Then there was the customs check. Then a check for our bikes. Then the customs form again. Then the police man at the exit. Then we had to stop and get in line to have our passport and registration details written down on a giant ledger. Then one final check, and we were free (to cross into No Man’s Land).

As soon as we entered No Man’s Land, we were bombarded by people wanting to exchange money. We traded 50 Euros and all of our Moroccan Dirhams for Mauritanian Ougiya, and we think we actually got the better end of the deal. Probably because Jackie confused them a bit with our negotiating (we negotiated a price for Euros + our remaining Dirhams, and then traded that price for Euros only and ended up getting more Ougiya for our Dirhams. You’re probably confused too).

Then we began the drive through No Man’s Land, which turned out to be quite a bit easier than we had expected. This means that there were only two parts with soft sand, no signs of land mines or easy ways to go completely off track, and the rest was a relatively clear path of rocky bits (like going up and over speed bumps, potholes, and curbs every foot or so). The track was relatively wide and sometimes confusing, but if we were ever lost then we could just wait for another car to come by and follow that car’s tracks. Note that we did NOT follow the Audi being led off into the soft sand by a couple guys on foot. But they eventually made it through behind us, anyway.

After about a kilometer or two, we could see the Mauritania side (which made navigating very easy). When we arrived, we were approached by a man who could “help us get through without paying too much.” We thanked him for his offer, but decided against his “free” help – an offer like that is never really free. Then we went through all the Mauritania checks. First some officers took down our passport information. Then we filled out some customs forms and got them stamped. (Note that we had to pay 10 Euros per bike for this. There was an official receipt, so we paid it.) Then an officer stamped our passports. Then we got sent into a special room for foreigners where they took our fingerprints and photos (this part took forever, since the fingerprinted machine couldn’t seem to capture Jackie’s fingerprinted despite having four different officers push on her fingers, trying to get them to work). Then one final check to exit and we were free.

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Finally done with the border crossing, we stopped to see if we should buy insurance. We eventually decided against it because a) we were only in Mauritania for a very short period of time, and b) no one seems to check. We plan on buying some in Senegal though, which should cover us for the rest of our trip. A few kilometers after the border, there’s a police checkpoint where they checked our passport again. After that, fiches were sufficient.

One of the buildings we found right after we got outside of the border crossing area:
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Overall, the whole process took us nearly 5 hours. Colin said that the general rule of thumb is that if you get through before noon, go to Nouakchott. Otherwise, go to Nouadhibou. So, we spent the night in Nouadhibou, where we made some Mauritanian and Saharawi friends, and enjoyed a relaxing night of conversations in multiple languages and tea (much more welcoming than the “National Tourist Office”).

* Western Sahara is the former colony of Spanish Sahara that the Spanish gave up in the 70’s and the Moroccans then claimed. As far as we know, the Moroccans consider it their land, but the UN considers is an occupied country. There are Moroccan military checkpoints at pretty much every town along the main road where you have to hand them “fiche,” which is a little piece of paper with your name, passport details, address, etc. After a couple questions they wave you through. We think they’re basically looking for journalists. Anyways, French is the language of the Moroccans, and Spanish is still spoken by the people of Western Sahara, known as the Saharawi.

Sick on the side of the road

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As we sit at JFK Airport waiting to fly back to Morocco, it’s time to start tackling the backlog of posts we never wrote when we frantically wrapped up the trip last summer. We had a lot of nice people help us during part 1 of our trip including family, friends, family of friends who took us in when we were soaking wet and dried our clothes, friends of family of friends who let us stay in their home, strangers who brought me a soda and water and let me use their bathroom while I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of their house for 5 hours while Jackie got motorcycle parts… and so on.

On our grueling paced ride through Morocco we had a day of riding a remote, twisty mountain pass through the High Atlas between Marrakech and Taroudant. It was a really hot day and with fumes of gasoline literally squeaking out of the gas cap below Aron’s face, he started feeling sick. Heat plus gas fumes plus twisty turns is a pretty good way to make Aron motion sick, as he has learned at a couple indoor go kart tracks. Aron was just trying to keep riding, but Jackie could hear him suffering through our intercoms and suggested we turn around and stop at the roadside store we had passed a couple hundred yards before, since it was the only “town” we had seen for miles.

We stopped, and Jackie alternated between asking Aron how he was feeling and talking to the owner of the store, our soon to be new friend, Brahim. While Aron was basically incapacitated, Jackie and Brahim made small talk in french and waited for Aron’s motion sickness to pass. Aron sat on the stoop of Brahim’s shop with his head between his legs for about 10 minutes before he started throwing up. Brahim immediately brought him a cold bottle of water, some oranges to eat, and a bucket of water to clean his face and hands.

After 45 minutes with a couple rounds of vomiting and some trips to the squat toilet in the basement of the mosque down the road, Aron started feeling well enough to stand, but he was questioning whether this was in fact motion sickness, since his motion sickness doesn’t usually last this long after he stops moving. We confirmed that this wasn’t in fact motion sickness when a few minutes later, Jackie followed in Aron’s footsteps. She ran off to the the decomposing shell of a Land Rover about 20 feet away, and it was her turn to vomit. First Jackie was taking care of Aron. Then Aron was taking care of Jackie. But mostly Brahim was taking care of us both.

Brahim’s French was perfect, Jackie’s was conversational, and Aron’s consisted of whatever was close enough to English and Spanish words for me to understand. We told him about our trip. He told us about his family and the ethnic Berber village we were in, which consisted of about twelve families total. We watched as he greeted every customer and a majority of the truck drivers driving down the road by name, and as he vouched for us to people who came by as we sat and recovered. It was pretty clear that the whole village new we were there and it felt like Brahim had taken us in as his guests.

We sat and talked to him for two or three hours before thinking about getting back on the road. We didn’t really know how far it was until the next hotel or when it would get dark, but Brahim said we could sleep in the village and motioned to the cement area in front of a storage hut across the street. We decided to get back on the road, but changed our minds when the physical exertion of trying to roll the motorcycles resulted in more vomiting.

After another hour or so of recuperating, we re-parked the bikes and set up our sleeping mats under the stars. It wasn’t the most restful sleep being out in the open with the occasional truck rumbling by, but Brahim told us we would be safe and we trusted him. In the morning, the chief of the village came by with three glasses a pot of mint tea and we sat with him as he cracked walnuts for us and attempted conversation.

We certainly hadn’t planned to spend the night in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, and we hadn’t planned to get food poisoning. But if either of those things were to happen (and they did), we completely lucked out on the hospitality front, meeting some of the nicest, most generous people that we met on our whole trip. And we made a new friend as a result.

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Brahim’s shop and the decomposing Land Rover.

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View of the village from where we slept.

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View of Brahim’s shop from where we slept.

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Aron and Brahim in the shop.

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Brahim in his shop.

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Our night’s accommodations.

We’re heading back!

So we’ve been a bit absent on the blog since July. We promised a couple posts that we’re still planning to deliver, but the big news now, is that we are heading back to finish the trip in December and January. Jackie has recovered really well from her surgery. We fly to Casablanca in a week and half, followed by a flight to Dakhla a couple days later. After we do some maintenance and check-up on the bikes, we’re getting back on the road.

Change of Itinerary

Our route took us to Sevilla for two days and down to Tarifa on Saturday early afternoon for our ferry crossing to Tangier. We called the ferry company yesterday afternoon to find out if we needed to buy our tickets ahead of time. They said that it’s easy to buy tickets at the port. They also said that the ferry port has been closed since Monday because of high winds.

So… We cancelled our hotel in Sevilla, spent our second night in Granada (as planned), and headed out early for Algeciras, the larger ferry port that runs to the new ferry terminal 40km outside Tangier. It’s 6:00 and we’re sitting on the delayed 3:00 ferry. The bikes are strapped down on the vehicle deck and we’re just waiting to set off. They just announced that they’re closing the ramp in 3 minutes.

We’ve been talking about how we don’t have enough time in Morocco, so now we’re attempting to cross two days early.

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On an unrelated note, Jackie dropped her phone in our rush at the ticket line. Black dots appeared on the screen. She dropped it again, much more softly on the carpet on the boat. The dots went away. Look how happy she looks.

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