Loading...
Start a new Travel Blog! Blogabond Home Maps People Photos My Stuff

Harmattan

a travel blog by roel krabbendam


Harmattan: "A dry wind from the northeast or east that blows in West Africa especially from late November until mid-March. It originates in the Sahara as a desert wind and extends southward to about 5°N in January. It is associated with the high pressure area that lies over the northwest Sahara in winter."

Inspired by my michelin map of north africa, and (ahem) encouraged by my lovely spouse, i'm riding my bike (its a dutch thing) across the sahara desert between December 2006 and March 2007.
view all 255 photos for this trip


Show Oldest First
Show Newest First

Beauty

Ndali, Benin


I got no more than 10 kilometers when a pothole popped my left trailer tire just outside a schoolhouse. As if I had stepped on a beehive, the kids came swarming out to greet me, clustering around me in a dense ring and touching and prodding and shoving to get a view. Teachers appeared, order was restored, I fixed my third flat of the day, I took a school portrait to send them when I get back, and then I got back on the road. I was tired, and it wasn't noon.

I got to N’Dali feeling rather unwell, asked for an auberge and was led off into the woods by a taxi-moto to the Centre d’Accueil et de Formation Gusunon Keru, created by the Catholic Diocese de N’Dali. It turns out that here in the forest at N’Dali is a national center offering a 20,000 volume library, a computer center, internet access, conference facilities, housing and secretarial services.

A room was available for not very much, they made me a stupendous dinner of salad, rice, chicken and papaya, and they opened up the TV room so I could catch up on Benin news. I told myself I wouldn’t eat chicken on this trip, but then I told myself lots of things. A slightly deformed young man who didn’t say a word snuck in to sit next to me and I Split the dinner with him.

I sat in on the evening service, held at dusk in a small gated garden in front of a large display of Notre Dame de N’Dali. Multicolored lighting made a flamboyant spectacle at her feet, dimming the swirl of orchids above. Perhaps 25 people sat on benches on three sides of the perimeter, young sisters dressed in brown robes, a pastor in more ornate regalia, a brother and lots of kids. I heard birds and motorcycles and people outside the walls. The sisters started singing, a call and response in the clearest and most beautiful voices, something simple and exquisite in this wild place, fragile but resolute to the masculine harangue from the loudspeakers at the mosque in the village. I was exhausted from the day, I was not myself, I was reduced to quiet tears. I do not believe they knew the beauty of their effort, but I know I have never witnessed a more beautiful mass.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on February 23, 2007 from Ndali, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Gris-Gris

Parakou, Benin


I had planned a more heroic ending to this trip, but here’s what really happened; perhaps it’s more befitting anyway:

I was unwell when I arrived in N’Dali, the room I got was in a concrete building that slowly roasted me all night so that I did not sleep, and I could barely stay on my bike for the 60 kilometers into Parakou. After more than 2 months of culinary receptivity and constant but controllable diarrhea, the inner me had had enough and took charge. I spent a second night awake and on the toilet, looked in the mirror for the first time in weeks, and found an exhausted guy I barely recognized frowning back at me. He was not having fun anymore.

I had known this for some time now, since it became hard to match the enthusiasm of literally every town I passed through on my bicycle, all of whom left me feeling like a sports super star even when I was primarily preoccupied with keeping my underwear dry, and since meeting Woru Noel Siraru and being given a tour of a radio station under construction 30 kilometers north of Parakou but feeling uncharacteristically disinterested. I wrestled with what to do all night: prolong the trip while I recovered in Parakou, or listen to that part of me that said I had gotten what I came for: enough was enough.

The next morning I assembled all my stuff, walked my bike down to the bus station in the dark, and got on a bus for the last 400 kilometers to Cotonou. I popped pink pepto-bismols, two every hour, and kept my fingers crossed, arriving to the beat of some great west African drums and electric guitar.

I realized as I was packing that somewhere between N’Dali and Parakou, perhaps at the Catholic center or at the radio station, but probably on the road somewhere, I lost the little leather satchel filled with medicinal herbs held around my neck by a twisted leather string that I had bought in Agadez, Niger from Aboubacar Mahamadou. I had lost my gris-gris.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on February 24, 2007 from Parakou, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Kids

Bohicon, Benin


Unquestionably the most inspiring people I met on this trip were the kids, and I sat next to a wonderful French woman on the bus to Cotonou here to adopt two of them. She felt a little too old to deal with diapers, and understands that 3 to 4 year olds adapt easily, so that is the age of the kids she will soon call her own. It takes over a year to finalize an adoption, but she hopes and expects for everyone’s sake that she will get to take them home to France sooner.

Nadine Frouin has been building a house on the coast of Benin for 10 years now, a little at a time as money allowed, and will one day make it her home. I liked very much the notion that her children will one day return to the country from which they came, and I hope Nadine never recovers from Mal d’Afrique. I told her I might very well be cured.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on February 26, 2007 from Bohicon, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Bonsoir, Pussycat

Cotonou, Benin


I expected to arrive at L’Etoile Rouge not far from the airport, assemble my bicycle, and head for the Sheraton: on the map, easy to find, internet access, air conditioning, outrageously expensive. Instead, I met Salissoutour Kassinou.

Kassinou decided I should NOT pay the outrageous prices at the Sheraton, he knew exactly where I should stay and he would show me a Cyber café. I was in no state to deal with the tour of Cotonou I received in his hands, he speeding along on his motorcycle while I did my best to keep up, but he was gracious and eager and true to his word. He even convinced the guardian of this conference center I am staying in to do my laundry. I’m stuck here without clothes until the guardian gets back.

This trip has not evolved as planned: No bandits, no thieves (OK...Fouruzi took my jackknife in Tunisia…$38, plus tax), no tough guys (except for those truckers in the desert and those religious extremists who smashed my headlights in Beni Isguem…no harm and $28), no lions, no tigers, no bears (and no giraffes or elephants either, or snakes or scorpions for that matter). No major tourist attractions. Only the friendliest, most helpful, most supportive, most enthusiastic, most INSPIRING people I have ever met. Not since that little kid yelled "Bonsoir, Pussycat" to me as I chugged into Tozeur have I gotten such an incredible lift from the people I passed. I have seen large and joyous groups of people in these Peule villages actually stand up and cheer a 48 year old white guy with a stupid hat and too much gear, with papayas and peanuts and dates hanging off the back, waving and grinning and yelling “Bonjour” at them. This was a profound lesson for me on the meaning of unmitigated, unselfconscious joy.

Of course, they may have been laughing AT me…


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on February 28, 2007 from Cotonou, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Tour

Cotonou, Benin


Cotonou squats on the ocean at the mouth of the Lagune de Cotonou, under the voodoo forest of Benin. The sky is grey or Orange in March, the sun just a glimmering disk, the heat tolerable. The humidity will suck the life from you, however. This is the scene of Robert Wilson’s great detective stories and it is not difficult to view the city as darkly as he does.

The whites are barricaded in Cadjehoun in the shadow of the Maggi water tower amid the embassies and the Chinese and Moroccan restaurants and supermarches. The airport is right there should withdrawal ever be required. Their relationship to the blacks is good enough, but there is no question who has the money and who wants it.

The city operates by moto-taxi. It is too humid for bicycles and too big to walk. A moto is cheap and maneuverable in traffic and comfortable enough, the breeze sufficient to ward off the sweat. The cloud of oily blue smoke spewed at every traffic light is unfortunately what you breathe however. An enterprising moto-taxi driver will station himself at a travel agency or the Chinois or the bank, and if he can find a tourist who doesn’t yet know the prices and here for more than just a day, he can latch on for the ride. This is how I met Casimo, outside the Air France office.

Casimo is in his early thirties, a little heavy, a little aggressive. He wanted 1000Cfa for a 250Cfa ride and I had to walk away before he relented. He handled traffic with the same relentless attitude, and I decided to like him, but the issue was out of my hands in any case. A day after he gave me a ride I found him stationed outside CODIAM where I was staying, and it was clear I had been adopted.

Casimo overcharged me the second day, taking advantage of the fact that I didn’t know where to go to find a bike box. We made a number of stops in our search, finding the box at a big appliance store and hauling it back to CODIAM with it tucked under my arm. Viewed from the side we looked like a box and two heads magically gliding down the street with no visible means of propulsion.

When I figured out I was being overcharged (he thought I wouldn’t?), I told Casimo he could keep the money if he gave me a tour of the entire city. We stopped at the Port de Peche so that I could get caught taking prohibited photos, then out to the point at Plakodji Plage when they kicked us out.

The poop at the Plage was daunting, the living conditions eye-opening. Up along the lagoon through the markets, then down the Avenue to the Etoile, around the airport to the beach at Fidjrosse, we finally ended up back at CODIAM in Cadjehoun after dark. There were candles and lanterns everywhere, the quartier without power. Casimo suggested we go up to Ganvie in the morning, and we agreed to meet at 9am.

The pumps weren’t running, a shower out of the question, and without the overhead fan it was a very uncomfortable night indeed. I was still awake at 230am when power was finally restored to make it all better.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on March 3, 2007 from Cotonou, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Water

Ganvie, Benin


I was a bleary mess when Casimo showed up at 9, just my luck to meet the one punctual guy in town. I treated him to breakfast, we agreed to 5000Cfa for the day plus gas, and we got on the road. We drove 15 Km north to Calavi, hired a pirogue, and spent 4 hours out on Lake Nokoue.

Ganvie was started in the 18th century by the Tofinu to escape from the Fon, who had taboos against venturing on water. It has grown to over 30,000 inhabitants, all dependant on three recent artesian wells.

There is no plumbing here, so residents fetch their own...sewage I will leave to your imagination. Most of the houses sit on stilts, the lake barely a meter deep here. In places there is solid land.

Most of the residents are still involved with fishing, but tourism is obviously making inroads. The boat tours are sufficiently well-organized to feature three venues where local crafts are sold.

The residents are not all hardened to the tourist trade, and my camera was waved off more than once. Like Hollywood stars they would like to be famous, but without the invasion of their privacy. I understand their ambivelence.

Casimo brought me by the house to meet his family on our way back into town. We caught his two sons at home, and his wife at the coiffure, before heading over to his brother's house nearby. There I was treated to a large glass of palm wine where a small taste would have done, and heard of Mathieu's difficulty financing a year's study abroad to finish his legal training. I left him my email address. The massive headache that ensued did nothing to keep me awake when I got back to CODIAM.

The following day I spent hours negotiating prices for presents at the artisan village, then got Casimo's help in finding a car to get me and my stuff to the airport, handed him all my extra food and money, and got on the midnight Air France flight for Paris. Dinner was exquisite, the wine not bad at all, and just like that I stepped out of the developing world. We flew my entire trip in 3 hours and I saw none of it in the dark. I was going home to my girls.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on March 4, 2007 from Ganvie, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Africa

Cotonou, Benin


National Geographic magazine opened my eyes to Africa as a kid and that INFECTION has been a gentle nudge in the back of my mind ever since. It’s a common problem, there is no known cure and I’ve heard the more serious condition referred to as Mal d’Afrique.

When I was 19 years old and terribly unhappy at Cornell University and completely numb to the possibilities of life, the apparent IMPOSSIBILITY of a trip to Africa became a LIFE PRESERVER for me. I borrowed $300 from my parents (they expected me back in a month I think), borrowed 2 bicycles from an aunt and uncle in Holland (thanks again Nell!) and with my girlfriend Denise (Hi Denise!) started a year-long trip that finally landed me in Morrocco. My LIFE PRESERVER became a discreet REALITY, and the reality during the three months I bicycled around that wonderful country finally became an IMPETUS to return home and study architecture.

Africa slowly settled into a DREAM I held for 28 years, and this trip has reawakened me to a continent far more complex and engaging than anything I could have imagined from my earlier trip. Somewhere around Tamanrasset, after all this time, all these abstract Africas made way for a concrete reality and I finally began to think about this continent more simply as a real PLACE inhabited by real people.

When, then, did this PLACE begin to turn into an EXCUSE? Assamakka, probably, or Arlit or shortly thereafter. A French woman on living in Agadez: “Nothing functions, there is no work ethic, but c’est Afrique”! A Nigeran truck driver on his work schedule: “I travel all over: Burkina, Mali, Ghana, Togo, trips that last sometimes a week or more. We don’t sleep in hotels, we sleep in the truck or sometimes we don’t sleep at all. C’est Afrique”! A young guy with dreams of Europe: “I want to get married. I want to find a job. Here there is nothing for me: C’est Afrique”! The place has become the measure of their collective frustration, a way to rationalize thwarted intentions.

There is even a corollary to this construct, and this is particularly evident in Niger. There are signs everywhere there, announcing a wide spectrum of NGOs. For the myriad of foreigners working there, having accepted Africa as an excuse, the PLACE has become a PROJECT. Family planning, Hunger, AIDS, Water, Desertification, Literacy: all of these issues have foreign advocates and volunteers and money. There is even some local cynicism about these efforts, since cars and lodging and equipment up to first world standards always seem to precede and sometimes even supplant any real help.

This is not a critique of foreign aid, though anyone interested in such a critique might read World Hunger, Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe et al. Rather, it is to express amazement at the multiplicity of meanings, and awe at the complexity and the richness here. It is to acknowledge that for me, too, for a very long time, Africa was never simply a place either.

Finally, it is somehow to honor the people and the culture I’ve had the privilege to meet, because Africa as an empty stage would have hosted none of these meanings. I received a much needed lesson in both joy and friendship from each one of them: Yusuf Baba, Hammami Salah, Mohamed el Amjed Ben Hedili Ben Mohamed Ben Romd’hane, Fouruzi (I still want that knife back), Abidi Khalifa, the incredible staff at Oasis in Gabes, the Karboub clan, Luca and Tiziana, Gianluca and Camillo the Italian bikers, Selmi Lamine, Boubridaa Abdelhamid, Begacem and (naughty) Mayssar Rebi, Fatma Boucaina (whose necklace I wore every day), Labchek Ahmed, Wolf Gaudlitz (Salaam Aleikum!), Ben Aoumeur Mohamed (Nina Simone will never sound better), Ben Aoumeur Nadir, Groune Alennas, the Kherfi family, Aliau Doiallu, Ben Aoumeur Abdelabrim, Hadj Toumi, Kader Hafaoui, Kasem Chermel, Faysel Abdelassiz, Faouzi, Omar and Boubacar, Beudjabbara Slimone, Ben Sebgag Lakhdar (my door stands open), Tayeb Benzouada, Benehamine Salah at Dromedaire, Dr. Ounini, Abjau Intalla, Yann del Barco, the kung-fu kids in Assamakka, Isatou Alka, Aboubacar Mahamadou, Abke Geels, Eefje Rammeloo, Nassirou Aboubacar, Kimba Alka Tisserano, Sonfeijmane Gorba (Geutto), Kaore Aboubacar, Douwda Noma, Salima Saka, Orou Adamou A. Roufay, Aboubakar Moussa, the folks at Gusunon Keru, Woru Noel Siraru, Nadine Frouin and finally in Cotonou, Salissoutour Kassimou Serhau-Sa and Noudomissi Aguemon Casimir.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on March 9, 2007 from Cotonou, Benin
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Denouement

Boston, United States


The snow lies high outside the House and it feels good to pile, all three of us, on the big bed reading books or tapping on the computer.
I’m cleaning my equipment, packing it in bins, and thinking about what comes next. Powerfully held, these memories of my trip, and I find myself daydreaming a lot: great people, isolation, realizing the importance of family and friends.
Polly’s optimism is infectious, laying waste to my caution about the future. Spring is inexorable.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on March 25, 2007 from Boston, United States
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

...and what about that bicycle?

Somerville, United States


My bicycle frame did need a minor reconfiguration, so I took it back to Independant Fabrications in Somerville, MA and they gave me a lesson in customer relations. Not only did they immediately take my bike, strip it down, sandblast the frame, and prepare it for a new bridge, but Lloyd Graves gave me an hour and a half tour of the facility, handed me a T-shirt and gave me the entire history of the company to boot. They took the relatively insignificant problem with my frame as seriously as a new customer or a big order, and devoted time and resources probably far in excess of its merits. This is a shop I feel privileged to have stumbled upon, and I’m glad to be riding their bike. If there is a twinkle in my eye, perhaps it is that first inkling of where I might want to take it next...
...India and Pakistan anyone?


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on March 25, 2007 from Somerville, United States
from the travel blog: Harmattan
Send a Compliment

Viewing 71 - 79 of 79 Entries
first | previous | next | last

View as Map View as Satellite Imagery View as Map with Satellite Imagery Show/Hide Info Labels Zoom Out Zoom In Zoom Out Zoom In
find city:
roel krabbendam roel krabbendam
7 Trips
687 Photos

Here's a synopsis of my trips to date (click on the trip names to the right to get all the postings in order):

Harmattan: Planned as a bicycle trip through the Sahara Desert, from Tunis, Tunisia to Cotonou, Benin, things didn't work out quite as expected.

Himalayas: No trip at all, just...

trip feed
author feed
trip kml
author kml

   

Blogabond v2.40.58.80 © 2019 Expat Software Consulting Services about : press : rss : privacy