Trip to Western Africa 2011/2012

Here I am in West Africa. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere, and just for a second, I’ll blank on where I am as I look around, and have to ask myself, “Where AM I,” then have to think for half a second, and say to myself, “Oh yes, I’m in Ghana,” or wherever. I’ve had a bunch of those twists in the last week.

I get to Dulles airport to fly to West Africa the day after Xmas. I booked via Expedia, and I’ve never had a problem, but at the ticket counter for KLM, nothing, they’ve never heard of me, I show them my Expedia booking number, and itinerary, and they continue to look at me like I have three heads. The guy goes in the back. The guy comes back out, nothing. So I call Expedia, and they say I never paid for my tickets. What? So I work with the guy at the counter to rebook the whole thing. Time is clicking away. He’s all nervous like me, trying to bang this whole thing in before it’s too late to leave, which it’s pretty close. So my fare now is hundreds of dollars higher, pain, but at least I’m back on plan. He looks up at me, and says, “Your credit card just rejected the charge,” (little do I know, that this is just the beginning of my money issues). Luckily, I have an AMEX card with me, and bingo, I’m back on plan. I have a new Visa card. I still have no idea why it locked up, I’m not going to call the US from Africa to talk to someone in India, and cost me $50 to figure it out right now.  I rush to the gate, and to compound being late, I get off at the wrong stop on the airport tram, but I make my flight.

I fly to Africa via Amsterdam, but because I paid extra for the flight (read: Business Class, ouch), I realize I may have access to the KLM lounge in Amsterdam. It works. I’m in. I eat three plates of food, while drinking many fine Heinekens, all free in the lounge. I find this dark resting room thing, that I’ve never seen at an airport before, and go in to get two hours sleep. That does not work out exactly. I find one of the resting lounges they have, but they’re all curled in a way, that you can only lay on your back. So as I do my best to drift away, I realize this room with little cubicle things for each of us, is full of loud snoring. I never really sleep. I come out later, and get on my laptop for a bit, before catching the flight to Accra, Ghana.

I’m now in Ghana. I’m going to through customs. I’m through. Great, that’s 114 countries I’ve been to. I go to the bathroom while waiting for my baggage, and hear a guy in the stall  throwing up his guts. As I leave bathroom, I pass another guy coming in, and we smile at each other about what we’re hearing from the stall. Welcome to West Africa.

My bag, where is my bag. I wait forever. No way my bag made the flight. Visions of no toothbrush in the morning or anything else, till finally, god is great, my bag shows up. I’m back on plan.

I look for the ride I arranged with hotel. I see a guy holding a sign with three names, one of which sounds interestingly like mine; Gilliam (much like William) McVey (much like McKay). I go up to the guy, and say my hotel name, and he nods yes, but not convincingly. I say the name of the woman that runs the hotel, he looks confused, I’m certainly confused, and he responds with a guy’s name. I say the woman’s name Donna again, and he says yes. Good. I’m on plan. He’s waiting for two other people as well, so after 10 minutes with this guy, I get bored, and tell him I’m going into the other greeting area where there’s a bar, I’ll have a beer, and as I walk down the gauntlet of folks, there’s another guy with a much less confusing sign which says, William McKay. Great. I’m on plan.

So this guy’s name is Nana. He’s 27. He’s not the driver, but he has a taxi for us.  He sort of works for the hotel, and also makes and sells shoes, sewing beads on flip flops, or using cheap leather sliced through rubber to make sandals. Thus begins my four-day adventure with my new best friend, Nana.

I’m fine in the room for two days, then they ask me to move to another room. I had said I was going to be there for two days. They can let me stay longer, but someone else reserved that room. I go up to another room, which sits by itself, sort of hanging over the street. All night long, for the next couple nights, I get no sleep, hearing dogs, cars, music, machinery, trucks, laughing, yelling. In the morning, there was even a weird clicking on the window for five minutes. I open the curtains, and it’s a bird, flying repeatedly into the window with its beak. What? I’m guessing that the window was mirrored on the outside, and so the bird thought it was another bird of the same species. The TV only gets one channel. I’d say at least it was good that it was in English, but it only showed old shows from the 70’s, which weren’t even good then. After the first day in the room, the TV no longer works at all. The shower has no hot water.

Now my money problems really start. Turns out in Ghana, and most of Africa, debit cards and credit cards don’t work like they do in the U.S.  Nana and I go to an ATM. Neither of my ATM cards work. We go to another. Nothing. We must have gone to about 8 before giving up. The next day I go to the Citibank, my bank, but we can’t find it. I had googled it, found an address, but turns out it does not really exist. There are no Citibanks anywhere in West Africa. But at another bank a lady tells me to go to Ghana Commercial bank, and finally, thank god, my debit card works. The way things work here, is that there’s no difference between debit cards and credit cards really, the key is whether it’s a Visa card, or Mastercard. Almost no bank is affiliated with Mastercard like my debit cards. And my other problem is for my Visa card, I have no PIN. I would rarely ever want to charge my credit card to get cash in the States, so I have no PIN (I’ll get one now when I get back). I go back to the bank the next day, and get a bunch more money. I’m leaving Ghana soon, so need to change it back into dollars. The woman working at the money changer place, turns out has a daughter living in the town over from me in Herndon, VA, but that does not stop her from giving me at least one counterfeit $100 bill that gets refused later by a hotel. The only thing that has saved me, is using to pay for all of my hotel stays, otherwise I’d be destitute living on the streets, selling coconuts.

So for four days, I go everywhere with Nana. We got to Reggae Night one night at the beach. There were about 1,000 folks partying at night on the beach. I was the only White person there that I saw for most of the night (which instead of being nervous, I kind of like).

Nana had this habit of going crazy with cabs. He’d say he wanted to show me a bar, and he’d point, like it was just down the street, we get in a cab, and go forever, 30 minutes way across the city. For that cab trip, it was mainly so he could be seen with me, back over where he used to work. Or same thing another time, he wants to show me his son, so we get into a cab, and 30 minutes later, we’re finally there. When you’re jet lagged and not getting any sleep, it’s hard to eat. And it’s hard to feel comfortable eating food you’re not used to. So you’re rarely ever full. Many days I go the whole day with one small meal, once as bad as a single can of tuna and crackers for the whole day. So one night I’m talking about how Jamaicans have meat patties. And we talk to a woman that mentions a place that sells them. So we hop in a cab, and you guessed it, 30 minutes later we found the place, the third long cab ride that Nana snookered me into. The good news is that although the bakery mainly sells sweets, we see the very last two meat pies they have – we just barely score them. And the place next door cooks us an order of fried rice to share, the last meal they cook before closing. We were right under the wire on both counts. God has smiled on us, I’m finally full.

Other highlights with Nana included taking footpaths through the squatter neighborhoods (I always smile to myself, thinking about folks that I know, that would freak out with the poverty and trash, plus it’s easy to feel paranoid where you so obviously don’t belong, but I’m used to it), and seeing Nana’s son, such a handsome baby boy.  Also I hung with Nana on New Years Eve, and the bar we were at had their own professional quality fireworks that were shooting up in the air right outside the front door. It was all smiles and laughs from everyone standing around (you were never quite sure, which direction the thing was going to shoot, so a lot of nervous laughter).

Okay, I left Ghana this morning by hellish bus at 6am, and spent maybe 7 hours going across Togo, and I’m now in Benin. I’m up to 116 countries now. Tomorrow I’ll go to Nigeria, but just for a day, then back here, and fly to Senegal the next day, and will have some days to make it to Gambia. They don’t have much in the way of taxis here in Cotonou, Benin, seems you hop on the back of a motorbike to get around, the guy is wearing a special yellow shirt uniform, it cost me $8 to go maybe four miles from the bus drop-off, to my hotel, my luggage up on the guy’s handlebars, pretty sure that was more like a $2 or $4 ride, but they have you nailed when you get off of the bus, all White and desperate looking. It’s worth paying a bit extra, you just say the hell with it, grind through your trip trying to ignore having to overpay, no reason to freak over an extra $4 loser fee.

I’ve decided to treat myself to a real dinner. As I mentioned, it’s really hard to eat on a trip like this, when you’re tired, and hot (I’m trying not to say hungover as well). You have to force yourself to eat, especially knowing you may want to have a couple beers later. And in Ghana NO fast food joints of any kind. For my whole trip here in multiple countries, I have not seen a single McDonalds, or Wendy’s or even a Jollibees. So am at a Novotel and just ordered a steak. It’s expensive, so I won’t mention the price, most of you know that I’m generally cheap as hell on these trips. I bring it up to mention, that the sides included french fries or boiled potatoes, and meanwhile the lamb shank on the menu comes with mashed potatoes, and I knew when I asked for mashed potatoes as my side, it would be a problem. Right, the waitress said no. So I said, let me talk to the chef. So I follow her, stand outside the kitchen, and 3 minutes later, she comes out from a different door saying no, and then has me talk to the manager, a giant defensive lineman looking guy, same deal, he’s like, “Oh, we don’t have lamb tonight,” when I’m asking about mashed potatoes, not lamb. I give up. I order boiled potatoes, and ask for butter, and say I’ll make my own mashed potatoes. I know they will show up with no butter, or as I’m in a French speaking country, they will show up “sans” butter. I told the waitress three times, and the manager emphatically – do not overcook my steak. Okay food is out, streak is fine. I’m happy. Smart move to take care of my self with actual food. No butter as I expected for the potatoes, but the little peppercorn sauce for the steak works perfectly on the potatoes (and they claim the peppercorns are locally grown).

Back in my room now watching TV. Try to imagine watching U.S. football with a French speaking announcer. It’s Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans. The only word I’ve understood the guy say is, magnifique.

Okay, the poverty is certainly rampant here, but the time I spent in Ghana I have to say was remarkable for how nice the people were. They’re all mellow, nice humor, just amazingly sweet people. I was there for a few days, before I even saw my first policeman. These people are all the same, mellow and cool. I’m thinking that maybe the slaves came from here for Jamaica, I even looked it up on Google, and it looks like this country was one of four main places they came from, but I’ll forever think the majority, and the culture of Jamaica came from this place, it’s stunning the similarities. If Ghana was closer to the U.S, it’s somewhere I would visit again, but I guess that’s what Jamaica is for.

Ghana beachfront property


Ghana version of beachfront property.





Nana’s son Desmond


I’m holding Nana’s son Desmond. This is NOT my son, I repeat, this is NOT my son.




Got my hair cut


Got my hair cut, barber was cool.





Downtown at beach


Downtown at beach, swimmers and boats.





My local bar


My local bar, would sit and watch the world go by at sundown, talk trash with locals.




Pig Lady


Next to the bar, this woman sold pork. They called her the Pig Lady.




long wharf


The long wharf where the slaves would walk down to be loaded on ships.




slaves were kept


One of the places the slaves were kept.





Another place the slaves were kept


Another place the slaves were kept.





Building a boat.


Building a boat.





I hire a taxi from Benin to drive me to the border of Nigeria, so I can walk across the border, and come back. It was hell at the border crossing. There were multiple windows and desks on each side of the border, plus on each side of the street as well, depending whether you were coming or going, and the second I step out of the cab, guys are in my face asking where my luggage is, to get a tip out of me, I have none, I’m just going over the border and back, the hustlers are confused, I push past them. Every time I finish with one window, someone else is trying to help me, but they don’t work there, they just want money, and you can’t tell if they work there or not, very confusing, very uncomfortable, extremely stressful. One guy is begging, he’s down walking on his knees. Another guy is bow legged, and struts like a chicken.  I tell my taxi to wait, I naively say I’ll be back in 10 minutes. Little do I know, the process of hitting all the windows and tables, three in Benin going in, three in Nigeria going in, then three plus three coming out, just doing the paperwork takes an hour. Once I get into Nigeria, they speak English. I meet Maybel as she’s doing my paperwork, I explain that I collect countries. She and her worker friends crack up when I say I’m just going over the border for ten minutes. They’ve never heard of such a thing. I tell her that I would love it if someone could have one or two beers with me. She brings a guy over that works there. I end up leaving with him and another guy. I think we’re going to just walk 20 yards or such, and find a place to have a beer. Instead, we go to his car, and start driving. After driving for about 10 minutes, I say, “Sorry to sound paranoid, but my taxi is waiting,” and they nod, and keep driving. We end up driving another ten or so minutes, pull off the road, scrape the car on the curb, then drive through grassy sand areas to some shacks on the beach. Turns out the beach was great. I was kicking myself, because I would have liked to hang out there. We walked down and met the tall guy’s two daughters. We walked back up the other way, and viewed the 500 folks there partying. I wanted to stay, but was already paranoid about my taxi leaving without me. We drive back. I go back over to Maybel, tell her that the two guys beat me up and took all my money. All the other people working there were listening too with shocked faces, then I laughed, and we all laughed. I showed her the pictures of the beach, and just like my taxi driver later, she was really surprised I made it all the way to the beach. Now it’s time to go back through customs. I’m not really feeling good. I feel kind of weak and feverish. I also need to move my bowels. But nothing to do but hold it. I get through the Nigerian customs, but at the last window for coming into Benin, this big giant guy asks for his New Year present. I try to laugh it off, but he’s not laughing. I say I have no money, which is almost true. He and the nicer guy both start saying the stamps in my passport are messed up, that I’m missing one. I’m getting indignant.  The deformed guy with weird legs I saw on the other side of the road, is now on this side, and chicken walks over to where I’m having my problem, and starts screaming stuff in French at me. The only thing I understand him say is, “American criminals.” I’ve gone through Benin customs once already when I first came into the country by bus, and I know there’s no charge, and I know this guys is just extorting me. We keep going back and forth, it gets to the point that he’s threatening me, that I’m in big trouble about my passport, to the point that he says my taxi is going to have to drive all the way back to Cotonou city in Benin to get enough money to get me out of this jam. I hold firm. I stand there for 10 minutes, they finally relent, as I leave, I throw a 5,000 CFA note at the guy, worth about $12.50. I’m not sure why I did that, didn’t need to at that point, guess I was thankful, and gave him the money, because I did not HAVE to give him the money by then, plus I was still worried he’d yell after me, so $12.50 is worth the insurance plus I gave him the money in a screw you anyway kind of way. I find my taxi. I really need to go to the bathroom. My stomach does not feel right. We have a 40 minute drive. Waves of needing to go to the bathroom start crashing over me. I’m holding on. We finally make it to the city, but I’m still not sure I can make it to the hotel. I keep thinking of the mess I’m about to do in this guys taxi. It’s not going to be pretty. We pull up to the hotel. It’s a miracle. I’m still intact. Now I have to wait for the elevator. Damn you elevator. I make  it to my hallway, but I may not make it. My body is convulsing. I’m walking pigeon toed and stiff legged down the hall. I can make it. I’m going to make it. I make it.  Unbelievable. But I’m sick now. I’m sick all night. The next day, after an Imodium tablet, and starting myself on antibiotics I brought just for this scenario, I’m 90% better. I’m at the airport to go to Senegal, my bag just passed through the metal detector machine, WITH my water on the side, WITH my laptop inside, and WITH my shoes on. WHAT is the purpose of this metal detector?

Maybel who helped me at Nigerian customs.


Maybel who helped me at Nigerian customs.




My two Nigerian friends at the beach with friends and family


My two Nigerian friends at the beach with friends and family.




Again my two Nigerian friends, up the beach the other way, big party.


Again my two Nigerian friends, up the beach the other way, big party.




I fly into Senegal. I googled “Dakar to Gambia” and found three different folks to email about getting a ride for the day to my last country Gambia. One never responds. Another wants $270. Another wants $250. But then the woman emails again, saying she can get me into a car with a couple from the UK, so I only have to pay my third, about $85. I’m happy. At first we were going to be going the first morning after I fly into Senegal. Then it gets moved to the next day, which is tons better, so I can get some sleep, plus recover a bit more from my stomach thing.  My flight is delayed by an hour. Our flight finally arrives, and I have to fly from Benin, to Nigeria, then to Burkina Faso, then finally to Dakar, Senegal, the whole thing taking 5 hours. I get to the room at 2:30am. I am so happy to be in a Novotel hotel, my first time ever, I’m in civilization, I have CNN, I’m going to sleep, all is good. I slowly unpack, organize and such, and by 3am, I’m in bed, then think to check email, and aghast, the car journey has been moved to the next morning at 5am. Now I’m only going to get 2 hours sleep. I get a call at 6am, within minutes I’m downstairs, and meet Ali. He’s cool. He’s my new Nana. But when we start driving, the trucks and traffic are emitting so much exhaust, that it’s pretty intense smelling in the car. After awhile, I realize it’s not from other cars, it’s from our car. The car has no AC, and I have to endure the exhaust smell from 6am to 9pm to drive to Gambia and back. I make two sandwiches and grab a hard boiled egg off of the breakfast buffet they’re just setting up. All day long I look forward to eating my hard boiled egg. Later at the border with Gambia, I finally crack my egg open, and it’s raw. What a disappointment. The next day I see they have a special hot water bath to cook your own egg. We drive for an hour, to a seaside resort town called Saly, and pick up the couple from the UK. Ann is White. Her husband is Nigerian, but speaks with a British accent.  They’re both extremely interesting and we trade stories the whole way to Gambia. They sold their house in the UK, and are going to just spend all their money touring Africa for two years. They’re part of an overland group that is touring in a giant truck thing, but they splintered off for awhile to spend more time in Senegal. There’s this weird dust all day long, that is making the palms of my hands continue to turn black. It’s weird. I can’t really explain it, but all day, this weird black dirt just starting showing up on my palms. I kept joking that I was turning Senegalese. I wasn’t doing anything with my hands to make them dirty, it was just happening on its own. On the way back, there was a giant traffic jam, so our driver got off the main road, and we’re driving on these dirt trails, all around this absolutely massive quarry complex. We take 10 minutes to just drive completely around the quarry. We’re lost, so every time we see a person, the driver asks which way. We finally make it to the entrance/exit to the quarry, but there’s a rope up blocking us. Security comes over, yells at us, and tells us to go back the way we came. Our guy politely begs and argues. The guard finally smiles, and lowers the rope. But we’re still lost driving through these neighborhoods. We finally talk to an old man, and he agrees to get into the car, and show us how to get out. We drop him off five minutes later, and the driver gives him a small tip. We fight traffic all the way back through Dafar. All these folks really want to listen to is Youssou N’Dour. I bought two of his CD’s about 20 years ago. He has an amazing voice, so I was happy to listen to him for hours. I take out my iPod, and use a male to male plug, to attach to the Aux of his car player, and let them hear Shakin the Tree, the song he did with Peter Gabriel. I buy the latest Youssou N’Dour album off a guy on the street while stuck in traffic, for about $1.50. We test it in the car player, it works. Finally I’m home at the hotel, I have two beers at the bar with my dirty self, then I’m crazy happy to go take a shower. For a couple days, from my 8th floor room facing the ocean, I can see a restaurant I want to visit, and finally now, I’m there for lunch, just had fish soup, Senegal was as a French colony so you know the bread is going to be good here, just like in Vietnam where the French were before us, best bread in Asia.

Baobab tree



Baobab tree. Super cool looking, they’re all along the highway in Senegal, supposedly live for thousands of years like our Redwoods.








These folks showed up while I was taking the photo of the tree.




fish soup


Here’s my fish soup, the coast of Dakar on the left here in Senegal, at this super cool French restaurant and bar that I’ve been looking at from my hotel 8 floors up, finally made it here, great seat overlooking the water, and the island off to the right, is known as a former slave island point of transit, but I went online, and it’s not true, was not a main slave site. I’ll take the ferry over there tomorrow anyway, Goree Island. 1,000 folks live there on 100 acres, a UNESCO site. This seat is the best spot I’ve been on for the whole trip, so glad it’s on my last full day here, kind of a celebration.

Tonight’s my last night here. I’ve had some exceedingly tough work on this trip, but I’ve never felt in danger, and the highlight for me, has been the people, both the tourists I’ve met, and particularly the locals I’ve gotten to know. The people are what I’ll remember most. I’ll come back to West Africa and other parts of Africa in the next couple years and collect more countries. There’s plenty of poverty here, but the negatives we hear about in the press for Africa, are just like how years ago, the world thought NYC was a dangerous place, it’s overblown. As I always say, it’s good to get away, and it’s good to go home. Can’t wait to get to my house, and have my traditional welcome back to the USA meal – Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.