Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sierra Leone – Rich, But Oh So Poor!

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The rainy season is supposed to be over, but this year that has not yet happened. On the evening before our arrival into Freetown, the Capital of Sierra Leone, our ship ran most of the night through one awful storm after another. The lighting outside sounded like canons being fired, and the rain was so intense it was as if someone were pelting our room windows with a fire hose.

We awakened the following morning to find the ship encased in a dense fog. The waters around us were moving swiftly from the strong tidal outflow and were carrying tons of garbage. The garbage kept flowing and flowing in a never ending stream of filth. That was our introduction to Freetown.

Slowly the fog lifted into an overcast sky and by the time we boarded the Zodiacs, the moisture had subsided to a light drizzle. After a short boat ride, we were able to make a dry landing onto a small floating dock, and from there, it was a short walk in the mud to reach our waiting busses. As we headed out in a caravan, it became quickly obvious that there really were no roads to speak of. Well, yes they had roads, but they were so badly maintained as to be simply pot holed mud paths, and at this point, we were still in the city. Little did we know what was to come!

The Capital of Sierra Leone is home to over 1.5 million people. Yet, they do not even have basic sanitation services. For this reason, the residents simply throw trash everywhere, or pile it along the streets and throw it into the streams to be carried elsewhere. In fact, all of the garbage that we encountered while at anchor was simply this accumulated filth being washed into the ocean by the previous night’s heavy rainfall. They do have electricity and some water, but it is clear that this is a Third World Country that has a very low standard of living as evidenced by the fact that the average per capita income is only $1 per day. Perhaps even more appalling is that the average life expectancy for men is only 45 and for women 50.

The irony is that the country is in fact very rich in basic resources. They are among the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world. The country is also among the largest producers of titanium and bauxite along with having a large output of gold. Recently oil has been discovered in large quantity, and yet in spite of this enormous wealth, the people live in poverty. Why the disconnect? Simply put, the corrupt politicians and their cronies keep the money for themselves and do not use it for the good of the country. The country suffers from endemic corruption and suppression of the press, and is one of the lowest ranked countries on the Human Poverty Index.

A horrific civil war was started in 1991, which was nothing more than two competing political parties fighting over who would control the resources of the country. Many, many people had arms and legs chopped off with a machete, and as we drove around the city, we saw a very large number of such disabled people. The civil war was resolved in 2002, and a democratic Republic created. However, the leaders of the newly created Republic are the same old elite that controlled the country before the civil war. While we were there we saw a large amount of campaigning taking place in preparation for their second national election to be held in a few weeks. Sadly, people vote based on two things – tribal membership, and by which candidate is paying the most for their votes – in other words while the mechanism for change is present, the people simply do not understand how to use it.

Our first stop was to pay a visit to a clinic established by a nurse from Seattle, WA who had come to this country initially to assist the many disabled victims from the civil war. Affectionately known as Mama Lyn, she along with her physician husband has broadened their goal to include establishing a medical clinic. As incredible as it may sound, the country has only 25 physicians, and from what we heard, many of them are marginal at best. Medicine is almost non-existent, as are any lab facilities. It was a moving and inspirational visit.

From the clinic, we proceeded to drive outside the city in order to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Because of the limited time that our ship had to spend in port because of the huge tidal flows, our six bus caravan was given a “police escort.” The escort was composed of two young policemen hanging onto a motorbike and driving in front of the bus in order to move drivers out of the way. Drivers in Freetown seem to have had no training. They would stop at any time right in the middle of the road. It was common to see an oncoming driver coming at us right in the middle of the road, and stop lights and signs were at best a curiosity. Our escort was an entertainment in its own right. The one officer drove the bike while the “rider” would waive his hat at oncoming traffic in an attempt to move them over all the while attempting to hang onto the precarious little machine on the awful roads. The driver kept swinging back and forth in order to avoid the really deep mud filled holes at times almost losing his rider. If they came upon cars that would not move out of the way, they would start yelling and kicking the offending car. We saw them hit cars with their fists and helmets, and on several occasions, they drove alongside the car and started punching the driver to get them to move over – it was simply surreal.

As we climbed higher into the surrounding hills, the roads worsened as if that were even possible. We were now driving on muddy narrow lanes full of water filled potholes of unknown depth. The bus would slip and slide as it climbed the steep hills, and finally the caravan pulled to a stop and we were told we could get off and take a break while they sent someone ahead to see if the road was passable and to clear any oncoming traffic. When we left our bus, the people nearby were all excited by our sudden arrival and they were very friendly. Smiles were exchanged along with “good mornings” and “welcome to our country.” Eventually it was back on the bus only to see that the road ahead was indeed simply a muddy path. It was explained to us that this road was being built by the Chinese in order to reach a site uphill where they were constructing a dam. Because of the rainy season, it was in very bad shape and no further work could be done until the rain stopped, which they hoped would happen at any time. So we slipped and slid along in our climb until we had to once again stop while a scout was sent ahead to stop any oncoming traffic since the road we were about to enter was very narrow and steep with no guard rails and a steep drop off on one side. Our bus finally took a running start to get onto the steep road, and in spite of hugging the mountainside as much as possible, there were time in which it seemed almost a certainty that we might indeed slip off down the embankment. But, the drive does not end yet; we finally arrive at the entrance to the Sanctuary, and before us is an extremely steep road up to the facility. From here those who wished to risk it could walk, or we could opt to take turns being driven up in a 4 wheel drive Land Rover. Obviously Lisa and I picked the 4 wheel ride, and just to show you how steep it was, our driver had to get back down the road and take a running start up the hill in order to make the climb – in fact, it took him four tries before he could build up enough momentum to make the trek.

After all the effort that was put into this visit, the Sanctuary itself was a bit of a disappointment. It was more on the order of a zoo as opposed to any close up encounter with a chimp. The Chimpanzee is endangered because it is hunted for its meat and is captured for household pets. This facility attempts to rescue orphaned animals and to provide them with a safe home. After a short walk around and an opportunity to see the chimps, we began our long haul back down to the port. Before returning to the ship however, we made one more visit. We were able to attend a championship soccer match in which all of the players were disabled; most of them were amputees while some suffered from polio. Let me tell you that these guys took this game seriously and it was incredible to watch as it was heartwarming.

Our long and interesting day ended with a short Zodiac ride back to the ship just in time for it to make the tide and to move overnight to the nearby Banana Islands, also located in Sierra Leone. Overnight we once again encountered monsoonal storms with massive lighting displays and heavy rains. When we awoke the following morning the downpour had dropped to a drizzle, sometimes light and at other times it was a heavy rain.

The ship planned to offer three different options for the day, one of which was to enjoy the pristine isolated beaches. However, after our scouting party explored the island, it reported back that the water was filthy and full of trash from the night’s storms so the beaches were not suitable for use. The next option was to join in a 4.5 hour hike from one end of the island to the other – not exactly my cup of tea. So what was left was billed as a visit to the nearby village of Dublin, which was an “easy 10 minute walk where we could meet some of the local islanders.” Lisa thought I was nuts when I planned on going to the village after all it was at times a pouring down rain, or a steady drizzle at best. I assured her I would be OK because it was a short visit and I would be back within an hour. In fact, I was so unconcerned about the walk that I only took my sandals for the wet landing and walk. How wrong I was!

The Zodiac ride to our landing site was a 20 minute ride in a driving rain. Once our group had gathered, we set off on our walk to the village. It started with a good climb over muddy rocks with loose gravel until we reached the village school, where we paused to catch our breath. Everyone we met was so friendly but sadly it was another very basic existence community. The island had no electricity or running water. The quality of the houses was much better than we had seen before and they had two churches, both of which had been built with local lumber that had been sawed by hand. And so we walked in the rain turning one way and then another. We saw where they were building a boat by hand, and we saw massive trees. We walked and slipped and the rain/drizzle was unrelenting. At times the guides had to use machetes to clear our trail, and at other times we helped each other down the steep rocky paths. I kept thinking to myself “what ever happened to the easy 10 minute walk,” but everyone just kept walking. Soon we started to backtrack over trails we had walked before and some of the people started to question where we were going. I think our local guide wanted to insure that we saw every part of the community, but after 2.5 hours when I spotted the path down to our landing site, I headed off in a heartbeat. As it turns out our group walked as much as the “extreme” hikers, and I returned to the ship one wet and whipped camper.

For today and tomorrow we are at sea heading southwest towards Ghana, our next destination.


As I was in the process of writing this we had an announcement that a pod of Pilot Whales was directly in front of the ship, and that among the whales were a large number of Dolphins. I grabbed my camera and ran for the deck, and there in front of me were perhaps 50 animals cavorting right underneath our side and bow. The Captain immediately stopped the vessel and then maneuvered to stay with the pod, while they put on quite a show. However my camera had just come from our nice cool room into the muggy humid air of the outside, and my lens and camera frosted over. Grrr!!!!! I waited and waited, while the animals were just carrying on right in front of me. I tried to clean the lens, which just made it worse. I took off my lens cover and the lens itself frosted over. I tried cleaning that with my shirt (a definite no,no) but still no success. Frustrated beyond belief, I ran to our cabin and grabbed the hair dryer and warmed the camera and lens until the frost disappeared and then ran back on deck. I think I may have gotten a few shots, but nothing great as they pulled away from our ship, and just at that point, they announced that we would be returning to course. Grrrrrr!!!!!! Alas, it is the sad, old story of the one that got away!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Well, It is Africa After All!

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When I wrote last, our ship had been sailing south towards the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau, when rather unexpectedly the vessel turned towards the coast, and sailed into what appeared to be the mouth of an extremely wide river. There we dropped anchor and sat in the boiling heat of the midday sun with not a breath of air moving. There had been a brief announcement that we had been ordered to a GPS coordinate and instructed to wait for further clearance instructions.

Now just for the record, a big ship like this just does not casually show up on the doorstep of a country and request clearance. I am making an educated guess that this trip to Guinea Bissau had been worked out well over a year in advance. In fact as the story would later develop, SilverSea had been in contact with local officials to confirm our arrival details one month prior to our arrival, and then again there had been an exchange of e-mails and phone calls just two days prior to our planned arrival.

So, back to my story; our ship was anchored in a beautiful area, but in so far as any of us could see, it was totally uninhabited. As time passed, people kept going on deck with binoculars to see if there was any sign yet of the ship bringing the clearance officials. For hour on hour, there was absolutely no sign of any human movement – we simply sat in the burning sun and waited.

On my way to our evening briefing, I too walked out on deck to see if there was any sign of life. There at the rear of our ship, tied up to a rope ladder that had been lowered from our entry door, was a small dinghy sporting a small outboard motor. Surely I thought to myself this was not the “official” delegation? I went into our briefing and just about that time, one of the more vocal of our passengers enters the theatre and announces in a loud voice that he had just been thrown out of the internet cafĂ© to make way for the local customs officials. He then died laughing while he explained that the “Delegation” consisted of some guy carrying paperwork, a police officer and several women and children – in all there were 12 people who had come to our ship in that little dinghy!

During our briefing that evening, we learned a little more of what had happened. It seems that in spite of every detail having been carefully arranged, the local officials for reasons known only to them, changed the meeting location. Originally we were to sail around the Bijagos Archipelago, and then proceed northerly to anchor off the one and only town in this area. There we would conduct clearance procedures, and afterwards that would position us for our activities the following morning. Because of this sudden change, a complete readjustment of our itinerary was necessitated, but alas, this is Africa after all!

The following morning our ship anchored off a deserted island called Melo Island. We were going to spend the day exploring the island for wildlife, or sitting on the beach and swimming. We went ashore for our first “wet” landing, and I joined the birding group. We walked some distance down the beach, and then headed into the dense vegetation. I was able to slog my way for perhaps 30 minutes, but it was becoming obvious that on the wet slippery ground, it would soon be headed for a fall, and so I prudently headed back to the beach to be with Lisa. I found that she had waded out into the water even without having her bathing suit, so beautiful was the sandy beach and gently swells. Meanwhile the hotel department of the ship was going all out to assemble a first class cookout. I sat in total wonderment as load after load was carried up the beach, followed by five big guys carrying a gigantic outdoor grill. What a wonderful experience!

By the time we got back to the ship, the heat and the sun had taken their toll on our poor tired old bodies, and we both fell into a deep sleep. After only 90 minutes to recover, the ship had repositioned to a nearby island and started disembarkation for a night time visit to the beaches on Poilao Island. On these beaches at just this time of year, the giant Sea Turtles will come onshore to dig a hole and deposit their eggs while then returning to the ocean. After a few days, the fledglings hatch and at dusk, they begin their journey to the ocean. So for a few days a year, on this one beach, you have turtles coming and going – a fantastic sight to be sure. Most of the passengers joined the excursion, but we were just too pooped to take that on. Even though the group did not make it back to the ship until 10PM, it seems that a good time was had by all.

During the evening, our ship moved to another island in the Archipelago, Roxa. All of us set off at sunrise in a long line of Zodiacs quietly navigating the mangroves. Our local guides were directing our passage because after just a few minutes, I was completely lost as to which way we had come, much less having any clear idea as to where to make our upcoming turns. After about 40 minutes, we turned a corner, and there before us was a very small opening where our boats could push into a tree and allow us to walk off the boat onto the tree trunk. Several children were around the landing site, but it was a 30 minute walk along a winding and in places muddy trail until we passed under an arch made of palm leaves. This arch marked the entrance into the village of Roxa, which was waiting to welcome us.

As we approached, the men of the village started dancing and performing an elaborate ceremony of welcome. Chairs appeared, and we all sat or stood around enjoying the music. After a little while, the young women of the village started up their own welcome ceremony, so that both were taking place simultaneously. Soon, the village Chief arrived, and we were encouraged to individually come forward and pay our respects to the Chief, while the ceremony continued unabated. In fact, it seemed to have no end and so I walked away from the main gathering to look around the small community.

It was much larger than I had guessed at first – there were perhaps over 50 buildings. This was a very basic existence. I saw no electricity, no running water. It was pretty much subsistence living. However, it was obvious that the people were clean and obviously well fed. Each hut seemed to have a small “kitchen” garden nearby, and living with each family was a small group of hogs, lambs, chickens and native small cattle. Add that to the ever-constant supply of fish just down the trail, and food was not a problem for this community. Everyone was very friendly, and I cannot tell you how many hands I shook while wishing the other person a “Bon Jour.”

After my walk around, I got back to the main group just as the welcome ceremonies were winding down. It was now our turn to present our welcoming gifts to the Chief. Our local guide and a translator all gathered around the Chief along with the expedition team leaders. They presented to the Chief the donations that passengers had brought along for the village, along with the supplies offered by the ship. Then in a surprise, our chef Janine, stood up and with her team came forward with huge plastic tubs which they had covered in black plastic so as to hide the contents. The plastic was removed as were the tops, and there in each tub was a huge quantity of specially prepared and decorated cupcakes. Everyone expected that this special surprise, which had consumed a great deal of time on the part of the chef and her staff to prepare, would be greeted with delight – instead the Chief and his advisors sat there looking unimpressed. They quickly spoke among themselves, clearly not knowing what these strange things were – so our chef steps up and hands each of them a cupcake – they did not know what to do with it. After some trial and error and a little help, they learned to remove the paper cup and before long everyone seemed to be having a good time. These were carefully protected by the Chief to be distributed later.

Our visit to Roxa was truly a highlight. Basic societies like this are becoming rare and it was a pleasure to see and to intermingle with the group. So with many handshakes and smiles, our day came to an end. Overnight we are headed south, hoping to make Freeport in Sierra Leone by noon tomorrow.

I am hoping we will get internet later today and I can get this out, but if it is late, just understand that communications have been very intermittent.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Goree Island and The Gambia

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On Sunday, September 23rd, our shipped pulled up alongside a dock in the city of Dakar, Senegal. Dakar is the Capital of Senegal and is its largest city with a population of around 2.5 million people in the surrounding area. Finally, we have arrived at one of the more impoverished areas of Africa. The annual per capital income is only $1,600. Rather than making a visit to the city itself, our outing was to travel by ferry for 30 minutes in order to visit the nearby Island of Goree, a 45 acre island located only 2km from the main harbor. Since Lisa and I had visited Dakar on a previous occasion, we welcomed the opportunity to do something different – and different it was!

Goree Island was an important location in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I rather expected a sort of “National Historic Trust” environment. My first clue that I was missing the mark came with our ride over to the island on the commercial ferry. Our ship told us that they assumed that we would all benefit more from riding the regular ferry as opposed to having some type of private transportation. I had seen ferries in Africa before, and I figured this might be an experience, but seriously how many people want to spend their Sunday afternoon on an historic island? As it turns out, the answer is quite a few. From our ship, we drove quickly for about 10 minutes in order to reach the ferry dock, and once there, we were quickly led to an upstairs waiting area. Below us, in the main terminal lounge, was a teeming mass of people, many dressed in their Sunday finest, all gathering for the ride to Goree Island.

When the ferry arrived, we were hustled quickly to board the little ship before the general public was let loose. Simply boarding the ship was a challenge because rather than having been tied tightly to the dock, it was in a constant up and down, forward and back motion. You simply had to jump and hope the helpers on the deck caught you and reeled you onboard. When I was barely seated, the general gates were opened and it became a stampede to board. I watched in amazement as more and more, and then still more people wedged their way onto the little ship. At one point, I was thinking it impossible that any more people could possibly squeeze onboard, when here came a large, late arriving party. As the last person was literally dragged across the entryway, we started off for the 30 minute run to the Island of Goree.

Several things amazed me. First, Lisa was seated next to the most attractive young woman, who was decked out in very beautiful jewelry made of beads. Out of nowhere, the young lady took off one of her lovely bracelets, and reached over to hand it to Lisa. She smiled and made it clear that it was a gift – and when Lisa tried to pay her anyway, she refused. The next thing that I noted was that people in large part were well dressed and the children in particular. Many of the women were in their colorful celebration clothing. I kept wondering – all this for Goree Island?

When we arrived at the Island, it was jammed with people clearly having a good time. The waters around the dock were a mass of screaming children swimming in the ocean, while on shore parents sat with coolers, and in large groups. The Island is home to only 1,100 people, making it the least populated district of Dakar. However, it is clearly a getaway destination for the locals since the Island was jammed packed with people. It reminded me, if I can use the example, of an African version of Coney Island. The residents seemed for the most part, to be merchants selling almost every good imaginable, or operating one of the many, many little bars and restaurants which were found everywhere.

Our tour tried to focus on the historical aspects of the Island, but nothing had really been maintained, and there was not much left to see. It was extremely hot and humid, even in the shade, and standing in a group listening to someone drone on and on in barely understandable English, quickly tired everyone. We visited the mansion of the former Governor, which now has special status under UNESCO, but sadly it has been turned into a squatter’s refuge and is in very poor condition; indeed, it is literally falling down from neglect. In spite of the fact that the ship had divided us into relatively small groups with plenty of monitors, towards the end in the packed crowds, many got lost, me included. Finally I found where everyone was to gather, and Lisa came running in a panic when she saw me!

Now all we had to do was to get home. Hoping to avoid the experience of the prior year in which the entire group from the ship did not make the same ferry and then had to wait another hour for the next one, we were told to gather at the dock by 4:45 pm. Yes, we got there in front of almost all the locals because the ferry was not scheduled to depart until 5:30. But then again, this is Africa – so we stood, and we stood in the blazing sun with absolutely no shade or cover out on the dock. Some in the group got sick, every one of us was dehydrated in spite of pouring in water, and standing on the hard concrete at least killed my back and knees. Departure time came and went, but still the ferry was not in sight. Finally it arrived about 6pm, and we all fell into our seats--exhausted. So much for Senegal, it is now time to head off to The Gambia, our next stop.

We docked at the Capital of The Gambia, Banjul. Banjul is a small island situated where the Gambia River enters the Atlantic. The Gambia, or as it is usually called, just Gambia, is completely surrounded on three sides by Senegal; its only opening to the outside world being the Gambia River. It is both the smallest country in Africa, and also one of the poorest with a per capital income of only $1,400 per year. Having been here before, we decided to skip the city tour and to focus on getting out into the countryside for some bird and wildlife watching. Simply leaving the dock area was a challenge so chaotic was the situation. We sat for long periods of time while people shouted at one another and nothing happened. When we passed through the narrow gates from the dock into the city itself, I was appalled by the conditions. It had obviously rained overnight, and the streets of the city were flooded well above the curbs with muddy red water making walking almost impossible. Since the drivers could not see the holes in the road, they simply bounced along throwing up spray across the buildings and parked cars. It was a madhouse with traffic everywhere. There were a few police attempting to direct traffic, but their hearts were not in it, and no one paid them any attention anyway.

We finally broke away for the city center onto some half way good roads as we drove into the country. Turning off on a dirt road, we pulled up to a ramshackle hut, in back of which sat a local wooden boat reserved for our group. We all thought we were going for a walk in the Abuko National Reserve, but the local tour guide had decided that a nice cruise through the surrounding mangroves would be fun instead. Actually, it was a good idea, except boarding the little boat was not easy, and poor Lisa could not do it. Several of the men literally lifted her up and over onto the deck. The heat and humidity were well above our comfort zone, so moving on the water was a pleasant enough experience. They served cold water or soft drinks, and I can say that a good time was had by all. We did manage to see some birds and monkeys, but most were too far away to photograph. Not returning to our starting place, we instead put into another ramshackle building that in our country would have been condemned. We boarded our little busses for a drive to the Abuko Nature Reserve and set off on a walking journey. There was only one little problem – no, I take that back, there were several problems! The walk was intended to be one large circle that had us leaving the reserve from another exit than where we entered. When we were almost to the bridge that would take us around the circle our local guide gets a phone call telling him that the bridge is broken. So now, out in the middle of nowhere, he decided we will go another way entirely. Well the rains that had flooded the city had also flooded the Reserve, and soon our path became a muddy morass of slick mud and sticks. After gamely trying to continue on, we finally reached a point where it was not possible to go forward. So, have no fear, we will visit the Darwin Field Station for Biodiversity Research, Education and Training. This sounds exciting until we come face to face with the reality. The building is an old rundown wooden structure, in front of which, under a shade tree, sits the harried staff clearly resting from a hard day’s work. We walk up the steps to a viewing platform from which we see nothing new, and after some discussion, it is decided that perhaps we had best go back the way we came. At this point, we had been walking for an hour in the cooking heat, and so a walk back across the muddy terrain was not warmly greeted. We finally made it to the bus and then had to once again run the gauntlet to get back to our ship. The crew had setup water basins for us to wash our feet, and large brush devices to help clean up, but still we all left mud tracks as we trundled down the hall.

Having left the ship at 8:30, it was now 2pm and they held the dining room open for our group. About half the ship turned around and by 3pm left for an afternoon of craft shopping and entertainment followed by a buffet supper; sadly for them, shortly after their departure the skies opened up and a torrential downpour took place with a large lighting display. I can only imagine how they felt when they returned.

Today we are headed down the coast to our next destination which will be the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau. Around 11am, the ship took an unexpected turn towards the coast, and at noon, we were informed that we had been ordered to a GPS coordinate, where we were to wait for further clearance requirements. We arrived at that position about two hours ago and have dropped anchor in what appears to be the mouth of a very wide river. So far nothing has happened, so I guess we wait to see what comes next! I am sure for what it costs to operate this ship per hour, the company is not overly happy.

Stunning Beauty At Cape Verde

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Officially known as The Republic of Cape Verde, this island archipelago is composed of 10 islands located in the Central Atlantic Ocean approximately 570 km west of the coast of Western Africa. I had heard the name Cape Verde, but until yesterday, I had absolutely zero knowledge about them, so our day long outing was quite an adventure in many ways.

This island Republic was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and at that time, they were uninhabited. The Portuguese brought in African Slaves to work their plantations, and so today the natives speak both Portuguese along with their native Creole language. The country gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, and today is home to around 500,000 people.

Our vessel was the very first to use the new dock which had opened officially only the day before. We were visiting Porto Novo on the Island of Santo Antao, and as we departed the pier in our five bus caravan, I do not think any of us had any idea what to expect, except that we would be off the ship for a full day. Immediately upon leaving the dock, it was obvious that we had come to a developing nation. There was a market setup right at the dock area, and as we drove through town we saw almost no cars, and an “upscale home” appeared to be one made of cinder blocks, and if the residence was really upscale, then the cinder blocks were covered with a plaster surface which was brightly painted. Everyone we saw appeared happy and many waved as we went by.

The island was split down the middle by a very large mountain chain rising almost 4,000 ft. into the clear sky. For many years, this mountain chain was considered impenetrable so that it was not possible to cross from one side of the island to the other even around the shoreline. Our adventure today would be to drive to the other side of the mountain on the “new” road to where we would have lunch at a seaside community of Ponta do Sol. Along the way, we would visit local villages and a school. As we left the small town of Santo Antao and started our climb up the mountain, we could clearly see that we were crossing a dry volcanic landscape with occasional scrub trees. Most amazing, however, was the road on which we were driving. It was fairly narrow, so that two vehicles passing had to be careful, and it was quite steep in places, with grades exceeding 10 degrees. BUT what was incredible was the fact that it was a cobblestone surface, and that it had been built by hand over a 30 year period beginning in the 1960’s and ending early in the 90’s. The cobblestones were small, perhaps 4 inches square, and they had been carefully fitted together to create the driving surface. The road surface in the mountains had been literally chiseled out of the cliff sides, and in places, the cliffs were overhanging the road. Falling rocks are a constant problem, and so there are teams of men who walk the entire length of the roads each day to carefully remove the fallen stones. During the rainy season, the mud slides will frequently cause huge boulders to fall across the road, and at that point, traffic can become stuck, perhaps for days, until heavy equipment can arrive and clear the surface. In fact, had it been raining, we would not have been allowed to use this road out of concern that we could have become stuck. Building these roads required the construction of huge terraces to support the road bed in the steep mountains. These terraces were built by hand, stone by stone, and without mortar, merely by carefully fitting the adjoining pieces. It was absolutely amazing, and I hope that some of my pictures clearly show what I am describing.

During our climb we stopped several times to take pictures of the awesome, but largely dry and barren landscape. Little did we know that all of this was about to change and change abruptly!

As we neared the top of the mountain, the vegetation started to change. We entered an area of lush foliage and beautiful trees. Driving higher, we turned off onto yet another cobblestone road, but this was but a narrow lane. When we reached the top of a nearby ridge, the busses stopped and when we went to the ridge to look over – the view looked as if we had traveled to another island completely. In front of us were steep lush hillsides covered with terraces for farming. The vista was breathtaking, and in places the clouds hung on the mountain peaks.

During our long drive to the top, we had seen very few people, and they were only there to tend goats. We saw almost no one living on the “dry” side of the mountain. However, on the “wet” side we could see small villages dotting the hillsides which were covered with carefully tended stone terraces for gardening.

On our drive down the mountain we stopped at several little villages, and at each stop people were friendly, but perhaps shy. We got to take pictures with, and of the children, who were not so shy. The highlight of our journey down the mountain was our visit to a local primary school. We arrived unannounced, but our guide knew the school, and quickly we were invited inside. Before coming to Africa, Silversea had asked each passenger to bring along school supplies to be shared during our visits. The ship collected the gifts, and packaged them so that each school we would visit would receive a share. While our guides distributed the supplies to the school staff, we got to visit with the children. It was a little difficult since they spoke only Portuguese or Creole, and of course we spoke neither. But as always a smile, and some pictures shared on a digital camera soon broke the barrier, and they tried to speak English while we tried to say some words in Creole. Frankly, a good time was had by all. It was interesting to note that the children were well fed and happy. They all wore school uniforms, which were clean and neat, and while the school was pretty bare bones, it, too, was clean and neat. We learned that each “village” has its own primary school, but still some of the children must walk miles up and down the steep roads to attend. High School is another matter. There are only six on the island, and where it is not practical for the kids to walk back and forth to the school, they have dormitories where they can stay during the week, returning home for the weekend. Schooling is mandatory, but not free. Parents are expected to pay for school, but if they are too poor, then the State will subsidize the child’s tuition.

Finally as we reached “the other side” where we found the main city, Ponta do Sol. There each bus went to a different restaurant for lunch, since all of the venues were just small home run “cantina” type places. Frankly, except for a plate of rice, there was nothing I personally could eat, but most of our fellow travelers dove into the platters on the buffet as if they had not eaten in a week. The tables were covered in freshly ironed table cloths, and each of us had freshly pressed white napkins. It was a pleasant environment, and it could not have been better.

After lunch, we snapped some pictures of the town which is the Capital of this Island, and then rejoined our bus for the coastal drive back to our ship in Porto Novo. They kept telling us that we would get to drive on the newly completed “highway,” but all I could see in front of us was the same old cobblestone roadway winding around the coast. We did stop at a typical little fishing village for pictures.

As we were still driving on cobblestone, I started to wonder when we would reach this “new” highway that had been talked about all day, and also why we kept hearing that it was not possible to go around the mountain by the coast, when here we were doing just that. Suddenly we came to a roundabout, and our guide announced that we would now continue along the coast on the new “highway.” Until this road was opened a few years ago, this was as far as you could travel along the coast. From this point into Porto Novo was only 15 miles, but it had taken six years to build this section of road even with today’s modern equipment. Soon we came to a location where the mountain quite literally came down and out into the water, in effect erecting an impassable barrier in the past. However, a new and long tunnel had been constructed, allowing the road to now continue its journey.

We continued until our guide and driver decided to do something a little different. We turned off on a sandy road towards the cliff where the bus stopped. Our guide announced that anyone who wanted to go swimming could do so, and that we would stop for 30 minutes. This was nuts! None of us were prepared for a swim, although in the 100 degree heat, it sure sounded good. Anyway, we were parked on top of a steep cliff, and the path down to the sea was narrow and steep. To my surprise, a jolly group goes literally running down the pathway following none other than our expedition team leader. Reaching the bottom, she starts removing most of her clothes, and then jumps into the surging seas, followed almost immediately by 7 or 8 other people. From my distance, I had enough of a view to wish I had binoculars, but I did enjoy the screaming little group which was clearly having fun. Returning to the bus all wet did not seem to bother any of them in the heat, and so we returned to the ship, hot, parched, and tired with a few wet tag alongs.

Today we are at sea and headed back to the East towards Senegal. I think our next days are going to be quite interesting, so I hope you are enjoying our travels, and that you are doing well.


PS. I forgot to tell you something very amazing. As we drove along the coastal road, only 14 miles away was the neighboring Island of Saint Vincent, the largest and the most important of the Cape Verde Islands. Our driver said that on most days the visibility was crystal clear; however, today there was a slight sea mist. Even so, there was clearly visible a wide sandy scar that seemed to run from the shore up to the mountains and which filled a valley. Our guide explained that St. Vincent has a wide sandy stripe all the way across the island, and that the sand is deposited there from the winds blowing off the Saharan Desert 600 km away!

Leaving the Sands Behind

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Today the Silver Explorer is at sea headed out into the Atlantic towards the Cape Verde Islands. It will take us two days to reach our destination--so finally, we now have a chance to catch our breath.

When I last wrote, Lisa and I were staying in a resort community that felt very much like Disney World on Tenerife; it was surreal. All the while, I was positive that I had previously been to Tenerife; however, there was not a single thing I saw that was familiar. When we left the hotel for the ship, it all became clear. Our drive to the ship was almost one hour, and in that time, we entered the “real” Tenerife which I remembered. The “locals” live in a beautiful Spanish City, which is where the port is located. I recalled from our previous visit that all the restaurants opened at 9pm, and served local food which for us was a problem. I recall being told that if I went an hour down the coast, there was a city that operated as an international community, and that it would remind me of being at home. As it turns out, that description was absolutely correct. I must admit I do feel better having found the Tenerife of my memory – at least that part of my memory still works.

When we saw the Explorer at the dock, it felt as if we were coming home. Our welcome was warm and effusive by everyone. I had so many hugs, I was almost sore. There were a few new faces, but for the most part, it was the same crew that we had grown familiar with on our last trip – ah, we were back home--in a sense.

During our first evening, the ship moved to the nearby Island of La Gomera, another of the Canary Islands, and which is home to around 23,000 people. The island is round and rises on all sides towards the central peak of Garajonay. The Island is some 14 miles in diameter and in the center rises to nearly 5,000 ft. When we were awakened upon our arrival it was still dark, but the sky was just starting to turn pink. As I looked out our window, I was amazed to see the volcano on the nearby Island of Tenerife filling the Northeastern sky. It literally dominated the horizon even at some 45 miles distance, but then again the volcano is the third largest in Europe.

The main attraction of La Gomera is the upper reaches of its steep slopes. The mountain peaks are almost permanently shrouded in clouds and mist, and as a result are home to lush and diverse vegetation. The views are stunning and this special environment is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a protected by Spain as the Garajonay National Park. Having said all this, when we arrived, there was not a cloud in the sky – which at first you might think is a good thing for sightseeing. However, it is but an indicator of the fact that the Island has not had a drop of rain in over 20 months, and the hillsides were not green, but a dried up landscape of brown plants and dust.

As we set out on our bus tour, I was amazed at the roads. The island literally has no flat land, and so all roads are full of curves and they weave around the steep sides of the mountainous terrain. I am going to guess that in order to travel a mile in a straight line; we probably travelled three miles or more of winding road. The roads were new and well-constructed, however. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the old road, and it is difficult to believe that anyone would risk their life on the narrow little lanes that hung precariously to the mountain side.

Our guide had come to La Gomera almost 16 years ago, and she started to tell about how in the old days travel was so difficult that people on one side of the Island rarely ventured to the other side. Villages were mostly isolated, and that sometimes on the old road, it would take people over two hours to find a place where opposing traffic could pass one another. Also there were few visitors in the past except groups of what they called “hippies” who arrived and set up encampments. It was rather an embarrassment to the locals, but all of that changed starting about 14 years ago when Spain joined the European Union. Joining the EU meant that new roads were constructed, and people got their pensions, so that the “encampments” became respectful little communities. Further, joining the EU meant that a daily ferry service was established with Tenerife and now the island has two resorts for tourists, and of course they now have free healthcare.

The guide was inadvertently describing in a nutshell one of the problems with the EU, and in so doing, also describing in part, how Spain descended into an economic morass. Let me explain--I can only imagine just how much it cost to build the modern road system in this small island of 23,000 people; it must have been a fortune, and certainly the local inhabitants could not in any way have provided this benefit for themselves, much less could they have paid for the new pensions and the free healthcare. No, that money had to come from somewhere else, and that “somewhere else” is the other members of the EU. Once hooked on this system, Spain, as so many other member countries went on a spending spree, until they are not only broke, but the more “well to do” EU members are starting to ask why they should be paying for the residents of La Gomera to enjoy such a bag of “Goodies?”

On a final note, La Gomera has two other distinctions of note. First, the old islanders developed a form of communication which would travel long distances among the mountainous terrain. It is called Silbo Gomero, and involves a whistled speech which is indigenous to this island. It has been documented as far back as Roman Times. The language was threatened by extinction in the 21st Century until the local government stepped in and required all children to learn it in school. The second distinction for La Gomera is that the island was the last port of call of Christopher Columbus before his crossing of the Atlantic in 1492.

After spending the morning among the mountains of La Gomera, our ship set off in a southerly direction towards the Western tip of Africa and the sandy shores of Western Sahara. The area known as Western Sahara is an Area of Special Status in Morocco. It is a sparsely populated desert territory whose status as a part of Morocco is not internationally recognized. Even today there is sporadic fighting between Algeria and Morocco, and the UN continues to attempt to resolve the conflict. Our ship docked at the capital of the area, Dakhla, and from there, we traveled in a convoy of almost thirty 4-Wheel Drive SUV’s out into the desert – or to be more precise, everything in sight was desert, we simply drove into the wilderness of all that sand.

I had never really been into the desert before, and this was a unique experience. The locals were Berber, and our local tour director had seen to it that several tents were erected in the desert for our visit. The first and largest tent would seat our entire caravan, and once seated we each washed our hands in the traditional manner. We were then greeted with the ceremonial welcome of the “tea ceremony.” It was incredibly hot out in the desert under the cloudless sky, but to my surprise once under the tent, it was very pleasant, that is until the winds picked up! Several members of the Sahraouian tribe preformed for us while the tea ceremony took place; afterwards, there were camels available for those who wished to go for a ride, or you could visit several nearby tents that had been erected to show how the people live in the desert.

To reach our camp, we had driven over 90 minutes outside of town, and we had several hours to explore the region. I for one was looking forward to a bird watching ride out to a herd of flamingos when suddenly the winds started to pick up. The next thing I knew I would guess that we had winds of 30 to 40 mph, and very quickly everything on us was covered in a very fine patina of small sand particles. In those conditions, our cameras were quickly becoming covered, and we both stopped using them for fear of getting the sand into the mechanism. Given this situation, Lisa and I decided to forgo the bird watching expedition and to head back to the ship. So off we headed on another hour and a half long drive back to the port.

How glad I am that I got to see that part of Saharan Africa, but surviving there would be difficult.

So, we will enjoy two days at sea before reaching the Cape Verde Islands. I hope everyone is well.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

We’ve Gone To The Dogs: The Canary Islands

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We’ve Gone To The Dogs

The Canary Islands

I dare say that most people reading this have no idea where in the world the Canary Islands are located, or what country they are allied with, nor where the name “Canary” was derived. I had an interesting encounter this morning at the buffet breakfast while waiting for my omelet; the young man next to me leans over and said “Are you an American?” When I answered that I was he said “it is a real surprise to see an American here for vacation since most Americans I work with back home have never even heard of the Canary Islands, yet they are one of the most popular getaways for Europeans.” That about sums it up! The Canary Islands are home to over 2 million people and are a part of Spain. The archipelago is composed of 13 islands of which the largest is the island of Tenerife which is where we are located. The islands are only 100 km to the West of mainland Africa on a line from the borders of Morocco and Western Sahara. By the way, the term “Canary” does not refer to a bird, but instead when the early settlers arrived they found the island populated with a breed of large dogs which in Spanish is Carnaris, hence the Canary Islands.

Tenerife has two large airports, and we landed at the North Airport from which the drive to our hotel was almost an hour. During the long drive, we sped past one tourist bus after another all completely filled with people arriving for the weekend. In addition to the airports, the island is served by five separate ferries from Spain alone. Upon reaching our hotel, the Gran Bahia Del Duque Resort, we felt as if we had just landed in Florida at one of the Disney Hotels. All the employees are elaborately dressed in old Spanish attire, and the huge complex is spotlessly clean. It is clearly designed for you to spend your entire visit within the enclosure. There are only two entrances/exits, and within the walls you will find every amenity you could desire, including 12 different restaurants.

However, when my AAA batteries in my clock failed, there was no way to find batteries inside the fortress, and so we went for a walk to the nearby shopping center. We were told that the walk would take only 5 minutes, but in reality it took us over 30 minutes. When we finally arrived, there were upscale shops of every kind and description: Rolex, Prada, etc. and no sign of poor, old lowly batteries. After getting some help, we finally located a “quick trip” type store down in a basement tucked away in the back.

Why the Canary Islands? Well one reason is their subtropical climate. If you look at the 10 day forecast, it is the same every day; clear with a high of 89 degrees and a low of 72 degrees. In addition, the islands are located above the temperature inversion layer which means that the skies are incredibly clear, and as such, it is home to two of the world’s major observatories.

Our journey here was not without some “issues.” We flew from home to JFK in New York, and as usual, after landing, we had to taxi for over 30 minutes to reach our parking area. That meant that we had to climb down from the aircraft, and then proceed to walk up a long flight of stairs to get inside the terminal all the while lugging our carry-on bags. We had a 4 hour layover in the new Terminal Building under construction, and thus there we no club lounges available and precious few places to get a snack. When we asked about a “sit down” restaurant, we were told to leave the secure area to where all the services were, but we were not about to go through security a second time – just yet as you will later see.

Our eight hour flight departed the gate on time, but we spent the next hour doing the “taxi” thing before departing. One thing very frustrating was to see us finally reach the position in which we were next for takeoff, at which point our aircraft turned away from the runway, and proceeded to taxi in a big circle while other planes went past us for departure. We did this little 360 degree maneuver three times, and at one point I wondered if they would ever let us depart!

We arrived into Madrid early in the morning of the next day, and had to clear immigration and customs before proceeding to Tenerife. Because unlike many other passengers going on to Tenerife, we were not given boarding passes. We had to leave the security area and go check in for our Air Europa flight. That went well enough, but to reach the check in counters was a very long walk, and then of course, we had that marvelous experience of yet another security checkpoint.

With some time to spare before our flight was to board, we headed to the Lounge located at gate E69. Believe it or not, that meant we had to walk all the way through terminals F and G before starting the long walk to gate E69. At the point where the sign said E69 were a set of automatically closing doors to which was affixed a sign about the club lounge and listing all the airlines that it served. So, we went through the doors and down the stairs only to find ourselves underneath the actual terminal and in an unsecured area. Believe it or not, we had to walk all the way back to the original entrance to the check in area, and then only to learn that somewhere along the way I had dropped my boarding pass. We felt like Alice having dropped down the rabbit hole - all that long walk, we could see the inside terminal but we could not get there and when we did, we had to begin the entire process all over again.

I managed to obtain a new boarding pass, and we yet again cleared security, but by now it was getting close to our departure time. We literally ran this time, and when we came to the infamous E69 doors, just as we passed an older couple entered and went down the stairs, and I would bet money they too had just entered “the rabbit hole.” Just past the E69 sign was a 90 degree turn in the concourse, and just around the corner was the real E69 with a sign for the club that indicated you should take an elevator up to the second level. At this point, we could care less and we continued to run, arriving at the aircraft just in time. We had business class tickets but guess what; business class on this aircraft only meant that they did not sell the middle seat in the standard economy “six across configuration!” We fell into our seats and I was so tired that I fell asleep immediately, and did not wake up until we were ready for landing after a 3 hour flight.

So here we are in the lap of luxury in the middle of nowhere, ready to board our ship The Silver Explorer around noon tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Off To The Wilds of Western Africa

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Off To The Wilds of Western Africa

If the truth be told, it hardly feels as if we have settled back in from our last adventure, and it certainly does not feel as if we should be leaving town any time soon, but that is just what we are about to do!

We are going to return to the very ship we left in June, The Silver Explorer, where we enjoyed our best cruise experience ever. Let's see if we can have that same experience this time.

Lisa and I fly this week to Madrid, where after clearing immigration and customs, we board a flight direct to the Canary Islands, in particular the island of Tenerife. We will spend two nights there before boarding our ship.

We will then call the Explorer our home for 27 days as we sail down the western coast of Africa. As is usual, we are actually staying onboard for two cruises back to back. Our first cruise goes south to Ghana, where group one departs and we take on new passengers for the continuation of the journey. The ship then sails further south along the coast before returning to Ghana, where we will disembark.

Our itinerary has places in it that I have never even heard before, so there is no doubt this will be educational. By way of example, here are a few of our stops: La Gomera, Western Sahara, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Benin and Togo.

Because this is an "adventure" cruise as it was last time, I suspect that we will be kept quite busy and that my blogs may come in bunches when I can catch my breath. I will however try to keep up with my writing and of course I will try to upload some photographs.

So, sit back, and enjoy the adventure with us.