Saturday, October 27, 2012

It All Ended In A Blur

Benin and Togo

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I am sorry that I left everyone hanging after Cameroon, but our cruise ended with a blur of activity. Each of our last two days lasted around 12 hours; so we would leave the ship around 7am each day and return around 7pm. As you may understand that left us very little time to do much else, but eat dinner and prepare for the next day, and then somehow to return late and have our bags outside our rooms for an early departure when the cruise finally ended back in Accra, Ghana.

After leaving Cameroon, our ship gave Nigeria a very wide berth before docking at Cotonou, Benin. The Republic of Benin is a long and narrow little country squeezed between Nigeria on one side and Togo on the other. It is home to around 9 million people who are derived from 42 different ethnic groups. The literacy rate is low at 35%, and the life expectancy is only 52 years. As a former colony of France, French is widely spoken along with many tribal languages. Benin is where Voodoo originated and it still widely practiced, alongside of Roman Catholicism. However, in the north of Benin it is Muslim, and they do not tolerate any other religions in that area.

As we boarded our buses early in the morning for our first outing, we were amazed to see that each bus had onboard a Police officer armed not only with a mean looking sidearm, but also a submachine gun. DSC07959Our guide happily told us how safe we were and not to worry, but I suspect that there had to be a reason for the Police presence besides simply giving them something to do for the day. From what I could see, the people we met were all friendly and I personally felt no threat. However, the population is so poor that I suspect if an opportunity presented itself, where we could be relieved of our cameras, for example, that would probably represent more than several years’ worth of income on the black market.

Our first activity was an exciting trip to Lake Nokoue where we visited the floating village of Ganvie. After driving for over an hour over bumpy roads, we arrived at a colorful market area where people from the village came in their dugout canoes to sell their fish and to trade for goods. DSC07948Meanwhile we boarded small wooden boats and set out on the Lake to reach the fishing village of Ganvie. The village itself is built on stilts made of teak wood, and the homes for the most part are either bamboo or hand cut wood with tin roofs. The entire community is literally floating and all movement is by small dugout canoes; it was very colorful and interesting. Everyone was excited by our visit, the children in particular. Many of the women, while friendly, would put something over their faces in order that we did not take their photograph for fear that we would “capture” their spirit. DSC08043After a boat tour of the village where we saw their Cathedral and the local school, our boats were paddled over to a very large floating market. In the central courtyard, chairs had been arranged around the perimeter in order that we could be honored to watch a local voodoo festival. The costumes were amazingly colorful and the performances were quite unlike anything I have seen before. DSC08126The Elders of the tribe all sat looking on in very colorful costumes, while the young novices put on some truly amazing performances. They carried huge elaborately decorated circular vestments which had a hole in the center through which they put their heads. During the ceremony, they would throw the vestment up in the air as if making a large pizza and proceed to spin it around. DSC08191They had all kinds of fancy maneuvers all the while spinning their cloth vestment. Sometimes two novices together would throw their vestment into the air, and then each one would trade with the other, all the while keeping the vestment spinning. At the end, they spun it high in the air and then neatly allowed it to fall to their shoulders just so that their head was again in the center. I tried to take some video, and I truly hope I can learn how to incorporate that into our DVD. Once the festivities started, I was told that it would go on for hours. We departed after about one hour, and the group was still going strong – it was an amazing look into the local culture of the Tofinu people.

Once again we battled the local roads, if you can call them “roads.” We were going to a “beach resort” for lunch, and when we turned onto the final road leading to the resort, they told us to hold on a little longer because we only had 3 km to go, or about 2 miles. Well those 2 miles might as well have been 60 miles, because the “road” was so bad that it took almost an hour to cover that little distance. Of course after lunch, we had to travel back along that same road – I kept thinking as the bus lurched and bumped it way along “enough is enough!”

After lunch, we visited three places, none of which was really of much interest. They really do not have much in the way of interesting tourist attractions, and so the government has supported the creation of some “tourist” spots. First, we stopped at a monument named the “Route des Esclaves.” DSC08317Then we moved to the Historical Museum of Ouidah, which was nothing more than an abandoned French fort from the colonial era, DSC08336and finally they took us to “The Sacred Forest.” This I really did not get. It was a majestic grove of huge trees among which were some sculptures to serve as reminders of the plight of the slaves. DSC08362There was an old man there dressed in White with a young girl by his side. Everyone took pictures, but what it all meant “kinda got lost on me.” We finally limped back to the ship after a very long day, grabbed dinner, and fell into bed for yet another long day ahead!

Early the next morning we arrived at Lome, Togo. Togo is again a Republic, and is home to around 7 million people. It seemed to be somewhat more prosperous than its neighbor Benin, but still the life expectancy is only 61 years while the literacy rate is 61%. It too was at one time a French Colony. Our first stop was to visit a traditional bush school of the Ewa village where we met the teachers and their students. DSC08486As we had done on our previous cruise, passengers had brought along school supplies to be donated to the school, and the ship had collected the supplies for distribution. They were piled high on several tables and were warmly accepted by the school staff. While all they had for a classroom was a bamboo covered open sided structure, it was clean and functional. DSC08524The children were so happy to see us, and quite obviously they had dressed up for the occasion. Frankly the entire village compound was spotless but Spartan. After we visited with the children, trying as best we could to communicate, they all lined up and begin to sing for us – it was a really good experience. Once again, our chef had made a large number of cupcakes for the youngsters, and once again as they were handed out, the kids were not sure what they were until we showed them how to pull the paper off.

You might get a kick out of the “bathroom” facilities that had been prepared for us. Off to one side of the compound several large and colorful sheets had been hung. I was told that the bathrooms were behind the wall of sheets. Well – kinda; behind the wall of colorful sheets were four square enclosures, each made up of yet more colorful sheets. It was unisex all the way, because when you entered the little area and pulled the sheet behind you, all you had in front of you was a hole that had been dug in the ground, along with a contraption that you could sit on that served as a toilet seat. A local native served as a kind of traffic cop pointing people to the next available unit. I asked him if he would mind holding my camera while I used the tent, which he obliged. Little did I ever imagine that while I was relieving myself the native proceeded to use my camera to take photographs of my head over top the unit. I found his handiwork when I looked at my pictures. Well at least he had a sense of humor. DSC08527

After leaving the school, we drove for three hours to the North of Lome into the Plateaux Region reaching the base of Mount Agou the highest point in Togo. As we climbed, we arrived at the boundary between two districts at which point, our motorcade was stopped by the local authorities. Even though we had a police escort and an armed officer on each bus, the District Commander insisted that in addition one of his armed officers ride along on each bus. Once this all got worked out, we continued our drive up into the high mountain forest. We finally arrived at what appeared to be a motel of some kind where arrangements had been made for us to have lunch. We had brought our food with us, so while preparations were made, we were split into groups to go for a forest walk with a local native. I started out with my assigned group; however, I quickly saw that the group was headed into dense vegetation on a downhill sloping trail made of loose rocks and roots. There was no way I could make that journey, and so I turned back to the paved road intending to go back to the motel, when I saw that the other groups were all going downhill on the road. I figured I would tag along, but I got so engrossed in taking pictures of some of the beautiful flowers that when I looked up I was surprised to see that all of the groups had disappeared into the forest on different trails thus leaving me completely alone on the road. I was not worried at first; I figured that everyone was going downhill, so I would just continue downhill on the road assuming that even if I did not find them the busses that had passed to pick them up would at least come back up the road and I could hitch a ride. In hindsight this was a dumb decision as I merrily walked along taking pictures. From time to time, a woman carrying a baby would pass, and I smiled and took their pictures. Then a motorcycle approached carrying a young male that slowed as it approached me. He went past me slowly and then stopped and backed up to where I was taking a picture. I smiled and tried to seem nice. He then tried to sell me something or other, but it was a real uncomfortable feeling coming up my spine – his look was not all that pleasant. At that point, the sound of yet another motorcycle could be heard and he left, but the motorbike that followed had two young males who seeing me came to a complete stop and dismounted to come over to me. At this point my senses were telling me that I was not in a good spot, and smile as I may, my anxiety level was rising as they circled me, one on each side. Just then an older man came out of the forest from a small trail, and seeing the scene, he immediately came over near me and just stood. The two young boys quickly left the scene, and I resumed walking. The gentleman, all dressed in a fine robe, walked behind me on the opposite side of the road. I greeted him and he said something back, but if I stopped, he stopped. If I moved, he moved, and once again I was uncomfortable. Suddenly the road turned a corner and I could see our buses up a small incline and as I turned towards them, my companion moved on. I later saw that he was one of the members of the local welcoming committee, and it then became clear that he knew I had no business walking that road alone, and thus he had stayed with me until I was safe. Whew!

On our long drive back to the ship, we stopped at a local village on the outskirts of Lome where we were invited to observe another Voodoo ceremony or service. DSC08778This experience was quite unlike our encounter in Benin. We had fire, smoke, fire breathing participants, small explosions, and drums and singing that was so loud that Lisa and to leave with a migraine. DSC08714I did not understand a thing that was happening, even though on our way home our guide tried to explain what we had seen. I do know that the people were friendly and that several of our members were invited to join in the ceremony. After an hour we had to continue on, but we were once again told that the ceremony we saw was just getting started and that it would continue until early evening.

We arrived at our ship late, and I barely remember packing for our return home the next day.

Thus our one month adventure into West Africa came to a close. I really am sorry it has taken me so long to finish the trip; however I did not get my bags completely unpacked until two days ago, and just this morning, I finally retrieved our pictures from the cameras. I hope to post the pictures soon, and when I do, so I will send out an e-mail.

I hope everyone has enjoyed travelling with us to West Africa, and stand by because believe it or not, our next trip is to Antarctica – in three weeks.


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This is a test. It is only a test. If it had been real, then I would have said something.DSC07380

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Limbe, Cameroon

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Yesterday was our second stop in Cameroon. It was only a half day visit so that our ship could depart early, as I will explain later. Once again our ship had to anchor over a mile offshore because of the shallow waters, and those same waters contributed to the large swells and choppy water we encountered on departure. It is amazing to me how well the crew manages to assist us in boarding the little Zodiacs as the bounce and bob in the roiling water.

Anyway our morning had three planned activities. First we visited the Limbe Botanic Gardens. Second we visited the Limbe Wildlife Center, and thirdly we returned to the large amphitheater at the Botanic Gardens for an absolutely wonderful cultural presentation from various groups who had traveled from all over Cameroon.

The Botanic Gardens were both interesting and sad. It was clear that at one time, they must have been an absolute treasure, and in fact at one time it was said to be one of the most important tropical botanic gardens in the world. The Gardens were created by the Germans during the colonial period. In 1920, the British took over responsibility under the direction of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The British departed in 1932, and left the management of the gardens to Cameroonian personnel, until when in 1958, Cameroon obtained independence at which time, the Government took responsibility. Unfortunately, it is clear that they lacked the skill and knowledge to maintain them, and so today most of the Garden is in sad shape. Besides a few good flower pictures, I was fortunate enough with the help of the ship’s photographer to find a praying mantis, and we both got some very good pictures for our albums.

Our next stop was at the Limbe Wildlife Center. The Center is a collaborative effort between the Government and the Pandrillus Foundation whose primary goal is to save Cameroon’s unique primate wildlife that is threatened by illegal hunting and the illegal pet trade. The animals in the Center are all orphans who were torn apart from their families as a result of the “bush meat” trade or the illegal capture of their family members. At present, it is home to 15 different species of primates, including the beautiful mountain Gorilla and the Cross River Gorilla. They also house Chimpanzees, Mandrills, Baboons and the beautiful and strange Drills. It was not a large facility, however it was very interesting and again I did manage a few good photographs.

Lastly, we all returned to the Botanic Gardens where in the very back corner they have the remains of a wonderful amphitheater. The ship had arranged for beverage stands to be setup all around the stage perimeter and individual chairs had been brought in for us. In the bowl of the theater, there was not a breath of wind, and both Lisa and I had sweat literally rolling down our faces and filling our eyes, but that did not dampen our enthusiasm for what was to follow. There were five different groups from all over the country that had come together to present their performances. It reminded me if a gospel choir competition where each group was elaborately dressed in their own “uniforms,” and they hung nearby and watched the other groups performing as they awaited their turn on stage. In an hour long concert, the groups spurred each other on until by the end they were all wound up and putting on quite an after show as we departed the stadium. For the first time, I actually got some good video, and now my challenge is to see if I can figure out how to include that in our DVD’s.

Our time in Cameroon had come to an end, but sadly I wish I could have had more time to get to know the country. After our two day visit I really feel that I know little more about the country than the three specific places we visited. We never got to see one of their cities or to walk among the people. Yes, we saw the “forest” people, an old Garden and a Primate Rescue center, but that was about it. Alas, we had to leave early for our next port of Cotonou in Benin because of the pirate danger. It would appear to me that Nigeria must be the source of the risk, because our ship left as soon as we could all get back onboard and has been running at full speed ever since. We left heading almost due south, and during the night turned to our northwest towards Benin. This had the effect of putting us well off the normal sea lanes and far away from Nigeria. All the curtains and shades around the entire ship were closed to lower our “light” visibility, and I noticed that the fire hoses are deployed and ready for use on the outside decks. Fortunately there has been no incident, but I do praise Silversea for taking all precautions for our safety.

I am sorry that I have not had the time to upload any photographs from this second cruise, and I will not have time today – I do not think. Getting these last two blogs out is about at my limit because after today, our one day at sea, our last two days on this cruise will be 11 hour adventures each. We are both a little panicked about packing in time, so Lisa has already started and I will follow shortly.

Somehow I will try to sum up our final days in Benin and Togo, but most likely it will be when I get home.

I do hope everyone is well, and with any luck, we will return home on the 13th with our bags in tow.


Standing Tall – The Pygmies of Cameroon

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Well, it is Africa after all! So, it will come as no surprise to you that our ship anchored at the city of Kribi, Cameroon precisely at 7:30 am as scheduled; however, when our Zodiac reached the shore to transfer the clearance authorities to the ship, they were nowhere to be found! Sound familiar by now? An hour later, officials started to arrive, so many “officials” in fact that additional Zodiacs had to be dispatched to accommodate the crowd. While this delay is taking place, the entire ship is “on hold,” and our carefully timed schedule is rapidly starting to spin out of control. We finally received our “clearance,” and as I was going down to embark, I happened to see a large number of the “delegation” happily chowing down in the dining room; enough said!

I really know very little about the country even after spending much of the day ashore. Sadly our guide did not speak great English. I did look the country up and can see that it is officially called the Republic of Cameroon, and it has a population of over 18 million. The average life expectancy is 52 years, and the annual income per person is $2,300. That comes from an iPhone app. My impression, from what I saw, is that the place was pretty clean, albeit still a third world society. Everyone appeared to have electricity and water, and since the city was relatively clean, I have to assume they had sanitation services. The rivers ran clean with dark brown water from the mountain stream runoff, and the ocean was trash free.

The ship had to anchor about a mile offshore, and the large swells made the trip both there and back quite an experience. Not only was it very difficult to time the jump into the Zodiac, but the swells were so large and the tidal flow so strong, that the little boats had to run at full speed to keep from having the following waves sweep over our craft. When we arrived into the small marina it was surrounded by guard towers manned by soldiers outfitted with large machine guns. It appears that our marina was actually located at the small naval facility. We boarded our buses, which actually had working air conditioning, and headed south along the coastal highway towards the Lobe River. We drove perhaps no more than two miles before the paved highway stopped and we once again found ourselves on a narrow and rut filled muddy road. After bouncing around for what seemed forever, we came to the river whereupon everyone had to climb into a small dugout canoe for the remaining trip up the river.

Here things got a little dicey! Let me explain that a dugout canoe is one in which the keel or bottom of the little boat is carved out of a log. Since every log is of different size, so too is every little canoe of different size. Some of the boats could take five people and some could handle as many as ten people. The keel, as I mentioned, is one piece of solid wood, but to create the sides, hand sawed wooden planks are carefully fitted and in between the boards they put pitch to seal the seams. When the little boats are new the seams are watertight, however after time unless they are maintained well, the seams begin to seep water. You can guess that most of our little boats were not well maintained, and so bailing was a constant task passed around the passengers to avoid everyone taking an unexpected plunge into the surging water.

The first big challenge was to get in the little things! The bottom of the boats were slimy with accumulated moss over the years, so climbing into one without slipping and falling into the water was not easy. Once you got your foot or feet into the boat that still left the matter of walking back to the next available seat. The boats were terribly unstable, so good balance was required. Now here comes the problem for Lisa and myself. With her artificial knees, she could not raise her legs high enough to clear the cross beams, but our team did a wonderful job of literally lifting her across the boards. When it came to my turn, I felt almost helpless. I gamely tried to put my foot into the boat, and promptly my foot slipped out from underneath me on the slippery wood. I would have fallen, but for the fact that the team reacted swiftly and caught me in midair. It was quickly decided after a big discussion among the tribesman that I should not try to move further back in the little boat, and so even though there was empty space, they left me to sit where I was – thank goodness.

As I said, the river was surging from the heavy rains of the last few days, and at times our two oarsmen seemed to be making very little headway. They had to carefully dodge the unseen rocks which were making little eddies in the water. At times we went backward, at times we became caught in little whirlpools, and at times, we got caught up in the thick rainforest vegetation. Steadfastly our little boat crawled up the river as part of our long caravan. Soon we begin to hear the steady beat of a lone drum, which signified that our guests had been alerted to our presence on the river, and that we were welcome to proceed. You see we were on our way to visit a small clan of the forest-dwelling pygmy people of the rainforest.

Our little canoe finally turned a sharp corner, narrowly missing an almost invisible rock in the swollen river, and there was our landing site – a muddy embankment full of tree roots and only the narrowest entrance into the dense forest. Our canoe was pushed up on shore as far as it would go which was not very far, and now came the part where I was to stand up and walk out of the boat. Only a couple of problems with this scenario: the slippery floor made standing up without my falling almost impossible for me given my balance issues, and in addition, sitting on the little low bench with my legs curled up underneath me for over an hour had caused both legs to go numb. So I sat there with a dumbfounded look on my face and explained to the waiting staff my dilemma. They never missed a beat. In the flash of an eye, five strong men climbed into the water, and as impossible as it sounds, they literally lifted me on to the shore where I stood on wobbly legs while holding onto a guide until I got my feet and legs to where they would again work.

Our walk to the native encampment took about 10 minutes through the dense jungle, although the trail had been freshly prepared for our visit, it was a muddy mess. As we entered the small camp, the natives started with their songs of welcome. The first thing we realized was that these “pygmies” were anything but pygmy in size. That is when our guide pointed out that aside from scattered tribes of true “pygmies” in South East Asia and Northern South Africa, these people should more correctly be referred to as “forest-dwelling” natives. Recent genetic research has shown that they are related to the surrounding farmers, but many generations ago they broke apart and elected to remain living in the forest. In fact, there has never been an accurate count of exactly how many “forest” dwellers exist in the Congo Basin and the tribes themselves do not understand the concept of one country or another, they simply migrate throughout the Congo River area. The day to day existence is quite basic and the average life expectancy is estimated to be around 35.

Fortunately our canoe was one of the first to arrive, and so we had some time to photograph the area, and in fact I had my picture taken with the village chief. But as our group grew in size, it quickly reached the point that we could hardly move in the small clearing. At that point, Lisa and I elected to start the journey home. With only a small number of us wishing to return, the trauma of getting settled into a canoe was reduced, and believe it or not, our trip back to the landing took only 20 minutes because this time the strong current was swiftly carrying us along.

The ship had arranged a lovely lunch on the beach at a local resort, but since it was mostly seafood, which is not our cup of tea, we elected to return to the ship. It had been a fun and educational day to say the least.

Overnight we are headed to the city of Limbe, Cameroon.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Slip Sliding Again At Principe

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Today we are at anchor smack dab in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea. Not to put too fine a line on it, but we are frankly in the middle of nowhere. If you really want to look up where we are, we are visiting the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, which is one of the smallest nations in the world having a total population of 160,000. We are about half-way down the coast of Western Africa and only one degree north of the Equator. The small island chain is approximately 250 km west of the country of Gabon. Sao Tome is the larger of the two main islands and Principe is the smaller, having a population of only around 5,000 people. This nation might be small, but like every country we have visited in Africa, they have a large bureaucracy and they take themselves very seriously, and being Africa, my story of our arrival will seem somewhat familiar to you.

Our arrival at anchor was scheduled for 5:30am. The ship allowed 90 minutes for clearance formalities, after which our carefully planned activities would begin. You can probably guess that we arrived right on time, but there was no one to meet us. Attempts to reach the authorities by phone were finally successful, and since the delegation would be somewhat delayed, we asked for a routine “pre-clearance” authority in order that we could keep to our timetable, however that was denied. And so, we sat for over two hours before the official delegation arrived. The “delegation” consisted of 21 people, only two of which seemed to have any official capacity, the rest were simply “along for the ride.” These petty officials love to throw their weight around, and when they arrive on the ship they are treated like dignitaries. A full spread of rolls and breakfast foods is put forth along with coffee, tea, and any other drinks they might request, hence the reason that while there were only two real “officials” there was an entire following of friends and family anxious to partake of the largesse of the cruise ship. Now the main purpose of the “clearance formalities” is the payment of entry fees for each passenger and charges levied against the ship. It really only takes a few minutes to hand over the necessary funds and complete the proper paperwork, but the officials drag out the process in order to enjoy their time on board to the maximum. I took a peek in the room where the process was taking place, and all I saw were 21 people grabbing every roll in sight while the officials were washing down serving after serving of croissants and coffee. Finally forms were stamped, money changed hands, and we were cleared onto the island.

The ship was anchored about a mile off shore, so the Zodiac ride was a bit longer than usual. Unfortunately the weather was not good, with heavy rains at times, and drizzle in between the showers. We came ashore at a very small dock that belongs to the Bom Bom Island Resort. Bom Bom Island itself is a very, very small island where the resort has a boat house and dock, and from there we had to walk about a quarter of a mile across a wooden bridge to reach the main island of Principe. Lisa was not feeling well, and so I was taking this journey solo. Many of our passengers had elected to go on long walks through the jungle, but I had waited until later in order to take a ride into the one and only city on the Island, Santo Antonio. I really do not know why I elected to make this trip at all because Lisa and I had visited these same locations several years ago and doubted that much would change. However, in spite of the rain, I had been on the ship for too many days and felt that stretching my legs was a good idea even if I did get soaking wet – which I did.

I recalled from my last visit that the resort had several small buses which it used to take groups into town, but when we reached the vehicles, there was a line of SUV’s and only one bus. It seems that just last week they had lost two busses on the steep muddy road into town, and so at the last minute they had to recruit some local cars. I only learned this story AFTER I had boarded the one and only remaining bus. Let me tell you that our ride into town was one of the scariest I have ever taken, and at times I was positive the bus would slide right off the slick road and down the steep hillside. I don’t believe our young driver had much training at driving a bus. As we left the resort, the road turned to a reddish colored mud with deep ruts in places. He would put the bus in a lower gear and build up speed in order to tackle the steep hills. At those speeds, he quickly lost traction of his front wheels and you could see the steering wheel going from left to right wildly while he accelerated with his foot on the floor. Several times our bus was going sidewise, and each time his answer to this problem was to give it more power. I honestly do not know how we avoided sliding off the road, but when I got off the bus I almost kissed the ground and swore that I would never again get in that machine for the return trip. Oh, by the way, I did look at the tires, and they were indeed mostly bare of any tread!

The city of Santo Antonio was a ghost town when we arrived. It was Sunday, and everything but the main church was closed up tight. Having been founded by the Portuguese, the old buildings had a quaint colonial look about them. Clearly we were once again in a third world country, but the streets were clean, they had electricity and running water. The few people we saw were all very friendly. Right where our bus and cars stopped, the local guide had made arrangements for a small group of Sunday School Girls to perform a little dance for us, and then an older group of young adults arrived all the way from the neighboring island to share with us the sights and sounds of a native festival – it was very colorful and reminded me Mardi Gras. It was an interesting encounter.

On a back street far away from our group, there was a group of young girls all dressed in their Sunday finest who saw me and started to run my way. The first of them to reach me seemed to be asking if I would take her picture, but for money. Since I did not speak Portuguese, meaningful communication was impossible, but my answer is always “no.” In this case I could not have paid if I had wanted to since I ran out this morning without any cash. When the rest of the girls arrived they started to get quite raucous, and I was a little worried about where this would go when from way across the plaza, and old man came running up to me. He started using his hands to show that the girls wanted me to take their pictures, but I replied that they wanted money for that. He must have understood, because he turned on the group and in an obvious tone of displeasure and gave them a lecture. The girls started to look a little guilty, and he followed by having them all stand side by side for a group picture; after which he turned to me, and signaled that I might take my picture now. When I was done, I decided to go up to the girls and tell them my name, and one by one offered to shake their hands as I said “thank you.” The girls gladly took my hand and the old man was beaming from ear to ear as I came to each one and he introduced her by name. He then slapped me on the back and walked back to where he had been. In my mind, he was not happy with the way in which the girls were handling themselves around me, and he put a stop to it immediately. When I then went and thanked each young lady personally, he felt vindicated and the circle was closed.

The rain then started to pour so I found our meeting point and immediately crawled into the front of an SUV to wait for our return trip. There was no way I was getting in that bus again! The rain stopped as we crossed the mountain again, and by the time I got to the resort, it had cleared to the point that I could walk around taking pictures of some of the flowers, and also of one obliging African Gray Parrot. Just as I started across the long bridge back to our landing area, the sky opened up in a tropical downpour. I had taken my rain jacket and tied it to my waist, and on the narrow bridge, there was no way to put it on, so I just started “Singing In The Rain,” and enjoying the moment!

After getting my life vest on, I jumped in the Zodiac and sat down only to realize that I was looking right into the face of the ship’s Captain. This guy is everywhere, and it is why I really admire him – he was also with us in the Arctic. So, I quickly got into a banter with him about whether or not he was checked out in Zodiacs, and before long, we had the entire little boat laughing, in spite of the pouring rain.

Tonight the ship will head back to the mainland of Africa, and we will visit the country of Cameroon. A first for me.

I hope everyone is well.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Pesky Pirates - Again

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I knew something was afoot even before the official announcement. Working our way down the West Coast of Africa, we have managed to stop at almost every country along the way. We did skip Liberia and the Ivory Coast, but finally put in to the country of Ghana. The day before we reached Ghana, I noticed the presence of what was obviously a security patrol walking the deck, and it reminded me of the times we were in the Red Sea and near Somalia. Sure enough when we reached Accra, Ghana and started our second cruise, we received a ship wide notice advising that “some events related to Piracy have occurred in the latest months; therefore we will adopt additional security measures as a precaution.” Those measures, sure enough, included a 24 hour security patrol on the outside decks. Also from sunrise to sunset, all balcony doors are to remain closed, all balcony lights must remain off and all curtains closed. At the discretion of the Captain, all outside lights may be extinguished at any time during the night. Furthermore our stay in one port is being shortened in order to allow the ship time to travel further from shore than usual. All in all very wise steps, albeit a little of a surprise because I thought that all piracy was confined to East Africa – that seems to have changed.

We made two stops in Ghana, well actually three. On the final days of our first cruise, the ship first stopped in Takoradi, and then the following day put into Accra, the Capital of Ghana. At Accra, our first cruise ended and our second cruise started. On the first day of the second cruise, the ship once again went to Takoradi, which is why I said we visited two cities but in three stops.

Ghana was a refreshing change from what we have seen before. Yes, it is still a third world country, but it is clearly a country that is a step ahead of its neighbors. The water was not full of garbage when we arrived, and their beaches were clean. The country offers sanitation services, at least in the cities, and electricity and running water seemed to be readily available. Like its neighbors, however, the condition of its roads leaves something to be desired. The roads are narrow and were built for an earlier time. Today when there are so many cars and busses on the roads, they are completely overwhelmed. By early morning, traffic moves at a snail’s pace as bumper to bumper traffic slowly moves along in a snaking fashion. Cars and busses alike stop whenever and wherever they want, snarling traffic even further. Just to add to the enjoyment, suddenly and without warning the asphalt simply disappears and we were driving on dirt. It amazes me because I am sure that asphalt was there at one time, but it has simply disappeared – strange. Just as quickly as it disappeared, we would once again find ourselves on a narrow paved road.

So, let me move on to discuss the city of Takoradi. In order for us to make any progress on the roads, each of our buses was assigned a police escort. Unlike what we had in Sierra Leone which was two young police officers in a wind blazer marked “police” and both riding together on a motorbike, here in Takoradi, we had a full-fledged and properly dressed police officer on an almost new Honda Motorcycle, complete with red lights and sirens, which he took great delight in using. I know this must seem strange to talk about our police escort as one of the most interesting things we saw in Takoradi, but in truth people were fighting to see through the front windshield just to watch this guy’s antics. At times he would execute steep s-turns back and forth across both lanes of traffic, so steep in fact that we were betting he would lose control and skid off the road – but that did not happen. One of his favorite tricks was to drive full speed right down the center of the lane of oncoming traffic in what seemed like a dare as to who was going to turn first. He indeed had a few close calls, but in general he always won out. Our bus drove right down the center line on the assumption that the policeman would move all traffic out of the way – that usually worked, but not always. The absolute best show stopper was when the cop would drive right down the center stripe and put both hands up in the air, followed by his feet, thus creating a giant cross. Now how he managed his bike without hands or feet became quite a discussion on our bus.

Eventually after a drive of almost two hours, we came to our first stop, the historical fortification known as Cape Coast Castle. Takoradi, GhanaOriginally erected in 1653, by Swedish traders, it was enlarged in 1663, and then seized in 1664 by the Danes. By 1665, it was taken by the British and extensively rebuilt. Notice that the fort was not constructed to support the slave trade, but eventually it was used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The fort is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was visited by President and Michelle Obama in 2009. Takoradi, Ghana

From here our bus stopped in Elmina village so that we could walk around and visit the people and cross over the bridge which gave us wonderful pictures of the colorful fishing fleet. The fleet was in the harbor because it was a Tuesday. By order of the Government, no fishing can take place on Tuesdays in order to ease the strain on the fish population, so Tuesdays are when the fleets are in port and all hands are repairing their nets. Takoradi, Ghana

Yet another long drive brought us to Elmina Castle which was first erected by the Portuguese in 1482. It was originally an important trading post on the Gulf of Guinea, and is the oldest European building still in existence below the Sahara. Here again it was seized by the Dutch, and then the British and was eventually used in the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.Takoradi, Ghana It too has UNESCO Heritage status.

We finally stopped for lunch at a beachside resort where we were treated to local entertainment. Takoradi, GhanaThen we set out for our long drive back to the ship. One reason for the long drive along the coastal road is that in effect Takoradi is actually composed of two cities which merged. Takoradi is where the wharf is located, but the oldest part of this large community is Sekondi. Sekondi was the location of the early trading posts, and in 1903 became the terminus of a railroad built to bring timber and mineral resources to the coast. In WW II, Sekondi was home to an important staging point for British forces. Today it is booming since the discovery of large quantities of oil, and unofficially it is known as the Oil City of Ghana.

Overnight our ship moved down the coast to the capital of Ghana, Accra. While the ship was doing a “turnaround day” the roughly 25 of us who were staying on for the next cruise took a city tour, or at least that is what we thought. The description of the tour sounded wonderful, but in reality it turned out in large measure to be what I lovingly call a “spam in a can” tour. That is when you sit in a bus and drive for hours passing all kinds of interesting things, but never stopping for pictures. It is a “drive by” tour. There were only two exceptions during our 5.5 hour tour; we did stop at the National Museum, and again at an old quarter called James Town. The museum was clean, small and in my opinion not very interesting. The group was given a “guided” tour by some young lady who droned on and on about every little detail, but most of us broke away and went through the entire place in about 15 minutes.

James Town was a bit more interesting. Accra. GhanaPresumably inhabited by the autochthonous population known as the Ga, it dates from Portuguese times and is devoted to fishing. Frankly the people looked and acted the same as the general population, but our walk around the village and marketplace was interesting. Our Guide took us through the backyards to an overlook that gave us an astonishing view of Accra harbor. Accra. GhanaOn the way back out, he gave a generous tip to the family whose yard we crossed and that brought big smiles and a great photograph or two.

Today and tomorrow we are at sea enroute to San Tome and Principe. We are taking a wide circle around Nigeria. Starting with San Tome, I will start a new picture gallery and will let you know the name of the new folder.

Take care,