Christmas in Cape Verde

sunset on Sao Vicente

sunset on Sao Vicente

It was a kind of deja-vu, leaving Senegal for Cape Verde, since last year for Christmas I had moved from the non-festive towns of Morocco for Portugal. This year, I celebrated Christmas in the portugese-speaking islands of Cabo Verde, leaving the islamic chaos of Dakar on a too-cheap-to-miss flight.

the sleepy, volcanic town of Calhau

the sleepy, volcanic town of Calhau

We started in Sao Vicente, where the cultural capital city of Cape Verde, Mindelo, was the perfect place to take in the holiday festivities. People flooded the streets, and even the nights were warm enough to wear pink and white dresses to mingle in the central square, eat out, and evesdrop on a live concert happening at the Porto Grande hotel.

the deserted streets of Calhau

the deserted streets of Calhau

On Christmas eve, we explored the other side of Sao Vicente, where the supposedly excellent beach town of Calhau was more like an empty ghost town. In our 3 hours there, we only saw 3 cars pass, 2 of which were buses, and 5 other people: a lady on her balcony, a couple men with a young girl in their holiday home, and 2 tourists that were also searching for some charm in the town. Nothing was open, not even the windows on the blocked up houses, no cars in the driveway, or signs of life in the streets. We finally ran into 2 men on the road out of town, casually drinking beers as they strolled, who pointed us into the direction of a hotel that may be open. It turned out to be an oasis of life, with atleast 5 other people sitting around the french-owned courtyard and tapping onto the free wifi.

Christmas day gift exchange

Christmas day gift exchange

christmas day greetings

christmas day greetings from Santa Clause’s mom

We hitchhiked out of the town, and made a lot of village stops on the way, since we had accidentally been picked up by the local Santa clause delivering presents to the neighbours. He was paid in beers and we paid him in chocolate, and we drove past his mother for the saddest wave hello.

the hilltop villages of Ribeira Grande, Santo Antao

the hilltop villages of Ribeira Grande, Santo Antao

the colonial town of Ribeira Grande

the colonial town of Ribeira Grande

We took a ferry from Sao Vicento to Santo Antao, which was such an unbelievably beautiful island I dont think its even worth trying to describe. They say pictures paint a thousand words, but no picture can really do justice for this island, or any of the Cape Verde islands for that matter. They were all very different, with a different atmosphere and dramatically different environments. Santo Antao was the most impressive because of the huge, steep, green moutains that we had to weave through, and the road always seemed to be laid on the peaks of each montain, so we floated around in the clouds looking down at these little sea-side, cliff-hanging villages like ant-towns, and wondered how the road ever got us up so high or how it would ever lead us back down alive.

Roadtrip Santiago, from Tarrafal to Praia

Roadtrip Santiago, from Tarrafal to Praia

The last island we visited was Santiago, home of the country’s capital and international airport. We were warned that Praia was boring and dangerous, but, quite frankly I liked it. We stumbled upon some art cafe that I cant remember the name of, but the owner was the wife of the late Vadú, a famous Cape Verdean singer, who died in a car accident in Santo Antao. She was the first and only local to speak highly of Cape Verde, but we had already made plans to continue north to Tarrafal. Its a small, cobble-stoned street with a perfectly placed central square, a small beach with everything you need on it, and I made some very good new friends there. On the beach I met 2 boys with their 2 dogs, and one dog liked me slightly more than anyone else, and I showed a little favouritism to the 13 year old boy who inherited my Freewaters sandals. At the square later that night, I befriended a sobbing 9 year old girl, who´s world turned right side up after we bought her a coke, gave her my hair elastic, and let her braid 4 plaits in my hair. I hope she never cries again.

Lucky Days in Ghana

The Cape Coast Castle

The Cape Coast Castle

Just getting into Ghana seemed like a victory enough, but then I lucked out even more. A taxi driver, waiting to fill his 5 shared seats, gave up as soon as I entered, and then I had my own private car to deliver me the 3 hours to Accra. He smoked a joint in the car, accurately timed between police check points, and I had to play stupid and sweet to 3 more demands for hand-outs on the way. He delivered me to the front door of my couchsurf host, who turned out to be a slightly depressed Israeli guy, or atleast a very unhappy and negative guy, so 2 nights later, I snuck away to the beach with a bunch of Lebanese friends I had made. I also bonded well with his other Israeli friends, and everyone took care of me like a visiting relative that needed to be fed and escorted around 24/7.

The best friend I made was Asaad, who managed one of the ex-pat bars I had been to a couple times (its called Firefly, you should go there!). It kind of felt like everyone there was Israeli or Lebanese, but if I didn’t say anything, I fit in quite nicely. When Asaad spotted me and realized I was fresh fish, he asked me where I was from and what I’d done or seen in Ghana. I hadn’t seen more than the Israeli guys house and the embassy of Cote D’Ivoire, so he asked what I was doing tomorrow at 3.

riding on the beach

riding on the beach

“Nothing.”

“Come to the beach with us?”

“Ok.”

Then, 1 and a half hours later, at 2:45am, he asked me if I was ready. He meant 3 am, and we drove to Kokrobite through the night to arrive at sunrise. We sat on the beach, as the stars disappeared and the sky lightened, and the largest, brightest comet I’ve ever seen streaked the sky in neon blue and a flash of orange. Then the sun rose, and started to cook us at 8 am, so we eventually retreated into the beach house to nap a few hours. The rest of the day was spent grilling lobsters and riding horses on the beach, and I felt like I had found yet another African paradise.

the Accra Polo Club

the Accra Polo Club

I stumbled on another dream day in Accra, when I got permission to ride some polo ponies at the Accra Polo Club; I rode a feisty little gelding in circles at sunrise, trying to figure out the 4 reins in my hand, and finally felt like the horse under me had enough power to gallop without heaving under my weight (i.e. every beach horse I’ve ridden in West Africa).

Later I went further west to Cape Coast, staying with friends of Asaad’s, and visited the many castles and forts spread out along the coast, including the haunting St. George’s Castle in Elmina. Each fort ironically markets itself as “the biggest slave castle,” “the largest underground dungeon,” or “the largest number of slaves sold,” but they all give the same, spooky, hair-raising chill down your spine when you visit. The smell of the slave chambers is still poignant, even after hundreds of years and being cleaned and ventilated, but the smell of blood, sweat and tears stubbornly sticks to the walls. It made me noxious, but it was hard to miss a visit to these white, fortressed castles, sitting so gloriously on the sea.

St. George´s Castle, Elmina

St. George´s Castle, Elmina

Togo to Ghana (very sneakily)

I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to Ghana. All the Ghanaian embassies I had talked to so far (in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo) had refused me since I wasn’t a resident of any of their countries, but no one seemed to consider the fact that there is no Ghanaian embassy in my resident country. They hadn’t even heard of Iceland, so I tried to convince them it was part of Togo, but that didn’t work. Then I told them that the closest embassies to Reykjavik, in London or Copenhagen, had refused me for the same reason, so somebody had to eventually issue the visa, or else the conclusion would be that no Icelanders could visit Ghana.

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my guide in the butterly hills of Togo

After being rejected in Lomé, I went to the butterfly forests of Kpalimé, 150 km north. I was there to go chasing waterfalls and lots of colourful butterflies, but the dry season kind of killed the waterfall chase. I hired a guy to take me around the winding hills and forests one day, and I think he had more fun than I did.

After frolicking around Togo, I tried to casually cross at the local border of Ho, just 25 mins away from Kpalimé. It took me a couple motorcycle rides, along winding dirt roads that seemed to lead to nowhere, but eventually i reached the exit post of Togo. I convinced the officers there not to stamp me out of the country, since I wasnt sure if I´d get into Ghana, 2 km away past some no-mans land. I reached the smiley, english speaking Ghanaian border post, only to make 4 new friends that couldnt help me at all. They said they didnt issue visas and couldnt let me in, since I´d definitely not get back out of Ghana  without alot of hassle.

the Kpalimé falls, just trickling drops

the Kpalimé falls, just trickling drops

So I took the windy dirt road back to Kpalimé, and another hot stuffy bus 150km south to Lomé, and went straight to the border crossing there. I reached just 30 mins before it closed, and had to again convince the Togolese side not to stamp me out. I walked the few meters into Ghana, and the first officer I met immediately started flirting with me. It was a good start, atleast I thought so, so I stuck to him until he took me to his boss. Then that guy, holed up in an office with another powerful official, started letting on that they “could issue me a visa, but what incentive could I give?” They circled me with indirect questions, begging for a fat bribe, and finally said the visa would cost $150, or 120 Euros, and anything extra would help facilitate the process. I played stupid and sweet, thanking them for being so helpful, and that that exact price was just perfect. Half an hour later, they reluctantly gave me back my passport, still hinting at some sort of cash-value thank-you, but I already knew I had paid 5 times more the cost of a tourist visa, and I only got a hand-scribbled stamp valid for 1 week.

Benin and Togo

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Benin and Togo kind of sounds like a couple of Caribbean islands, but they’re two skinny countries sandwiched between Nigeria and Ghana. The influence of Christianity and English have seeped into these French-speaking countries, and drinks like Guinness and Milo are just as common here as in other former British colonies. They were important ports in the slave trade days, and the origin of Vodoo religion lies somewhere between these countries.

I left Burkina Faso on a 15 hour bus from Ouaga to Cotonou, but 30 hours later I finally arrived the following morning. The bus had numerous reasons for being delayed, from the presidents presence blocking one road to waiting for armed military to board our bus and take the other road. I expected it to be a small-town kind of place, especially since Porto-Novo is the capital, but Cotonou reminded me of Phnom-Phen with all the hundreds of moto-taxis filling the large roads. I had couchsurf hosts in Fidjerosse, the sandy-lane suburbs west of the airport. One was a Dutch guy living with his Togolese wife, the other was a French guy living with his Cuban girlfriend. They’re homes were warm and inviting after the long journey, and I relaxed on the beach where I found some more ponies to ride.

The beach in Benin is beautiful, the entire coast-line a stretch of yellow sand, palm trees and fishermen (minus the huge port in Cotonou). There is a famous road called the Route des pêches, a 50km sandy track where only motorcycles and 4×4’s pass, and I hitchhiked it all the way to Togo. I stopped in Ouidah, the old slave port famous for its voodoo culture, and tried to make sense of all the colorful, cartoony statues that mark their superstitions and beliefs. There I picked up my last hitch-hike bike, whose driver didn’t speak French but was nevertheless road tripping through Benin to Ghana. I forget his name, but I’ll never forget his smiling face – he was a tall and lanky, gay comedian from Sierra Leone wearing a purple dress and long, painted nails to match. TIA, hey?

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African-isms & favorite quotes

In Nigeria, I was a “fresh fish,” or JJC – Johnny just come, the affectionate nickname of newly arrived ex-pats. “Wahala” are all the problems you have to deal with, and you often need to complain about wahala or ask for no more wahala. But if you want a cheaper price, you ask to pay “small money.” Annoying people are called “goat“, and everything else bad are “bastads,” but all things good and wonderful are “sweet” or “sweetah.” Everything is said to happen “now now,” and repeating “yes” or “now” or “yes now” at the end of all your sentences is commonplace.

I met a Turkish guy couchsurfing in Lagos, and it turns out he was there to avoid mandatory military service back home. He explained religion like this: “It’s like cheap alcohol – first it makes you blind, then it makes you fight… And then it kills you.

One of the workers at the German embassy in Lagos said “If I nah fite and I nah tief, then I’m gonna be somebody. And I neva fite and I nah tief so I’m ok.”

There are a lot of other sayings and gestures that have become so natural that it’s hard to think of them as local “-isms”, but then for all the other far-out, unexpected, crazy or chaotic happenings, there’s always “TIA”, This Is Africa, which explains and forgives the rest. In Senegal, they have a similar saying, “Senegalaisement“, or “the Senegalese way”, to explain the silly mistakes or illogical happenings one always seems to encounter in Dakar.

A friend of mine was asking a lot of questions about traveling in Africa, how it was, the cost of things, and the hassles I encountered. I responded to his questions and questioned back how it was to live in Africa, and he said “Life in Africa is easy, and it gets easier if people like you. Life in Africa is cheap too, but it’s even cheaper if people like you.” And that pretty much sums it up right – same story goes for traveling in Africa.

Short Stories from Africa

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Lagos was the first time I had seen international news since mid-November. There were hurricanes in the Philippines and Northern Europe, and civil unrest in Thailand and the Central African Republic. Paul Walker died, but then Nelson Mandela’s passing took over all the news coverage so I stopped finding out what else was happening in the world.

It’s hard to watch the world pass you by, but I’m always reminded how depressing it is I watch the news since they only seem to cover the bad and terrible things that happen around us. I prefer to listen to the stories people have shared with me in west Africa, giggling about the small, unimportant or unbelievable things that have happened to us.

My hitchhiker friends in Nigeria once tried to catch a 23:00 flight out of Lagos Int’l airport, so they left Cotonou, 150km and one border crossing away, at 6am and still missed the flight. You’ll have to try driving that road one day to understand how it’s possible, but I can vouch for him that it’s very possible to spend 17hours on route. He said at one point, he sat parked on the same spot of the highway for 4 hours and at that point he should have walked to the airport and he might have made it.

He also joked about the animals in Lagos. Everywhere else in west Africa, you see stray dogs roaming the streets and birds flying in the sky, but not in Lagos. I asked why and he said “probably because they eat them all.” But then he took another guess and said “actually, probably because they have nothing to eat,” but that’s hard to believe when you drive past yet another 5m high garbage pile with little kids rummaging through them for who-knows-what.

I did see goats in Nigeria, but they were different than the other African goats. They were like Pigme-breed, fat with short legs. Senegal has monster chickens, these huge, fluffy birds with feathers on their feet. But then there were this mini-pigeons in Nigeria that probably interbred with some little birds to be so small but still silly purple around their necks.

When I walk around alone, I’ve had a few funny looks from people, truly making me feel like I may be the first non-black human they’ve ever seen, but I’m never sure if they’re gawking or checking me out. One guy close to my age passed me on the street, and his eyes stuck like glue on my face as his head turned to keep staring. Once he was a few steps past me but still looking back and walking forward, he walked straight into an umbrella and knocked over the street sellers temporary shelter. A toddler once did something similar, but instead he walked straight into an electricity pole and fell backwards on his (thankfully) diapered bum. One uniformed school kid was looking up at me for long enough that he didn’t see the gutter coming up so he tripped and fell too. Each time I thought to run to their aid, but I wasn’t sure if I would scare or hurt them more.