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drunk-dakar

Click here for part 1 of this adventure.

The above picture sums up my time in Dakar. Along with several associates, I was more or less a complete degenerate. The oversized blanket I was parading around with was given to me by a waitress who recognized that I was freezing cold and possibly mentally ill. This is what happens when you ride 1,200 km in 3 days on a Chinese scooter and then have a booze-fueled reunion with friends.

Dakar was too much fun. C’était la fête quoi. Let’s flash forward to where I can remember things clearly: our departure. I was sweating alcohol and battling a nauseating headache, but I managed to stay upright on the jakarta and make it to the highway. The omni-directional wind situation had not changed. Except now we were dealing with what my friend Hannah would call an existential hangover. If we got anywhere close to the Gambian border, this day would be considered a massive success.

At Mbour, we took a slight detour to the beach resort town of Saly. It was a bit too much of a beach resort town. We grabbed a quick lunch and then continued towards Fatick. Before we arrived there, Matt made a smart call to pull off the road near a large tree. It was time for a nap.

Almost immediately after hopping off my bike, I stepped on this:

camel-thorn

Things were not going well at this point, but 40 minutes of deep sleep can change everything. Fanned by a light breeze, we laid out our bedrolls and passed out. This was the first step in a miraculous recovery.

I still felt as if I had been struck by a blunt object when I woke up, but my energy had returned. We got back on the bikes with renewed purpose. Further down the road, we stopped in a village where I got a haircut by Lamine, an entrepreneurial young man who was selling clothes and renting speakers for ceremonies in the same space as his barbershop.

lamine-barber-shop

Lamine in his place of business.

After a 50 cent haircut and some good conversation about life in rural Senegal, we were back on the road. Before long, we were in Fatick, a charming town surrounded by salt marshes. Fatick’s historical importance is tied to the Serer ethnic group, the third largest in Senegal. Many of Senegal’s most well known cultural innovations have their roots in the Serer Kingdom of Sine, including the Sabar drum. We took our time rolling through the town, and then we had a decision to make.

fatick-kaolack

We could head directly south on an unfamiliar road towards a river crossing, of which we knew nothing, and then bush camp somewhere. Or we could go to the larger town of Kaolack and find a hotel. The first option was a big question mark, so we chose that one. It turned out to be the right decision.

It was a gorgeous ride down what’s apparently called the R61. The landscape alternated between salt marshes and patches of forest. We crossed narrow causeways over shallow water where egrets waded. Every now and then a sept place cruised past, but we mostly shared the road with donkey carts and groups of high-school-age kids taking their time on the walk home.

goat-on-donkey-cart

It’s always enjoyable to see a goat free-styling on a donkey cart (or a horse cart in this case).

The road ended abruptly at a river crossing. There was a ferry making its way over from the other side, but the sun was setting and we still didn’t know where we were going to sleep, so we opted for one of the private pirogues that was already filling up with passengers. The jakartas were hoisted up and we squeezed in as the last two on board. Everyone was given life jackets and off we went.

crossing-gambia-river

On the other side we found ourselves in Foundiougne. Families sprawled out on thatch mats in front of their houses, joking and playing cards as the sun went down. We stopped at a boutique run by two friendly Mauritanians and bought water, canned mixed vegetables and a few onions to supplement our instant noodles.

We headed out of town to scout for a place to camp. We came up empty for a few kilometers, but then found a stretch of beach perpendicular to one of the causeways. Cutting back in from the beach, Matt spotted what turned out to be the perfect bush camp, flat and open in the middle but surrounded by trees.

onions-cooking-bush-camp

We set up camp and then cooked our deluxe instant noodles, with the extra ingredients we bought chez les Mauritaniens. Sleep came easy, but I was quickly woken up by what sounded like a roaming pack of wild dogs. They were not in our camp and were probably somewhat far away. I was shitting bricks nonetheless. Matt was unconcerned, and with good reason. We were not far from several villages. The threat from wildlife was minimal. If we were going to have an unlucky interaction with an animal, it was going to be a goat wandering into our camp and eating our oreos. I went back to sleep and woke up at sunrise.

Feeling refreshed, we packed up our camp and got ready for a relatively light day of riding. We did have a border crossing in front of us, though, and another water crossing. The road was quiet until we approached Karang, on the Gambian border. We checked out of Senegal in a few minutes and then heard our first “Welcome to the Gambia.” It’s always bizarre when you can walk 50m and everything switches from one language to another. Of course, everyone on both sides was speaking Wollof.

I had another chance to try my Malian identity card, and this time I was successful. I paid $2 for my laissez passer instead of the $25 visa on arrival I would have been obligated to purchase otherwise. I am Malian after all!! The customs agents made their play to get an extra $10 off us, but nobody took issue with the actual paperwork of the jakartas.

From the border, it was a short ride to Bara and the day’s main event, the ferry to Banjul. The ferry has set departure times and we happened to arrive when it was leaving. We quickly bought tickets and gunned it down the pier, cheered on by the dockworkers gesturing wildly for us to hurry up. We made it on, but the ass end of my jakarta was hanging off the edge of the boat and they couldn’t secure the gate. After some careful arrangements, we somehow fit both jakartas in between a minibus and a very unhappy cow that was tied up and laying on the ground.

barrow-ferry-banjul

The ferry crossing takes about twenty minutes. It was a pleasant ride. I ate orange slices and scanned the horizon for interesting river boats while trying not to trip over sacks of rice.

We were the last ones off the boat. After skating around a few trucks, we made it out of the port, avoiding the chaos that was accumulating around the vehicles that had already disembarked. We ended up next to the Gambian river on an empty strip of road that did not look right. Clearly this was not the road we were supposed to be taking?

We timidly pulled up to a police checkpoint to ask some questions. Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s ruler from 1994 until just a few days before we arrived in the country, had just left for permanent exile in Equatorial Guinea. This was good news for the country and the region. That said, the new president Adama Barrow had not yet been inaugurated (he would arrive several days after us), and we had little information as to how police were conducting their duties in this period of limbo.

But the police were all smiles and happily told us that we were on the right road to the Senegambia junction, where Matt needed to drop off his passport to get a Guinean visa. It was late afternoon, but still within the limits of restrictive embassy hours. We made a beeline to the Guinean embassy only to find out that the consular officer had gone out. The security guard told us to come back later. We went off to get water and sim cards. When we returned, the security guard spelled out that this dude was not coming back anytime soon. “You must return in the morning.”

The consular officer was sounding increasingly elusive, so we decided to find a hotel nearby in order to stake out the Guinean embassy the following day. It was immediately clear that Serekunda, a kind of suburb of Banjul, was a parallel universe of the United Kingdom. This was part of the menu at our hotel:

dandimayo-menu-gambia-banjul

Premier league football was on every TV screen at the bar and a full English breakfast was available at any time of day. It was surreal, but then again, Gambia continued to be part of the Commonwealth long after independence. Jammeh severed ties in 2013, but Adama Barrow has already talked about rejoining the union. Serekunda seems to exist in its own particular British bubble. Many British expats have taken up residence in the suburb, and Thomas Cook has a seasonal colony of holidaymakers around the corner.

The Dandimayo Hotel was excellent, though. Great staff, good food, cold beers and well-appointed rooms.

jakarta-wash

Down the street from the Guinean embassy, we found a car/moto wash. The jakartas were a bit dirty after 1,400 kilometers.

We had two things on the docket in Serekunda. Matt needed a Guinean visa, and I wanted to meet up with Simon Fenton, who I have corresponded with online for the past several years. Simon owns an ecolodge in Casamance that he runs with his wife, Khady. He is also an author, having now written two books about his newfound life in West Africa. Matt and I planned on staying at his place in Casamance, but we would also cross paths in Serekunda as Simon was working on the Bradt guidebook for the Gambia.

phil-simon-matt

After a few Julbrews

We met up with Simon at one of the many bars on the Senegambia strip and quickly discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. We downed Julbrews at a good clip as we exchanged stories and extracted all the Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry knowledge from Simon’s brain.

Later in the evening, Simon took us to a Liberian bar where the beers were almost free. The kitchen behind the bar churned out fried chicken and collard greens and the stereo cranked Nigerian pop songs. After the Liberian bar, we made our final migration to an open air nightclub. It was good fun, but things started getting hazy and I was running out of steam. The last thing I can remember was twisting the dj’s arm to play Sidiki Diabate. I promptly collapsed when I got back to the hotel.

I had a manageable hangover the following morning, nothing like the aftermath of Dakar. Before the julbrews had taken hold the previous day, we had talked to Simon about taking the scenic route to Casamance. Instead of the Senegambia highway, we would take a quiet road on the Atlantic coast and cross into Casamance on a canoe.

It took us less than an hour on a sealed road to get to the border. It was another beautiful ride. Since heading south from Dakar, the scenery was increasingly dramatic, and we were really looking forward to what lied ahead in Casamance.

We pulled up to the Halahine River, where there was a very relaxed Gambian immigration officer stamping passports. We checked out of the Gambia and then went looking for the pirogue that would take us across the river into Casamance. Once we found our man, we explained that we had the jakartas to transport as well. His non-reaction made it clear that this would not be the first time his pirogue was loaded with motorcycles. We pulled up to the river and unloaded our baggage. Ganja smoke wafted out of the small bar at the water’s edge. We chatted with a friendly Gambian girl and a rasta as the bikes were loaded onto the boat.

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Loading up the jakartas

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A shot of the river taken by Oumou the Drone (named after Oumou the Rabbit who outlived all the other rabbits at the Sleeping Camel. We are hoping Oumou the Drone has similar longevity). South of the River is Casamance, Senegal, north of it is the Gambia.

There is no immigration post on the Casamance side of the river, so we technically reentered Senegal as undocumented aliens. A problem for another day. We hopped on the bikes and headed down a sand track straddled by dense forest. Abené was just a few kilometers away, but the skinny tires of the jakarta struggled in the sand. While we did nearly fall off the bikes at every turn, we actually had a ball fish-tailing through the jungle, and it was one of the most memorable rides of the trip.

drive-to-abene-casamance

Eventually the jungle thinned out and houses started springing up. We were soon on the main drag of the village of Abené. Our eyes grew wide at the sight of small buvettes and maquis. This was our kind of town.

Simon’s place is called The Little Baobab, but most Abené residents know it as Chez Simon and Khady. It didn’t take long to find someone that knew where it was located. He was even willing to show us the way on his bicycle.

Simon was still in the Gambia, but we were warmly greeted by his family. Khady showed us to our bungalows, which were built with materials readily found on the property. They were clean and comfortable, a lot more so than we expected for a jungle lodge.

little-baobab-abene-casamance

A part of the Little Baobab as seen by Oumou the Drone

khadys-jungle-bar-little-baobab

I don’t want to get carried away with the superlatives, but the Little Baobab is a special place. At no point did I feel like a paying customer at a hotel. I felt like a member of Simon and Khady’s family. The teranga (Wollof for hospitality) was in full effect.

The other guest that was staying at the Little Baobab while we were there, Rusty aka Daddy Cool, was one of many repeat visitors to the Little Baobab. In fact, his daughter was also a repeat visitor. It was easy to understand why. In addition to the hospitality, the place is just relaxed. You can feel your blood pressure drop when you walk through the gate. The icing on the cake is Khady’s excellent cooking and a bar stocked with ice cold Flag and Gazelle.

poulet-braise

poulet braisé, one of the many delicious meals we ate at the Little Baobab

Simon and Khady’s place was an attraction in itself, but the village of Abené had plenty to boast about as well. Once we settled into the Little Baobab, we had a wander around town. After twenty minutes of enjoyable meandering, chatting up roadside vendors and scouting small bars and cafés, we arrived at the beach…

gazelle-beach

…where we found cold gazelles. There were maybe 6 or 7 other people on the beach. Two girls joined us in the bar and we had a funny conversation about our jakarta trip and Yahya Jammeh. We headed back down the main drag while there was still daylight. Multiple reggae parties were on offer that evening, but we retired early to the Little Baobab where we enjoyed a few beers and the poulet braisé pictured above.

The following day, we made a trip up to the Gambian border to get our paperwork in order. The Senegalese immigration officer was not impressed with our cross-the-border-on-a-canoe maneuver, but a cold drink helped change his demeanor. Afterwards, we visited the larger town of Kafountine, also on the coast.

pelican-casamance

An arrogant pelican walking around an auto repair shop in Kafountine

chez-khathy-casamance-kafountine

In Kafountine, we stopped at a small bar and restaurant called Chez Khathy. I ate monkfish brochettes and drank an icy Gazelle. The fish was exceptional, tender but firm, perfectly grilled with a citron marinade. It was one of the most memorable meals of the trip and my life. It cost about $5 in total.

casamance-cinema-kafountine

Unfortunately, we were a few weeks late for the screening of the Phantom Menace, a real bargain at 40 cents.

Back in Abené, we visited the sacred Bantam Wora, 6 massive fromager trees that have joined together into a true freak of nature:

yellow-billed-kite

The sacred tree(s) of Bantam Wora and Oumou the Drone almost getting KO’ed by a yellow-billed kite.

To get a sense for how big the tree truly is, have a look at the following picture of me inside the tree’s roots.

bantam-wora-casamance-abene

Holy crap

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Bonfire at the Little Baobab with Simon and Khady’s family and Daddy Cool

farmers-tan

Working on my tan with a little help from the red earth

dioro-food-casamance

Rice with a sauce from Casamance called kaldou. Chili, lime and hibiscus leaves drove the flavor. Another delicious meal in Abené.

abene-beach-casamance

Back on the beach. Stay tuned for the feature film

We were reluctant to leave Abené and the Little Baobab, but Bissau was calling, and so were Bintou and Andre back in Bamako. We said farewell to Khady and the family and Daddy Cool. It was time to head to Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance.

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Up next: The majestic roads of Casamance, riverside beers in Ziguinchor, and our first Lusophone country. Bem vindo a Bissau!!!

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start-of-trip

Jakarta
Ja·kar·ta \jə-ˈkär-tə\

The capital of Indonesia

a knockoff KTM 110 cc Chinese motorcycle

Matt and I had talked about this trip for a long time. After friend and former Camel resident Brendan traversed the continent on a jakarta, we had ideas about a loop around West Africa, and to eventually sell the trip and variations of it to a certain kind of tourist. Those ideas remained just that until a few weeks ago.

This recon mission began in the Sleeping Camel workshop. Matt conceived a souped up jakarta that would allow us to carry tools, spare parts, food, extra water and fuel, kitchenware and our bedding. He is a skilled welder and metalworker, and it didn’t take him long to build a prototype with his own bike.

matt-working-jakarta-workshop

He cut 20 liter jerricans in half to make panniers.

jakarta-modification2

jakarta-workshop

jakarta-modification3

jakarta-modification1

He added a shelf on the front to hold a canister of fuel, and he installed a power point (a cigarette lighter socket) that he connected to the bike’s battery.

finished-jakarta-motorcycle

The finished product with the Guinean highlands as a backdrop (more on that later).

Jakartas can be found throughout West Africa, but the highest concentration of them is undoubtedly in Bamako. Contrary to their branding, jakartas are not made by KTM, an Austrian company best known for off road motorcycles. The jakarta “KTM” stands for KingTown Motors. Or sometimes KiangTown Motors, a good effort by the Chinese company churning out these bikes.

Why are they called jakartas? I have asked many people this question. I have heard two different answers. Some people have told me that the first person to import the bikes came from Jakarta. Others have told me that the bikes were at one time manufactured in Jakarta (or thought to have been manufactured there).

They are inexpensive bikes. In Bamako, a new jakarta is about $700, a considerable investment for many Bamakois, but still far more affordable than a used or new car. Parts and mechanics are both easy to find, and most repair jobs are only a few dollars.

Malians use these bikes to get around town. Some may use them to visit villages up to 100-150 kilometers away from Bamako. Everyone we spoke to before the trip thought we were insane to ride a jakarta for thousands of kilometers through multiple countries.

This much is true: the bikes are not fast. Our average speed hovered around 60 km/hr (about 40 mph), and even less than that on sand track. And speaking of sand, the jakartas handle sand about as well my 1984 SAAB handled ice in 2003 (the tires may not have been 20 years old but they sure felt like it).

Why travel 4,000 kilometers on these turtles? Well, if you were to ask me or Matt, the slow speed is actually the jakartas’ greatest asset. It forces you to focus on where you are instead of just racking up kilometers. Ride for 30 km and stop for a sandwich and a wander. After another 40 km, get a haircut at a roadside barber in a village. Further down the road, stop for a beer at a small maquis. Every time you hop off the bike, you have conversations. For me and Matt, this is the perfect trip.

We wanted to leave on Tuesday, February 7th, but we got into a real debacle at the Malian DMV. One day I will write about that. So we left for Dakar around 9AM the following morning.

We often joked that the most dangerous part of this trip was within Bamako city limits. The traffic may not be as manic as the biggest cities in West Africa, but the sheer number of jakartas keeps the entropy at full throttle. But we zipped out of town unscathed.

In a short while, we were in Kati, cruising past the empty cement trucks parked next to the customs post, getting ready for their return trip to Senegal. Then it was our first stretch of open road. With a tailwind, we blasted towards Kita.

In Kita, we stopped at a service station to refuel and have a snack. We had a funny conversation with the cashier and a random Kita resident while scarfing down beef jerky and degué (sweetened yogurt with millet) in the air conditioned shop. It was during this conversation that we got the first indication of a bad road in Senegal between Kedougou and Tambacounda. But we’ll get to that later.

Some 40 kilometers after Kita, we turned onto a relatively new sealed road that would take us to Kenieba, a stones throw from the border of Senegal. The road was in excellent condition. Every now and then, a truck or a bus would tear past us, trying to break the sound barrier as they teetered around turns and double passed slower vehicles. But otherwise, this was a peaceful stretch of road that slowed down my thoughts.

We stopped in several villages to stretch our legs and refuel. Once the sun began its descent, we stocked up on water and headed into the bush.

cooking-dinner

We quickly mounted our mosquito nets and then Matt cooked a delicious meal of “mushroom” flavored ramen noodles. After dinner, I was out like a light. A steady breeze meant a good night’s sleep after a long day on the bikes. The following day would be even longer.

We woke up at sunrise and rode for 15 kilometers along the base of a plateau that changed from red to gold in the morning light. In Kenieba, we pulled into the parking lot of a service station. Women grilled brochettes and ambulant vendors vied for their first clients of the day. We grabbed a couple brochette sandwiches and washed them down with a concoction of nescafe and condensed milk. I used to drink these every morning at Madou’s kiosk when I lived in Abidjan. It is the cheap fuel that you can find everywhere, and it’s delicious.

amadou-nescafe

Amadou was the barista doling out the hyper-sweet instant coffees. We eased into unguarded conversation, which is something you can do effortlessly with any Malian you come across. As we left, he gave us benedictions for the voyage ahead. I wished him well with his Arabic classes.

And then we were at the border. We checked out of Mali without issue. Crossing into Senegal would be the first test for the jakartas’ paperwork and my newly acquired Malian identification card. My Malian nationality was rejected almost immediately. The Senegalese police officer said that the Malian ID card is easily counterfeited. This was not an auspicious start to my ID card experiment. I probably could have fought him on it, but I had my American passport, and Americans don’t need visas for Senegal. Problem solved.

A young customs agent received us on the other side of the road. He had a good laugh when we told him that we were traveling to Dakar on jakartas. He then realized that he had never dealt with such a case.

Most jakartas aren’t formally matriculated. Drivers carry a vignette that they buy at the local mayor’s office. These cards confer ownership, but they aren’t made for crossing borders. Matt and I went through the unusual and tiring process of getting license plates for the jakartas, which would normally allow us to transit through Senegal for a certain number of days without issue. The customs agent told us he would need to consult with his chef.

While the chef was deciding whether or not to give us a “laissez passer,” we discussed road conditions with the younger customs agent. We had already heard about a cratered stretch of road that passed through the Niokolo Koba National Park. The customs agent doubled down on that and then repeatedly warned us about lions.

The chef eventually gave us the green light. Once we paid for our laissez passer’s, we were on our way. Getting from the border to Kedougou was straightforward. This road belied what was to come later on.

sardine-sandwich-kedougou

We arrived in Kedougou around noon. Uniformed schoolchildren walked and rode oversized bicycles alongside the neatly paved roads on their way home for lunch. We refueled in town, eliciting shrieks of laughter from the gas station clerk and other customers as we explained the jakarta trip. We then found a patch of shade in front of a mechanic’s workshop. We scooped up more degue (in Senegal it’s called thiakry, and for my money it’s even better than Malian degue. I think that’s because it’s a bit creamier) and a baguette. We made sandwiches of sardines, Vache qui Rit (a processed cheese that does not require refrigeration) and Sonia chili sauce. This sandwich was a revelation.

kedougou-tambacounda

After lunch, we pressed on to the Niokolo Koba National Park. It looks easy enough on the map, but that green patch is a nightmare. The park is littered with tank traps and deviations of corrugated dirt track. I crept along like a senile geriatric and still nearly snapped off my foot brake on multiple occasions.

parc-national-niokolo-koba

Several signs told us to be prudent, warning us of wild animals. There are indeed lions in this park. There are also hippos, elephants, rare giant Eland antelopes, and the northernmost population of wild chimpanzees in the world. We didn’t see any of these animals, but we did see a bushbuck leap across the road, a giant black scorpion that I thought was dead (it wasn’t), and a squirrel that Matt thought was dead (it wasn’t).

road-to-tambacounda

finally out of the park

My shoulders, thighs, knees and ass area were shot by the time we got out of the park. The jakarta was intact, though, and that was encouraging. By the time we rolled into Tambacounda, we were out of daylight and it was time to find a hotel.

tambacounda-art

A painting in the hotel bar

Matt led us to a hotel he was familiar with. It was clean and comfortable and they had cold beers at the bar. Dinner was a massive plate of chicken, frites and peas with a heap of chili sauce on the side. Everything was right with the world at this point. After a few more beers in the company of the entertaining bar staff, we retired to our air conditioned bungalow to get some sleep before the final leg to Dakar.

Tambacounda to Dakar is a hair over 450 kilometers. In normal circumstances, we would have done that in two days, taking our time in the villages and towns on the way. But we had two friends to meet in Dakar, and one of them only had a couple days there. So we gathered our things at first light and braced ourselves for another mammoth day. Dakar or bust. With stops, we had about 10 hours of riding in front of us in order to arrive in a city of 2+ million people around rush hour.

When we walked out to the bikes, Matt noticed that his jakarta had spent the night leaking gasoline. This was not a promising start to the day. Thankfully, Matt is a mechanic and he travels with spare parts. He quickly found and replaced the culprit, a cracked fuel filter.

Once we got moving, we were locked in. The road itself was impeccable. Quiet villages and massive baobabs punctuated the flat landscape. By the time we reached the salt flats leading into Mbour, arriving in Dakar before sunset seemed like a real possibility. The home stretch was not easy, though.

Matt proposed ditching the crowded two lane road between Mbour and Dakar for the highway, a toll road that sees much less traffic. The highway was considerably better in the sense that you didn’t have to worry about getting smashed by a truck every thirty seconds. In fact, the highway was empty, and it would have been a real joyride to Dakar if it wasn’t for gusts of wind that came from seemingly every direction. Battered by the wind for nearly 80 kilometers, the bright lights of Dakar provided the final shot of adrenaline we needed.

dakar-beach

Tired but triumphant, we arrived in Dakar, dodging taxis and minibuses as we made our way to Ngor, on the edge of the Atlantic. It was time for a beer with friends. Little did we know, our trip was just beginning.

Stay tuned for part 2.

dakar-plage

moped-dakar

surfing-dakar

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Matt and I have just returned from a jaunt through West Africa (well, a part of it anyway) on Chinese scooters. Lots of photos and commentary to come.

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Plans for 2017

preview-2017

2016 was not a great year for the planet. Personally, however, I have no complaints about it, mainly owing to the birth of our son. This year may be almost as eventful.

At the start of last year, I had the following on my agenda:

Keep working on side projects. That would be Postcards from Timbuktu.
X Get my Malian passport. Didn’t even get close to starting the process. I want it in order to travel visa-free in West Africa, and this year, I have much more of an incentive to get it done. More on that later.
Go to the states for a visit. Although, Bintou did not end up going. We’ll hopefully change that later this year.
X Take a trip to Guinea by boat. We have taken some longer trips on the river, but we never got close to the Guinean border.
X Take a long overdue trip to Abidjan. Another fail.
Have a child. To be fair, I did not really plan in advance that we would have a child in 2016. Bintou just happened to be pregnant when I was writing that post. Thankfully, everything went well with the birth.

So how about this year:

Introduce my mom to Andre and West Africa. My mom will be coming to Mali for the first time in just a few days. She will also be meeting her grandson for the first time. This trip is going to leave a mark, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Ride a scooter from Dakar to Accra. My semi-nomadic life turned into a sedentary one last year. This trip will be a nice reminder of my early days in West Africa. Only instead of buses and bush taxis, I will be on a Chinese scooter, averaging 60 km/hr on the region’s less traveled roads. I will be traveling with Matt, who has been my best mate since coming to Mali back in 2010. This trip will be a recon mission as we actually want to sell it as a tour, perhaps later this year or in early 2018 when the weather is forgiving. I am really looking forward to this trip. As an added bonus, I will get in that long overdue trip to Abidjan on the way.

Get my Malian passport. Or at least my Malian identity card. The basic identity card allows you to travel overland throughout West Africa without having to get a visa for each country. The scooter trip has given me some extra motivation to get this done.

Take the fam to the states. Andre should have his citizenship documents in the coming weeks. Bintou is not a citizen, nor is she currently on the path to become one. For our first trip, we plan on applying for a tourist visa, because we can do it from Bamako, and it involves fewer hoops to jump through. The marriage visa, which will put her on the path to citizenship, is considerably more complicated and costly. We will get to that in 2018, inshallah. If all goes well, we will spend 3-4 weeks in the states this year, visiting friends and family on a little road trip.

Keep going with Postcards from Timbuktu. I have a few ideas for other projects this year, but I know what it happens when I get too ambitious on paper. The Postcards from Timbuktu project is going well, and I think it will continue to grow this year. I am currently working on a map to visualize where all the orders are going/have gone. We have partnered with a classroom in Timbuktu, and in addition to offering beautiful hand drawn postcards, we are now directing some cash to school supplies. The success of the project depends largely on media exposure, but we are seeing some people get involved after they receive a postcard themselves, a kind of lethargic domino effect considering how long it takes for the cards to arrive.

Use the right hemisphere of my brain more often. I used to write a lot more. I also used to draw and make music. I would like to get back to that this year. I do realize that it sounds foolish to say I will find time for something I was unable to find time for when I was childless.

I accomplished exactly half of the things I had listed out for 2016. We’ll see if I can do a bit better than that. Regardless, as long as Bintou and Andre are happy and healthy, all is well.

How is 2017 looking on your side?

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hand-drawn-samples

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Faty, a friend in Timbuktu, if she would be willing to have her students design postcards for Postcards from Timbuktu. I proposed selling her cards for $12, with the additional $2 going towards her classroom.

I was not surprised that Faty got behind the idea. She is incredibly active on the net — blogging, sharing images of everyday life in Timbuktu, organizing social media campaigns for various causes — but also in her community. She is the founder of Sankoré Labs, an ICT (information and communications technology) initiative in Timbuktu that promotes entrepreneurship and civic engagement. Pick a NGO buzzword, and she is probably involved with it, but she actually does the work.

The whole idea with these postcards is that the kids design whatever they want. If you order one, you really don’t know what is going to show up. You can see a sampling of cards that have gone out in the picture at the top of the post. In addition to those pictured, I saw one postcard that had 2 frogs with their legs outstretched and a tree with hearts for leaves. Another had a dead “terrorist” with an ak47. Yet another had a mickey mouse type figure sprinting across the postcard, surrounded by CiWara designs, a traditional Bamana symbol featuring an antelope. The cards are original and beautiful, and I would personally be thrilled to receive one.

On the back of the postcard, the students have written their names. I encourage anyone who has ordered one of these cards to take a picture of it when it arrives (hold it in your hands, put it on your cat, put it in your front window – just something to show the kids how far it has traveled), and I will send that to Faty so she can share it with the kids.

In addition to the original designs, the hand drawn postcards are also interesting because they have an extra step in their journey. The cards themselves come from Bamako, like the others. But instead of going directly to Ali’s crew, they go to the Yehia Alkaya school. Once the kids finish with them, Faty delivers them to Ali, and one of the guides hand writes the message.

If you want to order one of these hand drawn cards, here is the page to do so.

We have one more twist that we are going to add to the project in January. I am also creating a map that tracks where all of the orders are traveling to. Since the BBC article, we have had an influx of orders to the UK, but because of the BBC’s wide ranging readership, we have also seen our first orders to places like Indonesia and Kenya.

I am really looking forward to our first order to a small pacific island nation. If you are in any place that meets that description, let me know and I will send you a postcard for free.

Stay tuned… I feel like before long we will be shipping camel cheese from Timbuktu.

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