Being in Georgia so quick after Africa did make me think back about this absolute different continent as where I was at that moment, slowly I started to miss certain aspects of it, and so this ‘Africa from A to Z’ was born.
A: Africans don’t tend to give much, but when they do, they give generous. Aboubacar gave me two diamonds, a rough one and a polished one. Most Africans are like the first diamond. In comparison to other nationalities they act like children, trying their best. Their very own words ‘we try, but it is difficult’. I think they are right. And it can be downright cute. Africans can be annoying with their screaming for attention, with their asking for whatever we have, but they can be unmistakable adoring too… Africans are like that box of chocolate ‘you really never know what you gonna get’. Firstly, I don’t travel out there to receive things, what I like to receive most though, are smiles and I can say I received those a lot. Being back home I came to conclusion that my lack of the French language might be a hindrance too, perhaps people did invite me now and then, I could just not understand them? Fact is that many people are asking, and being on the road in the Caucasus let me feel clearly how much this behavior had left it traces in me: I suspected every person who came up to me to ask for things. They never did.
Africans, some more generalizations: very striking feature is their appearance! Wow, so many people just look so good, natural and without knowing. Most men do practice and their bodies are amazing beautifully built, no matter their age. No fat. No belly. Muscles like steel. A lot of women are outstanding as well, especially the women who do the work. So, that’s almost all the women. The ones who pull the water bucket out of the well have the most superb arms! Many men do not work as hard as the women do, but they work out their bodies in the gym. The men who do work on the fields look super healthy! Africans have curves and their slow pace only adds to their beauty.
B BOXING THE BICYCLE
B: Boxing the bicycle. ‘I also like cycling but I am afraid to box my bicycle,’ is what I heard some one say. Understandable. I had the same fear, thought my bicycle would be damaged to a point where I could go straight to a cycle cum repair shop. Fact is, I hád to go straight to a cycle shop to get it repaired, but that was before I boxed the bicycle. I think taking the bicycle on a flight with you is generally fine. Definitely no reason not to decide cycling. No way: you’ll miss out and you’ll never know on what because your bicycle is not with you! Shame on you! It’s a lot of work to box a bicycle, so take at least one day out to find boxing material, tape and a knife. African markets tend to have sale points for card box, so head there. You could start at shops selling refrigerators for instance.
C: Cycling! I never go back to public transport. What a misery to sit in a minibus, the view confined to a little piece of greasy glass where not half the view of the real world where you’re in is exposed. Cycling can be demanding, for sure. It certainly takes an effort to find food, a shelter, water and sometimes the correct road, but what a freedom to stop where ever you want, can, need, wish and hoped for. If you do feel the slightest desire to cycle, then I think it says you should give it a try.
D: Dangerous. Cycling in Africa, as a woman on your own, is supposed to be dangerous. ‘Take a bag of blood with you,’ according others I definitely will end up in the hospital. Where I would be affected with AIDS, as a bonus. Okay, hospitals are not as excellent as we westerners are used too, but is that reason to stay at home and avoid Africa all together? I keep receiving wide gaping eyes, like I was captured and about to throw into a boiling soup to give the Africans their bouillon. People are watching me in absolute awe, mixed with fear and topped up with a look that I must be a searching for danger. Cycling from the Netherlands to Cameroon is really not that difficult, but for most others it’s an impossible and very dangerous task. ‘But the men out there?’ ‘And in the night?’ ‘Oh, only one woman?!’ I can state that the Africans I met, and that are thousands of men, are the least grabbing ones on earth. Sure, they all want to marry you, but they will always ask first. After all, Africa is about asking, isn’t it ; )
E: Expenses are not lower than traveling by public transport! I don’t know who came up with this, I even might have thought this myself before I set off. No way, cycling is definitely not cheaper. How could it be: you’re on the road way longer to cross a country compared by public transport. In my case, I have to eat double the portions I would eat when not cycling. The only way to save on money is by sleeping in a tent, especially in countries where hotels tend to be more costly (about the whole of Africa). But on the whole: slow traveling tend to be cheaper.
F: Food is great in this continent. True, ‘people are starving’, especially according all who watch too much television. ‘Food is disgusting’ will some others tell you, true to people who only judge Africa by this same medium called television. Mauritania is one of the countries with the least variation of food (especially as a vegetarian) but for all the other West African countries, start traveling while you are out there, is my advise. Traveling start with trying all what is on display, there, just for you. Food from Morocco all the way to Cameroon is just delicious. Finger licking delightful. Did I tell you I gained about 5 kilo (and no, not only muscles!)
G GIVE ME
G: ‘Give me’ is the first sentence children learn in school. Yeah, they actually do learn something in those schools, although not too much. Senegalese babies, for instance, learn to say ‘toubab’ before the, for them, not so precious word ‘mama’ and so it’s no wonder that the line ‘White, give me’ come soon into your daily existence. Get used to it. See it as ‘hello’ and the whole scene change with it. Soon, everyone is utterly friendly because they all wave and yell to you for a very enthusiastic HELLO! In Gambia I found out the source of their asking: it’s not so much because we are white and rich but more an innate habit. Children learn from their mother, if they want something, not to work for it, but to ask for it. People asking and having a negative answer in return is not an issue, they’ll go to another to ask or just forget about the whole thing they wanted. Often it’s not about really wanting something, but, as I learned, more about wanting what you have and they not. For me it was annoying but at the same time an exercise as well. People might cycle a bit harder to slide alongside you and ask for a present. I would kindly ask if it was their birthday or that I had indeed something to give if they would hand over their donkey to me.
H: Hills. There’s no such thing as evenness. Except in the Netherlands, where I come from. Because West Africa was not known to me as a hilly, exceptions as Fouta Djalon, I came to know quickly the reality. The only flatness is to be found in the second part of the Sahara, Mauritania, Ghana coastal region, and Togo and Benin coastal region. All the rest, forget about it. Up and down continuously! Hundreds of meters a day without gaining any height in altitude.
I I LOVE YOU
I: ‘I love you!’ People of Africa are open, and love to become one: one love & one people and one beer & one people. Sex is widely available and if you need it, it never is far from you. Women are advantaged over men, as we never have to pay for it. I did not take advantage over this benefit though. No, but thanks. Rarely did I not have to sweep my room, open the closets and find condoms, regular and flavored. Strawberry rules. ‘I love you’ is told by men and women and generally means ‘I like you’, isn’t that cute? I start to respond ‘I love you’ in ‘I like you too’.
J: Jasmine. Smells are very important, as soon as I enter a country I can smell how it shall be (India is a very strong example). Now, this is not a jasmine flower, but together with this frangipani, it’s my favorite flower. I noticed the first frangipani flower in Ceuta, then in Guinea Conakry and then again in Nigeria. Africa, from the Sahara till Cameroon is full of flowers but one need to pay attention.
K: Kilometers. People often don’t know how far something is, not strange of course. I never knew exactly how far something was either. Kilometers are just not so important when traveling by public transport. So most people will tell you just something, better something than nothing, isn’t it, better than saying ‘I don’t know’. So distances are often very wrong if asked. But surprisingly not always, I noticed on gravel roads people know better how far the next town is. Perhaps because traveling on such roads is a real pain in the ass, especially by public transport. Distances on road signs are perfect but sometimes annoying, because you don’t always want to know how far something is, how slow you are or… even worse, develop a mentality where you want to cycle more and more. I have slowly become a kilometer pursuer! I set the goal often at a 100 kilometers, especially after the Sahara my view on distances has changed drastic. Which is very unrealistic because the Sahara is a heaven for cyclists, that is, if the wind is in your back.
L: Love. Do I fall in love? A question sometimes asked. Of course. Traveling is falling in love throughout the day, every day, sometimes moments after moments, tumbling over each other. Very sometimes, that involves a man. If it comes to a scientific reason, all I can say is that cycling brings me back to the basics of live. Without going too much into detail about certain aspects, its remarkable -is it really- I had only male cyclist tagging along. I felt a bit more for than plain friendship for some of them. It’s not difficult to refrain from action though, because cycling is the priority I love to be busy with. On the other hand, its plain bothersome that other males, doesn’t matter being a religious churchman, try to be friendly only to have sexy conversations which hopefully will end in some realization of their dreams. True, often that’s what we all want, but not if you are in the beginning of getting to know some one. And very often this is the case. I am always a bit hesitant if it comes to friendship with Africans, so often theirs something underneath their motives. As a friend told me once: ‘They so often have a hidden agenda.’ Of course, sometimes friendships are born out of sex first, but I prefer not to, and besides, I never am long enough on one spot. When I was, in Gambia, I was once again confirmed in my trying not to be too prejudiced believe. Perhaps Africa works the other way around, on the primitive base where sex and sniffing around is the base for a life long bound. Hm, perhaps…
M MANNERS & MARRY ME
M: Manners? If it comes to food intake. No way I have manners. I am wolfing. It occurred to me, when I came back home, that my meals are quicker consumed than my father does. Where I was once the slowest eater compared to anyone, anywhere, anytime… I have transformed to a hungry, greedy grinding machine. Donuts for breakfast or to finish breakfast. Spaghetti with two omelet for breakfast. Often one bread at once, every so often an extra fish to complete breakfast. Not unusual for me to order twice. Cycling makes hungry! Talking about manners of the African people: nothing than compliments! Most people are very well-mannered if it comes to conduct. None of this disgusting nose and throat sounds like the Indians and Chinese. Neither do Africans stare at you as if you are an alien crawling out underneath the earth they stand on. The way they eat is often quite soundless, no burping and no farting in public. Another very nice fact is that the men don’t touch you where they should not, something very common in Pakistan and India. Yeah, Africa is neat.
M: ‘Marry me!’ How often have I been ask to marry the one who speaks those words? Countless time. I know in Africa (and not only here!) they think differently about marriage, and me being a free, white single female, supposing very rich as well, I would be the catch of the month (even though I am already at the very ripe age of forty). Thanks though. His promises to carry me around in his car, buying me all I need, and take care for me, did never go down well with me.
N NO BABIES?
N: ‘Not married? No babies?’ was often the response of men asking for my status. They all pitied me. Having no babies doesn’t score any points, however free, white and rich I may be. So, in order not to defend myself unnecessarily, I stated ‘insh’allah’ in countries where Muslims are present, otherwise I would say ‘it’s not up to me to decide those matters,’ and would glance at the sky to indicate its God who does so. I found this the best reply, without offending anyone neither defending my decisions, which are quite often entirely opposite of their upbringing. After all, I could be a grandma…
O: Oats. Yes, you do find them. It’s know as ‘flacon d’avoine’ in French-speaking countries (found that out soon). There you go… sometimes you just don’t want fish for breakfast ágain. By the way, they got great, kind of local, oatmeal in Gambia.
P PREFERED COUNTRIES
P: Preferred countries in West Africa according me, since I am writing this, are Mauritania and the Sahara. Mauritania is marvelous for its great food. Just joking. The scenery is awesome! Ivory Coast and Nigeria are my other favorites. People who know me a bit aren’t surprised since I feel affection for so-called dangerous countries. I think that is because dangerous countries are void of too many tourists thus the local people behave differently, more genuine. This surely counts for tremendous dangerous Sahara and Mauritania since ‘many’ people get kidnapped. Well, as a backpacker I met later on described it, according the statistics, chances are not too small you do not get kidnapped. His argument that not many people do get out there, especially not loners, For all those who fear I have one advise: stay at home. Although at home the threat of being killed, kidnapped or seized might be existent too.
R RED EARTH
R: Red Earth. First I dreaded the gravel roads. Later I liked them. In the end I longed for it. Yes, I did fall in love with the red earthen tracks too. They’re pretty, especially when a truck leaves you and the whole invisible for a little while. I think red earthen tracks are Africa, they are definitely more relaxed to cycle on since the traffic is less, and sometimes, there’s no other option. Eh… equally yes, I cursed them too…
S: Songs are a great way to feel the country deeper. On a bicycle you slide not always so smoothly through a nation, sometimes you lack energy, other times you need to modify the surroundings just a tad. Khaled is there for you when you approach his continent, Ganga Fushion, Idir, Rokia Traoré and Gnawa Diffusion let me blast full of energy through the seemingly endlessness of the Sahara. Lucky Dube and Alpha Blondy added a whole lot ambiance further into West Africa. For me, music can make the scene complete, where there’s no quietness or natural sounds of nature but rushing cars and screaming locals, try local music and the whole scene changes, for the very better! Check the music coming from the churches on Sunday around Ghana and further on : )
T: Tea. Tea? Forget about tea culture. It’s beer beer beer beeer beeeer beeeeer beeeeeeeeeeeeer. Beer factories over anything else. And why not? After all, UN is there to help, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Sadly. I imagine beer makes way more profits than… well, than tea.
U: Unhealthiness came to me in the form of inflammations/infections only. Only once I had diarrhea, thankfully gone in a day cycling through the desert (it drains you completely!) I never had any other problem, although I drink water from all over; tap, river, boreholes, sources, and wells. I eat everything, washed or not, I don’t go waste time to find this out as usual I am plain hungry. Salads, peeled fruits, ice cream. My rule is ‘If a local eat and drink it, I can too’. I did not take anti malaria treatment either, tried to be careful with mosquito bites (and know I did not always succeed) and depended on luck and my own strong health. My second rule is ‘Eat and drink well, stay strong and keep the bugs away’. That said, little scratches turned quickly to huge infections, twice I’d to visit the doctor and get antibiotic… Benin had a lot of herbal doctors, alas, my French kept holding me back. Although a doctor doesn’t need more than a wound.
V: Vegetarian? I have someone heard saying you can’t be a vegetarian while cycling, that you should need animal protein and such. I can’t say I am fully vegetarian, because I eat loads of fish! But I am sure you can be fully vegetarian (not being veganism!), you just need to put more effort in your daily intake of an overall healthy diet with enough fibers, protein, etc. in order to get enough energy and calories. It certainly can be challenging to be careful with your intake of too much bread. Beans, prepared and unprepared, are quite often to find, it just need preparation to soak them.
W WORLD FOOD PROGRAM
W: World Food Program… do I really need to go into detail about this? I understand why World Food Program operate in countries where there are floods, devastation, drought, and therefor hunger. But in countries where there’s very fertile ground, healthy and strong people and plenty of opportunity I don’t really get it why one should distribute rice and wheat? Very possible I am wrong in my understanding, perhaps the World Food Program doesn’t distribute food but only teach people how to use their ground and learn the people about nutrition. I can only hope so. Just like it’s a coincidence the World Food Program cars I see are all new. As well as a comment from some Liberian ‘I also don’t know what world food program does?’
X: Xenophobic; having or showing an intense or irrational dislike or fear for people from other countries. Would be problematic and some people do fear certain local inhabitants, quite difficult while traveling, I can assure you that. In my view, we are all the same. We don’t look the same and we don’t act similarly, but bottom line is that we are all equal, in our wanting, needs and cares. I do, however have some kind of dislike towards group tourists though, not that I believe I am better but just that I don’t want to cling to other white people for the sake of being white and be safe in this group of sameness. Now and then it can be very liberating to talk to your ‘own kind’ as the black refer to other whites, but you won’t see me running towards another white in the middle of blackness. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to find locals being afraid of me! Every now and then, especially while erecting out of the bush, they were seriously scared. But imagine yourself being him, seeing a little white female having her temporarily home in their backyard or their cocoa field. It happened that a man run away in terror when he found out Brendan and me camped near his hut, while we were thinking we’d found an excellent hidden spot. Many people were often doubtful about me being alone on the road, they find it strange, and I understand that very well.
Y: Yamoussoukro, the capital of Ivory Coast. I find capitals completing the overall feeling for a country. Without having seen the capital, one can’t really say to have been in the country, is my opinion. I did not go to Dakar for instance, perhaps I would love Senegal if I did visit this huge capital. Now I dislike most of the country, especially most of its people character. Although it’s quite rubbish I say here: I went to Accra which I liked (mostly because of the people I met there and the hostel I stayed in) even though I dislike the Ghanaian character a bit, as I have experienced it. I love the country side, not the people too much (and I think this is due do tourism and it’s strangely management between white aid workers). On the other hand, Yamoussoukro might be the capital, beautiful named Abidjan is where it really happen and not surprisingly, I loved Ivory Coast! Well, I must say Ivory Coast has a complete different feeling altogether, as soon as you enter the country, you feel a hugely different atmosphere. Traveling is all about the people you meet, the places you stay at and your own well-being. Thinking some more about my nonsense I write here, I think any country can be as great as any other. Of course you can have a certain liking for one or another country, but when you are with people you like, find yourself in remarkable company and explore peculiar places, be invited unexpected or just never are irritated by constantly the same happenings, any country can be wonderful. For me Ivory Coast, Western Sahara, Nigeria and Mauritania did the trick. Sometimes, just being alone does the whole trick…
Z: Zest! Enjoyment! Enthusiastic! Energetic! Cycling gives you all this, and more. I am not talking about the adrenaline when a dog hits for your calves, that’s annoying and unnecessary growth of hormones we don’t want. I talk about the zest for more and more and yet some more cycling. It definitely is addictive! For me the Sahara and it’s quietness did the trick. I long for the meditative stillness, being surrounded with nature, as little as possible human (motorized vehicles) interaction around me. The magic of the bicycle which takes you on roads you never could have dreamed of!
So watch out, once you start cycling, you long for more, and more and yet some more…