Thursday, December 31, 2015

Travelogue day 9: São Tomé and Príncipe

I'm going to get lazy here and just quote Wikipedia:
São Tomé and Príncipe is a Portuguese-speaking island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa. It consists of two archipelagos around the two main islands: São Tomé and Príncipe, located about 140 kilometres (87 mi) apart and about 250 and 225 kilometres (155 and 140 mi), respectively, off the northwestern coast of Gabon.
The largest town, Sao Tome, sits almost walking distance from the equator (0.3 degrees north).  In other words, Sao Tome has all the makings of a tropical paradise.

Alas, Sao Tome is also one of of the poorest countries in the world, not in terms of GDP per capita (it ranks around 150 by that measure).  But with a total population of less than 200,000 people, its nominal GDP is one of the lowest in the world, about $338 million per year.  To put that number in perspective, if Bill Gates were to put his net worth in a savings account at 1% interest he would make more money than the total GDP of Sao Tome.

So while the place has some nice curb appeal...

...once you get on land it's a bit of a fixer-upper.

The market is one of the most depressing I have ever seen.  It was so bad that I couldn't even bring myself to take photos of the worst of it.  Here's my best shot:

You can't really tell from here, but just about the only product on offer is mangos and limes.  Some of the merchants sitting out on the sidewalk (and I do mean sitting on the sidewalk) had a total stock of a dozen limes or so.  Even the stray dogs were starving. We tried to find something to buy that we could feed them (because Nancy can't stand to see animals suffering) but the only protein of any sort that we could find was this fellow selling squid out on the street:

At least, we think he was selling them.  He was actually a couple of blocks away from the main market, and in the half hour or so that we were hanging out in this part of town we didn't see him make a single sale.  So maybe he was just waiting for a ride.  I have no idea.

Still, there were some hints of real ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, like the vehicle that this guy was using to get around:

And once you got out of town and into the rain forest it was quite lovely

This is an old coffee plantation

All in all though, by the time this day was over I was really starting reach the limits of my tolerance for seeing such abject poverty.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

So what? They're Jewish!

One of these quotes is real.  Can you tell which one?
Adolf Hitler's spokesman, Joseph Goebbels, in an interview with the Völkischer Beobachter yesterday insisted that his candidate’s plan to bar all Jews from immigrating to the Germany is “really nothing new,” and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because “So what? They’re Jewish!”

Donald Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, appeared on CNN’s “The Lead” yesterday to insist that her candidate’s plan to bar all Muslims from immigrating to the United States is “really nothing new,” and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because “So what? They’re Muslim!”
The parallels between Trump's supporters and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in the early days are really starting to be quite disturbing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Travelogue day 8: Lome, Togo

According to both the World Bank and the IMF, Togo is the 11th poorest country on Earth by GDP per capita.  That makes it the poorest country we have ever visited.  (We did once set foot in Mozambique, the seventh poorest country in the world: in 2008 we were on a safari in the Kruger national park in South Africa, driving along the fence that marks the border between South Africa and Mozambique.  Elephants had torn a big hole in the fence, so on a lark we walked through the hole.  But there was no one there to stamp our passports so I'm not sure that counts.)

Voodoo is a significant presence in Togoan culture.  51% of the population holds "indigenous beliefs."  This was reflected in the costumes worn by the welcoming committee:

Had a few more we're-not-in-kansas-any-more moments.  Here's a fellow walking down the middle of a major highway carrying a poster featuring anatomical drawings.

I never did find out what he was doing.

Here they are selling coffins by the side of the road:

I did not realize just how desperately poor Togo was while I was there (I'm ashamed to admit that I did not do my homework at the time).  I was just struck by how much more pushy the street merchants were than other places we've been (and that's saying something!)  I was just about ready to give up on the place and retreat back to the ship when something inside me said, no, you're giving up too soon.  So I went back out and immersed myself in the fray, and ended up meeting a gentleman who called himself Benjamin but whose real name is Kenake Kodjo.  I ended up buying a pair of figures carved out of bone from him, and he later emailed me this description of their significance:

(Click on the picture to enlarge it so you can read the text.)

But the most interesting part of the visit was seeing an actual voodoo ceremony.  There was some disagreement about just how touristified it was.  On the one hand, they waited until four busloads of tourists were all seated before starting.  On the other hand, they didn't really play to the audience, and some of what we were seeing looked pretty real.  Not real voodoo magic, of course, but real in the sense that this is what they really do, and it's not just a show that they put on for the tourists.

There was drumming and dancing, and after a while the men started to go into trances.

They seemed to really lose control over their bodies.  They had to be restrained, and a few of them were carried off "stage" by their compatriots.  The first time it happened I thought a fight had broken out.

After a while, they dug a hole in the ground in which they buried a bag of broken glass:

Some of the men used pieces of the broken glass to cut themselves.  Real blood was shed, which was one of the things that convinced me that we were seeing the real deal and not just a theatrical performance.

This particular tribe does this even when they aren't in voodoo trances.  They consider the resulting scars attractive.

After a while they dug the bag of broken glass up and presented it to the chief.  The glass had been magically transformed into coins.

That's the chief in the middle with his wife and son on either side of him.  He looked extraordinarily bored throughout.

BTW, I didn't actually realize that what we'd seen was supposed to be a magical transformation until after it was over.  There was no explanation given (another indication that it wasn't a performance).  It just happened.  They didn't do anything to draw our attention to it or to set it up as a proper magic trick.  And people were going into trances and turning into whirling dervishes the whole time they were doing the coin trick.  It was only after the fact that our guide explained what was going on.

Apparently, magic tricks of this sort figure prominently in Togoan voodoo ceremonies.  There was another group that saw a different ceremony where there were these little hut-like things that moved around, apparently under their own power.  Of course, there was a person inside "driving", but occasionally they would lift up the little "hut" to reveal a small animal (and no human) inside, so it was clearly intended to look like magic.  I don't have many regrets in life, but not having a chance to see that with my own eyes is probably going to be one of them.  (I found this video of what seems to be what the other group saw.  And here's a better one.  It's actually a pretty good trick.)

The interesting question to me, and which I never got a chance to find out (they ushered us away while the ceremony was still going on -- we were told it would go on for hours) is whether these things were intended to look like real magic, or if it really is just supposed to be theatre all of the participants know that they are tricks.  If it's the former, that raises an interesting question: who among the participants is in on the trick?  And how do they decide who to initiate into the circle of trust?

Maybe I'll email Benjamin and ask him.

Well, at least they've got rules

ISIS leaders have issued rules on the treatment of sex slaves:

Islamic State theologians have issued an extremely detailed ruling on when "owners" of women enslaved by the extremist group can have sex with them, in an apparent bid to curb what they called violations in the treatment of captured females.
I've been staring at that passage for five minutes trying to come up with something to say about it, but I'm sorry, I've got nuthin'.

No, I take that back.  I do have something to say:

Ever since the end of WWII the Western world has recited the mantra, "Never again."  Well, here it is happening again.  If anything, ISIS is even more brutal than the Nazis were in the early days.

Neville Chamberlain must be smiling in his grave.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Travelogue day 7: Secondi-Takoradi, Ghana

Our luck with the weather ran out here.  It was raining when we arrived, but I grabbed an umbrella and went exploring.  I found the central market, which was a really fascinating place.  It consisted of a circular road (called, appropriately enough, Market Circle Road) within which was a maze of little alleyways amidst vendor stalls accessible only by foot.

There were a lot of we're-not-in-Kansas-any-more moments:

and things-we-don't-have-to-worry-about-at-home:

like falling into the sewer

That hole is actually quite a bit deeper than it looks in this photo, probably about 4-5 feet.  If you fell in, you'd probably survive, but it would hurt.

On the plus side, the people were incredibly friendly, even playful:

I thought this was poignant:

We went to the fish market, which was lively, borderline chaotic:

It was really quite remarkable how friendly everyone was, quite a contrast to some of the other places we had been.

I met a fellow on the street who tried to get me to invest in his mineral quarry outside of town.  When I asked him for his business card, he rummaged around in his wallet for about five minutes before he finally found this:

If anyone is looking to invest in Ghanaian mineral quarries please feel free to get in touch with him.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Travelogue day 6: Abidjan, Ivory Coast

By this time we'd gotten pretty used to seeing armed soldiers at our ports of call, but Ivory Coast took it to a whole new level.  There were soldiers with dogs.  We were warned not to take their picture, so I had to sneak this shot through the bus window.

Abidjan, the port city where we had docked, is somewhat modern (though not terribly photogenic) but you still see a lot of foot traffic on major roads.

That cart full of palettes is being pulled by this guy:

And once you get out of town, it's typical rural African chaos:

They took us to a cultural center and museum housed in an old French colonial build which had seen better days.  I'm not sure which was more reflective of the culture, the art work, or the soldiers.

I thought this sculpture was interesting

It's typically African in its very frank and unapologetic depiction of motherhood, but the part I found interesting was the side view:

Notice the dagger strapped to her left arm.

Another interesting display were these photographs from colonial times:

Clearly, things have been fucked up here for a very, very long time.

Here's an idea

May I make a suggestion?  Maybe, just maybe, the U.S. would do better in the battle for hearts and minds if we stopped behaving like flaming assholes.
As Mohammed Tariq Mahmood sat in the departure lounge of London’s Gatwick Airport last week, he was surrounded by giddy children, ecstatic for the 11-hour flight that would ferry them to Disneyland. 
But they never [boarded the plane]. A border control officer, on orders from Washington, intervened, Mahmood said, telling him and his brother that their family of 11 had been barred from the flight.
The family, he said, had applied online for a visa waiver using DHS’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The waivers were granted, he said, and the family was able to check in for their flight and clear security without any problems.
Barring a Muslim family on their way to Disneyland from entering the country?  At the last minute?  When they are about to board the plane?  After they've gone through all the proper channels and been granted visa waivers?  With no explanation?  Seriously?
U.S. officials strongly denied that the Mahmood family was targeted based on their religion.
Right.  OK, maybe it really didn't have anything to do with their looking like they could possibly be Muslim.  Maybe the Disney folks tapped the DHS on the shoulder and said, "You know, the lines here at the magic kingdom are really getting out of hand.  Could you help us out?"

Yeah, I'm sure that was it.

[UPDATE: It appears that what might have triggered this latest round of douchebaggery at DHS is a Facebook post, one that was almost certainly a joke, and most likely not written by any of the members of the family that were barred from the country.  I wonder, if I were not a citizen, would I be barred from entering the U.S. for writing this blog post?]

Thursday, December 24, 2015

We interrupt this travelogue...

... to wish you a Merry Christmas / Solstice / Saturnalia / Chanuka / Yule / Kwanzaa / Festivus/ Holiday or whatever your winter festival of choice may be.  I wish health and happiness to you and yours.  May there be peace on earth and good will towards all living things.  (Except mosquitos.  Ooooh, I hate mosquitos!)

(That's actually a photo from the trip.  This tree is in the lobby of the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Travelogue day 5: Banjul, The Gambia

Yes, the locals call it "The Gambia", not "Gambia."  (By way of contrast, it's just "Ukraine", not "The Ukraine."  I think the only other country with a "The" in front of its name is The Netherlands.)

The Gambia seemed a lot more ready to receive tourists than Senegal had been.  There was a welcoming committee singing and dancing at the dock.

Still, the local transportation was still pretty rustic.

We rode in that vehicle for a good hour and a half (each way).  You see a lot of things that you don't see much of in California.  It's a little hard to see, but this guy is carrying a very large tuna on his bicycle:

All over the place we saw shops selling overstuffed armchairs on the street.

Some of the natives were camera shy.

Others not so much.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, a wildlife refuge in the rain forest outside of town, where they fed us lunch and took us on a nice canoe ride.

There were a lot of baboons.  They were accustomed enough to humans that you could get pretty close to them and get some really amazing shots.  It's a shame that the light wasn't better.  It was overcast all day, so the light was really flat.

Did I mention there were a lot of baboons, and they were used to having humans around?

Got some nice bird shots too.  I don't remember what this one is called.  

All in all, just a pleasant and mostly uneventful day.  Which turned out to be pretty remarkable in this part of the world.