Monday, April 29, 2013

April 27th – Market Day in Dominica

I've always felt that Dominica was one of my favourite Caribbean islands – and, today did nothing to dissuade me from that view. We were only here for the morning, so rather than head into the lush rainforests that the island's famous for, we decided to head into town to sample a bit of daily life in Roseau.

Actually, Saturday is when Roseau is at its most lively, when the market is in full swing. On a hot and sweaty day, as we explored the busy stalls, there was more than a touch of Africa in the atmosphere of the market, but here, everyone was friendly and more than happy to talk us through what they were selling. In fact, I've always found Dominicans some of the most friendly people you can meet in the Caribbean – probably, because the island hasn't been ruined by tourism yet.

The lack of tourism also means that this is one of the poorer West Indian capitals – but, this isn't a place where you're frightened to walk down any side streets. For me, it's the lack of money here that gives Roseau a lived-in, slightly ramshackle charm that's always fun to savour. In fact, I just wish that we could have stayed here a bit longer, and had a chance to spend a little time in one of the town's lively bars – next time.....

PS. The one blot on Dominica's future, could be its increasing reliance on China and Venezuela – not exactly great examples of democratic progress, but for a nation of only 80,000 people, I guess that you need all the friends you can get. So, we saw a bridge built by the Chinese, the largest embassy in town is the grand Venezuelan one, while the Chinese were building a huge new Parliament for this little country (significantly, it was being built largely with Chinese labour rather than using the local labourforce).

April 26th – The Party Boat in Barbados

You'd have thought that after 4 days crossing the empty Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Caribbean, that the last thing we'd have wanted to do was to go on a boat tour in Barbados. But, this beautiful island is a watersports mecca, so we'd thought we'd see what the fuss was all about. The result – one of the best boat trips/snorkelling expeditions we'd been on.

As we got to the boardwalk in Bridgetown, my heart sank when I saw a catamaran ahead of us, packed to the gunnels with about 60 partying youngsters who'd already started on the rum punches (it was 9 in the morning). Fortunately, just behind it, was a similar-sized catamaran just for the 20 of us – this promised to be a more sedate affair.

Having said that, once we'd all started tucking into the rum punches later in the day, when the party music was turned up, and the fun-loving crew began to encourage a bit of rowdiness, then the atmosphere got quite lively on our boat too.

Before that though, we sailed up the sheltered western coast of the island, past the swanky holiday homes of the rich and famous, to go for a swim with the turtles just off the beach of the mega-exclusive Sandy Lane Hotel. It was amazing to be swimming in such close proximity to these graceful creatures, who didn't appear to be bothered by our presence in the slightest – they're used to being fed by the sight-seeing boats here, so they just swam around us to get to the food. To be nose-to-nose with a grumpy-looking turtle in the water, you soon knew who had right of way.

Next, we moved onto a different snorkel site, where the coral reef was in good shape and there were plenty of brightly coloured fish in all sorts of colours and luminescent shades – this was as good snorkelling as I've had in the Caribbean outside of Bonaire in the ABCs.

With the snorkelling out of the way, it was time for eating, drinking and soaking up the warm tropical air. A really enjoyable day spent in the company of some very fun-loving people.

To carry on the party theme – in the evening it was the final deck party of the world cruise. Everyone was in very good spirits and the dancing on deck was as feverish as a world cruise can get (by most people, apart from myself whose dancing was hampered by a mystery knee injury that miraculously cleared up when the music stopped).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 21st – Sunday morning in Mindelo

Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands is a fairly sleepy place at the best of times, but on a quiet Sunday morning there isn't really very much going on. Having said that, it made the contrast with the chaos, noise and litter of West Africa even greater.

Because, this is an organised and attractive little town that has as much of the atmosphere of Europe as it does of Africa. The colourful Portuguese architecture is mostly in a good state of repair, making it seem like a bit of the Algarve plonked in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa; although the population are mostly descended from the African slaves who arrived here in the times that the Islands were a vital staging point on the transatlantic slave trading routes.

We were only here for a few hours, and seeing as we've been here before and we'd seen all the sights (such as they are) in town, we didn't have much of an agenda today other than to do a bit of general wandering, before finding somewhere with wifi so we could call home (not so many opportunities for this on mainland West Africa). This was all achieved with minimum fuss in a nice little bar where they served us some decent Portuguese beer to keep us cool.

So, our brief time in Mindelo confirmed a few things that I already knew – this is a very attractive place with good weather that's visitor-friendly and very quiet . All good things that augur well for a growing Cape Verdean tourist industry.

April 19th – Exploring The Gambia

Most people onboard have been taken a little aback by the levels of grime, poverty and aggression towards camera-toting tourists in our previous West African ports, so (having set their expectations pretty low), they were mostly pleasantly surprised by The Gambia, and its slightly scruffy capital Banjul. The people we encountered in the market were generally pretty friendly (as long as people asked if they could take their photo first) – probably the result of decades of exposure to western tourism.

A few people that we met in the frenetic market were initially a bit grumpy, but with a bit of interaction they quickly cheered up – it was quite refreshing. Maybe it was because of this lighter atmosphere in town, but the passengers generally felt more relaxed and most of them have come away with a much more favourable impression of Banjul as opposed to more uptight Takoradi and Limbe.

Plenty of us had a "bumster" attach themselves to us – these are professional hasslers and hustlers who appoint themselves as your guide for the day. Fortunately, most of them would eventually take no for an answer, and they weren't threatening. So, we explored the market in relative peace, jostling with the crowds, marvelling at the incredibly colourful clothes of the elegant women, trying not to breathe at the pungent fish market, and trying to ignore the skinned cows heads for sale at the equally stinky meat market.

After the market, we walked around the town a little, trying to see if there was any colonial architecture left from British times (not much - this was one of the more unsuccessful of the British colonies), under the constant gaze of the ubiquitous posters extolling the virtues of President Jammeh, who has ruled the country since he took power in a coup in 1994. To add to the psychological hold he has over the country, on our way out of town, we had to drive round the country's tallest building (not hard in a place which doesn't have many buildings over 4-storeys) – the Arch 22 – a less-than-subtle commemorative arch to his coup, which only he is allowed to drive under.

We were heading out of town, because we'd hired a taxi to take us to the Abuko Nature Reserve, about 40 minutes out of town – without too much negotiating, we got him to agree to take us there, wait for us for a couple of hours and drive us back for €30. Our taxi was a Mercedes, but it was at least 30 years old and fairly beaten up and cronky – every time we wanted to wind the window up or down, he only had one handle for all the windows, so we had to pass it around between us.

However, we did make it in one piece to the reserve, where we picked up a local guide who we were initially very sceptical of, but who actually turned out to be excellent. The reserve wasn't huge, but it had a lot of birdlife, 3 different types of monkeys, and some crocodiles who surfaced from its lake as if by remote control, as soon as we turned up. The guide had amazing eyesight – often he'd peer over to a tree in the far distance and point out a bird that we were utterly incapable of seeing. Just when we thought he was making it up, the kingfisher, hawk or whatever it was would move, and we'd be able to see that he knew what he was talking about.

We did a very enjoyable 3 mile long trail around the park, hearing about the wildlife, and about life in The Gambia, stopping at a mini zoo which had some menacing-looking hyenas sprawled out in the heat of the day, some very frisky baboons, and an over-excited vervet monkey who'd been put "in prison" for ripping the hair out of a poor tourist's head. We never had it confirmed whether our guide was joking when he said that the lion that used to live there had escaped.

At the end of a hot, but fun afternoon of exploring, our guide led us over the road into the bush where we came across a "bar" ran by a man calling himself "Jungleman". It was basically a covered over clearing that must have been illegal, but which was a nice spot to have a miraculously cold beer and hear Jungleman's musings on life.

So, The Gambia may not be the cleanest or most organised place in the world, but the people were friendly, they appreciated the fact that tourists preferred it if you were nice to them, and the wildlife and nature are good fun to explore. This was a better day than most people had expected.

April 15th – Ghana’s Slave Castles

From the scruffy industrial port of Takoradi, I took the trip up the coast to explore a tragic chapter of Ghana's history, by visiting the slave castles built by the European powers in the period when West Africa's population was devastated by the evil slave trade.

Of our first three West African ports, Ghana has the best infrastructure and its roads are in a fairly good condition, so it took an hour and a half's top speed drive to get to the impressive Cape Coast Castle – the British Headquarters of the Gold Coast (Ghana's former name) from 1664 until Accra took over as the colonial capital in 1876. Before the British took over, the castle had been built by the Swedes 12 years over, and then taken over by the Danes, and then by the Dutch; which gives you some idea of the "anything goes" nature of European involvement here in Ghana. If you were strong enough, you could take whatever you liked, whether that was castles or people.

This imposing castle was a witness to one of the most shaming periods of western history, when it was the centre of the West African slave trade – a brutal trade that lasted for around 250 years, which saw up to 20 million people stolen from their communities, corralled into the dungeons of these castles, and then herded onto the waiting slave ships like animals, to be transported to the slave markets and plantations of the Americas.

Of those 20 million people, at least half never made it across the Atlantic, falling by the wayside of an incredibly brutal and inhumane process. It doesn't take you long in the castle's dark and musty prisons for those figures to become a reality. When you were down in the dank bowels of the castle, with the muffled sound of the waves crashing outside, you got a sense of the evil that was perpetrated here.

The prisoners were crammed, up to 200 at a time, into a space that felt fairly small for the 20 of us to stand in – here they had just a tiny amount of light and air, scarcely any food and water, and no sanitation facilities. Over the course of 150 years, the surface of the prison floor was raised up by around about a foot on the compacted faeces and detritus. It must have felt like hell in here. Dead bodies, of which there were many, were tossed over the ramparts into the sea.

We then passed through the "Door of No Return", the final doorway where the slaves were taken through to be rowed out to the waiting slave ships – it was terrible to think that for the slaves that had made it this far, things were only going to get worse. The ships were even more cramped and unhealthy, before they finally made it to the slave markets of the Caribbean or America.

This would have been their last ever view of Africa; and, the most perverse thing about the castle, was that it was an incredibly beautiful setting – it's imposing whitewashed walls overlooking the crashing surf and a beach full of fishing boats. At the end of the visit, I was left with a rather hollow feeling in the stomach, caused by a sense of guilt of what has been done to this continent.

From here, we went to an even older symbol of the slave trade – the Portuguese castle of El Mina. This atmospheric castle was built as far back as 1482, which makes it the oldest surviving European building in Sub-Saharan Africa. How ironic that this imposing symbol of European "civilisation", was also such an evocative symbol of the European exploitation of the African peoples.

Again, it was the thought of what happened to the slaves in those evil dungeons that will linger longest in my mind – just trying to imagine the emotions of the tens of thousands of African slaves who passed through here – ranging from sheer terror, bewilderment, physical agony, emotional heartbreak, to defiance, to hatred.

In the frenetic fish market outside El Mina, the attitudes from most of the vendors towards us ranged from unfriendliness to outright hostility - I don't know if these reactions to a bus load of white people leaning out of their coaches to take pictures of the photogenic chaos outside, were a hangover from the slave trade, or whether they saw the photo-taking as exploitation, but the reactions were quite extreme.

This was a very sobering but fascinating tour, but sights like this need to be seen to remind us why the modern world is like it is.

Friday, April 19, 2013

April 13th – Cameroon

To me, Cameroon doesn't have the charm or the interesting architecture of Sao Tome, but our time in the town of Limbe gave us a fascinating glimpse into the current state of affairs of a country that appears to be stagnating under an autocratic government.

As a former part of the British Empire, Limbe is in the English-speaking 20% of the country; but, it's overpowered by the French-speaking majority, which has left it a little sidelined. Maybe the sense of frustration and powerlessness explains the grumpy attitudes of the people in the market, who shouted angrily at anyone with a camera, and generally made visiting the market quite unpleasant for most visitors.

I took the trip out of town to see the old slave market at Bimbia, an abandoned old settlement at the end of a very long and bumpy track, up and over the mountains. From where we were dropped off, we had a thirty minute hike down to the historic ruins, passing through dense forest and accompanied by a tuneful chorus of unseen chirruping birds. It was an incredibly sweaty walk, but the scenery was beautiful – enormous clumps of towering bamboos, breaking up the thick greenery, before we got to the evocative set of ruins.

This was a wretched place where slaves were assembled before being transferred to waiting ships – its stone buildings now being swallowed up by the forest to such an extent that they don't really know too much about what went on here. However, that sweaty walk to get here, stumbling along the rocky path, at least gave us some feeling of what conditions must have been like for the poor slaves who were driven for days through the tropical jungle after their capture, before being branded at the market and then sold on to the passing slavers.

After this exhausting hike, we now travelled to a banana plantation and processing plant – it was a pretty slick operation, and it was fascinating to see how the bananas we find on our supermarket shelves were selected, cut, cleaned and packaged, before making their way to Europe. The banana boats take a good 2 weeks to get to Europe (mainly to France), so the bananas are a long way off being ripe before they're sent on their way. I'll never look at a banana on the shelf in Sainsbury's in the same way again.

After this, we had a drive up the cloud-covered slopes of the towering Mount Cameroon, West Africa's tallest volcano, to look around the former German colonial capital of Buea, which is now the capital of the English-speaking province. There wasn't much evidence of either the Germans or the British here, in a fairly ramshackle town, but the presence of lots of roadside advertising hoardings (particularly for mobile phones), was a sign of increasing commercialisation.

The state of the roads wasn't too bad, until we got to a set of roadworks that sent our coach on a diversion that I thought we'd never get out of. We were sent down a bumpy dirt track by people's houses that was so narrow that the bus scarcely fitted down – people were coming out of their houses and wondering why this busload of crazy white people were going down a road that was way too small for them.

Finally we got out of this bumpy labyrinth and made it back to Limbe to visit the Botanical Gardens where we were having lunch. The gardens were nicely laid out and very ordered (they were set up by the Germans after all), and our barbeque lunch was much needed after all the morning's activities. While we ate, we were entertained by some high-energy dance performances – the most odd one involved people chewing great big lumps of bark off a dirt-covered tree root (there was no explanation for this, but I presume that it was some form of hallucinogen, judging by their crazed dancing).

Finally, we went to the Limbe Wildlife Centre, just near the port. This excellent facility has been set up to take in and rehabilitate monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas that have been displaced by the destruction of the rainforests, by the growing demand for "bush meat" (basically people eating monkeys), and by people who've taken gorillas or chimps as pets and then suddenly realised that this was not a sensible idea.

The enclosures were spacious and well-managed, and the animals seemed content – not bored and rocking away like you see in many Third World Zoos. It was great to get so close to these huge gorillas, and to stare into their soulful eyes; while, I could watch the antics of the juveniles as they play-fought for hours.

This was a long, hot, and activity-filled day, that confirmed that Cameroon is a place with plenty of potential (it grows so much food, and it has oil too), but it has a long way to go in terms of development and fighting the rampant corruption that continues to hold it back.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April 12th – Journey to The Centre of The World in Sao Tome

For a place that's as off the beaten track as the West African island of Sao Tome, it's strange to think that it's at the Centre of the World – geographically speaking at least. Because, this is the nearest land mass to the point where the Meridian and the Equator intersect – an equatorial setting which always makes the island incredibly hot and sticky (even if today's heat wasn't quite as overwhelmingly hot as the last time as we were there).

Besides its (little known about) geographical claim to fame, Sao Tome is chiefly famous for once being the biggest producer of cocoa in the world – a time when Cadbury's and Rowntrees would buy up the island's precious production of cocoa beans for their chocolate factories in England. Sadly, that economic peak was about 100 years ago, and the island's been in decline for most of its time since then – a trend that was increased by the ruinous policies of its post-independence socialist government, which nationalised the cocoa plantations and let them slowly fall apart.

I joined a trip to explore the island's cocoa-producing past, and see what's left of this once-thriving industry – the short answer was, not much. We travelled into the lush green mountains behind Sao Tome town, and bounced our way along pot-holed roads past crumbling villages and dilapidated roadside shacks. On an island with little infrastructure where only 20% of the population have access to fresh water in their homes, you could see the water taps where people came to fill up their water bottles, and wash their clothes. But, although they were obviously materially poor, people appeared to be happy and well fed, and most people gave us a cheery wave and an "ola" as we passed – apart from the odd schoolboy with attitude who sent a middle finger our way.

We bounced our way up to the Monte Cafe Plantation, which was once one of the largest cocoa and coffee plantations on the island. It was pretty run down, but it was still a functioning plantation – although, we were told that the harvest had been processed last month, so there wasn't much activity going on. We passed through cavernous processing sheds which once would have been hives of activity where hundreds of contract workers would have beavered away, but were now decaying away gracefully.

Instead of workers, the plantation seemed to be an open-air playground for lots of kids, some with shoes others without. Initially, they were a little stand-offish, but then the cheeky ones asked for our water bottles (but not for cash), and after a while, they just wanted to interact with us. One little boy, in a grubby ill-fitting T-shirt took a real liking to me, and led me around by the hand showing me plants and fruits that were growing here – seeing as neither of us spoke the other's language, we didn't learn much from each other, but it was nice to have some genuine interaction, without it turning into a sales pitch or begging exercise.

From here, the road got really bumpy, as we made our way further up the mountains, up to the abandoned Bombaim Plantation – its once-grand buildings now falling apart, and its fields now untended. It was a slightly depressing summary of the country – charmingly dilapidated and not meeting its potential.

Our excellent guide told us that Sao Tome's one hope for the future was that oil had been discovered in the seas off its coast, and it was hoped that production would start in 2016. Sadly, the Nigerians have muscled their way in on the contracts, so no pipelines will head Sao Tome's way, and much of the advances paid to Sao Tome had already been squandered by corrupt politicians and businessmen. The guide said that he actually hoped that oil is never struck, because it made him fear for the future of his country.

Sao Tome's people have a long history of being exploited – let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself, because they deserve better.