Saturday, September 14, 2019

Ghana, the Africa's golden child.

Africa is a rich and diverse continent, where you can find almost everything. Yet, some countries are plagued by corruption, wars, and exploitation.
My blogs are not generally aimed to advertise one or another place; I don't get money from travel agencies to sell a product. Rather, I would like to give an informative and, as accurate as possible, experience about this wonderful continent, full of marvels and contradictions.
After the days spent in Togo, it was the time to move forward with our travel plan and reach the next destination: Accra.
Ghana is well known for being a very rich country, famous for the cocoa plantations, wild honey, textiles and of course, gold.
The first impression we had about the city is that the infrastructures are more developed, which gives to the city a western image, still keeping the beautiful African identity. The beach is something you really want to indulge in, although it is quite far from the heart of the city, the place you want to visit to have a taste of Ghana's life.
When during the day, the beach is a place for great sunbath, surfing, and fun activities, during the night, the beach transforms itself and hashish and marijuana dominate over the scent of the sea.

We reached our hotel, which was located in a convenient area where also all the embassies had their sees.
Despite being also very close to the airport, we didn't get any troubles with the air traffic noise, as one might imagine. The city is very well kept and offers many interesting sights, one of which is the market in the center of the city. That is a place you need to see, as we got lost in the middle wondering where we should have gone to reach the main street. The only landmark we could find was the Sun and the knowledge that the beach was in the South-East direction. Merchants were shouting from their stands, music played all around, scents of grilled food, fish, spices filled the air. Although the place was crowded, it was one of the most interesting experience to walk around and witness the heart of the city beating with enchanting tunes.

The market doesn't have fixed boundaries, it can stretch for streets and squares and slowly its boundaries blend with the normal streets gradually fading away.
Nevertheless, the Market experience was something we kept as a one-day experience, as there were so many more places to visit and to see.
As we explored the city, we had to walk for quite long distances every day, however, we also needed sometimes to call for taxi drivers, and there you need to bargain as much as you can. The prices are not fixed, they are decided, depending on how the taxi driver feels on that day, or who is asking for a ride, (is it a woman or a man, is she/he young or old, is a foreigner or a local). That considered you might have a very expensive ride for a couple of minutes drive and a very cheap one for one hour drive. You need to bargain and be ready to have a nice walk if you think the price is getting out of control.
Another problem with taxi drivers is that they seem not to have any idea about their city. In many cases, we needed to navigate them to the places we needed to go, and I found it hilarious that we knew Accra's locations better than they did.

Walking the streets gives anyway the great chance to take nice pictures of the surrounding and of the wildlife, like the colony of fruit bats that lives happily within the city.

It is also interesting to see all the important sites like the presidential palace, which was quite close to our hotel and gave a nice view both during the day and night.

Together, of course with the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and memorial park, which is located in downtown Accra. It is dedicated to the prominent Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah. The memorial complex was dedicated in 1992
and is situated on the site of the former British colonial polo grounds in Accra.



With that, I hope you have enjoyed this short tour of Accra. I will return next week with another pearl of Nigeria, where our loop journey ended with the visit to the Conservation Park. Don't miss it!



Saturday, September 7, 2019

Togo and the Voodoo heritage

After our stay in Benin, it was finally arrived the time to reach the next destination, Togo.
This was a place where we could find most of the answer to my questions about Voodoo. Together with that, I collected some material for a novel I am planning to write.
Undoubtedly voodoo, as a religion, was born in Benin, Yet, although it is still one of the main religions practiced in the country, it seemed more widespread in Togo. Perhaps it is because people in Benin seemed reticent in talking about it, or because it has been challenging to get any contact there. Whatever the reason is, in Togo, people seemed keener to talk about it and explain to us a little bit of the religious practices.
The first thing is that Voodoo is wrongly associated with black magic or with evil forces. This is absolutely a myth that needs to be debunked. Voodoo is about healing and evoking the spirits for good purposes. Whether for healing disease, ask for the end of a long period of drought, to maintain peace inside the family, the spirits and the Gods are summoned for good practices.
Voodoo is a way of life for many people in Togo and Benin. It consists of about 100 divinities, which essence governs the Earth governing the forces of nature and human society.
The divine creator is called Mawu and is a female being. It is believed to be an elderly woman who is gentle and forgiving. She owns all the other gods.
An interesting part of this journey was the visit to the Marché des Féticheurs in the Akodessawa district in Lome. It is said to be the largest fetish market in the world. Perhaps just because there aren't many competitors, a visitor might find it not as big as they figured out in their mind. Nevertheless there people find all the necessary for worshipping and also ingredients for traditional medicine.
According to what they told us, the dead animals in the market were found in the forest already dead. Some others were farm animals who have been used for the sacrifice (and then eaten with the community). Considering the relatively small amount of corpses that are allowed to dry, I might also think that this is not far from the truth.
Just like I always say, when traveling to other countries, and particularly when getting in touch with different heritages and religious practices, we need to unlearn and forget from where we come from. This allows us to look at them with fresh eyes.
Asking questions to get a more in-depth insight into the cultural heritage will help to understand.
So are you ready for a full immersion into the culture of Voodoo?
Good, follow me...

This young man was a practicing priest. Not everyone can become a priest, This is something that is transmitted through the family. Therefore only the sons of the priest can become one day priests themselves.



Now to the question, that might come to your mind, "did you buy anything?" The answer is, "Yes, I did, but mostly it included wooden masks and other artifacts."

Lome has lovely beaches, which could have great potential for tourism. Yet, they are not really well kept, and most of the places seemed to be something to avoid rather than something to enjoy. 

Nevertheless, the restaurants on the beach offer a great variety of food and I have to say, absolutely delicious. I just indulged myself in their local fish specialties, and I could not get really enough. It was a real pity knowing that we needed to leave the country after a few days. I would have remained just for the food for much longer.

I hope I didn't creep you out with this cultural insight. As for me, I felt extremely inspired for the novel I've started to write.

I wish you a great weekend!





Saturday, August 31, 2019

Something more about Benin

Cotonou has been the place we mostly stayed and to be honest, there were quite many things to see and experience. Time was not on our side, as we remained only for three days, but at least the most important landmarks were checked.
One that interested us was experiencing the Dantokpa Market.

Its importance lies in being the largest open market, not only in Benin but in all West Africa. Since to understand a culture the best way is to get the vibes of the food and places where people get their groceries and appliances.
I don't have the exact aerial extension of the market place, but you can easily get lost inside it. To keep yourself oriented you might want to focus one or two landmarks, like the pedestrian bridge connecting the two parts of the market divided by the main road.
There you can find everything from jewelry, grocery, livestock, products for the house, pottery, televisions, car part. Really, you name it. It is just like a mall but in an open space.

If you get lost, you will find at least a dozen new friends who will try to direct you to their stand. One of them was particularly insistent and kept walking beside us talking and talking without stopping. After a while that we insisted we were not interested in what he was selling, we just continued our round totally ignoring him. Yet, he continued following us for the whole time.
He left us only when we left the market to the pedestrian bridge that would have brought us to our salvation.
One thing I have to admit is that he was probably the only one who came to us, besides a couple of merchants who didn't insist further when we said we weren't interested.

That was the day when we had, perhaps the longest walk of our journey. 20km by foot in one day; the other days the distance was only 10 km.

One place worth to see for its historical meaning is the Place des Martyrs.
This monument is a memorial place remembering the victims of the coup d'etat tried by Bob Denard and his mercenaries in 1977. The coup d'etat was a trial to overthrow the government of the People's Republic of Benin which was led by Mathieu Kérékou, whose communist party was the only allowed political party in the country. The coup d'etat didn't succeed, like many other attempts before and after.


One thing we noticed during the whole trip is that it seems like in Benin like Togo and Ghana do not know the concept of the city center. When we were asking at the reception or to the people where the city center was located, they looked at us like we asked where is the Martian spaceship's landing area. Therefore we had to walk around for kilometers before we could find it by ourselves.
You might say that we could have asked the taxi drivers. yes, we did, but they also had no idea what we were talking about.

Finally, we found the heart of the city, and no surprise it was located also in correspondence with the Danokpa Market.

Maybe too soon, it also arrived for us the time to leave the country and once again our road trip started with another ride to the border of Togo, where we hoped to find easily a driver to bring us to the hotel in Lome.

Have a great day!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Traveling from Nigeria to Benin

Crossing the border between two African countries might be an enlightening experience. Just like it happens on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, the impression a traveler has is to leave hell and reach heaven.
That was exactly the same feelings we had when we crossed the border between Nigeria and Benin.
Not just the people seemed more relaxed and keen to help, but the infrastructures told a whole story about how differently the two countries are managed.
From our hotel in Lagos to the border, we had a driver. He couldn't drive through Benin as he didn't have the license. Therefore, the challenges connected with finding a ride from the border to Cotonou, the city where our hotel were obvious.
We were lucky that the border officer helped us to find a driver, who for a reasonable price, would have driven us to our destination.
At that point, we had everything set, and the journey could continue.
The first thing to be noticed was the maintenance of the main road.
No holes, no significant damages on the asphalt, no checkpoints to rob the drivers... Another world, just like I said, the same difference between hell and heaven.
The journey would have taken about two hours, so I just leaned on my seat and took a nap.
I had nothing really to worry about.

Benin's capital is legally Porto Novo, but Cotonou is the heart of Benin's economy. The name Cotonou, in a local dialect (Fon) means 'by the River of Death.'
I could not find out the reason why, and perhaps the origins got lost in the past like it generally happens with ancient civilizations.
One thing we noticed was that, at least in Cotonou, the main road is well kept and continuously maintained to allow the circulation of heavy vehicles to and from the harbor. Nevertheless, the secondary roads are not even paved. They are left as sandy/muddy roads.
On one side, it makes sense to invest more in things that drive the economy of the whole country. Yet, I am wondering whether it would cost any big effort to pave also the secondary roads.

Another thing I have learned is don't bother yourself with questions which do not have an easy or unique answer.

Despite being a city on the sea, it seemed like people do not really care of the shores. They indeed have beautiful beaches, or better said they would have if they even cared about them.
Most of the places we have visited on the beach were occupied by the shacks of the seamen (and garbage).
So Benin gives the impression of being almost exclusively oriented on the practical side of things.


Similarly to Nigeria and generally in Africa, houses are built only to the level that they are capable of granting people with shelter. External walls are rarely finished, or pained. The roofs are completed to the bare minimum, and I am wondering whether doors and windows really do the job they are planned for. Despite this detail, people take great care in how they dress, particularly women, and they own expensive cars. Could it be again that they prefer to spend their money on a vehicle that can bring them to their work, or can help them with their business rather than in their houses?

Plausible.

On the streets, you will find everything from people selling gasoline stored in large glass containers (I am still wondering about this way of storing gasoline!) to goats and chicken. Nevertheless, I haven't seen a single dead animal on the road, and that was comforting.


 The official language is French, but people could also understand basic English, which made us a perfect match since my French is quite poor.

We spent in Cotonou three days, but my experience is too wide to be told in a single blog, so I will have to split the Benin experience into two episodes, hoping you will continue to follow me in this adventure.

Have a great weekend!


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Discovery of West Africa - Nigeria

It has been a long trip, but finally, I am back home.
That means that I am ready to tell you something about the journey, bringing you some vibes of Africa; my Africa.
I know that I have promised to keep a sort of daily photo diary posted on my social, but as we left Nigeria, we were transported back in the '80s.
We could not find roaming for our mobile phones and most important no internet.
We were sure to have Wi-Fi on our hotels, but things in Africa never go the way you plan them.
If there is one thing I have learned during my journeys is to expect everything, even the impossible.
Like the hotel promised on their booking pages, there was indeed a Wi-Fi, but it was too slow and most of the times offline, so… well, practically, there wasn't.

But let's go back to our journey.

Our route started in Helsinki, from where we reached Lagos, Nigeria.
From Lagos, we traveled by car following the main road to Ghana through Benin and Togo. From Ghana, we returned to Lagos by plane, and on our way back, we could have a stop in Doha, Qatar.

The first thing you notice when you come to any airport in Africa is what I call Africa scent. The scent made of the earthy iron-rich sand, mixed with the smell of the trees and bushes, food, and other scents I could not identify.

This is the scent I enjoy deeply inhaling it whenever I reach Africa.
Nigeria is located in the Gulf of Guinea. It originated from British colonial rule in the 19th century,  and in 1914 it incorporated the South Nigeria Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate. Nigeria became a formally independent federation in 1960. It went through a civil war between 1967 and 1970, and after that, the country experienced alternatively democratically elected governments and military dictatorship. At present, after the presidential elections of 2011, it reached a stable political situation.

Talking about the safety of a traveler, besides the local crime connected to drug dealing in the city of Lagos, a particular concern has been raised by the Boko Haram–related violence.

Nevertheless, after a peak in 2014 and 2015, the number of casualties attributed to the group fell dramatically. The Nigerian military, with assistance from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, has pushed Boko Haram out of several provinces in northeastern Nigeria. The group retains control over some villages and pockets of territory and continues to launch deadly suicide attacks and abduct civilians, mostly women, and children. In February 2018, more than one hundred students were kidnapped by a faction of Boko Haram known as Islamic State West Africa. They were released a little more than a month later.

The conflict has been primarily contained in the Muslim north, particularly in Borno state, but has displaced millions of people in the region.

The city looks at first glance divided between the "good areas" and the poor ones. Infrastructure is something the Nigerian government seems not really to bother. That is not related to the lack of funds, as Nigeria is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, but to a wildly spread corruption that avoids the movement and allocation of those funds for the public works.

The good 




...And the bad


Waste management seemed to be the biggest issue, particularly in Lagos, where the municipality appears to be unable to manage the rise in industrial and domestic waste. Together with waste management, the roads inside the city were relatively well kept (Africa-wisely). Nevertheless, the main road to the border was a nightmare. There, without an off-road vehicle, you are in deep troubles.
We spent in Lagos only one night. This decision was made mainly for safety reason. Secondly, because we knew we would have had the time to check the city and the Natural Conservation Center on our way back home.

The most exciting part on this first leg was indeed the road trip to the border, which in normal conditions it would have taken not more than a couple of hours. However, with the actual road conditions, it took about four hours.

Waste management has been a big challenge in the largest cities and the piles of waste stretch for kilometers.

The road is a constant market place and people come to sell and buy everything from livestock to fruits and vegetables or even furniture. A sort of one time stop for all your needs.


The guy you see leaning outside the vehicle is the one who is gathering customers and advice the driver when it is time to stop. He also collects the ticket money from the passengers.
This also included the times we were asked to stop by the border police.

The officers were looking for some money to be cashed at the expenses of the drivers passing by (and in a couple of circumstances our driver just drove by without stopping!). We have also been stopped by some local small criminals looking for some cash, which we quickly gave to avoid troubles.

All in all, people are friendly, and we have not been bothered during our strolls in the city. The stay went on as smooth as we hoped for, and we can call ourselves satisfied with this new challenge.
This has been a longer blog, but I was also supposed to compensate for the lack of blogging last week.
I hope you enjoyed this first part and you will follow me on this road trip for the following weeks.
Stay tuned!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Three... two...one... GO!

So, here I am the day of the departure finally arrived! The struggles we had with the visas for this trip took from me at least ten years of my life. It has been a real tour de force.

These are the times required for the visas process for our journey:

1. Benin visa: 10 minutes with the e-visa.
2. Togo visa: with shipping and handling, three days
3. Ghana visa: shipping to Denmark, handling time, and shipping back: one week.
4. Nigeria visa: Shipping to Sweden handling time and shipping back, three weeks worth of constant calls, email reminders, and a considerable amount of money to set up an alternative method for shipping the passports back.
What do we suggest? Africa is big, beautiful and exciting, avoid Nigeria!

This has been our crazy countdown:

Two weeks before the departure: we had to send back our passports to the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm, because of a series of misunderstandings.

Eleven days to departure: they received the passports.

Seven days to the departure: they asked us to send more documentation, which was promptly sent by email.

Four days to the departure: they advised us to provide for a courier pickup, which we provided the very same day. The courier pick up was scheduled for the following day, and we would have received it the day after, so two days to our departure.
We informed the Embassy about the scheduled pickup, and they acknowledged it.

Three days to departure: The courier informed us that the Embassy declared not having anything to be picked up.
Panicking we tried to call the Embassy... No answer
We sent four emails, and only the day after they replied that now the courier could come.

Two days before departure: Reschedule the pickup. Finally, the courier got our passports, and we started to feel more relaxed.

The passports reached us safely yesterday, one day before departure.
I have never in my life been more stressed than the last two weeks. I was as tense as a violin chord, but now, it's time to celebrate:

The Wandering Writer is back on the road! Whohoo!
Stay tuned, because I am going to post on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/pjmann2016/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/paperpenandinkwell) a sort of photo journal, and every week you will have them summarized right here in this blog!
Have a great weekend!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Meanwhile in Finland...

As the rest of the northern hemisphere is suffering from heatwaves, here in Finland we had quite an unstable situation weatherwise.
With a gorgeous spring and summer that brought relatively pleasant temperatures of above 25 C, we had a mid-June and July where the short sleeves were a luxury allowed only indoors, as temperatures dropped dramatically from 25 to 10 C.
The situation started to change last week when finally the temperatures returned to the normal level of 25-30C.
Finnish people are not generally used to temperatures higher than 25C and for them is almost inconceivable to survive at 30C.

I come from Italy, my best memories of the Summer were the ones of my childhood, when we went to spend the Summer holidays to the house of my grandmother together with my cousins. My grandmother’s house had a beautiful and large terrace, which could accommodate two large families sleeping outside, but this was a choice only us kids took into consideration because it was definitely more comfortable to sleep in the bed, rather than in a mattress on the hard floor.

At those times, the nights could be quite hot, and as the days reached 35-40C, the nights didn’t go lower than 30C.
For this reason, we thought it would have been smart to place our pillows on the refrigerator during the day and sleep on a frozen pillow during the night.

Obviously, the temperature of the pillows rose quickly but slow enough to allow us to at least fall asleep on a cool pillow.

For me, temperatures of 35-40 C are something I am used to and, to be honest, I can also enjoy, so when the weather bulletin advise remaining home because outside it might reach even 30 C (which is not even a promise but an eventuality), and people start to be worried, allow me a giggle.
Today, since the temperatures might eventually reach 30, the weather forecast named this day a “sweat-inferno.”

*eye rolls*

And my mind goes back to my homeland…
Where temperatures of 42C are delighting the population… (allow me the sarcasm).
But this is how it goes, for those who are not used to hot weather a slight rise in the temperature might feel like something unbearable and the beauty of the world lies just on the differences of the earthlings.

Therefore, in this sunny, hot and lovely weather, I think I am going to wish you all a fantastic weekend.
I will enjoy the emptiness of the streets by going for a ride with my bicycle.
Stay hydrated and stay cool!

Ghana, the Africa's golden child.

Africa is a rich and diverse continent, where you can find almost everything. Yet, some countries are plagued by corruption, wars, and explo...