Monday, August 12, 2013

The Frenchman's Farm and Mona Monkeys


Our final plan in Ghana was to visit the Ankasa Rainforest and stay at the Frenchman's Farm (a small bed and breakfast which is totally off the grid). We arrived at the bed and breakfast to find that The Farm was actually a Cacao farm with several people who live on the land and cultivate the cacao for The Frenchman, Paul.

Cacao grows on the tree
It's picked and peeled
The seeds are removed
(they're sweet and tasty but taste nothing like chocolate and there's a pit)  

Then the seeds are dried on long, flat tables.
 Later they're sold to chocolate companies and ground into cacao powder which flavors chocolate. 
Paul is called "The Frenchman" because he lived most of his life in the Ivory Coast, worked in Paris for a large part of his life and he speaks only French. Ankasa National Park (where we were staying and hiking) covers the southernmost border of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Unlike our Uganda hike in Semiliki National Park (on the border of the Congo) two years ago, we saw no people outside of our group in the forest during our hikes. We were assured that this was because we came to the forest during the rainy season (and you're not supposed to come during the rainy season). It was fortunate for us that we only experienced rain for about an hour of one of our hikes. The rest of the time was very clear and steamy hiking weather.

We stayed there for three nights and two days. During that time we saw Mona and Spot-Nosed monkeys, dwarf crocodiles and some of us (not Kate or I) saw a pangolin. Pangolin is worth mentioning because it is very endangered and it's very hard to find. It's a mammal that resembles an armadillo.

One evening, after we got to know the little children from the farm very well, we were taught how to strap a child onto the back (the way that African Mommas do it).
Kate got very good at it.
We were welcomed by the Frenchman and his family who catered to our every need. They packed us a lunch to go into the forest, they prepared breakfast early in the morning and they brought us dinner each night. We were treated to the delicious cuisine of the Ivory Coast, including fish, chicken and beef dishes of all sorts. There was such a variety of food each evening and we were amazed at their kind willingness to provide plenty of vegetarian options for Kate (vegetarians are pretty unheard of in Africa) along with several meat dishes each evening.

While we were at the Frenchman's Farm, the Frenchman learned that Corey is a primatologist and one evening he brought another (African) primatologist, David, to meet her. We learned that the Frenchman is a community leader on the Committee for the Preservation of and that David works for an NGO that monitors the forest, training locals as guides and teaching them to combat poaching. The NGO is  WAPCA, the West African Primate Conservation Action, trying to preserve critically endangered species of primates. David offered for us to stop at a different forest on our way out of Ghana to take  a hike to search for a small population of White-Naped Mangabey. While we stopped there for a brief hike, we found many poacher traps set for small mammals but we found no Mangabey. We did, however, come across a tortoise!

Bell's Hinge-Back Tortoise

Poacher trap, directing small mammals to the larger gap between the sticks where they'd knock the horizontal stick over and a wire would close around their leg, trapping the small animal. (we destroyed all of the traps we found, but there were many)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

XXX Poolside Enterprise - Now 24/7

The missionaries definitely landed in Ghana. Maybe it's because there's no language barrier (most Ghanaians speak English) that the message got through better. We saw The Lord God all over the place in Ghana! For example, political signs tagged candidates as "god fearing", there was Dr. Jesus Prayer camp, Try Jesus Digital Photo Shop, some signs just had messages like God Time is the Best Time, God Power Fridge Doctors, and God is My Sherpherd. There were graphic signs depicting Christ on the cross. Most taxis had inspirational Christian messages on the back window, including I am covered in the blood of Christ.

It was definitely culture shock to see all of these messages as we drove through villages and cities! The ironic thing is that we found the Ghanaian people to be really unaccomodating and not very friendly. As an example, we had Togo license plates and registration stickers on the car. There were so many police checkpoints where we were stopped solely because we were either a car-full of white people or because we were from Togo. We were told several times how much better it was in Ghana than Togo as we were being harassed and interrogated about where we came from and where we were going.

Note: The Title of this post (XXX Poolside Enterprise - Now 24/7) is another of the signs that we saw on our drive. It was the name of a hotel, as far as we can tell.

We're Ghana Have a Great Time

I arrived at the small airport in Ghana and walked from the plane to the terminal clutching my carry-on backpack and my travel paperwork to go through customs. Once I weaved my way through the tiny airport and collected my suitcase I was instantly greeted by Kate who had run past the barrier where everyone else was patiently waiting. Off-balance from my bags, she almost knocked me over and we laughed and greeted each other to strange looks as we walked passed the line of stoic Africans waiting behind the barrier to see their loved ones and friends emerge as I just had. Corey surfaced from the large congregation of Africans and as we passed through the doors to go outside, Mich appeared directly in front of us. We merrily greeted each other and all immediately began talking about logistics. When we got to the car, Jake emerged with a huge grin which was almost hidden by the massive beard which covered his face. The car ride was entertaining with stories shared of travel experiences, including a rather amusing incident where Mich was stopped by the Togolese police and Jake was told to get out of the vehicle so that two police officers could fondle and compliment Jake's beard.

We headed to our hotel, the Hans Cottage Botel, just outside of Cape Coast, Ghana. We got a small cottage for the 5 of us. The hotel was originally a "boat" (hence - "bo"-tel) which was placed in a crocodile pond and a hotel was built around it. Now the boat is just the dining area but the crocodiles are still present. There's a rumor that the owners feed the crocodiles something to keep them from eating people. Kate thinks this includes some sort of drug which makes the crocodiles stupid. Anyway, the result is that morons go over and touch the crocodiles for photo ops. No one's died yet as far as I can tell but there IS a big sign that renounces any responsibility for children who are eaten or drowned. 

 After lunch we drove out to our first hiking destination - a little village, about a 2 hour drive from the Botel. We got there in the evening and had a nice, steady hike for a couple of hours through the rainforest. Half-way back the sun went down and everyone pulled out their headlamps. Even though Kate told me we'd be doing night hikes, I completely forgot to bring flashlights because Gavin usually packs those. Luckily, Kate was prepared with extra flashlights. Mich was nice enough to drive a car full of sleeping friends back to the Botel. 

 The next day we all woke up very early hoping to see some monkeys at the canopy walk at Kakum National Park. We hiked a short way into the park and went up into the canopy of the lowland rainforest. It was beautiful in the treetops and the climate was not as steamy as I had anticipated! Unfortunately we did not see any monkeys because a group of teenagers had camped there the night before and was in front of us jumping around and screaming which probably scared them away.

 The girls decided to spend the afternoon in Cape Coast where we visited an Episcopal Cathedral which was built by an early missionary in 1437. He an his wife were buried inside of the church, underneath the chair where the pastor sits during church services. We also went to a slave castle, where slaves were held before they were loaded onto ships and sent around the world. There was a museum at the castle containing the history of the slave trade, including artifacts from the time period. We took a guided tour of the castle which painted a gruesome picture of the horrible life of slaves captured over the 300 year period. The tour ended with a statement that slavery still occurs and we should do everything possible to end the horrible abuse that is slavery.

 That evening we returned to Kakum for a night hike. Again it was a nice night for a walk through the rainforest. At one point Mich stopped. He had just heard this bird call which he described as a "conga line" in the forest. We went on a sort of scavenger hunt to find the bird. 

which we found
It was fun running around on and off the trails, dodging vines and branches. On the way out of the forest we saw a couple of tree-dwelling mammals.
including the elusive bush baby

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Arabian day

My flight itinerary to Accra, Ghana included 4 flights with 2 short layovers in the US and one 15 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco. By the time I arrived at the Casablanca Airport it was late morning in Morocco. I was pleased to discover that my layover came with a complimentary hotel room and a couple of meals! I was also thrilled to find that almost everyone spoke perfect French!  I immediately went to my room and relaxed. After lunch I went to Casablanca. It took me a couple of tries to catch the airport shuttle (I was late) but once I did, I headed to the train and went into the city! 

I met a girl named Daiyah on the train who appeared to be in her early 20's. She and I shared a taxi to a spot nearby the coast where we walked a little ways before she sent me off on my own. Daiyah told me (in French) about Ramadan, the religious ceremony that lasts for a month where no one is allowed to eat or drink anything, smoke or gamble while the sun is up. Then, when the sun sets everyone breaks their fast together. She pointed out "downtown Casablanca" and the large spire of the Mosque I wanted to see. She also gave me advice about how to tell the taxi driver to take me back to the airport and what would be a good price for a taxi. 

I made it to my coastal destination and as I walked up to the Mosque Mohammad V I noticed a whole bunch of people (mainly children) were playing in the ocean water by the rocks. It looked like 100 people were enjoying the temperate water of the Mediterranean Sea! I enjoyed the exquisite craftsmanship and architecture of The Mosque so much that I didn't realize I was the only woman walking into the front door! I was stopped and told to stand aside where I could look in to my heart's content. The Mosque was made of intricately carved stone, wood and metal along with complex tile patterns. There were humongous metal chandeliers hanging from the ceilings all throughout the building and the ceilings of the courtyard structures were inlaid with a brown tile to match the light brown stone that they were made from. Some of the largest metal doors I have ever seen were placed on each side of the mosque. They were so thick that they could withstand anything I can think of - natural disaster, bomb, you name it! Although, I hope they never see anything like that.

Next I stopped a taxi driver and asked him (in French) to take me to the Old Medina - a marketplace where I could buy souvenirs. He took me to the center of town and when we stopped at a light he said that I might enjoy the market across the street more than the Medina because it was less "tourist-y" and I could probably find better bargains there. I thanked him and left the taxi. The driver was right. I haggled and searched for some of the souvenirs I had in mind and I found them! It was a terrific experience with little pressure and the marketplace, though crowded, didn't seem as dangerous as some. All of the vendors were polite and pleasant, even when trying to drive a hard bargain. 

All of my goals seemed to be met. I got to see Casablanca and do some touristy stuff, I found souvenirs and the last thing was to get out of the city before it got dark. The sun sets at 7:30 - I had looked that up before I came. It wasn't quite 7pm. 

I did what Daiyah had shown me and I got away from all the taxi drivers competing for my business. I walked along the street and waived down a taxi. He hesitated when I asked if he'd take me to the train station. But then he agreed, as if he were relenting (I simply asked 'train station?' - I wasn't being pushy). He started driving to the station and chatting first in French, then in English. I felt like he was trying to distract me. I remembered that Daiyah said I wouldn't need to negotiate a rate because there should be a meter counting the miles at the front of the car (just like taxis at home). She said if it was flashing I should ask what was wrong and be suspicious. 

After about 1/4 mile I looked down at the box which was completely dead and looked like it hadn't worked for a while. The driver said it was broken - duh. I asked how much he was gonna charge to take me to the station and he said 20 Durham. Daiyah had paid 15 to go twice as far so I knew he was scamming me. When I told him I wouldn't pay that much he said "ok then get out". Tons of cabs passed every minute so after initial shock wore off I straightened my back and got out of the cab. I started walking and within a couple of minutes found another taxi with a meter that worked and I payed him 6 Durham to take me to the station.

I bought a train ticket and found that I'd only need to wait 10 minutes for the 7:00 train! Of course, it was 25 min late but at least I was out of the city by dark. I sat in a train car with a slightly annoying American family but I felt safe being around others from the same culture in a confined space.

We arrived at the airport just as the sun fully set and I went to catch the airport shuttle back to my hotel which, of course, was an hour late. I remembered that upon arrival I saw something about checking out at 8:30 and began to worry that someone might decide to check me out early and do something to (ok steal) my stuff. As I sat waiting for the shuttle I met others who had just arrived from Singapore and Vietnam who spoke English. The man from Singapore (Mohammad Ali) distributed cookies (homemade) which the man from Vietnam and I politely refused. Mohammad insisted that we eat one because he and his friends just "broke fast" (see earlier Ramadan information) and they could not eat alone. Then he said "now we are all family" and proceeded to ask us where we were from and where we were going, etc. the time passed quickly and he took my mind off of my hotel room.

We arrived at the hotel and I grabbed my bag (perfectly in tact - yes, call me paranoid but the balcony door had a broken lock and housekeeping had walked in on me napping earlier that day). I had promised Gavin and my mom that I'd email them before I left for the airport so they knew I had returned from Casablanca. The only place I found WiFi in Morocco was at the hotel lobby (not the room) so by the time 9:00 rolled around and it was thoroughly dark I had received several worried emails from Gavin. I sent a one sentence email saying I was on my way to the airport and caught the shuttle back. Gavin had told me I should plan to return to the airport by 9:30 and I had gone through customs and was at the gate by 9:20! 

The flight wasn't till 12:45 am so I grabbed my bag, curled myself around it on a chair near the gate and took a much needed 2 hour nap. Morocco was delightful and I fully recommend it to anyone looking for a pleasant, welcoming exotic trip. Now on to Ghana!

Monday, December 19, 2011

wandering through the wilderness

 The journey to Ft. Portal, Uganda required a 5 1/2 hour bus ride from Kampala, the capitol city of Uganda. We hired a taxi in Ft. Portal to take us 44 km (about 27 miles) to The Chimp's Nest - our next hostel.

We had to drive pretty far into the darkening Kibale National Park, past all signs of civilization. The road was very full of potholes and the tires of the vehicle were very old so we drove pretty slowly and it was a bit nerve racking going further and further through a darkening jungle before reaching a small, very rural village where we turned onto a small, even worse dirt road for the final leg of our journey. It was dark by the time we arrived so we couldn't see the property. The main "lobby" area consisted of a small hut which was open to the elements. It doubled as an eating area.

Chimp's Nest sprawled across a large portion of land which bordered Kibale National Park. The guys took several opportunities to go birding all around the grounds over the course of the 2 1/2 days we stayed. We saw our first HORNBILL (Black and White Casqued Hornbill) and our second monkey (Grey Cheeked Mangaby)

Everyone at our hostel was so nice and it was a GREAT place to be!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pearl of Africa...worth the wait!

We awoke this morning in Kampala, the capitol city of Uganda. Uganda is touted as the "Pearl of Africa", referring to the welcoming social atmosphere and all of the amusing activities one can fit into a day.

Gavin, Greg and Art woke up as the sun came up at 6am to run around the grounds of the Red Chili Hideaway in search of birds. They also found Vervet Monkeys in the trees in the gardens. Celina waited until 8am to wake up and got ready for the day. The guys pushed her to hurry as they waited to get breakfast (which begins at 7:30). They were anxious to begin the day, to say the least.

After breakfast, the day began.

We walked to the street, grabbed a matatu (small van which fits 16 comfortably but is often overfilled) into the center of town. It took us a while to locate a bank on a Sunday (to get local currency) but we finally found an ATM which we withdrew money from - another hurdle A short jaunt to the New Taxi Park yielded a big dirt lot full of matatus with no semblance of order but which we soon found somehow flowed pretty well.

We got a matatu to take us to Kisanje and then, luckily, a local whom we befriended on the journey negotiated with the driver to take us all the way to Mabamba. Mabamba is a nature preserve where you go to look for Shoebills. We got onto a boat and went through a swamp and SAW A SHOEBILL!!! Which is what both of us really wanted for this trip!!

Yes, it's a real bird and it really looks this wierd. We didn't see it this close but we still saw it VERY well!!

Then we took a couple of boda bodas (motorcycles) the last stretch from Mabamba back to Kisanje and then took a matatu (overfull again) back to Kampala. We got back just in time for dinner this time, but covered in dirt. We all have dirt caked on our faces.

Tomorrow we'll be heading to Fort Portal and then to Kibale (in the west). We probably won't get to the internet for a few days.

Be back soon with a load of new adventures for your perusing pleasure!

We're all going to wash the pound of dirt off of our bodi and head to sleep.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Travel Wearying Day with the Locals

Greg found us in the Istanbul airport and we all sat around waiting for a late evening plane.

The second we got onto the flight from Istanbul to Nairobi, Celina fell asleep and only woke up once to eat...and then passed out again. This was good because it prepared her to stand in a million lines when we arrived in the Nairobi airport. There was the Visa counter, then Baggage Claim, the Money Exchange Counter and then ... sort of skipping Customs. Customs really consisted of a woman who was not wearing any official clothing talking to you for a minute and letting you go through, so we didn't feel too badly about it.

Our first event took place at the Money Exchange counter. We had been warned in advance that noone in Africa would accept $100 bills made before 2006. It turns out that they'll take neither $100 nor $50 made before 2006. In any case, some passengers on our flight did not know about this stipulation and brought only old bills. One woman was refused entrance into the country because she couldn't buy a visa. One man was so angry that the booth would only change $40 of his money that he began accusing the man behind the counter of theft and threatened to have him killed. It was a big scene! The policemen didn't want to get involved although they were hanging around close by.

We had originally planned to spend the first day in Nairobi National Park with a rental car but due to the recent heavy rains we decided not to chance getting stuck in the mud. We opted for the morning bus to Kampala, Uganda. When we got to the Nairobi bus station it was still dark and the ticket desk wasn't open so we hung out in a small cafe and ate a Kenyan breakfast. Each meal came with tea made with warm milk, some form of eggs and chapati, a flat bread resembling tortilla made with lard. Chapati was familiar to us from "African Food Night" which we hosted at our house before leaving. We must say that Melanie Lewis did a phenomenal job making the Chapati!

Once the sun came up and birds were visible, Gavin and Greg hit the ground running. The first bird they saw was Black Kite, followed by Little Swift and Common Bulbul. Art eventually joined them and has since been helping them to distinguish field marks on the different swallows, raptors and crows.

The bus was a travel coach bus with cushy large seats that afforded each passenger plenty of private space. We got onto the bus for the supposed 8-12 hour ride to Kampala, Uganda and waited over an hour to begin the journey. Gavin was irritated that we boarded late and then frustrated that we took off over an hour later than that!

Our first mammals were domesticated cows, donkeys, ZEBRA and Thompson's Gazelle!

The ride actually took 14 hours. We stopped every 4 hours in some random large city but didn't dare wander too far from the bus to find food which wasn't fried (possibly in peanut oil) so we ate nuts which we brought with us and bread/water which we picked up along the way.

Upon our arrival (at 10pm) to the Kampala bus station an anxious cab driver appeared who graciously offered a ride.  Dead tired we happily accepted the exorbitant rate in anticipation of a real bed and a journey as far away from the bus as possible!

We arrived at the Red Chili Hostel at 10:30 at night, just 30 min after they stopped serving dinner. We really didn't care at that point and settled for a beer, a shower and a bed covered by mosquito netting. It's a wonderful hostel secluded from town and off the road. There's a gate and a security guard - not that we wouldn't feel safe if those things weren't here, it was just a little more peace of mind after a harrying day.