Tag Archives: bicycle

A goodbye blog…

It has been the most incredible journey of both of our lives. There have been challenges; the heat, the hills, the dust and the desert.

We set this blog to publish as our flight takes off out of Africa. I guess it’s a bit of a symbolic posting. It’s a goodbye blog.

We want to share a few photos we had been saving for the right moment. Some of these faces you may have seen in previous postings, some are new, but all showed us pure kindness, warmth and generosity. For that reason we wanted to devote a blog to the theme of generosity. These are the faces we will not forget as we leave African soil.

Mama: It had been a long day of cycling. We had never slept in a village before. She welcomed us with warmth, fed us and even gave us a crash course in Wolof. It was to be the first of many village camping experiences.

Senegal 010

Cheick shared a roadside pot of tea with us one hot Malian lunchtime. He had lost a bull and hadn’t had the best of days. But he dismissed his misfortune and instead welcomed us to the village, occasionally leaving us to make bull-related phone calls.

Cheikh

Pete: We met on the ferry to France. He was our adopted dad for the first leg of our trip. He encouraged us, kept our spirits up when our bums were burning and shared some very useful bike-touring wisdom with us. He was our first friend of the trip.

Tentatively we peeked through the bushes at a group of party-goers, only to be snapped up by the father of the bride who insisted that we join the festivities. We shared goats milk and attempted to learn a few words of Fula. It was the perfect half hour.

Semi Nomadic Fula Wedding

With a contagious smile he opened his home to us. Boubacar Kone is an artist, a philosopher, a businessman, but most of all he’s everyone’s friend. Bouba had polio as a child and now runs ‘Handicape Production’, a small shop selling his artisan work.

Boubacar

Ba Fousseyni: What can we say? Fousseyni, our Malian uncle and good friend. He fed us, offered us a home and became a very wonderful friend to have around.

Imran and Fousseyni

Sodio Boureïma: It was getting close to 50 degrees in the midday sun and we had been cycling on ‘corrugated iron’ sand piste for a long time… visibly exhausted we were heckled from the road and invited to rest. We napped at his side and when we awoke, waiting next to us was a pot of tea and a bowl of mangos.

Boureïma Sodio in Dogon village of Tedie Kanda

Jaliba Kuyateh: We had heard about him, turned up at his house on a whim and ended up sharing almost a week with him and his family. Generous and wise, he showed us a truly different side to The Gambia.

djeliba kouyate

Mama Lamlih: Baking us fresh bread every morning, preparing us a special couscous dinner (it wasn’t even ‘couscous friday’), she was the heart of the fantastic Lamlih family and made sure we felt at home as we entered the desert.

Mamma

Souleymane and Chekoroba: We met in Bamako, their home city. They agreed to teach Mikaela a couple of Bamana songs. A couple of songs turned into a true friendship, based on wonderful descriptive song translations from Chekoroba, the beautiful songwriting of Souleymane (which we ended up recording) and of course, Chekoroba’s mother’s ‘giniberri’ (ginger juice)..! We felt part of a family.

Souleymane

Souleymane`s final run through his song structure...

Chekoroba- Photograph by Florant Lalet

Coroba

There is a Moorish proverb that puts it more simply,

To travel is to know the true value of mankind.

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Rush hour…

Beach time did not really work out as hoped. One day of splashing in the sea and snoozing in the sun before my belly started another war. But it turned out the beach was a cool place for recovery, which is in a way a sort of relaxation…

On our way east from the beach the scenery was stunning, lush green bush and tall palm trees stretching high into the clear blue. We passed through the bright fishing village of Dixcove where vivid rags and flags flapped wildly in the wind as the boat owners took a rest from the heat of the midday sun.

The beach at Green Turtle Lodge on the west coast of Ghana

Mikaela gets extra sick at the beach and instead of beach-bumming ends up sleeping in the shade…

Imran enjoying a little beach rest!

The colourful fishing village of Dixcove close to the Cote d’Ivoire border

Because we stayed longer on the beach than planned we now find ourselves rushing to Cotonou. With only a few days before our flight leaves from Benin we are facing a race through Togo and the prospect of barely seeing Benin. But it’s been an amazing journey and we can’t really grumble. Instead of feeling disappointed we have decided to see it as a good excuse to return and do it all again.

Mikaela wearing her new helmet after the old one fell to a serious crushing accident (luckily NOT with her head in it!)

The old colonial buildings of Cape Coast’s historic streets

Cape Coast bay

We weren’t sure of what this sign actually meant?

Thirsty at the roadside: a coconut break

Leaving Ghana behind us we will whizz through Togo, collecting our French friends and cyclists Jérémie and Claire en route as they will join us along the coast. After which we will say our goodbyes and leave them as we cross into Benin. Then, in the way that only we know how, we will throw everything together, pack up the bicycles and jump on a 5 am plane from Cotonou to Lagos, Lagos to Casa Blanca, and finally Casa Blanca to London Heathrow. Then, home.

Being a bicycle sister…

Mik takes the slope carefully

Cycling in West Africa can sometimes challenge some strong stereotypes,

The bicycle is the poor man’s way to travel.

The bicycle is just a donkey. It’s no good.

The bicycle is not for a woman*.

For me, the last has had true resonance. Some of the comments, responses and hecklers have been worth remembering, some not! Here are a few of my favourites…

Hey bicycle sister!

You are a terrible husband. Look at your poor wife. She is so tired.’ (Multiple men have exclaimed this to Imran in horror).

Well now you will never have children‘, (Bassekou Kouyaté’s mother, Yakaré. She now requires evidence should I ever have any children).

Strong woman. Strong, strong woman.

So you cycled here all the way from England? And your wife, she flew to meet you?

(Yelled out of a truck window by a grinning driver as I cycled up a steep hill in Ghana)… ‘Hey achey, achey! You ache because you are a woman!

(Shouted by many beautifully rotund Ghanaian mothers) ‘Eat sister, eat to bicycle!!!!‘, (hand gesture of food to mouth as I cycle past).

On entering a shop accompanied by two other male cyclists, (male shopkeeper to me), ‘you’re tired, sit here now‘. I respond (rather sharply) ‘I am not tired thank you I will stand‘. Thirty minutes later I am forced to request his floor for a nap, he smiles understandingly.

(In response to our journey), ‘I prefer the Mercedes.‘ (My friend Fatu, wife of Gambian musician Jaliba Kuyateh and a formidable female force, though no cyclist!).

*Note: In Burkina Faso many women cycle.

A few dark clouds: our house is burgled…

Arriving home to find our house had been burgled was a low point of the trip.

Everything gone. The camera, sound recorder, all our money and unfortunately the list goes on. Walking to the police office we noticed, for the first time, the sky was full of dark clouds and as Imran commented on the unusual weather a drop of rain fell to his nose. It seemed the first rains of our trip in West Africa had fallen.

But stuff is just stuff, our time here and on the rest of the trip has been fantastic, our encounters unique and the friends we have made will remain in our lives far into the future. For a moment we considered getting out of Mali as soon as our recording was finished, but that would be turning our backs on something so positive and leaving with clouds hanging over us.

But, we cannot change the fact that we have experienced a financial loss and of course the impact this has had on how safe we feel. These factors combined with a sense that if we continue to Kinshasa we may have to rush on the bicycles so much that we will actually miss seeing the countries we pass through, has led us to make a big decision.

In May we will return. We will fly home from Lagos where we have music contacts and a press passes for Sub-Saharan Africa’s exclusive performance of Fela!

So now with only a few months left and almost all of our valuables gone (except our bicycles and the GPS!) we are actually feeling positive. We are ready for the next leg of the journey, but not ready to come home. It’s not quite time to say goodbye.

It’s a nomad’s life…

You would think that the potholes, wasps stings and bazooka bearing military men would be enough to put us off Casamance but we can’t think of a more beautiful route.

A typical roadside view

Casamance is alive. The fresh air hums with the sound of colourful birdsong and the crickets buzz all day long. The region really is breathtakingly beautiful and we both struggle to avoid hitting the enormous potholes as we gaze out towards the rice fields or catch sight of an amazing bird.

From the road to Ziguinchor onwards the route became much tougher, it’s as though the Senegalese government has forgotten this place. Whilst the Dakar area enjoys newly surfaced roads, the people of Casamance struggle to travel a meagre 30 kilometers to the next village. Cars cannot pass these roads, it’s only the bush taxis and an occasional four-wheel drive that dare tread on the broken tarmac and dusty sand pistes.

Another beautiful roadside view

With a little guilt we have to admit that we benefit from this lack of transportation in the region. With the cars scared away by the difficult conditions, our main encounters are with other cyclists, large groups of school bound children and groups of women travelling to the rice fields. The normal hazards of cycling alongside traffic have faded into the distance and our brakes now respond to the unpredictable crossing of goats, cattle and donkeys.

One of the many rice fields

As we cycle towards the border with Mali we find ourselves reflecting upon the strange life we are living here. Eating and sleeping wherever the road takes us, filtering cool well water at regular stops and relying on solar power for all our electrical needs. Wherever we go we feel the same sense of self-sustainability through cycling. It’s an independent existence we are living, one that tastes of a pretty sweet freedom. It’s a nomad’s life.

100 km into the day, Mikaela finds a restful cycling position

On tour with Jaliba Kuyateh…

‘Salam, Do you know where Jaliba Kuyateh lives?’

‘Jaliba..? Of course. His house is the most grand in Brikama, it’s beautiful, you cannot miss it.’

Four stories high, looking over the fantastically green city of Brikama in The Gambia, Jaliba’s house was indeed beautiful and we had turned up unannounced and uninvited, expecting at best a cup of tea and a chat.

But as we rolled our bicycles into the driveway we were greeted with a scene of busy women smiling up at us and welcoming us to their compound. They quickly informed us that Jaliba was out, and that we must wait for him over a large bowl of Maffe.

After attempting to finish the meal that could have fed six, we watched on as the women forced a kora onto the youngest of Jaliba’s sons, Jaliba junior. But little Jaliba, only interested in Imran’s guitar, grabbed it and held it like a kora announcing simply that he too wanted a ‘toubab kora’. We laughed and discussed the certainty of his musical career, owing to his strong griot lineage.

mini djeli

It wasn’t long before Jaliba arrived home to find us, the mystery cyclists, stood on his doorstep. Feeling a little sheepish we introduced ourselves and the project ‘music cycles’. Jaliba in his gentle manner insisted that we come along to a few of his gigs and stay at least one night with the family.

lead guitar

Later as we sat watching the band tune up, begginning to feel the birth of a street party atmosphere build, Jaliba told us of how frequently he plays for baptisms and weddings. The attendees of the baptism arrived in their hundreds, women in elaborate dresses, their sequins and bold prints owning the dusk air.

baptism 2

Intrigued by the sound of drumming and saxophone we strolled around the corner to find a group of 30 or so singing, dancing and clapping to the rythmic beat of the drummers accompanied by a pentatonic saxophone line.

We stood back in awe of the scene in front of us. Before we knew it Mikaela had been grabbed enthusiastically and now stood in the centre of the circle of women, clapping her on, determined that she would dance.

The crowd swelled and flowed moving us back towards Jaliba’s band who had now started to play. The crowd went wild, the women moving forwards to dance as the men took a step back to witness the energetic raising of the purses high above their elaborate hairstyles; hairpieces, painted scalps, head ties, a mass of bold colours and sparkling beads.

baptism

Jaliba has been performing in and around the Gambia for more than 20 years and he has achieved true celebrity status. Jaliba is a griot, and as a griot he has an important role to play in society.

“[Griots] are mediators, they connect people and they are the most vocal people in society”, he explains.

Historically, griots were the closest advisors of kings and were the holders of historical knowlege and lineage.

“Today our role is lighter’ he says simply, ‘today we are less linked to politicians and more connected to the people’.

In a country where only 20% of the population can read government campaign posters on issues such as AIDS and Malaria, it’s no suprise that Jaliba’s topical lyrics run deeper that a Baptism celebration.

At a political rally in Sedhiou in the Casamance region of Senegal, we find ourselves once again in front of an enourmous crowd of Jaliba fans. This time though they are attendees of a political rally.

rally

As we look into the crowd we are faced with an audience of t-shirts bearing the faces of bored looking politicians with promising slogans. Worn with little enthusiam but for the fact they are distributed for free, the crowd becomes disinterested in the dullness of the political speeches and race for Jaliba’s stage.

crowd

fanta

The women rush to the front, the faces on the t-shirts are forgotten and the dancing begins.

‘I sort of preach’ he tells us later.

Jaliba laughs as he tells us that in the beginning of his career the griots turned away from his music.

‘Musicians here can enlighten people, make people laugh, make people cry. Why shouldn’t I talk about things that can benefit the people? But at the start the traditional griots said I was spoiling things… because I went further than to just talk about a king or a chief or a warrior doing good on the battlefield.’

djeliba kouyate

Now though, that pressure is in the past and Jaliba’s popularity could not be stronger in both The Gambia and Senegal. Now a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Jaliba is an established public figure here, his words are trusted by the people who follow his music and for some his lyrics educating people on HIV/AIDS, may be their only source of information.

Wherever you go with Jaliba the children race towards him,

‘Ja-li-ba, Ja-li-ba…’

They lean through the windows of his car as they chant his lyrics about malaria prevention loudly, smiles beaming, jumping at the car just to get a glimpse.

Back at home Jaliba’s family once again welcome us. We have stayed far longer than planned but by now Mikaela has developed some kind of epic cold involving multiple sneezing, constant nose blowing and a voice like a tired camel. One of Jaliba’s wives Fatu, orders her to bed for a day where she is waited on by the children of the house as Fatu fusses over whether the quantity of cornflakes will be enough for our breakfast.

In the evening we try to play some of our songs to Jaliba, but with Mikaela struggling to sing and creating Janis Joplin-like sounds, we focused on guitar and kora. The growl of Jaliba’s deep voice dances over the gentle sound of the strings and we are all lulled into a relaxed state for a perfect evening of conversation and hot goat stew.

The following day we once again find ourselves saying a reluctant goodbye to friends we will not see for some time.

Jaliba turns to us and with a warm smile states, ‘I will miss you both’.

We tell him how sad we are to leave and that we now feel part of the family. Concerned we will be tempted to stay longer we make a quick exit and cycle away down the sand piste to cross the border into the lush green of Casamance, Senegal.

Time to leave France…

To summarise a few things and update you…

Days since we left: 15

Kilometers cycled: 1024 (636 miles)

Average daily distance cycled: 80 km

Baguettes consumed: 29

Whole cheeses consumed: 17

Canned meals eaten: 10

Bike falls (owing to clip-ins): Imran 6/ Mikaela 1

Well, leaving Bordeaux was never going to be easy, but it was a departure made easier by one of Polo’s lovely housemates Arnaud who generously suggested we stay with his parents on the next leg of our journey. Somehow the incentive of a bed and shower led us to cycle 120 km across hilly terrain reaching the warmth of French hospitality in a village called Lavardac by nightfall. Feeding us with a fantastic feast and insisting we try a local digéstif, we settled down to sleep with absolute contentment. The next day, in spite of the bum-suffering, we continued to cycle through the Lot-et-Garonne and past the Landes, known as ‘France’s lungs’ as it’s composed entirely of sand and pine trees.

Nérac

We were relieved however to reach Toulouse and the beginning of the Canal du Midi, a beautiful stretch of water listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and running for 240 km from Toulouse to Séte .

Mikaela in Nérac

Canal CrossingsThe original purpose of the Canal du Midi was to provide a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage, a hostile Spain and Barbary pirates. The canal has a rich history including the story of the thousands of labourers it took to build it, of these many were women who came from the Pyrenees specifically for this work. These peasant women were mainly of Roman descent and their knowledge of water systems was apparently vital to the construction of the canal, which in its era was a feat of engineering never seen before.

We followed the path of the Canal du Midi for just under 200 km, passing Europe’s largest medieval fortress in Carcassonne. Our time by the canal had its advantages given that it was of course very flat, but the ground was broken, uneven and seriously bumpy. We were slowed down by the difficult terrain and tired of camping in the cold we decided to take a slightly different route and made our way to Montpellier to stay with friends. Once again we have been shown huge generosity and when we catch our ferry this evening we’ll be sad to have only stayed one night. But the new leg of our journey begins soon, crossing continents from Europe to Africa on the 36 hour ferry from Séte to Tangier putting us another step closer to Mali.

Naptime in Montpellier