Monday, September 07, 2009

Niamey stay

It's been almost two and a half weeks since I arrived in Niamey, and I was glad to have the chance to leave town, even briefly, the other day. My plan had been to tag along with a Rotary group from the US for the first week, which I mostly did. They had built a number of wells in outlying areas, as mentioned previously. My plan was to get out to Agadez or other distant places in my second week in Niger but that has mostly not happened. The buses don't run every day--I went with money in hand to buy a ticket for a Wednesday departure, but that's one of two days a week they don't run. And the buses all generally depart really early in the morning, so I've got that early morning inertia to combat, as well.

So I stayed around Niamey most of the rest of the week, just hanging out and getting to know some of the Niger Peace Corps Volunteers. Who, needless to say, are by and large really cool people.

On Saturday, though, I headed up to Ayorou, a town about four hours up the Niger River from Niamey, to get a feel for what non-metropolitan Niger feels like. (That said, being right along the river, and nowhere near as far away as Agadez, for instance, it was still probably pretty tame, as far as Niger goes.)

This was going to be a real first for me in Niger--heading off, alone, to a place where nobody spoke English, where I didn't really speak French and certainly didn't speak Zarma, and I was only about 300 miles from Timbuktu.

I quickly met a friendly local who showed me to the one hotel in town and we made plans to meet up later. Excuse the mixed metaphor, but the faded glory of this hotel still echoes around the place--there was a plaque commemorating the time when in the 1970s, the president of Niger came to dedicate the place. Since then, it's fallen on hard times, or the management is completely clueless.

Upon arriving, the manager--who, to my tremendous surprise, spoke English with a delightful African accent and cadence--asked "Will you be taking lunch with us?" and when phrased thusly, it's impossible to say no. So I had a fine Western-style chicken dish (with French fries), dining on a veranda that reminded me of nothing so much as "taking lunch" at Governor's Camp in Kenya, resting between a morning and an afternoon on safari.

We later had an interesting conversation--it seems the manager is originally from Benin, and Christian, in majority-Muslim Niger (Ayorou, he tells me, is 97 percent Muslim). He, like many other people I met in Africa, wanted to stay in touch, and I gave him my address, figuring if he wanted to spend on the postage, I would be glad to receive his updates. We also discussed how to make the hotel more appealing to travelers, especially foreigners. I suggested--and this is absolutely, 100 percent true--adding toilet seats to the otherwise-normal toilets in the rooms. "Oh, you mean a plastic thing that goes on them?" the manager asked. "Yes." I assured him. "Toilet seats. Probably a good idea if you want to get some high-end people." In fact, a good idea regardless.

My dining was interrupted by two men who were extremely interested in taking me on a boat ride to see hippopotamus down the river. I'd already done that, so I wasn't especially interested, or at least not for the prices they wanted. After much negotiating, I did get into a much smaller, more precarious craft than I'd been on with the Rotary group, and we braved some micro-rapids to get down to the hippo zone. (They weren't really scary, but they required punting, rather than paddling, from the two boatmen on the way back.)

We had stayed a goodly distance from any hippos the week before, but this time we got a lot closer. My boatman got out of the boat and led me around through a field where cattle were grazing (and flies were feeding... on me) and gestured for me to go on ahead to as close to the hippos as I dared. Which was pretty close. They say more people are killed by hippos every year than any other African animal, which I definitely believe when you look at their teeth.
Some local boys there joined in observing the spectacle. On the way back, we agreed there were at least twelve hippos there, and my boatman said there are hardly ever that many gathered all in one place.

My buddy from earlier in the day was waiting for me, and, in shades of Morocco, wanted to be hired as a guide for several hundred CFA. I didn't like the principle of the thing, but in the end it was not very much, so I went along with it. We went to what passed for a local "bar" and had a drink, where he mistakenly assumed I would be picking up the tab, which I was, but only for what I was drinking myself. I eventually paid, but we agreed to take it out of his fee later. Don't try to get free drinks out of me, fool.

As our tour of town continued, we ran into this group of youngsters by the riverside. They seemed friendly enough, but we had zero language in common, so it was bound to be a short visit.

Nearby, these several boats were "docked," evidently having brought goods for the next day's market from places far and wide.

Saturday night, people were finally breaking the fast. I had some decent rice-sauce in one of the plazas, but was basically ready to turn in for the day, so I made arrangements to meet my guide the next morning to go to see the vaunted Sunday animal market.

My buddy showed up at the appointed time, taking me a goodly distance to the animal market. Essentially just a big open space with stakes in the ground for owners to tie animals up to, there were beasts of all kinds on offer. Many small-time traders came with a dozen or so sheep or goats, but there were also huge collections of camels, donkeys and other livestock.

After that it was time to go "home" to Niamey. At least I didn't have to travel in a true "steerage class":
Back in Niamey I I was looking forward to urban biking! You haven't biked until you've biked in Africa, I've started to say. Bikes are, of course, a very common mode of transportation in Niamey, given the general impecuniousness of the area and the low cost of bikes.

Vicky was kind enough to lend me her bike, and I'm sure I turned many heads and generated many cries of "crazy annasara" (foreigner)--just as I no doubt generated many exclamations of "crazy gringo" in Honduras. The Peace Corps bikes were in excellent condition, and I put the one to good use, speeding around town. On a few occasions, I passed some slow-moving mopeds, to my great delight and amusement. Another time, I had just pedaled up a long hill and was waiting for a traffic light to turn when a motorcycle driver said something to me. I told him he was going to have to repeat himself, and I eventually heard him say "Armstrong"--as in "Lance Armstrong." He seemed comfortable speaking French, so I tried to get across that Lance didn't have to worry about sub-Saharan weather--only mountains, so it was a trade-off. I think he may have understood what I was saying, but the light turned and we both headed off.

For my money, one of the more illuminating things about Niamey is how "share the road" isn't a road sign but a way of life. Cars, bikes, pedestrians and donkey carts share the same road--pictured here is the two-lane Kennedy Bridge--the only span over the Niger River for miles, improbably named after the 35th President. I have video of me biking over this bridge on my Picasa Web Albums page.

One thing you may notice--I pass by some other cyclists, and not slow passes, either. I may or may not be in better shape than they are, and their bikes may be slowing them down, too. I'm pretty sure, though, that they're making a conscious effort to go slowly, to avoid getting all hot and sweaty. That is one stereotype of Africa that was true in my experience: it's hot, especially if you're doing any kind of physical activity. I was out for about an hour and a half, and must have sweat about a gallon. These guys, probably not so much.

Finally--in Ayorou I saw several instances of Obama-themed clothing. After a while it got passé to see the president's visage even in the remotest corners, but I was able to get my camera out fast enough to capture this Obamacloth shirted donkey cart passenger in Ayorou.

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