Saturday 31 August 2013

Mr. Gobrick : Bill Hammond

Dear Mr. Gobrick,

When I was a teenager I rarely visited museums or art galleries.  I remember my teachers were obliged to haul us out to exhibitions every few years: hay-stuffed history in fur-trading forts, talking computers at science fairs, and big-screen movies about whales where you had to wear the cheap red-and-blue paper shades.  But painting, sculpture, installation art, even music?  Not that I recall.  Until I entered university, fine art – including drama, music, dance and all that other fairy stuff – was never an option of study.  And until then, the prospect of going into a building to look at paint on canvas was about as exciting as sitting still at a ballet.  Of course, I didn’t do either of these things – but ignorance is no excuse to a 15-year old.

I became an undergraduate with no break but the summer following my school exams, and was just as surprised as everyone else to learn that my programme fell under the power of that esoteric tower of talent, the Faculty of Fine Arts.  I wouldn’t have to sing or dance, would I?  They can’t mark me on how well I draw, can they?  No, I learned, but I would have to take at least one course within the Faculty, but outside of my department (Drama).  Everything with a practical bent scared me out of my wits, and just the titles of the theoretical courses (Art History, Dance Theory, Music Appreciation) bored me to tears.  So, coward that I continue to be, I went the easiest way I could find: an introductory course to all the Fine Arts, surveying (and thus not really getting dirty with) all art, all method, all eons.  I figured we wouldn’t have time to pick up a flute or dance the tarantella, and I was right.

Despite what I now consider to be a reprehensible lack of dialogue and cooperation between the Fine Arts disciplines, four years in any arts department is not without its prods and nods to explore the larger meaning of creativity.  In my first couple years I was encouraged by professors to check out the new downtown exhibit, was exposed in performance art classes to crossdisciplinary practice and theory, and discovered in my assigned readings the ancient relationship between the theatre and every other conceivable form of human expression.  I wanted to learn more, and to bring it back to the task at hand.  By the time I finished university my self-indoctrination was complete: I was aimed full-throttle towards the avant-garde, experimentation, and annihilating barriers between the crafts.  If a four-hour anti-dance escapade performed by naked feminists drenched in paint on an office-paper canvas under the nothing but the moonlight came to my town – you bet I’d be there.  In fact, count me in today.  But some painter who knows how to shadow a chair?  No thanks.

Now keep in mind, I wasn’t afraid of or at heart opposed to that older kind of art.  It was at this time that I was falling in love with classical music.  I was watching older movies and independent films which comment on the art of cinema and, by extension, the art of visual expression altogether.  I was meeting other artists from other disciplines who had a lot of fascinating things to say about the history of their craft, and about the old masters whose shadows still daunt the newcomer.  My mother was just starting to collect and hang prints and paintings which were admittedly beautiful, though still over my head.  If I ever said something along the lines of, say, landscape painting is so bourgeois, or, modern art was a confused backstep towards more democratic expression (I don’t think I ever actually said these idiot things, but you get this gist), it wasn’t just because I was a philistine, but because I needed some defense against not “getting it”.

And I did try.  I took it upon myself to be or to get “cultured”, and so attended new exhibitions and openings, regardless of era and style.  I visited galleries at home and wherever else I found myself, only to champion the screeching, immediate “new” while rushing past the icy, sanctimonious “old”.  It was the same thing every time: there’s a man sitting for his portrait, without a smile, his cheeks unbelievable, shirt-collar puffy, one hand holding an orange and the other on his knee.  Okay, there’s some symbolism and I should read a book about it, but where’s the genius?  There’s an open field with a bunch of horses running around, and some clouds, and some grass, and in the corner there’s a lake, and…  I’m asleep.  There’s a big battle scene, or an exploding volcano over the fields of hell, or an eviscerating seaborne sunset – wow!  Beautiful or sublime, some striking stuff.  But still, a masterpiece?  I’ve seen better photographs, and they’re more informative to boot.

Any half-witted enthusiast of art could have told me I was a shallow and lazy fool.  They would have suggested I read a good book, or visited a great New York or European museum with a guide who’s good with yawning children, or just taken that Art History class.  I could have crossed the Rubicon of art appreciation in a multitude of ways, but I’m rather proud and fond of the bridge I ended up crossing.  His name is Bill Hammond.

My four months in New Zealand was the first time I’d ever really traveled.  I bought plane tickets there and back, extended just long enough to spectate the Wellington International Arts Festival, threw on a backpack and left behind my camera (because I wanted to remember things, I announced).  I worked for two weeks on an organic farm, and another two in an organic café; I hitchhiked from one end of the country to the other, tramped solo and in a group all across the South and Stewart Islands; I read a book, left it behind, bought or found or borrowed another, and repeated the cycle ad infinitum; I saw fjords, waterfalls, mountains, beaches, and glaciers, and met some of the most wonderful people.  My gameplan in every town or city was to get up in the morning, stroll out in the sun or the rain, and walk, and walk, and walk.  If there was anything I did in New Zealand, it was walking.  I didn’t have a guidebook until I found one near the end of the trip, so I sometimes learned about things to do or see by word of mouth.  Usually, however, I just stumbled on it.

In Christchurch, I stumbled on an art gallery.  To me it proposed itself like any other: sleek, professional, and empty.  I looked at the programme posted outside the main door, and it meant nothing to me.  A bunch of talk about mindscapes, using fat words like defragmentary, eclipse and phenomenological.  I was hesitant.  I was hungry too, which is never a good sign.  It may have been my first chance at a proper “institution” since Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, which I had very much enjoyed, but that museum was huge: if I was bored with the wooden artifacts encased in glass, I could just go next door, to the room which explains the Big Bang.  The Christchurch Art Gallery, on the other hand, was small and intimate, and frightening.  Once I paid for the ticket, I couldn’t just pop in, have a look, and leave.  I’d have to stay, and be still, and suffer, and get my money’s worth.  For some reason or another, after wrestling with these prospects, I paid up and went inside.  The first exhibit featured the paintings of Bill Hammond.

It didn’t take long, maybe a couple seconds.  There may have been a set of stairs to ascend or an elevator to open or a corner to turn, but suddenly I was faced with a great big green canvas, and I was captivated.  Its paint dripped down to the floor as if still wet, its lines were like violin strings, thrumming, its shapes were vibrant and living yet of almost the same colour as the background, its frame seemed crooked yet it was symmetrical.  For perhaps the first time in all of my endless walking around that young island nation, I couldn’t help now but be still.  I stared, and stared, and stared.  The shapes formed dozens of man-like figures topped with these glorious, imperial heads of birds, which pointed always, fiercely, resolutely, dangerously, to the side.  They were in the foreground and in the back, uniform but separate, nervous but wise.  They held spears and seemed to sing.  They were all at war, yet too graceful to ever strike.  Below and behind these figures, the colours on the canvas separated to form the sky and the earth, mountains and trees, and some measure of doom in the smoke.  The ground was all gnarled, and death awaited everything.  Fear was rank, but order was ranker.  These bird-headed men, these anthropomorphs, I got the sense they were desperate, they were trying right now, to live forever.  I was shocked and immersed at once, and absurdly afraid.  To use Roland Barthes’ term, these figures and their world were a punctum: they sliced me open.

People were passing by behind me, and I wondered, as if from the world of the painting, how they could stop for so short a time, why they weren’t as entangled as I was.  Some had hands in their pockets and didn’t even slow their step.  Eventually I realised that there would be more than one painting in the Gallery.  I must have stood in front of that first painting for 20 minutes before I pulled out of the trance and decided to move on.

I was no less entranced by the other paintings, and took no less time.  Some were of the same grand design which enveloped an entire white room, while others were concentrated, screaming portraits of life relegated to irregular boxes.  If I were a critic I’d go on, and probably mention the collapse of foreground and background, the threatening lack of realistic light which still plays with shadow, and to show off my understanding of technique, I’d have to say something about the brushstrokes.  Instead, being an eternal charlatan, I’ll try to explain how I connected with Hammond’s paintings.  I slowly developed a method of seeing – or, because they seemed so active, of watching – whereby I’d just stand and wait a while.  I’d let the whole picture become clear, and then I’d seek out the details: the strips of musical notation, maybe, or the globe-like object one of the figures held as if either a bun from the oven or the precious source of youth itself.  Once I’d investigated every inch – and still failed to notice all the details and quirks – I’d pick the most striking space within the frame and be taken from there.  Sagas appeared to me.  Great tales of heroism and tragedy stretched out from the image and blurted themselves into my ear, unhindered, unconcealing, unstoppable.  The figures would begin as angels and end up as devils, or be a split-second away from flying off before I realised they were clipped and couldn’t fly.

When all the stories were as loud as I could handle, I’d step back again, and see it all.  And almost every time, at this point, I felt a catharsis: a total, singular image, less a message than an emotion.  Each painting rewarded my journey in and out of its universe with a rush of understanding.  A self-centred, warmongering general, burning all in his path for glory and power and the music of money, blind to his own betrayal of himself.  Creatures of paradise crying up to the clouds for redemption.  A lonely couple, fitting together like an apple and its bitten-off piece, holding out against the end of the world.   These images were snaps of understanding, about-faces to the void.  They were the same class of feeling you get when someone tells you a story, usually about themselves in truth or in allegory, and suddenly you see why that person does everything they do, why they hurt everywhere they hurt, and why they laugh every time the laugh.  It was the same feeling I got, and still get, in a Beethoven symphony at that critical, gaping moment just seconds away from the climax, after listening to the whole work.  And it’s a feeling I never get when I hear only that one part.

Bill Hammond’s paintings, of course, never tell stories, but only suggest them; being still, they are cut-outs of a single moment in time, containing hundreds of strands but never the outcomes or precursors of those strands.  It is up to the observer, the participant, to follow the artist’s compass and fill in the rest.  Thus, Bill Hammond does not merely have one Jingle Jangle Morning, but as many as there are viewers who stop and look.  I wager that all great art of any form – drama, music, painting, sculpture, film, pottery, poetry, you name it – hinges on this same principle.  But for some reason, when it came to painting, I hadn’t gone there before.  I hadn’t followed the path.  I saw where it led, into a dark forest or up onto a bald hill, probably even decided that it looked like a nice path, but decided it wasn’t worth my effort.  I was lucky back in Christchurch to pass a trail by which every part of me wanted to tumble down, and then to stay lost until closing time.  It turned out, by chance or by design, to lead to other paths, which eventually returned me to the bustling highway of – well, for lack of a better term – Art Appreciation.

I’m not going to go on about it, but since I encountered Bill Hammond’s work, I’ve been empowered to soak up quite a bit of art I wouldn’t otherwise have soaked up.  I do have to give at least partial credit to residing for nearly five years after New Zealand in Europe, where whole warehouses of some of the most inspired human expression are saved  on canvas, paper, bronze, stone, tapestry, church wall and hard drive, and nurtured, and visited, and respected.  But I could easily have lived there for twice as long, shunning Caravaggio while pretending to “get it” by blasting Shostakovich into my skull from oversized headphones.  I may still need to freshen up on my Dutch symbolism in order to understand the true intentioned meaning of the orange clasped in the hand of that bored and boring man who sits for his portrait.  But it might just be enough – and, if the work is of the stuff it truly aspires to be, it will be enough – to stare, and wait, and notice the details, and find every little piece there is to find, and listen, and pull back, and see it all over again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still don’t really get it, but I’m deeper than I ever thought I would be.  And I can’t help but feel like one of Hammond’s bird-men: the strange, tall, flesh-toned one who sits before a school-chalkboard-coloured backdrop, happy and nearly smiling as he plays the cello, while everyone else stares incredulously.  Maybe they shake their fists, maybe they thrust their crotches, or maybe they’re indifferent.  But I have no choice, I’ve seen the painting and its shadow, I’ve entered and cannot return by the same path, and I’ve got music written all over my skin: I have to play on.

Play on, Bill Hammond. 



PS: I visited the Christchurch Gallery in 2008, and returned a month later for another viewing.  On my second visit I bought a catalogue, but don’t have that with me.  What I’ve written is from a poor memory, which all but guarantees inaccuracy.  My apologies – but if you really want to know what it’s like, you deserve to see it for yourself.  Here are a few links to get started:

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Stephen Harper : One Question About Israel

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario    K1A 0A2

Dear Stephen,

How do you reconcile Canada’s staunch and rigid support towards the Israeli state with that country’s universally illegal settlements programme?

Whoa there, Stephen – hold on!  Don’t tear up my letter just yet!  Look, I’m sure you think that anyone who poses such a (logical and pertinent) question to you doesn’t deserve to be answered.  Everything you’ve said and done on the Palestine portfolio indicates as much.  By even breathing such (logical and pertinent) words I must be a radical, socialist, terrorist-loving, brainwashed, red-flagged pariah of good sense, right?  But wait!  I haven’t yet used any of the following (logical and pertinent) words in association with Israel: apartheid, racism, belligerence, ethnic cleansing, genocide, human rights, and United Nations.  So can you bear with me?


Listen, I think I get why you as a pragmatist support the present government of Israel.  There are two possible main reasons.  First, you’re following the electorate who you judge, perhaps correctly, to be mostly indifferent to Palestine and the Middle East; and thus, by default, are more comfortable on Israel’s side.  And for the second reason, I’ll quote you: “Israel is the one strong stable democratic western ally that we have in” the Middle East.  And, if you aren’t a pragmatist?  Well, there’s corruption (maybe Israeli proxies help fund your election campaigns), there’s personal preference (maybe you just really like the country’s angular shape on a map without a West Bank aberration), and there’s even religion (maybe you think the Israeli Jews are the Chosen 144,000 who will play a revelatory part in the coming Apocalypse; or maybe you just don’t like Muslims).

I mention the non-pragmatic stuff just to show I’m not ignorant.  But I’ll assume you’re the cold, calculating political wizard everyone thinks you are, and that it’s one or both of the first two.  Now, in and of themselves, those are pretty good reasons, Stephen.  So I get it.  You don’t have to explain it.  What you need to explain, though – besides merely stating that more Israeli settlements are “not helpful” to the peace process – is how you can countenance such blatant, illegal and profoundly avaricious aggression, as the West Bank settlements are and have always been, within your grand, high-principled, earth-shattering Canada-Israel Democratic Alliance.

Because, here are the problems.  The Canadian public may indeed be indifferent to Israel, Palestine and the settlements.  When they see the simply-presented news (rocket attacks and bus bombings by one side, nice new homes built by the other), they might think it obvious which way to sway.  But what if you told them what the new homes are all about, where they’re being built, who they’re kicking out, what they’re doing to those they kick out, how these actions are designed as political tools, and what long-term effect these new homes will have?  What if you showed them that map of the West Bank, where Palestinian land ownership has gone since 1968 from a total shade of colour, to perforated, to split, to a few scattered blots?  I think, and I’m tempted to say that you’d agree with me, that if Canadians really cared, and really knew what was happening in Palestine, they’d at the very least be asking the same question as me.

And, to the argument that Israel is all the west has got?  Firstly, to say that a racially-motivated, religiously-constituted state which does not recognize a huge portion of its inhabitants, walls off conquered territory which it refuses to allow real or nominal independence whilst embarking on a programme of veritable annexation and ethnic cleansing, is a democracy is a little pessimistic on the term, don’t you think?  I mean, was the slave-owning United States a democracy prior to 1865?  Maybe at the time, but we’d certainly laugh at such a nation calling itself democratic today.  As many laughed, and cringed, at apartheid South Africa.  Oh, and speaking of South Africa, do you remember what stubborn world leaders said about that country through the 60s, 70s and 80s?  Yep, that’s right: it was “the one strong stable democratic western ally that we have” in sub-Saharan Africa.  Woops!

There’s very little mystery here, so your chance to maneuver around my question in the name of realpolitik is slim.  The Israeli government barely attempts to conceal its rationale for the newer settlements: to “punish” the Palestinians for their recent statehood bid; and, in the run-up to the coming peace talks in Washington, DC, to grab more bargaining chips which they can return in exchange for more permanent concessions.  Even if we put the older settlements (which the present Israelis, especially with your support, won’t give up any time soon) and the long-term goal of the whole programme aside (many Israeli politicians are not afraid of talking about exterminating Palestine as a nation and a people, to make lebensraum for Israel), we’re still left with some pretty awful behaviour.  I mean, seriously Stephen, what if the US started to “punish” illegal immigrants?  What if Britain was forced to make a new peace agreement in Northern Ireland, but in advance of the actual peace talks, they started kicking Republicans out of their homes and turning the land over to Unionists, for no reason other than to gain bargaining chips?  I guess you’d say that those actions “weren’t helpful”.  The correct answer would be – and is – that those actions are “wrong”.

And please, let me say it again, in case the UN, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unanimously accepted international law, and official Canadian foreign policy itself (which does not recognize – cannot legitimately recognize – Israel’s claims, despite Mr. Baird’s coffee break), are all too communist and terror-loving to have the right to remind you: Israel’s actions are illegal. 

So how about it?  How do you reconcile Canada’s unquestioning support for Israel with that country’s criminal behaviour?

To save you the sweat, try not to respond with the following:

1) What about those who support the illegal, violent actions of the Israel’s opponents?

Why not? Because no non-blacklisted nation supports these assholes or what they do.

2) What about Israel’s right to defend itself?

Why not? Because this has nothing to do with the settlements.

3) What about the those who refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist?

Why not? Because this has nothing to do with the settlements.

4) If Canada softened its stance towards Israel, it would be caving into the demands of oil-rich Arab powers, and weakening in the face of terrorism.

Why not? Because this has nothing to do with the settlements. Just because you’re oh-so-brave, doesn’t mean your friends are justified to commit crimes.

5) What about Canada being a maverick in the UN, one of only nine votes against Palestinian membership?

Why not? Because there’s a reason everyone else voted for it, or abstained. And, because this has nothing to do with the settlements.

6) It was insensitive for me to use the word lebensraum in reference to the settlements.

Why not? Because it is insenstive for the Israelis to use Palestinian land for lebensraum.

7) The United States was a democracy before 1865.

Why not? Right, so should Palestinians get more or less than 2/5 of a vote? That is, if they can vote at all? Apply to “democratic” ancient Greece, “democratic” nations before women's’ suffrage, and “democratic” South Africa while Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island.

8) Apartheid South Africa and Israel should not be compared.

Why not? Because they should. Ask Rob Anders, MP.

Hey Stephen, did you see how I got through that whole letter without being too radical?  Isn’t that great?  I’m pretty proud of myself.

Anyway, I hope that means you took the time to read.  I look forward to your answer. 

Yours moderately,


Sunday 25 August 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 2 (Change is Coming)

The Container Bar
Mafia Island

Dear o,

Change is coming to Mafia Island.  Nobody knows exactly when it will happen, for there isn’t anything that could be formally called the news on the island.  The only shop I’ve found that has newspapers uses them to wrap their chapati, and so for over my lunch today I read about election preparations in Kenya’s The Standard, from February 2012.  I would even hesitate to say there is gossip, because even this makes it sound like there’s a rumour mill somewhere, churning out half-baked information.  No, what there are on Mafia Island are the loud and lonely few who long ago surmised that there is a bigger and more loving audience for precise pronouncements and exact answers.  Witness this behaviour in action when you receive 24 different responses upon asking what hour tomorrow’s ferry leaves.

But news or rumour aside, nobody can deny what they see.  A brand new dock, perhaps 500m long, is currently under construction at Kilindoni port, and by the look of it is nearly complete.  All the platforms are in place, and construction is finished all the way to the end; only the wings are left.  Two work-boats float at the end of the dock, shifting heavy material and placing new green pillars into the shallow sea, while workers hang from under the platforms and hammer away.  The story is that once the dock is complete, Kilindoni and thus Mafia will begin receiving regular, direct passenger boats from Dar es Salaam and/or Zanzibar.

At the moment, tourists can only arrivewithan expensive airplane trip to Kilindoni airstrip, or with the swaying, creaking, life-jacket-less ferry on afour-hour trip (or more, depending on whether or not the pilot gets caught on a sandbank and forgets where he’s supposed to point the bow) from Nyamisati, about 150km south of Dar es Salaam.  Now, I’ve only been here a week, so count me out as an expert on Mafia Island tourism.  But it seems that the bread and butter of the island’s travel industry is composed of those pre-arranged visitors who booked their Tanzania vacation months ago, and pegged Mafia as the ideal location for a post-safari kick-back on the beach.  The island, especially the south end by and near the marine park, is dotted with family-friendly lodges catering to this crowd.  The big activity is snorkelling and scuba-diving, and the big underwater attraction is the enormous yet non-violent whale shark.  It’s currently off-season for this big bottom-feeder, but that doesn’t stop the island’s small cadre of flycatchers and hustlers from advertising cruises to go out and see some.

As for the other kind of tourist?  The ones who update TripAdvisor and write feedback to travel guides whilst hopping around the continent with backpacks, phrasebooks and a budget?  They’re here too, mostly with the Nyamisati ferry and in smaller numbers, and they’ve come for similar reasons.  They’ve read the same stuff in the Lonely Planet about a“tranquil island paradise” where you “dive or relax on white sands” and “stroll along sandy lanes through the coconut palms,” about a “stronghold of traditional Swahili culture” that “remains refreshingly free of the mass tourism” that plagues Arusha and Zanzibar.  And they are overwhelmingly disappointed.

It’s easy to understand why, when you think about how Mafia has been, up to now, set up for tourism.  All the island’s hotels and lodges are expensive, ranging from TSH 140,000 (about €70) per person per night, and up to, well, I’m not sure yet.  And worse, if you stay at any of these lodges, you are obliged to pay an additional $20 per person per day in marine park fees, regardless of whether or not you actually enter the park itself.  The only exception to this rule is accommodation in Kilindoni, and here the spread goes from cheap guesthouses, to the Ibizza Inn with its always-blaring satellite television, to the tucked-away Whale Shark Lodge, with a terrific view of everything you can’t get close to.

Since being stranded in Kilindoni I’ve met quite a few of the travelers who aren’t whisked away to their lodge by private taxi from their airstrip or beach arrival.  All of them are shocked when their motorcycle ride or dalla-dalla (shared minibus taxi) en route to a cheap hostel in Utende stops at the marine park gate, where they are asked to pay the fees up front by bored and crabby staff.  The few hardcore divers shrug, and hand out the bills with a smile.  Some suck it up, shake their heads with a mutter of TIA (“this is Africa”), and stay a day – maybe they force themselves to go for a snorkel because what the hell, they’ve come so far, they don’t want their $20 to go for nothing – while others just turn around and come right back.  Either way, once returned to Kilindoni, these mid-budget deal-seakers, youth-eyed backpackers and shoestring tent campers take a walk around town, visit one of the two bars, and catch the next day’s ferry out.

This is what happened to the Swiss couple Al and I met in Nyamisati.  They are traveling on bicycles, which they brought to the island, and hoped to do a full circuit of Mafia.  After turning back at the marine park gate they found the Wapi Wapi Beach Camp where they could pitch their tents for TSH 7,500 per person per night.  Disappointed but not discouraged, they looked at their map and saw the big chunk of the island not within the pink park boundary, and decided to go north.  They cycled all the way up to Bweni and planned to spend the night at the lighthouse 10km north of that town.  But in the village they were chased down by an official with an official coat and official forms, and asked to pay the official fee: TSH 5,000 each, just to enter Bweni.  On principle, they once again turned around, decided against bushwacking around the village, and returned to Kilindoni after nightfall in time to purchase ferry tickets for the following morning.

On the night they returned I was meeting up at the bar with two French youngsters, an Italian girl and an immensely tall German fellow.  The Swiss joined in and the conversation soon turned to money as it relates to the African Way, a chat spurred on by the waitress who tried to charge the newcomers more than normal.  The tall German argued that it was okay, he didn’t mind paying extra, that he could afford it.  The Swiss and I countered that it was not only wrong to rinse and cheat the mzungu (Swahili for foreigner), but that it was socially unhealthy, and eventually bad for the local people.  The Bweni villagers who might reap the odd TSH 5,000 probably don’t realise what could be gained by cutting that out and welcoming visitors with something original and interesting, and more germane than a handout.  It’s the classic African malady: short-term greed frustrates long-term prosperity.  But then again, there was precious little retort to the German’s rebuttal: who are we to say what’s unhealthy or unproductive here?

I imagine that this multi-lingual discussion we had in the bar is common to Kilindoni backpackers, and irrelevant to the island’s tourist workers.  We hassle for cheaper sunset boat trips, turn our backs on triple-price for a SIM card, and count our change.  Why bother with us?  Just yesterday on my morning run I visited the only lodge on Kilindoni’s beach.  Maybe it was because of my sweat, but when I asked to see the dinner menu and suggested Al and I might come for a meal next time she visits (a respite from the ugali, rice and beans) the bartender shot me a suspicious glance and said we would have to ask the manager.  I said, fine, we’ll chat with him if and when we come.  No, he said, in advance.  Subtext: not welcome.  We are too few to make a difference, we wanderers.  We aren’t the real money here.  Not yet.

When the ferries start running direct from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar, or both, you can bet your ass that things will change, and fast.  Imagine walking around Dar es Salaam, in the centre or near the port.  You see the usual signs everywhere, the talk with other travelers, and the hustler’s keywords: safari, Serengeti, lions, Kilimanjaro, tanzanite, Zanzibar, Mafia Island.  What’s that last one?  I’ve never heard of it.  Diving, beaches, paradise.  How do I get there?  Get on a boat for five hours at a decent price, and above all: it’s easy.  Tanzania has more impulse-buying tourists than I’ve seen in Africa since Morocco, and they’ll flock to this island.  When the ferries start, there won’t be enough hotels, eateries, diving trips, cultural tours, market stalls, cheap Chinese-made trinkets and hustlers to service the first boat load.  And the locals here, for the most part, aren’t bothered.  And that itself worries me: if Mafians don’t build this infrastructure and get set for the whirlwind, better-practiced mainlanders will come instead, and steal the business from under them.

And so here I am, going on about the sweeping change of tourism, the great benefits of travelers who redistribute their wealth around the world in the name of going other places.  My letter’s implication is that the increased supply, demand and competition will all be better for the lowly backpacker, the sagacious merchant, and the local people to boot.  But I’m well aware of the coin’s other side – and it’s a side that’s dark, smudged, and scratched out all across this continent.  I know what it could mean for this unspoilt island.  The kids on my walk on the village road who wave at me, chase me, jump on my hands to lift them up – they’ll get bored, go home, and learn to say “mzungu,give me money” as a few of their cohorts have already done.  The road to Utende will be paved (it’s being done right now) and the ride will become less bumpy – but the locals’ only means of transport, thedalla-dallas,will still be worn-out gas-guzzlers, breaking down on the hill just outside of town where there is nothing for a tourist to see.Bweni villagers might make even more cash from lighthouse visitors – but where will that money go, if not to the headman and his boys?  Restaurants will crowd Kilindoni and offer all sorts of choice: chipsi mayai (chips and fried eggs) will be served alongside burgers and pizza – but prices will rise concomitantly, and the locals will have to go further out for their affordable sticky balls of maize.  New lodges and hotels will spring up just near Kilindoni or in the north, outside the ‘extended’ marine park boundary to avoid the fee, and eventually the park warden will only charge those actually entering, caving to pressure from the lodges going out of business – but the marine park will lose that income, cut programmes, and lay-off some of their staff.  An unsustainable number of snorkelers and divers might even wreck havoc on the reefs.  Mafia will be easy, affordable, tourist-friendly – and, for some, no longer Mafia.

So sayeth my prophecy?  No, let’s call it conjecture.  I don’t even know if the ferries will be so regular from the mainland, if they come into service at all.  Sure, the dock is nearly complete, but what if it’s one of those big-spending big-government gambles that won’t pay off?  What if the new batch of tourists are turned off, and change is cancelled – or at least postponed?  All I’ve got are the mumblings, after all, which build up to rumour, like puzzle pieces that only fit with an overly optimistic solution and enough pressure of the thumb.

Oh, and the biggest rumour of all?  The president is coming on Wednesday to formally open the new dock.  I wonder if he’ll tell us when the new boats start sailing. Where does his news come from?



The new dock
Under construction
The new dock, and one of the Nyamisati ferries
Fishing boats next to the dock
The crane ship
Hanging out

Thursday 22 August 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Ghana to the Ivory Coast

Dear Viven,

Our visa application stop in the desolate city of Conakry turned out to be serendipitous: it was there we felt (at the time) ripped off for only being able to apply for the more expensive 90-day multiple-entry Ivory Coast visas being issued.  In the end, because of a visa issue with the DR Congo, followed by a car accident, our original route changed.  This meant not only a longer stay in the Ivory Coast, but a need to enter a second time.  Because of this fortuitous rip-off, our crossing from Ghana to the Ivory Coast instead formed the last stage of a circular route we took from Abidjan, through Burkina Faso to Benin, and returning via Togo and Ghana.  By being able to return, we were able to make this two-week circuit with only a couple backpacks, while keeping our mass of belongings in a hotel storage room in Grand Bassam.

A long-haul bus to Abidjan that we caught in Lomé took us across from Togo to Ghana prior to crossing from Ghana to the Ivory Coast.  Our crossing previous to the bus was by taxi from Benin to Togo.

We are one British and one Canadian.  This letter is accurate as of the day we reentered the Ivory Coast, on Sunday 11 August 2013.

Our 90-day multiple-entry Ivory Coast visas, acquired in Conakry, Guinea, were still valid for this second crossing into the country.  For how we originally acquired them, see my previous letter, How we crossed from Liberia to the Ivory Coast.

French is the official language of the Ivory Coast and it is widespread, moreso than most other countries in West Africa, where tribal languages are still commonly heard.

The Ivory Coast uses the West African franc (CFA).

The Route
We took the STIF bus from the station by the beach in Lomé, Togo (where we were dropped off by a shared taxi from the Benin border), direct to Abidjan.  The bus called at Accra, Ghana, around 1am, was stopped at the Ivory Coast border between 8:15am and 12:30pm, and dropped us off on the highway in Grand Bassam at 3pm, which implies it would have arrived in Abidjan between 3:30 and 4.

Our Means of Travel
This section is repeated in my previous letter, How we crossed from Togo to Ghana, from 16 August.

Though we planned to spend a night in Lomé before rushing back to the Ivory Coast, we found out the schedule of the direct buses to Abidjan on the afternoon of our arrival and decided to get tickets for the 24-hour journey.

STIF buses from Lomé go to other cities on the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, and there was a list of prices behind the desk at the station.  They were as follows:

Lomé to Abidjan: CFA 24,000
Lomé to Noe (the border with the Ivory Coast): CFA 17,000
Lomé to Accra: CFA 6,000
Lomé to Cotonou: CFA 5,000

We arrived at the STIF bus station at 2pm (after a one-hour back time change from Benin) were told to be there at 3 for the bus, which was to leave at 4.  There was no bus in the courtyard until 6:15, at which time other passengers rushed on to claim their seats (we weren’t as quick).  The bus departed at 6:45. 

After only ten minutes of driving the bus arrived at the Ghanaian border, and was off again by 7:30.  The bus crossed Ghana through the night, passed through the arduous, heavily delayed Ivory Coast border in the morning, and arrived in Abidjan in the afternoon.  Total travel time (from arrival at Lomé station) was 25 hours; total time on the bus: 16 hours; total waiting around and border shuffling time: 9 hours.

The sheer inefficiency and timesink of the STIF bus should give some impression of the journey, but let me make it a little clearer.  The average-sized bus, raised to store baggage underneath, had five seats per row (two on the right side of the aisle, three on the left) and for our trip it was mostly packed.  The awful sounds of the wheels on all right turns would have been horrifying had it not been for the relatively straight roads all the way to Abidjan; but there was little further consolation in that none of the doors could close without a wire or rope holding it in.  Toilet breaks were limited to just two ten-minute stops along open stretches of road.  Meanwhile the seats were very small, both in width and length (I am of average height, which means below average in much of Africa, but could not create more than one and a half fingerlengths of distance between my knees and the seat in front of me by sitting back) and there was a screw which stuck out from the wall that I had to avoid being cut by.  How fruitless is it to mention, that it was hard to sleep?

The Border
This was the longest border crossing of our trip, but certainly not the hardest or most painful.  The duration was presumably the result of the border officials having not only to inspect the passport or identity card of each passenger on the 60-seat bus, but also (as usual in bureaucracy-loving francophone Africa) copy outinto a logbook the details of each passenger on the 60-seat bus.

At 7am on the day of crossing the bus conductor walked up and down the aisle to collect vaccination certificates for both Yellow Fever and Meningitis, plus CFA 500 each for processing.  Because we were to be processed separate from the other passengers, the rest of whom were all ECOWAS citizens, the conductor did not collect our certificates or the CFA 500.  He did, however, warn Al that she would have to explain herself to the border officials, as she did not carry proof of a Meningitis vaccine, and only held a photocopy of her Yellow Fever certificate.

We arrived at the border at 8:15am, and Al and I got off the bus in advance of the others.  The Ghanaian officials sat behind windows in an air-conditioned room, with computers and cameras.  As upon entry into Ghana, we filled out the same simple one-page form, had our headshot photos taken digitally and our visas checked over, and then received an exit-stamp.  To fill the forms we required a pen, and had forgotten ours on the bus.  It sounds ridiculous in this little nucleus of African bureaucracy, but nobody would lend us a pen.  It took a couple minutes before a friendly police officer gave us his – and he made sure to hound us for it back.  We were clear of Ghana by 8:30.

At 8:45 we were taken into the office complex of the Ivory Coast border officials and gendarmes.  We had our details entered by hand into a logbook at one end, then we returned to the front to get checked out and stamped in for entry, and then by 8:55 we returned to the bus, still between the Ghana and Ivory Coast sides.

All the passengers waited by the bus until 9:30, when Douane officials inspected the luggage both onboard and stowed beneath.  A crowd gathered to watch the procedure.

At 9:45 we were all escorted through the Ivory Coast border, with the first barrier to check for Yellow Fever and Meningitis vaccination certificates.  Al explained that her original certification for both was at the hotel in Grand Bassam (which was only half true: Al did not have a Meningitis vaccination at all), and the white-clothed health officer waved us on.  The other passengers waited in a queue while their names were called out, and one at a time their certificates were returned to them (they had been collected by the bus conductor).  Those who did not hold a certificate had to go into a building behind the barrier to get their injections for a CFA 2,500 fee.

Al and I walked through the Ivory Coast border offices, having already been cleared and stamped, while the other passengers handed over the identity cards after inspection.  We all waited on the side of the road until 12:30pm, when the bus came to pick us up.  Once on our way, the conductor called out the names of the other passengers and returned their identity cards or passports.

The whole process from arrival to departure took four hours and 15 minutes.  Again, as with every border crossing since Burkina Faso, there was no mention or hint of a bribe, gift or cadeau.

What We Needed

In Dakar

See information on acquiring our 90-day multiple-entry visas in my previous letter from 4 July.

For the bus
  • CFA 48,000 (24,000 each)
  • 24 hours from the supposed boarding time to arrival in Grand Bassam
  • Some measure of mental toughness

At the border
  • Passports with Ghana and Ivory Coast visas
  • Yellow Fever and Meningitis vaccination certificates
  • Four and a quarter hours

I’m not aware of any other border (and had not been aware of this one) which requires a certificate of vaccination for Meningitis.  Perhaps this requirement is on the rise, so if you’re traveling to Africa I would recommend you get your shot and bring the proof of it with you wherever you go.  Oh, and one more thing which should by now be clear: whenever you find yourself in or near the thrall of French or French-inspired bureaucracy, get ready to sit around and wait.

Happy trails,


Welcome (back) to the Ivory Coast