the square at the old town of Rauma

Where we had just seen the ‘wooden houses museum’ in Turku, a group of well preserved and well protected over 200 year old wooden houses, Rauma has the real thing. The centre of the old town is entirely made up of wooden houses, still being used, as residences and as shops and restaurants. Most are ground floor-only, occasionally there is a second floor; most are simple affairs, with simple windows and simple doors, but often neatly adorned, with a lace curtains or decorative items in the window sills. There are clearly people living here. Some houses have been neatly restored, perhaps even exaggeratedly so, others could use a bit of paint, or a carpenter, but the main thing is that this is a wooden town like they used to be in Finland, all of them – or at least most of them, wood being the cheapest building material, plentiful available. Nowadays perhaps rare enough that UNESCO has put this one on its World Heritage List.

wooden houses and shops in Rauma

a steep street in Rauma

another wooden house, single story

the church tower of Old Rauma

church interior, with at the end the painted vault

intricately painted vault of Rauma church, claimed to be from before the Reformation

puppets outside a window

another narrow Rauma street

and a last view, on the cobbled stones of the old town

another wooden farm building, a barn

In fact, there is plenty of wood around. We drive through the countryside, dominated by trees – birches, conifers, pine trees, a lot of variety. Occasionally the woods are interrupted by agricultural fields, most of the harvest has been collected already. And dotted throughout the countryside are the Finnish farms, also mostly made of wood, like the houses in Rauma.

wooden farm building in the country side

the track, here quite clear, to the Sammallahdenmaki burial site

heaps of stone representing burial mounds

another clear burial mound

Unexpectedly, outside Rauma we encounter a second UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bronze age burial mounds of Sammallahdenmaki. Not knowing what to expect, we turn of the main road, manage to find a parking place associated with the site, and take off walking. Maps are rather unclear, paths not very well sign-posted, but we do find several piles of rock, no doubt representing the mounds. Not the most impressive, perhaps, but with the late afternoon sun illuminating not only the mounds, but also the entire entourage of rock surface, white heather-type of plant cover, green mosses and variable-coloured mushrooms, this was a magic experience, quintessential Finland, I suppose. Gabbros, gneisses and granites, and a bit of vegetation.

and the highest one on site

and then there are the mushrooms

almost hidden between the grasses

or between the heather, or what looks like that

red hood difficult to hide, though

Never mind that we don’t reach our destination for the day, and end up in the rather destitute town of Sastamala, and the even more destitute local hotel. Which provides us with free earplugs; anything to do with the disco one floor lower?

sign of the bootmaker’s house in Luostarinmaki, the‘wooden houses’ museum in Turku

We probably could have spent another day in Helsinki, there are lots of other places to admire, too. But the weather forecast for Turku, in the west of the country, was much better. And Turku is only two hours away.

street in Luostarinmaki, with wooden houses

a courtyard in the museum

The reason to come to Turku is the ‘wooden houses’ museum, also called Luostarinmaki (you will agree that ‘wooden houses’ museum is a lot easier – Finnish is an impossible language!). This is a neighbourhood of some 80 houses, divided across 14 courtyards, that survived the Great Fire of 1827 that burned down the rest of Turku. More remarkable even, it subsequently survived the pressure of speculators and property developers, who would have rather torn down the houses and built apartments, or offices. Good they didn’t, the Luostarinmaki is a delightful museum full of 200 year old houses in their original location. In many of the houses rooms have been arranged after the original crafts of the inhabitants, whether boot maker or saddle maker, copper smith or circus artist.

another wooden house

wooden window

artefacts in a barn in the museum

and the wheel of the fire engine

saddle maker’s room

and the drum of the circus artists

Art Nouveau house in Turku

For the rest Turku is not a very special town. The centre has its occasional Art Nouveau building, but nothing compared to Helsinki, and most of the other construction is more modern, and non-descript. It has its main church, a huge Gothic-like building, impressively empty inside. And it has a river that flows through the town centre, and supports a couple of party boats with bars and restaurants, and a river park. And just the day we were in town happened to be an important day for students, who flocked the bars and the parks, dressed in conspicuously colourful trousers, adorned with a variety of stickers and labels. As it turned out, the colour of the outfit depends of the faculty you are studying at, and for the rest it is a free for all. A bit like carnival, really, complete with increasing inebriation into the evening. But colourful it was, and good fun, or so it appeared.

the Turku cathedral

lots of windows in the tower

and inside pretty bare, like a good Lutheran church

a modern building at the entrance of town

the party boats on the river

students of the ‘red’ faculty

another group of students

all of them having fun, and it is only the afternoon

preferred means of transport

a graffiti wall at a parking lot

the Saint Henry chapel

with a simple work of art outside

Just outside Turku is the ultra-modern St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, built in 2005. Officially it only opens at 11 am – everything in Finland opens late -, but luckily by the time we got there, much earlier, the door was already open, and the caretaker didn’t mind us getting in. This is a spectacular building. I know I have said this before in previous blogs, but this chapel beats a lot of earlier spectacular buildings. The outside is simple, basic, a copper-covered structure that hardly looks like a chapel. The inside is fabulous, in its simplicity, wooden arches support the ceiling, windows let in the light in the front near the altar, decoration is almost absent, or it must be a basic cross with a key, or one single, modern icon of Mary. And best of all, we were the only ones inside, having beaten the tourist busses by at least an hour.

but really, you come to the chapel for the inside

a fabulous door in Helsinki, with Suomi – which means Finland – written above it

For most of its history, Finland was dominated by its neighbours. In the 12th Century the Swedes invaded Finland, in part out of religious considerations: the earliest Christian influences came from the east, and can be found back in Russian Orthodox burials. The Swedes, staunch Roman Catholics, considered their first incursions as crusades, in 1157 and later again, in 1249. Early Danish claims on Finland were revoked by the Swedes, but under the Danish Queen Margaret the Kalmar Union was established, in 1397. This was the first, and the last, time that Scandinavia – Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Swedish province Finland – operated together, as a front against the German kings. In reality the concept of union remained a tentative one, due to frequent warfare between Danes and Swedes, as well as internal power struggles in Sweden, and it was abolished altogether again in 1523, blown up by the Swedish nobility, and the later King Gustav.

and the Uspenski Ortodox cathedral, also Herlsinki

and another metal flag

with its impressive iconostasis

Finland suffered badly in those days, not only from heavy taxation by the Swedish nobility, but also from the first Russian incursions, in 1495, when the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, precursor of the Russian Empire, engaged the Swedes, on Finnish territory. After another Russo-Swedish War of 1590-1595 the peasants of Finland revolted against Swedish exploitation in 1596, in which became known as the Club War, the peasants not having anything else as weapons. And thus the peasants lost, Sweden remained in control.

the Tuomiokirkko, the main Lutheran church in the centre of Helsinki

The first serious Russian conquering of Finland occurred in 1714. After a few more struggles backwards and forth, Sweden finally ceded all of Finland to Russia in 1809, after which Finland became a fairly autonomous nation within the Russian Empire, amongst others being able to maintain their Lutheran religion (the reformation in the 1550s had taken over from the Catholics, lock, stock and barrel).

It took a little over another century before Finland became an independent country, by the Finnish parliament issuing a declaration of independence in 1918, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. And Finland managed to stay outside the subsequent Soviet domination, by fighting two wars with the Soviet Union as part of the Second World War, the Winter War in 1939-1940 and again in the Continuation War in 1941-1944, as an ally of Nazi Germany. As a result of the wars Finland had to concede Karelia and a few other territories to the Soviet Union. But it somehow avoided the fate of many East European countries, and managed to remain a free, and vibrant, democracy.

leaving Helsinki on the ferry to Suomenlinna

part of the Suomenlinna fortifications

a haphazard tourist provides some colour in an otherwise grey entourage

some of the spaces inside the walls

old guns

The traces of Swedish and Russian military activity are plentiful in Finland, which is dotted with huge fortifications from one end the country to the other. Helsinki has Suomenlinna, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, located on an island offshore, or more specifically, six small islands connected. Initially built by the Swedes in 1748 as a fortress to defend against the Russians, the Russians later took over, and added to the construction with barracks and other buildings. Upon independence the fortress became Finnish, and after WWII it lost its military significance. Today it is a pleasant area of picknick grounds, crumbling walls and remains of fortifications – even with the occasional guns exposed. And provides for a nice outing for a couple of hours, reached by small ferry or with the water taxi. But architectonically, a stark contrast it is, with Helsinki’s designer past and present.

and a more modern gun, no idea how modern

another gun, same type

Halfway our island outing it started raining, and it didn’t stop anymore that day. Actually, it got wetter by the hour. Those are the moments that Helsinki is a little less fabulous city. But we don’t complain!

and thse are the outer structures, guns pointing towards the sea

my favourite Art Nouveau facade in Helsinki, just admire the stylistic figurines

There is really no end to the range of fabulous buildings, everywhere in Helsinki. I have just selected a additional few photos of facades, windows, the occasional balcony, to provide a taste of what there is to see.

another row of houses

and this one, with it singular pillar supporting the round corner section

protruding alcove, decorated on the underside


and more windows

gold decorations

and more of those

another typical facade

Then there is the Central Station, another grand Art Nouveau building. The locals are proud of what they call the torch bearers, in the front of the station, but I like the smaller version on the side even more.

the central station

and its clock tower

these are my favourites

inside the station

suitable lamps

Special mention for the Pohjola building, a work of art not only at the outside, with its many quirky sculptures, but also on the inside – we managed to slip in, and admire the stairs, the ancient elevator, the doors and wooden carvings, and a lot more.

the Pohjola building

with bears and other figures

in detail

and these faces carved

more weird carvings outside

and wood carvings, equally weird, inside

the elevator, more than a 100 years old, no doubt

wall mosaic inside

and one of the office doors

another little cupola in town, on yet another Art Nouveau building

the torch bearers at central station, Helsinki, Jugendstil capital of the world

Having decided last minute to travel via Helsinki to the Baltics, we haven’t prepared ourselves very well. The only thing I have read so far was a brief account of a Dutch travel writer, who assessed that there was really nothing to do in Helsinki.

the three smiths, a sculpture in central Helsinki, from 1932

How wrong! Helsinki is a fabulous city. It doesn’t have the grand boulevards of Paris, Madrid or London, instead streets the old centre are mostly stone-covered, occasionally cobbles, but not much tarmac; wide enough for normal traffic, but not too busy, and providing plenty of room for the ever-presents trams. All of this creates a great atmosphere; add the elegantly dressed people, and the multiple cafes and restaurants including outside terraces – which are even populated at this time of the year, an unusually warm September – and Helsinki becomes a very special place.

the Esplanade, closest to a boulevard in Helsinki

but despite the unusual warm weather, the benches stay empty

city bikes available everywhere

another unusual scene, oranges and pommegranate for sale

And it is a sea port, of course – yesterday we arrived by huge ferry in the harbour. Which always adds extra character to the town, with its water front, including its market square from where all the smaller ferries and water taxis depart to outlying islands. The market square comes with its colourful  market stalls, selling ready-made food, but also fresh fruit, mushrooms and other vegetables. A little further is the Helsinki marina, and on a distant quay is the impressive icebreaker fleet, several huge ships waiting for the winter.

the marketsquare at the waterfront

selling wooden hats – it has to get colder soon

the ice-breakers, lined up and awaiting service

these are impressively big ships, after all

the Helsinki marina

Art Noveau building, unmistakable

and similarly styled door

similarly styled balconies

and quirky faces, in this case on the Pohjola building

where we peeped inside to admire the stairs

no really, the entire stairs!

The real gem of Helsinki, however, is its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings. Not just one or two, on a corner, or sandwiched in between lesser creations, no, whole streets, whole neighbourhoods are dominated by the characteristic architectural style of the beginning of the 20th Century. For most of the time the weather isn’t great, and photos are not going to work all that well, but it is a delight to walk through the streets and admire all those quasi-modern facades, the windows, the balconies and the great variety of decorations. Every street in the old centre has its share, wherever you look you find yet another originally designed building, even if it has just this special door, or quirky sculpture. Of course, mostly these buildings are closed to the public, so their insides remain unseen – except when you patiently wait at the door until somebody leaves, and stop the door falling into its lock. Then you can peep inside, which is what we did at one of those, the impressive Pohjola building, a work of art from the outside. And indeed, inside is equally spectacular, from the ancient elevator to the circular stairs, the carved doors, stained glass windows and mosaics on the wall. We feel a little uncomfortable, trespassing, but not uncomfortable enough to turn around straight away.

(for more pictures, see here)

and some metal decoration on the door

the front of the Oodi, the central library, in the form of a ship’s bow


inside, looking up from the third floor

and this is the side, a giant wave

But design didn’t stop at
Jugendstil. Lots of more modern architecture testifies to the great taste of Finns, with as absolute highlights the two ‘functionalist’ libraries, one of the University, the Kaisa-talo building of 2012, and the other, the Oodi, the central library opened in 2018 to celebrate Finland’s 100 years of independence. Both are striking buildings, inside as well as outside. And both are – indeed – extraordinarily functional, creating meeting and working space for lots of people.

the other library, of the university, real functional architecture

and inside the stairs

this is the concert hall, also a strikingly modern design

and with a fabulous sculpture in front (Songtrees, 2012, by Reijo Hukkanen)

The number one tourist attraction, apparently, is another modern construction, equally special, a chapel hewn out of the rocks, with a copper roof. The Temppeliaukio Church, consecrated in 1969, is an absolutely unique concept, which thanks to the bare rock walls provides fabulous acoustics. Something we were lucky to witness as when we entered a weekly piano recital was underway. Which kept the busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists at least temporarily at bay.

the interior of the Temppeliaukio Church

the back wall, with the altar, in some more detail

upper deck of the ferry being loaded at night

Somehow, we spend an inordinate amount of time on an inordinate number of ferries, lately. Just three weeks ago we took a boat to Newcastle, for a few week’s travel in Scotland, which also included the Orkney Islands – only to be reached by more ferries, indeed. And now we board the Finnmaid, a huge ferry that takes us in a little over 30 hours from the German port of Travemunde to Helsinki. Comfortable, a very relaxed way of traveling. Except that we leave in the middle of the night, 2 am, but that is only a minor inconvenience.

the harbour of Travemunde contains lots of trailors awaiting despatch by ferry

three small tractors are assisting the loading of the trailors

Encouraged by the fabulous weather we have been having lately, I had brought my shorts, ready to enjoy a day’s sailing on the sun deck, outside. But when we wake up, everything outside is white, we are in the midst of dense fog. No view, no sunshine, and actually not very warm either. We limit ourselves to the onboard sauna and jacuzzi, instead, and to the sumptuous buffet brunch and dinner being served in the almost deserted restaurant. It is not very busy on the boat, holiday season is over for most.

Finally, towards the evening, the fog dissolves, and we have a sort of a sunset, although still mostly obscured by clouds.

finally, at the end of the day, a bit of sun

An area we have never yet explored is the entire North and Northeastern Europe. It would be nice to combine this whole area in one trip – it is easy to imagine circling the Baltic Sea (what we call ‘Oostzee’ – East Sea – in Dutch) clockwise or anti-clockwise. Piece of cake really, except that we are time-limited, we have four weeks only. Which is not enough.

So we compromise, and limit ourselves to the Baltics, for starters. Cynics may suggest that we do this whilst it is still possible, who knows what further Russian expansion plans involve, but I assure you that that has not even entered our mind!

the plan

The easiest, and most comfortable way to get to the Baltics and bring your car, is by ferry, cutting out a whole lot of driving. In fact, the ferry we selected goes from Travemunde, the port of Lubeck in Germany, to Helsinki, a 30-hour crossing, no less. So we might as well take in a bit of Finland, too, enjoying lakes and woods, and whatever else is there to see in the south of Finland. Then we take another ferry, Helsinki to Tallinn, from where we slowly start working our way back home: a few days Estonia, then on to Latvia and its capital Riga, and from there in a roundabout way to Vilnius in Lithuania. There they are, the Baltics broken down! We hope to find attractions not only in the main cities, which are the focus of most tourist guide books and websites, but also outside, to provide the necessary variation – I am sure we will, based on past experience.

And whenever we have had enough we head home, slip from Lithuania to Poland through the Suwalki corridor, that narrow strip between Russian Kaliningrad and Belarus, ie Russia for all intents and purposes. Now we still can – ah no, of course not, no doubt we will always be able to so. Make our way, perhaps, via Gdansk in Poland, and the Polish and German north coast (well, their only coast, really). Which is the south coast of what we still call ‘Oostzee’ in Dutch, but is in English appropriately called the Baltic Sea.

The Baltics, then, is going to be the main focus. Watch this space.

Even though I have been working on the site for almost ten years now, it is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on (and when I added it).

  • The diary I kept before and during our West Africa expedition of March/April 2023, and the associated country pages for Chad, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Gambia (May 2023).
  • During our latest visit to Argentina we spent a week in the NE, Mesopotamia. And we strolled through Buenos Aires again. (December 2022)
  • We finally managed to travel outside of Europe again, in Summer 2022, to complete our South Caucasus journey. The second Caucasus blog lists all the entries. And I also made an Armenia page, for direct access to info on this country. Oh, and I updated the Caucasus reading list. (November 2022)
  • Not having been able to travel long distance for a while, due to Covid rules around the world, I dug into some books I had collected on the Democratic Republic of Congo, and wrote up my never fulfilled dream – or nightmare – of traveling the Congo River. I also included the reading list, and some photos of an amazing art show in Kinshasa: a reason yet to go and visit, one day! (April 2022).
  • I completed the blog of our autumn 2021 trip to Slovakia and Hungary, and I also created a Slovakia page and a Hungary page (December 2021).
  • The follow-up of my East African entries – below – was a trip in 1991 to Southern Africa, which I have now put together in a diary. In the process I also added to the Zimbabwe page, and created the Namibia and the South Africa pages (June 2021).
  • After my years in Tanzania I briefly visited Zimbabwe and Botswana, for which I also put some memories and pictures together. Mostly pictures, really (March 2021).
  • I spent a few weeks sorting out old, now-digitized slides from my years in Tanzania, and wrote up some distant memories, on the East African Memories page. Apart from a, related, Tanzania page, I also created pages for Rwanda and Malawi (Feb. 2021).
  • Having been back to Italy in October 2020, I expanded the Italy page, and also included a Northern Italy page to list the relevant travel blog entries. In the process, and for completeness sake, I decided to add a San Marino country page, which is nothing more that the blog entry (Nov. 2020).
  • Following our trip to the Czech Republic in July 2020, which is described in the Czech Republic blog, I also created a country page Czech Republic, under the SE Europe section (Sept. 2020). The locations on this page link directly to the blog entries of these towns.
  • From the start of this site I have created the attic, with the intention to post items for sale that we have collected over the years, but have no space for anymore in our home. Instead of using, I have created two satelite sites, the ethnic attic and the artworks attic, where I have uploaded a few pieces already, and to which I will be adding in the – as yet vaguely defined – future.
  • Sorting through my old photos I came across the pictures of a trip we did in 1992 to Egypt and Jordan. Which I turned into an Egypt page and a Jordan page (both May 2020), both mostly photos because the memories are limited after such a long time.
  • And then I also put some reading material for Haiti on the site (April 2020, and an update May 2020).
  • I transfered the Back to Haiti blog, initially published outside this site, to theonearmedcrab, and whilst I was doing that, I also added the experiences and observations from three earlier years in Haiti (2000-2003), as The Haiti Diaries (March 2020).
  • Inspired by friends who went to Guatemala, I added the Guatemala page and filled it with our own experiences, from 2000-2003, when I traveled there frequently for work, and occasionally took some time off. A couple of locations, and also the exciting Semana Santa processions in Antigua Guatemala (Dec 2019).

let’s look back at what we have learned

Perhaps the ‘expedition’ was not exactly what we had expected from it. The adventure component was somewhat disappointing, the predictability increased by the week. Compared to earlier trips we have made, there was not so much variety in landscape – after we moved from the savannah of Chad and Northern Cameroon to the predominantly secondary jungle and plantation environment, from South Cameroon onwards. Not much in culture: of course we have seen several dances and ceremonies, put on for the tourists and therefor of questionable authenticity, and I can be convinced that these are also performed within the communities at specific times, appropriate moments, without tourists. But there is little else, there is not a lot of tangible evidence of the powerful ancient kingdoms, except for the odd mud palace in Porto Novo or Abomey, or the Goui palace outside Ndjamena. Maybe the Bamileke and Baboun palaces in Western Cameroon were the most interesting remnants of indigenous culture. Having said so, there may be more than I am aware of.

OK, there is some modern architecture, like this one in Port Novo

In any case the examples above are more recent than some of the colonial structures that remain, of which the slave castles are by far the most impressive. Many other colonial buildings are sadly in a much poorer state than what we encountered in Asia, or in South America. And post-colonial architecture – at least from what I have seen – is not that attractive, and often isolated, one building on its own, amidst deteriorating housing, or crumbling shops.

perhaps the most impressive structure we have come across, the Elmina Castle

extensive Voodoo sculptures, but only in little Benin

And yet, I don’t regret having made this trip. The tourist sights may have been limited, the individual countries were – even from a few days observation – strikingly different. Benin has its Voodoo culture, pervasive in society, yet, why does it stop at the border? There may be a bit of overflow in Nigeria, and in Togo, but it appears to me a geographically very restricted religion. Benin is a small country, and so is Togo, its neighbour, and yet, from the half day we spent in Togo, it looked a so much more vibrant society than from what we have seen in entire Benin. The countrysides from Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone look so much more organised, neat, than that of chaotic Liberia, which is sandwiched in between. Some of this can probably be brought back to colonial history, but each time we thought we had nailed the differences between Francophone and Anglophone, we would enter another country that wouldn’t fit the pattern.

generally West Africans are friendly people, even if this notice we came across in Accra suggests otherwise

Despite the differences, there is one common denominator in West Africa, which I have become very aware of in the past seven weeks. This part of the world is just so far behind what we are used to in Europe. It is so far removed from where we are moving to in Europe, and in the Americas, and in much of Asia. And they are never going to close the gap. Impossible. Sure, people have mobile phones, and in many places there is internet access. But any other progress is slow, or non-existent; it is a long time ago that I lived in Tanzania, yet, lots of situations and lots of observations are awfully familiar (I think, although I do recognise that 35 years no doubt plays tricks with one’s memory, mine to).

I am sure lots of studies have been carried out about the how and why of poverty in West Africa, the lack of progress, the lack of economic development despite a booming population. I am no scholar, I don’t claim to have miraculously understood everything that’s wrong with this part of the world in the last seven weeks. But there are a few things that come to mind.

they wish… an elusive concept in West Africa

Having read about the recent history of all of the countries we have visited, you have to recognise a certain pattern, of instability caused by local strongmen who vie for power. The number of coup d’ etats is staggering, and even though most of the countries we visited haven’t had one for a while, that’s no guarantee. See nearby Mali and Burkina Faso, in the past few years. Or look at Sudan, as we speak! With politicians, or army commanders, that see the state as their personal estate, from which they can pluck at will, it is difficult to imagine how national interest is going to prevail. And I know, ‘national’ is a loaded word in many of these countries, because of different tribes, different languages being spoken, different individual interests, disputed borders even, but some form of overarching state apparatus that is working for the country rather than an individual power broker is essential for progress. It is mostly non-existent, or very weak. And I cannot see how this is going to change in the near, or even distant future.

Without such a state apparatus, especially a transparent and reliable legal system to which individuals at all levels can turn to address injustice or enforce contracts, people will be dependent on connections, family or otherwise. And connections need to be oiled, or at least rewarded for doing you a favour. Without connections people who need to have things done just walk against a wall, often an uniform-wearing wall, that only moves after payment. Early on I already noticed that the chiefs and the uniforms were generally better fed than ordinary people. Corruption is not going to go away. It is not, full stop.

aptly-named restaurant

for years I heard people talking about Bongo-Bongo land, and look, it exists!!

And then there is the issue of individual productivity, and of pride in your work. A most sensitive issue, I noticed. Of course there are lots of exceptions, but I cannot get away from the idea that people just don’t work so hard and don’t really care about what they deliver. Everything takes an inordinate amount of time, with or without corruption. More often than not a simple meal in a restaurant takes one-and-a-half hours to reach your table. Cold. And the ones that came after you will have to wait even longer. Buying something in a shop, and paying for it, is an ordeal, there is no sense of urgency on the side of the shop attendant. Changing money in a bank: I wrote about that. Of course, things are not helped by the overwhelming heat, by faulty power systems and other imperfect infrastructure, or by the fact that there is always a lack of small notes, a lack of change, which hampers every small transaction. Official rules that make the uniforms write down passport details in books several times over don’t help either. But in the end it is very simple: if productivity doesn’t go up, turn over doesn’t go up either, and you are not going to make more money. Of course, there are lots of other factors that influence the economy of an individual: lack of education, lack of opportunity, subsistence agriculture, no doubt some unfair treatment from some rich country. But ultimately the individual West African needs to accept some responsibility for his or her situation. And that’s not happening on a large scale, or so I think – note the ease with which people, normal people, turn up their hand to the white man to unashamedly ask for money. I can understand that people want to migrate to Europe, to where the pots of gold are. I can even understand that they are prepared to take extraordinary risks for that. But I am not sure that that is the only option open for young people with drive, initiative, risk appetite and a certain amount of money. Easily said, I know, but collectively everybody – including these migrants – would be so much better off if they would invest their skills in their own country. And walk a little faster. With pride and dignity.

a young, and ever growing population

Impossible to achieve? Look at The Gambia, look at the Ngala Lodge, or the hospital where Sofia was treated. Here people worked, worked hard, took pride in their work, showed competence. I don’t know what it is, but obviously The Gambia is doing something other countries aren’t doing. They seem to be able to motivate people, and it seems to pay off.

Now maybe that’s a reason to go back, one day, and see if we can work out what that is. Can we, at the same time, also complete some unfished business, in The Gambia and in Senegal. And maybe one or two other countries, at our own pace. Look, we haven’t been home a week, and I am already making plans to return. So, the trip must not have been that bad, after all!

colourful it is, West Africa

and even here the sun sets

a West African man, dressed in an African print suit

And what have we learned? – a  look back in two instalments

Obviously, we have not spent sufficient time in any country to have a  balanced opinion. Our seven weeks – that is what it has been, in the end – have generated lots of observations, unmentioned so far, but are worthwhile part of the experience, nevertheless. In random order:

the museum in Porto Novo, being refurbished

  • Everything is always complicated in Africa. You will never receive a straight answer, even on the most simple and direct questions.
  • The state of museums is concerning, to say the least. The amount of museums ‘temporary closed’ is staggering. Should this put the whole debate about return of African art works, stolen or not, in a different light? No, of course not, but it is good to be aware of the fact that the concept of museums and their role in society is something altogether different, here.
  • announcing the universal West African diet, rice and fufu

    bouillie, in the cooler, spoilt by fried dough balls, for breakfast

    the best fresh pineapples

    fabulous avocados, and the biggest snails I have ever seen

    There are aficionados in our group, but in reality the food in Africa is mostly disgusting – well, not my favourite fare, to say it politely. Lots of fufu, or foufou, which is a dense, starchlike paste predominantly made from cassava, and generally pretty tasteless. To counter this, it is served with a very spicy sauce with either fish or chicken. Another local favourite is okra stew: now, okra can be very nice if kept in one piece, but Africans cook it so it breaks early, which makes the stew extraordinarily slimy – even if it tastes OK, it quickly becomes revolting just because of the texture. An early exception was bouillie, breakfast in Chad of rice, peanut butter and sugar. And there is of course lots of fruit and vegetables available, like the largest avocados ever, and a variety of bananas, pineapples, and other tropicals. And once we had reached the coast, there was occasionally seafood, excellent seafood!

    in the former French colonies, baguettes often saved the day

  • Wine, if obtainable at all, is expensive, and generally poor quality. Local beer is better, of variable quality, and widely available, but not always cold, of course, refrigeration being a luxury. Not surprisingly, I did lose quite a bit of weight during the trip.
  • colourful African print

    African fashion is great, lots of African print cloths widely worn by men and women, very colourful. The flood of second hand cheapies, although still present, seems to be retreating. But why do cloths need to be presented on mannequins that are white?

These do not require an interpretation, of course. But there is more to West Africa then just a couple of observations, there is also the bigger picture. And that does need some musing over, let’s say. I’ll muse a bit, the next few days, and then write it down.

Next: that last musings

but why do the mannequins need to be white