Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Road Ahead

After a brief stop in Nouadhiboo Martin and I hop back on our bicycles to continue the ride south through the desert, though we had not expected it, this part of the road was even more desolate than the previous stretch. 500 more kilometres to Noakchott where I am today.

The first night we camped 80km outside of Nouadhiboo and ended by pure chance on an incredible fossil bed. I spent half the next day looking for dinosaur bones before Martin finally dragged me back onto the road.

Another long day of cycling and we sleep out under the stars, waking wet and cold to the a morning dew but an incredible sunrise.

Day 3 we camp with some local bedowin in an small wooden shack they have built. The drafty roof seems like an incredible luxury after our 2 weeks spent mostly in the open desert.

On day 4, some 800 km after putting together my $50 bicycle it broke down for what would be the last time. Two spokes snapped on the back tire, turning the wheel into a figure 8 under my 40 kg of supplies and the chain derailed, jamming the pedals. I managed to bring the poor machine to a stop. The bike ride was over. So I grabbed up my pack, waved goodbye to Martin and began a long walk back to our last stop where I was able to catch a pimped up ride into Noakchott with some European electronica pounding in the car. I passed the crazy Swede (Martin) stopped and dancing on the side of the road to the tunes from his mp3 player and waved frantically as we sped on by.

Africa on Drugs

Any of you who may have travelled to a malarius country before will have experienced the frustrations and question marks around what to do to prevent malaria. For those of you who haven't here is a little information.

Unlike many 3rd world health problems such as yellow fever, typhoid, polio or hepatitus there is no vaccine for malaria. The disease, carried in mosquitos can only be prevented by not getting bitten or by taking one of several preventative drugs which are available to reduce the risk of aquiring the symptoms of the disease when you are infected. Unfortunately, with the list of preventative drugs also comes a long lineup of undesirable side effects. Many of which could be considered worse than actually getting malaria itself.

In Africa everyone gets malaria. Many of the locals will get it several times per year and it comes on like a strong cold or flu, some never get it, and some people die from it. Though the deaths tend to be in young children, or if no care is available. In Mauritania, where I am today, a large percentage of children (something like 20%) die from Malaria before age 5.

All travellers face this risk and must decide how they will tackle the problem. If you go to a health clinic in North America or Europe they will make the case sound pretty simple, select from one of these drugs and take it. In Canada before leaving for Asia I took a prescription of Doxycycline which is a strong antibiotic. This may be an ok solution for a 2 week trip but to take antibiotics for several months is attrocious to your body. I took my pills, one per day, for about a week and each day my stomach crunched up like I had swallowed a tin can and my mood swung into an unpleasant frustration much like if I haven't eaten in a long time. I quit the drug and though I spent 3 months in malarius zones and was bitten by many mosquitos I don't believe I had malaria. However, here in Africa the risk is much greater.

In Sweden I got a new drug, called Larium or Mefloquin. According to most countries this drug is the most effective against preventing malaria. It also has a reputation amoungst travellers which far exceeds its positive affects. This drug directly affects your psyche. Side effects listed on the package include mood swings, intense dreams, hallucinations etc. Basically it is described by travellers as a mild form of LSD, or perhaps not so mild. You take one pill per week and it builds up in your system. Last week I took my first pill to see how it would affect me, hoping that perhaps the affects would not be so strong. I took the pill on Tuesday, by Friday its effect was at its height, I was high on mefloquin and happy about it. During the previous few days I had begun to notice a few funny things, most notably that I was using my left hand for things I never use it for and that night I entered a place in my mind I have never been and woke to a dream which continued a few moments after my eyes had opened.

On Saturday I was as low as I can get, unable to lift my spirits and uncharacteristically swearing at everything. This affect lasted a few hours.

One week on Larium.

One last knock on Larium is that if you get malaria while on the drug (which can still happen) you must take a big overdose of Larium to treat the disease. From a first hand account I recieved last night this will put you on another world. Many of the other drugs have similiar treatments and effects.

So it is that each person must decide. Take a risk with the drug, or take a risk with malaria. Most long term travellers choose to carry with them some medications to take if they get malaria and forego the prevention drugs. Sticking to insect repellent as the main method of prevention. Today I should take my next Larium dose. What would you do?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Fruit of the Desert

It took 7 days, and many, many gallons of water but my charming bike and I made it accross the desert into Maritania. The trip was made possible by the tremendous generosity and helpfullness we encountered while pedaling under the blazing sun.

The first day we cycle northward out of Dakhla into a strong headwind and can only complete 50km with my poor tush suffering desperately from my BMX style seat. In the evening we find a cave in a small mountainside and sleep inside. The stars are spectacular and the desert sunset incredible.

Day two we cycle hard and make good distance camping out on the open dunes. The night is made memorable as I don my Moroccan Jallaba (think Obi Won Kenobi) and Martin strikes up a tune on his old Swedish bagpipe. What a pair we make.

On we ride, day 3, day 4, camping in the cool nights and covering our faces with scarves through the day. The sun in blistering, reflecting off the sand. Each day it seems good light shines on us. An old fisherman offers us freshly caught fish for dinner, a friend I met on a bus finds us on the road as she's passing and her driver gives us an incredible camel steak and even a red bull, a caravan stops for a smoke and we eat apples and lose half the day looking out at the strange landscape and my favourite comes as I am parched for fresh food, and thinking of nothing else. I turn a bend and see a van out in front, then an arm and at the end of the arm two beautiful oranges which come bumping and rolling along the road toward us. No orange has ever tasted so good. I wave frantic thanks to the man whose face I never even see.

Day 5 turns spectacular as we reach a long awaited hotel and get our first shower since leaving. The food is great and the place is clean. We stock up and head for the border. Day 6 night falls and we must camp near the border, nervous from reports of landmines we must stay near the road. Neither of us blow up so the next morning we cross into Mauritania.

The crossing is the icing on the cake as we leave the Moroccan post after a long wait and cross an eery unmarked 3km zone of no mans land. The wind seemed to whistle cautiously past and the quiet landscape tingles your neck. Finally we push our bikes over the rocky ground to the Mauritanian post and things are now very different. 3 rough men in an old shack stamp our passports and off we ride knowing we are now truly into Black Africa.

Our first encounter with a Mauritanian local comes after another 40km of hilly terrain when we come accross a man with a large group of camels. He is gesturing to us to come help him and his friend so we wander over to see what is up and what a surprise it is. A young camel has fallen into a well! This is so astounding in fact, because the well is only about the size of a manhole and the camel is huge. We have to pull it out he says and I am thinking there is no way. This is like animal rescue or something! Needless to say, the guy gets a grip on the camels lower lip and starts to heave with the poor creature screaming like its going to die and so we just grab on and start pulling by the neck. I was sure we would injure it somehow, but we just kept pulling and pulling and soon we had a grip on its legs and up it came. It must haved weighed about 150kg (350 lbs). Incredibly, we got it up on its feet and it seemed to be ok. Though I thought its mother was going to kill us. Handshakes and laughter all around with a few pats on the back for good measure and we were off carrying silly grins on our faces. A few days have past and still we can't get over the insanity of those few moments.