LIBERIA: TO ROBERTSPORT, BACK TO MONROVIA, AND TO THE CDI BORDER

April 27- April 29

Young Fisherman in Robertsport

A young fisherman in Robertsport takes a break from pulling the net to bask in the morning sun for a photo

After one the trip’s wilder nights to date, we carried on to Robertsport, a chill breach town known for surfing, a few hours from Monrovia.  We camped on the beach there and watched another Champions League football match.  We had hoped to surf, but the waves were paltry by any measure.  My top memory was spearfishing right off shore; three hours in the water yielded three decent-sized groupers.  This spearfishing was different from normal; relatively shallow, rocky water and very low visibility sped up the “shot clock” and tested my reflexes. These fish, combined with a barracuda purchased by Nate, ingredients procured in town by Nate and Lee, and some amazing home cooking by the guys at our camping spot, made for one of the top meals of the trip.

Justin with Rock Groupers

I shot this pair of rock groupers and a red grouper, which made for a delicious dinner in Robertsport.

On the way back from Robertsport, as we were driving through some heavily populated outskirts of Monrovia, traffic came to a crawl, then a stop.  During the jam, some guy with a blue shirt snatched Dan’s Blackberry from my hands.  I saw him scurry around stopped cars, and he seemed to disappear into an endless labyrinth of one of Monrovia’s rougher neighborhoods.  The window being open, I somehow thought that it would quicker to jump through it to give chase than simply open the door.

Night Scene in Monrovia

Chaotic nighttime city street scenes like this one in Monrovia required vigilant driving.

So I started chasing the ghost of ten seconds past, asking everyone where he went.  “He’s gone . . . gone” three different onlookers said.  Gone behind his own brier patch of dead-end alleyways and half-completed yet over-capacity inhabited apartment buildings, with hundreds of residents hanging around in the street.  No one seemed to know where he went, but one ambitious young bloke grabbed a metal road and said, “we’ll find him.”  A pack formed, and by this time Nate had come out to join me.  In the midst of a Monrovian slum, we had inadvertently formed an angry mob hunting down a phone thief.  We hustled down alleyways, crossed the main street, and rumbled through a market, but predictably the thief had made himself scarce.

And that’s when we started with Plan B – call the original thief and negotiate the phone’s return through a series of shady middlemen who clearly know him.  One guy in particular, a man named Fatboy who posed as a cop and might have even been one, became instrumental.  We called the guy and Fatboy talked to him, arranging a meeting for a return of the phone.  “He’s scared of me so he’ll return the phone very soon,” Fatboy assured us.  We knew this would incur some sort of fee, with Fatboy seeing some of the proceeds, but we didn’t want to chill their motivation to find it.  After some wrangling and movement away from the initial crime scene, a guy said he had the phone.  While we were waiting someone rammed into our back bumper, removing some paint and creating a minor ding in the Cruiser.  Fatboy, playing the cop role, took the driver’s keys while the driver pleaded with us to let it go.  We did.

I then got into a car and they closed the doors for the final negotiation; inside was an all-star cast of the former rod wielder, Fatboy, and some other guy, probably the thief’s brother or something.  They immediately handed me the phone.  They wanted $50; I said “here you guys go, my final offer,” pulling a conveniently small amount out of my pocket, the equivalent of $12 in Liberian dollars.  “This is not satisfactory,” the rod guy said.  “But it’s what I have. Thanks for your help.”  Didn’t they know they had crushed their leverage by giving me the phone?  Game over, hehe.  They were all just on the take anyway; the whole thing was a scam.  The car wasn’t going anywhere in the traffic jam, so I simply opened the door, and that was that.  A couple of minutes later, Fatboy was all smiles.

The Blackberry heist and recovery was an interesting experience, but not indicative of Liberia or West Africa as a whole, both of which are full of fun, vibrant, and wholesome people – and not petty thieves.

Bushmeat: Muskrat and Monkey

Name that bushmeat: Muskrat on the left, monkey on the right, courtesy of vendors along the road near the checkpoint. Both were delicious, and I should have bought more. Liberia/Cote D’Ivoire border

Soon it was time to leave Liberia, as Dan had a flight to catch in Ghana in about a week.  We set out for the border with Cote D’Ivoire, spending our final night in the southern town of Gante. Right at the border the next day I tried muskrat and monkey, both on a stick, both for the first time.  Surprisingly delicious on both fronts; I should have gotten more for the road. I will be on the lookout for both on a more formal menu.

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LIBERIA: GOOD TIMES IN MONROVIA AND SILVER BEACH

April 23-26

Lee and I came over from Sierra Leone to Liberia just in time to meet our friend Dan at Monrovia Airport.  Dan has traveled all over the world, but this was his first time to Africa – pretty cool that he broke in with recently war-torn and still not completely stable Liberia.  Two days later Nate rejoined the trip, and we were, for the first time in the car, four guys.  Nate, it’s great to have you back!

Silver Beach

Waves meet sand at Silver Beach

So far as accommodation is concerned, Monrovia has few, solid, good-value options.   This is of course when we get imaginative with finding a place to camp, and we found a place on Silver Beach, between downtown Monrovia and the Monrovia Airport, that hit the spot.  After bargaining with the dead cool Lebanese owners for the right to use the beach for camping and the shower – the latter of which was incredible by West African standards – we spent a few nights at the beach.  I was able to enjoy two of my beloved nocturnal activities there:  night -time skinny dipping and beach sleeping in open air.

Dan in Hammock at Silver Beach

Dan enjoys his hammock on the premises at Silver Beach

Monrovia is similar to Freetown in some ways:  each has about 1 million people; each is a packed, typically non-descript capital in the West African tradition; and each has recently seen violence on a breathtaking scale courtesy of a long and brutal civil war.  We found little to do during the day. Dan requested to be taken to Waterside Market, the largest market in town, so that he could see a typical West African market, but once we arrived we caught him napping: he dozed through essentially all the ubiquitous sandals, used clothes from the US, and piles of mangoes, as well as all the clamor and chaos so predictably on display.

We began to notice that people used quite a bit of American slang and even an American accent of sorts; Liberia is the closest to a colony that the US has had in Africa.  People regularly greet us with  “What’s up nigga?”, maybe not understanding the full connotations of the word in the US, and without even knowing our nationality.  One guy in downtown Monrovia said to Lee:  What up nigga…ah, British boy!  Maybe he saw the UK plates on the Cruiser.

Dan Watching Match between Chelsea and FC Barcelona

Dan looks on through the Club Beers, attempting to watch a Champions League match between Chelsea and FC Barcelona

A day after picking up Nate, we met with Youth Action International, a local charitable group affiliated with All for Africa.  After a productive meeting, which led eventually to our visit to a women’s empowerment center (See “Youth Action International Women’s Empowerment Center, Monrovia”), we decided to meet with Dan, an employee of Youth Action International, and the charity’s secretary Alberta, to watch the semi-final of the Champion’s League Match between Chelsea and FC Barcelona.  The match itself was exciting, and the turnout was predictably over-capacity.  Due to arriving around the time that the match stared, we sat in the cheap seats outside the bar.  (The true nosebleed area was reserved for an ever-swelling wall of football enthusiasts standing, presumably to avoid the necessity of a beer purchase.)  A night out in the party district of Monrovia ensued; (American) Dan disappeared for a while, eventually losing his way to the point of needing a bailout, and we all ended up crashing at (Liberian) Dan’s family’s home at about 3:30 am.

Crowd Watching Exciting Match

Standing room only: A growing crowd of onlookers wants to catch the waning moments of an exciting match

Liberian Dan and his family’s hospitality were amazing; it was a full house already with various family members hanging out and walking around the house; no one seemed to mind our presence and I’m not sure if most of them knew why we were there.  I’m almost positive they didn’t know why.  Apparently, one of the young boys turned on the TV at around 4:30 am, which was located a couple of feet from where Lee and American Dan were sleeping, blaring Al Jazeera at full volume for an extended period.  I don’t think Liberian Dan slept a wink, but that didn’t stop him from giving us an impromptu, comprehensive, completely accurate, impassioned, and entertaining 20-minute history of Liberia in the morning, a super-human effort all night and into the next morning by a guy who seemed utterly impossible to phase.  We all came away with the conclusion that he could, and should, have a bright future in Liberian politics.  Wish we could have spent more time with Dan, Alberta, and Kimmie – one of our bigger regrets of the trip.

SIERRA LEONE: A NEW GUESTHOUSE EMERGES ALONG THE PENINSULA

Bahamut, Black Johnson Village

Carving out a niche: Bahamut, currently being built, is one of the new guest houses along the peninsula. Black Johnson Village, Freetown Peninsula

It was only a few minutes after arriving from Banana Island back to John Obey Beach when we realized that we wouldn’t be able to push start the Cruiser.  We knew we’d have to try because a dead alternator meant we couldn’t just start the car normally, but we didn’t expect it to be so utterly impossible.  As we were mulling over what to do, a man in a 4×4 emerged onto the scene.  He was able to give us a tow; he eventually, and very kindly, offered to continue to tow us to a spot where we could push start down a hill in the morning, and then sleep at his emerging guest house, still a work in progress.

Krio style guest house, Bahamut

Main structure, built in the horizontal wooden traditional Krio style. We slept comfortably upstairs

It turned out to be an awesome little spot down a dirt road on one of the paradisial, hidden away beaches along the peninsular coast, in Black Johnson village, between the town of York and John Obey village.  The man is Martin Rekab, and the place is called Bahamut, Arabic for “behemoth,” a giant fish in Arabian mythology.  Martin grew up in Freetown, went to university in England, and developed a passion for sailing that eventually led him to buy his own sailboat.  He had long hoped to sail the boat to Sierra Leone, but when he crashed it in the middle of a storm off the coast of Italy a few years ago, he was forced to sell the heavily damaged craft.  As one dream was delayed, another spawned; the proceeds of that sale helped to fund a guest house on property that his family has had to fight for in court for several years.

Martin Rekab, owner of Bahamut

Martin Rekab, owner of Bahamut, has taken an interesting path back to his native Freetown

Martin’s focus for the horizontal wooden main structure and supporting thatched huts is sustainability, reflecting the wider trend of ecotourism among the more enlightened developers on the peninsula. He’s well on the way to an organic garden and an exotic menu featuring among other things cotton grass – not a fabric or a grain but a bush rat whose meat tastes like pork but sweeter.  Martin wants to take guests fishing and spearfishing in the rich waters of Whale Bay and elsewhere along the coast.   There are also treks over the hills, along old slave routes, to osprey nesting sites.  I think this place will be amazing someday, and if I get back to Sierra Leone, I can’t wait to see what shape a place with such tremendous potential takes.  We were, after all, among the first guests.

SIERRA LEONE: SPEARFISHING ON BANANA ISLAND

April 17 and April 18

Beach Scene, Sierra Leone

Beach scene on the way to Banana Island, Sierra Leone

After talking to a local guy named Mohammed at John Obey Beach, we camped there and took off on a boat to Banana Island. This is where I had wanted to go spearfishing, and it didn’t disappoint.  Since there are so many variables, spearfishing is often a crapshoot.  Decent information is rare since spearfishermen closely guard their secret spots, even more so than surfers.   Meanwhile, water conditions, particularly surf and visibility, vary wildly.  In places like Sierra Leone, it’s best to ask locals, take whatever you hear with a grain of salt, and then hope for the best.

Red grouper for African family

After a successful spearfishing experience, I saved the largest of 12 fish shot, this red grouper, for the guy whose family watched the Cruiser

The boat took us to a slew of spots, the first being in the morning, to a wreck just off the mainland coast where I shot three fish.  We then eventually made it to the beach where we would camp for the night (open air camping has become the norm for me). An offshore spot highlighted by granite boulders yielded two more fish.  The next day, we stopped at several more spots, and one of them, predictably at the end of the island where two currents intersect, was one of the best spots I’ve ever seen.  I ended up shooting twelve fish in all; we downed a few of the fish after the guys cleaned and cooked them.  I gave the rest to villagers, saving the biggest, a nice 7kg or so rock grouper, for the guy who looked after the Cruiser back on the mainland.

The Banana Island jaunt was not without controversy.  We had organized the journey with a guy who promised a great trip, but ended up putting together a boat crew that made a comedy of errors.  They tied the boat to another boat, which pissed off that boat’s owner to the point of creating a shouting match and – while we were spearfishing – coming too close to us in the water.  As result of the second folly, Lee surfaced from freediving, raked the barnacle-laden bottom of the boat, and sliced the top of his head open in a few spots. Nothing serious, he was fine, but it could have been far worse.

Small island glitters in the sun, between the mainland and Banana Island.

On the return voyage to the mainland, the guys spent the entire trip having what Sierra Leoneans and Liberians call a “paluga” in relation what went wrong on the trip – a shouting match that continues for awhile with no punches thrown and few rational words exchanged.  The shouting was so consistent that it approached a monotone level.  At first, I asked them to cease, and they would for about thirty seconds only to start again.  I began to appreciate both the entertainment value to me (akin to a lesser street brawl) and the therapeutic value to them.  By the time we got back to mainland Salone, everyone seemed to have calmed down.

Crew on the way back from Banana Island, still visibly in a huff, take a respite from their shouting match.

SIERRA LEONE: FREETOWN AND ITS SPECTACULAR PENINSULA

April 13- April 21

Freetown at Night

Freetown at night: Although not exactly Manhattan, it has more power than it did last time I was there, in 2005

Freetown had never been the easiest city in which to live.  During my time there in the summer of 2005, I recall a frequent lack of electricity, intermittent running water, ridiculous traffic, and people constantly begging on the street.  Accommodation with electricity is expensive due to the inconsistent flow of national power and the according need to use generators.  Upon returning this time, despite the promises of a Sierra Leonean consular official in the Gambia, nothing had changed too much:  there were more people, even worse traffic (not helped by road construction everywhere), a bit more electricity.

Soccer Pitch, Freetown

Unobstructed soccer pitch, except for the nearby open sewer, Kingtom Neighborhood of Freetown

Sadly, my (and most everyone’s) favorite bar, Paddy’s, had closed.  The place was a true local institution, famously having stayed open during the war, so that anyone from any walk of life could enjoy its transcendent class, race, etc. atmosphere.  When we drove past, we saw the sign for the place was unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road.

The people, of course, made my last stay in Freetown amazing and inspired me to film a short documentary about the city.   But for a short visit, like many West African capitals, Freetown is not always the most welcoming place.  We had some good times back in Freetown visiting old haunts, but much of our time spent in the city was on getting the Ghana visa  (an annoyingly time-consuming and bureaucratic process) and fixing, for a second time, the Cruiser’s alternator.

Beach, Freetown Peninsula

Scene along River #2 Beach, Freetown Peninsula

But after over a month in the baking West African “inland empire” we were gagging to get back to the ocean.  So we spent most of our time in Sierra Leone away from the sweltering, one million-strong city of noise and gridlock and on the Freetown Peninsula, which contains what I believe to be some of the most beautiful beaches on earth.  Throughout the peninsula, mountains come right down to beautiful, white and golden sandy beaches.  Yet because of the war and the generally undeveloped state of the country, there are very few visitors apart from some aid workers on the weekends.

Construction on Freetown Peninsula

In the post-war construction boom, environmentalists fight to save peninsular forest land in the background, as building for tourists and wealthy locals has reached a frenetic pace

There seem to be still just a few scattered travelers in the entire country (up from almost literally zero when we were there before), but it’s highly likely that many more will come to its top attraction, the peninsula.  It is stunningly beautiful, formerly war-torn (adding to the intrigue), completely safe, English-speaking, reasonably inexpensive, and close to a large city. Some beaches have basic facilities like huts and very crude guest houses, while others are almost completely devoid of any human presence – yet completely accessible by dirt road.   But the rush to develop a tourist infrastructure is on everyone’s minds. This is a rapidly closing window, a situation sure to change, as a new road is being paved, and new guest houses are springing up everywhere along the peninsula.

Cookie Cutter Resort Houses, Tokei Beach

Catch pristine Tokei while you can: this is the future, cookie cutter resort houses built with little regard of their surroundings. Tokei Beach, Freetown Peninsula

Our first night we spent on Tokei Beach, which, along with adjacent River Number 2 Beach, is the crown jewel of the peninsula and accordingly its most rapidly developing stretch.  It appears that the new developments, currently a series of identical steel frames, soon to be cookie cutter beach abodes, are out of touch both with their immediate environment and with what their eventual customers will want.  But camping on the beach is still awesome – we laid out our tents, ordered a fish dinner, and got a beach fire going amidst the breathtaking backdrop.

Fishing Boats, Freetown Peninsula

Fishing boats at River #2 Beach, Freetown Peninsula

After the administrative time in Freetown, we headed back to the peninsula in search of the proverbial isolated beach paradise.  We came up on Whale River Beach during the late afternoon, and saw a load of trucks mining sand, eventually into the night. A local man at John Obey Beach, a beach further down the peninsula where sand mining was also taking place, said that the sand was for concrete to make bridges and complete the road that the government was apparently desperate to finish before the rainy season.  The man told me that, as a campaign promise, the current administration had stated it would finish the road before the end of its first term.  With election season coming later in the year and road construction far more difficult after the rains began, the race was on.

Sunset, Whale Bay Beach, Freetown

Post-sunset indigo sky with Venus shining above, Whale Bay Beach, Freetown

We went back to Whale River Beach the next day; the sand miners were gone and it was great to hang out on an incredible beach with no one around.  Maybe this is possible outside Sierra Leone, but I’m not sure where, in an age obsessed with coastal development, it can be done.

 

RALLY-SPEED ROAD TRIP THROUGH WILD WEST AFRICA

April 8-April 12

After almost two weeks in Burkina Faso, which in my opinion is an awesome place with great people, we decided to hightail it back through the southwest of Burkina Faso, across the remote north of Cote D’Ivoire, the equally remote south of Guinea, and through infrequently visited provinces of Eastern and Central Sierra Leone, all the way to the capital of Freetown.

Woman Carrying Baby Cote D'Ivoire

Long road ahead for this village woman carrying her baby and a heavy load, Cote D’Ivoire

This was a fast-paced road trip along Africa’s signature red clay roads, through cashew groves, palm forests, and lush fields blanketed with mushroom termite mounds.   Frequently, we went hours without passing a village, and the typically common checkpoints largely vanished – as much as anytime since the Saharan portions of the rally, we were on our own.

This was the real Wild West Africa.  This stretch brought some of the first rains of the trip and some sizable puddles in the road, a preview of the coming rainy season if we stay in the region too much longer.  We once crossed a river in Guinea on a tiny ferry that could hold just once vehicle at a time – barely.

As soon as we traversed the Burkina Faso border into recently violence-ridden Cote D’Ivoire, which was a new country for us and one we will later re-visit, a constant theme was how rare travelers like us were.  At each Ivorian police or customs stop, we heard about the same group of Spanish travelers who had come through a couple of weeks prior.  When we asked who the last group before the Spanish were, no one could remember.

Kids Near Guinea/Sierra Leone Border

Kids near Guinea/Sierra Leone border. These were some of most excited and enthusiastic kids we saw. And it was no wonder – the border guards told us that a Westerner comes through the border we crossed once every two months.

The pioneer feeling continued when on the Guinea/Sierra Leone border, we were told that a Western overlander came through with a 4×4 every two months or so.  Children in West Africa are often very excited to see us, but the children at that border were more enthusiastic, curious, and mobbing than anywhere else we’d seen.

Unless we’re staying in the same place twice, we rarely know where we’re going to stay the next night.  During our five-day run, there was a scant supply of hotels in the region, so we bush camped for back-to-back nights.  Bush camping entails driving off the road, typically around dusk, into a field, thicket, or whatever you can drive through.   You then get far enough off the road so that no one can see you. Despite the strife throughout much of the region, people in West Africa are generally peaceful and often very hospitable towards foreigners, so they probably wouldn’t disturb campers, but of course you never want to take the chance.

Bush Camping

Bush camping in Cote D’Ivoire

Once off the road with tents pitched, you simply hope that you’ve done enough to sufficiently blend into the wilderness so that no one actually does see you. Alternatively, you hope that anyone who does see you intends no harm.  It helps to scan the road a couple of kilometers on each side of your proposed spot, and to get as far in as possible, preferably behind one or more trees.

Bush Camping Guinea

Bush camping for the second straight night, this time in Guinea

We had no problems at all; the morning after the first night, which was in Cote D’Ivoire, we saw some villagers walking to work along a path very near our makeshift site.  One of them got curious and came over to our tents, and then, after we struck up a conversation, proceeded to take me about a kilometer to show me the field in which he cultivated yams.   The second night, in Guinea, we had no human contact whatsoever.  The only downside was that my inflatable air mattress got pierced in a few places – too many places to patch up – and soon became a “deflatable” air mattress.

Village in Guinea

Village in Guinea…rainy season is coming soon to West Africa

Having worked in Freetown in 2005, but never having made it to “up-country” Sierra Leone, it was great to see the green, hilly terrain I’d heard about.  It was equally chilling to pass through some of the towns where I knew horrific war-related events had recently happened.  The road from the Guinea/Sierra Leone border to Koidu was as rough as it has been; after about 75km took about 5 hours,  we had a new champion for “worst road yet.”  The next day, after a nearly seven-year absence, we arrived back in Freetown.

ANATOMY OF A MASK DEAL IN BURKINA FASO

April 3

With a dude who had earlier in the day sold me some bronze statues and who was at the moment taking me around on a motorbike, I decided to hit up a local restaurant.  He had just done his best to be my guide in Vieux Bobo, a neighborhood in Burkina Faso’s second city of Bobo-Dialossou, Just before we got there, by “sheer coincidence” of course, we ran into a merchant of Dogon Country (well known tribe in Mali) selling traditional style masks.   I was hungry, felt like sitting down, and had a passing interest in buying some of these masks since I was preparing a package of artwork to be sent home – maybe the only time I’ll buy much of anything non-perishable for the West African portion of the trip.   So I agreed to a session at a local restaurant with sizzling brochettes near the entrance (beef on a stick dish, ubiquitous in West Africa and particularly Mali and Burkina Faso).

The merchant said he’d bring back some stuff right away to show me.  Sure enough, he returned on a motorbike with an enormously bulky bag full of wooden artwork, some of it pretty decent as opposed to the crappy, generic, pan-African stuff you see everywhere.  This guy had a slick, cocky approach, transparently expecting a large margin from his Western, non-native French speaking counterpart.  For some reason asked me if I was “nervous,” as though I was about to make a gut-wrenching decision to pour my life savings into a few of his wooden trinkets.

There are times when I give people a break on the price of a good, and surely for a service (since it may affect performance), thusly paying a bit more than I know or discover to be the absolute bottom line price.  Either that or I bargain them down for the hell of it, then give them a little tip for being cool.  This is true especially when they are genuine and seem as if they could really use the extra coin.  But this guy looked pretty well off – in fact, he told me, he regularly peddled masks to wealthy consumers in Switzerland.  What’s more, he talked like a hustler and implicitly assumed that I was an utter novice at both bargaining and West African wooden masks, when in fact neither was true.  So it was game on.

Another French bargaining session of nearly an hour ensued; he initiated by cordially inviting me to sit down and have a beer “on him.” Given the totality of the circumstances here, a red flag – poorly disguised code language for “rip-off attempt in progress.”  After some pleasantries, he kicked things off with a predictably laughable price of 40,000 CFA ($80) per mask, 5 masks for a grand total of 200,000 CFA ($400).  I immediately stood up and walked away without saying a word; he dragged me back in and profusely apologized.  The next twenty minutes entailed he and I exchanging insults, mostly in good humor and with considerable laughter, yet also with a certain edginess.  During this period, after constant prodding, I introduced a rock-bottom price and subsequently refused to budge.

My new buddy told several creative lies about the masks – a mix of tired lines and (for me) new material regarding, for example, age, origin, craftsmanship and history.  I had become familiar with these masks in 2005 when shopping for them, and ultimately buying some, in Sierra Leone and Mali.  Each time I called him out, usually with a drawn out si vous plait, a shake of the head, and a chuckle (oh puleeeeeeease, you’re not sliding that bullshit by me), and enjoyed observing the awkwardness and his frustration grow.  Some of what he was saying I knew to be false, other times I just guessed; for those times without fail his post-lie resignation betrayed his remarks and confirmed my presumptions.

Despite all the silliness, I liked this guy well enough, seeing him as a charismatic salesman just trying make a buck.  I began thinking about the nature of the product at issue – he sells something that is somewhat similar to, say, a Persian carpet: a quasi-artistic item with a subjective value, some traditional significance, and with plenty of room for embellishment as to its core characteristics.  He in turn seemed to be developing a grudging respect for me.  But I also liked watching him squirm.  Enjoying the session and the appurtenant intense and rapid-fire French lesson, I started changing the subject.  I told him, “let’s talk about something else and enjoy these beers since our deal is going nowhere.”  I asked him about his life; he engaged for a time with a newfound genuineness but then brought the conversation back to the sale.  Ignoring this, I pressed on with questions about Burkina Faso; he kept coming back.  In doing so, he was letting it be known that he was keen to make the sale, perhaps even at the offering that even I thought was absurdly low – and by this point he knew that I could sense this.

Towards the conclusion, I walked away a couple of times in despair that a deal would never be reached.  Finally, I raised my price 5000 CFA, or $10, and asked him to take it or leave it: “My friend, it is getting dark, we are done eating, and I have to go.”  I soon emerged with a few masks for exactly 1/8 of the asking price; as we were getting ready to leave, he said with genuine disgust “you can pay for your own beer.”  To me this was the ultimate sign of respect for the price, so instead of holding him to his word of treating me, I agreed with a smile.  He shook his head and smiled back at me, rolling his eyes while recounting the enormous discount I had gotten.  “Incroyable” (“incredible”), he said, and then told me that he actually sold the masks for $80 each to his Swiss customers, as if to somehow save face.   “Ah, mon ami, si vous plaaaaait!”, I responded, still in deal mode.  No protest followed.