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Niamey, Niger, Africa: Day #1

Sunday 12 September (I think):  Day 1

Well, believe it or not, I actually made it to Niamey (pronounced NYaw MAY, I’m told), Niger Africa.  It was a grueling trip getting here… the worst in my entire life by a long shot.  Because I needed to be at the Sacramento airport early for my 6:40a departure to Minneapolis, I needed to be up and getting ready by 3:00a.  I’m pretty sure I only got about three hours of sleep on Friday night.  My itinerary was to take me from Sacramento on to Minneapolis on to Paris, France on to Niamey, Niger… with about a three-four hour layover at each stop.  I’m still suffering from the effects of all of the vaccinations and medications (yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis A & B, malaria and others).  The worst was for hepatitis B.  I received the first injection about the first of August, and my entire body ached throughout my muscle and joint system for most of the whole month.  Then I had to get a second booster for the hepatitis B a week ago, and the aching started all over again… but worse this time since I now have more of the vaccine in system.  And hasn’t quit yet.  The hours and hours and hours of flying exacerbated the aching in my muscles…especially in my “buttocks”… as Forest Gump would say.  The first leg of the flight from Sacramento to Minneapolis (about 4 hours) was bad, the second leg from Minneapolis to Paris (about 9-1/2 hours) was much, much worse.  But the last leg from Paris to Niamey (5 hours) was terrible… I was nauseous from the intense pain, and thought I was going to vomit… but didn’t.  Somehow I survived the, approximately, 30 hours of travel from my home to Niger, Africa without any sleep along the way… the pain was too intense for any sleep.


Paris, France:  I was concerned ahead of time about the Paris airport because of the language barrier and my needing to get the boarding pass for the Air France flight.  Also, I’m not very good in negotiating busy airports anyway.  But most folks spoke some English and my concerns were pretty much unwarranted.  Easily got my boarding pass, was able to follow the signs to the tram (which was to take me to an outlying terminal), and boarded the tram, and the “voice” spoke clear, loud English so there was no problem knowing where my stop was.  Going through security was also a snap… even easier than it was in Sacramento [where even my plastic Tic Tac mints set off the metal detector… thought I was going to have to strip naked to make it through the detector, there].  As it turned out, I enjoyed the Paris airport… had a nice quiche and coffee for breakfast, and shopped/looked around the many stores while waiting for the last flight.


Final Flight on to Niger:  The flight on to Niger was interesting, even though I was in pain.  Flying over southern France, then the Mediterranean Sea was fascinatingly fun.  But I really found the Sahara Desert to be enthralling.  Several hours of flying with nothing but yellow sand below… accompanied by the occasional sand storms which rose up to (I’m guessing here) 20,000 feet.  I could make out dried lakes throughout the desert, which I wasn’t expecting.  As the desert slowly gave way/yielded to vegetated land, I knew we would soon be landing.  The gentleman sitting next to me on the flight was from Mali, had nine children, and two wives.  That is nothing, he said.  One of his uncles and his own father each had four wives.  I stated that that seemed like double and quadruple trouble to me, but he explained the living arrangement, and said he survived the marriages just fine.  As we talked some, he warned me about the “terrorists” present in Niger, and wished me luck with my stay… I have his business card and will write to him if I survive this trip…


Niamey, Niger, Africa:  The sub-Sahara region around Niamey was much more barren than I was expecting.  I was expecting more grasslands with the occasional wooded/riparian areas along the Niger River.  Not so.  The terrain was just sparingly grassy up to the river, and the river brown from severe soil erosion had almost no trees along its banks.  There were, however, fields of low short crops (vegetables/feed for animals??) growing along much of the river.  Because Niger has finally had some rain during the past month following the worst drought in memory, some of the fields were underwater… one extreme to the other which often is the case with dry-land/rain-fed agriculture.


The Niamey airport and subsequent chaos/bedlam that I encountered there is way beyond description using the English language.  I was expecting something out of a movie showing a third-world airport scene, but there was no way to prepare for the pandemonium at the airport.  No one from the plane down the steps to the tarmac, to the shuttle bus (which took us to the “airport”…not much different than what I flew into at Winnemucca, Nevada), to the scramble into the lines for customs spoke any English.  I wasn’t sure what the procedure was for going through customs and entering the country, and wasn’t able to find anyone who spoke any English at all.  So I just got into one of the lines, and prayed for the best.  People were bribing officials so they could move to the head of the lines… if I would have known how to do that, I might have tried it myself… anything to avoid the crush of people wanting to go through customs.  The entire airport was run by some sort of federal police in green uniforms and berets… I was expecting a military coup at any moment.  I was very smart not to have checked any luggage through.  The luggage line was awful with people shoving and shouting at each other… no carrousel, but luggage just heaped in one big pile and everyone trying to get their own belongings.  Hard to believe the sight, but the best was next to come.  As I exited the small airport building, there was a mass of humanity waiting for me.  People begging and selling all sorts of items from phone cards to prostitution services to taxi service… the taxi folks were openly shoving/fighting for fare business.  I just kept saying no (also no in French) to all beggars and peddlers and prostitutes.  I started getting somewhat anxious when I didn’t see/find the people who were supposed to be waiting for me, but then Nassirou and his friend Ali found me and led me to my escape.  I don’t know if I was ever so happy to have someone call my name any time before in my entire life.  Just to be able to flee from that scene was such a relief I can’t describe it.  I was grinning and slapping them around… all in fun.  Nassirou still had me pay several beggars just to get them to leave us alone on our way to the car… a small price to be rid of that entire scene.


From Airport to Hotel:  Even though approximately 800,000 people live in Niamey, what I saw from the airport to the hotel Niamey would not qualify as “city”.  The buildings and housing that I saw were all in terrible shape… all needing to be razed and dozed into a pile.  Yet people were living in these structures, and I immediately felt grateful to live in Lodi, California were the squalor that I was witnessing doesn’t exist.  The streets were mostly unpaved complete with crater-size potholes that required coming to an almost complete stop in order to negotiate through/around them.  People selling whatever they had or could in ramshackle shacks lining all the roads and streets… vending anything and everything in order to make a living and just survive the best they can.  I asked what was in some large piles of big sacks stuffed with what looked like green grasses, and was told people were selling feed for animals… I found the women and men walking along the roads carrying bundles on their heads to be extra fascinating.  In the middle of the slum-like/squalor setting was the “hotel”.  The hotel du Sahel really wouldn’t even quality as a bad motel in America.  The main building was two stories tall, had fourteen rooms plus the lobby/restaurant area.  There are, however, four duplex “bungalows”, one of which was to be my new home for the next three weeks.  The hotel may have been a decent place to stay at 50 years ago, but it was generally in great disrepair.  We parked next to the unpaved circular driveway in front of the lobby, sidestepped mud puddles and went in to get my room assignment.  The scene here was soccer playing/blaring on a large TV and a big fan laboring to help with the stifling heat/humidity… and very unorganized.  Nassirou pointed out the “restaurant”, and I instantly knew I wasn’t going to eat there any more than necessary. 


My bungalow room is very “used” and very, very basic, at best.  However there is an air conditioner, and with help from the staff, we actually got it to rumbling… trying to outcompete the intense heat and mugginess.  Dead bugs smashed on the wall, shelves not able to shelve anything because they are beyond angles of repose.  The closet is basically a cupboard of sorts complete with a half dozen homemade wire hangers for clothes.  The sheets appear to be clean enough on the queen-size bed.  All accommodations are old and worn thin, at best.  However, I’m grateful for a tile floor; I wouldn’t want to see what a carpet would look like in here, especially with no sidewalks and the thunderstorms that passed through here some nights, like last night.  There are several cars parked around the facility, so other guests are here as well.  I didn’t eat dinner last night or breakfast this morning, but I found a cookie left over from one of the flights… that is all that I have eaten so far.  The restaurant, however, has a makeshift bar attached, and I was actually able to secure two bottles of local “Biere Niger”.  Very chilled and a quite tasty sorghum beer, and full of calories… so I probably won’t die of hunger or thirst after all……………….. And very welcome after such a fun-filled past 30 hours or so…





Scientists: We’ve Cracked Wheat’s Genetic Code

Associated Press.  27 August 2010.  British scientists have decoded the genetic sequence of wheat — one of the world’s oldest and most important crops — a development they hope could help the global staple meet the challenges of climate change, disease and population growth.

Hard Red Winter Wheat, Lodi, California

Wheat is grown across more of the world’s farmland than any other cereal, and researchers said Friday they’re posting its genetic code to the Internet in the hope that scientists can use it as a tool to improve farmers’ harvests. One academic in the field called the discovery “a landmark.”

“The wheat genome is the holy grail of plant genomes,” said Nick Talbot, a professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s going to really revolutionize how we breed it.”  read more

Drought-Tolerance Key To Increasing Food Production

Croplife.  9 August 2010.  Increasing agriculture productivity to meet growing global demand for food must be accompanied by an intense, innovative effort to enhance the environmental imprint of farming to be sustainable, according to DuPont executive vice president Jim Borel.

“We face the daunting challenge of nearly doubling agriculture production to meet the demands of the estimated 9 billion people expected by 2050,” Borel says. “Success in this endeavor will require new and sustained levels of innovation, such as improvements in drought tolerance, to increase productivity of the global food supply without increasing the stress upon our natural resources or the environment.

“Drought tolerance technologies are part of the next great wave of agricultural innovation that will improve agronomic characteristics of plants so they more efficiently use available resources,” Borel says. “They will further empower farmers with better product choices to meet growing demand while reducing their environmental footprint.”

Many environmental factors can reduce agriculture productivity, but drought is by far the most damaging. In 2009 alone, drought cost farmers $14 billion worldwide. Eighty-five percent of the U.S. corn crop is affected by drought stress at some time during the growing season each year, and just four days of severe drought stress during the peak of summer can cut yields in half.

The drought research facility in Woodland, CA, is one of two managed stress facilities DuPont business Pioneer Hi-Bred uses to evaluate crop performance under targeted drought or nutrient stresses. It receives little or no precipitation during the growing season, allowing researchers to control the amount of water applied through precision irrigation.

The Coolest Forms of Life on Earth

ScienceDaily (Aug. 7, 2010) — Two UK scientists are travelling to one of the coldest places on Earth to help them understand how life could exist on other planets in our Solar System.

Professor Liane Benning (University of Leeds) and Dr Dominique Tobler (University of Glasgow) are travelling to Ny-Ålesund on the island of Svalbard to investigate how the snow and ice there was first colonised by extremophiles — organisms that thrive in harsh conditions.

The team will spend two weeks on Svalbard from 6 to 20 August as part of the Europlanet Research Infrastructure’s Transnational Access Programme. The expedition is part of the larger international AMASE project, which uses extreme environments on Earth as a test-bed for technology that will be used on future NASA and ESA ‘Search for Life’ missions to Mars.

“Glacial snow and ice is a good analogue for ice and frost-covered ground at the Martian poles or other icy bodies in the Solar System, like Europa,” said Professor Benning.

“Organisms that live here have evolved to thrive with very little food, large temperature fluctuations, dehydration and high levels of UV radiation. For example, snow algae make carotinoids pigments that protect them from UV radiation and cause the snow to turn bright red.

“If we can learn more about how life can form and thrive in these areas, and the survival strategies they adopt, it gives us a better chance of detecting life on other planets with similarly extreme conditions.”  read more

Alfalfa Sprouts Recall

American Vegetable Grower.  26 May 2010.  Caldwell Fresh Foods of Maywood, CA, is voluntarily recalling all of its alfalfa sprouts marketed under the Caldwell Fresh Foods, Nature’s Choice, and California Exotics brands. The recalled products have been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella infections in consumers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

The sprouts were distributed to a variety of restaurants, delicatessens, and retailers, including Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart stores.

Lost in Translation?

In a Japanese hotel: “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.”

In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers: “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”

On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.”

On the menu of a Polish hotel: “Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.”

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest: “It is strictly forbidden on our Black Forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”