Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

Cruising the Greek Isles on the MSC Musica: Best trip 2009

I never saw myself as a cruise ship sort of traveler until MSC Musica made me a changed woman.

I’m the person who lived for two years in N’Jowara, The Gambia in a room at the back of an empty shop house without running water, window panes or electricity. Until my MSC Musica cruise, my extended boat travel was five days on the Niger River in Mali, first perched on feed sacks in a ramshackle wooden cargo boat before switching to a small boat that was poled by a man and a boy. By the time I set foot on dry land in Timbuktu, I thought of changing my name to Huck Finn.

Back in February, I wrote a post on cruise ship deals. By the end of the post, I thought “If this is such a deal, why aren’t I going?” Since one of my mom’s lifelong dreams has been to go to Greece, I put the two ideas together and searched out a cruise. The Musica, one of the ships in the MSC cruise lines fleet, seemed perfect. After one day into the cruise, I knew I picked right .

Unfortunately, my mom had had to pull out of the cruise 10 days before the ship was to depart. Fortunately, my teenage daughter was able to switch in for my mom for a $100 charge to change the ticket.

Why MSC Cruise Lines? When picking a cruise ship, know yourself and what kind of vacation you’re after. MSC is geared towards multi-generational travel. If you’re a single person looking for love, this isn’t it. If kids make you shudder, look elsewhere.

I picked this company because kids 17 and under travel for free if traveling with an adult. One kid per adult. This gave me the idea of taking my seven year old son with us. Originally, my teenage daughter hadn’t wanted to go.

Also, MSC was offering half-price deals. We were able to get a ocean view superior room with a balcony for about $1,600 per person for the 7-day cruise. If I had planned to go without my mom, I would have gone for the inside room for $999 a person.

Other pluses were the ship’s activities–most importantly, Kids Club. The ship also has an exercise room, two swimming pools, a hot tub, various food options and activities geared for people of all ages. There is a stage show each night and the shore excursions promised a wide variety of options from adventure to cultural to historical.

Because MSC is an Italian cruise line, the feel is European. This was a way to travel to Greece with an Italian twist. That also had a big role in my decision to go with this company.

With that said, if you get irritated by hearing announcements in five different languages you might get irritated. Our shore excursions were in English and sometimes in another language. When the guide was speaking in the other language, I was able to let what he or she said in English resonate. I liked this.

Food and Drinks: There were two dining options covered by the cost of the cruise. Two restaurants offered sit down meals where you ordered off the menu and one restaurant was strictly buffet. Ah, the buffet. Located on the top floor of the ship with expansive plate glass windows, the buffet called to us for breakfast and lunch. We also took fruit, yogurt, salami, cheese and bread with us from the buffet so would have a snack on our shore excursions.

During breakfast coffee and juice were included.

For dinner, we were assigned to a table at one of the dining rooms. Because there were only three of us, we were assigned to a table with two American women who were living in Vienna for the fall. Meeting up with them each evening was terrific. They seemed to enjoy us as well.

Dinner was a five-course meal of various options, My son ordered off the adult menu after deciding that the kid’s menu was too normal . At 7, he’s an adventurous eater. The food had a European bent and, in my opinion, was splendid. As a seafood fan, I had my fill. I did order one glass of wine with each meal. The $5 price was fair.

At 4 p.m. each day there was a high tea sort of offering with desserts, coffee and tea. This was also included in the set price, as was the midnight buffet. I only went to that once. On the 2nd to last night, there were ice sculptures and fruit and vegetables that had been carved into animals and flowers.

Along with the included food options, there were other specialty restaurants, but since those cost money, forget that.

I ordered one glass of wine from one of the ship’s bars on a night that I went dancing.

Every day there was a specialty mixed drink, specialty coffee with alcohol and an ice-cream treat concoction, but those cost money too. No thanks.

Before we boarded the ship in Venice, I purchased a water package and a soda package. The water package provided us with two large bottles of water each day and the soda package gave my son and daughter a soda with their dinner. We used one bottle of water at dinner and took one bottle of water with us on our shore excursion. Buying the packages made beverages less expensive. There was a wine package, but since there was only me I figured my kids didn’t need a drunk mom to take care of.

We filled other water bottles with water at breakfast and bought other water on shore.

What did we do on the ship?

I took in the free yoga lessons, stretching classes, dance classes and arts and crafts activities that were offered at various times during the day on the ship’s deck. I also worked out three times in the workout room.

Each night we went to the show that was a mix of dance, singing, acrobatic and magic acts.

My son was thrilled with Kids Club. The hours were extensive. If I had wanted to, I could have left him there when my daughter and I went on shore excursions. Taking him on shore excursions, however, was one of my trip highlights, so he came with us. He did go to the shows at night with the Kids Club gang and stayed at Kids Club doing organized activities each night until 11:00.

One bonus of Kids Club was its international flavor. My son was one of the few kids who spoke English and was the only American. This was something he enjoyed, but he is the type who will talk with anybody. Bruno and Andrea, the two adults in change of his age group were absolutely superb and offered a wide range of activities to help kids feel special and a part of the group.

My daughter was not interested in the teen activities, but was not bored. She read, hung out with me or her brother, and spent time by the pool.

Other teens I met loved the teen activities that tended to be teen driven. Games, contests, dancing–that sort of thing, were offered daily.

I did not get a massage, a facial or pay for other classes that were offered. The prices seemed fair, but I splurged on shore excursions for the three of us.

Shore excursions and why the ship Musica? In the summer, the Musica is used for the Greek Islands in the Sun route. Starting in Venice, it makes port calls at Bari, Katakolon, Santorini, Mykonos, Piraeus/Athens, Corfu, Dubrovnik and then back to Venice.

At each stop we went on an organized shore excursion. In general, shore excursions made our travel experience more meaningful. They weren’t cheap but were well worth the money we paid for them. The only excursion I thought we could have done without was the one in Athens.

From Piraeus, the port town that’s connected to Athens, taxi drivers park right outside the terminal so its possible to hire one to take you everywhere that the excursion wemt and more. Our tour was fine, but there are places I would have liked to see.

Also, the Acropolis was so crowded that we kept losing our tour guide. On the other hand, the tour guide pointed out highlights near our ship like a traditional market and a couple of churches. After our tour was over, I walked around for two hours by myself. If I hadn’t been on the tour, I would have missed them.

Here’s an Acropolis tip. Have your kids wear something red so you can pick them out from a crowd.

On the Katakolon excursion, go to Olympia and include the museum. It’s not much more money and makes the tour more meaningful.

On Santorini, we went to the black sand beach and hung out. Renting an umbrella with chairs cost $5 for the day. We took the cable car down from the town to the boat shuttles that took us back to the ship. Don’t walk along the path. Even though walking is free, the donkeys make a mess of the trail. I heard that from several people. Be warned, particularly if you like your shoes.

The Mykonos stop did not involve a tour. We ate dinner and shopped. Man, I loved this place. Look for items made from olive wood. We also started buying soap for everyone we could think of. By the end of our trip, you’d think our friends and family had a hygiene problem. I loved the soap. Soap packs easily.

At Corfu, our tour took us through the old city and then to the bay of Paleokastritza and up to a monastery. We hopped out at the beach where we took the paddle boat ride before rejoining our tour bus. From this bay you can see the small island that is supposed to be Odysseus’ ship that Poseidon turned into a rock. My daughter saw it first and was thrilled.

Dubrovnik is a gorgeous, gorgeous city that has taken care of its historical architecture. After we took the tour that included the maritime museum and the aquarium, we returned to the 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe, the oldest pharmacy in Europe and went to a gallery that pays tribute to the world’s conflicts through photographs in order to promote peace. Before we left, we had time to walk around the top of the old city walls.

Why excursions are worth the money:

The tour guides provided background history and information that we would not have found out otherwise. As we drove in the tour bus, there was a running commentary of what we were passing.

We were guaranteed we would not get lost and miss the ship. Organized tours watch your back. This lowered my stress level to zero.

Tours were a chance for us to meet and interact with other people. This made the cruise more engaging and friendly.

Because we picked tours that most interested us, we were able to gear the trip towards what we wanted to experience without wasting time at each port as we attempted to find our way.

The variety in the tour offerings made each of our days different than the rest. By the time we arrived back in Venice, I felt we had a rich overview of Greece and knew of places where I would like to return–Mykonos is number 1. Our Bari and Dubrovnik stops were splendid as well. We didn’t stay in Bari, but headed out though the rural landscape to the Crystal Caves.

Because we were on a tour, my children and I were on equal footing. I didn’t have to be in charge to get us anywhere, therefore I could just enjoy myself. Whining by any of us was a minimum.

Tips for picking shore excursions:

Let your kids pick the tours. While I was buying the water and soda packages, I let my kids go through the various tours to pick out what they wanted. I did ask them to pick a variety and not the most expensive ones. Their choices were perfect. My suggestion when picking excursions is to plan a mix where it’s not all beach and not all history. Throw some activity into the mix. On Corfu, we rented paddle boats for an hour.

Do not skimp on excursions. Each time we went to shore, I thought, we’re not going on this trip again, and I’m not missing the money I spent.

Instead, I have memories that reminds me every day at how wonderful my kids are. Sappy sounding, maybe. But, I’m telling you; this trip was worth every penny.

Bribe if you have to: I got my son to agree to walking around the top of the wall of the old city in Dubrovnik by promising to buy him something. I bought him a ceramic fish that looked like one of the fish in the aquarium we visited there. For $6, I got a bargain.

Tips in general for enjoying the cruise: Be open to experiences and people. The more easily you talk with people, the more fun you will have. Eventually, I found out that I knew or at least recognized a lot of people because I was going to classes and taking in activities.

Besides shore excursions and the glasses of wine and the beverage packages, the only other thing I bought was the professional picture taken of us on the way to dinner one night. There’s a really hokey sunset backdrop, but the three of us looked better than usual. I bought the picture for my mom. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have been on this trip.

Take time out for Venice: When booking our flights, I arranged them so we would have two nights in Venice at each end of the cruise. I wanted to give us enough time for a missed flight connection if we had bad luck, get over some jet lag and take advantage of Venice. This also allowed for travel on our own to satisfy the need for unplanned adventure at our own pace.

We stayed the first two nights at the Antico Doge, the most elegant place I’ve stayed in my life–it used to be a palace. For the two nights after our cruise we stayed at the Hotel Abbazia, a former abbey which is an excellent location near the train station, the water taxis and the bus station. Both places served a wonderful breakfast.

If you do have time in Venice, go to the Jewish Ghetto. This is the first ghetto in the world and is being revitalized by the Jewish community who live around Venice. Originally, this is where the city’s foundries were located.

Look for the tribute to the people who died in the Holocaust on one of the plaza walls. You’ll notice it because of the barbed wire. There is also a kosher restaurant that is superb. The owners just opened a guest house next door. The restaurant is located on the plaza.

Preserving the literary treasures of Timbuktu

Mali has been getting a bad rap lately with the kidnapping of a French aid worker and travel warnings about the dangers of terrorism, all thanks to Al-Qaeda’s local band of nutcases. But like everywhere else there are more good people than bad in Mali and they’ve been working hard to preserve a unique literary heritage in the famous city of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is often thought of as a remote place, but it stands at an important point for the trade routes between West and North Africa. In the Middle Ages it was the center of a powerful empire and home to one of the first universities in the world. Students from all over the Muslim world came hear to learn about science, mathematics, geography, religion, philosophy, and more. Today the leading families of Timbuktu preserve the legacy of that golden age of learning–more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as far as the 12th century. They cover a wide range of topics. The one pictured here is a treatise on astronomy.

Now these manuscripts will be available to the public thanks to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-of-the-art library built to preserve the crumbling documents and display them to the public. Several exhibitions are planned that will add historical context to one of the world’s more popular adventure destinations. The collection of manuscripts will be a lengthy process. Nobody knows just how many families in Timbuktu and other part of Mali have treasures squirreled away, so the institute should be seeing a lot of growth and changes in the coming years.

An interesting video about the project can be seen here.

Terror warning for northern Mali, Timbuktu

Timbuktu and northern Mali have long been attractive to adventure travelers, but now the United Kingdom is warning Westerners not to go there for fear of terror attacks.

The travel advisory, which you can read here, states that the provinces north of the River Niger, including Timbuktu, are the operating grounds for the terror group Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Magreb. On January 22 of this year they kidnapped a group of Western tourists near the Mali-Niger border and later murdered a British national. The advisory also warns that two popular festivals, The Festival in the Desert and Sahara Nights, are in the danger zone and should be avoided.

This is such a shame, as Timbuktu, shown here, is a World Heritage Site and the Festival in the Desert is one of Africa’s best music gatherings. Mali is a poor nation and people need the hard currency that tourism brings. It seems that once again the actions of a few criminals are ruining it for the decent folk.

Have you been to Mali? Did you feel safe? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section.