Surrendering to the Sahara in Mauritania

The Toronto Star | Saturday, May 21st, 2011

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CHINGUETTI, MAURITANIA—The creaky acacia wood door is left open allowing fresh air and desert light into the dank, shadowy library. Dusty stacks of books crowd the shelves of the mud-plastered room. As the man unfurls the leather cover and holds up an Islamic-illuminated manuscript, the significance is not lost on me. Centuries ago a calligrapher had drawn those masterful strokes, the simple and beautiful embellishments on this now yellowed crumbling piece of parchment. I hold my breath as if an exhalation would turn it to dust or wake me from my Indiana Jones-esque fantasy come true. Read on…

Conquering a personal Everest

The Toronto Star | Saturday, March 5th, 2011

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KHUMBU, NEPAL—It could all be for nothing, I think darkly. You could reach the summit of Kala Patthar, it could still be cloudy and you won’t be able to see a thing.

I’ve been promised that the view of the Himalayas atop Kala Patthar, an oxygen starved 5,545-metre high, is worth the effort of waking at 4:30 a.m. and pushing myself, with every ounce of strength, to take one step after another up the side of the mountain. It is what I have had to do for the last nine days to get here, and at the final test my will to keep going is failing.

An hour ago I had been burrowed deep in my sleeping bag in a tea house in Gorak Shep, a trekker’s last outpost before Nepal’s Everest Base Camp. Now, hiking in this bleak greyness, all I can think of is how desperately I want to go back to sleep and finish my dream. I had been dreaming about chicken schnitzel and beer.

Seriously.

Read on…

The door of no return in West Africa

The Toronto Star | Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

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GORÉE ISLAND, SENEGAL—There is a door on the shores of this island that looks out to the Atlantic. There isn’t much to see from it, just blue waters glittering in the hot West African sun, the pleasant lapping of waves upon rock, a naked horizon that, for a dreamer, would inspire a sense of possibility. Yet for thousands of captive slaves that passed through this “Door of No Return,” the view meant being ripped from their homeland, a horrifying voyage across an ocean, and a cruel fate.

Gorée Island (Île de Gorée) is 3 km from mainland Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Today, the inhabited island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a respite from Dakar’s urban hustle and on-your-toes intensity. As I arrive by ferry I see lofty palms and fuchsia bougainvilleas clinging to brightly-painted colonial buildings adorned with old world shutters and terracotta roofs. Children splash around at the beach. For centuries, Gorée served as a trading post and small port to ship goods—including human cargo—on the Atlantic trade route. Read on…