Sitting, Waiting, Wishing…

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

…I believed in superstitions. Wait. I’m sorry. That’s a Jack Johnson song. I get carried away sometimes.

Back in Bamako, we tried to plot our course. Want to go to Guinea? Sure, why not. Oh, wait – borders are closed due to civil unrest. Hey, let’s go to Cote d’Ivoire instead! Wait – can’t do that either, because the country is on the brink of civil war due to recent elections. Alright, land borders are out, so we’ll fly somewhere. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong.

After doing a little research, we had our sights set on Gabon. Getting in requires a prearranged visa, which means we’d have to make a pit-stop in Togo, and by pit-stop, I mean fly into Liberville, take a ferry deemed ‘dangerous’ to the mainland, cross our fingers that the embassy officials grant us more than a week, take the same ferry back, and then fly out. All of this without any guarantees or a price tag. It was a risk we were willing to take, though.

Gabon is home to a large population of unhabituated lowland gorillas; gorillas that we desperately wanted to see. Sadly, after all of the planning, our hopes were dashed. It turns out that the research camps were forced to close due to government issues. Bye-bye Gabon and neighboring Equatorial Guinea; maybe next time.

Feeling slightly discouraged, we moved onto the Congo. That idea didn’t last long, though. In order to see the lowland gorillas on that side, we’d have to fly into the capital and attempt to piece something together on our own. It could take days, maybe even weeks, with the possibility of hiring charter planes, boats, and a whole slew of other things. I could literally feel my bank account dwindling, just talking about it.

We contacted a few organizations on the ground with little success. So, what do you do when you can’t do anything in West Africa? You get out! South Africa, here we come!

We purchased tickets on New Year’s Eve for New Year’s Day. With less than 24-hours to go, we made last minute preparations, packed our bags, and said goodbye to twenty-ten while knocking back a few gin & tonics.

Another year, come and gone…

Back To Bamako…

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mali was beginning to feel like a vacuum, sucking the life out of us, ever so slowly. With our patience wearing thin, we started to reconsider our trip to Timbuktu for the 3-day ‘Festival in The Desert’, still ten days away.

We mulled. We hummed. We Hawed. In the end, we decided its Bamako or bust. We signed a chicken-scratch contract with a tour operator for an all-inclusive package, so by doing this, we kissed our deposit goodbye. I attempted to get a refund, but as you can imagine, that didn’t go over very well. Instead, I was told to make arrangements for the balance. Not going to happen. My favorite part was when he said, “This isn’t some contract we signed in the streets”, when in fact, that’s exactly what it was. Oh, the irony.

So, with our bags packed, we boarded another bus for Bamako. This time we were treated to Mali’s Top 40. Ear plugs, anyone?

Dogon (aka Do-Gone-Wrong)…

March 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

We were in Mopti for one reason and one reason only: Dogon. Our interest in the region began while in Dhakla, on the edge of Western Sahara, headed for Mauritania. We crossed paths with a fellow traveler planning to spend several weeks trekking throughout the region. He spoke of villages tucked deep within a network of canyons, unscathed by western civilization, where the people held tight to their religion and traditions. Naturally, we were intrigued.

The Dogon people are best known for their mythology, mask dances, and unique architecture, all of which fascinated us. We met with at least seven guides while in Mali, and approached by a dozen others. It seems that everyone, and I do mean everyone, doubles as a guide. It was a lot to taken in. Most do a three-day circuit, but as usual, we wanted to craft our own plan; something guides and tour operators just don’t seem to understand.

We spent several days staring at the same maps, repeating the same conversations, until we were blue in the face. Dogon was starting to lose its luster, when along came Gabriel: a young guide from the village of Nombori. He was personable, flexible, and came at a reasonable rate. We discussed doing an 8-day trek, covering roughly 160km. He seemed genuinely excited, so we settled on 4-days up front, with the option for more, and off we went.

Gabriel was in for a surprise. As it turns out, most people walk a few kilometers, take a three or four hour lunch break, walk a few more, and then call it a day around 3pm. Not us. We weren’t paying to twiddle our thumbs. We do enough of that as it is. We wanted to experience all that the region had to offer, even if it meant walking from sunrise to sunset in order to do it.

Sadly, by day two, we realized that our adventure wasn’t so adventurous anymore. The ‘Dogon’ we read about is a thing of the past. Time has a way of changing everything, regardless of location. Sure, you can still see masked dances, but their put on solely for tourists, and in my opinion the beauty is lost when it’s strictly for financial gain. Some still practice their animist faith, but for the most part, missionaries have made their mark on much of the territory and any ancient traditions go on behind closed doors.

It wasn’t a total wash, though. We spent starry nights sleeping on rooftops, helped local children gather firewood, and listened to Gabriel share his thoughts on children: the more the merrier, because they’re cheap. This, coming from someone who just said he practically raised himself from age ten – I bit my tongue.

We landed in his village on Christmas day. Rich had the pleasure of attending a small church service and later that evening, I watched as the entire congregation gathered for a celebration of music and dancing. It was by far the most interesting and meaningful experience we had while in Dogon… if not Mali, for that matter.

We weren’t exactly giddy at the prospect of spending four more days, as previously discussed. I played the Grinch and broke the news to Gabriel. The three of us sat there, side by side in silence, as he sulked. I went with the “we’re not feeling well” approach, because saying, “This is a tourist trap” or “We wanted history and interaction, but instead you would rather listen to my ipod and F-off with your buddies, while we melt… and pay you to do it”, just sounds rude. Besides, it wasn’t a complete fabrication. We had been feeling slightly under the weather for days, presumably due to our diet.

In the end, he chalked it up to be exhaustion. We laughed it off and tried to explain that if we were moving at our own pace, we would have been able to complete the entire stretch in five days with minimal effort. He said we were crazy, which is true, but not for that statement. We agreed to disagree. 

With time to kill, we opted for another pinasse trip on the Niger. The video below says it all.

Trip on the Niger River:

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Good morning, Dogon style:

Millet grinding:

Mopti On The Mind…

March 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Think getting to D’Jenne is a challenge? Try leaving. The only form of public transportation in the area is by bush taxi. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s usually an old minivan or station wagon that’s been converted to carry as many people or animals as possible, and runs on a flexible schedule. They only depart when full, so your wait could range from minutes to days, depending on your luck.

We were told to arrive shortly after sunrise to secure our spots, which we did. Within minutes we learned that our seats were assigned to the second taxi, as the first one was already full. Since the first filled up quickly, I assumed that ours would too, but that was not the case; I secretly blamed the juju.

We spent six long hours sitting next to a donkey cart, waiting for fellow passengers to trickle in. We were joined by three Peace Corp volunteers headed to Sevare, just outside of Mopti; two were stationed in Mali and one in Cameroon. It helped to pass the time, and all were extremely personable and easygoing; reminiscent of friends from home. It’s a shame we hadn’t crossed paths earlier.

We squeezed in, crossed the ferry, and made it 30 kilometers to the main road before getting a flat. We waited at the intersection and eventually boarded a passing bus headed to the same location. We’re still unsure if this was arranged by our driver or if they just had pity on us; either way we were relieved.

The bus ride wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to previous rides, it was a walk in the park. Conversations void of pantomiming and an occasional breeze works wonders.

We Made It (Villages, Juju & Sunburns)…

February 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

When I made the transportation arrangements, I was under the impression I’d board the taxi in Segou and exit in D’Jenne. Instead, we were dropped off on the opposite side of the river and told to board a ferry. Once we made it across, we would need to hitchhike or hire a taxi to take us the last 4km. Awesome. That’s just what I wanted to hear after selling my left kidney for the ride.

The ferry operator charges a small fee for cars, but it’s free to passengers, or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Within minutes we were asked for money. I suppose you could say the theme of the day was, ‘Leslie and Rich get screwed’, because when we challenged the request, we were told to get off. I wanted to grab our things and go, just to prove a point, but seeing as how we’d have to hire a pirogue instead, I buckled. I was short on change, so he settled for less, which made me feel a little better about the situation; only a little, though.

While on the ferry, we struck up a conversation with an American student by the name of Gaby. She’s from the Midwest, but spending several months in Mali, studying the archeological site of Jenne-Jeno. She was nice enough to give us a lift and offer some insight on the area – thank you, thank you, wherever you are.

D’Jenne is an interesting place. It’s well known for its unique architecture and grand mosque, which happens to be the world’s largest mud-built structure. The town is considered one of the oldest in Africa and was part of the Trans-Saharan trade route, due to its close proximity to Timbuktu. Much of the salt, gold, and slaves that were transported between the 15th-17th centuries, passed through. It’s also home to numerous Quranic schools; there are said to be more in D’Jenne than anywhere else in Mali.

We were lucky enough to spend a few days roaming the town and nearby Bozo and Fulani villages. With the help of our guide and two motorbikes, we had a fantastic time. We learned a lot about the history, people, and customs. While visiting one of the villages, we both received custom ‘juju’ from a maker. If you’re not familiar with the African term, it refers to supernatural powers ascribed to an object, and the practices associated with it. I prefer to call it a good luck charm, but that’s just me. Supposedly inside of our tiny leather charms, there is a verse from the Quran, and that the maker selected each verse by what he saw when looking into our eyes. Now, I don’t recall any magical moment where the depths of my soul were exposed, but then again, who am I?

When I wasn’t strapped to the back of a bike getting burnt to a crisp, I spent my time playing soccer with little boys and teaching clapping games to little girls. I can assure you there are worse ways to spend your days.

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I Just Want To Go To D’Jenne…

February 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

By day three we were ready to forge on. We had a scrumdiddilyumptious breakfast at a little restaurant we found the previous night. The food was the best we’d had in a long time, and the service impeccable. To top it off, they served bissap, a popular African drink made from hibiscus flowers, frozen. It’s oh so awesome, and oh so good.

With our bellies full, we purchased our tickets for D’Jenne and waited at the bus station. Hours passed, but the bus was nowhere to be found. We had starring contests, took turns with my Kindle, paced back and forth, and watched the clock go tick-tock, ever so slowly.

It was mid-afternoon by the time our number rolled on the lot. Unfortunately, the bus had come from Bamako and was already full. The seats, aisle, cargo area, and roof, all filled to the brim. When I inquired about our seats, a man boarded the bus, moved some things around and found two tiny crevasses to squeeze us into.

I couldn’t do it; no way, no how. I looked at the back of the bus and felt my anxiety level rise, as I tried to catch my breath. The bus rides are bad enough on their own, but the thought of enduring it without adequate seating, separated – me surrounded by several large men, drowning in a pool of their sweat, after spending hours waiting in the blistering sun, was just too much to handle. Rich agreed.

If you know me well, then you know that I have a high tolerance for just about everything, but this is a recently discovered weakness of mine. I would far rather empty out my bank account by hiring a taxi than get back on that bus.

I left Rich with our belongings while I scoured the streets, looking for a place to stay and a reasonable rate to D’Jenne. Most people I talked to wanted somewhere between 70,000-85,000 CFA for the journey, which is ludicrous. After several failed negotiations, I ran into Abraham, the nice young man who offered me a fair rate on his motorbike. I explained my dilemma and he took me to meet his brother, Van, who has a car and driver. He agreed to give me a significantly lower rate, but it was still more than I wanted to pay.

After humming and hawing, we made the deal and decided on 8am the next morning. I would later learn that while the rate I received was probably the lowest I’d find, it was still far too much. It’s just the way of the world, or at least Mali.

Later that night, Abraham and Van stopped by the hotel to pitch their services for Dogon. I listened to their presentation, but still wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. Little did we know, this was just the beginning; guides would soon be hounding us left and right, and with so many options, it’s hard to choose.

Our Time In Segou…

January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ready to switch things up, we boarded a bus for Segou, four hours north. Of course it didn’t take four hours, though; that would just be silly. With waiting and multiple stops it took somewhere in the neighborhood of six to seven hours, give or take. It was more of the same hot, sweaty, sticky mess. At least this time we had plenty of water, a few snacks to hold us over, and seats next to the ceiling vent.

We ended up spending three nights in that sleepy town where the Niger and Bani River meet. It was there that we realized just how deeply Mali’s hands would seep into our pockets. Inquire about a motorbike rental and most will quote you 30,000 CFA for the day, which is almost $60; madness I tell you. Want to hire a boat and visit the fishing village across the way? That will be 22,000 CFA. Nevermind the fact that it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away, using almost no petrol! How about that pottery village everyone keeps talking about? Oh, that will be 27,500 CFA, plus an additional 3,000 CFA per person for their chief – Ca-ca-ca-crazy.

We both realize that as foreigners we’re expected to pay more, which is fine, but it needs to be within reason. After trial and error, we came to the conclusion that most figures should be divided by five; in some cases four, but typically it’s five. I’m not sure why this is, but it works. Want to buy a pair of shoes? Divide by five. Need a taxi ride? Yep, divide that by five. Have your eye on a painting or crafty little item? Better divide that by five, too. Now, I should probably mention that it doesn’t mean you’ll actually get it for that price, because in some cases you won’t. I’m just saying that it’s probably the fair price and a good place to start your bargaining.

After splitting up and shopping around, we managed to find a guide, secure a private pinasse, and head up the Niger River to a nearby Bambara pottery village (Kalabougou) and fishing village (Kala Daka), all for a reasonable price. Even though we decided against hiring a motorbike, I met someone who was willing to lend his out for 6,500 CFA, instead of 30,000.. Asking around, as well as persistence, pays off in the long-run.

The villages were interesting, although I wouldn’t say the pottery or fishing is what makes them so. Meeting the friendly people, playing with the children, sharing a cup of tea, and seeing how they live, is the real draw. We had a lovely day, and looking back, it was definitely one of the most memorable experiences I had while in Mali.

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Here I Come To Save The Day…

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Feeling a little under the weather lately? Trouble brewing at home? How about those post-holiday blues? Have no fear, because a witchdoctor is near. Whatever it is you need, a quick fix is just a monkey head, rabbit foot, or lion’s tail away. Just swing by the fetish stalls near Bamako’s seedy central market for all your potion making, voodoo, juju needs. I wish I was kidding, but sadly, I’m not.

West Africa is considered the birth place of voodoo and a host of other black-magic type practices. Walk through these markets and you’ll see a wide array of rotting animal heads, organs, skins, hair, and so on; it isn’t for the faint at heart, and no, it’s not for tourists either – the locals take this very seriously. Pictures are a no-no, but I managed to sneak one anyway. As usual, shame on me.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the dusty stalls, winding in and out of alleyways, just trying to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. I can’t be certain, but it definitely felt like our presence wasn’t welcome by most. It felt as if everyone’s eyes were on us, watching our every move, and if we reached for our cameras, we received the shaking of heads and fingers from all directions. We later learned that Malians are very concerned with privacy and most assume you’re a journalist if totting large cameras around, like we do.

After a long day, we both felt deserving of a night out. Bamako has a thriving music scene with Le Diplomate leading the way. Grammy Award winning Kora player, Toumani Diabate, along with his symmetric orchestra, play there regularly. The place filled up quickly with locals and travelers alike. We laughed. We danced. We drank too much. We hopped into a taxi sometime between 12-1am, and by this time, the police had setup roadblocks at all major intersections throughout the city.

These ‘routine’ stops are used to extract bribes from foreigners, as well as wealthy Malians. Our charge was not carrying our passports (we didn’t want to risk losing them while out on the town). We went back and forth with the officer for a good twenty minutes. We explained to the officer that we knew our rights and that we hadn’t committed a crime – strike one. Rich offered to get out and wait while the driver took me to fetch our passports – strike two. We eventually threatened to call our embassy – strike three. He responded by telling us to get out of the taxi and into his van, headed for jail; we said no.

Instead of letting Rich do all the talking, I piped up, flying off the handle. I was intoxicated and therefore, held nothing back. The officer didn’t know what to do with a young, over-the-top, loud mouthed, little redheaded American girl, such as myself. Much to my surprise, putting on a scene worked, and he let us go with a firm warning. Rich later admitted that if I had been someone else, he probably would have told me to shut-up; I laughed and said, ‘you’re welcome’. He hates it when I do that. Next time I might just save myself and let him learn the hard way. You got that little Richie? Yeah, I thought so. Get it. Got it. Good.

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A Site To See…

January 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

We spent our first few days in Mali moving from guesthouse to guesthouse, before we landed at The Sleeping Camel (third times a charm). Bamako moves at a much faster pace than Nouakchott, so it took some adjusting. My first impression of the city could be summed up using three words: noise, congestion, and pollution. If the list continued, ‘expensive’ would probably come next, for this is not a bargain destination by any means.

On our second day in town we were introduced to a guide by the name of Abraham. We immediately took a liking to him, because of his sweet demeanor. He currently resides in Bamako, but arranges treks through the Dogon region, as that used to be his home. We discussed the possibilities of arranging a trip together, but decided we needed more time. Dogon was one of the main reasons for coming to Mali, so we wanted to get it right; that and we couldn’t bear the thought of ending up with another Ahmed.

Abraham offered to put together a pinasse trip up the Niger River to see a fishing village and sand-gathering worksite. It sounded like a pleasant way to spend an evening, as well as a great way to test his guide abilities, so we gladly accepted. We watched as Malian’s of all ages, shapes, and sizes collected along the riverbank to shower, wash clothes, fish, and swim.

When we arrived at the site, 30km downstream, we were taken back by the scene laid out before us. Hundreds, if not thousands, were hard at work, collecting and transporting sand into boats and large trucks. The sand is used to make bricks for local construction, and is in high demand, which explained the flurry of activity. Men, women, and children were everywhere, performing back-breaking work in the unforgiving sun. Some were knee deep in sand, others in water. Mothers had infants strapped to their backs while balancing buckets on their heads; buckets weighing far more than I do.

 I stood there, feet sinking into the burnt-red sand, amazed. As much as I’d like to think I know what it’s like to work hard, I don’t – not like these people do, anyway. My version of hard work involves staring at a computer from a comfortable chair, using an ergonomical keyboard, sipping hot coffee, at a desk filled with supplies of my preference, inside of an air-conditioned building. Witnessing that type of manual labor, superior work-ethic, and dedication to providing for your loved ones is sobering.

The truth is, I’ll never know what it’s like to work half as hard as they do, and I sincerely hope the images and feelings I experienced that night, stick with me forever. I have a lot to be thankful for and chances are you do too. The next time I complain about a slow commute, long day, or the jerk who stole my parking spot, smack me. Trust me; you’ll be doing me a much-needed favor.

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Hell On Earth…

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered what hell would be like? Well, Sonef Transport is the best in the biz. For under $50 you’ll get the all-inclusive package, giving you a firsthand look at every level of the fiery inferno. This isn’t just a sneak-peek either. They want you to get your money’s worth, so come prepared to hand over 40 precious hours; yes, that’s four-zero, as in FORTY. This is the real deal, folks.

In the weeks leading up to this joyride, we received an earful regarding safety concerns. For the most part, everyone we talked to was adamantly against it, but every once in a while we received a thumbs-up. After looking into flights and private transportation, we decided to take our chances with the bus. It turns out that the local airlines have a crash-and-burn record, and driving in a private vehicle would make us a moving target, both literally and figuratively.

Our day started long before sunrise. We arrived at the bus station around 4:30am for our 5:30am departure. Like usual, we played hurry up and wait; our favorite game. Upon arrival, it was obvious we could have pushed snooze a few times. We were first on the lot, so we dropped our bags and made ourselves comfortable, while we waited for the remaining passengers to shuffle in, and the sun to shine upon us.

With the bus filled to the brim, we rolled off the lot shortly after 7am. We took two seats in the back near a small vent on the rooftop. We had hoped to catch the drift seeping in, but that was short lived, as the hatch was no match for the wind; it came slamming shut within a few hours. With no ventilation and opening windows, we were trapped in an oven as the temperatures soared.

We sat there in silence, drifting in and out of consciousness, as the sweat poured out of our bodies, hour after hour. The air was thick, muggy, and stagnant, with a stench to match. After 18 very long hours we were woken up and forced off the bus around 1am. Apparently we had reached the border, but it was closed. Instead of letting us sleep on the bus like civilized people, we were told to sleep in the dirt, and that’s exactly what we did.

Our main packs were locked underneath the bus along with Rich’s sleeping bag and liner. Is all we had in our possession was our small bags containing valuables and the clothes on our backs. By this time it was freezing out. We huddled together trying to keep warm, but it was no use. An older gentleman noticed me shivering and draped a towel around me; I was beyond appreciative.

A few of the men gathered around a small fire close by. It didn’t provide warmth, but the light was useful. The hours painfully passed as we lay in the dirt beneath the towel. I might have gotten 15 minutes of sleep at best. We were told the border would open around 6am, but it was at least 9am before we could cross.

We had a slew of interesting encounters while waiting. The most notable with a man (pictured below) wearing a red scarf and blood stained draw. His face was covered in black charcoal dust, which only added to his creepiness. He appeared from beyond the border with a pack of dogs, carrying a bowl of puppies. They were tiny, squiggly little things, no more than 3 or 4 weeks old. He dumped them on the side of the road and I can only imagine what he intended to do with them later. Puppy stew perhaps? I tried not to think about it.

We got stamped out of Mauritania, made the 2km stretch to the Malian border, and then waited to board the bus again. It was almost noon by the time we departed for Bamako, and day two provided more of the same suffocating, coma-inducing, miserable heat.

As we approached another evening, one of the tires on our bus practically disintegrated; the cherry on top of our Sunday. While they swapped it out, most passengers used this time to pray. We found a spot in the bushes, pulled out my laptop, and watched an episode of Dexter.

Sitting there, getting sucked into the plot, a man approached us with a ‘gift’.  He extended his hand to reveal a baby bird. We’re not sure where the bird came from or why he wanted us to have it, but we obviously couldn’t keep it. As soon as he walked away, we let the little bugger hop off into the great unknown. I’d like to think he found his way back to his nest, but I seriously doubt it. It was sad and strange all at the same time.

We finally landed in Bamako around 10pm. We quickly found a place to stay, drank an ice-cold beer, and crashed. What a day… make that two.

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