Suitcase and World: Mopti.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Boats in the harbor of Mopti.

After the guys were done with their breakfast, we hit the road to Mopti which is not only Mali's largest port city but also the launching point to Dogon country which I will spending the next few days trekking through.

As we pulled into town, Tall went over the *agenda*. First to the market place to see the Ladies Market, then to town's mosque, then down to the river to see the port, then the shipyard and then lunch.

On first sight, Mopti was like Djenné but way more congested with traffic and way more crowded with people. Welcome to the city!

Peter expertly navigated the streets. Every day is market day so the area of Mopti that we were headed to was a mob scene. People from all over the area in town to either sell their wares or to buy. Mopti sits where the Niger and Bani Rivers converge so not only are the streets crowded with cars, motorcycles and donkey drawn carts but the port is also packed with boats. From a Malian (i.e., Tall’s) point of view, Mopti is a happening place.

Peter deposited us at the market. What Tall calls the Ladies Market is the part of the market that sells vegetables, grains, spices, herbs, and fresh and smoked fish because it’s the Malian women who sell these goods. The men are the butchers.

Looking at the crowded market – it was *bumper to bumper* traffic, I knew there would be little if any chance I could loiter and take my time checking out things so I took some quick snapshots and then asked Tall to take one of me. We then submerged ourselves into the madness. I clung onto Tall’s shirt so that I would not lose him in the chaos while I was turning my head this way and that to see what was being sold. We had to push and shove our way through the market. At times, Tall actually had to gently push someone else aside so I could continue to walk. It was sheer madness.

Based on what I saw in the market today, I have come to the conclusion that the main vegetable in the Malian diet is the tomato. I saw some okra, eggplant, green beans, carrots and potatoes. Everything I saw was very small in size and sometimes even slightly shriveled as was the case with the eggplant and cabbage. Carrots were teeny - probably no more than 3 inches in length and barely fatter than my index finger. Malians love spicy food and what looks to me like an habanero pepper were plentiful in the market as were green herbs, the only one of which I recognized was mint. Garlic and onions were for sale everywhere though a full head of garlic here would be equivalent to maybe two or three sections of the garlic I get back home. Same for the onions which seem to be more like shallots here than the big , fat yellow onions we have in US supermarkets.

They sell a root vegetable here which is maybe a cassava (??) as well as squash – calabash being the common one.

Lots of different spices, wrapped up tiny pieces of plastic cinched together with thread, were for sale in the *spice* section along with dried up leaves of all sorts which Tall said were traditional Malian medicines. Luckily, I’m not suffering from any ailments at the moment or Tall would offer to have someone boil me up a cup of the medicine tea. If it tastes anything like Chinese herbal medicine, then yuck!

Fruitwise, there was not a whole lot of choice – it’s watermelon season now so piles of those everywhere along with the yellow melon that Tall bought yesterday. Bananas are plentiful here but they’re green.....not sure if they’re ripe or not. Tall bought me a small bunch as he was still worried I was not eating enough.

Right next to the veggie sellers’ stalls were the women selling fish. I have to admit that the sight of this section of the market made me a bit queasy. Small river fish, some looking like catfish, no more than 3-4 inches in side, strewn all over the place – sometimes on a flat surface, other times piled up in a basket on the floor. Fish guts everywhere. Flies everywhere. If the fish is not sold fresh, it’s sold dried or smoked. As best I can tell, the smoked fish is pretty much just the head with a body that has been stripped of the meat. I think the main purpose of the smoked fish is for soups and flavoring sauces. In contrast to the smoked fish, the dried fish looked palatable.

We got to the end of the Ladies Market and had to double back. Tall offered me the chance to walk through the market again or to walk on the street. I chose the street. That market scared me :-(

As we walked, Tall called one of his nephews who lives in Mopti. He sooned joined us on our walk to our next destination – the town’s Grand Mosque. Again, you have to put what you are seeing into perspective. This is Mali and the word *grand* is relative to the place. Compared to the mosque in Djenne, Mopti’s mosque is very much smaller in size and it also has a cement exterior which somehow makes it look newer which it is but only by a few years. I have to say, it does lack the *rustic* Malian charm of the mosque in Djenne.

I followed behind the two guys as we wound our way down the backstreets, heading towards the port. The streets here are wider than the ones in Djenne but no less littered. There is definitely no concept of trash gathering and removal here, at least that I can see. More careful walking on my part.

We arrived at the port area.  The river is looking mighty muddy thanks to rainy season.  Muddy river, muddy all blurred into one.

Extreme madness here. Boats, people, animals, car, litter. Instant sensory overload. Alongside the port is another market. More madness. This is place is insane.   Lots of things for sale.

 Straw mats.  Lots of straw mats.

Dried and smoked fish.  Lots of dried and smoke fish.  And there were some other dried things....had no idea what they were.  All very interesting to look at.

I could barely keep up with Tall as he made his way through the crowd. I have yet to perfect the art of pushing my way forward. I’m so afraid I’ll be insulting someone if I deliberately push into anyone and so I hang back. Luckily, Tall was wearing a khaki colored hat so I can easily spot him in the crowd otherwise, he will just blend into the rest of the African crowd.

Slabs of salt piled up for sale.

Out of the market, we got to the section of the port where the salt sellers work their trade. Slabs of salt, in all sizes, mined in the Sahara and brought by boat from Timbuktu lined table after table. I had to buy a piece and settled on as small a slab as I could find – a piece about the size of a chalkboard eraser. Price? 300 cfa which is about 60 cents. My gift to the foodie in me though I doubt I will ever use it.....more likely to display it somewhere in my house. :-) 

With my slab of salt safely stashed inside my backpack, we headed to the shipyard where the wooden flat bottom boats that ply the waters of the Niger and Bani are built. I soon found myself two walking companions, two young boys. Like many of the children who I had encountered since I left Bamako, these two kept reaching out and gently touching me on the arm. The first few times it happened to me, I wondered if the kids were doing that out of touch *white* skin. I hate to tell them that it feels just like their skin and probably rougher since they were touching the arm of a 50 year old person. In other cases, I’m pretty certain I’m being touched because they want to catch my attention and I was certain that was true of these two boys. I turned around to see two pairs of sad eyes. They looked hungry and I felt sad for them. I knew I had two bread rolls in my backpack. I asked Tall to give them the bread. He asked if I was sure I wanted to do that and there was no doubt in my mind that they needed the bread more than I did.

We continued our way to the shipyard for a quick look. Men and boys were hard at work doing everything from making nails.....yes, they have to make their own nails here to planing boards to form the boats.

Lunch was the next item on the agenda and not a moment too soon as I had started to hallucinate about having an icy cold bottle of Coke. I rarely drink Coke when I’m at home but the heat in Mali just begs for it – nothing better here to quench your thirst with.

We wound our way to a riverside restaurant. Surprisingly, there was a gentle breeze blowing through the outdoor eating area – it was actually very pleasant. The restaurant didn’t have the Coke I was so craving for but a tall bottle of cold Sprite was a perfect substitute. I gulped down my drink as I watched the activity in the port. Crazy, insane place and I was grateful I was no longer in the heart of it. I was safely ensconced in a nice restaurant where I could still see the hubbub of the port but not have my senses completely overwhelmed by it all. A brief moment to yet again decompress.

Lunch was another meal of stewed stuff (veggies and meat???) served with an enormous helping of rice. I was in no mood for meat so I just ate spoonfuls of sauced rice downed with Sprite. I was in such need of the cold fizzy liquid, I actually had two bottles of Sprite!

I have found that I, the souvenir magnet, deserve no relief from the sellers. Unfortunately, there are times when I just can’t say no as was the case today with the mute boy who works at the restaurant. He also sells postcards. And he has a smile and gentleness about him that could melt even the meanest person’s heart.

Not only could I not say "No" to the mute boy but I didn’t have the heart to even bargain with him. I bought 14 postcards and okay, I paid more than I wanted to for them but what the heck. He needs the money and I can afford to part with it. But buying the postcards from this boy wasn’t enough for him. This kid followed me back to the car.....not to sell me anything but just to shake my hand and to flash his beautiful smile and wave at me as we drove off. So sweet.

After the boy sold me his postcards, word must have gotten out that there’s a souvenir magnet in town. Next came the CD man. Now, here was something I was interested in. Rifling through his collection, I found the Toumani Diabate and Ali Farkha Toure CD I had wanted to get online when I was back home. I decided to buy it off of him.

Then came the necklace seller. No sale for him. I don’t buy jewellry when I’m travelling. After the jewellery guy came the bag guy and after him, the CD guy but this time with small boxes and statues. I did not part with money for either. Lastly and bless his heart, a guy selling a CD for some local band or other. I had to turn him down several times before he left. Had I hung around the restaurant longer, I’m sure I could have gotten my entire wardrobe replaced and house furnished without having to get up from my chair!

After lunch, Tall and I piled back into the car. Our last task before leaving Mopti was to buy kola nuts – these would be our gifts for the village chiefs. I handed Tall 5000 cfa so he could get a kilo’s worth. Malians most certainly love chewing on kola nuts so I hope that’s enough nuts to cover all the villages will be visiting over the next few days :-)

Goodbye Mopti, hello Bandiagara (“Ban-yan-gara”) with a stop in the village of Songho along the way. When Tall told me we would be stopping at Songho, I was excited because I recognized it as the name of the place that has the circumcision paintings that I hoped I would get to see on my trip here and now I will.

Sitting in the backseat of the car, with warm afternoon breeze blowing through the windows, made me sleepy. I closed my eyes and the next thing I know, Tall is tapping me on the knee. We’re in the Bandiagara region. Before I fell asleep, we had been driving through rice paddies and dry arid, flat landscape. Now, I was seeing stone outcroppings every which way I looked.

We pulled over so Tall could take a nature break. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and take a few photos.

Back into the car, we just had a few more kilometers to go before we would be in Songho.