Suitcase and World: On the way!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

On the way!

It was cloudy when I woke up in Bamako this morning. I hope it stays like this for the drive so it will be more comfortable temperature wise. Just a few minutes after I finished paying my hotel bill, Tall walked into the hotel and a few minutes later, I found myself in the back seat of a Toyota LandCruiser. Tall introduced the driver to me. "Just call him Peter", said Tall and so I greeted Peter.

We headed out into the streets of Bamako. I had only seen the city as we had been driven from our hotel to the office - all of about a 5 minute drive. Yesterday, I got to see more as the head of the office we were visiting took us out to lunch. My impression of Bamako as I saw it both yesterday and today is that Bamako is a poor city, a very poor city. It is what you would imagine a poor African city to be. Ramshackled buildings line bad roads which are crowded with cars and motorcycles and people walking everywhere. The streets are littered with trash everywhere.

The citizens of Bamako live under every sort of condition that you could conceive of people living under - from nice houses and apartments to the streets. Bamako is a congested city....people everywhere and some places, it's so crowded, it's hard to drive down the street. The poverty here is in your face and every moment that I am confronted with this degree of human depravity, I feel very sad and sorry for the people living here but ever so grateful for the comforts that I have. I am yet again reminded of how lucky I am.

It took a while to hit the outskirts of Bamako but we finally got to see some greenery. With the rains, the landscape has taken on a spring green color though the roads are tinged red from the mud that flows over them during the heavy rains. Puddles and pools of stagnant water are everywhere. At first, I thought I was seeing lakes but when I saw the trunks of the baobab trees submerged in the water, I realized the *ponds* were enormous pools of accumulated rainfall. All this stagnant water turn quickly into giant breeding grounds for mosquitoes. It's no wonder that malaria is the major disease in this country.....which reminds me, it's time I take my 3rd Larium pill and to remind Tall that I need to stop in a pharmacy and get bug repellent. Can you believe it? Me....the obsessive planner.....remembered to pack in everything but the bug repellent.

As the landscaped whizzed by outside my window, I could see how flat it is. I don't know about the rest of Mali but this part is definitely flat punctuated every now and again by a pond, a crop of corn, a baobab tree or a village.

If I thought Bamako was poor, then the villages are even poorer. Villages here are small conglomerations of mud brick boxes mixed with thatched covered shelters. Cows, goats and sheep are the domesticated animals. Peter has a practice of honking the horn as we come up to a herd of any type of four legged animal to scare them off the road so we can drive on. There's a lot of horn honking which I have quickly gotten used to.

Donkey pulled carts are the main way of transporting goods and people. Today is Saturday which is market day in some of the towns so lots of carts and people as we pass through some of the villages.

I don't think electricity and/or running water has made it to many of the smaller villages in this part of the country nor have schools or medical facilities. I see a lot of young, school aged children working - carrying wood, herding animals. I also see lot of people just sitting around which puzzles me as you think that they would be working the fields or tending the animals or maybe just fixing up their mudbrick homes. What I do see in every village is a mosque - easily identified by the star and half moon ornament that tops the minaret.

As we travelled along, we would stop every now and again to either stretch our legs or for Tall to buy me something that caught my eye. Our first stop was at a roadside stand where a lady was selling some fruits that I had never seen before.

Tall said they were *butter* fruits or something that sounded like that word. To me, they look like giant gooseberries. I had never seen them before so Tall showed me how to eat them. Basically, bite into the rubbery skin and inside is a very silky sweet fruit with a large brown seed in the center. Not bad so Tall bought a small bag of them. He also bought a bag of Malian guavas. Smell like the guavas I get back home but a little drier and harder in texture but not bad tasting so we have a small bag of those as well.
Back into the car.

When we passed another village and I asked what the yellow thing the villagers were selling was, Tall had Peter pull over and he bought several of them. I thought they were squash but I would find out later on that they are melons.

Next stop was to get a cup of warm, sweet tea at a stand that is owned by the brother of a friend of Tall's. As I was snapping a photo of the tea vendor, a tall African man sidled up to me to look at the image I had captured. He was fascinated and so I motioned if I could take a picture of him. He obliged and stood absolutely still for me. It was a priceless moment and I now have a picture of a very handsome African man to remember him by!

We made it to the town of San by around 1pm - in time to have lunch. A typical African meal in a typical African restaurant. Peter parked the LandCruiser and Tall went inside to order our meal which was guinea fowl (yes, it tastes like chicken) cooked in a tomato based gravy served with peanut sauce and rice.

On the floor, next to the table, was a kettle of water for us to wash our hands in. Food here is simple *peasant* fare. You don't eat the food as if to enjoy it, you eat to live. Dessert was a few slices of the yellow skinned melon that Tall had bought in the morning. Very basic meal but enough to fill the tummy.

After lunch, we piled back into the car and continued our journey to Djenné. The sun was out and it was warm. I took a snooze in the back seat. I woke up when I felt a tap on my knee. It was Tall beckoning me to get out of the car. We were arriving into a village with a bustling weekend market. Tall had Peter pull over. He wanted to show me the market and he wanted me to walk through it. I was more than happy to oblige.

As with so many other markets that I have seen in many other countries, this one had everything for sale - from food to shoes to even gasoline. People shouting at each other as the negotiated a sale, the smell of cooked meat wafting through the air, children scampering about....the usual lively market atmosphere. At some point, Tall overhead someone making a comment that there was a "white skinned person" walking around. That would be me....I definitely stick out like a sort thumb. Come to think of it, I have not seen a single non-African person since I left Bamako. Luckily, no one here feels threatened by someone who looks like me. In fact, everyone has been very kind - smiling at me whenever I wave or in any other way, acknowledge their presence.

As we walked the street, Tall pointed out some of the items being sold, from traditional medicines some of which looked a lot like dried animal parts and others just dried leaves, to dried and smoke sardines which Tall says makes for very good soup. There's some strange stuff for sale in this market and that's an observation coming from someone who has seen plenty of strange things in her life :-)

Back in the car. By now, it would be a short drive to the ferry that would take us across the Bani River to Djenné. Though it would be barely a 100 yards from one side of the shore to the other, it would be a slow 10+ minute ferry ride. As Tall said, you must have patience if you are in Mali. Of course, I am in no rush.

The moment we arrived to the edge of the river where the ferry landing was, the souvenir vendors immediately hovered outside my side of the car. I was like a magnet for them. First, the girls attempting to sell me beaded necklaces and bracelets. Too bad, those hold no interest for me so I was able to thwart off all their attempts and I must say, the sellers here are VERY, VERY persistent. They've all seemed to have learned the same sales catch phrase...."Madam, if you buy small item, I make good price for you." If you turn them down, then that phrase is immediately followed by "what price good for you?". They repeat this same set of phrases with every item they hold up. Multiply this by several vendors and you're exhausted after just a few minutes at having to listen to their spiel and respond with multiple shakes of your head. All you can do is just stare away and hope that that eventually deters them which it does but never as soon as you would like.

Unfortunately, a Fulani hat caught my eye and that was the death of me. First day and I suck at bargaining in Mali. I paid 1/2 the price that the guy asked for but as far as I was concerned I should have only paid 1/3. I need to revive my haggling skills. Oh well. Fortunately, I have a hat that I do love so that's a good thing.

We were the first ones to arrive into the ferry landing. The ferry operator told Tall that we had to wait for a bus to come along before we could board the ferry.

The bus soon arrived, filled with passengers who descended and boarded the ferry. The ferry crew laid down wooden boards so the bus could drive on board. They then removed the boards and we followed in our LandCruiser. As Peter stayed in the car, Tall and I stood outside. I, the souvenir magnet, attracted more sellers. I, the souvenir magnet, was beginning to tire of all the hassle but I remind myself that they are just trying to make a living so I just ignore them and they do eventually go away.

As we neared shore, people piled back into their respective vehicles and we followed the bus as it drove off the ferry. When we passed under a stone archway, Tall greeted me to Djenné. Finally, we made it!

I had no idea what to expect coming in Djenné but I must admit I was a bit surprised to find ourselves driving down narrow, muddy unpaved roads. Very bumpy ride.....offroading in a town. I would have never expected that. For a moment, it made me wonder what my hotel accommodations were going to be like. I know not to expect a Holiday Inn.....not even a Motel 6 but would it be?

On our way to the hotel, Tall pointed out the famous Grand Mosque that is this town's UNESCO World Heritage site. I could only get a glimpse of it through the market stalls that front it but it looks smaller than I had imagined it to be. Tall will be taking me on a tour of the town tomorrow and so I'll get to see the mosque up close then. Monday is market day in Djenné so while I'm sad that I will miss that, hopefully, I can visit the mosque without a horde of people around me.

Down one street, down another and who knows how many more turns, but we made it to the ..... which I would find out later is the TOP hotel in town. It was built decades ago by Europeans but is now owned and run by Malians.

Tall got me checked in and as I had expected, the room is VERY spartan. Four concrete walls, bed with mosquito net, a fan and very basic bathroom. I do have electricity which is a precious commodity here and I need to recharge my camera battery. I plopped down my luggage and followed Tall to the outdoor eating area. There, we enjoyed some ice cold Coca Colas and chatted about tomorrow's travel plans. I also got a chance to get to know Tall a bit better. He's a very nice guy.....more on him later.

I had had a good lunch so I decided to forgo dinner. For some reason, heat and humidity take my appetite away. Besides, I can afford to drop a few pounds :-)

For now, it's back to my room to take a nice cold shower, write up today's blog posting and catch a good night's sleep. Tomorrow will be a full day and I want to make sure I have the energy to take it all in!

Good night from Djenné, Mali!