Feb 11, 2012 Seattle, USA / Paris, France / Bamako, Mali
(*** Note: Since this journal had begun many enormous changes have ravaged through this country. Notably, the government fell in a coup a few weeks after we left. This left room for the Tuareg rebellion in the North to progress at an incredible rate, swooping down into Gao and Timbuktu, not far from where we traveled.)
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(click on all photos to enlarge)
After having had no vaccinations for about 30 years I opted for the full dose of everything. Which meant 10. Many shots and oral solutions later, I was ready to combat the elements. I have no doubt growing up in Texas in the 1960s and 70s had hardened my system to pesticides and questionable food sources, but I didn’t feel like wrecking this big trip by spending it doubled-over in some kind of obscure agony. We are armed with three means of purifying water, several types of antibiotics, a full on first-aid kit and our daily does of malaria pills, pro-biotics, neem and pepto-bismal.
After a long night’s flight we landed in Paris and found our travel buddy: Alonso Arreola. Now we were three and three we shall be: Alonso, my son Ezra and I. Our beginning has begun. Though landing in Bamako kicked that up a notch. We had fun hustling in the line for immigration. I was trying to suss out what level of being-in-line-asshole-ness functions here in Mali. If this were the UK, we would all stand in line very properly but grumble about everyone in front of us. If it were Russia we would just push ahead of everyone else. Here, it seems to be a loose kind of pushing combined with the sense of everyone being in the same family. Meaning older and weaker folks get to push a bit ahead. I don’t know where I fall on that spectrum anymore, so I just let anyone who wanted to push just go ahead of us.
No sign of our bags or Mamadou, our guide, for a good hour or so after immigration. Everyone seemed so casual and relaxed here that it was easy enough for us to dip into the vibe of this culture. Meaning, chill out and wait. Eventually an extremely skinny Mamadou appeared and everything begin happening very quickly: bags, extra guides and helpers, plus general shouting in the room for “Salif Keita” (not the singer but the coach of the Malian football team, as they had just beaten Ghana.) We headed out and into the night towards Bamako and our hostel, The Sleeping Camel.
The Camel delivered on our rooms and the plan was to go eat. But first we all had to lather ourselves up with mosquito repellent for fear of the deadly malaria. Once we had enough DEET in our systems to kill an elephant we were ready to go out for some food. At nearly midnight on a Sunday, the Kora restaurant provided for us. We would go to at least four Kora restaurants while we were in Mali. I have no idea if they were connected, or if they just simply provided the safest meals for tourists along with some super-badass music on occasion. Tonight there was no one in the giant restaurant except for us three gringos (“Toubab” in Bambara – a term we were going to hear constantly on this trip.) This also came to be the standard, as well – the recent Tuareg rebellion going on in the North, but still quite nearby, ensured that the tourist season never happened this year. We were in a very, very small minority here.
Feb 13, 2012 – Bamako
I'm still getting adjusted to our new life here in West Africa. I haven’t slept much in the last two days and this town is crazy, but I am enjoying it.
We went out in the city with Bala, one Mamadou’s buddies. He drove us to the big souk (market). But before we could get there we had our first Africa Car Experience. Bala’s radiator blew while we were stuck in waves of insane traffic. Cars, busses, vans filled with women going to work in the market, bicycles, people with what seemed like whole houses on their heads surrounded our stalled vehicle and just pushed right on by. We looked at each other and knew, now, we had finally arrived in Africa.
Eventually we bought some cold water (sold in this strange shrink-wrapped plastic fashion) and poured it in our leaky radiator. Most dribbled out the bottom but we did get the car started again and made it into the market to park. Stepping outside into this pandemonium was my first big adjustment to being here. We were three very, very white people obviously from a culture with money and here we were surrounded by people with barely the means to make it through the coming drought and with no tourist season in sight. We were an opportunity and they had plenty of things they would love to sell to us.
But then, it turned out to be pretty mellow. People did approach us with whatever it was they were selling – jewelry, hats, blankets, water and more. But it was quite relaxed once we got comfortable saying “no, merci” (“ayi iniche” in Bambara). Once people realized we weren’t going to be buying anything we could sense that they were just curious about us. They wanted to know our stories.
We walked around the market and into the specialized artisan section. This was where the blacksmiths, the jewelry makers, the wood carvers, the weavers and all craftspeople were working. Some of the work here was amazing - especially the people working with gold and silver. We got our first taste of the kind of intense negotiating that goes on here, as Alonso haggled for a small Dogon statue of a hogon (priest). He was to end up honing his skills to a very fine level by the end of this trip.
Later we traveled up the big hill to the president’s palace. It was a huge complex with a village of thousands next to it. This village was just for the people who worked for him. The obvious wealth was pretty over the top – especially considering the general level that people live at here (Mali is the 10th poorest countries in the world.) I wondered how everyone reconciled this opulence with their President’s lifestyle. Especially since this is a relatively democratic country and elections were coming up in April. (As of March 22, a coup – the first in over 20 years – took him out.)
Cab ride in Bamako. Protection run by the Hand of Fatima and half a Barbie Doll.
We ended our night by setting up some drum (djembe) lessons for the morning. I’m super excited about this as I have been working on my hand percussion chops for about a year now.