|5 Nov 09, Thursday, Atlanta airport
I'm nearing the end of a five-hour layover in the Atlanta airport (with an additional eight-hour layover awaiting me in Paris) on the first leg of my West Africa biking trip. But before I answer the inevitable question, "Why West Africa?", let me share a few thoughts and experiences on my trip thus far.
I guess I haven't taken a cab in the U.S. for quite awhile as I had sticker shock this morning: $38 for a ride to the airport with tip. I tried to make a reservation for a shuttle van last evening and was surprised to find no companies in Albuquerque that start moving before 6:30 am. With an 8 am international flight, I hoped to get to the airport earlier than that. Luckily my boxed bike fit into the cab's back seat.
However, that sticker shock was nothing compared to the $300 one-way fare Delta charged for taking my bike! That's more than double the largest fee I've paid on previous trips and close to half the cost of my bicycle. Because I also fly between Mali and Cameroon, that could amount to $900 if I'm charged for all three segments and this for a service that once was free! Those expensive fold-up bikes are looking better and better. I know two of my biking partners on this trip, David and Dan, have fold-up travel bikes.
I received another shock (the good kind this time) when I arrived at the airport and found no one in line at the front desk and just one couple ahead of me at security. I guess I could've booked the 8:30 am airport shuttle after all. The security apparatus has changed yet again. Now, after I took off my shoes and removed everything (including my handkerchief!) from my pockets, I stepped into a Plexiglas booth, positioned my feet on the colored footprints on the floor and raised my hands over my head while a full-body scan was taken. Sometimes I wonder if some sadistic SOBs sit around brainstorming procedures to produce the maximum personal humiliation. This is just one more indication that the terrorists are winning.
The flight to Atlanta was pleasant. The middle seat was empty. My seat mates were a young mother and her toddler (older than one) still at the breast. She seemed more open than most breast feeders I've seen which was explained post-flight as she discussed kids with the family behind us. It seems she's Danish and was shocked when she found out how prudish Americans are about breast feeding when she came here initially. On this point I certainly agree with her. I often wonder where all this is going. Yesterday morning I saw a new message among the plethora of bulletins on the public swimming pool check-in window where I swim. It stated that absolutely NO photographs may be taken in the pool area, including cell phone photos. This new injunction purportedly protects children from exploitation. Sad, isn't it?
Now aboard the Air France flight to Paris.
I am impressed with Atlanta International Terminal. Clean, airy and bright, it boasts multiple displays to while away the pre-departure hours. A very nice MLK exhibit greets you as soon as you depart the people mover and gain the escalator summit. At each gate, a different local artist has been given the whole space to decorate, many very imaginatively. Their profiles are also provided. Along the halls from the hub out to the gates are many displays showing confiscated animal products along with not-so-subtle warnings of the consequences of bringing such products into the States. Some of the ivory carvings were striking.
At one display I was reminded that my RAS is in gear. Your Reticular Activating System or RAS is the part of your brain that subconsciously alerts you to things that you are interested in even when you are not consciously thinking about them. For example, whereas you might not remember seeing a particular car model on the streets before you decide to get a new car, once you've become aware of that preferred model, you start seeing them everywhere. Well, one of the displays jumped out at me; its subject was juke joints. It seems that the word "juke" is bastardized from the West African word "yuka" which means "to make noise or mischief." As West African slaves settled into the south and began assimilating, "yuka" was transmuted to "jook" and then "juke" as in "jook house" or "juke joint." I suspect that, had I not been reading about West Africa for this trip, I would have passed right on by this informational tidbit.
One further pleasurable surprise awaited me as I sought the dreaded airport meal. I found a kiosk where I got a version of chicken paprika (not nearly as good as the recipe I copied from an annotated version of Bram Stoker's Dracula years ago), a very tasty chicken Cobb salad and a huge glass of southern-sweet sweet tea for a bit over $10. It was good and reasonable, two adjectives not normally put together for an airport meal. For those not indoctrinated to sweet tea (my drug of choice), southern-sweet sweet tea is considerably sweeter than that found above the Mason-Dixon Line.
Now. Why West Africa? The quick and dirty answer is: Dan Kirby. Dan might be familiar to those who have read my Odyssey book or my Tunisia trip narrative, as he was my main riding partner on both trips. He had biked the Mali portion of the present trip in the late 90s and had impressed upon me on several occasions how much he had enjoyed the trip and his certainty that I would too. To clinch his sincerity, he told me that if ever I decided to go to Mali, he would go again too.
6 Nov 09, Friday, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
A three-movie flight and now an even longer layover before the flight to Bamako, Mali's capital city. I continue …
So, with Dan's sterling recommendation in mind last spring as I was contemplating trips for this fall, I began perusing websites for likely destinations and saw that Ibike Tours was offering the Mali trip this year. Ibike Tours is a nonprofit organization promoting bicycling in Africa for the local population. As part of a much larger program, they offer culture-intensive bicycle tours to a number of African (and other) locations. Two years ago Dan and I participated in both of their two-week Tunisia programs. Besides the Mali tour, Dan has also biked Togo and Benin with them. When looking at their website, I noticed that along with Mali, ibike was also offering their western Cameroon tour as well. I contacted David Moser, the program head (and our Tunisia tour leader) to see if the two two-week trips could be done together. He responded that since no one else had registered for the Cameroon tour, he would move the dates a bit earlier so the tours were back to back, and I signed up for both. I contacted Dan stating my intentions and, after juggling his busy schedule, he registered for both as well. David will be our tour leader for the Mali tour with three additional riders, and he has hired a native Cameroonian, Julius Yongka, to lead the western Cameroon tour.
11 pm Hotel Séguéré, Bamako, Mali
Towards the end of the layover in Paris, I ran into David. I figured he had been off somewhere working away on his laptop; keeping his organization running while leading a trip must be challenging.
The flight to Bamako was uneventful. I had an aisle seat on a full flight and saw nothing out the windows. I fly more or less the same route three more times in the next month and will hopefully have a window seat for at least one of them. It was full dark when we reached Bamako at 8:50 pm. As you move closer to the equator, seasonal daylight shifts tend to even out until, at the equator, you have about twelve hours of sunup and twelve of sundown all year long. Mali is at the same latitude as southern Mexico with most of it just below the Tropic of Cancer. When we travel to Cameroon we will have equatorial lighting as it sits just north of the equator.
Stepping off the plane into the African night, I focused on first impressions. Smell was the first sense to register as the fuel fumes down the gangway were strong, but they were soon replaced with a faint smell of wood smoke and the close feel of a warm, slightly humid night.
The bus ride to the terminal, the press through customs (a quick stamp in the passport at the Mali visa page) and search for luggage were all standard. My bike box was a bit more beat up than I had hoped as it has to last six more flight legs. I'll need to mend it before we fly to Cameroon. I had hoped to buy my Timbuktu plane tickets and exchange dollars for West Africa CFAs, but neither task was possible as everything was closed up, a situation that had ramifications for my Timbuktu side trip.
Stepping outside the terminal was when the "differentness" really hit me. As I had read in the ibike literature, and therefore expected, we hit a crush of porters and taxi drivers who rushed to help us. Wading through such a crowd carrying a big box along with a duffle slung over one shoulder and a small knapsack on the other is no mean feat. Near the curb one enterprising young man (I'll call him "our front man") told me that April had sent him to pick us up. Now, April is one of our riders who arrived last night so I alerted David who agreed on a price for a ride to our hotel.
A note on the West African currency: historically French influenced West African nations use a unit of currency called the Communaunté Financiére de l'Afrique franc or CFA as noted above. Mali uses the West African CFA and Cameroon uses a Central African CFA. Although both are now tied to the euro and trade at 1:1, they cannot be used interchangeably within the various countries that use the two currencies.
7 Nov 09, Saturday 1:30 pm, Bamako, bike: 14 miles
It was after midnight and I was get muddle-headed last night so I folded up my journal, gave a last check to ensure the diaphanous mosquito net hanging from a single point over my bed and cascading down on all sides was properly tucked in, and drifted off to a restless and not altogether restful sleep. But, back to the narrative …
While the terminal reflected a normalcy I found comforting, if a bit hectic, outside felt like another world. Dust covered everything and hung thick in the air, a testament to the number of dirt roads in the area we were to see momentarily. I never did spot the place to buy tickets, check-in, or even the area where standard taxis awaited potential fares. Our front man escorted us to a back lane where we waited for our "taxi," a sedan that had seen better days. After a bit of negotiating, the security cops guarding an adjacent parking lot cut our front man some slack about allowing us to load up. Nevertheless, he and our driver seemed anxious for us to be off. We placed David's Bike Friday (a fold-up bike in a suitcase) into the trunk and shoved my bike box in over it as far as it would go. While David and I stowed our two remaining bags in the back, the driver attempted to secure the trunk lid with an old rag. We were to stop twice more on the short trip to the hotel looking for a cord to replace the rag.
As we left the airport area, the front man told us that April had gone to a different hotel than the one where David had reservations because, as he told us, the mosquitoes were bad at our hotel. He made a hard sell to take us also to this new hotel. David disagreed and asked to be taken to our hotel to at least have a look. David has not used this particular hotel before and thought the mosquito story could have some relevance since it is nearer the Niger River. Evidently, this year's rainy season extended longer than normal, a fact attested to by the many puddles we navigated around as we bounced along the neighborhood's deeply potholed dirt streets after we turned off the highway from the airport.
The Hotel Séguéré is hard to find. It's about an eighth of a mile from the river on its south side across from the main city area. The neighborhood streets are dirt and rock with potholes that caused the cab's springs to bottom out repeatedly with four grown men, two bikes and miscellaneous luggage weighing it down. I didn't spot a single street sign and even the hotel itself had no identification (later, the proprietress, a lovely French woman who has lived in Mali nine years told us the hotel's sign has repeatedly been stolen). David checked the hotel out while I watched our gear. The hotel had no reservation for us but there was a room which looked adequate so we unloaded the cab and were led to our room. It was then I noticed the driver had tied the cord through one of the new holes in my bike box to keep it from shifting (one more chore for when I tried to stabilize the cardboard box with packing tape later that morning).
The Hotel Séguéré helped put Mali into perspective for me. It is constructed as are many places I've in North Africa, southern Spain or, I suspect, any place where the Arabic culture has influence. The outside is nondescript almost to the point of blending into its surroundings. The efforts to please the eye, provide creature comforts, make distinctive statements about the owner and residents, in short everything aimed at making the place livable is on the inside. This culture shift often surprises Americans who seem determined to build an external showplace.
This is not to say that the Hotel Séguéré is grand or even beautiful on the inside. After all its rate of about $25 per day for a single room is a quarter of the rate for the larger, more sumptuous hotels in Bamako but, for its price, it has a high level of comfort. Our room last night was spare with two beds, thin mattresses over a hard pad, hard pillows, the afore mentioned mosquito nets, a rotating floor fan (the room we moved into this morning has a ceiling fan), a desk lamp on a small stand between the beds, an overhead fluorescent light, and a mosquito net covering the doorway. The communal bathroom down the hall is likewise spare but nicely tiled and spotlessly clean with a western style toilet (although sans seat), a sink, a showerhead in a corner with no curtain, and stocked with both bar soap and toilet paper! However, it's the hotel's common areas that make it such a pleasure. The main courtyard is large with much foliage alive with birds and a hotel-size swimming pool filled with cool, clean water (very refreshing after our sojourn into town this morning). The breakfast area is on the third floor with expansive views of the Niger on two sides and thick vegetation all around. From this aerial view (where I am currently penning this) I've also spotted a couple of small, hidden courtyards I have not seen before, probably associated with other hotel niches.
Okay, I promise I won't drag this description out any more and I'll try to keep future lodging mentions from waxing rhapsodic but I could think of no better way to describe just how wrong first impressions can be when traveling in a different culture. Last night I was tired from about thirty hours of travel, feeling grumpy, and totally unimpressed with our ride to and appearance of our hotel, but today after seeing the whole package, I must say we are definitely getting our money's worth and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this little hotel to anyone.
One further note, breakfast was a wonderful French baguette, butter, two tasty jams and a spot of tea. I suspect it'll be the same every morning and that's okay by me. As I've noted in my Tunisia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos narratives, the baguette has to be, if not the greatest, then certainly the tastiest contribution the French gave to their former colonies.
An early bird began calling just at first light, followed by several other species as their internal wake-up calls sounded. I'll bet this order will be the same the next two mornings and will only change on our trip as species are added and dropped in local ecosystems. I suspect these responses to dawn within each species are hardwired, just as our American robin is doomed to be our early morning wake-up caller.
David, having slept much of his flights, was awake again at 4:30 am working on his laptop, an eerie Buddha-like figure shrouded in white and outlined by the soft glow of his machine, like a ghost dimly seen through a diaphanous waterfall. I was awake for good around 6 am so we arose and walked around the neighborhood which was already bustling as people attempt to beat the inevitable afternoon heat by starting work in the cooler early morning.
After breakfast we assembled our bikes for a ride into town to do David's pre-trip errands. I decided to accompany him on his peregrinations as my side trip to Timbuktu seemed doomed to frustration. In retrospect I should have come yet another day earlier. During our assembly, David realized that his front wheel quick release mechanism had not gotten packed so this got added to the list of chores. To ride at all, a hotel staff member found a length of cord to tie his front wheel on. Hey, it worked until a replacement was found.
Biking in Bamako will not rate high on my list of favorite places to ride. It was one time I was glad I don't use a rearview mirror. After a short trip through our bumpy neighborhood streets we hit one of the major bridges over the Niger to get to the city center. Here I had a shock: the bridge had a signed bike lane in both directions! Never mind that the motorbikes outnumbered the self-propelled kind by thirty to one and that they zoomed by almost continuously across the length of the bridge, the mere fact that someone even thought of it made my day. <It was the last one I saw this trip.> Aside from that highlight, the best I can say is that I wasn't struck. Neither the car/truck nor motorbike operators have heard of the five-foot rule when passing a bicyclist, nor have they heard of a five-inch rule. The rule appears to be "do no harm" with an addendum, "everything else is fair game." On the larger streets traffic moved swiftly with lots of honking, but lanes were mostly observed. On the busy market streets, all bets are off as car/truck traffic merges with motorbike traffic, bikers and pedestrians. Mostly the right of way goes to whoever gets there first. A timid biker had best find an alternate route. Walking your bike, which we did on several occasions while ferreting out a bike shop, is worse than riding it; the damn pedals will either clip your calf or, worse, someone else's calf/shin or a produce stand. I've had plenty of practice in similar situations, but it's still a tedious exercise that one can live without. Generally, when on a break day, I walk from place to place, but we did cover over ten miles which would certainly have lengthened our trip to town.
We were successful at exchanging our currency, but at a disappointing rate as the dollar has been falling against the euro. According to David (and a tour book I consulted), freelance street exchangers actually give better rates than the banks here - and this is what we used. We did find a new axle for David's bike (though not a quick-release style.) We did not find April. The staff at the hotel where she was supposedly dropped has no record of her staying last night. David will e-mail her. There's not much else we can do; she knows our hotel's name and number. I did stop at a supermarket for water and juice as the smoke/dust/exhaust is so thick in the city streets that my throat felt raspy. I suspect air quality will improve in the country. I noticed that any breath of wind seemed to help.
David is still adapting to the heat from his Seattle home, so we decided to push the national museum tour until tomorrow and headed home for a refreshing plunge, and then he to his laptop and me to this journal. I feel better for having caught you up to right now, even though I felt a nap coming on a good hour ago. It's called delayed gratification.
I suspect not many people come to Bamako for the fine dining experience. David and I walked the couple of blocks to the main drag that goes to town but turned away from the bridge to the town center to look for a nearby restaurant. After much walking we finally found one that would suit. From a six-item menu on a board, we selected the few items actually available. I had fries with sautéed onions and plantains, both of which were delicious, along with several skewers with chunks of very tough, but tasty meat, possibly mutton, which is the only meat around besides chicken, that we've seen. The variety of sheep here looks more like a goat and is so abundant that David wondered if a Muslim holiday was imminent. In fact, at the Grand Market today, we passed two sheep whose throats had just been cut. At these little street-side restaurants, pots in front contain all the dishes being offered. After making our selections, David and I were escorted into a small room to eat where we were the only patrons. Although a bit close in this heat, a languorous ceiling fan provided a welcome breeze.
After supper we wandered back to our hotel. There sure isn't much light here after the sun goes down and night sets in. We successfully avoided the puddles and muddy patches successfully negotiating the maze of streets to our current home. With no real nap today, I should have little trouble sleeping tonight.
8 Nov 09, Sunday, Bamako, 8 mi
Today David and I biked to the national museum which was hosting a new photo exhibit. The theme for the art show was "Borders" in any connotation the artists chose to view it. Some of the photo exhibits included sound and some were in film. The photos were interesting, but I was not greatly impressed.
The permanent exhibits included an expansive display showing the manufacture of cotton and wool cloth from various local cultures. It was paired with a retrospective of a local-boy-makes-good fashion photographer. The fashion sense of the local club seen from these photos left me about as cold as the fashion spreads in Vogue and similar glossy magazines at home. The mismatch of patterns and colors looked like "the cat's breakfast" to use an old Aussie phrase that fits nicely here.
Several rooms were filled with a variety of unusual statues and carvings. Many, according to what David read, have totemic or ritualistic symbology which has kept them from outsiders' eyes until now. While the room descriptions were translated into English, the individual piece descriptions were in French alone. Too bad. I would have liked to better understand the symbology; some were very strange.
David said the permanent display was much larger last time he was here. Not all the building capacity was utilized. The museum itself is a great facility; it looks fairly new and has been kept up nicely. The outdoor open areas under expansive shade trees were particularly nice. The museum was hosting a pricy buffet with live music which added to the pleasant atmosphere.
As we were about to leave the museum, we saw a young man being interviewed by a news crew and David wandered up to listen. After the crew disappeared David asked if he could have a word. The ensuing discussion lasted probably an hour. The young man was Nigerian and was a contributor at the photo exhibit inside. In particular, he produced and filmed a short documentary we had viewed on gay Africans transplanted to Europe. He said he was trying to show that the subjects were just like any other people with regular lives.
David stays current on a range of African issues and, while the conversation first focused on this one exhibit, it eventually spread to many other topics. David seemed to know more about West Africa than the Nigerian did. Both enjoyed the conversation equally. The young man was interested in the cycling experience in Africa. I mostly listened and learned a good deal.
David finally connected with April, and she'll be moving to our hotel in the morning. Additionally, the two Canadian lawyers arrive tonight. So tomorrow will be a different kind of day.
9 Nov 09, Monday, Bamako, 8 mi
On the way to supper last night a young boy of maybe six or seven was running hard pulling a kite made of a piece of plastic bag stretched over sticks. The remarkable thing was that he had gotten it airborne maybe seventy feet off the ground and it was flying steadily. As he passed us, our foreign appearance in his neighborhood proved the stronger attraction and his homemade kite dove to the ground as he turned to stare at us.
After a longish walk up and down a busy boulevard, we discovered another restaurant unseen on previous passes - perhaps it was not yet ready for business. The cook had fish, whole, boiled, rangy chickens, and large meatball-like loaves she said was boeff (beef) plus rice, couscous, and a manioc starch substitute. David had the fish, rice and sauce, and I had the beef, manioc and sauce. We both ordered a side of haricot (beans) which appeared as a great glob of baked beans without any spice and little taste. When served over the manioc, the beef ball broken apart became a layer of tenderized beef wrapped around a hard boiled egg. In Mali, the sauce makes the meal, and both David and I had tasty, if unremarkable, sauces. Tonight we're eating at the hotel, a very different gustatory venue from our recent suppers. I pre-ordered the plate with chicken with mango … yum! I'll let you know.
With little electricity in the neighborhood, our walks home after dark are indeed dark. Although the puddles from perhaps the last shower of the rainy season are fast disappearing, I still managed to sink my foot part way into one of them. No harm done though. We passed several tents from which sounds of percussive practice were in full swing. These are tanning stations which are liberally sprinkled around the area. We have also passed a weaving center on our travels.
Sometime after 11 pm last night, Megan and Laura, two young lawyers from Vancouver, arrived. David took some time in welcoming them and getting them settled for the night. They seemed remarkably fresh from their long journey. Then after breakfast, April moved from her hotel. We spent the next hour or so unpacking and assembling their bikes after which we headed out for another short jaunt into town and through the Grande Marche to find a money changer and a Simcard for Laura's cell phone. April had been hanging with two young Malian men who had helped her find a similar card which she said she has used to call her husband easily and relatively cheaply.
We stopped for lunch at a "real" restaurant, much nicer than anything David and I have patronized to date. While the girls got a light meal, David and I sipped fresh squeezed lemonade served as a quarter-filled glass of lemon juice to which we added water from our water bottles along with sugar from the table - a refreshing treat.
Upon returning to the hotel and after a cool dip in the pool, David gave his orientation briefing in which he goes over a laundry list of topics and everyone introduces themselves. We are a cosmopolitan group with everyone having some experience in third world travelling, though not necessarily on a bike. But everyone seems strong and healthy so we should be a good group. Besides David's good information, I enjoyed the sit down for another reason. Behind and within a few yards of our table, the hotel had a small several tiered fountain with flowing water. In the heat of the day, an almost constant stream of birds of various species came to drink. I have been hearing many different birds while staying at the hotel but, because the foliage is so thick, have only occasionally gotten glimpses. Now I was getting as good a view of their beautiful colors as if they were strutting their stuff down a fashion show runway. It was also interesting to see their various techniques for getting water. Some would precariously perch near the dripping spout and daintily take a drop or two, others would stand on the edge of a bowl to get their drink and still others would wade right in and get a wash as well as a drink.
11 Nov 09, Wednesday, Niger River boat (38 mi on 10 Nov)
Yesterday we were so late boarding the river boat for our two-night, 500-kilometer Niger River expedition that I did not write my journal entry, but I'll remedy that now.
Two evenings ago, with all but Dan in attendance, we ate our meal at the hotel: mango chicken, a form of potato au gratin, a nice salad, a stewed vegetable dish and either chocolate cake or lemon chiffon for dessert - very, very different from all my meals here so far. A real treat.
Dan rolled in around 11 pm and spent an hour or more putting his bike together. His bike breaks down to a much greater degree than any other suitcase bike I've seen. It was like putting it together from scratch expect for the crank and gears. We got caught up on our lives while he worked. I was saddened to hear that the feisty woman who was his mother passed last spring. I had entertained her and a companion in Germany on our Odyssey trip while waiting for Dan to roll in on his bike and had liked her instantly. Also, he had just come from Stacia's wedding (another fellow Odyssey rider) and said it was a huge success. (Later, just before boarding our Niger riverboat, he gave me a wedding cookie).
Yesterday morning we had our first meal as a complete group, took some time to pack our bikes, stowed away boxes and extras we are leaving at the hotel and set off for Koulikoro, a 38-mile ride to our departure port. Our first stop was in town where David and Dan rode off to find a money changer while the ladies and I waited under some shade where wooden pallets were being constructed. It was one of many businesses we have seen located at the side of the road under makeshift cover or out in the open. Thinking it was to be a short wait, I neglected to pull my long pants over my riding shorts and as a result, I was told by the ladies (my back was to the street), caused many overt stares and giggles by women passing by. They were much amused.
Bamaka is spread over a large area, and it seemed to take a long time to reach countryside. But, when we did, the air seemed immediately cleaner. Every time we rode into town over the last few days, my throat had become dry and raspy. Clean air was definitely a good thing. We passed through several small towns as we rode and were able to observe country life. This is a society where much of the business and life takes place out of doors. On the outskirts of Bamako we passed a large sheep handling area. I had seen a few instances in town of people washing sheep, but didn't realize how much a part of the sheep business it is. At this sheep corral, many workers were engaged in this activity.
We passed a little restaurant proudly proclaiming "Rotisserie Barack Obama" and saw people wearing T-shirts with his image or name and belts hanging in shops with his visage. Clearly, Malians are aware of our new U.S. President. If you mention his name, their eyes light up and you'll often get a thumbs-up.
As we rode, the day became increasingly hot and oppressive though the breeze remained cool. David checked his multifunction weather gauge to give us temperature, wind speed, humidity, composite temperature, etc. All I remember is that, even before noon, the temperature was 95ºF. We followed the Niger more or less the entire route and, once in awhile, when we rode down a declivity or had a near-river approach, the humidity would soar, bringing slight and temporary relief as we pushed through it. The heat took its toll and slowed us down considerably. David and April pushed ahead to check our departure schedule and buy tickets while Dan and I hung back with Laura and Megan catching up on the last two years and reminiscing about our previous trips together. It was hot! We finally stopped to find something cold to drink at a roadside stand. It's one of the few times I drink soda pop as nothing much else is available.
Somewhere about halfway to the port, what I thought was a bit of fluff blew under my glasses and settled near my right eye. When I flicked it away, it stung me; it smarted for maybe five miles and later itched a bit. Don't know what it was. Dan and I saw a couple of brightly colored birds and some bright green leafed trees that David later IDed as mango. We also noted a stark escarpment paralleling our road to the north for a couple miles. Dan said it is not unlike Dogon country where we will spend several days later in the trip.
David found the ferry still operating under the same schedule after three decades of his trips here. We arrived in Koulikoro in early afternoon with lots of time before our 9:45 pm departure. David led us to a rustic restaurant where he made a deal to allow us to hang out there until the boat left. The term "restaurant" doesn't adequately describe the establishment. It offered a couple of benches and a couple of backless, broken chairs, no tables and a very dirty wood floor. The menu was peanut sauce and rice or tomato sauce and rice, some type of sauce and rice being standard lunch fare in Mali. The others ate a meal, but all I wanted was to rehydrate, so I wandered until I found a big bottle of water … and it was cool too!
The afternoon was lazy with first the gals exploring the port town and then the guys. Dan bought a bright orange pair of calf-length pants for a buck to slip on over his bike shorts. He is inexplicably proud of them. The Malians are a very friendly people and Dan has the perfect personality to complement theirs.
Towards dark we headed down to the dock, but first I had to fix a back flat tire which I had just discovered. We could find no hole in the inner tube though the leaked slime had definitely come from somewhere (slime, for the uninitiated, is a substance you put into your inner tube to temporarily plug holes). I am not encouraged as my flats often come in clumps.
As dusk turned to dark, we lounged on a high retaining wall while people milled about, getting on and off the boat. The captain allowed us to load our bikes and gear so we wouldn't have to constantly watch it. We have two berths. David and the gals share one, Dan and I share the other with up to two others. Currently, only one other bed is occupied by a young Malian lad of maybe 20. He's very polite and quiet and greets us whenever we cross paths. He appears to speak no French or English.
A couple hours before departure, vendors set up stations and prepare food for the passengers. Dan was first into the fray and found a woman with a variety of foods including something much like onion rings (though the onions are mashed into the batter - very good!) and meat on a stick dipped in a sauce. Because it is so dark, the proprietress uses a flashlight to illuminate her menu and offerings. If you want to see what you're eating, you tend to hang around the station.
After we'd eaten, Dan and I agreed we needed to find some more water for the boat trip. We walked toward the only light within a hundred yards which turned out to be the ticket office. Once there an older man waiting outside asked what we were looking for. Dan replied in French. The fellow motioned us to follow him as he led with a flashlight along a route we would never have found, along back streets with no lights maybe a quarter mile to a small shop where we bought our water. Then he led us all the way back to the boat accepting only our thanks and a handshake in return. Dan told me that, when he arrived in Mali the first time, he had been intimidated by such a foreign place. However, he had learned that the Malian people are invariably friendly and this trip he feels right at home. Too bad more people can't experience this kind of cross-cultural epiphany. I must say I'm not yet there.
The six of us gradually gravitated to the boat and several of us had showers before we had even left the dock. The cool shower was divine as it washed the accumulated road grime away and lowered our body temperatures. I noticed that the two young Canadians' feet were barely touching the deck as they finished. It certainly refreshed our moods.
As soon as we departed we made our way to the barroom/restaurant (a room with a few tables and chairs and an anemic air conditioning system) where first and second class passengers eat three light meals per day on their tickets. Dan and a couple of the gals were hoping to score beers. However, only warm beer was available and nothing else. Nevertheless we sat and chatted awhile before turning in.
The Niger River at this point is very wide but not very deep. The large ferries are able to navigate it only a few months after the rainy season; David said arrivals can vary up to twelve hours. There are many islands of every size in the river ("aits" for those crossword puzzle fanatics) and even before we hit the bunks, the ferry was stuck on a sandbar. The crew was still working to free us when I went to bed. David said we were four hours behind schedule as of this morning.
Our berth was hot last night and I was plagued with mosquitoes such that I slept with my sheet over me. Dan and our Malian berth mate had the top bunks and Dan said he was not bothered. After breakfast which was coffee or hot sweet milk and a half baguette, David started his African lecture. He provides great info as I remember from the Tunisia trip, but in this heat, it is hard to stay focused. His memory for the information is astounding but, of course, he has made this his life's work. We broke after an hour or so and I took a nap. We're now awaiting our first lunch, the inevitable sauce and rice.
12 Nov 09, Thursday, noon, Niger River boat
Well, our first lunch yesterday was not much to write home about: a nice big bowl of rice with a mealy sauce over it - pretty bland. This is the first trip I've taken when I've not looked forward with some anticipation to the next meal. Breakfast today was the same as yesterday except the half baguette was one day staler. Last evening's meal, however, was tasty: boiled cassava hunks (indistinguishable from potatoes) in an oily sauce with one bite-sized piece of beef per plate. Today's lunch was a repeat of yesterday's. Unfortunately, it looks like we'll eat supper tonight aboard too since we are hours behind schedule, probably as a result of our sandbar incident, and won't arrive until 7 or 8 pm. This means we will be cycling the 15 kilometers to Severe from our port of Mopti in the dark.
Yesterday in the late afternoon we had a major stop in Segu (I'm currently reading a classic West African novel of the same name) and David took us on a short tour through town. We could see parts of the old city wall, echoes of Segu's former prominence as capital of the region. The markets were dead in the late afternoon heat; the flies were having a field day. David said it was the least busy he has seen it (he has also said this about our boat). Other than the normal array of interesting foods, this market is known for its fetish materials, mostly dead animal parts. I recognized a large fox head, three honey badger heads (a honey badger was attached to the leg of the main character for much of the South African movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy II"), clumps of hedgehog spines, small crocodile heads, snake skins, and many other items. David told us the Segu villagers are picture-shy, especially with respect to their fetishes so I wasn't able to document the trade.
For the last fifteen minutes ashore I was hounded by two young boys who wanted to shine my shoes. They were insistent and often expressed their disgust with how dirty my shoes were, shame being a major selling tactic evidently. We boarded just as the local stevedores were loading the last large bag of cotton into our ship's hold. One old man could barely lift his load and it wasn't until he almost fell getting on the boat that someone gave him a hand.
Later that evening, we pulled into a few other ports to conduct business. At one village, all trade, including the boarding of passengers, was conducted in one expertly poled pirogue which made multiple trips back and forth. At every port we attracted a crowd of onlookers and women hawking edibles to, primarily, the third and fourth class passengers who have to provide their own meals: fruits and vegetables, dried and fresh fish, groundnuts (peanuts), baked goods, etc. They do a brisk business. Just before we turned in, we pulled into a side channel and were lowered in a lock to another section of the river. The door to allow us to exit just barely cleared the prow of the boat. The horses onboard, which could've nuzzled the door with their noses, were hyper-alert to the activities with pricked ears, their former lethargy gone. The several sheep and goats seemed oblivious, more interested in their own society than the wider world.
Most of our time while on the river has been spent sitting on the shady side of the boat in a breezeway having carried the plastic chairs from the eating area. Here David gives his lectures (today was on Islam), we read, chat, journalize, text (yes, Mali is well connected in this area), but mostly we view the passing scene. We see lots of small fishing canoes with one or two men aboard using nets. They are most often the Bozo people, traditional fishermen who live in reed houses along the river. We also pass towns and villages of various sizes, some with impressive mosques, inevitably the largest building in the town. The land is remarkably flat; I haven't seen a rise I would call a hill, let alone a mountain. The far horizon however is lost in the ever present haze. We see lots of those brilliant green mango trees and have passed some rice fields, but mostly its treeless, barren landscape. Cattle egrets or their cousins are plentiful and I've also seen a kingfisher, hawks and kites, herons and gulls. The people in towns and fields merrily wave back if we initiate a wave, and sometimes the kids wave spontaneously. It's a lazy and comfortable way to travel. I keep thinking of all the people who died in grim ways trying to discover the mystery of the Niger's destination.
Unlike most other stories of river exploration, the Niger's source was known rather early in the process, but no one knew where it ended. From the tropical highlands in Guinea less than 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the river flows due east into the heart of the continent. Some people claimed it disappeared into the sands of the Sahara, others that it eventually flowed into the Nile, still others that it emptied into Lake Chad. The truth is far stranger. After flowing east for hundreds of miles, the river shifts to the northeast to Timbuktu before it begins a graceful arc first to the southeast and then to the south and west to flow into the Bite of Benin and the Atlantic Ocean, a 2,600 mile journey. Well, "flow" is probably a misleading description. The reason the river's mouth remained a mystery for so long is that the delta most major rivers create at their mouths is more like an expansive marsh for the Niger River. No one could conceive such a morass was actually the mouth of the "Strong Brown God."
Most of the men who sought the Niger's mouth did not survive to boast of their exploits. Malaria, as much as violence from local peoples, was the reason for death in most cases. Such a reputation did the Niger have that it was called the "white man's graveyard" which gave rise to an English sailors' ditty which I found in two forms: "Beware and take care of the Bite of Benin, for one that comes out there are forty goes in" from the Niger history, "The Strong Brown God" and "Beware of the Bite of Benin, oh beware. For every man that comes back home, forty are buried there" from later reading. Unfortunately, this was not an exaggeration. It wasn't until quinine from South America's cinchona bark (which the Jesuit African missionaries had known about for many years) began to be used by the expeditions as a preventative that the region became colonized by Europeans. Richard and John Landers were the first Europeans to actually follow the Niger to its mouth in 1831.
Actually, while we are still floating comfortably down the Niger, let me familiarize you a bit with the country of Mali. Mali is a landlocked country three times larger than the state of California which is situated in the bottom part of the hump of Africa with its head in the Sahara Desert and its feet in the Sahel (dry plain with scattered trees and bushes). It borders seven other West African countries as seen on the map included. The country has been inhabited since 50,000 BC when the Sahara was still a fertile grassland. Already by the 6th Century, trade routes across the Sahara to northern Africa were established with gold, salt and slaves the primary products. Timbuktu gained its prominence and wealth as a key trading station (it was mainly for its historical importance that I wanted to see it, though I've read there is not much there today to see). The area went through a series of local empires until the 18th Century when it became part of French West Africa; the French were mainly interested in cheap labor and the cash crops of cotton and rice. Europe's perception of Africa is best exemplified by the Berlin Conference of 15 November 1884 where the "basic principle was that Africa should be divided among gentlemen, in an orderly manner, without the involvement of its inhabitants. A European state occupying the coast had a right to settle the interior, and could keep going inland until it met another European power." (from The Strong Brown God by Sanche De Grámont)
Independence came to Mali in 1960 with Modibo Keita its first president. Keita was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1968. This was followed by a repressive government and five more coup attempts until, in 1991, the army led by General Amadou Toumani Touré took country of the country. He resigned a year later to hold multiparty elections which Alpha Oumar Konaré won in 1992. Konaré stepped down in 2002 and Touré, the general who led the 1991 coup was elected president. Today Mali has a healthy democracy. It is Africa's third largest gold producer and exports much cotton, but it is the fourth poorest country in the world with an adult literacy rate of only 19% and corruption is still a problem along with a large foreign debt (a locust plague and drought in 2004 did nothing to help this situation). As might be expected, deforestation, overgrazing and desertification are the main environmental problems while cotton, livestock and gold are its main products.
Today Mali has 10.6 million people composed of many ethnic groups with the Bamara the largest at 33%. Most of the groups get along and joke with one another, except for the Tuareg, traditional pastoralists and Berbers who were forced south by Arabic expansion in North Africa. They staged an uprising in 1990 which was harshly put down. Music and dancing are important activities throughout the country especially when performed by griots, a hereditary caste of musicians.
10:15 pm, Sevare, 9 mi
We had another pretty sunset this evening. Unfortunately it was before we left the boat. We also ate our evening meal, spaghetti in an oily sauce with again a single bite-size chunk of meat - not too bad for taste though.
It was full dark when we rolled our bikes off the ferry. The port area was crowded but was also dimly lit so we were able to maneuver our bikes through the crowded streets. David had a headlight and I trailed with a flashing red taillight one of the gals had. We hoped in this way we would at least be seen. The causeway (at least it felt like a causeway and I know the Niger was off to our right) was well paved with streetlamps the whole way to Sevare; boy, was I pleasantly surprised! Although our situation was certainly not optimal, it would have been scary without any lights. Even so, every once in awhile the headlights from an oncoming car blinded, and I couldn't even see Dan directly in front of me.
When we arrived in Sevare, David led us onto a dark, crowded (mostly foot traffic) diversion as he looked for a new hotel. Failing that he left us on a corner while he pedaled back to a hotel we had passed earlier. After a good half hour he returned and led us to a hotel he has used before. We're two to a room with showers, a toilet and ceiling fan, probably the best accommodations we'll have for awhile.
After a nice shower we met in the dining patio, a nice inner courtyard, where Dan and April had another supper and the rest (except David) had drinks (I had a nice grapefruit drink).
Tomorrow is a longer day and it promises to be hot so we'll get as early a start as practicable.
11/13/09, Friday, 3 pm, Sofara, 40 mi
Well, we're not in Kansas anymore! I've just awakened from the African version of a siesta. It's Friday and after the muezzin's call to prayer from at least two mosques in this small village, I could hear part of the Imam's Friday afternoon sermon as I was wafted by a still cool breeze on a woven mat put down for our comfort and softened by my holey thermarest.
We got an earlier start this morning after showing up in our hotel's pleasant courtyard at 6 am and getting served a half hour later with bread, butter, jam, a plain omelet and tea. Dan and I seemed to be the only ones bothered by mosquitoes last night despite the fan at high speed. Dan finally got up and rummaged for his mosquito dope and I took a dab so I wouldn't be the remaining blood source. Afterwards I slept okay.
It was cooler biking this morning, and we made good time with a bit of a tailwind as we headed first south and then a bit west. The road was good, the traffic fast but light and everyone was pedaling strongly. We passed through a village about halfway to Sofara that was spread out along the main (only) road where some replenished their water and others tried millet pancakes. My stomach was in no mood for additional food. I can't say it is adapting well to this major change from my normal gustatory regimen.
We're getting much use from our French greetings, alternating between "bon jour" and "ca' va" which roughly translates to "how goes it" to which the other person replies the same thing to mean "it goes." People have so far been friendly without exception.
Besides this village, the forty mile route was dry and barren with small trees and shrubs the main vegetation. Acacia trees are the dominant species which makes us careful off-road because of their nasty thorns. We also saw a baobab or two. Pretty much gone are the bright green mango trees we saw along the river. I spotted several more birds including a small flock of superb starlings and a lilac-breasted roller which is a radically colored bird I've seen before in South Africa. However, I didn't get a good look at it today. I added them to the list I started yesterday when I pulled my binoculars out on the boat to scan the shore when the channel took us close. Then I spotted some great looking birds, but could not identify many of them to family.
Our route was a good ten miles less than we expected so we reached the turn off to Sofara with just three kilometers to go in good spirits. Sofara is off the main road. It has a market but no tourist amenities. Even the building where David stayed in the past has been closed so he searched out a new house for us. It is concrete block and cement from the looks of it, similar to many buildings in Sofara, and three floors high. We have our choice of either a second floor or third floor roof for sleeping. There we will be given a woven mat upon which we place our thermarests and mosquito tents. I'm looking forward to the arrangement which will be our normal mode for most of the remaining Mali trip nights as will "bucket" showers and latrine-type toilet facilities, neither of which I am anticipating with particular sanguinity.
After storing our gear on the second level and adding long shorts or pants to hide our legs (women's thighs garner much lustful attention in this society, the bigger the better), we sortied out in a couple of groups for snacks and cold drinks. Dan and I found a place to get a cold soda for about a buck (500 CFA). The store owner didn't actually have any cola but sent a runner to another store less than a block away to obtain the items. After sitting and enjoying our small cola, we ambled over to this other store to see if we had paid a "runner" premium - turns out the price was the same. I was still curious because we had paid twice the price from everyplace else we have been. This was later confirmed when we saw April who had paid 250 CFA or 50 cents at another store. Now, why did the first two stores charge us more? Dan and I came up with the following: 1) we were strangers and so establishing customer good will wasn't necessary, 2) we could obviously afford it since we were wealthy westerners, or 3) some other reason entirely.
This incident reminded me of a similar thought I had along the road today when I passed a nicely dressed woman who held out her palm for alms. I wondered if her action derived from the same motivation that prompted the Papuan New Guinean whose question to Jarred Diamond sparked the idea for his well-respected "Guns, Germs and Steel," a treatise on the development of disparate cultures around the world. The question asked of Diamond (I paraphrase here) was, "Why does the white man have so much cargo and I have so little?" This simple statement of the obvious disparity among cultures was the stimulus for an in-depth analysis. Diamond tried to explain, for example, why the Europeans discovered America instead of the other way around. As I bicycle through different cultures, especially those far less developed than the ones that produced my gear, clothes, and my ability to make such a trip, I often wonder what in the world the locals make of me and what is their visceral reaction to my riding a bike through their lives? In short, am I doing more harm than good? I suspect the answers to these questions are different with each encounter.
Yesterday after siesta I took a solo walk through the village followed by a group walk led by our village host named Somba who speaks some English. He is clearly proud of his village and walked us through it pointing out key features as we went. The first stop was a post-partum clinic. The building itself is nice but there are no real beds, medicines, or much of anything due to the lack of money. The several women patients seemed to be well cared for by other village women though. In the courtyard was one of two deep well pumps that provide the village with potable water. We saw the second well later. I was struck that at the first well no one was standing in line for water, but at the second there were maybe fifty five-gallon jerry cans waiting to be filled. The second well is considered higher quality and costs 5 CFA (about 1¢) per gallon more (25 vs. 20 CFA). I thought this was an interesting example of a market at work. We filled our bottles from the first well without knowing this dynamic (no one got the "squirts" though).
Our next stop was a grade school where we were immediately mobbed by kids. We met three of the teachers, two women and one very tall man, and peeked into one of the classrooms where 50+ students are taught at a time. French, math, science and geography are some of the subjects taught. Somba also took us to a clay pot factory where the pots are fired in a hole in the ground covered by wood, a millet beer factory, and the village's three mosques: one for everyone, one for an emigrant group from Djenne, and one for people who have emigrated from Burkina Faso. Assimilation takes a long time here. He also toured us through his new home as he is getting married soon, and there we met his sassy cousin who seems to be a woman who is in charge of any situation. From there he showed us a large solid walled corral where the village stock is kept at night. Just outside the village we noted a small pond. Our host told us they had taken so much clay from that spot that water now accumulated there.
By the time we arrived at our lodging, the sun had set and a beautiful sunset graced the western sky. Inside it was already getting dark so I rushed to put up my mosquito net tent and get my bed stuff ready as there is no electricity. By the time my bucket bath turn came, it was full dark so I set my headlamp in a corner beside the six-inch diameter hole that serves as a toilet to light my lavations.
Supper was fish over rice with a sauce, alfresco of course. You quickly learned not to shine your headlamp directly onto your meal as the bugs were thick around any light. The meal was possibly the tastiest yet, but all the many bones had to be detected and removed by feel. Finally it was time for bed and I crawled into my new mosquito net tent which acquitted itself admirably. I slept well.
Dan and I slept on straw-ticking mats inside an open second floor room while the others slept on mats on the roof. My choice was driven by my holey thermarest which wakes me several times a night as it goes flat. With the thick ticking I just ignored my mat. About 2:30 am I awoke and pulled my earplugs out. Immediately I heard a chittering near our ceiling much deeper than any bat I've heard. This was accompanied by audible wing beats of something flying back and forth, back and forth, over and over and over. I listened for a good half hour, wondering what it was, before sleeping again. It was still there when I awoke again at 4 am. I'm still not sure what it was - a bat makes the most sense, but the deep chittering give me pause. I suppose it could've been a small owl.
14 Nov 09, Saturday, Djenne, 19 mi
Breakfast this morning was a small loaf of fresh bread with jelly David had bought in the previous town and coffee for those who drink it. The bread was probably made locally and was very tasty as was David's jelly. The day was unusual for a bike tour. We rode through the village down to the edge of the marsh that borders one side of the village where David negotiated a pirogue to pole/paddle us and our bikes across. The bikes were stashed longwise side by side and fit rather well when the pirogue was fully loaded. The trip only took 10-15 minutes and we were mounted and off again. Until we reached Djenne, our day's destination, we never saw a paved road or a car or truck, though a handful of motorbikes passed from time to time.
As I've mentioned, the rainy season lasted longer this year here and the road we traversed must have been a mud pool not many days ago and was now heavily rutted, at least where it was not sandy. It made for bumpy riding. Not four kilometers into our ride we hit deep sand that forced us off our bikes and into a walk. At the next village, a guy came out to explain to David that this road to Djenne was no good, too much sand. David let himself be convinced and bartered for a horse cart and driver to take us about 23 kilometers to another village where the road became better.
When they pulled the short cart up, I thought there was no way we could fit six bikes, riders and gear aboard. But we unloaded our bikes, removed the pedals for better stowage and then several men lifted them into the back of the cart and lashed them tight against one another. The majority of the bags fit along the other side of the wagon. The three gals sat on the front of the cart, two with their legs over the front edge and the third squished up to allow the driver to sit. David sat on bike tires; I was on the other side sitting on some bags and Dan perched on a couple of bike seats in back I think. No one had a comfortable seat. The three guys had to be aware of low hanging branches, especially the acacia.
The horse was small for the job at hand and, just as we headed off, he expressed his opinion of the whole situation by lifting his tail to eject a few road apples almost in the gal's laps. The driver was an older man who snapped his whip at the horse's rump periodically. I wondered how much of the fee he got to keep as a much younger village spokesman did all the negotiations since he was the one with the language skills. As is often the case in the States, I suspect the person who actually did the dirty work got far less than he deserved.
For more than an hour we bounced and swayed and jarred against bikes, gear and each other. I readjusted my position several times to avoid any permanent damage. The road ahead did have stretches of deep sand where we would have walked, especially with David's and Dan's thinner tires. However, much of the way was bikable. One advantage of the cart was the better perspective for seeing birds, and we saw many including the gawky red-billed hornbill, the gorgeous lilac-breasted roller, the long-tailed starling and colonies of weaver birds.
None too soon we arrived at our agreed upon destination where we removed and reassembled our bikes before a sold-out village crowd, just as at our loading. Again we were off on a very bumpy, slow road for maybe another ten miles. Although Dan's phone has GPS software which he and David consulted from time to time, it still seemed as if David was dead reckoning his way through the barren landscape. Contrary to appearances, we actually met many people along the way: villagers, herders, women pounding their millet and fellow travelers. Occasionally David would ask the way to Djenne. A couple of times we headed cross country to intercept a distant trail. But Djenne finally loomed up out of the visible heat waves giving us two options to navigate the lake between it and us: another pirogue ride or the bridge another two kilometers distant. We chose to bike to the bridge.
Our hotel is within a block of the Grande (and only) Mosque in Djenne. It is well appointed with showers, a toilet (sans seat, but with multiple squat types), a well in the courtyard with potable (we hope) water and a bar that also serves food. After a blissful shower (aren't they all?), a clothes washing session and a quick lie down, I walked around the Grande Mosque and then around town to find an internet (which I didn't have time to use) and then back to the hotel to meet the group for a walking tour around Djenne.
Of course, we first visited the Grande Mosque. The largest mud building in the world, it was first erected in 1907, but must be re-plastered periodically. The rainy season each year causes some disintegration which is repaired by the townspeople. The most recent reconstruction (which appeared to be still in progress) used much larger mud bricks with a stiffener that should last, according to our local guide, another ten years, a big improvement. The Mosque is a World Heritage Site and is considered by many one of those must-see world wonders.
We next walked to the edge of town where we ascended to a rooftop to view the city from above and then to the viewing room below to examine Djenne's mud painting cloth. Dan was delighted to renew his acquaintance with the proprietress whom he had met on his first Mali tour in the late 90s. Her son (I think) described how the cloth was made and decorated. Mud is really only used to produce the color black with native dyes and other techniques used for the other colors. April haggled to buy one of the cloths to use on the trip.
Our last stop in town was to view a couple of historic houses of note, one belonging to a marabout or Muslim holy man. Before supper I checked my e-mail and caught up with developments at home. We had supper at a nice restaurant where I had rotisserie chicken, half of one of the scrawny, tough local variety. I've seen legs nearly as large on a Cornish game hen. However, it tasted great, though the fries were not as good as those at our hotel's restaurant.
Dan and I have a nice fan in our room and can sleep here or on the roof. I think I'll opt for the bed tonight. Tomorrow is our longest ride at about 55 miles to Somadougou for another rural accommodation.
15 Nov 09, Sunday, Somadougou, 53 mi
We all slept well under the strong fan with nary a mosquito to be seen. Fire finches were cleaning our balcony of stray bugs as I emerged to get a morning picture of the Grande Mosque before we searched out breakfast. Yesterday afternoon the sun was hiding behind the mosque towers making for a dark picture. In full morning light the mosque was grand indeed.
I met up with the group and David walked us to a "restaurant" where omelets were reportedly available. David put in our order and the waiter disappeared. Twenty minutes later he emerged from the kitchen to say no eggs were available in Djenne this morning - such is West Africa or, using the phrase David notes in his pre-trip literature, WAWA - West Africa wins again. I tended to doubt this latest information as chickens in twos and threes were everywhere you looked in town as were wandering sheep, goats and even an occasional donkey. This has been true in every town. I suspect everyone recognizes Mrs. Bamahe's goats and Mr. Ahman's chickens, but I wonder if one of them ever goes missing. I have yet to see the equivalent of a "Have you seen my goat, Josef" poster around town.
Having wasted precious cool morning riding time, David led us to an even seedier establishment where we were handed a baguette and either tea or coffee au lait. In this single room, extremely humble building, the owner placed six glasses in front of us, added either a tea bag or scoop of instant coffee, opened a big kettle set over an open flame and scooped out hot water into each glass, ending with spoonfuls of either sugar or condensed milk as per order. It was quick, but left us with no protein for a long, hot ride.
On returning to our hotel, David arranged for transportation to Somadougou for Megan who had developed flu-like symptoms during the night. Finally we were off, later than was good for us. We backtracked our way over the causeway out of town and down the road a ways to the Bani River crossing where we eschewed the large ferry currently disgorging its passengers for a fast (i.e., motorized) pirogue. Our bikes were once again manhandled into the boat with all gear attached (I couldn't do that!), we climbed in after them and were off. On the far side of a short expanse the process was reversed after disrupting the bathing of a couple of nice looking horses which were thoroughly enjoying all the attention.
Our ride was hot, 90+ºF. We had a bit of a breeze that stayed somewhat cool all the way with a headwind component that provided some relief. We had cool drink stops at 30 km, 60 km and about 95 km throughout the ride. Once in awhile trees along the way would offer shade if we wanted to stop for a minute to get out of the sun. Sometime after the first stop, Dan hit a brick-sized stone that was in the road camouflaged by the rare shade from a tree and went down. It must have smarted and resulted in a bit of road rash on his knee with lesser scrapes on elbow and shoulder. Not thirty minutes later I had stopped along the road where a woman walking a donkey cart came very close and actually caught my pedal against the wheel pulling me backwards. I don't know how it happened or how I extracted myself without incident. It's these completely unexpected events can abruptly end a bike tour.
By the second rest stop, the heat and (probably) jet lag convinced Dan to catch a bus the rest of the way leaving four of us to complete the route. Besides a soda, I bought two of the 500 ml plastic bags of water we have seen around. David said they are manufactured locally. In addition to this, they contribute much less trash than the plastic bottles, they cost about half as much per quantity of water and they are cooler than anything else I've tried so far (I'm pretty sure they are frozen solid for shipping). From here on I plan to look for these first when I'm in need of water.
The last segment of our ride was just plain hot and we were all glad to see the town sign for Somadougou. David checked out a new auberge or small inn just outside town and settled on it as our new home. Megan called Laura to see where we were while David was off checking on the inn and biked to our location. When David returned we all biked into town where a large market was in full swing. It takes up both sides of the main road, often blocking traffic. We found Dan, got some cool drinks and then rode back out to our new digs where I had refreshing bucket bath and a short lie down before supper.
Meals have gone from being one of my favorite activities to one of my least favorite. We walked into town, by now full dark with no electricity. We ambled the length of the market to find what was available to eat. In a place like this there really aren't any eating establishments you would call restaurants, rather vendors cook maybe one or two dishes over open fires and you pick and choose what you want - a true moveable feast. Sometimes a bench or chairs will be available at one of the vendor's locations, but most of the locals seem to eat standing up or walking.
Tonight I settled on pieces of mutton that were edible (but just), a more than day-old baguette I split with Dan, some fried plantain (very good) and some French fries (so-so). We found a few chairs and sat balancing what we had chosen using whatever light we had brought to illuminate our meal. Megan, still suffering from her flu emptied her stomach, but then got most of a small meal down. Dan got a piece of mutton part way down, but it came immediately back up with everything else. Not a very pleasant meal. Tomorrow we have shorter mileage, but it will be on unpaved roads and there are no places to buy drinks and snacks on our way to a very rural destination. We'll see how it goes.
10 Nov 09, Monday, Niongono, 17 mi
I slept well last night. I carried my bamboo bed with pad onto my "veranda" and set my mosquito tent on it. I cooled surprisingly quickly. By 11 pm I pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and by 3 am I pulled on long pants and socks to go with my thin sheet. It was nice feeling cool.
David was able to get breakfast at 6 am and it was good. Our genial host had toasted sections of a baguette and put out butter, jam, and nut butter (either peanut or hazelnut) along with hot water for tea, coffee, or powdered milk. We set out from behind the auberge on a dirt path that connected to a dirt road in less than a mile.
The road was generally good but had some bumpy and sandy parts, the latter causing us to walk at times. Although we were in a barren place, we crossed several other dirt roads, many not more than paths, and came upon not more than a few other travelers, all local. Traveling this slow allows the flies access to your body and they peppered our faces with fetid kisses. Speaking of flies, the markets are full of them. They often nearly cover the meat and other foods laid out for sale. I saw one woman half-heartedly fanning her wares, but it was a futile exercise. Living with animals means you will be living with flies, and there are more animals than people in most towns here. As I write this the flies are thick.
The character of the land today is much different than we've yet seen. As soon as we left the auberge this morning, we began seeing hills and escarpments in the distance. At one point we came upon a double mesa that could have been in New Mexico.
The ride was mercifully short today. We all needed an easy day after yesterday. We arrived at Niongono about 10:30 am. Before we pushed our bikes up to the village itself, we stopped at the school in the valley below where we visited a couple of classrooms, and David and Dan gave out some school supplies they had brought for this purpose.
The last quarter mile to the spot David thinks we'll spend the night was a real push, literally and figuratively. It was up a steep slope over rocks and through sandy earth. The village has been built on the slope up to and then all along a double escarpment. The architecture is primarily stacked rock with mortar to chink the holes. The buildings use the natural rock features and blend right into the landscape. Water is carried from a pond visible from the scarp. Grain and other crops are spread onto the roofs to dry: millet and hibiscus flower (for a tea) are the two David pointed out. The village extends across a large area with a population that must be in the hundreds. Of course the kids not in school flocked to see the strangers and hung around to watch our every move for quite awhile.
David's contact was not here when we arrived, and we have now been waiting for several hours. It is not easy to pre-plan this trip. David told me that he sends letters to his contact but has no way to know if he ever gets them. So now we wait to see if we will be invited to stay in this village. At least we can find shady nooks (including the shade from a beautiful neme tree <I've not been able to verify this name>, one of the few such luxuries in the village) and there is a slight breeze. However, the group is getting restless. A bucket bath would feel wonderful about now … and then there are these damn flies.
About an hour ago David led a walk-about through the village which is indeed fascinating. The Dogon were originally animist but have since converted to Christianity and Islam. Of course, like most other people who convert, many of the old ways get integrated into the new beliefs. There is a small mosque in the village, though I did not see anything resembling a Christian church. More than most other peoples in Africa, the Dogon have resisted changes brought in from the outside world. I have seen nothing in this village that would have been out of place five hundred years ago (the school we visited is not in the village proper, but a quarter mile away). David told us (and I later read) that the Dogon still live their lives according to their traditional five-day week. Like everywhere in Mali, the village has a plethora of happy and relatively healthy children (we have seen a few not so healthy kids here, hernias of the navel seem particularly prevalent, but then it is much more remote than anyplace we've been yet). Given the number of children, I would expect many more squabbles, more crying, screaming, etc., but generally the kids are alert, happy, get along well together, and are very interested in the strangers.
17 Nov 09, Tuesday, Bandiagara, 17 mi
About 4 pm yesterday, the village chief came by to welcome us and to chat for awhile. Since we had no common language there were lots of silences. David tried to make the chief understand they had met before, but I don't think it sunk in. When he asked our nationalities he almost cooed over the Canadians and seemed upset when he heard four of us were from the USA. He went on a little tirade - David thinks he heard "Iraq" and "Iran" in there. The chief is a Muslim. He also repeatedly talked about visitors always taking photographs around the village, but we couldn't discern if he disapproved of this. Finally, he got up to leave and shook hands all around. Somewhere in there David gave him a stash of cola nuts that he had obtained at the market last night. Evidently they are the chief's favorite (drug of choice?).
Shortly after the chief left, school let out and another set of kids began to show up. Dan coaxed one youngster to open one of his school books and try to read. Dan tried too as he knows some French.
Finally, after a wait of at least five hours through the heat of the day, Isaka, our potential host arrived. If he was surprised to see us, it didn't show. He was a friendly and congenial host throughout the evening and this morning. He greeted all of us warmly and, with his arrival, things started happening. Buckets of water arrived and, while the gals began their bucket baths, I used Dan's filter to pump water bottles full - I had not completely rehydrated after the hot ride and proceeded to do so now.
Dan and I chose the roof of the building where we stored the bikes and our gear as our sleeping area and proceeded to move the necessities up using a thick pole with carved footholds and a 'Y' crook at the top. The other half of the roof was taken up with millet and hibiscus drying in the hot sun. The bucket bath was a great enjoyment; this trip certainly reduces pleasures to their basics.
Supper was preceded by hibiscus tea, flavorful and sweet, in a hodgepodge of cups Isaka had gathered from someplace, a welcome aperitif. Next we were served large bowls of rice infused with an all but invisible, but tasty, sauce. Not enough eating utensils were found, so some ate the Dogon way by balling up the rice in one hand and then scooping it into the mouth beginning at the back of the palm. I used the knife from Dan's wife's Girl Scout kit to shovel the rice into my pie-hole. While the rice looked plain, it nevertheless had that distant peppery burn. I found it a good and satisfying meal.
After eating, Isaka began a tea ceremony that David says has spread throughout West Africa and beyond. Using a small teapot and what looks like a tall shot glass, the tea is repeatedly poured from and returned to the pot to magnify its strength. Once the tea reached the appropriate strength and sweetness, very strong and sweet for the first serving to represent (bitter) death, a bit less strong and sweet on the second serving to represent (smooth) life and still less on the third serving to represent (sweet) love, Isaka poured half a glass and presented it to each of us in turn. When the first person was finished, he repeated the elaborate, almost choreographed ritual for the next and so on. One go-round took maybe half an hour. We never got to the third cup as David cut it off so we could get to sleep. I can report that both of the first two rounds were tasty, strong and sweet … so much so that I wondered if we would be too wired to sleep, but that didn't happen. A popular book currently making the rounds called Three Cups of Tea describes a similar ritual in Afghanistan.
Sleeping on the roof was pleasant. We had the African night sky from horizon to horizon at our viewing pleasure. During Dan's last tour here, it was in this village that the group had the remarkable experience of viewing the height of the Leonid meteorite shower from this position. A couple of satellites and meteorites were all I saw. During the night the breeze turned into a wind that luffed my netting. By about 4 am when I again looked up, I could see only a circle of stars directly overhead; those near the horizon were obscured except for a few bright stars. By morning, it felt like the obscuration had reached to the level of our moderate redoubt and things looked hazy even close at hand. The night wind had riled the region's dust.
We were up and ready long before breakfast was served. Isaka moved us into the enclosure to eat. Our meal was rice gruel with sugar along with more of that wonderful hibiscus tea. The group had different reviews of the gruel. I liked it and ate two large cupfuls (again no utensils). It was peppery with a bit of heat smoldering in the aftertaste. With sugar, I found it tasty, not unlike thin oatmeal.
Today's ride was similar to yesterday's but more rugged. The trail went from uneven rocks to sand to deeper sand which caused us to dismount and push more often than yesterday adding maybe an hour to the overall ride. The sandy stretches both of the last two days revealed myriad tracks of nocturnal residents, though no wild beasties larger than a fox had plied these same paths. Surprisingly absent was wild animal scat which is plentiful on our southwestern trails. I've often wondered, with so much country to choose from, why mammals in the American Southwest so often dump their do on manmade trails. My conclusion has been that they are sending messages to us, the intruders into their homes. Could it be that African mammals, having evolved with man for many thousands of years more, accept man as part of their landscape? Or maybe the African bush meat trade has made them wary of revealing their very presence?
Today we crossed one dry river, one with some water, and one flowing nicely, but mostly this is dry country. At one point David and Dan consulted the GPS to confirm David's memory of the network of roads and paths (all dirt) in the area; it was nice to get the confirmation since trails headed in all directions. Occasionally we would divert onto single-track paths when a road became too sandy, sometimes for a good distance. I kept imagining what people back home would say if they saw us heading out into the African bush on tracks generally unmarked and unmaintained in temperatures pushing 100ºF. David's tour group definitely provides a unique biking experience. We saw exactly one motorized, four-wheeled vehicle on the road today.
About four miles out of Bandiagara we hit a main road. The wind, which had been pleasant when we began the morning, cool without offering much resistance, had stiffened the hour before and, even at the 5-8 mph speeds we were pedaling, it began to feel like a real headwind. On the main road, as we goosed up our speed on the nice asphalt, it now pushed back even harder. But it was a short haul and soon we were passing the unmistakable signs that a largish town loomed nigh: billboards. Just before hitting the town I pulled up to take a photo of a pond completely surrounded by white egrets. I couldn't tell what was causing the confab; most were just standing around rather than fishing.
Our hotel in Bandiagara is nice by ibike standards. A pleasant courtyard with garden, outdoor showers in clay cubicles (one with a seat-less toilet over a hole), a roof where we can take our bedding if inside proves too stuffy, beds with mosquito netting, and even (purportedly) potable water, but no indoor plumbing at all. Still, the staff will run out to get cold drinks at good prices if requested and that is a real plus in this climate.
Within five minutes of arriving I was under the shower and in another five I was sitting on the veranda with a couple of cold drinks (Coca Cola, if you must know, the first in a very long time). While others went to lunch, David and I walked to an internet with a very slow connection. On the way there, we passed our first togu na or traditional meeting place for men sitting alone on a crowded street. It has a construction unique to its purpose. The building's most striking feature is its roof which is made of sticks (later we saw roofs of millet stalks), thickly interwoven to three or four feet, impermeable to rain or the sun's heat, making it one of the coolest places in town. It is round and mostly open with seats for maybe twenty people. This is a place where men go to have council meetings, no women allowed. David told us that the ceiling is so low it is impossible to stand up straight within the building. Traditionally this is to ensure that the meetings don't get too heated because it is very difficult to fight or even rant and rave when you are bent over.
Afterwards I enjoyed a short walking tour and then returned to the hotel to soak my shirt again. I had washed out my shorts, pants and shirt and then put them on to dry, a technique I've found comforting in a hot, dry climate. Today I've soaked my shirt several times, once when we crossed a stream flowing across the road. The shirt was dry again in about one mile. Nevertheless, this personal a/c technique is one few use, but it is effective.
18 Nov 09, Wednesday, Kanikombole, 17 mi
The highlight at supper last night was a ginger juice called sirop de gingembre on the menu. David said it was a local drink. Besides the wonderfully strong ginger taste, it leaves a slow burn suffusing mouth and throat. I'll have to tell friend Trudy who loves all things ginger. She would get many complements serving it at her next soiree. For the rest of supper I had a tasty spaghetti with tomato and bean sauce with a delicious baguette.
Dan and I stayed at the restaurant to have another ginger drink and then stumbled and fumbled our way back to Hotel Salimbe. In rural Africa when it gets dark, it takes no prisoners. Each time I've tried to navigate after dark I've got a bit disoriented, never a dire situation, but a humbling one since I am generally very comfortable in the dark.
All but David slept atop the hotel roof last night. A neighboring building had an outdoor light that illuminated the top third of my mosquito net tent all night so there was no effective star gazing. I inserted my earplugs to block out city noise and the nocturnal rooster calls and donkey brays and slept through the night, an unusual occurrence for me any time. In the morning I removed them in time to hear muezzin calls from two mosques while I performed my morning stretches. Most places we've been I've heard at least one of the five daily calls to prayer. Islam has permeated this part of Africa quite thoroughly. By the way I forgot to mention that I saw the muezzin at the famous Djenne mosque sounding the call from one of the mosque walls, something I have not witnessed before. In fact the Djenne mosque doesn't have a traditional minaret.
After a light breakfast of tea and a baguette with a little jelly, we set off for a rural Dogon village along the Bandiagara Cliffs. The wind had come up again early this morning before dawn and the atmosphere was filled with a smoky/dusty haze that lasted through a very hazy sunset tonight. The good news is that it severely lessened the heat and glare from the sun that we have experienced every day since we arrived. On the downside, it's causing my body's natural filtering mechanisms to work overtime. Unfortunately, the haze lessened the impact of the spectacular long range vistas we had today for the first time.
Again today, the route was completely rural with only a couple of small villages to break up the landscape. The road was red hardpan most of the way, turning to irregular cobblestone-like rock mosaic through myriad dry washes, certainly a great improvement during the rainy season. Towards the end of the ride, as we descended from the top of a high escarpment, we enjoyed long stretches of paved road with a few switchbacks thrown in to soften the grade. These improvements have greatly eased the access to the Dogon villages which are probably Mali's greatest tourist draw.
Along the way we passed a couple Dogon villages with bright green fields of onions, a Dogon staple, and paragons within both the banyan and baobab families - simply gorgeous, great trees. I'm so happy that the deforestation on massive scales in certain parts of Africa where every tree is harvested has not happened here. We also experienced a couple of bike problems: April broke her chain going up our first real hill and Megan took a low-speed spill which, unfortunately, chipped a tooth, earned her multiple bruises and contusions, sprung three spokes and broke her rear gear shifter right off. Although very sore, Megan was a trooper and rode the five kilometers to our destination village after David and Dan made her bike ridable again.
The Dogon escarpment is impressive, rugged, and grayish, not red like the Malian earth we have been riding through so far. The Cliffs stretch for maybe forty miles and Dogon villages are situated all along the cliff face; the whole area has been deemed a world heritage site. The ride down was only about 600 feet but, after a week of flat riding, it was fun. Dan and I stopped before the last downhill swoop to view Kanikombole, our destination, from above, a view as pretty and serene as any I've seen. A small stream, still running strong after the rainy season, was pulsing down a canyon green on both sides with healthy plants. As your eye followed the flow, the canyon opened up to show the stream flowing across a dry African plain with a village situated to take advantage of what must be a clean and convenient water source. David told us that in a few months the stream would dry up again, but for now, it added to a beautiful tableau.
Having descended to the bottom, our group followed David to the Kanikombole tourist center. On the way we passed a stately baobab tree whose lower branches were crammed with animal fodder giving it an even more bizarre appearance than normal for this strange tree. This storage method ensures the stock does not get into its feed; it must be cheaper than building a storage shed. The tourist center seems a relatively new addition, a place to invite guests complete with western creature comforts such as cold beer, soda and water. We took advantage of all three as well as relaxing at their shady lunch table where we eventually had lunch accompanied again by the first two of the three tea ceremony servings - once again we had to do without "love."
We are staying here tonight, and I am writing this from my mosquito net tent atop one of the guest buildings. It is already comfortably cool. Again, to reach our sleeping area we climb to the roof up a notched tree trunk that forks at the top to steady it against the building. This one seems to be attached to the wall as well which is a good thing because it is a higher climb than two nights ago.
After lunch we relaxed through the hot part of the day until about 4 pm when David hired a guide to walk the three gals and me to an abandoned Dogon village located part way up a cliff face about three kilometers distant. Just above the Dogon ruins you can still see remnants of an even older community, the Tellem, who were reportedly small in stature - the size of their structures support this conclusion.
On the walk to the ruins, the two Canadian gals chatted with our local guide in French about Dogon history, local custom, and things we were seeing along the way. We also got a large dose of his personal history and philosophy. They translated to April and me as they were able. It was a pleasant walk as the sun was now largely obscured by the haze which cut the heat. Dogon life was continuing around us with people working in the fields, children carrying sheaves of stalks, and women pounding millet. Quite often we passed people who would go through the Dogon's ritualistic greeting with our guide, a long series of questions and responses about the health and wellbeing of multiple family members taking a full minute or two. The lack of enthusiasm of both parties during these little ceremonies made me thing of any number of traditions performed by rote in our own culture - when was the last time you were greeted, "good morning" or asked "how are you?" by anyone who really meant it? However, when our guide met his friends along the way, the greetings were much different; they were effusive where the former had been staid, friendly where the former were noncommittal. The contrast was striking. Again I saw parallels from home.
We passed through two villages on the way to the cliff dwellings. In the second we stopped at another tourist "hotel" to use the facilities and drink a soda, the latter a goodwill gesture. David later told us this hotel was not there seven years ago when he was last here.
The cliff dwellings reminded me of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest and the histories of the peoples who inhabited them are also similar. Both were fleeing enemies. The Dogon refused to yield to the Islamic wave that was surging through sub-Saharan Africa and migrated here and down into Burkina Faso to the south from the Congo. The cliff gave them a measure of protection.
The buildings themselves are in good shape. Our guide pointed out the Dogon's male and female granaries. The female are the more complex, being divided into four quadrants with a center section that contained valuables, whereas the male are not divided at all. He also showed us where the sacred ones, the ougon (I think this is what he said), lived in their ritualistically painted dwellings. Before it got dark we descended to the active village below to view their beautiful mosque and, of course, to look over the objects d'art on sale to tourists. But this tourist trap was much more laid back than almost any other I've experienced; these Dogon are clearly in the early steps of the tourist industry. However, the kids are learning as they pressed their small wares on us with a relentless intensity absent from their adult counterparts.
It was full dark before we reached our hotel and another hour or more before supper was ready. David had asked them to prepare us a typical Dogon meal: a sauce with chicken quarters over beans. It was very good. Chicken here is a far cry from the meaty, farm bred, chemically and genetically enhanced fowl we get in the States. These bear more resemblance to jungle fowl. They are small, tough, and have far less meat. Nevertheless, they are tasty and hit the spot tonight.
Tomorrow we retrace our route to Bandiagara and then fifteen kilometers beyond it. Everyone is anticipating the climb up the escarpment in the morning, one way or another. Actually, it shouldn't be too tough; it's just that we've seen no other real hill on this tour.
One more note before signing off: since arriving I've seen exactly one jet contrail and no other airplane or helicopter. That is certainly one measure of Mali's remoteness.
Now I'll sign off. In the last few moments I've been listening to some night bird off in the distance. Having never heard it before, I'd guess it's in the goat sucker family (i.e., nighthawks, nightjars, whip-poor-wills, etc.); at least the call has that same quality. Also, the bats have finally arrived tonight to knock down the flying insect population. I hope they target any mosquitoes carrying the malaria organism first - I trust my malaria pills, but one can never be too careful. Til tomorrow …
19 Nov 09, Thursday, Songo, 26 mi
The wind blew hard enough to rattle my tent at irregular intervals last night so I did not sleep as well as the night before. It was certainly quiet and dark enough though. I could tell the air is still full of dust by the many fewer stars to be seen and the gritty layer on my tent floor. I guess my net tent acts as a good seine as well so I just get the finer dust particles. Breakfast was millet pancakes or graïllé with jelly and tea. The pancakes were greasy but very tasty. Had I a napkin (of which I've seen maybe two this trip), I'd have patted the excess oil from the graïllé.
Megan decided to hitch a ride back to Bandiagara along the same route we came yesterday as she was still very sore from her spill. The plan was for me to stay with her until she got a ride. The others would ride ahead and I would catch up later. Although a workable plan, it was not to be. We all rode out of the Kanikombole together since David told Megan she would have better luck outside the village. At the junction with the main road, three big SUVs were just getting ready to go and we thought we had the problem solved right off. Unfortunately, they were completely full and had no room for another rider and a bike.
So we all started up the first segment of the escarpment. Megan rode until her limited gearing ran out and then walked. I rode slowly beside her as my mountain bike gearing has a low gear that is about walking speed. For the first mile or so we all stayed pretty close together. David talked to a French group in the first camper vans I've seen this trip, but they were going in the other direction. The first vehicle with any promise was a tractor pulling a wagon with a half dozen locals aboard. Megan and I considered it, but felt it probably was not going far. In pretty good time we made it to the top of the escarpment. By this time Dan had joined us, and we continued towards town, Megan now able to ride the flat parts. To make a long story short, Megan rode the whole way to Bandiagara and then on to Songo. We saw zero acceptable vehicles going in our direction and only one other vehicle (packed full) other than the original tractor.
Once close to Bandiagara, we had a few directional decisions to make and were aided by Dan's GPS device. In Bandiagara, we met the other three at our former hotel where we hydrated, relaxed and were treated to fresh watermelon. The melon was surprisingly insipid and not sweet at all. David said he has tasted sweeter melons here. We then rode into town so those who wanted lunch could get it and finally started the last ten miles to Songo. The first seven miles were paved with a tail wind, very pleasant riding compared to the last few days. Then we turned onto another hard-packed dirt road for the last few miles.
Our Songo hotel has significantly improved since David was here last. We got one room in which to store our kits with a shower, toilet and sink! We will be sleeping on mattresses on the roof tonight. After a short rest David arranged a local guide who walked us through Songo again pointing out male and female granaries, the elder's meeting building with its traditional low roof, and other items of interest. One building had the skins of a honey badger and civet cat drying on the wall. Certainly the highlight was a tour of the male circumcision area in an open rock cave in the cliffs above the village. Our guide demonstrated the use of an unusual musical instrument that is part of the ceremony but could not play it as that is against custom. The cave wall was covered with vivid paintings, mostly bright red but with some black and white as well. Some extended 15-20 feet up the wall. As I understood his explanation, each participant adds a painting after the ceremony and the several day isolation period in a hut outside the village. A group of boys go through the ceremony together when they come of age, just prior to puberty.
Next our guide hiked four of us to the top of a mesa a short distance from the current village. Here he showed us the remains of the old village where the Dogon first moved while trying to avoid the Peul people who were pushing Islam. He also showed us the old circumcision site under a low shelf of rock. From the number of paintings, it looks like they did not live here long.
By the time we hiked down from the mesa and back to our hotel, a shower and refreshments were in order, and everyone partook according to their own priorities. The sun again set into the hazy west and, in West Africa time, we were served spaghetti with mild tomato sauce and anemic chicken or some other fowl, perhaps one of the guinea hens we see scrabbling around the village.
The next couple days could end up merging together. Tomorrow we first ride back to Sevare to catch a bus to Bamako, but David said that bus ride could put us in Bamako anywhere from 11 pm tomorrow night to 11 am the next morning!
20 Nov 09, Friday, Sevare bus station, 32 mi
When I removed my earplugs this morning, the cacophony of a pre-dawn African village assaulted my ears: roosters crowing, burros braying and, soon, a curiously abbreviated pre-dawn call to prayer and, specific to Songo, the steady hum of feedback from the muezzin's sound system that we had noticed on our tour yesterday, but lessened at this distance or perhaps attenuated by the downright chilly pre-dawn air. Even after pulling on a fleece shirt, long pants and socks sometime after midnight, I was still uncomfortably cool, but not such that it kept me awake. The wind had died down before dusk and the night was still so that I slept well. I lay quietly awhile absorbing the ambiance of our last village night in Mali.
Breakfast was baguettes with jam and tea. Megan's ride showed up and she prepared to go as soon as her escort could start his motorcycle. She had sold her $200 used bicycle to our guide from yesterday for $15, solving one problem for her and the group. From days of practice packing, we were ready to ride by 7 am and it was a fast, pleasant ride. We hit the main Bandiagara-Sevare road after three miles on dirt and enjoyed a paved road with a decent amount of riding room outside the white line and a nice tailwind bonus.
Dan and I took up our post in the rear. School was about to start and we passed many school children on the road who shouted out the refrain, "toubab, toubab" or "foreigner, foreigner." A couple of boys on bikes raced past us, but I poured on the heat and scorched them before their school turnoff. It's fun to see their shock as I pull up beside them, a greybeard on a bike.
About half way to Sevare we found Megan standing on the side of the road just ready to remount the motorcycle after some problem. Then seven miles outside Sevare we met her again. This time her ride was getting a ride on the back of a horse cart. The motorcycle's tire was flat, and motorcycle, driver, Megan and her bags had all been loaded onto the cart along with the other riders and gear; it was a very full cart. This time we beat her to Sevare.
By the time we arrived, David had decided on a noon bus to Bamako. We unpacked the bikes, consolidated gear to take aboard with us, (eventually) removed the pedals, and sat down to wait. The gals immediately disappeared to find lunch while Dan and I snacked on peanuts (a common snack bought in small plastic bags) and talked with David. Before long we decided to wander around to try and score some of the nice grapefruit-flavored drink I'd had before, but we changed our minds when David told us a lady was selling that wonderful ginger drink in the next bay. Because the ginger drink is locally made, it is a little different every time you try it. Also, you're playing a game of chance since each batch is probably made with the local tap water and sold in used, maybe washed bottles. However, the cold ginger's fiery sweet taste is worth the gamble.
If all goes well (no breakdowns, on-time departure), we will arrive in Bamako around 9 pm. As mentioned, David has seen this turn into an all night ride, but I'm willing to pass up this particular West Africa adventure.
21 Nov 09, Saturday, Bamako
Well, all did not go well. Both the normal noon-ish buses to Bamako were very late. Ours finally arrived around 3 pm, and we rushed to load our bikes in the back compartment of the bus along with various other transportable goods including three live sheep trussed up and then stuffed into bags with just their heads showing. I've seen a couple of buses with roofs completely covered with the beasts, maybe fifty of them - an unusual sight!
While one in our group watched our gear, two helped load the bikes, and the others piled aboard the soon-to-be-packed bus to try to get seats together. All this was quickly accomplished, and we were soon stewing in our own juices in the stifling bus. David again reminded us of the West African concept of time against which a westerner's only defense is the patience of Job. Of course the bus had no air conditioning but, once we got moving, a modicum of breeze permeated the bus from a couple rooftop openings. Unfortunately, until we got out of town, we spent more time stopped than we did moving.
We proceeded relatively smoothly, stopping at small towns along the way which gave local entrepreneurs time to quickly clamber aboard to hawk their wares: sliced papaya in a plastic bag was a favorite, but also water and other drinks, baked goods, grilled meat on a stick, etc. The sun set around 6 pm and with the dusk came an abatement of the intense heat. The flat, barren African landscape with scattered trees and the occasional village took on a romantic aura in the evening gloam intensified by haze. And then it was night, and all I could see was the strip of land along the road illuminated by the bus's headlights. Some towns we passed through had electricity, most were dark except for flashlights and lanterns used by the vendors. Occasionally I would see the unmistakable glow of a television screen through an open door or, more often, the TV itself was outside where it was marginally cooler. We have seen some evidence of solar panels along our route, even in some remote places; lights, refrigeration, and TVs are the favorite uses. It's great to see the leapfrog of technology which provides benefits without the high infrastructure costs of traditional distribution schemes.
Inside the bus there was general chatter at the start of the ride which tapered off to nothing by the end, punctuated by new bursts of talk as we neared stops. A fair number of people received cell phone calls as coverage seems to be decent throughout the country. I don't find that being forced to endure loud, one-sided conversations in other languages quite as irritating, but I still think it's rude. I read until it got dark, but Dan continued off and on throughout the night since his cell phone is backlit and ready for use as long as the battery is charged. He let me read the prologue to his current book and, I must say, it worked quite well - who'da thunk, a battery powered book! I suppose if any feature would convince me to buy one of these i-phone gadgets, this might be it. The convenience on a plane or in a tent both in terms of size and utility is clear. … and I understand they can do other things as well such as play music, connect to the internet, make phone calls, but these features would be incidental to me.
Sometime near dusk, the bus made a toilet/prayer stop in the middle of nowhere and everyone got out, chose a spot, and did one or the other. We didn't observe any of the other Islamic devotional times, so the timing might have been coincidental. A bit after 9 pm we stopped for supper. I was much more interested in water by this point and immediately made my purchase: four 500 ml plastic bags of water, one of which actually had a chunk of ice in it. I feel better about buying water this way since the plastic trash is greatly reduced from the big plastic bottles and, from what I've seen in Mali, the cities and towns are drowning in trash. I don't think I've seen any place with as much refuse lying around. I bought my bags and was quoted a price about twice what I had paid before: 100 CFA/bag vs. 50 CFA/bag, but it was a seller's market so what could I do? However, about five minutes after buying the water, the young vender ran up to me and deposited two 100 CFA coins in my hand bringing the price down to 50 CFA/per bag. I'm not sure what the misunderstanding was when I first purchased the bags, but his honesty was refreshing, especially in a society that embraces wheeling and dealing the way the Malians do.
In addition to the water, I treated Dan to a shot glass of the thick, sweet Malian tea, and he shared his handful of chopped lamb. A young man followed us for some time after Dan inquired the price of some "store bought" cookies he was selling (the first I've seen here, though I haven't looked for them). He had first quoted 750 CFA and wouldn't quite come down to our 500 CFA price. Neither of us was particularly keen on them; we had just been curious what commercial items cost here.
Only a few minutes after our supper stop, the bus stopped again and, after several minutes, the engine was finally turned off. Evidently, we had some sort of breakage, so everyone debussed again. We stood around chatting for a good hour on the side of the road while a crew worked under the rear of the bus. We never knew what the problem was, but these breakdowns are a common occurrence.
From there on it is mostly a blur. We finally reached Bamako around 4:30 am. Who knows what all went into the additional four hours from the normal nine hour ride. Certainly part of it was the breakdown, but we also had a couple of detours off the main highway to dirt roads, and I noticed that after the breakdown we went gingerly over the many speed bumps on the roads and traveled more slowly overall. I might've taken a couple of very short naps, and many people slept most of the time after midnight. I was certainly groggy by the time we arrived in Bamako. Even so, we still had to put our bikes together, load them with our gear, find a taxi for Megan, and then ride the five kilometers in the dark to our hotel, a strange, dreamlike sequence in a mostly deserted town.
By the time I had showered, unpacked and gotten into bed, it was 5:30 am. I put in my earplugs, put a shirt over my eyes and tried to sleep regardless of the five other people in the room doing the same thing. After all I didn't want to miss breakfast at 7 am. And we didn't! We were all seated for the lovely, fresh baguettes, jam, hot tea and coffee with cake or yogurt. I've tried to take a couple naps today, but neither took. We had a great lunch at the hotel: salad and a vegetable quiche dish. We boxed our bikes, I took a quick dip in the chilly pool, and now we're just hanging out waiting for our evening plane to Paris. David took a couple of the gals in town to do errands and there changed some West African CFAs to Central African CFAs for Dan and me so we'll have some local currency when we arrive in Cameroon tomorrow. The two CFAs trade one to one, so I'm not sure why they haven't merged. Regardless, we are now set.
Dan and I fly to Paris tonight and then back to Cameroon tomorrow morning. I know it sounds crazy, but our other option (Casablanca) is even more costly. The rest of the afternoon and evening is devoted to packing and lunging and, hopefully, sleeping.
22 Nov 09, Sunday, in the air to Douala, Cameroon
I got essentially no sleep before boarding the plane last night and maybe a little shuteye on the overnight to Paris. Our taxi to the airport in Bamako was hassle free and got us there in plenty of time. As soon as I pulled my bike box into the check-in line, an aggressive airline representative came up and asked if this was a vello (i.e., bicycle) and repeated several times "you pay; you pay; you pay" rather ominously I thought. However, when I got to the front of the line, he was nowhere in sight, and the polite man checked in both the bike and my bag at no additional cost. I had talked to the three gals who all had different experiences checking their bikes to Mali; two paid $50 and one paid nothing! It seems the airlines are still inconsistent with their pricing (of course, they have never been consistent). I have been told that Air France shouldn't charge when I go home so I'm crossing my fingers about the charges when I leave Douala in a couple weeks.
The flight to Paris was uneventful with a decent meal in route, as was our long wait at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. I found some plush chairs we could better sleep in and we both took naps. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep will continue as we arrive at 8:30 pm in Douala and have to find our luggage, get through customs, hire a taxi, meet Julius, our Cameroonian guide at the hotel, and maybe assemble our bikes yet tonight as we have a long day tomorrow.