A Travellerspoint blog

Mali – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part Two

sunny 50 °C
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“We're going to die in here!” Eduardo moaned after five minutes on our way to Mopti. He was probably right. With no air-conditioning and no open windows, the bus was suffocatingly hot. I tried to calm him down. Surely it would getter better soon, when the bus started driving faster, and we would catch a breeze from the open front door.

The problem was that the bus never really started moving. It took us an hour just to get out of Segou. Every two minutes the driver would stop to pick up new passengers and cargo. You want to ride with us? No problem. No space? Well, you can sit on a stool between the seats. No free stools? OK, you can sit on top of someone else. That's fine. No worries. Just pay me, and you can come along.

The bus advanced at snail's pace. Truly. Everyone was picked up. Everywhere. Even if we had just stopped one minute earlier, we stopped again. After half an hour at the bus terminal in San, we stopped right outside the gate to pick up more people, then again at the next corner. We picked up people, boxes, carpets, motorbikes, furniture, goats, chicken. Anything. And the more people entered, the hotter it got. We were bathing in sweat, barely being able to breathe, like sitting in a sauna fully dressed.

After three hours on the road, Eduardo was furious. “Hey driver, stop picking up more people!” he screamed into the driver's face. “We're dying in here!” But the bus driver and conductor just laughed. They didn't care. They were making money. No one else in the bus said anything. They just sat there, silently suffering for ten long, unbearably hot hours.

But if the West African buses are hell for humans, the animals fare far worse. On our return ride to Segou, the bus stopped to pick up a man and his cargo. The poor goats were carried as bags, their legs tied together, hanging upside down. When they hurled the screaming goats onto the roof, and they crashed down on the hard metal, I wanted to kill the bastards. Those self-righteous, greedy monsters didn't deserve to live. But I bit my tongue. My protests, especially being a woman, would not be heard. I was nobody, and unfortunately could not change a culture where men only respect men, and women and animals have no rights.

I spent the rest of the ride unsuccessfully trying to filter out the wails of pain from the goats as they bounced on the hard roof over the potholed road.

And, yes, I did cry.

Posted by Kristi D 14:53 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Segou – An Oasis in West Africa

sunny 38 °C
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After travelling for over two months in West Africa, every town started looking pretty much the same: dusty, dirty lanes with mud-brick houses and rickety shacks. But when we entered Segou, Eduardo and I turned to each other, perplexed. What was this? Segou actually looked cute.

This small town of about 100,000 inhabitants should be a model for all cities in the region. Incredibly lush, with tree-lined streets, colonial style houses and numerous outdoor restaurants, it's a perfect place to rest a couple of days on the long journey between Bamako and Mopti. We spent a couple of days walking along the banks of the Niger river, taking in the action at the port and enjoying a cold beer or two at the many bars. Eduardo also took on the local kids' football team, where he successfully scored a goal. The goalkeeper was helpless, trying to catch the ball between goalposts made of a big stone and an empty can.

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One afternoon, we took a moto to Segou Koro, a village that used to be the center of the Bambara kingdom, nine kilometers outside of town. With more mud-brick buildings and three small mosques, the most interesting part of the visit was meeting the village chief to whom you have to pay a visitor's tax. Heaps of children followed us around, begging for money, candy, photos (for a fee, of course!), my sunglasses, or something, just anything.

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Segou, on the other hand, stayed lovely. Although it was pretty dead during Ramadan when we visited, the town comes alive in early February when it hosts Mali's largest music event, the annual Festival Sur Le Niger. The rest of the year, there are plenty of live music places to dance the night away.

But the town redeemed itself on Eid Al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when the little boys, dressed up like gangsters in their new suits, walked around town. Suddenly everyone was happy and smiling again, after a month of daytime starvation.

So if you ever find yourself in West Africa, don't miss Segou, the pearl of Mali!

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Posted by Kristi D 14:51 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Baba Sacko and The Importance on Doing Internet Research

semi-overcast 36 °C
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“I heard you're interested in doing a trip to Dogon?” said the round-faced man in a shiny purple "pajamas" outside our hostel in Bamako. “Well, maybe,” I answered reluctantly. “Well, I'm going there on Thursday, and I already have an Italian guy and Japanese girl interested, so you should come along".

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Baba Sacko talked a good talk, spoke good English and seemed to know his way around Mali, so we listened and took him under consideration. The price was high but negotiable, and the timing right. But just before sealing the deal, Eduardo and I needed to discuss. Was Baba the right guy, did we like him, and how much did we want to pay? So we did what we always do – a background check.

"DO NOT travel with Baba Sacko"
"Baba Sacko is a douchebag"
"I completely agree that Baba Sacko is a liar and thief of the worst degree"

The comments weren't very nice. In fact, there was not a single positive word about Baba Sacko. But were the comments about the same person we had met, or could there be two guides with the same name? Then again, how can it be possible to be a guide for twenty years and not a single person recommends you?

As Eduardo and I were contemplating next steps, Baba Sacko walked in the door of the internet cafe.

"So, have you decided?" he demanded, eager to make an easy $500.
When we d confronted him with all the terrible comments about him on the internet, Baba shrugged. "That's not me," he insisted, as we had guessed he would. "Besides, I'm not a guide, I'm a Director of Marketing"
But someone had specifically mentioned that this horrible Baba was indeed a Director of Marketing, so we apologized, and told him we just could not take the risk of using him as our guide to the Dogon country.

Coincidentally, we got to know a German guy a couple of weeks later. He had met a Baba - most likely the same man - at the airport. This Baba warned him about the dangers of Bamako and instead brought him to a guide-infested hostel in a small town outside of Bamako. One night, when taking a walk, one of Baba's guide friends offered him a drag off a joint. But as soon as the German guy put the joint to his moth, a police appeared to arrest him. Panicked, the German guy called Baba, who arrived in a minute and told him to pay 500 Euro or go to prison for ten years. The German guy paid, packed his bags and escaped, not knowing that he had fallen victim for a common scam.

Hearing his story, whether it was the same Baba or not, we felt lucky we had done the research and had the wisdom to turn down this thief.

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Posted by Kristi D 14:47 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Bamako – Hot Nights at Djembe

semi-overcast 33 °C
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Mali is perhaps mostly famous for its music. People from all over the world congregate to the butterfly-shaped country to see superstars like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Amadou et Mariam, as well as other, less-known talent.

In Bamako, where music seems to be a necessity of life, there are live music bars for any size wallets and tastes. Tourists and upper-class locals pack the expensive Le Diplomat every night, while others get their fill at places like Oumou Sangare's Wassulu Hotel, Buffet de la Gare, Blonbar or Le Hongon. But during Ramadan, when everyone else closes shop, there is a place where the night really swings. In the Lafiabougou district, Djembe calls on the infidels with raw, powerful rhythms, and some of the best musicians we've ever heard.

Djembe is like an aging queen with a youthful spirit. Once upon a time, the locale must have been splendid with its art deco interior and lush garden bar. But it's seems the place hasn't been maintained in the last thirty years, and everything is pretty much broken or falling apart. Someone has punched a hole in the wave-shaped wall decoration, the couch-covers are ripped to shreds, the mirror-ball has lost most of its tiles, and the paint is peeling off the walls. The bathroom is the worst we've seen anywhere, with an unfastened toilet bowl hanging on its side, leaving a big hole at its base, wall paper rolling up due to humidity, and an unimaginable stench to go with it. Forget about being able to flush the toilet, wash your hands or lock the door. Not in this place.

But despite its gritty exterior, this place has a soul that's hard to beat. When the djembe player starts beating the drum with alternatively soft, then hard slaps, having total control of the softness and loudness of the sound, it's heaven. Accompanied by guitarists, kora players and a drummer, its easy to fall in love with the sound. It's easy to think you've never heard anything sound that good before. But when the singer enters the stage, and starts wailing with a voice that sounds like the worst pain you've ever known, crying to the world with sadness of lost love, a broken heart, anger and the longing for retribution, you think you've died and gone to heaven. The music enters your body, your soul, and makes you part of it. You smile, you dance, you love.

The place starts filling up before midnight, and by one o'clock it's jamming. Lots of men, mostly in the African-style long dresses and pants with bold, colorful patterns, and some with laced pajama-style wear. The few women, some girlfriends, some prostitutes, all wear the traditional style clothes with long sleeves and long skirts. Only one girl, as singer, wears a t-shirt and jeans. She looks really good.

A drunk man who is having a fight with his lady, dances alone on the floor, unsteadily marching along. Tall and cool, looking exactly like Malcolm X, he fascinates us with his moves, until he gets so drunk he crashes into tables, dances into the singer.

Most people don't drink that much. They come to enjoy the music, hang out and be free. Some dance, but mostly this place is about listening to the band. And man, is it a good place!

Posted by Kristi D 04:09 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Niger – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part One

sunny 42 °C
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I almost hit the ceiling, and then crashed down hard on the armrest of my seat. Eduardo couldn't help laughing out loud. We had just hit a speed bump on the highroad between Agadez and Birni N'Konni. It wasn't huge, but riding in a bus without shocks means that any inconsistencies, pot holes or slight bumps make you fly like a bird.

The first thing you learn about West African buses is that what you see is not what you get. A bus that looks in fairly decent shape from the outside can be a total wreck mechanically. And on the contrary, a bus that looks like it belongs in a junk yard can actually be quite comfortable and run smoothly.

In Niger, all bus drivers seem to have one thing in common – making every ride a suicide mission. Not because they long to go to Paradise as martyrs and marry seventy young virgins, but because the faster you drive, the more money you make in one day. And driving through a village at full speed, where goats, children and women have to run out of the way in order not to get killed, must be totally normal to these lunatics.

After the first twenty minutes of the nine hour ride to “Konni”, we learned that when the bus slows down, it means there's an obstacle. And to avoid getting hurt, you have to lift your butt off the seat so that you don't fly away when the bus hits it. But when the bus driver forgot to reduce the speed, everyone in the overcrowded bus went flying through the air and slammed down hard. And screamed like pigs in a slaughterhouse.

Outside, the semi-desert landscape passed by; miles and miles of red soil, dunes of sand, and in a few spots bushes, trees and tufts of grass. Every now and then we would pass a nomadic camp with round, temporary huts made of long twigs and covered with canvases, old clothes and any other material they could find. Along the road where carcasses of camels and cows, some recently passed and others semi-rotten or completely skeletonized. A Tuareg on a camel appeared out of the bush, his face completely masked by a black turban, and a large sable hanging off the belt of his long blue kaftan. Frightening, but harmless, he was not one of the rebellious terrorists we had been warned about.

Sensuous music pulsed through the speakers of the bus; drums, horns, kora, accompanied by wailing Nigerien vocals. Eduardo made friends with the other passengers by asking about the music , and writing down the names of the bands. I was trying to survive the ride by focusing on not getting hurt, while listening to Alejandro Sanz on my iPod.

When the bus finally rolled into Birni N'Konni, we were bruised, tired and dirty. Our heads and bodies ached from the punishing ride. But we were still alive after having passed through one of the most dangerous, kidnapping-prone stretches of tarmac in Niger, with a driver who didn't care if we lived or died. At that point, being “home safe” was all that mattered.

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Posted by Kristi D 04:08 Archived in Niger Comments (0)

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