I was able to call my mom on Skype for her birthday from Bamako, the capital of Mali. She asked where I was, and then said "You're in Bali?!"
No, mom, not the tropical Asian island of Bali, but the landlocked West African one of Mali. Though I can understand the confusion. If you'd asked me a year ago where in the world Mali was, I'm sure I couldn't have answered. Or I might have confused it with Malawi (also in Africa, in the south).
But over a recent 10-day stretch, we learned plenty about Mali. It has some famous sights--like Timbuktu, for instance, that dusty, end-of-the-world trading town in the Sahara. Unfortunately, a combination of bad roads and possible rebel banditry (yeah) took that off our itinerary, but there were tons of other interesting places to visit besides.
Just getting to Bamako was an adventure of its own. To get there from The Gambia, we had to cross back into Senegal, then into Mali, then travel about 600 kilometers to reach the capital. When we left Georgetown, our last stop in The Gambia, around 10AM on a Saturday, we stupidly hoped we might make it to Mali in one day. Ha. What we ended up doing was taking no less than seven forms of public transport just to get to Tambacounda, Senegal, a town less than 200 kilometers away.
Highlights of this journey included the ferry we helped pull across a river along a cable with hands (photo in Andy's Gambia post)... waiting two hours at a police checkpoint for a minibus because the last Saturday of every month is "environmental cleaning day" in The Gambia, in which roads are closed to be cleaned (no wonder The Gambia looks so much cleaner than Senegal!)...waiting another two hours for a covered pickup truck to fill up with about 20 people before it would drive us across the border...and negotiating in the dark for a shared taxi that would take us to Tambacounda along with a spitfire Senegalese girl who really, really wanted to visit her boyfriend there that night. Oh, and endless military checkpoints and roadblocks, yay.
The next day, it was a shared sept-place taxi to the Senegal border town and an extremely hot walk across the border bridge with all our stuff, to where a bus (wow, a real bus!) was waiting to take people to Bamako. One person told us it would take 22 hours, which we thought sounded crazy, but he hardly spoke French so we thought we misunderstood. A man who spoke English and worked for the company said it would be 10 hours, which we thought sounded much more reasonable for a 600-kilometer trip.
20 hours later, bathed in our own sweat (no AC on Malian buses!) we rolled into Bamako. We have since learned to double all transit times that are told to us or that we read in the Lonely Planet, and that out to be pretty accurate for transport in Mali.
The bus ride was really interesting. It was filled with people from many different countries, as I guess that Bamako is a transfer spot for buses to places much farther east and south. Our favorites were the large gaggle of middle-aged women from Niger, who had huge hoop earrings and brightly-colored headscarves and seemed to be traveling with every single one of their worldly possessions (there are a lot of nomads in Niger, we later learned, so this is actually a distinct possibility--you just don't think about nomads taking the bus, do you?). They didn't seem to care much about the bus rules, like the fact that you are only supposed to board when your name is called, and it was kind of funny to watch them defy and argue with the conductors.
We were the only white people on the bus (well, heck, we're usually the only white people wherever we go), and ended up being something of a magnet for the few English-speaking Africans around. We chatted for a long time with a man from Liberia, who now lives in Mauritania, and was spending four days traveling on buses to go visit his cousins in Cote D'Ivoire. Kind of put our two-day trip in perspective! Also met a Nigerian man who confirmed that it may be hard for us to get a visa to visit there...
The highlight of that epic bus trip was when we stopped around 1AM and everyone piled off the bus and went to sleep in the dirt at the side of the road. Andy and I were used to overnight buses in Latin America and Morocco actually, like, driving through the night, so this was new to us. But, it was MUCH cooler out there, so we tried to do as the Africans did and follow suit. Andy succeeded in sleeping under the stars, but I ended up getting back on the bus and curling up in my seat. We both got some sleep, and four hours later, the bus resumed its journey for another bazillion hours or so.
Oh, the other cool thing that happened on the bus was that we found this crazy bug on my bag. It was all white and had little claws like a lobster. You never know when you're going to get to see cool wildlife, I guess!
So we pick up with some pictures in Bamako, where we spent a couple of days. It was 110 degrees in the shade and as traffic-filled and dusty as any other African city we went to, but we found a nice hotel and had a few very good meals and enjoyed the experience overall.
Bamako has a few monuments, like this one. Since it's at the Place de l'Independence, I assume it has something to do with independence. I think that Mali is currently celebrating 50 years of independence from France, actually.
Bamako is on the Niger River, and we walked across it one day on a somewhat precarious bridge. Looking down over the side, we noticed this car that someone apparently dropped in. Oops.
But most people in Bamako get around by mobylette (motorbike), not car. This picture doesn't begin to do justice to the crazy swarms of mobylettes at every intersection and roundabout. But you can see that a few decided to take over the sidewalk to get around traffic...
Those are apparently the only non-food pics we have of Bamako. It's not the most beautiful city, but it's not a bad place. We were able to walk around a little at night without feeling too unsafe, and it was the last place we had fast internet for a LONG time.
But next it was off to Segou, an artistic town further east along the Niger River. I really liked Segou, and not in the least because we splurged on a motel with a pool and...air conditioning!!! Our one night there was the last multi-hour stretch of time I spent not sweating continuously for about 10 days.
The Niger is a little more tranquil and less poluted in Segou than in Bamako.
We tried to take some pictures of typical architecture and people in Segou and beyond, since we feel like we haven't done a great job of documenting that so far. Here you see some mud-bricks drying in the sun. Most houses in Mali are made of mud-bricks, but it's a complicated multi-month process producing them, as we learned later. First you leave mud out on the riverbank for a while, then you mix it with rice husks, or sometimes a shea-butter-like substance (beurre de qualité in French), then you can finally mold the bricks. People need to do repairs on their mud-houses every couple of years once they're built.
Much to Andy's delight, Segou (and the rest of Mali) had some very large and colorful lizards.
Segou also makes a lot of pottery, and there is a fun pottery market at the edge of town.
OK, my favorite thing that we did in Segou was visit the bogolan, or mud-cloth workshop, where we learned all the steps of how this traditional cloth is produced. You start by going through a hobbit-hole into the building...
Then you learn about all the different natural materials from the earth that they use to make the different colors, which are then applied to the cloth in fun geometric patterns. We also got to see some cloth being woven by local artisans--it can be made of cotton or wool.
At the shop on site, you can see some of the finished products. We saw lots of other bogolan at toursity markets, but the stuff here was the nicest. I wish I'd been able to buy some pieces to decorate the home I do not have...
This is the bogolan workshop from the outside. Looks like a castle!
And this is the huge pile of trash right next to it. Nice trees, though.
Our next stop was Djenné, an island town in the middle of a different river that is known for having the largest mud-brick mosque in the world. What, you haven't heard of it? Yeah, we hadn't either, but it is pretty much the biggest tourist attraction in Mali.
And it is impressively big, and fun-looking, kind of like a magic sand castle. A lot of restauration work is being done on it at the moment, as you can see. Non-Muslims can't go inside, but we took an interesting historical tour of the town with our new friends, Jen from Britain and Estephania from Ecuador, with whom we would later continue to Dogon Country further east.
People carry a lot of things on their heads in Africa, and every time we think we've seen the biggest load possible, someone else comes along and blows us away carrying a couch or something on their head. OK, maybe not a couch, but we have seen some enormous loads. This one is pretty modest in comparison to some.Djenné is also famous for having a huge market every Monday, but unfortunately we were there on another day. They still have a pretty busy "Petit Marché" with lots of foodstuffs and other items for sale. You can get the idea here.
At the entrance to the Petit Marché were people selling little frozen bags with juice and bissap (sugary hibiscus juice, which I love) for about 5 cents each, and Andy and I supported the local economy by buying about 10...have I mentioned that Mali is hot?
OK, that is the first half or so of Mali! Andy is going to write about our adventures in Dogon Country, further east in the country and a very different and fascinating place. Stay tuned for that, and for our far future posts on Malawi and Bali, both of which we plan to visit before this trip is up.