My apologies for falling behind on entries.
During the last two weeks, I’ve been on a boat on the Niger, visited Timbuktu, hiked through the bush and crossed the border into Burkina Faso — all without a quality Internet connection. But now I’m back in civilization, with good stories to tell.
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Sunday, August 3
Floating up the Niger River, Mali
It was 1 a.m. by the time we finally boarded a boat in Mopti’s port, bound for Timbuktu.
A group of 12 or so of us white folk, groggy from dozing on the side of the road, disappeared into the larger group of Africans as we made our way onto the boat. There was no check-in system, just passengers milling about in the dark, so I walked the deck looking for my room, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
I had a ticket for a cabin with four beds, so I knew I’d be sharing quarters with several strangers, likely Malians. Using my headlamp, I found the room as marked on my ticket, #20, settled into a top bunk and waited.
My roommates showed up minutes later, a mother and her three daughters headed for Timbuktu for a wedding. They were the first good omen for what turned out to be a relaxing three days and three nights floating slowly up the Niger, doing little other than watching life on the river’s banks.
In most spots, the river was narrow enough to see land on both sides at close range. We passed little groups of huts, sometimes as few as four or five, and naked children ran along the shore, waving at us. It was like watching a slow-moving film strip, taking in every detail.
The upper decks of the boat were quiet, with mostly white tourists sitting outside their rooms, overlooking the water. These were the people who had paid for first-, second- or third-class tickets, which included beds and food. It was nothing compared with the cruise vacations I’ve taken with my family — the food lacked taste and I showered using Niger River water — yet it was luxury compared to fourth class.
Those passengers remained on the lower deck, where they slept on mats and prepared their own food with stoves they had brought along. Belongings were scattered everywhere and children ran around playing.
One of the other two Americans on the ship said it reminded her of the class divide in the Titanic movie: the boring rich passengers occupied the upper decks while the poorer folks lived the more exciting life down below.
Several times a day, the boat would get stuck in a sandbar, and a commotion would follow as men at the front and back of the boat collaborated to get it out. Each time, a few men jumped into the shallow water and used a large log as a lever to dislodge the ship. It seemed ridiculous — Did these few men think they could use their own manpower to move a ship? — but the boat always eventually started chugging along again.
So far, I have filled my days by talking with other travelers, a few Brits but mostly French. I let the girls in my bunk braid my hair. I stood wide-eyed on the deck as hippos passed the ship with their mouths open.
I also took a few quiet moments to myself. This morning I sat in a deserted spot on the deck in the hot sun, letting the sweat roll down my face. I pulled my IPod out of my bag, a luxury I reserved for moments when I was alone, and flipped to a soundtrack by Lakewood Church, a song called “I’m Still Standing.”
There was a time in Houston when I listened to this song because I was broken-hearted and looking for solace. But today, as I looked out over the sun’s reflection on the river, I felt at peace.