Mali


Monday, Jan. 12
Back in the States

Now that I’m home with a fast WiFi connection, I’m uploading hundreds of photos and videos I took during my trip. Thought you might want to see a few of my favorites that didn’t make it onto the blog already. Turn on your sound!

A video of the sandstorm my travel companions and I hit in Timbuktu:

Here, my Cameroonian village family celebrates after I delivered more than $1,000, contributed by readers of this blog, to pay school fees. Those moving lights are glow-in-the-dark bracelets worn by people who are dancing. The sounds? Singing and cheering.

This Malagasy man showed me the process of creating silk, which later is used to weave scarves, from silkworms’ coocons. Here, he hangs the coocons out to dry.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Kumasi’s open-air market is, I believe, the biggest one in West Africa. I walked around it for hours just watching the scene and the people.

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Sunday, August 10
Dogon Country, Mali

A Dogon greeting is more than a simple hello.

It’s an exchange of around 10 short questions and answers that sound, to an untrained ear, like grunts, back and forth between two people. In reality, the conversation includes questions and answers about one’s health, family, travels and so on.

Our guide Salif engaged in these greetings every time we walked into a village in Dogon Country, a region in southeast Mali.

Salif, Steve and Elodie ascend.

Salif, Steve and Elodie ascend.

Hiking there isn’t only a way to see the beautiful countryside, complete with a breathtaking plateau that stands tall in otherwise flat terrain. The trip doubles as a cultural experience, since the trek involves passing through and sleeping in little villages along the way. (Check out this National Geographic piece on Dogon culture.)

I made the three-day, two-night trip with a 20-something French couple, Steve and Elodie, plus our guide. Hiring one is essential for Dogon, largely because it would be nearly impossible otherwise to know which way to walk. Salif, who grew up in a Dogon village and now lives in Mopti, one of Mali’s larger cities, also served as a translator who could shed light on his way of life and kept us from offending villagers by accidentally venturing into sacred areas.

This food, to, is made from millet.

This food, to, is made from millet.

We stayed the first night in Salif’s village, where, despite the infiltration of tourists, villagers still lead a traditional lifestyle. Walking through the streets, one hears the rhythmic thuds of women pounding millet to make into food, usually a thick, dough-like substance called to. (For those of you who have traveled elsewhere in Africa, it’s similar to fufu.) Several women who were performing the laborious task invited me to try:

Lexi pounds millet in Dogon Country.

Lexi pounds millet in Dogon Country.

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Thursday, August 7
Mopti, Mali

The rumor is true: Getting out of Timbuktu is more difficult than getting in.

We considered taking the easy way out, hiring a vehicle just for the five of us, one that would provide a bit of comfort on the long dirt road back to Mopti.

But it was too expensive for us budget travelers, we decided. Besides, traveling like toubabs misses the point; if we wanted the easy way out, we wouldn’t have come to Africa to begin with.

So we bought tickets to ride in the back of a public 4×4, which sit about 12 people squished African style.

Our car in the desert.

Our car in the desert.

Our car happened to be full of all tourists, though the ones in the middle and the front had paid more than us to sit in actual seats. We squeezed into bench chairs that faced each other in the back of the car, right over the rear wheels.

That was thee most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. I like to think I have a strong stomach, but I had to keep a plastic bag nearby because I was nauseated from the car’s heavy fumes and bouncing over holes in the road. I could barely move, yet every time we hit a bump — every few seconds or so — my bones would jam into a hard part of the seat or the person next to me. I could feel my body bruising and my legs cramped from being in the same position for several hours.

It would have been worse, though, if I had been crammed in there with strangers. Don’t we look like we’re having a good time?

Lexi, Cedric and Ed traveling ever-so comfortably.

Lexi, Cedric and Ed traveling ever-so comfortably.

Cedrics foot hanging off the top of the car

Cedric's foot hanging off the top of the car

We were a bit more comfortable for an hour or so when Cedric climbed up onto the roof of the car to ride with two Malians already sitting amongst our baggage. It created more room for us, as well as some fun for him, until we hit a police checkpoint. Apparently white folk aren’t allowed to ride on the roof. Cedric got a shake-down for that one.

And yet, it was perfectly permissible for our driver to race another 4×4, one also filled with tourists who I imagine were as scared as we were when the two drivers sped alongside one another in the dust. Here’s the view when our car was ahead:

Drag racing in the desert.

Drag racing in the desert.

The trip, including a ferry crossing and a bus transfer, took nearly 12 hours, which is pretty impressive. We had no flat tires, we weren’t forced to spent the night on the road and the pool at what had become my favorite Mali hotel awaited us upon our return to Mopti.

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.

My boat family

My boat family

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.

View as we float up the Niger River

Floating up the Niger River

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.

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Thursday, July 31
Mopti, Mali

“In Mopti, tourism is a contact sport,” Lonely Planet warns.

Indeed, there are a lot of tourists here, since Mopti is the departure point for two popular activities, visiting Timbuktu and trekking in Dogon Country.

But aside from natives laughing at me (I’m funny simply because of my white skin), touching me as I walk by and asking me, again and again, to buy whatever it is they’re selling, I like Mopti.

The port is busy — the town is located right where the Bani River meets the Niger River — but follow the Bani away from the port and it’s possible to find a tranquil spot to enjoy the beautiful scenery. And people here seem happy. This morning, a caravan of mopeds and taxis took over the streets, beeping in celebration of a marriage.

I’m staying in a dorm at a hotel called Pas de Probleme — who could pass that up?! — with a lovely pool and hoards of Frenchies, as I wait for transportation to Timbuktu.

The “big boat” is supposed to pick up passengers here on Friday. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that boat will be like, but I’ve asked for a ticket, and hopefully there will be room for me when it arrives. I’m told the journey by water takes three days.

The next time you hear from me, I should be in the mystical city.

Wednesday, July 30
Djenne, Mali

Every building in Djenne is made of mud. Every single one.

In fact, it’s against the law to build even new buildings with cement, aside from using it as a protective outer layer for structures otherwise constructed of — you guessed it — mud.

Imagine an entire town made of mud! It’s a child’s dream! Even I, at a ripe 27 years old, thought it was pretty cool. If only there hadn’t been raw sewage trickling through the town’s streets, giving Djenne a rancid smell…

What draws tourists to Djenne isn’t the abundance of mud homes, but one mud structure in particular, the world’s largest mud mosque. It was everything the guidebook promised, a stunning presence:

Djennes mosque is the biggest mud structure in the world.

Djenne's mosque is the biggest mud structure in the world.

 I know what you’re thinking: How does a mud mosque not wash away or resign to a pile when it rains?

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Sunday, July 27
Segou, Mali

Sleep comes easy in Segou, a quiet town on the Niger River.

Lucky for that, since I’ve spent the first half of this weekend in my hotel room (more like my concrete cell), defeated by a migraine. I get them when I’m overtired, and I was exhausted after a few sleepless nights in hot Bamako.

This morning I woke up rested and headache-free, ready for a run along the Niger, just steps from my bed. A photo doesn’t do the scene justice:

View of the Niger River from my Segou hotel.

View of the Niger River from my Segou hotel.

Photoshoot on the Niger River in front of my Segou hotel.

Photoshoot on the Niger River in front of my Segou hotel.

I prefer Mali to Senegal, mostly because — I’m about to make a generalization here — Malians are less aggressive and less arrogant than the Senegalese. I’ve had a bit of hassle here, including a guide who follows me every time I leave my hotel trying to sell me his services, but nothing on the overbearing scale of Dakar.

Bamako, Mali’s capital city, is a bustling place where residents use mopeds to get from one place to another just as much as cars (Yes, I’ve gotten rides on a few!). Unlike Dakar, there aren’t many high-rises there; even most new buildings are only a few stories high.

Food and accommodation there are cheaper than Dakar, although that’s probably partly because I’ve learned to live on the cheap. When I first arrived in West Africa, I overlooked the street-side food stalls, not realizing they were open for business because they often are surrounded by pieces of cloth.

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Friday, July 25
Segou, Mali

As I move north in Mali, I face a decision: Should I make the arduous trip to Timbuktu?

My gut reaction is yes, since it’s a place I’ve heard about since I was a child — though whoever knew back then that it actually existed?

There really isn’t much to do in Timbuktu, except turn around, travel back to central Mali and say I’ve been there, which is why some travelers I’ve met say not to bother. The trip there is long; it could take nearly a week, I figure, to get there and back, which would press me a bit for time in Burkina and Ghana.

But isn’t it more about the journey than the destination?

I’ve already decided I’m not going to Timbuktu if traveling there by road is my only option. If, however, the Niger River has seen enough rain by the time I arrive in Mopti, the Timbuktu departure point, then I could take a boat to the mystical city.

What do you think? Should I go?

Wednesday, July 23
Bamako, Mali

The Kayes-to-Bamako train ride ranked up there as one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my life.

At least I thought so for the first seven hours.

In the eighth hour, when my legs started to fall asleep and I realized we hadn’t yet reached the halfway mark, I began to count my blessings that I wouldn’t have to make the trip again in the opposite direction.

The nearly 500-kilometer trip ended up taking 18 hours. EIGHTEEN HOURS!! We left Kayes at 7 a.m. and arrived in Bamako in the middle of the night, at 1 a.m. Now I know why most tourists fly between Senegal and Mali.

 

But back to the reasons why the ride was awesome… It was a fantastic way to see Mali. We traveled mostly through bush, with small mountains and cliffs in the distance, and the train moved slowly enough to take it all in. We stopped every half an hour or so — spending just as much time stopped as we did on the move. 

 

Often the train paused in the middle of nowhere, and passengers would jump out to pee next to the tracks (myself included).

Other times we stopped in villages, and we could hear shouts from people who lived there even before the train pulled into the station. Hoards of vendors there awaited our arrival, and they’d surround the train with their goods, selling mostly food to passengers who hung out the windows.

Stopping at a village station on the way to Bamako.

Stopping at a village station on the way to Bamako.

I bought lunch, snacks and anything I simply wanted to try: a fish-ball sandwich, hard-boiled eggs, a banana, “cakes” or beignets and frozen fruit juices, which are a bit risky but fabulously tasty. After eating all that street food, I felt pretty proud of myself for not vomiting the next day. Maybe I’m getting used to African germs?

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