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New Country, New Sim Card: Getting my Feet Dusty in Bamako

What’s cooking in the oven of Bamako? Humans, donkeys, and dust. The uniform color and the 10 million motos remind me of Ouaga, but Ouaga’s got nothing on the Niger River, or Bambara, a language so smooth you’ll feel like you’re on ice skates. Only there’s no ice and you’re actually in a furnace.

Sometimes I reach the zen levels of thermal oblivion I once observed in obese Hungarian men lounging in bath house saunas. Other times the air covers me like a blanket on fire and I short circuit. This typically happens in conjunction with something else. For example, a man selling fish oil caplets.

It’s true, I miss coastal West Africa. I miss friends in Ghana and already, those in Cote D’Ivoire. But it’s time to give Mali a fair shake. It is the land of Oumou Sangare and Boubacar Traore. I doubt I will be disappointed. Some first impressions and personal notes:

1. Best dressed in West Africa? This award may go to the women of Mali. African women are stunning as it is. Wearing the world’s most vibrant and psychedelic fabrics, they are downright regal. In Mali, you quickly get used to seeing empresses riding motorcycles. Sweet.

2. Tourists come to Mali. They come primarily for a boat cruise on the Niger river, trekking in Dogon Country, and/or a trip to Timbuktu. In Bamako, everyone is under the assumption that if you are white you are on your way to Mopti where you will depart for one of the aforementioned attractions. Me? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. In the meantime, I’m having a ball with the seemingly infinite number of touts in Bamako claiming to be guides. Someone will approach me and ask me if I want to go trekking in Dogon Country. I will say “I don’t want to go to Burkina Faso.” They will of course tell me Dogon Country is in Mali. “No, it’s in Burkina Faso and I don’t want to travel that far.” This conversation becomes hysterical and people on the roadside are usually roped in. I typically agree with them in the end, but I tell them I prefer trekking in Bamako. Then I ask them to teach me a word in Bambara. In this way, harassment turns into a genuine conversation.

Crossing the Niger River in Bamako

3. Two problems I have with French West Africa: expensive visas and the CFA, a terrible currency if you have USD.

5. My French has come a long way in the past forty days or so. My pronunciation is now reaching African levels. My Bambara, on the other hand, needs some work. It is easily one of the coolest sounding languages I have ever heard and I am excited to keep learning. A few phrases (with phonetic spelling) if you are curious: “ikakenay” – everything good? “Ani Woula” – good evening “itogo” – what is your name?

4. Minibuses. In Ghana, tro-tros. Cote D’Ivoire, gbakas. Mali, sotramas. The minibuses in Mali look like they’ve been around since independence. By the way, happy belated 50th Mali. You too, Nigeria.

5. My impression of Bamako has been somewhat colored by a bout with Malaria. This is my second time (in my life, not this trip) having Malaria and one thing I will say is that Coartem is an incredibly high-powered malaria treatment medication. If you are traveling in an area where malaria is prevalent, buy a round of Coartem from a pharmacy. It should not set you back more than $12 and it is widely considered to be the best emergency stand-by treatment. I will write a bit more on my malaria in the next post. BTW while feverish, I created a facebook page and I would love your company. Look somewhere to your right >>

Also, mom, I am sorry I lied to you on the phone the other night when you asked if everything was alright. Like the incident at the Canadian border, you know I will always tell you the truth in the end.

6. My new favorite meal is Yassa. It is a chicken dish from Senegal that features a lemon, onion, and chili marinade. Dee lish.

7. In case you were wondering, there are two couchsurfing hosts in Timbuktu. If I head that way you know I will be trying to stay with one of them. Probably the one that has a camel for their profile picture.

8. If you’re traveling to West Africa, do yourself a favor and leave the MasterCard at home. Holy crap.

9. One of the most amazing feelings in the world is sharing a smile with someone. Some people have asked me why I am taking this trip when it sounds like I’m spending a lot of time puking, shitting fluid, and developing DVT on 33 hour bus trips. I think right now the problem is that my coverage is slanted towards personal catastrophes. My next post on malaria will not help this.

But truthfully, all the bad things that happen are far overmatched by amazing new experiences, the feeling of complete freedom, and the unbelievable warmth and kindness of strangers. At least once a day I find myself sharing a smile with someone I don’t know. Yesterday, I was in a taxi looking out the window at a woman carrying a bowl of peanuts. She turned and looked me in the eye. We both smiled wide and started laughing. This is what often happens when two humans take an honest look at each other. In this case, there is an element of mutual curiosity that makes it even more exciting. This small and simple experience is completely disarming and life-affirming.

If you are in search of more rosy content from me, here’s one from the archives: Why it’s Worth it to Stay a While. It also involves smiles with a peanut vendor among other things.

Lastly, there is going to be some big things going on here in the next few weeks. I am talking about Camel Drawing. Right now I am staying at a hostel called the sleeping camel and I may very well couchsurf with someone in Timbuktu who has a camel as their profile picture. For now, here is some camel drawing with my beloved couchsurfing hosts in Abidjan:

Till Next time…

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Andi October 5, 2010, 10:52 pm

    I am DYING to get to Mali!!! I’m so jealous. I wish you the best time. 🙂

  • phil October 6, 2010, 10:18 am

    Andi, Mali would love to have you!! After you finish your Barcelona adventures, head south!

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