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An Absolute Nightmare: Timbuktu to Sevare with Amoebic Dysentery

This story has several parts. It has dragged on for too long and has been mostly about my poor health. I am sorry for that. It will be over soon and then I will talk about Dogon Country, a wedding, Bambara, camel drawing, and a few other pretty cool things about Mali.

Back in Timbuktu:

There were five people in the back seat of our quatre quatre (a 4wd drive vehicle). I was one of them – pressed against the door, one ass cheek on the seat, the other resting on a tire jack that was somehow even more wedged in than I was.

It was 430 in the morning and we were the first car in line for the ferry that would take us to the Southern side of the Niger River. This is the traditional way to travel to and from Timbuktu. On the ferry everyone got out of the car. I stayed inside and collapsed sideways on the backseat. I savored this comfort and slipped into sleep.

Then doors opening, shutting, cars honking, shouting in Sonrai. Time to reload the car. My ass is once again directed to the place where the seat tapers off and the tire jack awaits. Five people in the back seat, two in the front, four in the trunk, two on the roof. I did not know this at the time, but this quatre quatre ride and the ensuing sotrama, would become the worst overland journey I have ever taken.

Twenty minutes of small dunes and sandy plains and I have to stop the car. Everyone watches as I throw up mostly saliva. I had not eaten anything in a while. After my roadside display, I thought the driver would adjust his approach to some of the more turbulent stretches of road. No, he continued to drive like a fool.

Like the quatre quatre from Niafunke, this car had no suspension system whatsoever. Like the quatre quatre from Niafunke, we the passengers spent a significant part of the trip airborne. For me, this meant potentially getting impaled by a tire jack.

The car broke down four times. Each time, the driver and one of the front seat passengers would retrieve a toolkit, one would get to work under the hood, the other, under the car. We were delayed thirty minutes at most. I used these opportunities to dry heave and watch sheep, on their hind legs, eat the thorn bushes that were everywhere. Sand and thorn bushes. That’s all there was.

After almost six hours in this quatre quatre, we stopped in a village. It was unremarkable except for the fact that this was where the road began. The opening notes of tarmac meant that we would be switching to an even shittier vehicle: a sotrama.

I wrote about sotramas at the end of this post, when I discussed infinite division of space. They are Mali’s version of the African minibus. Everything has been gutted on the inside and wooden benches have been placed around the perimeter. There is no limit to the number of passengers. Infinite division of space. Maximum discomfort can be found in the corner seats, but even in the middle of a bench you will lose circulation to your extremities.

At the time, my gut was besieged by amoebas and I felt positively awful. Nauseous, feverish, dry heaving, I wanted nothing more to empty my bowels. The Cipro was not working. It was mid-day, the inside of the car was on fire and it smelled like a kind of BO that reminds me of burnt milk. Unbelievably, I got funneled into a corner seat for what would become a five hour trip. Pure misery.

Waiting for the sotrama to fill with passengers.

We arrived in Sevare, a quieter, less populated version of Mopti, in the evening. A cheap hotel room was found. In the bathroom, bloody stools persist. I was not improving. I had not eaten in two days now. It was time to seek medical attention.

At 8AM I was in Dr. Omar Konate’s office. The clinic in Sevare was small, but clean and seemingly functional. I explained in French, to the best of my ability, that I was shitting blood. He asked me a few questions and then felt up my stomach. I was hoping he would confidently declare I had this or that and then hand me a prescription. Instead, he ordered a round of blood and stool tests.

I nearly passed out after the blood test. After a few minutes of seeing black spots, I was handed a plastic cup with a screw cap. I was supposed to shit into this. This I did not like. I was given a roll of toilet paper and directed to the bathroom.

The bathroom was a typical Malian bathroom: a hole in the ground surrounded by four walls. With weary legs, I found myself getting a sunburn while pooping into a plastic shot glass. I returned to the “lab” and set my stool sample on the counter. Six hours later and I had my results: amoebic dysentery.

To Be Continued… Into More Pleasant Territory, I promise

Again, light on pictures, so here is a taste of Dogon Country:

That was Then, This is Now:

So the above story happened several weeks ago. Understand I am much better now. I am getting ready for a flight to Casablanca tomorrow. The border issues with Western Sahara continue to be a problem and I would possibly lose out on a lot of time in Morocco if I wait for this to settle down.

I was waiting for Vieux Farka Toure to return from his US tour, but he is now in France and won’t return until the 21st. I have been able to meet a few other Malian musicians in the meantime, however. Mamou Sidibe (I posted some of her music in this musical tour of Mali) had a free concert the other day that I just stumbled upon. I stood out in the crowd as the only white person and am unsure if this is the reason Mamou sought me out and ladled fresh milk into my mouth from a calabash. The crowd thought this was very funny. After the show I talked to her for a bit, trying to show off my bambara (I called her a bean eater and she told me I was a peanut farmer, understand cousinage by reading this), and generally expressing my love for her. Find her music in this post.

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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Andi November 16, 2010, 10:47 pm

    Dude I want to give you the biggest hug. How did you not have a nervous breakdown???

    • phil November 18, 2010, 2:53 pm

      Haha, I think my body didn’t have enough energy to spare for a nervous breakdown.

  • Marissa November 18, 2010, 12:18 am

    I’m so glad you’re better. xo

    • phil November 18, 2010, 2:56 pm

      Marissa, yes much better. My appetite is back and your site makes me hungry!

  • kim November 24, 2010, 3:46 pm

    poor phil! im glad you’re better. Sorry for all the comments at once; I’m going back into the archives as I’ve missed out on your blog for awhile…

    • phil December 14, 2010, 11:23 am

      all good honey. I am going back to NYC tomorrow!! Will be missing you!

  • Benny December 14, 2010, 11:06 am

    Ahhh the memories of that car ride…Love it. We battled the most epic Sandstorm in history along with a river crossing wading through water in the early morning darkness before piling into a van…


    • phil December 14, 2010, 11:24 am

      Benny, haha yeah I read your account on the way there. Sounds about right! Overland travel in Africa, fun stuff. When are you guys doing round 2?

  • jenn October 25, 2012, 2:12 am

    hello- realize this is an old post but l am suffering & lots of others with amoebic dysentery. Is there any way you can remember what drug combo cured you? We are desperately trying different combos to get well. You are cured- any info will help us all.
    You were lucky at least they are familiar with it over there & know how to treat. So many doctors in the US cannot even diagnose.
    i appreciate your help!!!!!!!!!
    thank u!!
    the forum is pptulefoe ( there is an e his section w/ many sufferers).

    • jenn October 25, 2012, 2:14 am

      oops error- pptulefora.com

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