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Ja·kar·ta \jə-ˈkär-tə\

The capital of Indonesia

a knockoff KTM 110 cc Chinese motorcycle

Matt and I had talked about this trip for a long time. After friend and former Camel resident Brendan traversed the continent on a jakarta, we had ideas about a loop around West Africa, and to eventually sell the trip and variations of it to a certain kind of tourist. Those ideas remained just that until a few weeks ago.

This recon mission began in the Sleeping Camel workshop. Matt conceived a souped up jakarta that would allow us to carry tools, spare parts, food, extra water and fuel, kitchenware and our bedding. He is a skilled welder and metalworker, and it didn’t take him long to build a prototype with his own bike.


He cut 20 liter jerricans in half to make panniers.





He added a shelf on the front to hold a canister of fuel, and he installed a power point (a cigarette lighter socket) that he connected to the bike’s battery.


The finished product with the Guinean highlands as a backdrop (more on that later).

Jakartas can be found throughout West Africa, but the highest concentration of them is undoubtedly in Bamako. Contrary to their branding, jakartas are not made by KTM, an Austrian company best known for off road motorcycles. The jakarta “KTM” stands for KingTown Motors. Or sometimes KiangTown Motors, a good effort by the Chinese company churning out these bikes.

Why are they called jakartas? I have asked many people this question. I have heard two different answers. Some people have told me that the first person to import the bikes came from Jakarta. Others have told me that the bikes were at one time manufactured in Jakarta (or thought to have been manufactured there).

They are inexpensive bikes. In Bamako, a new jakarta is about $700, a considerable investment for many Bamakois, but still far more affordable than a used or new car. Parts and mechanics are both easy to find, and most repair jobs are only a few dollars.

Malians use these bikes to get around town. Some may use them to visit villages up to 100-150 kilometers away from Bamako. Everyone we spoke to before the trip thought we were insane to ride a jakarta for thousands of kilometers through multiple countries.

This much is true: the bikes are not fast. Our average speed hovered around 60 km/hr (about 40 mph), and even less than that on sand track. And speaking of sand, the jakartas handle sand about as well my 1984 SAAB handled ice in 2003 (the tires may not have been 20 years old but they sure felt like it).

Why travel 4,000 kilometers on these turtles? Well, if you were to ask me or Matt, the slow speed is actually the jakartas’ greatest asset. It forces you to focus on where you are instead of just racking up kilometers. Ride for 30 km and stop for a sandwich and a wander. After another 40 km, get a haircut at a roadside barber in a village. Further down the road, stop for a beer at a small maquis. Every time you hop off the bike, you have conversations. For me and Matt, this is the perfect trip.

We wanted to leave on Tuesday, February 7th, but we got into a real debacle at the Malian DMV. One day I will write about that. So we left for Dakar around 9AM the following morning.

We often joked that the most dangerous part of this trip was within Bamako city limits. The traffic may not be as manic as the biggest cities in West Africa, but the sheer number of jakartas keeps the entropy at full throttle. But we zipped out of town unscathed.

In a short while, we were in Kati, cruising past the empty cement trucks parked next to the customs post, getting ready for their return trip to Senegal. Then it was our first stretch of open road. With a tailwind, we blasted towards Kita.

In Kita, we stopped at a service station to refuel and have a snack. We had a funny conversation with the cashier and a random Kita resident while scarfing down beef jerky and degué (sweetened yogurt with millet) in the air conditioned shop. It was during this conversation that we got the first indication of a bad road in Senegal between Kedougou and Tambacounda. But we’ll get to that later.

Some 40 kilometers after Kita, we turned onto a relatively new sealed road that would take us to Kenieba, a stones throw from the border of Senegal. The road was in excellent condition. Every now and then, a truck or a bus would tear past us, trying to break the sound barrier as they teetered around turns and double passed slower vehicles. But otherwise, this was a peaceful stretch of road that slowed down my thoughts.

We stopped in several villages to stretch our legs and refuel. Once the sun began its descent, we stocked up on water and headed into the bush.


We quickly mounted our mosquito nets and then Matt cooked a delicious meal of “mushroom” flavored ramen noodles. After dinner, I was out like a light. A steady breeze meant a good night’s sleep after a long day on the bikes. The following day would be even longer.

We woke up at sunrise and rode for 15 kilometers along the base of a plateau that changed from red to gold in the morning light. In Kenieba, we pulled into the parking lot of a service station. Women grilled brochettes and ambulant vendors vied for their first clients of the day. We grabbed a couple brochette sandwiches and washed them down with a concoction of nescafe and condensed milk. I used to drink these every morning at Madou’s kiosk when I lived in Abidjan. It is the cheap fuel that you can find everywhere, and it’s delicious.


Amadou was the barista doling out the hyper-sweet instant coffees. We eased into unguarded conversation, which is something you can do effortlessly with any Malian you come across. As we left, he gave us benedictions for the voyage ahead. I wished him well with his Arabic classes.

And then we were at the border. We checked out of Mali without issue. Crossing into Senegal would be the first test for the jakartas’ paperwork and my newly acquired Malian identification card. My Malian nationality was rejected almost immediately. The Senegalese police officer said that the Malian ID card is easily counterfeited. This was not an auspicious start to my ID card experiment. I probably could have fought him on it, but I had my American passport, and Americans don’t need visas for Senegal. Problem solved.

A young customs agent received us on the other side of the road. He had a good laugh when we told him that we were traveling to Dakar on jakartas. He then realized that he had never dealt with such a case.

Most jakartas aren’t formally matriculated. Drivers carry a vignette that they buy at the local mayor’s office. These cards confer ownership, but they aren’t made for crossing borders. Matt and I went through the unusual and tiring process of getting license plates for the jakartas, which would normally allow us to transit through Senegal for a certain number of days without issue. The customs agent told us he would need to consult with his chef.

While the chef was deciding whether or not to give us a “laissez passer,” we discussed road conditions with the younger customs agent. We had already heard about a cratered stretch of road that passed through the Niokolo Koba National Park. The customs agent doubled down on that and then repeatedly warned us about lions.

The chef eventually gave us the green light. Once we paid for our laissez passer’s, we were on our way. Getting from the border to Kedougou was straightforward. This road belied what was to come later on.


We arrived in Kedougou around noon. Uniformed schoolchildren walked and rode oversized bicycles alongside the neatly paved roads on their way home for lunch. We refueled in town, eliciting shrieks of laughter from the gas station clerk and other customers as we explained the jakarta trip. We then found a patch of shade in front of a mechanic’s workshop. We scooped up more degue (in Senegal it’s called thiakry, and for my money it’s even better than Malian degue. I think that’s because it’s a bit creamier) and a baguette. We made sandwiches of sardines, Vache qui Rit (a processed cheese that does not require refrigeration) and Sonia chili sauce. This sandwich was a revelation.


After lunch, we pressed on to the Niokolo Koba National Park. It looks easy enough on the map, but that green patch is a nightmare. The park is littered with tank traps and deviations of corrugated dirt track. I crept along like a senile geriatric and still nearly snapped off my foot brake on multiple occasions.


Several signs told us to be prudent, warning us of wild animals. There are indeed lions in this park. There are also hippos, elephants, rare giant Eland antelopes, and the northernmost population of wild chimpanzees in the world. We didn’t see any of these animals, but we did see a bushbuck leap across the road, a giant black scorpion that I thought was dead (it wasn’t), and a squirrel that Matt thought was dead (it wasn’t).


finally out of the park

My shoulders, thighs, knees and ass area were shot by the time we got out of the park. The jakarta was intact, though, and that was encouraging. By the time we rolled into Tambacounda, we were out of daylight and it was time to find a hotel.


A painting in the hotel bar

Matt led us to a hotel he was familiar with. It was clean and comfortable and they had cold beers at the bar. Dinner was a massive plate of chicken, frites and peas with a heap of chili sauce on the side. Everything was right with the world at this point. After a few more beers in the company of the entertaining bar staff, we retired to our air conditioned bungalow to get some sleep before the final leg to Dakar.

Tambacounda to Dakar is a hair over 450 kilometers. In normal circumstances, we would have done that in two days, taking our time in the villages and towns on the way. But we had two friends to meet in Dakar, and one of them only had a couple days there. So we gathered our things at first light and braced ourselves for another mammoth day. Dakar or bust. With stops, we had about 10 hours of riding in front of us in order to arrive in a city of 2+ million people around rush hour.

When we walked out to the bikes, Matt noticed that his jakarta had spent the night leaking gasoline. This was not a promising start to the day. Thankfully, Matt is a mechanic and he travels with spare parts. He quickly found and replaced the culprit, a cracked fuel filter.

Once we got moving, we were locked in. The road itself was impeccable. Quiet villages and massive baobabs punctuated the flat landscape. By the time we reached the salt flats leading into Mbour, arriving in Dakar before sunset seemed like a real possibility. The home stretch was not easy, though.

Matt proposed ditching the crowded two lane road between Mbour and Dakar for the highway, a toll road that sees much less traffic. The highway was considerably better in the sense that you didn’t have to worry about getting smashed by a truck every thirty seconds. In fact, the highway was empty, and it would have been a real joyride to Dakar if it wasn’t for gusts of wind that came from seemingly every direction. Battered by the wind for nearly 80 kilometers, the bright lights of Dakar provided the final shot of adrenaline we needed.


Tired but triumphant, we arrived in Dakar, dodging taxis and minibuses as we made our way to Ngor, on the edge of the Atlantic. It was time for a beer with friends. Little did we know, our trip was just beginning.




Click here for part 2

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Matt and I have just returned from a jaunt through West Africa (well, a part of it anyway) on Chinese scooters. Lots of photos and commentary to come.


Plans for 2017


2016 was not a great year for the planet. Personally, however, I have no complaints about it, mainly owing to the birth of our son. This year may be almost as eventful.

At the start of last year, I had the following on my agenda:

Keep working on side projects. That would be Postcards from Timbuktu.
X Get my Malian passport. Didn’t even get close to starting the process. I want it in order to travel visa-free in West Africa, and this year, I have much more of an incentive to get it done. More on that later.
Go to the states for a visit. Although, Bintou did not end up going. We’ll hopefully change that later this year.
X Take a trip to Guinea by boat. We have taken some longer trips on the river, but we never got close to the Guinean border.
X Take a long overdue trip to Abidjan. Another fail.
Have a child. To be fair, I did not really plan in advance that we would have a child in 2016. Bintou just happened to be pregnant when I was writing that post. Thankfully, everything went well with the birth.

So how about this year:

Introduce my mom to Andre and West Africa. My mom will be coming to Mali for the first time in just a few days. She will also be meeting her grandson for the first time. This trip is going to leave a mark, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Ride a scooter from Dakar to Accra. My semi-nomadic life turned into a sedentary one last year. This trip will be a nice reminder of my early days in West Africa. Only instead of buses and bush taxis, I will be on a Chinese scooter, averaging 60 km/hr on the region’s less traveled roads. I will be traveling with Matt, who has been my best mate since coming to Mali back in 2010. This trip will be a recon mission as we actually want to sell it as a tour, perhaps later this year or in early 2018 when the weather is forgiving. I am really looking forward to this trip. As an added bonus, I will get in that long overdue trip to Abidjan on the way.

Get my Malian passport. Or at least my Malian identity card. The basic identity card allows you to travel overland throughout West Africa without having to get a visa for each country. The scooter trip has given me some extra motivation to get this done.

Take the fam to the states. Andre should have his citizenship documents in the coming weeks. Bintou is not a citizen, nor is she currently on the path to become one. For our first trip, we plan on applying for a tourist visa, because we can do it from Bamako, and it involves fewer hoops to jump through. The marriage visa, which will put her on the path to citizenship, is considerably more complicated and costly. We will get to that in 2018, inshallah. If all goes well, we will spend 3-4 weeks in the states this year, visiting friends and family on a little road trip.

Keep going with Postcards from Timbuktu. I have a few ideas for other projects this year, but I know what it happens when I get too ambitious on paper. The Postcards from Timbuktu project is going well, and I think it will continue to grow this year. I am currently working on a map to visualize where all the orders are going/have gone. We have partnered with a classroom in Timbuktu, and in addition to offering beautiful hand drawn postcards, we are now directing some cash to school supplies. The success of the project depends largely on media exposure, but we are seeing some people get involved after they receive a postcard themselves, a kind of lethargic domino effect considering how long it takes for the cards to arrive.

Use the right hemisphere of my brain more often. I used to write a lot more. I also used to draw and make music. I would like to get back to that this year. I do realize that it sounds foolish to say I will find time for something I was unable to find time for when I was childless.

I accomplished exactly half of the things I had listed out for 2016. We’ll see if I can do a bit better than that. Regardless, as long as Bintou and Andre are happy and healthy, all is well.

How is 2017 looking on your side?



A couple of weeks ago, I asked Faty, a friend in Timbuktu, if she would be willing to have her students design postcards for Postcards from Timbuktu. I proposed selling her cards for $12, with the additional $2 going towards her classroom.

I was not surprised that Faty got behind the idea. She is incredibly active on the net — blogging, sharing images of everyday life in Timbuktu, organizing social media campaigns for various causes — but also in her community. She is the founder of Sankoré Labs, an ICT (information and communications technology) initiative in Timbuktu that promotes entrepreneurship and civic engagement. Pick a NGO buzzword, and she is probably involved with it, but she actually does the work.

The whole idea with these postcards is that the kids design whatever they want. If you order one, you really don’t know what is going to show up. You can see a sampling of cards that have gone out in the picture at the top of the post. In addition to those pictured, I saw one postcard that had 2 frogs with their legs outstretched and a tree with hearts for leaves. Another had a dead “terrorist” with an ak47. Yet another had a mickey mouse type figure sprinting across the postcard, surrounded by CiWara designs, a traditional Bamana symbol featuring an antelope. The cards are original and beautiful, and I would personally be thrilled to receive one.

On the back of the postcard, the students have written their names. I encourage anyone who has ordered one of these cards to take a picture of it when it arrives (hold it in your hands, put it on your cat, put it in your front window – just something to show the kids how far it has traveled), and I will send that to Faty so she can share it with the kids.

In addition to the original designs, the hand drawn postcards are also interesting because they have an extra step in their journey. The cards themselves come from Bamako, like the others. But instead of going directly to Ali’s crew, they go to the Yehia Alkaya school. Once the kids finish with them, Faty delivers them to Ali, and one of the guides hand writes the message.

If you want to order one of these hand drawn cards, here is the page to do so.

We have one more twist that we are going to add to the project in January. I am also creating a map that tracks where all of the orders are traveling to. Since the BBC article, we have had an influx of orders to the UK, but because of the BBC’s wide ranging readership, we have also seen our first orders to places like Indonesia and Kenya.

I am really looking forward to our first order to a small pacific island nation. If you are in any place that meets that description, let me know and I will send you a postcard for free.

Stay tuned… I feel like before long we will be shipping camel cheese from Timbuktu.


Welcome to the World, Andre


Bintou was due to give birth on the 23rd of October. Andre, our child, was not impressed with the date. In fact, we will never know which date he had in mind as we took matters into our own hands (actually the hands of Professor Dolo) on the 2nd of November.

On the first of November, Bintou looked like she had a watermelon in her belly instead of a bowling ball. Andre’s head was tilted at an angle instead of facing down. His reluctance to put his head down had our doctor worried that if Bintou went into labor, it was going to be a risky birth with a strong chance of an emergency c-section. This did not sound good to either me or Bintou, so we went ahead and scheduled a c-section for the following morning.

I kept a lid on it, and I don’t think Bintou realized at all, but I was more or less having an ongoing panic attack between the appointment where we scheduled the c-section and the moment Andre arrived. Bintou was plenty anxious as well, and neither of us slept much the night of the 1st.

At the hospital, I was told about 2 minutes before Bintou was to head into the operating room, that I would not be allowed to attend. This was news to both me and Bintou. Professor Dolo had previously cleared me to be present for the birth, but I learned that was only in the case of a normal birth. My anxiety level was officially maxed out at this point. As they wheeled Bintou into the OR, I paced around the recovery room while the pediatrician tried to calm me down.

And then 15 minutes later, I heard Andre wailing. It was both reassuring and distressing to hear him. The pediatrician told me everything was OK. A short time later, the sage-femme carried Andre into the recovery room, and the pediatrician immediately put him under a heat lamp and began examining him.

In between moments of staring at Andre in pure wonder, I was asking anyone and everyone “where’s bintou, where’s bintou, where’s bintou, what’s happening, where’s bintou???” Bintou was wheeled out about 10 minutes later, looped out on who know’s what. She wasn’t in pain, though, and she was able to smile.

Room 208 at Clinique Pasteur would be our home for the next 3 days. It was clean and comfortable, and filled with mosquitoes. When I asked for a room with fewer mosquitos, one of the nurses told me that no other rooms were available, and that I must have opened a window for there to be so many mosquitoes (I did not).

From the moment we settled into our room, the nurses were either annoyed and impatient or nowhere to be found. I know nurses are often overworked, but every time I went to their area, they were sitting around as if they really needed something to do. We got into an argument about this and relations were irreperably damaged.

Rita was the exception. She was an angel. Rita worked the night shift. She would come at a moment’s notice and solve all of our problems. There is nothing that can prepare you for being a parent. Many people told me this before Bintou gave birth. It turns out, they knew what they were talking about. It doesn’t take long to realize that anyone who has already gone through the process of caring for a newborn is an invaluable resource. Their mere presence is incredibly calming. During the day, Bintou’s mom served this role. At night, it was Rita.

In addition to their inattention, the nurses-not-named-Rita also offered conflicting advice. Bintou was already eating food (well, liquid food in the form of a broth) roughly eight hours after her operation. The following day, she began to have some solid foods. I asked a nurse if she could drink apple juice. The nurse said that would be fine. Some time later, a different nurse came to our room and saw Bintou drinking apple juice. Her reaction was along the lines of “ARE YOU INSANE WHAT IS SHE DOING DRINKING APPLE JUICE?!?!” This kind of thing — someone telling us to do or not do something and then someone else telling us the opposite — would continue throughout our stay.

However, all things considered, Clinique Pasteur — the clinic that was extremely negligent in their handling of the case of ebola that led to the only outbreak of the disease in Mali — was perfectly fine. Dolo did a great job with the operation, there were no complications, and we were able to leave the hospital after three days. Outside of a handful of dreadful nurses and the apocalyptic quantity of mosquitoes in our room, there was not much to complain about. Even the food was good!

The first evening in the hospital coincided with game 7 of the World Series. I had some serious chemical imbalances going on in my brain by the time the game rolled around (1AM in Mali), but it had to be watched. I laid down on my thin une-place student mattress and tethered my computer to the 3g on my phone in order to illegally stream the match. I also downed a couple of nescafes, which turned out to be unneccesary as my body somehow found hidden reserves of adrenaline.

The Indians lost, but it was a great game. For a loss, there were plenty of highs. I accidentally woke Bintou up and then almost went into cardiac arrest when this happened:

If we were going to lose to anyone, it might as well be the only team that had a longer championship drought than us. Most importantly, I will always be able to tell my son how I watched game 7 of the 2016 World Series, laying next to him and his mother, on the floor of our room in Clinique Pasteur while getting mauled by mosquitoes.


The first two days in the hospital were not easy. Bintou was in varying amounts of pain and more or less immobile. I did my best to keep her and Andre comfortable. I don’t know what I would have done without Bintou’s mom who was without question the MVP of our time in Pasteur. She came every morning and stayed until the evening.

We also had a near constant stream of visitors (mostly Bintou’s friends or friends of her family) during the daytime. At certain points, Andre had just gone to sleep and Bintou and I were on our way to do the same, but then someone would knock at the door and our plans were foiled. This is Mali, and there is no refusing visitors. Everyone who came was extremely generous, and we received everything from soup to diapers.

We enjoyed the extra company and all of the support, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was one of the more tiring aspects of our stay in the hospital. After three days, we were thrilled when the doctors cleared us to go home. We could still receive visitors there, but in a more comfortable space, and now if one of us needed a break, we could dip into the bedroom for some rest.

Andre is a bit over 7 weeks old now. He has a bit of colic, which would appear to be nature’s way of testing the upper limits of mine and Bintou’s sanity, but otherwise he is a fine chap who makes me smile around the clock (ok, maybe not at midnight when his colic is in full effect). Bintou has been incredible. Certain aspects of her personality — her patience and warmth — lend themselves to motherhood, and like most Malian women, she was helping to raise her younger siblings by the time she was 7 years old. Andre and I are truly blessed.

For my part, I have come a long way in a month and a half. I am now a diaper ninja, and I can often bring Andre down from the heights of colic induced wailing. I still need some work in other areas. You might regret asking me to dress Andre, for example.

Long story short, Bintou and I are both very happy and looking forward to the many adventures to come.

Here are a few pics:




Bintou likes dressing him in his rabbit hat. It’s unclear how he feels about it.



This is the “I just had a major blowout in my diaper and now one of you is going to have clean it up” look.

Before the end of this year, I am going to try and squeeze in a couple more posts, one with an update on the Postcards from Timbuktu project (since the project was featured in the BBC, it has taken on a new life) and another with a look towards 2017.

Happy Holidays to you and yours 🙂