Monday, October 26, 2009

Mali Journal I : The Road to Bambako

To celebrate a year in The Gambia and my 25th birthday, I decided to take a trip. Initially I had planned on going to Guinea Bissau, and had looked into travel routes, destinations, and costs, and just about had the whole thing planned. Then the president was assassinated by the military. A few months later, several major political figures thought to be contenders for the vacant presidency were also assassinated. So much for that idea. Instead, I began researching another country that had caught my interest: Mali. Mali is the home of Bamako, one of West Africa's great music centers, as well as the fabled city of Timbuktu, and some of the wider stretches of the great Niger river. It all seemed pretty extroardinary to me, so my friends Zach and Ian and I decided to go on a two-week trip starting on the 17th of October. These next entries are a journal of that trip.
The border between Senegal and The Gambia south of Basse is not exactly a fortress. The large shell of a former customs compound is now left empty save for the daily use of the small mosque built for border guards. Across the road from this tiny house of worship are two drab, dirty concrete buildings which house the few guards who protect the The Gambia from the throngs of Senegalese who are itching to jump the border to...steal peanuts, perhaps? Although peanuts, like just about everything else, are as or more abundant in Senegal.

Upon crossing the border, there is nothing that indicates that you have entered a different country. The red laterite road full of potholes, the scrub brush and intermittent bush mango, baobab, and other tall trees, the white-vested, black crows and vultures--none of these bush inhabitants has any concept of the border created by Europeans with no regards to tribal boundaries transport routes. After ten or so kilometers of that familiar Senegambian landscape, we arrive in Wellingara, the nearest travel hub to the Gambian border. Dispite the fact that Wellingara is about the same size as Basse, it is almost immediately evident that things are more organized here. There are two internet cafes with good connections, there are numerous 2 and even 3 story buildings, and the car park is well organized, with benches, labelled areas for different destinations, and even printed tickets. Many transactions are actually one in French, as well--I rarely if ever hear any type of business done in English in the Gambia outside of the capitol.

We buy tickets for a sept-place (seven seat station wagon) from Velingara to Tambacounda, the hub used for trips to eastern Senegal and Mali. After a few minutes of waiting our car fills, and we embark on the paved road. I can't help but thinking that this can't last--the red, rocky destruction of West African transport will return shortly, but, save for a few areas under construction, the whole 100+km trip is on asphault. And, to boot, once we have passed the Velingara police checkpoints, there are no others. It is the smoothest trip in a non-Peace Corps vehicle that I have taken in a year.

Tamba is quite small on the map, but to our surprise, the town is a bustling little urban center by West African standards, with good multi-lane roads and two large car parks. We spend the night in the Peace Corps transit house, which is very comfortable, with running water and electricity, and eat at decent restaurants, one of which has fast wi-fi. Yet another example of what decent infrastructure can do.

The next morning we continue to the border town of Kidira in another sept-place, and have to take a taxi from the car park to the immigration post on the senegal side. This process is pretty straightforward--a short ride, a passport stamp, and we are on our way to the Malian side. Here, things aren't quite so simple. We ask our taxi driver to take us to the immigration post to buy a visa, but he gets confused and takes us to the police station. We explain again and he takes us where we need to be, but then he wants more money because he went to both places. We finally negotiate him down, but he's a bit pushy while we wait for the immigration official to write out and sign receipts for the visas we will have to get in Bamako. He wants us to pay more than we negotiated, but luckily the bystanders all agree with us, so he has to relent. After all is said and done, we skip the taxi ride back to the car park and jump on a bus headed to Kayes, the first sizable city in Mali.

The bus system is definitely something of a change from what we are used to. The closest thing to a bus in The Gambia is a large gele-gele as full of rice sacks, goats, chickens, and market goods as it is people. In Mali, there are numerous bus companies, some of which even have air conditioning, if you are in the right place at the right time and want to pay a little extra. Goats and sheep are still allowed, but they are tied up in bags and put below with the luggage-an arrangement I am sure they find most comfortable. Our bus is not air conditioned, but we all have more than adequate leg room, and as long as the bus is moving there is a pleasant breeze. Unfortunately, like most vehicles in West Africa, the bus makes frequent stops for seemingly assinine reasons. At one point it seems we stop for twenty minutes so the driver and porters can sit and chat with some people on the road, and the passengers in the bus nearly drown in their own sweat.

We arrive in Kai in the late afternoon, and immediately buy tickets for the next morning's ride to Bamako. We ask what time we should arrive, as we had been told the bus usually leaves at something like 5 A.M. We are told to be there at 3:30. There are a number of taxi drivers standing next to the bus station, and we attempt to explain where the Peace Corps house is- down the block from the prison and near the river. The drivers speak French and Bambara- neither of which we know more than a few phrases. Mandinka is close to Bambara sort of like Spanish is close to Italian, so Zach and I try to explain things as best we can. Zach says the house is closed to where people are locked. I say it's close to where wicked people are. Ian tries saying "prison" with a French accent- "pree-zon," basically. Finally, I point to a scooter and say, "If I steal this, and the police catch me, where will they take me?" "Ohhhhh, "pri-son!" They all exclaim. We sigh and get in the taxi.

After a pleasant night spent hanging out with some Mali volunteers at a local bar, we get a few hours of sleep before getting up far earlier than I think is ever really necessary. We have arranged for a taxi to pick us up, and he arrives right on time. At the bus station, the staff members yell out the name of everyone who has bought a ticket, butchering each of ours in new and interesting ways. The bus has screens, and after upon embarking at 4:30 they begin to show an episode of the American series Prison Break in French. Ian has seen the show and explains a bit to me, but I am fast loosing consciousness, so we both put in our ipod headphones and pass out. When I wake up around 7, the porters are handing out raisin croissants and small bottles of cold generic cola. It seems like a strange combination, but I eat and drink and look out the window for awhile.

The landscape in Mali is a definite change from Senegambia. Before the border and even most of the way to Kayes it had been that same combination of short shrubs and grasses with occasional tall trees. Past Kayes, it slowly becomes more and more like the American southwest- short shrubs with no tall trees except around villages, rocky hills rising in the distance, and sandy, sun drenched expanses of land. The architecture changes as well, with much fewer thatched roof buildings, replaced instead by corrugated iron roofing over clay or mud brick houses. When we arrive in Bamako that afternoon, we are amazed at the large hills surrounding the city. It strikes me as kind of a West African Nashville- a city known for its music nestled in the hills. We have arrived at our first destination, and are excited to get a feel for this whole new country.

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