Thursday, February 6, 2014

Burkina Faso and Mali 2008



Arrived safe and sound in Bamako, jet-lagged and sleep deprived, but excited and pleased to be here. Ambien and a swank hotel for a couple of nights should take care of the sleep issue, and if I didn't find the chaos of the streets here exciting, I probably wouldn't do this sort of thing every year.

I got a quick introduction to that chaos about an hour after my arrival. I'd stepped out for an evening stroll to orient myself, and was greeted by a rumble as soon as I reached the main street. I'm talking Westside Story, not distant thunder. A mini bus was parked there at the intersection, and when two women pulled up next to it on a moped, another woman on the bus immediately launched into a screaming tirade, and then literally launched herself at the two women, knocking them to the ground. All hell broke loose as two more women from the bus joined the melee, to the obvious pleasure of a large crowd that quickly formed. Round house slaps were the order of the day, and didn't seem to run the risk of inflicting much harm. In fact the only real damage was to their wardrobes and their modesty, as the real goal seemed to be to tear loose their clothes and expose each others breasts. Quite the re-introduction to Africa less than a couple hours off the plane from Paris.

Tomorrow I'll catch a bus up to Djenne, in time to catch the Monday market in front of the grand mosque.

From there I head into the Dogon country for some trekking, and then make my way south into Burkina Faso where I won't have much of an agenda. Although I do want to make it down to Tiebele, since the mud buildings there are what first interested me in BF.



If you've ever been annoyed as I prattle on obnoxiously about somewhere I've been, or maybe irritation that I was obliquely bragging at how much I've been able to travel these last few years, my hellish experience yesterday may induce a bit of... (what is that German word again Dave? Oh yeah...) ...schadenfreude.

On my bus ride from Bamako to Djenne, every possible problem and delay turned what should have been a 6-7 trip into a eighteen-hour ordeal, crammed into a swelteringly-hot bus (it's windows permanently sealed to accomodate long-ago failed air-conditioning). Really, you can' t imagine what an oven this thing was, brought up to temperature when the driver stopped for a forty-five minute lunch, just twenty minutes into the trip, and left us broiling in the sun, the bus so full of humanitiy that your only hope of keeping your seat was to stay in it as the temperature rose. Forward-motion brought little relief, given the sealed windows, and the frustration of the
heat was only aggravated by our lack of real progress. From spilt cargo that needed to be reloaded, to a driver who refused to bribe the police, resulting in everybody on the bus being subjected to an ID check and individual shake-down, if it could go wrong, it did. Our first two break-downs were eventually repaired, but the third (at hour fourteen) eventually resulted in us all loading onto another only nearly-full bus. At midnight we arrived at Djenne junction long after the city gates had been locked, leaving me with no available hotels, and so no option but to forge on another two hours to Sevare.

Toss in the attention that had to be paid to my newly loosened bowels, and you get a sense that it was truly a sort of West African baptism by fire.

But also of course, not without it's charms. An amicably plump Liberian brazenly propositioned me, asking me to father her children for the advantages she felt their lighter skin would bring them. A loud and jocular pair of sisters made me the butt of multiple (good natured) jokes, the gist of which I could nearly make out, despite the tribal language barrier. And once it had finally cooled down, the experience of a wizened and turbaned geriatric nomad, sitting in my lap and patting my knee in appreciqtion of the place to sit, was pretty amusing. The real life saver was the help in deciphering the various situations given to me by an older Malian woman who's stint in California had given her good english. She was very sweet and helpful, and alleviated the stress, those last few hours, of wondering where the hell I was going to end up for the night.

After two hours of backtracking this morning, (caching a ride with two older Germans who left their wives behind to fulfill long held dreams of driving to Timbuktu), I made it to Djenne with it's lovely mosque and ridiculously bustling Monday market.

Djenne Mosque and Market

I feel like I've fully made the transiton to the tropics. Although that transition really always begins before I leave, when for reasons of hygiene and chafing the clippers that I normally use on my head migrate somewhat south. It's always a bit of question as to what should remain, this time a little hitler-mustache-like patch seemed right, I'll let you know if I'm lucky enough to get a second opinion.

With that final (I'm sure disturbing) image in mind, I'll say goodbye.

Outside Djenne


It's a testament to the unpredictability of travel that one night I would be contemplating the possibility of sleeping on the side of the road during my bus ride from hell, and the next I would be eating dinner in a fine french restaurant, and arguing drug policy with the Mexican ambassador to the Netherlands (an avid photographer who is in Mali for a 5-day photo tour, he
doesn't embrace legalization as much as I do).

I'm currently enjoying the comforts of Ouagadougou (having crossed into Burkina Faso yesterday) after several days of rewarding but at times grueling travel. The first couple of days were mostly spent buzzing around on a moped (driving myself when the way was obvious, riding on the back with a guide when we were following a labyrinth of goat trails) to visit various remote villages, some with hill-top castle-like mosques surrounded by moats (crossed by pirouge), others nestled in the cliffs overlooking the plateau below. Flying across that plateau, in the warm air of sunset, only rekindled the urge I've been feeling recently to get another motorcycle back in Seattle (please, nobody mention to my sister Liz that there doesn't seem to
be a helmet anywhere in Mali that would fit my over-large head).

The next couple of days were spent trekking in the Dogon Country, the one ¨must do¨ in Mali. The Dogon are a tribe who, hoping to preserve their religion in the face of the rise of neighboring Islam, about five hundred years ago retreated into the cliffs of an escarpment that runs for 200
kilometers through south-central Mali. Arab raiders from the north continued to make their life hell up until about a hundred years ago, and so kept them up in the cliffs, although in the last century there has been a move to the base of the cliffs. Ironically, it's been in the last hundred years that a fair percentage have converted to Islam, although still with a strong animist bent. Trekking meant walking, or hiring an ox cart for the longer stretches, from village to village, and seeking respite from the mid-day heat (like I am now at this internet cafe in Ouaga) somewhere in the shade.

The landscape, with little moist pocket gardens tucked into clefts in the escarpment, as well as the cliff-hugging villages were all very picturesque, but the whole experience is a bit over commercialized, at least for my tastes. Despite that commercialization, the Dogon are incredibly friendly and hospitible. The first of my ox cart drivers was a constantly laughing guy, who made lecherous advances to every young woman/girl we passed. Surprisingly, at least to me, the advances were well received (maybe I've been taking the wrong approach all these years). Lechery seemed to be common Dogon trait. My guide Hussman (with whom I got on well) was a tad perfunctory when describing some aspect of Dogon culture, but would positively light up with animation when describing the *graphic* details of his nocturnal adventures with his (apparently many) Dogon girlfriends. When I expressed some hesitation about the Dogon habit of hunting and eating monkeys, he teased me mercilessly for being what he thought was overly squeamish. Finally having had enough, I know I made him retch a bit when I pulled out the big guns, and described eating dog in Vietnam. I could see that the slightest follow-on reference to it would bring up the bile, which gave me a distinct advantage for the rest of the trip.

Dogon Village

Dogon Elders

Slightly unusually, I departed the Dogon country by heading south towards Burkina Faso. This required me to take a 15 kilometer trip in an oxcart to the nearest town on the main (but still gravel) north-south road, Bankass.

Believe me even just that much off the beaten tourist path, the site of the biggest white man most folks have ever seen trundling through a village can cause quite a stir. Transport out of Bankass was a bit more sparse than I had hoped, so I ended up having to hitch-hike south to the border town of Koro. The first vehicle through, after a two-hour wait, was a massive Mercedes cargo-truck loaded down with cement bound for Benin, and immediately stopped to give me a lift. I'm pretty sure I could trade my Obama t-shirt for a wife anywhere in Mali, and will certainly end up giving it away, so I regret not having the presence of mind to give it to the truck driver, who was incredibly helpful in making sure I was ensconced in a hotel before he headed off into the night. He was even big enough to have made it a good fit.

Koro was an incredibly friendly place, I drank more beer that night at a roadside stand than I had planned. The next day was market day, which on the one hand meant that it took three hours for the bush taxi OUT of town to fill, but on the other hand made the wait enjoyable. The trip south into Burkina was almost a mini version of my long ordeal from Bamako, six hours instead of three, but was enjoyable instead of hellish only because the windows opened, so we weren't being slow- roasted. When taxi finally filled (20 of us crammed into a small Toyota mini-van) I took the prized seat up front that came with having been the very first person to have purchased a ticket the night before. Immediately some of us needed to pile back out, because the bus needed a push start, reminding me of all the Perry kids getting up early on winter mornings to push start my dad's Ford Econoline so he could get to work. Immediately after, a loud argument broke out, the details of which I never deciphered, but which the elderly man sitting next too me in the middle up front was called on to mediate. This meant a loud and animated conversation happening across my lap. At one point I had to tap an arm, interrupting to point out the smoke that was coming from the dash. This precipitated a panicked exit from the bus by the old man and several others. Finally, electrical problem and argument resolved, we headed south.

Things went smoothly through the exit from Mali, but getting into Burkina was interminable, I think there was a bit of smuggling going on that required more than the usual negotiations. Shortly after clearing the border, but still miles from anywhere, a particularly hard hit on a pothole resulted in a loud grinding from the wheel under my seat. The driver spent the next hour proving that it is indeed possible to repack your bearings with the most rudimentary of tools on the side of the road. The last of our delays came when just short of our destination, Ouahigouya, we veered off the the gravel rode and spent the next 45 minutes slowly covering the last ten kilometers on narrow goat paths. Confirming my smuggling theory, the driver said it was to avoid the gendarmes as we entered town.

Being at the cross roads of West Africa, Burkina is supposed to have vastly better transport. The fast and easy bus ride from Ouahigouya to Ouagadougou would seem to confirm that. I4ll spend a couple more nights here, enjoying my cheap and very comfortable hotel, before heading down to Tiebele.

I hope you all are well,


I knew I made a bit of an absurd sight to begin with, my overlarge frame straddling the 50cc moped, knees necessarily akimbo to avoid the handlebars when making a turn, and my large bag strapped to the back of the already overburdened machine with a strip of inner tube, but when in the mid-day sun I needed to keep my floppy hat in place by tying a bandanna over my head, creating a sort of bonnet-like effect, I think the image went over the top to absurdly funny. That theory was confirmed by a couple hundred kids when the bike broke down in front of school. A schoolyard full of children laughing at me..., ah it brings back the memories....

Spent the most pleasant few days yet for this trip in Tiebele, enjoyable both for the place itself, and the company. Sandra is a lovely young woman who lives in the chief's compound in Tiebele (with 300 others), and had been hired as a guide for the very first time by Trevor, an Irishman whom she was dropping off at the bus stop in Po just as I arrived. Clearly astounded at her good fortune (she's saving her money to open a hair salon), she seamlessly transitioned from his
employ to mine. It was her rented moped that I was riding the 35 dirt-road kilometers to Tiebele. Clearly unacoustomed to the norms of being a guide, her solution was to have me just sort of adopted into her family. Her precocious two-year-old niece (in Sandra's care since her sister died in childbirth) didn't follow the normal pattern of my encounters with toddlers when traveling (I smile, they burst into tears and run to the refuge of the nearest familiar adult), but rather took a real shine to me, demanding her place on my hip as we wandered about (although the impudent child did announce that I had bad breath, much to Sandra's amusement). In Tiebele, I rented a slightly more powerful 100cc bike that we used to cruise around to the various local sights and markets. Zipping along with Sandra (did I mention lovely?) clinging behind, I was reminded of another reason I want to get a bike again (no, no second opinion you perv). One of the funnier stops was at a small muddy ¨sacred¨ lake, seemingly sacred for the crocodiles. For a small fee, a local boy stood at the shore and began to sing. I was a bit skeptical, but indeed in short order five lumps surfaced, and began racing towards us. Apparently they are smart enough to realize that there is no prize for the runners-up, because when the first arrived, the others quickly disappeared back down into the water. The winner however, was greeted with the prize of a large hapless frog, tied by a long string to the end of a stick. The boy used this to lure the croc fully up onto the shore. At eight feet it wasn't huge, but big enough to spark a bit of a panic with the 15 or so onlookers when after finally capturing the frog, it charged the crowd instead of retreating back into the water.


My second night there, I knew I was part of the family when upon arriving at their sculpted mud courtyard (lit only by the cooking fire and an occasional flashlight) Sandra's older sister immediately sat me down and handed me her month-old daughter, who sat cooing in my lap for a half-hour while her mother prepared for our group departure to go out and listen to music.

Overall, a particularly enjoyable few days amongst the spectacularly painted and sculpted compounds.


This morning here in Bobo, I ran into again and had breakfast with Trevor, and we both confirmed the crushes we had developed on Sandra, and calculated that between the two of us we had gotten her nearly half-way to the two-hundred dollars she needs to open her salon.

On my bus ride out of Po, I had the spectacular luck (for West Africa) of seeing a bull elephant not thirty feet from the road. Our all-business bus-driver, who had earlier brooked no delay (buses in BF are amazing, they always leave dot on-time, and unbelievably feature checked baggage) was impressed enough to stop for a few minutes in appreciation. Visitors to the national parks here are lucky to encounter one over the course of several days, but I saw this big fellow without even trying.

Here in Bobo I'm close enough to being back full circle in Bamako that I can dive into the market and actualy haggle. Yes, I think I'll be going full mumu. The big flowing robes the men wear look so comfortable, and I work from home so often, it just seems to make sense.

Merry Christmas and all that,

Bobo Again

Renting a moto here in Bobo has meant that I have had to negotiate urban traffic for the first time. Figuring out the norms is a bit tricky (what exactly are the rules of the road when passing a run-away donkey cart?) but as a rule I've taken the opposite tack of my approach at home. There, I aim to be the second fastest car on the road; here, my goal is to be the second slowest vehicle, not counting those donkey carts. Of course it wouldn't be Africa if there wasn't a breakdown, eight kilometers out of town, but luckily directly in front of a roadside beer stand and mechanic. Given the wonders of the cellular age, I just pulled out my phone and called my moto guy (Dede) who arrived 45 minutes later with a new bike. That gave me time to have a late morning beer with the local gendarme, who complained about how little he earned as he took a break from extracting bribes on the roadside. I'll be venturing a little further afield tomorrow, but hopefully not out of cell range. How early a start I get depends on what I get up to tonight. I'll be heading out for New Years with David, a Peace Corps volunteer from Benin with whom I did some damage last Saturday night here in Bobo.

Break Down

Morning Bar Tender

The interim few days were spent in the sleepy little town of Banfora, down in the more lush sugar growing southwest of the country. The hightlights were again riding a moto and getting lost out among the tiny rural villages. I have a super cheap little GPS with me, and so just tagged my hotel, ensuring that I could always find my way back. The first morning got off to a bit of a dramatic start. I was at a roadside stand buying fuel when I heard sreeching metal and screams right behind me. I turned to see that a teenager pushing a cart had been glancingly hit by a bus. He was laying on the ground covering his head, and so did not see that the bus, while it had slowed, had not stopped, and so was about to run over his legs with it's rear wheels. I was a bit stunned myself, but thankfully recovered enough to to reach down and grab him by the scruff of the neck and yank him out of the path of the wheels. Of course a huge crowd formed, mostly wanting to know if I had seen what happened, but with my back turned I hadn't. All I saw was him on the ground about to be crippled by those rear wheels. After confirming that luckily he didn't seem to be hurt to badly, but not getting up off the ground anytime soon, I went on my way.

My prime destination was a waterfall outside of town, down a road that winds through the sugar cane fields. Here in Burkina they are still harvested by hand, what looks to be just as horrific a task as it sounds. I arrived at the falls at the same time as over a a hundred (I later learned that it was a 113, to be exact) young men on bicycles wearing what looked like scouts uniforms. It turns out that they were part of an Islamic organization, finishing a ¨peace¨ ride the 90 kilometers from Bobo to Banfora. Initially they were a wee bit stand-offish, but when they learned that I was American, they immediately mustered up a couple of brothers who spoke english, and quizzed me about many things, but mostly about Barack Obama, and gathered
around to have their pictures taken with me.

With the Scouts

After I spent a bit of time at the swimming hole, I packed up and headed back towards town, and on the way I had my second bit of drama for the day, as a boy on a bicycle that was much to large for him swerved suddenly into the side of my bike. He pinwheeled off the road, but being young, just got up, brushed himself off, adjusted his bike, and rode off. Unfortunately I didn't escape with so little damage, the bicycle had ripped the kick starter off the side of my bike, leaving me stranded, but without a cell number for my moto guy (learned that lesson right there). Initially I tried to push start it, unsuccessfully, and then hired a tenager to push me, again unsuccessfully, but then when we switched places, with me pushing him, we reached the requisite sped and got it started. I only had to repeat that process once on the rest of the drive back to town. A quick spot of welding, and I was back on the road in time to make it out to the hippo lake for sunset.

Friday I take a ¨deluxe¨ ten-hour bus ride from here back to Bamako, fly to Paris on Sunday, back to Seattle on Tuesday, and back to work on Wednesday, ending this shorter than usual trip. I'll see some of you then.



After a couple of mellow last days in Bamako (spent mostly in the company of Kirin and Michael, a couple of British VSO volunteers from Ghana) the trip home started smoothly enough with a flight to Dakar arriving at about midnight, but given that the theme of this trip seemed to be "Transit Drama/Trauma", of course things went quickly sideways. For some never explained reason, but likely because of the snowstorm in France, the late-night Air Senegal flight that was supposed to get me into Paris by 8AM was delayed, initially intially scheduled to leave at 9AM. The night shift staff for the airline were stunningly non-communicative and unhelpful, so a night spent sleeping in the transit hall was my only option. After fending off the efforts of a national policeman to extract a bribe for "allowing" me to sleep on the floor (he pointed out how much money I was saving on taxis and the hotel) I doused myself in DEET, popped an ambien, curled up in the corner, and actually slept pretty well.

The night certainly went better for me than for the Frenchman who was part of a large group of tourists trying to get through transit to catch an Air France flight. His two-year-old daughter was throwing one of the more dramatic public tantrums I've ever seen, so understandably he was anxious to get her through the required security screening. However, not so understandably, he initially disregarded the instructions of the burly security man (stupid), and then tried to push past the man (really stupid), and finally said something in french that was obviously dismissive as he attempted to shove the man out of his way (really really stupid). That's how he quickly found himself pinned against the wall by his throat with the burly security man and his two burly co-workers screaming in his face. Subdued and still in a choke-hold, he was led though a side-door, leaving his wife with the screaming toddler and their two other (now also crying)children.

In contrast to the night shift workers, the day shift Air Senegal folks were incredibly helpful. When the flight was further delayed (this time definitely because of the french snowstorm), they packed all of the passengers into a couple of buses, and dropped us off at an aging but posh waterfront hotel (would have been appreciated the night before, but eh, what are you going to do...). That's how what was supposed to be a day in Paris was transformed into a day at the beach in Dakar instead.

The evening flight transitioned smoothly into the follow-on flights, getting me back here in Seattle a couple of hours ago, spent but wide awake now at 1:30 in the morning, having just popped another couple of ambien in an attempt to get some sleep before trying to get to work in the morning (my apologies in advance to Chad and Dave for the likely lack of productivity

I hope you all are well,

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