“You want dinner? That’s going to be another 2,000 cfa per day” said our boat boy, trying one more time to take advantage of us. “You have to eat something” he said after a day of refusing his offers. What the boy didn’t realize is that we were prepared for this and had bought meager rations just in case something like this happened.
It had been a long day and night and day before that. We left Bamako, the capital of Mali and were on our way to Timbuktu, a trip that was historically known for its difficulty. Many explorers had given their lives to get to Timbuktu in the 1800’s and some of those that finally made it never made it back home. I hoped it would be easier for us, but I wanted a bit of the adventure that they endured. I would be definitely disappointed if it was just an easy bus ride across a paved road to Timbuktu, but it also wasn’t something I was ready to die for either. The journey had to justify the reputation of Timbuktu, at least somewhat, and for us it did.
The River Niger flows across Mali and is the traditional trading route of the country. It’s the reason Timbuktu became as famous as it is because Timbuktu is the link between the desert and the river. The river giving access to the rest of Africa and the desert with its trade goods such as salt made it an ideal place for trade between Sahel and the Sahara. Timbuktu isn’t what it once was, but it’s still there and feels like the border of the wild Sahara, go any further and you’re on your own.
Getting to Timbuktu wasn’t all that easy either. We had a plan to take a bus to Mopti, on the banks of the Niger and from there take a long, narrow boat, called a pirouge, to a town called Korioume. From there it was just a matter of catching a 10-15 km ride to Timbuktu. The boat ride was to take three days, the bus 12 hours, and maybe a half hour for the ride from Korioume. We estimated four days minimum to get to Timbuktu and our only time constraint was reaching the bank in Timbuktu for our cash advance, at 17:00 Friday. No problem.
After three days, Bamako was wearing on us. We couldn’t find any good street food and it was pretty boring. Matt was making rounds to the Russian Embassy trying to get a Visa and Andrew was trying to get a real passaport at the American Embassy. They were both getting nowhere fast. Now, Bamako isn’t that bad of a town but it sure isn’t gorgeous. We all went together to the embassies the first time and it took us awhile to find the American embassy. Apparently they moved and forgot to tell anyone. We finally roll up and damned if it’s not the most audacious building in Mali, a true palace. Huge, manicured, palatial! Matt started singing the theme song to the movie Team America. It goes something like this, “America, fuck yeah. Here to save world, yeah!”. The song was a perfect fit for the scene in front of us. If only they had loud speakers surrounding that place.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, no one at the gate of the embassy spoke English, only French and Bambara. They were helpful enough to give us the paperwork to apply for U.S. citizenship, needless to say we weren’t allowed in. What a let down, because I really wanted to piss on a starving homeless person through the fence of the palace. No matter, I’d get close enough to that in Timbuktu.
To pass the time we decided to hit up a bar or two just to see what they were like. We heard that the night clubs were really something, but didn’t have the clothes or the desire to walk to the northern end of town. Instead we decided to take a short walk to a place called the Appalossa known for it’s expatriate crowd and seedy waitresses. Four hours later we found it and were sure we’d stepped into heaven because of their powerful air conditioning. We each ordered a local cheap beer and sat at the bar and we each were assigned an attractive and infinitely attentive waitress.
Now, I like good service, but it gets a little unnerving when you’ve got a girl filling your glass after every sip and staring and smiling at you in between sips. I figured that if we bought them drinks they would leave us alone and that was probably my biggest blunder of the trip, I really don’t know what I was thinking. I guess that I couldn’t think of anything else. Needless to say, they were ecstatic that I wanted to buy them drinks and guess what? The attentiveness did not decline. In fact now they started talking to us and told us they were from Cote D’Voire. It wasn’t but two minutes before I picked up the word marriage in French being thrown around. “Warning, warning, warning” was screaming through my head so loud I couldn’t hear what my girl was saying. I looked at my beer and it was still half full. That was likely the first time in history that “half-full” was a pessimistic statement. Soon my hand was being searched for a ring and not finding one, my girl wanted to know if I had any children. The air conditioning felt good, but I’m not sure if I felt anymore comfortable than outside in the sweltering heat. In fact, I think I was sweating more inside.
We told the ladies about our plans to travel to Timbuktu thinking that would turn them off, but no. They swooned as if I we were talking about going to the French Riviera. These were not the type to enjoy the traveling we were about to embark on, so I was kind of confused. They obviously wanted to be taken along and they didn’t care where. We finshed up and to leave we had to promise them we’d be back the next night, which we had absolutely no intentions of doing. Maybe when I’m sixty five and scummy I’ll go back in there with swank clothes flashing a 20 dollar bill and get my self a hot desperate girl from Cote D’Voire. Of course by then, the dollar will be so devaluated that there will be guys from Africa picking up girls in our bars by flashing a 20 cfa note and promising to take them back to Sierra Leone or Ghana or whatever Podunk country they’re from.
Monday afternoon we attempted to get on a bus to Sevare which was only a couple hundred kilometers away but no buses were going there, is what we were told. However there were buses to Mopti which left at around 15:00 and were to arrive at seven the next morning. Perfect, we thought, now we won’t have to get a hotel room. We were very hungry and decided to spend the time we had looking for food. We saw several stands around the bus station, but none that Matt was willing to eat at. Andrew and I were hungry enough that we didn’t care.
Leaving Matt behind, we walked up to one of the stands and asked for two servings of whatever was in the pot. Someone comes up to us and beckons us to sit. As expected the lady ladles out slop into a plate and Andrew and I wait anxiously. She hands the plate to her daughter, who then starts eating it. Ok, no problem we’re certainly next. Again, as expected she dips her ladle into the mush and loads a plate. Instead of passing it to us, she eats it. Hmmmm…we think to ourselves, maybe she didn’t understand. She continues to ignore us for another five minutes and we get up and leave to go to the next and last vendor.
Unlike our other host, this one is actually responsive. She actively proclaims that she can’t understand us, that she doesn’t speak French. Well, ok, its fair enough that she doesn’t understand French, but this very basic communication. You don’t even need language. The scene is a follows, there is a food stand, there is a pot of food, there are plates and forks. All of a sudden the scene changes when two people walk up to the food stand and motion at the pot of food. Gee, I wonder what they could possibly want? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, my dog Thunder would have no problems understanding, so really, what’s the deal. After an unsuccessful attempt at buying slop we were out of options at the bus station.
In fact, this was the second attempt. The first was when we tried to buy a drink and we were desperate almost to the point of panic. We walk in and say we want 3 drinks. Fine, the guy opens the door to the refrigerator what kind do you want, he asks. Andrew looks inside the refrigerator and the guy closes it. He asks again, “what kind do you want?”. Andrew says, “let me see what you have”, the guy closes the door again. “What kind of drink do you want” he propositions us again.
I wasn’t an active part of this conversation, but I was listening and getting irritated. I find it helpful for my own sanity to be aware but be as involved as little as possible. I learned this from working in state government, where many of the people you have to work with are just as frustrating. I have little patience for inefficiency, and my patience was wearing thin. Andrew looks at me and says “what do you want to drink”. I replied to him and the shack’s employee, “I don’t give a fuck what kind of god damn drinks we get as long as we fucking get them now!”. I think Matt was thinking the same thing, though if asked I don’t think he would be so perverse. So the dude gets us three sodas and puts them on the table and promptly walks away to ask the shack’s owner some questions. The bottles still have the tops on, so we can’t drink them. I feel conflicted, between falling on the floor from my on-coming heat stroke and the desire to break someone’s neck.
We continued on our quest for food, really not a big thing to ask for with cash in our pockets and being in the biggest city in Mali. We stroll down the street in the mid-day sun fairly unhappily. We do come across someone with potential that is very friendly. Though she didn’t speak French she still figured out what we wanted, amazing. She had a large wok with fried bananas and fries and we asked her to fix us a sandwich, which she did. But for some reason she missed the fried banana and what we got was a fry sandwich with oil and salt. Now I have always made fun of Taco Bell, since they really only use a couple of ingredients to make all of their menu choices. It’s really amazing. But, this was beyond Taco Bell. This woman had essentially lowered the bar to one ingredient, that being flour. I was really happy she splurged and dribbled oil over our fries. Now to find some bloody water!
We caught the bus and drove through the night, a splendid idea in Africa, since even if the air conditioning works, it’s not turned on and too many times your not moving so no air flow. The bus was a fairly late model Mercedes, and I guess people associate Mercedes with speed. That’s an ok assumption because Mercedes cars are made to run at high speeds on the Autobahn. Now, notice the two key words in the last sentence. In case you missed them here they are: cars and autobahn, neither of which we had in Mali. To a bus driver with dreams of running the Nurnburg race track, those are just minutiae. To me there is a big difference between racing a Mercedes bus and racing a Mercedes car. For god’s sake, it’s a bus. Bus or not, Mario Andreti at the helm wasn’t going to hear of it. We shaved four hours off of our drive time and I can tell you that bus was getting punished. Andrew coyly asked me after the race, I mean ride, was over. Did you sleep through that whole ride or did you notice how fast we were going?”. He said that bus was shuddering from being pushed so hard in a couple of the straight a ways. Personally, I was more concerned with corners, the passing, and the running off the road than the straight a ways.
One of the high points of that ride was call to prayer. By the mere act of pulling off the side of the road for 15 minutes, I really think call to prayer has saved thousands of lives. Five calls to prayer per day times 15 minutes equals one hour and fifteen minutes of no drive time. Multiply that times all the drivers in northern and western Africa and the average number of accidents per minute for the region and you’ve saved some serious lives.
It was dark and the rainy season was moving in. In the distant wild lightning storms were painting the sky purple and warm winds were whipping across the Sahel. Although, I’m dubious about organized religion in general, it seemed wildly appropriate to pray. I wonder how many people were praying that our wannabe race car driver wouldn’t drive us to a fiery death? My guess is that it was a pretty high percentage and maybe, just maybe that’s why we arrived alive.
At three o’clock A.M. we arrived in Mopti, after a stop guess where? Sevare, the place we couldn’t get a bus ticket to because “no buses are going there today”. This foiled our plan. Thinking we’d get there at 7 a.m. we planned to go straight to the boats and start our negotiations. Andrew and I weren’t willing to spend the money on a room for three hours, but Matt was. We took him to a place where he got a room complete with air conditioning., pretty swank. There was no way I was going to pay 40,000 cfa for a hotel room and if I was, I would be staying at least 24 hours without leaving. Matt didn’t care and Andrew and I found a nice tree on the bank of the river to sleep under. This worked out well, because just before dawn people started to wander by, waking us up for our worst day ever.
Negotiating deals in Africa is never fun and we always had to mentally prepare ourselves. It’s similar to border crossings, you pretty much know you’re in for a battle and that you are going to lose, its just a question of how badly you’ll lose. With plans of attack flowing through our heads we made the walk to the town of Mopti. Just as we enetered there was a man selling egg sandwiches. The fry sandwich had long since lost its affectiveness, so we were happy to see a replacement. We sat down and ordered up two sandwiches and two coffees. We were delighted when the “chef” brought out a full sized baggette and asks us how big we wanted our sandwiches. After he broke it in half Andrew and I let out girlish giggles. This sandwich was going to be huge! Once again we made an error in our calculation based on a bad assumption. We assumed that the filling would be proportional to the bread. What we got was two small fried eggs in a boat of dry bread. Our coffee came to us with gloppy, artificial, milk/sugar/creamer, vitamin mix dripping off the side, all presented to us by our proudly smiling chef. The coffee additive literally wanted to make me vomit, just the feel of the improperly mixed glop sliding down your throat was enough, but it also oozed onto your lips. Not surprisingly, the flies loved it and it was chore not to swallow them as we tried to wash down a half baggette of dry bread with it. I can’t speak for Andrew, but I was pretty sure that “Uncle Ralph” was going to be stopping by for a visit.
With a feeling of accomplishment we left our eating establishment with clean plates and punished stomachs. We had stepped up to the challenge and triumphantly eaten breakfast, a bold and daring move in the battle to see through a day in Mali, where the food is bad and the rats are scared. One more meal and we’d be in the home stretch with only dinner barring the way to freedom.
Lunch, however, was not in the cards for us that day but as bad as it would probably be, it would be a damn sight better than what we were in for. What were about to experience was akin to having your hands and legs duct taped together and being thrown out to the mosquitos on the tundra of the North Slope in summer. I’ve always been anti-torture, but I’ve also understood why someone would be inclined to perform it. As the old saying goes, “desperate times require desperate measures”. To this day I would give my first-born child to have a day with these characters in Guantanamo. In case the Domestic Espionage Program (DEP) runs across my blog and to help bring my dream into reality, I am sure I heard them something about their terrorist intentions, really sure. To help the DEP find my blog I am providing them with the following key words: anthrax, dissent, high explosives, al quaeda, anti-western sentiment, allah, one true god, box cutters, sharia, jihad, free thinking. Hey DEP guys, let me know if you need help finding these bastards who work tirelessly against Jesus, mother, and apple pie. You can reach me at HYPERLINK “mailto:email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org, I have experience with nun chucks and I extensively tortured my brother when I was younger.
At a half hour after sunup, we were at the negotiating table on the banks of the Niger River (by the way, it’s pronounced nee-jair you white supremist, Nazi sympathizer). Our friend Soundouce made the trip a year earlier and told us that if we really tried, we could get the pirouge for 10,000 cfa including meals. They said no, it would be 20,000 cfa, 15,000 cfa without meals. We eventually got the ride for 15,000 cfa with meals, done! “we leave at ten o’clock” they said and I rushed to wake up Matt and see if he wanted to come, since he was having already having strong second thoughts about Africa. Cinvincing him to leave his air conditioned room and continuing the trip wasn’t easy.
Yes indeed, everything was going swell. We hurried to the boat and then it started. Our “guide” Seck took us to get food, even though we didn’t need help. Funny, because everything seemed very expensive. The bill for a tuna, a pack of cashews, 2 packets of drink mix, and artificial cheese came in at over 30 dollars U.S. I was horrified and by switching to tuna in water brought the price down by half. Then we had to buy water. Water was sold in bottles, but was very expensive. Instead, 500 ml water bags are on sale. Secks recommendations was that we buy a 40 pack. His friend wanted 4,000 cfa which we thought was high, so we did the math. 40 water packs for which we were paying 50 cfa a piece came out to 2,000 cfa. Somehow, if you buy in bulk you get charged twice as much. Oh wait, no that’s if you’re white, you get charged as much. We were definitely white, but we also weren’t stupid, so we said no way.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “why did they buy food if they bargained to get food on the pirouge”. Well, that is an excellent question and I will tell you why. The reason is that we’d played these games for two months and anytime you were in a vulnerable position and anyone noticed, you were in for some good old fashioned raping. So by buying food we reduced our vulnerability when we were on the boat and someone said something like “You want dinner? That’s going to be another 2,000 cfa per day”. It’s important to note that we didn’t buy lots of food. Just starvation rations so that we could make it.
We made it to the boat and waited on shore for the call to depart. Sitting on the bank made us vulnerable to jewelry vendors and much to our horror, Matt decides to buy jewelry and acknowledge the vendors existence. Andrew and I knew that once the flood gates were breached we had had it. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” read the sign we passed under as Matt opened his mouth.
As Matt became under assault from the land, I was flanked from the south. The captain’s son saw the chance to make some quick cash. Before he opened his mouth I knew he was going to be a problem. He had one or two compatriates in tow and asked me if we had matts to sit on. I said “no, and we don’t need any”. Somehow it turned into a thirty minute argument and the guy was not being pleasant, but he was being very forceful. There are only so many ways to say “no, I don’t want to buy your stupid matt. I don’t care if it’s hand woven and that I can use it as a prayer matt when I get home. I don’t want it for the boat trip and I sure as hell don’t want to drag it across Western Africa. No!” What really pissed him off was when I ignored him. He was spitting mad, and finally said that if we didn’t buy the matts then we couldn’t ride on the boat. I had no option but to say yes. I get a break from him for five minutes, then he says you have to buy tea, 1 kilo leaf tea for the mosques we’d be going to. I went through the same thing with the tea as for the matts.
By now it was past 10 am and we were going nowhere fast. The sun was out and we had been harrased for hours. We still needed bread but anytime one of us left three of the hecklers tried to lead us to their friends place and give us a special deal. After several more hours we had progressed to yelling at them, but they kept coming up with more mandatory items to buy. Then they moved us to the boat around noon and we hoped for a respite, which we got for a while. Soon, the hecklers realized that we were on the boat and gradually hopped from one boat to another until we had a boat full of people all haggling us at once. We didn’t notice, but only a few grain sacks had been loaded and the twenty passengers were no where to be seen.
I finally conceded to buying the tea and when that guy left another one took his place. Again, trying to sell me tea. I told him I just bought tea, he said “no you didn’t”. I said yes I did. He said no you didn’t. I said YES, I did, in fact I paid 2,000 cfa for it and bought a kilogram. He said “you can’t buy it in kilogram measures, you’re lying”. Then he started mocking me and doing the copy cat thing, remember from 2nd grade…yeah.
Matt and Andrew were not having it any easier. The jewelry salesman were still hounding Matt and had followed him on to the boat and Andrew was screaming at the guy that kept following him around. It was three o’clock now and it had been going on like this since nine in the morning. Needless to say, our patience was wearing thin and our hecklers kept bringing more and more of their friends while we were trapped on the boat. These guys knoew exactly how far to push, Andrew and I would have liked nothing more for them to have crossed the line making these physical confrontations, but they just wouldn’t go that far.
Of course we tried explaning it to them rationally, that we only had so much money. That we needed it for food and travel. Their response? “just go to the bank” as if it were magic money tree, not to mention you can’t just to a bank and get money there. Then we explained to them that need to stop following us and leave us alone. There response? “you are as free as the wind in the desert” or “you are as free as the fish in the river”. “You can do anything you want, you don’t have to buy anything” and without hesistation they got back to harassing us.
At around four o’clock P.M. the captain’s son came back aboard with my tea. He had a look on his face as if he had run out of things to push on us, and then I saw the light bulb in his mind turn on. You have to pay for baggage” were the words that came confidently rolling out of his mouth. “yes, yes, all passengers but you have paid for baggage.” My reply “Fuck you, pack your shit Matt, we are getting out here and taking a 4×4. Screw you guys, give us our money back now.” Matt packed his stuff and we got up and all of a sudden things changed. I told Andrew to tell the captain and the whole place came to a halt. “Allright, allright, keep your fucking money” said the captain’s son. Soon our buddy Seck came and said we would not be bothered anymore. We would get all the food and tea we needed on the trip, we just had to ask. He and another guy hung out with us and things were much better.
At this point we had time to watch life go by for the locals from wyithin our covered pirouge. Many, many unsightly things that made us wonder how anyone survived. For instance While one lady was washing her clothes in shallows of the filthy river, her child would be defecating in the water just to the side of her, while a man on a boat takes a drink and begins brushing his teeth not 15 feet away. We were watching about 40 feet of shoreline intensly, but by the looks of it, that had been happening up and down the length of that river from source to mouth.
Days later we would be sitting next to a man who was violently vomiting blood every 15 minutes for an entire day. As insensitive as it was, I thought to myself “what did you expect”. It made me question the type of aid foreign countries were providing to Africa. Infrastructure improvements, environmental programs, and medical treatment are all good things but what they really need is some education in basic sanitation. You can be poor but still be relatively sanitary. It seems a much easier and effective way to treat a lot of Africa’s ailments. Not that Sahara isn’t badly in need of rice paddies and flood irrigation, but that is another story.
After we threatened to jump ship, things calmed down for a while and we were even treated to a meal with the crew. Everyone gathered in the bow of the boat around a steaming bowl of rice decorated by a small fried fish. For an additional punch of flavoring a green sauce of what looked like finely chopped and cooked lettuce was added. Delicious it did not look like, but judging by the three ingredients it certainly couldn’t be that bad. You had rice, check, you had a little fish, check, and some mild looking green stuff, check. As I took my first steaming handful, the hidden ingredient suddenly hit me like a hurricane but it was too late. If you haven’t figured it out, the hidden ingredient was good old fashioned river water, not that new fangled, yuppie, clean water, stuff.
For purposes of diplomacy, I was forced to bite, swallow, and smile. I wondered if this was revenge on part of the crew. The horrifying part of the meal was that it tasted like the material people were dumping into the river, and I’m not talking about the used laundry water either. I knew it was bad when I saw the look on Andrew’s face after he had taken his first bite and he actively refused to eat more than was absolutely necessary. Andrew is like a dog when it comes to eating, he eats anything and a lot of it, so that was a bad omen. There is a saying that goes like this, “it’s a huge shit sandwich and we’re all going to have to take a bite”. This was similar, except that it wasn’t a sandwich, but yes, we all had to take a bite.