Mopti to Somewhere that wasn’t Timbuktu

After our meal, more 50 kilogram bags of millet, nuts, and more millet were added to the hull of the boat. The pirogues are designed to be long, narrow, and carry a large amount of goods. In fact, they are so loaded down with cargo that the sides of the ship only extend several inches above the water line. On top of the cargo they stacked a full load of people that lay over the sacks however they could fit. Once everything was loaded we shoved off, but of course we were grounded. No one thought that if you added 3,000 kilos to a boat that was sitting in a couple of inches of water that it might get grounded. No matter, at this point it was painfully clear but in the end was little more than a nuisance.

Freeing the stuck boat and polling it out into the river Niger was an escape that we wanted more than anything, but it was tempered by the notion that once on the river we were more trapped than before. We got into the current and with the motor chugging, it helped pulled us away from the grasp of Mopti. There were at least 20 people on board and I didn’t know how many of which were the ones harassing us in Mopti. The hearsay was that the trip was to take three days to Kuriome about 20 km from Timbuktu and we were hoping to get there on Thursday hitching a ride to Timbuktu on the same day. We had to to get to Timbuktu before Friday noon so that we could get to the bank. Between not being able to get money and the hecklers and the boat ride and the fact that only one of us could even get money things were looking pretty tight. If we didn’t get to that bank on Friday before it closed, we were pretty much out of luck. That wouldn’t be a problem though, ’cause we had a whole day extra to make the trip than we needed. All we had to do now was sit back and try not to go insane sitting on a boat for three days with nothing to do but read and fight for space.

The first day we were comfortable, though the concept of having to relying on the rations we bought in town had not yet hit us. We looked at our stash and divvied it up and wondered how long the bread would stay edible, certainly not long. The pack of cashews were going to have to wait until we were in dire straits as a shot of energy for the final push. Looking back, I’m not sure how much energy were in that packet of nuts divided by three people, but it didn’t matter then. We had enough sardines to have two a day each for the last two days and then two shares of mango drink mix. We set our minds to ration mode and let the river take us away to our destiny, however horrible it would be. Now, if you don’t know about ration mode maybe someday you’ll learn. Suffering comes from want, as the Buddhists say, so if you tell yourself your not going to get much to eat and you have no control over it then there is no reason to be bothered with suffering. The whole zen thing can be very handy in situations where you’re not going to be comfortable and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. It’s also handy if you’re bull-headed and just don’t want to give the boat owner the pleasure of seeing you break. I’d be in pretty damn bad shape to accept any rice of his, and I think Andrew thought the same.

The grass mats were rolled up along the sides of the boat and the milky way shown into the boat. The light of the moon glistened off of the river’s surface and the mellow drone of the diesel engine made the scene surreal. Rolling over to enjoy the view, I dragged my feet in the water and wondered if I was trolling for crocodiles. I pulled my toes back in and fell asleep with all the others, squished in between sacks of grain and wooden uprights that kept the roof on top of us.

Morning came early and it was more of the same, long, wide river bank, people fishing from their pirogues and boats traveling up and down the river. I knew this was the was the magical time when the newness of the river life was still alive in me and before I went mad from inactivity and boredom. It wasn’t long until clouds gathered in the sky ushering in the rainy season which was permitting us to travel along the river. One minute it was sunny and the next rain was hammering the boat and winds were ripping off the plastic and straw mats that were intended to keep the cargo dry. By the way, we weren’t the cargo, the grain was the cargo. The rest of us were just refugees that they let ride along for some extra cash. That being the case, we all had to do what we could to keep the cargo dry. It took all the strength I had to keep my mat down while holding on to the edge of a tarp over the bow. The wind ripped the coverings right out of my hand time and time again. Rain was pouring down and the wind whipped up waves so big that they rolled right over the sides of our boat. One boy manned the bucket trying to keep us afloat, while the women and children huddled in the center of the boat and the rest of us did what we could to keep the rain out.

After 45 minutes the rain passed and we were sopping wet and surprisingly cold. I had to put on a fleece pull-over in July in Africa! We pulled anchor and chugged onward passing hippopotamuses along the way. By now I started to notice that some of our occupants weren’t the healthiest people I’d been around. One guy sat on the edge of the boat and stared at the horizon for hours, only broken by fits of coughing. He handed me a rolled up x-ray and it showed lots of scarring of the lungs (I think). Not speaking his language I didn’t know what to say. Even if I did speak his language, what do you say to a guy that has tuberculosis and no money. He knew he was dying, I knew he was dying, and there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about it. I indicated that I understood. I don’t think he was looking for help, but maybe just wanted to explain his situation.

The next guy was moaning and eventually got me to look at him. We had a great med kit that Andrew had assembled over two years in the peace corp so I took a stab and being a doctor. These people were screwed anyway, so how bad could I mess up? Anyhow, I doubted that I’d get a malpractice suite from these folks. I had him open his mouth since his cheek was swollen and with a flashlight and I poked around while Matt looked for a reaction. It didn’t take long to find that he was missing a tooth and that there was exposed bone, I think it is referred to as a dry socket. For that there was nothing I could do, except relieve the pain and make him try to clean it. I gave him a salt wash with some rehydration tablets I chewed up and gave him some pain meds. I knew he had to invigorate the gums to grow back and flossing was the only thing I could think of, but that wasn’t going to happen. It also didn’t help that this people couldn’t even speak the national language, French. Not that I could speak French but at least I would be able to communicate to him that I couldn’t speak French in French, because that I could say.

Those were numbers one and two, number three was a little more obvious with his symptoms. He started off by groaning, none of us ever knew what was going on, so at first this was just another one of those weird things you didn’t even try to understand. Eventually it got worse and before long this man was vomiting over the edge of the boat every ten to fifteen minutes. This continued most of the day and everyone pretty much ignored him. While I lay on my sack of grain reading Morte D’Arthur, our friend took to vomiting. As the filth floated by my head I noticed it was blood. By that evening I was sure the guy would be dead. The vomiting continued and the moaning grew louder. I couldn’t possibly imagine him vomiting as much as he did and thought he has to run out of blood to vomit eventually. Though I toyed with the notion that his death would make him less annoying, I really didn’t want to sleep next to a cold cadaver. I was already having nightmares from sleeping next to strange Africans holding onto my calf while I spooned another in the cramped quarters of the boat. I didn’t think it could get too much tighter, but having a dead man taking up space on my designated grain sack would make for a long night.

By this time Matt was on a steady diet of Ciprofloxacin, using it as a preventative rather than a cure, and any diagnosis he had for us involved Cipro. Andrew and I didn’t have a better idea and Cipro, an antibiotic, seemed to be appropriate if he could keep it down. Ironically, a woman from the back of the boat came to nurse him giving him lots of fluids to drink, namely river water. Obviously, there wasn’t any kind of connection made between drinking water down diarrhea and vomiting blood. Hey, water’s healthy and natural right? I’ve seen Hindu’s drink some god awful water just down stream of a crematorium where the ashes are dumped directly into the river, but they had religion on their side. The logic went something like this: This river is holy, therefore it cannot be polluted because it is a sacred creation of god. Since god cannot be polluted, neither can the river. These people were not Hindu, they were Muslim, with very strict dietary standards. One such standard is the one that doesn’t permit the ingestion of pork. Why, because it is unclean. Am I the only one that sees the insanity? On a side note, a friend of mine, Houman, is Muslim and has eaten pork. One of the Moroccan locals asked him once if it was as bad as it was believed to be. Houman thought for a moment and replied “I’m not going to lie, bacon is fucking delicious”. Needless to say, that did not go over well.

By day three our rations were exhausted, except for Matt’s. Somehow he had two cans of sardines left, which made Andrew and I jealous. “Dear god” I prayed, “please let us make it to Korioume tonight so that I don’t have to watch Matt eat his cans of sardines while I am left hungry”. As we have all been told, god works in mysterious ways. Personally I think he is a bit of an asshole, because he only grants you a part of your prayers and it generally leaves you in the lurch. You have to be very direct with god and if you are lucky enough to get a response, it’s usually off the mark by a bit. I know he’s not stupid, so it must be intentiona, maybe he is just hard of hearing. At any rate it is obvious that god’s communication skills are lacking. Oracles, burning bushes, what the hell, what’s wrong with email? Come on get with times man. Anyhow, this was no exception and one of the reasons I keep prayer to minimum thinking that if you don’t bother god, he won’t bother you.

By now it was getting dark on the third day, the day we were supposed to arrive in Korioume. I was starting to lose hope and setting my mind to “you aren’t going to see any food for a while” mode. Off in distance radio towers loom on the horizon. This has got to be it, we decided. When we got to shore, it was eventually suggested that we got off. “Great” we thought, “this is it, one cheap taxi ride and we’ll be in Timbuktu”! Oh boy were we wrong.

2 thoughts on “Mopti to Somewhere that wasn’t Timbuktu”

  1. This adventure sounds poignant and somewhat unpleasant. Were you still able to sleep well? I’m curious how easily one adjusts to those sorts of things.

  2. Sleep well, yes. As the nights progressed people became less wary of us and encroached. I didn’t sleep as well when spooning the natives.

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