Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Into Mali and more trouble in Bamako

Having made it to the Malian border post of Diboli from Tambacounda without any hassles I waited two hours for a bus which would take me direct to Bamako, Mali’s capital which was still some 700km and a 14 hour bus journey away. Even if I don’t allude to it in future posts, assume that intense heat is a constant from now on. It was 40 degrees the day I got here and it’s been high 30’s or low 40’s ever since. I googled temperatures in Mali yesterday and none of the cities registered anything under 40 degrees. This will be part of life for the next month and a half and is the main reason there are few, if any, other travellers in Mali right now. It does, however, mean that there are very few mosquitoes about.
Getting a green light to board a bus in this part of the world does not mean that the bus is actually leaving and so we wait for an hour or more for some bullshit reason in the midday heat on our unmoving, breeze-free bus. It’s heartening though to look around and see others perspire as much as I do because at times I feel like I am the source of the Niger.
We leave the border at about 2pm - it takes almost two hours to pass through a never-ending series of roadblocks close to the border - and arrive in Bamako just before 4am. I sit in the street across from my lodgings for 3 hours as it doesn’t open until 7am. I’m spending my days here in the good company of the nuns who run the Mission Catholique. For a mere 4,000F a night - in Bamako terms that’s unbeatable - you can sleep in their dormitory. It’s basic but it’s clean and, in a city that’s anything but, it’s very very peaceful. As I type a blog entry one day in the courtyard I stifle a chuckle at the fact that Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl plays.
The nuns are cheerful and non-intrusive and they leave their guests to themselves. There’s one nun there who insists on speaking French to me every day even though I’ve made it very clear to her that my French isn’t up to scratch. She talks to me for five or ten minutes every day - interminable when you don’t understand what the other person is saying - and probably sees me as a bit of a Forrest Gump, as all I can muster are the occasional uncertain ‘Ouis’, ’d’accords’ and ‘peut etres’ whenever I think they’re necessary.
Bamako is light on actual sights to see - it’s ugly to be honest - but it is the capital city and it broke up my journey nicely on my way across to the east where most of the main sights are to be found. It does have its Grand Marchée which is like any other huge market really and is notable only for its sprawl - the chaos, noise and legions of people you‘ll see in any major market anywhere. The fetish stalls near the Marchée Des Artisans are intriguing though. There you’ll find a cluster of stalls selling dried skins, fur, dessicated lizard, chameleon and monkey heads and a variety of limbs from animals I couldn’t begin to name. These heads and body parts are stacked on top of each other and so you have the chilling effect a whole host of pained expressions eyeballing you as you walk past. This place is for witchdoctors.
Fascinated as I am by it all I decide to take a photo - there’s no sign saying that photos are prohibited - so I point my camera and as I’m checking my photo, my camera’s snatched from my hand. It’s the stall owner and he’s seriously pissed, as am I though because I have no idea what it is he’s pissed about and he‘s got my fucking camera in his hand. A shouting match ensues as he absolutely refuses to return my camera until, finally, we’re separated by a cop who orders us both over to his cabin.
‘Here we go again’ I think as we trudge over to the makeshift police cabin. There we meet the police chief who’s surely got better things to be doing but, regardless, the inquisition begins. The entire conversation is in French which places me at a distinct disadvantage but I know enough to say that I didn’t realise that I was causing offence blah blah bullshit blah. But it isn’t enough for the stallholder who - no pun intended - wants his pound of flesh, as if he didn‘t having enough on the bloody stall. Still the police chief has my camera even though, by now, the offending picture has been deleted. I’m asked to wait outside - real principal’s office stuff - while the stallholder remains inside. He emerges a couple of minutes later during which time he’s probably told “Look he’s just a stupid fucking tourist.” and still looks pissed as he emerges and storms past me. I’m handed back my camera, given a ticking off when it comes to the decorum involved in taking photos of dead monkeys, look sufficiently contrite and I’m allowed to wander off again. Jesus, secondary school was a breeze compared to West Africa.
There’s also the issue of change here, or, more accurately, the absence of it. Purchasing anything in any shop anywhere in Mali has suddenly become an ordeal. Why? Because Malians never ever have any change for you and, shit, this is the capital. When you go to an ATM (and you’ll usually spend two hours finding one that is , firstly, in service - a rarity - and, secondly, compatible with your Mastercard - almost non-existent) the smallest notes they dispense are 5,000F notes. There are 1,000F notes in circulation but clearly they’re been zealously guarded by some Malian Silas Marner somewhere because the shopkeepers certainly don’t have any.
Take this evening for example; I wanted to pay for my meal, took out a 5,000F note from my wallet and the owner immediately puffed out his cheeks, looked aghast, as if I’d just handed him a copy of Readers' Wives with his wife on the cover, and asked me if I had anything smaller. I didn’t. He told me to go and find some smaller change and to come back and pay for the meal then. I went next door to the corner shop, picked up something I didn’t really need but anything to break a note, handed it over, the woman puffed out her cheeks…..and you know the rest. She took the note, walked outside and went next door to the restaurant where I’d just eaten to ask if he had any change. She came back empty-handed of course, handed me the note and the can of Fanta and told me to come back when I’d found some small change. At this stage I’d had a free meal and a can of Fanta to wash it down with…..I could have lived here for years if this had continued. Eventually, two shops, a packet of gum and a bottle of water later I struck gold - the shopkeeper still puffed out his cheeks when he saw the 5,000F note though - and in The Twelve Days of Christmas style, I went back over each of the places I’d visited, settled my debts with each of them until my 5,000F was exhausted leaving me back at square one and another 5,000F note to break. This is West Africa.

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