Monday, December 17, 2007

Bamako

Now I feel that I can say that I've really arrived in Africa. Mali is very different from Mauritania, as I expected.
The ride out of Mauritania wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. We separated from Jake again as he didn't feel up to the long bus ride and wanted to stop off part way to see some Koranic school in a little village somewhere. I mentioned before that they are not the same kind of Muslims that we've seen before. It's strange but Mauritania is one of the few Muslim countries I've been to that actually has banned all alcohol (of course you can still get it if you look hard enough) and the transport we've been on has actually stopped for all the prayer times too. That's actually pretty rare, believe it or not. And yet, the blacks are much more lax about the clothing they wear, with a lot more colour and females totally showing skin, even going so far as to wear tank tops. After so much time in the middle east this year, I must admit that it's a radical concept for me. And of course the sand is unbelievable, the entire country is a beach, with sand basically stretching from the water inland for thousands of km. But here I am talking about Mauritania again so lets get to Mali.
We arrived at the bus "station" at 8:30am to take a 9am bus out of Nouakchott. That's just the time they want you to show up by. The bus didn't actually leave until 11am because it took so long to get completely packed with people and luggage as everyone brought a ton of stuff, including table tops and giant pots, amongst other random items. In the end the underneath compartments were full, the roof rack on the back half of the bus was full and the steps area of the rear door was completely full and we still had to step over bags to get out the front door. There were a couple of people sitting on the floor by the driver too. They drove with the front door open to get a little airflow because the windows couldn't open and it was so hot. And there was even a guy with a bunsen burner making tea in the middle of the aisle.
The road was surprisingly good but the bus stopped all the time. There are so many police checks on the road it is crazy. I don't think they really check anything as the driver's assistant just jumps out to pay the bribe and off we go. It always seems like we stop more at night than during the day though so it is hard to get any sleep. The terrain was interesting to watch because when we left we were fully in the desert but gradually we got into the grassland zone with the odd tree here and there and then gradually more trees to finally get into the savannah zone which is still pretty dry looking but has slightly more trees than grass. By then we were in Mali and the villages we passed were mud huts with straw roofing. I really wished I had my own transport like a bike or was hitching at that moment so I could stop and check some of the villages out. I'm excited to get off the beaten track somewhere. Right now the most frustrating thing for me is the language barrier and I suspect we will have more interesting and informative encounters with the local population when we finally get to some of the english-speaking countries out here.
We crossed the border early in the morning, so early that the assistant collecting the passports skipped Bre and Savannah because they were sleeping and obviously forgot about them because they never got stamped out. Oops. We didn't realize we were at the border area until a little later when we had to get out on the Malian side. It was a little concrete hut surrounded by a couple straw ones and certainly didn't carry any air of intimidating authority. Nevertheless, the guard wanted a bribe to stamp our passports. We got through that without paying but did see the rest of the bus forking over some money. The annoying thing was that a little later the drivers of the bus started collecting money from everyone to bribe the customs guys and we ended up having to pitch in. The customs post was even more ghetto and was just two little shacks. That's the disadvantage of travelling on transport that will cross the border (many don't out here and you have to walk across) as nobody wants to wait while you argue with the guards. They all willingly pay up and since we are rich, we're expected to pay up even faster. Our bus ended up collecting over $100 (remember that this is the 4th poorest country in the world and the majority of people live on less than $2/day or so they tell us) to bribe the customs guys. What do the customs guys do? They immediately ask for double. I know life is tough out here but honestly, do you have to pay them so fast? It only encourages this type of behaviour. If it were up to me, well, ok, let's stop that line of thinking because I am abnormally stubborn about these things..... Africa will be tough for me in this regard. The bus took "only" 31 hours and we were lucky to be picked up by our host in Bamako, a nice family from China.
Bamako is a lot more developed than Nouakchott was and to me it feels a lot more like South East Asia than anywhere I've been in a long time. Not sure why but I'll take it as a good thing. Maybe it's because there are so many people on motorcycles and scooters again. Being out of full desert and yet still having that hot weather (that doesn't go down to freezing at night) is nice, as was the unexpected return of wildlife. There are lots of lizards and ants and it is so nice to hear birds, crickets and frogs again. The ground isn't quite sand anymore, it is a mix of red dust and sand so it puffs up a bit as you walk so now we are definitely in the wash-off tan kind of area. Your feet and legs are covered by the end of the day and need the shower to get it off and become pale again. Bamako itself doesn't have a whole lot to see except maybe it's markets. They are pretty chaotic and the centre's shops all seem to be little tin shacks on the side of the road. Sky and Bre went out to enjoy the nightlife on Saturday (it is supposed to be pretty good here actually) and dad is renewing his passport in Mali so we had a little business to take care of there. It is so much easier, faster and cheaper for Americans than Canadians to renew a passport. I'd be jealous but I have both :)
We are heading north again to the desert for a bit. Gotta get to Timbuktu, but first we'll stop in Djenne. Jake was supposed to meet up with us again today but I guess he'll have to race to chase us down now.
Ammon

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