Back safe and sound, but where are our bicycles?

Our bikes didn’t make it to New York and we thought the worst, particularly since some locals at airport were so covetous of our bikes. But Royal Air Maroc’s Nabil in New York said he found them after a couple of days. But he had to ship them since presumably Delta would charge to ship. When they didn’t show up we called again and he said that he had tried to FedEx them wrapped in plastic and they refused the shipment. So order a box and try again. The upside is that we won’t have to pay which we might have had to on Delta if they were with us. 
While we were gone NASA published an aerial photo of part of Mali—click here for full-sized version.

Farewell West Africa

We’ve enjoyed our stay, but we’re ready to return home to friends, skiing, mountain biking, cleaner streets and air, and things that just work.

We’ll probably be adding and updating to the blog. And we’ll have photographs and videos to post and show. For our new friends in West Africa we’ll be getting photographs printed and mailed.

A bientot!

La Cuisine d’Afrique Ouest

Over the past couple of months we have been able to sample all kinds of dishes which are typical of West Africa. Some of the remarkable and every day ones are as follows. In Kindia, Guinea, Nafe kindly cooked a special lunch for us, Sauce de Feuilles. This is very typical cuisine which utilizes leaves as a base for a sauce. The sauce is sometimes cassava leaves, potato leaves or Baobab leaves. It includes onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, smoked fish and dried ochra. One can add chicken or beef or fish. This is a dish one can frequently find at a street stall or rice bar by the road side for 500 CFA or a dollar served with rice. Nafe’s lunch was quite a bit more elaborate than that. Eating street food can be interesting but you definitely take your chances being exposed to unclean conditions. Street vendors we have seen wash their dishes in soap and water but then rinse in unpurified water . If dishes are dry and clean and the food just cooked and hot there is no problem.

Another favorite lunch was in Labe at the Resto( restaurant) Calabash. Their Riz Gras was just perfect. Cabbage with tomato, squash, onion and pepper on top of rice with a tomato sauce with the ubiquitous Maggi boullion cube flavoring it.Salt is used with enthusiasm here. In fact when we visted the Bedick animist villages in Eastern Senegal up on the plateau, salt is one of the valued gifts we brought to the women of the village along with Maggi cubes, soap and Gunpowder Green tea for the men.The tea is boiled, sweetened and strained thru the leaves until it is so strong it tastes like a stringent almost tobacco taste. Men drink this through out the day and you are served it in a small shot glass which is about all you really need.

Another food discovery I enjoy are the omelette sandwiches they make at taxi stands and train stations ( 350 CFA or about 60 cents). On a cold brisk morning in Djamou sitting on a little wooden bench at a small table, a hot omelette served on crisp bagette hit the spot with a glass of Nescafe before we started our ride to Bafelobe.The lady chef with a baby on her back cooked our omelettes on a charcoal brassier on the ground in a small pan with lots of palm oil. I noticed most Africans like to drink add an enormous amount of Sahel super sweetened condensed milk with a tiny teaspoon of coffee for breakfast. It was more like a milk shake than a coffee drink.Some black turbaned Touaregs sitting next to us slurped theirs down starring at us without responding to my “Bonjour”. They may have only spoken Tamashek.

In Bandiagara on our way to the Falaise de Bandigara and the Dogon country, we walked down the dusty street from our hotel with Bill to Le Petit. It is best to ask what they have on the menu that day at a restaurant because even though the printed menu has 40 items, in reality there is really only one dish available and that is what you will eat. That evening they had Ragout de pommes de terres. We ordered 3 of those with cold Castel beers. The Ragout was a delicious stew of potatoes and lamb seasoned with clove served with crispy baguettes. For us the restaurant which was empty of other customers played Bob Marley CD’s. Another food aside is the discovery in Bandiagara of Madame Faida’s homemade Bissap confiture which is hibiscus jam that tastes like blackberries and flowers. We went thru two jars of those in no time.

On our final bike endeavor in western Mali we ended up not arriving at our destination of Bafelobe. In our typical fashion just before darkness we came to a Fula village where Mr. Camara kindly took us into his family compound.He took good care of us offering us hot tea,rice, a much needed bucket bath and bed in a tiny hut.In the morning we were woken up by the bleating of kid goats that sounded almost identical to a child’s crying. They were hopping all around the hut and scrambling on the wood pile playing and butting heads. When the Camara family saw we were awake they started coming to the door of the hut inquiring how we slept and greeting us. Mr. Camara appeared with hot tea and bowls of steaming hot corn meal topped with a spoonful of sugar. It was the ultimate breakfast comfort food that got us started out for the last leg of our journey to Bafelobe.

Finally I want to mention the fabulous Capitaine Bozo at the Bar Bozo in Mopti. I think it is obligatory that one goes to the Bar Bozo because it overlooks the port of Mopti where all the river boats, pinasses and pirogues dock to pick up passengers and cargo bound for Timbucktou, Djenne, Bamako and Massina or as far away as Gao. The boats are decorated and painted colorfully along the stern and bow with the name and date of the boat’s construction. The most amazing thing is how high the boats are piled with cargo on the roof until the gunnels are mere inches above the water. Everything from motorcycles, Fula herdsmen loading their goats, sheep, chickens, oranges, guavas, mattresses, ceramic water vessels, bananas, bicycles are stacked high with passengers tucked where ever they find a spot. The boats pull out once they are filled the boat assistant continuously bailing as they start their journey.
About the Capitaine Bozo. Bozo refers to the fisher people who live along the shores of the Niger and catch the tasty Captaine Nile perch which is cooked in a tomato sauce with onions and bananas. Sounds odd but the taste is something like Asian sweet and sour dishes without the vinegar. The fish is delightful and I have been enjoying it here in Bamako as well.As they say here in Mali ” A Chadi” which is Bambara for “tastes good!”.

Diamou to Bafoulabe, Mali by Bike

We had arrived by train a couple of days before figuring it would be easy to catch the train out or take a bus. Wrong! No train was scheduled for a day or two and we weren’t sure how long we’d have to wait; and we were ready to leave and keep our schedule to meet Bill and Lisette in Bamako. Since this is posted out of chronological order, the date was Dec. 5. So the next day we got up early to grab breakfast and make the 60km (36 mile) as the crow flies trip to Bafoulabe. A black line indicating a route “suitable for motor vehicles” on our IGN map.

At breakfast near the station, we saw the three Catalan’s we’d seen the day before sleeping on the platform with their motorcycles nearby. One of the bikes had lost its crankshaft bearing and they were waiting for the train to Dakar (opposite direction). Good handling bikes from Austria with weak engines they said. It was the second time this had happened to them (they all had the same bike). We set off down the same good dirt road we had taken the day before heading towards Chutes de Gouina. This waterfall was the main reason we had stopped in Diamou. The falls were nice–maybe 300m wide and a 10m drop.Our overall changes of getting really lost were small because we were traveling in a 5 km-wide corridor between the Senegal River and railroad line. But about 10km out of Diamou it appeared we were going the wrong way and after asking several times we found we had to back track a few km and take a turn which was in fact the signed route to the falls. But we had taken a different route with our guide the day before (but that’s another story). Got on the correct track which was more of a donkey cart track than any kind of motor vehicle road. The track split frequently and was crossed by other trails. We kept following our noses and asking for the way to Bafalabe frequently. We usually were told we were going the right way and to continue tout droit (straight ahead) except usually after a few hundred yards of straight aheads we’d come to a fork. Follow our noses, ask, and consult the GPS (I had put in a nearby town–Mahina–before we left the US. We stopped were we had the day before in a settlement on the river and were offered a slice of watermelon. Louisa offered cookies in return, and they offered us a whole watermelon. What to do with a watermelon on a bike? Well, the watermelons were the best we had and it was hot and dry and about 10:30, so after almost refusing it, I said sure figuring we be ready to eat maybe half of it in an hour or so and the route wasn’t too rough or sandy. We did stop to eat it, but we ate it all–kept us going for another hour or so. This time of year western Mali is very dry (10 percent humidity or less at a guess) and about 90F max.From the GPS it was apparent we would never reach Bafoulabe before dark. And after our previous experience we’d sworn to stop at the first village we found after 5 pm since it gets dark by 6:30 and the villages have no power, and we wanted to be settled while it was still light. At 4:57 a village appeared. We talked to a group of women for a few minutes asking for a village elder and soon a gentleman came down the road and in response to our question said he could put us up for the night. Too young to be the village chief we figured. He lead us to his family compound, got some chairs and made us some tea. Wow! He had seated us in front of a square building with a semi-enclosed porch (many of the building are round huts) and we thought he told us we could sleep on the porch. We had no sleeping pads, but enough clothes to stay warm; and for only one night. A women came and swept the porch and then I thought he indicated that we could stay in one of the building’s rooms if we wished. I checked out the rooms and they looked like lightly used storage rooms with plenty of dust and cobwebs. Then a donkey cart came and unloaded several bags of grain onto the porch–harvested from the fields we assumed. Still room for us to sleep. But seemed a bit strange. Our host indicated he was head of his extended family. The kids of course crowded around and we entertained them taking pictures and showing them the images. Well behaved and not too pushy. But we got the idea that they didn’t get western visitors ever or often. We guessed this from their curiosity and fear of some of the littlest ones.Our host later made it clear that the porch was for storing our bikes and we’d have the use of a hut with a bed. Fantastic. Probably wasn’t clear at first because he had to make sure we could use the hut. It didn’t appear that it was being used, most likely someone was away for a while.Then we asked about possibly getting some food and he indicated that we would get something. He asked what kind of grain we wanted and we picked rice. Turned out to be rice with a bit of sauce. Our hosts name was Camara (common name here), and he was a fantastic host. Before dinner we took bucket baths. He asked if we wanted hot or cold water. I said cold was OK, but Louisa said she’d like hot. I wished I hadn’t spoken so quickly, but when Louisa was done she said she’d only used half the bucket, but in the two minutes it took me to get to the bath, someone had already got my cold water and taken the remaining hot–bummer. By the way, the bathing room was an open room next to the pit toilet, neither of which had a roof. Five foot walls.The next morning we were treated to hot corn mush with a large dollop of sugar. No money was suggested or requested; but we offered a more than fair price for what we’d received. We also said we send copies of the photos. Almost no one has mail service, but M. Camara’s sister works for the phone company and he said we could send them to her at work.And then off we went. Not terribly exciting country side. Mostly flat, with a few hills. Open forest. The grass is burned. We don’t know if it’s for prevention of major conflagrations as in Guinea or to promote some kind of growth. We asked just about everyone we saw for directions. Most didn’t speak French (and of course not English), so mostly tried to pronounce Bafoulabe in a way they’d understand. They usually pointed out the way, but sometimes just scrugged. One guy who was watching his cattle indicated we were going the wrong way and motioned to follow him off in another direction. What else to do but follow. In about 0.5km we came to a track and he motioned to follow it. We had probably taken the wrong fork a km back. We gave him a few packets of cookies. Not that he expected any payment. He had just left his cattle to guide us. For a while we were crossing and recrossing the railroad tracks. Along this stretch we occasionally a very good raised road, but then it would fade out. Also riding along the tracks at the edge of the roadbed.In theory we only had to go about 18 miles that day, but the road was curving around–presumably to avoid hills and the nearby river. And then the track started getting sandy. It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling well (turned out I was coming down with diarrhea which would strike that night). We were getting close though. The GPS was predicting an hour away to Mahina (I didn’t have Bafoulabe marked). But due to a flat tire, stopping to eat a bit, sand, and a zigzaggy route, Mahina stayed an hour away for at least three hours. We finally arrived in Bafoulabe. We thought we be able to catch a shared taxi or some other transportation from Bafoulabe as it was on the “road.” But we quickly found out the only transportation was the train which passed through nearby Mahina. So we set out down a good road the last 10km to Mahina. We also were short of local money as we were basically waiting until we got to Bamako to get a better exchange rate. Upon arriving in Mahina and finding out about the train (was to leave the next afternoon), lodging, food; we found out there was a money changer 1km further down the road, but there was a “bank” in Bafoulabe. The only lodging was the most basic campement we’d been in. A compound on the edge of town with three huts, one main building and a covered area with tables for dining. Very unkempt with plastic trash, but the hut was OK. We lately realized that not many people stayed there, and it mainly served a local bar. Guys coming on their motos and walking. Most of the plastic trash was small packets of hard liquor. At least it wasn’t also the local brothel.The next morning I was well under the weather, so Louisa pedaled off to the “bank” to exchange money. Not possible. But she was able to change some Euros at the money changers at a not great rate.What I haven’t probably made apparent is that our expected one day of getting to Bafoulabe turned into two longest days of rather tough riding–mostly due to the sand and heat; but also unexciting countryside and roads much worse than we expected. The upside was the fantastic hospitality of M. Camara. The adventure!As I mentioned in another posting we found out Iris and Tom took the same route (doubtful exactly the same since so many optional roads) on their much heavier bikes. And I hadn’t caught up with posting this leg of the trip and they said they hadn’t either, although they had referenced this site. Their sites are in German, so I hadn’t been looking at them, but you may want to: http://schwarzfahrt.ch/ and http://rotfahrt.ch (black and red bikes).

Bamako

We arrived in Bamako yesterday afternoon from Segou via bus. We’re hoping to catch some music tonight or tomorrow night. Since we came here early to catch the weekend we had hoped to return earlier than Thursday, but Royal Air Maroc is fully booked. Since Dec. 22 we’ve seen a lot more tourists. From only a few people at hotels to fully booked and 20 sleeping on the roof.

Good news from Iowa. Particularly significant because we’re in Africa. Although I suspect more people here know about Schwarteneger than Obama. After all Obama didn’t star in any action movies.

We’ll be trying to catch up on our posting here.

See many of you soon.

New Year’s Day in Segou, Mali

We got up early to have breakfast with Iris and Tom (and to celebrate Calif. New Year which was at 8 a.m. here since we didn’t stay up for local New Years celebrations). We met Iris and Tom in Kedougou, Senegal at dinner one night. They left Switzerland by bike in May and biked the whole way (minus crossing the Mediterrean). They are mostly staying on good roads as their bikes loaded weight about 55kg (120 lb.). I’d guess ours weight about 65 lbs. They ended up in the same hotel at the same time as us in Segou–of course we’d never expected to run into them again. It turns out they had taken the same route as we had in western Mali (a blog to come) and we exchanged horror stories. They reinforce the idea that the most important part of travel such as this is the people you meet.

Segou is on the Niger or more properly on a part of the Niger delta. The town was very quiet. The day before was the weekly market and the town was bustling–the post market day combined with a holiday closed many stores. Segou is more laid back than some other towns of its size. We took a stroll along the river bank which reinforced how hard life is for people here. Although there is running water in Segou (although most probably get it from a public tap), many women bring their pots and pans and dishes to the river to wash them. And they often bath themselves at the same time. This is in a river that appears to be where all the sewage is directed. We then watched sand shoveled from large canoes (pirogues) to pallets that were then carried on shore and dumped. Then the sand is shoveled up into trucks or onto donkey carts. We also watched two guys load sections of reed mats about 6-ft. square onto a donkey cart. It took them about 20 minutes. The mats are used as fencing. They piled them about 20 high and tie the load with a light rope. The donkey couldn’t even move the cart, but with four pushing they got the card moving and up the bank from the river. Unfortunately the rope broke and the whole load ended up on the ground. Lot of unloading of goods to and from other pirogues going to islands in the delta. Women (mostly) washing clothes. Men tending gardens planted on the river banks (the area covered during high water). Weeding and carrying water to the garden in buckets.

Dogon Country: Our guide, Moussa, and driver

We want to put a good word for our guide, Moussa Timbine. We arranged our trip with Bill and Lisette through a travel agency in Bamako, who in turn hired Moussa, vehicle and driver. Moussa did good job of working with our schedule which had been worked out with the agency (that is, it wasn’t totally realistic). He also dealt with working around an illness of one of our party while trekking on the Bandiagara escarpment (atlhough he could use a bit of emergency medical training–but Louisa’s Lonely Planet Medical Guide took care of that gap).

One can work with a travel agency, which may have certain additional resources and was best for us as we had little time to arrange a trip. But if you plan ahead or have more time working directly with a registered guide such as Moussa will save you a lot of money and probably be better planned. Moussa: Mobile–(00223) 907 49 35. Email– cliffadventurer@yahoo.fr. He has a great sense of humor, is a non-smoker, a good story teller and has travelled in the United States. He speaks local languages, French, Spanish, and English. He is also Dogon and therefore understands the culture and traditions of the region. He graduated from Bamako University in linguistics, and after teaching a few years did what many teachers do and went into a more lucrative field.

Our driver, Demba Niang, was equally good. I think the Toyota Land Cruiser was his.  The vehicle was in pretty good shape, good tires. The air conditioner clutch failed half way into the trip. It wasn’t that hot, but using A/C cuts the dust and after a day on a dirt road, one is dirty. He was able to quickly fix a parking brake problem on the way back from Timbuktu, which many drivers probably couldn’t. And best of all, he was a conservative driver, no white knuckling it–made the trip much more pleasant. A nice guy and always willing to help and change plans. Speaks local languages and French. Phone (00223) 695 68-98. Highly recommended. We wish them both success in their future travel guiding in Mali.

I should add a few comments based on our experience with guides on our trip. Keep checking the schedule and plans. Plans seem to get changed for no reason–well there must be a reason, but it’s hard to work around. Sometimes the plan can’t be carried out, sometimes it’s a hidden agenda and the guide wants to accomplish something else in conjunction with what you’re doing, and so forth. Lunch doesn’t seem to be essential here. If you don’t make sure it’s going to happen it usually doesn’t. In Guinea we were on a two day village visit and we bought food mainly for us, but the guide was happy to join in. On that trip we were told everything (we asked several different ways and times), but then after our nights stay in the village, he said that of course the host expected to be paid (by us). It helps to keep asking and insisting on the original plan; frequently it seemed the change in plans wasn’t really necessary. Lastly, no one every reminds you that to take photos of people you’ll to pay for the picture and small change is impossible to obtain. Those 50 and 100 cfa coins can get used up fast.

Deguembre Kanda and Niongono by Moto

On the 26th we hired two of our guide Moussa’s brothers to take us to Niongono which Moussa had said were well worth visiting.

On the way we saw an interesting little village which turned out to be named Deguembre Nanda. We were attracted by the cute Dogon graneries. We met the head of the village–a guy with a scruffy beard and tattered cloths who was ahppy to receive 500cfa (about a dollar) for our visit. He handed the coin over to one of the kids and said it would be used to buy food. When we offered to send photos he wrote his name (Hamidou Yoinogue) and address and then when I handed him my card he started reading the phone number in English. A grizzled old man in 30 person village isolated on the plains, who we assumed was illiterate could write and speak some English.

Niongono was a fantastic village perched on a small hill on the plain. Like a fortified village, but not walled off. More than a hundred houses. We paid our visiting fee to the head of the village and he supplied a guide. Dramatic with more Dogon graneries and other architectual highlights. Main detraction was the fifty kids tailling along. Hoping for handouts and we’re the only things happening in the village.

It was only 30km (18 miles) to village with almost half on pavement. But the moto ride was a bit challenging. The basic Chinese 150cc motorbikes don’t have good enough suspension and power to handle the weight of two people, espectially with me sitting behind the rear axle. I think the driver was good enough but he kept washing out in the sand (front wheel  losing control more or less). He never went over, but plenty of quick saves with a foot out. Louisa’s driver did lose it once and they both went over. Neither had sense enough to know when we should get off and walk. One particularly rough rocky piece that would have been nasty had we gone over. We asked to walk on the way back. Louisa had asked here driver to stop so she could walk. I assumed mine would stop since he was following, but instead he powered on almost hitting Louisa as she got off the bike. Also my driver had no sense that my head was six inches above his nore that my legs were further out. Picked up a sticker or two and had to duck once or twice.

The disadvantage of non-professional guides. But the villages were worth it.

Bandiagara Festival

We did visit the Monday market in Djenne. Large, but not too frenetic. As for many small towns, the market is the only place or time to buy many items as the town isn’t large enough or rich enough to support full time stores.

We dallied too long and ended up at the taxi/bus station nearly two hours late. Another hour to fill the approx 20 passenger bus. Then wait for the pasengers who had wandered off. A few miles out of town, we had to wait for the ferry crossing. Traffic backed up and then a queue fight which was quite a show with vehicles getting pushed back off the ferry and several fender benders. Arrived about 7 pm in Sevare, the trainsfer point to Bandiagara. Way too late for shared taxe. Since hotels are nearly all full and we had a reservation we bit the bullet and got a private taxi.  

But the trip was worth it as the festival was fantastic. This was the second annual. Tourism is developing well enough that towns are competing for tourists and realize that the festivals are a good attraction. Also good for the community (more on this later). We weren’t encouraged by the location–“behind the bus station.”  But the area was fenced off with some booths and about 40 chairs set up under a tent. We arrived at 3 the advertised start. We grabbed a front row seat and listened the a warm up kora player singer. There was a published schedule for the five-day affair. The same each day with different sponsors–mostly themed for the community–AIDS, women’s groups etc. They had the booths and were apparently marketing to tourists and locals.

Then a traditional dance of mostly women. We had seen essentially the same dance and people the night before at our hotel. Except by now the locals had been let in (we paid and they probably got in free) and were cheering on some of the dancers and joining in themselves. Most heart warming was a crippled guy who was one of the organizes was dancing and encouraged by the locals.

The third act was a dance of warriors. About 20 guys with muzzle loading rifles which they shot off occasionally. They acted out hunt and fighting scenes. Much better than I can describe.

Then the tour de force. The dogon masked dancers. An old apparently dying tradition, particulary in a large more commercial town like Bandiagara. About 15 men in costume and large masques. And three on stilts representing cranes. We were sitting next to two elders. People from the audience came to pay their respects and the dancers freqently bowed in front of them, so we had great seats. A grand dance–again my words fail–either |Louisa will enhance or you’ll have to wait for photos.

The festival was good on many levels. Great entertainment and insight into some of the culture; and apparently helping keep allive the traditions for the locals. The kids in particular loved it–hundreds were crowded around. And also a venue to promote community programs.

The guide books implied we would see more of this as we visited the villages–we didn’t–so the festival was great and was our Dogon Christmas. At our hotel, no recognition of Christmas. Some of the hotels are tuned in and have special dinners.