Happy Holiday From Djenne, Mali

We wish all of you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 Photo backdrop is the Bandiagara Escarpement, home of the Dogon. Yes, Greg’s hair is very short. Almost all the men get their heads completely shaved about once every week or two and I had a hard time keeping the barber from not giving me the regular treatment. Ended up with about an eighth inch of hair.

The day before yesterday was a major Muslim holiday–called Tabaski here. We went to the large prayer meeting at 9 a.m. followed by the ritual slaughtering of a lamb.  Almost all men at the prayer session. A few women at the back. It was held in a big square. Unusual for Muslim prayers, young boys took part. Everyone was dressed in their finest. Quite a show.

We’re staying here for the Monday market which according the travel guides is the best in Mali and not to be missed. Then back to Bandigara to catch a festival. We tried to catch a cattle crossing here, but when we went to the town, we found they had rescheduled earlier. We had two independent confirmations of the date–did I say this is Africa.

Then to Mopti where we plan to spend a few days, and hope to catch a boat to Segou, then to Bamako to catch Saturday night music performances. The challenge will be to find out who’s on where.

Dindefelo-late November

Another out of order posting. Chronologically, our first day in Senegal.

Everything isn’t a traveling (mis)adventure. Upon arriving in Dindefelo, we went to the first campement (usually a small complex of huts and a central covered eating area. Some are also the family compound, others are more commercial) run by Mr. Camara and his family. We were the only guests while we were there. He also is a guide, so we hired him for the next two days. He took us to the local waterfalls which were quite nice. A 100-ft. drop over shale (or similar). We then hiked up on the rim past a couple of small villages and then dropped over the edge to some large caves. There was a large conical shaped basket on a stand that was somehow used to make gunpowder–if we understood the explanation. Further around the rim and then down on another trail. The trail was rocky and steep. We had been directed by one person to go this way to Dindefelo with our bikes until his friend said it would be too difficult with bikes. We would have ended up carrying our bikes and luggage in stages. Coming up the trail were students returning home. A rocky steep climb and several kilometers to and from school. In rubber sandals of course. A nice hike and change from riding.

The campement provided us with a rather unique experience. The floor of our hut had a thin layer of concrete, but we noticed an odd dark stain in the middle of the floor. Looked like oil recently spilled. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I was surprised to find an 8-in. high termite mound being built where the stain was. In the morning the termites were gone. M. Camara scrapped off the mound and poured more oil or poison down the little holes. And then put a thin layer of concrete over the area (without thoroughly cleaning the mud off). When the concrete dried there were still small holes which the termites used the next night for trying to rebuild their mound. Didn’t get as far since they had less access. The mound looked like a mud sponge.

The next day we packed up and Monsieur Camara borrowed a one-speed and we headed to Ibel, 20 km away across the plain. Good biking. Small roads/trails with little sand. At Ibel we parked our bikes and headed a small mountain to a Bedick village. The Bedick are another tribe that hid in the highlands from Moslem invaders. About 900 ft. above the plain and they had to carry water up to the village. The village (and another Bedick village we visited) appeared to be losing population. No wonder with no water and poor soil. The Bedick have a beautiful architecture for their huts. And the few people in the village (depopulation and people working in the fields) showed us some of the traditional grain grinding methods and clothing. Interesting and depressing at the same time–because they’re basically performing for tourists while losing their way of life. Although it’s a tough life and life on the plains is probably easier.

We then continued down the main road to a another campement.The campement was nice but the hostess at Chez Liontine was rather charmless, but maybe it was because she was also nursing an infant and running the campement. Every women of child bearing age seems to be carrying a child on her back.

Timbuktu

Yes, we are at the edge of the world. Although the town is not too exciting, it is interesting to walk out on the dunes and see the Tuaregs and camels and realize that there are still camel safaris carrying salt slabs from the desert to here and Morocco. And bringing back dye for the blue fabric loved by the Tuaregs. We arrived after an all day drive which included six hours on a dirt road crossing the sahel. Air conditioner in the SUV not working so everything is dusty. Along the way we saw at least a dozen donkey trains carrying grains from the main road to the desert villages and presumably Timbuktu.

We spent four days in Dogon country on the Bandiagara escarpment. The Dogon have lived in the cliffs for centuries for protection from the Muslim invaders. They didn’t leave there cliff dwellings until after WWII, when the French assured theirsecurity. In turn, the Dogon had driven out the Tellim people. The Tellim and Dogon have build incredible graneries and burial structures in the cliffs. Much more elaborate than the Anatazi dwellings of the south west.

After just 24 hours here, we’ll be heading off at noon to get across the desert while there’s light. Then off to Djenne where we will go to a Fula cattle crossing. Bill and Lisette will leave from there to Bamako, and we’ll stay out in the Mopti/Djenne area until early January.

Bamako, Mali

Finally back to a place with 24-hour power, hot showers, comfortable beds. Bamako is the most properous city we’ve been to on this trip (not counting layover in Casablanca. First thing we noticed were many private cars, not just fancy ones of super rich and NGOs, but compact cars for “middle” class people. Also more descretionary items for sale. Not to say there isn’t rampant poverty, just better than anything in Guinea and eastern Senegal. Presumably western Senegal is better off than here.

We’d had some further travels adventures, seen some beautiful sites, and been generously hosted. Details to come.

We have a phone in Mali: (223) 400-1598. You can leave a voice message–we can retrieve them.

We’re first trying to work out with our friends Bill and Lisette  join travel plans. They aren’t here as long. Outline is to hire a car and driver. And although we generally avoid that; travel here is tough enough that we are quite willing to entertain the idea.

Kedougou-last day in Senegal.

Here at the local Cyber Cafe. Most of the users are young boys, ten to 14 years old playing car and truck driving game, but I see one or two other games being played. The computer I always use (because it’s the only one with a US keyboard) has next to it game playing kids. Typically two kids manning the controls and two or three observers. At least today the owner is chasing some of the ones pressing against me away; but he’s only having partial success, they quickly reappear. The owner preparing an invoice for a customer, i.e., a word processor operator. And we’ve seen two or three Peace Corps volunteers who’ve come into town apparently for a meeting at the local headquarters. We talked to some of them. Three who bicycled 50 km or so from their villages. They spend three months just learning the local language and getting familar with the local culture before starting their projects.
We’re staying at the Chez Diao which is about 300m from the central market on a larger dirt road. Fortunately not on one of the main through roads (although we probably wouldn’t have stayed here if it was). Five or six huts with shower and sink, but shared toilets in a separate building. Meals in a covered but open area, much like you’d find in Mexico. Showers are cold, but not bad here as it’s hot and water isn’t too cold.
Last night we went to the Relais Kedougou for dinner as suggested by the Peace Corps volunteers. The Relais is fancy place with gardens and is a bit out of town and about three times more expensive than our place. We had western style meals which was a real treat. Baguette with butter–first time we’ve had butter. Sometimes margarine at breakfast, but never butter or with dinner. Then tomatos, shredded carrots with mustard vinagrette dressing. Wow, so many fresh vegetable. We ate it all. Some concern about risk from fresh vegetables; but the fact that there is city water, general cleanliness, and the fact that it is a hotel catering to higher end clients gave us confidence. And we feel fine today, so apparently OK. Followed by chicken in Louisa’s case and wild warthog in mine. The warthog is supposed to be like wild pigs, so tasted like pork roast. Tasted great and was probably more meat than we’ve eaten total in the last two or three weeks. Served with a large portion of green beans. Apple tart for desert in my case, and water melon, banana, and orange it Louisa’s. A real treat after a month of simple maafi, rice, baguettes, etc. Of course we’ve had some other good food, but this was a nice change.
As I mentioned before there don’t seem to be any trash pick up here; but yesterday some residents were gathering up and burning the trash collected along the street, but outside their compound walls. The smoke and dust from mostly dirt roads was thick last night.
Found immigration yesterday. One guy sitting under a tree near a sign that said halt. We’d walked by it but hadn’t realized it immigration. We were told that was the place at the police station about 100m beyond. The guy gave us some minor grief for not having checked in in Segou, the first town we were in in Senegal. Segou was about five building, none marked officially in any way. We had talked to several people in town buying lunch and food supplies asking directions; they all knew where we’d come from and they didn’t say anything about immigration. But the official did stamp our passports (no visa required for US citizens). He may have been upset that we’d been in country for a week without checking in too.
While walking to the Cyber Cafe yesterday we decided to come by way of the mosque which we could see. Louisa saw some old guys sitting near the front under a giant baobob tree waiting for prayers that would begin shortly and seripticiously took some video. We then walked by and they greeted us. I asked about taking a photo and they were happy to oblige. Asked us to send a copy via the Imam.
Tomorrow up early for our two leg journey to Mali (the country). Both legs are about four hours. Even if we make in time to Tambacounda there’s not assurance we’ll find a taxi leaving midday, but it’s the main road crossing Senegal which connects to the main road in the western part of Mali. With luck we’ll be in Kayes, Mali tomorrow night.

Un sept place jour

In chronological order this should appear before Louisa’s post on Mali(ville) to Senegal.

We had spent our couple of days in Labe catching up on email, Internet, eating, and washing; and we were ready for our trip to Mali-ville. We knew the routine–get to the taxi stand early. Even though it is only a four-hour trip, in general people arrive by 8 am to assure a place on the taxi. Later it takes a while to fill the taxi. The shared taxis only leave when full, even it means waiting hours.

A sept place is 30-year old Peugot station wagon with three rows of seats. The seven places are one passenger in the front, and three each in the next two rows. Children in laps don’t count. But in fact there are two or three passengers (plus driver) in the front. Yes, with bucket seats. Four in the second row and three in the back row for typically 11 total .

So we got up early enough for a quick breakfast and pack our bikes for the ride to the taxi stand (gare routier). Breakfast was the typical baguette with jelly; and Nescafe, sugar, and a artificial cream. However, we got involved talking Ruth, the poli sci student. and it was nine before we departed. But it’s only a four-hour trip and we have all day.

For some reason the taxi stand for heading north to Mali is 3km out of town in the next village, not at the main taxi stand. But we’re on bikes so it’s an easy journey. We arrived at the gare at about 9:30 found the ticket seller, negotiated the price for our bikes and luggage–the passenger fare is fixed. The fare was about $5 each and about the same for luggage. We asked how many places needed to be filled and were told three. So we found a comfortable place to sit, watched the coming and going including the apparently crazy guy who was listening the news and repeating it loudly for all to hear. Shortly after noon, we decided to give up and pay for the other three places at about $5 each (22,000GF). We were issued the additional tickets and final loading commenced. They had waited until ready to go since our bikes had to be on top of the other stuff on the roof which included other’s luggage (usually in plastic bags) as well as stuff being shipped. But then another passenger showed up and his father spent about ten minutes discussing buying the ticket with the ticket seller. Finally we handed over one of our extras and were handed his fare.

Baggage rearranged and the taxi heads off in the wrong direction without us; minor panic, but assumed just going to buy gas for the trip. He then came back and passed us by on the main road, but then parked a hundred feet up the road under a tree. Then the driver and ticket seller got into a discussion about the number of passengers. The arrangement at many gares is that the taxis are independent operators, and the ticket seller controls the taxis and gives the major portion of the fare to the driver (at least this seems to be the routine). They counted heads, looked at our tickets several times. It seemed the ticket seller had sold one extra place, but our two extra places were confusing the issue. He finally took one of our tickets and I asked about the money for it, but a well dressed passenger said don’t worry, you’ll get it. We were tired of waiting, and the Guineans had been very honest, so I kept quiet. So we’re all set to go and the driver announces time for Muslin prayers (it’s about 1 pm by now), so we get out and sit under a tree and eat our lunch. Which is our typical baguette with a Vache Qui Rit–a frequently available soft bland cheese and canned sardines, bananas, and cookies.

Half an later the driver and maybe one other passenger who went to prayers show up and we’re off. One advantage we had was that we had taken the larger middle row and had one extra seat, so not uncomfortable. About two hours into the trip the driver pulls off the road and says something needs to be fixed. Raises the hood and shows a cable and housing. I look at the throttle cables and they look OK, so assumed a clutch cable which apparently it was. Fortunately he stopped next to a bridge over a nice little river. Watched a few people hanging out at the stream&mdashprobably had bathed. A bit of local foot traffic; some who stopped to get a drink or wash up. The three women wandered off and gathered leaves which they said were medicinal and not available in their village. Two of them were dressed in Western clothes–coming from Labe or some other large city and heading back to their small village. I took pictures of the people and river; and kind of got into the mood of the trip. Reminded me of some movies where similar breakdowns happen and the well dressed Europeans retire under a tree and wait patiently or play games. Not quite as gentile, but it seemed we still had plenty of time to arrive at our destination well before dark. The road had been a good dirt road. We traveled at a reasonable speed–our driver seemed to enjoy living and wasn’t a speed demon–made the trip better. Not much traffic either.

All fixed after about an hour and we were off. But then the road deteriorated as we were climbing. We saw some road work earlier repair work, repairing the rain damaged section. The rainy season lasts about six months with rain just about every day in the middle two month–June and July. Stopped to let the two women off in their village which was right along the road. People came out to greet them and help them with their luggage. Of course this required removing the bikes and we supervised reloading as always to make sure the derailleurs weren’t crushed. Dropped a couple of other passenger along the way.

Arrived in Mali about an hour after dark. As we approached the town we told the driver the small hotel, Auberge Indigo, we wanted to stay at and he implied he would get us there. We assumed it would be close the center of the small town. Everyone unloaded and the driver talked to someone who came to pick up his package from the driver. He volunteered to get in and show the driver the way. After about three blocks, we were going about 1 mph picking our way uphill over a rocky washed out road. As it was late and we were hungry I figured we were getting the extra fare we were owed back. After about ten minutes we saw the sign and what appeared to be the hotel. The arrow pointed to the right but the volunteer said no to the left. The driver asked a couple of kids and they pointed back to the right. The driver and helper were insisting on going left. We finally convinced him to go back to the right. Upon arriving someone came out to open the gates and assist us in. The young receptionist showed us a room. We asked about food and he said there was none, but that he’d walk us to town to a restaurant–a good one.

We said good-bye to the taxi driver who was trying to get the taxi started. It had stalled, as it had several times on the trip, and significant fiddling was required to bring it to life again.

The restaurant turned out to be the local “sports bar.” A maybe 10-ft square room with benches and three small tables. Guys sitting around drinking coffee, smoking, and listening to hip-hop music; without much talking. The TV was off—no soccer games on presumably. Our host shooed some young boys off a bench. A menu of about two items. We picked omelets and tea. Then off the small markets that were still open to get bread and Vache qui rie for breakfast. No bananas or other fruit at the late hour. Back to the hotel. Our host saw we were comfortable and then hopped on his moto for a night on the town. Probably back to the sport bar. We washed our faces and hands in the bucket shower. Complete bucket shower would wait until tomorrow when it wasn’t so cold and late. Waiting was good as the auberge had a small kitchen where you could heat water for bathing.

Traveler’s note: Auberge Indigo was pleasant and quiet. We saw no signs of the new hotel that was supposed to be opening soon in town. The town seemed to maybe 2000 people.

Crossing the Border and Peul hospitality

Our journey cycling from Maliville, Guinea to Dindefelo,Senegal redefines the term “death march”. At 8 am we left the Auberge Indigo heading north.In the beginning the road descending off the Fouta Djalon Plateau was fairly easy, intermittently sandy, gravely and smooth then volcanic rocky sections. We past through a few small villages as we decended in steps down the mountain. Then we saw no villages. An hour past and no one was seen any where. The track became steeper and looser with broken rocks and babyhead rock gardens. We were told this was the “International Route” and possible to cross the border in one day on bikes. This road or track showed no vehicle tracks, only foot prints and maybe a moto track. It soon became steeper yet and over grown with tall grasses. We dropped about 1500 feet in elevation on this track that wound through forested areas with bamboo and giant termite hills then open savannah then back into the woods again. More rocky decents that I would consider to be intermediate technical mountain biking. Only we had about 35 pounds on the back of the bikes. My rear rim had been smashed on the conveyor belt at the airport and we rebuilt the wheel in Kindia. Only the hub had 32 spokes and the new steel rim has 28. Truing the wheel perfectly was not possible rendering my rear brake almost unusable. I got off and walked the worst rock sections while Greg, less risk adverse, rode the rock ledge drops and broken rock sections. Several river crossings, pea gravel, sand sections and brief downhills later it was 5 pm and two hours of day light left and no border in sight. We ran out of water and had to ask at a village to draw water from their well which they graciously did. We were being bitten by deer flies and army ants that I stepped into at a river crossing so we slathered on DEET and continued to push on in hopes of hitting the main road. Fifteen minutes before darkness we came to a Peul village. We were not going any further. We entered the fenceline of the village compound and asked two young men if we could stay there for the night and if they had any food. They responded affirmatively and showed us the way to their hut which was a traditional adobe and rattan round Peul hut with a rattan porch area with bamboo beds. The Diallo brohers gave up their hut, about 15 feet diameter, with a full size bed and fonio straw mattress on one side and two stacks of 100 lb. bags of peanuts to the roof line on the other. They had no food but made some powerful boiled green tea with lots of sugar for us. We gratefully accepted a bucket of water to wash off the sweat, dust and DEET and fell asleep after eating the last of our cookies, one Vache Qui Rie and a Clif Bar. That is Peul hospitality. On Djarama Bwe. When morning came we found that we were at the village on the border and had to have our visas signed to exit and fifty feet beyond there we had to go through customs. We were at last in Senegal.

Kedougou, Senegal

Back to a city with an Internet connection, albeit slow from here and a very sticky keyboard. We left Labe, Guinea about a week ago and this is the first place with 24 hr per day mains electricity (one other had power after 6:30 pm). We’ll be here a couple of days changing money, answering mail and eating a more balanced diet. Last night was the first with a reasonable portion of meat, but still few vegetables. Most meals are maafe and rice. Maafe typically consists peanut sauce with one imagines  few tablespoons of mashed leaves over rice. Some of it quite good. Very little to no fruit available. Sometimes bananas. But they are available here.

Thanks to all who wrote; unfortunately from this cafe I can’t seem to respond to emails. I guess the emails announcement worked this time.

We plan to leave from here Monday and try to make it to Mali that day. Unfortunately we’re going to miss a big festival we wanted to attend. It starts today in Mali; apparently early this year. The cattle crossing festival is scheduled based on the water flows in the Niger River and they must be a bit low this year. 

 No phone service here, we’ll probably get a service in Mali.

We’ll try to post details of some of our recent adventures.

Shopping in Labe

Today was money changing and shopping day. We found the money changing district and were going along comparing rates. We went back the guy who seemed to have the best rate. His office opening right on the street was about 6 ft square with boxes and bags of money. We worry about showing our hundreds of dollars worth and people were carrying thousands in plastic bags out. I was fasinated and tried to sneak a photo. Unfortunately an onlooker saw me and a scene was created. I erased the photo before anyone saw it, and after a few minutes of trying to show the photos in the camera; an English speaking local helped us out. Stupid tourist.

We then plunged into the market–narrow haphazard 2-ft. wide lanes with ragged sheet metal roofs at my head level. One area of lockable stalls. Most fasinating was about a dozen men using meat grinders (like we have or had in the US) to grind peanuts into peanut butter. No one would let us take pictures. Then down the street where several hundred women were selling produce and the peanut butter. The quantities were typically small. Melons/squashes cut into 1-in. slices.

Louisa bought some locally dyed fabric and we picked up a couple of wooden spoons.

We’ll be here another day. We’ve been trying to get into the local museum but the director is away–maybe tomorrow.

We met Ruth, an Italian women, who is in country for three months doing Ph.D research on the politics from WW2 until the end of Sekou Toure’s reign of terror. She is mainly interviewing members of the government and others who spent time in prison. She also did several weeks of library research in Conakry.  A challenging project for someone who is on her first trip out of Europe, but she seems pretty relaxed about it all.

Labe

We’re spending time here on the Internet–slow, but doable. We’ll probably leave day after tomorrow for Mali-ville, Guineau and then to Kedougou, Senegal. Mali-ville (really Mali, Senegal, but commonly called Mali-ville to differentiate it from the country, Mali) has no electricity, so Internet is unlikely. So we’ll be out of touch for about ten days. Phone may still receive SMS.

We’re enjoying the hot showers, good bed. Not enjoying the noise and motos. Hotel has only pizzas for dinner; we miss the local food of Doucki. Otherwise the hotel is great; has a nice patio and very good manager.

Some footnotes to Louisa’s Doucki posting: Price was a whooping $16 per day per person–food, lodging, and English speaking guide. As a reference the “better” hotels are relatively expensive here– about $25 per day including breakfast for two with dinner about $6; although cheaper in local restaurants. The video Louisa alluded to should be posted on YouTube in a few months. Hassan Bah speaks excellent English which made the stay much easier too. Temperature was about 90F during the day and low 70s at night. Humidity moderate.

The scenery was great–cliffs, waterfalls, slot canyons, villages, fields, jungle. Detail is low here: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=fr&geocode=&time=&date=&ttype=&q=10.997733,+-12.599667&ie=UTF8&ll=10.997732,-12.599688&spn=0.124359,0.160675&t=h&z=13&om=1
We noticed the all too usual women and children only working in the fields around Doucki. Then we realized that there weren’t many men between 15 and 50 in the village and surroundings. We found that they were all away in other countries working–Freetown and Dakar (many of the Peul lived in Sierra Leone when driven out by Sekou Toure starting in 1976). We asked about the new houses being built–financed with remittances. The local region just can’t support the people. Bah said the key needs were water (meaning foot pump wells, instead of hand drawn), education, and health. He had one of the few solar panels to provide light for his house and charge the cell phones. Cell phones seem to be the first major purchase.

Labe has working age men; but many hanging out it seems, but there must be some work. We were surprised to see how much building is going on in Labe, several multi-story buildings downtown. And seemingly many more motos–many private and as taxis.

One unusual observation at the “upmarket” restaurant last night. Two separate couples came in and only the men ate. One women had a few bites of her companions meal. Both women looked well fed and dressed by local standards.

Phone note: Sotelgui has the best rural coverage, but costs a bit more. Probably not more than $10 for a SIM card and some minutes. Areeba was $6.

In our hotel the visitors are either USAID or NGOs. USAID held a multi-country forestry meeting here this week and we met a couple of the US personnel.

In Dalaba we met four tourists from Montana, one solo Alaskan, and a Brit. But tourists are few are far between. Sad because the scenery is great, the people nice; although the amenities can be basic. Yesterday we looked up immigration here because we weren’t sure we could get our passports stamped when we left which can cause problems when we arrive in Senegal. Expected some hassle. None, friendly, helpful. Passports stamped. No bribes–not even hinted at.

Later, Greg