“Come on mate you’re not an explorer”


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Africa » Mali » District of Bamako
May 22nd 2011
Published: June 8th 2011
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I sat there amongst the rubble that was the Mopti 4WD station. It was dry season and the weather was scorching. At 830am it was already in the 40’s and there was no sign of departure. I waited a few hours, constantly with the thoughts that how much longer do I have to put up with this annoying guide standing by my side and the prospect of leaving at the hottest point of the day.


As the time ticked to 10am I questioned my motives for going, ‘Why do you need to go here? Because you have to? Because you can’t say you’ve traveled Africa unless you’ve been to Timbuktu? Come on mate you’re not an explorer. You’re a traveller. There is no need to go there. Just because it’s classed as the ‘Holy Grail’ of travelling doesn’t mean its true. This is my life I don’t have to go on a 4WD in May back and forth, waste 2 days for what?

‘I just saw Djenne, a smaller version of it, so in a sense I’ve already seen it. Plus Djenne had what I was looking for anyway - The worlds largest mud building. I thought the building was in Timbuktu but I was wrong so is it for the adventure? I’ve made my own adventures in other parts of Africa. Anywhere off the main route is an adventure in this continent - Sometimes even on the main road. I don’t need this.’ The heat of Mali in May took all the adventure out of me and I got up and left, with my unwanted guide by my side.


I arrived a few days earlier into the Bamako 'International Airport' picked up my bag from the conveyor belt and headed to the brand new ATM. I thought with caution, ‘This seems well organised having an ATM right next to the baggage collection. How convenient.’ I put my card in and no good. I put a different card in (I have 5 bank cards covering every possibility Maestro, VISA debit, VISA, MasterCard. Plus an extra VISA.) But even with preparation you can’t prepare for idiotic African management. Naturally the ATM doesn’t accept foreign cards.

“There is one down the road about 2km,” I was told. ‘Wow how convenient’ I sarcastically thought. I left the arrivals lounge quite pissed off that African airports still haven’t thought of the concept of at least VISA or MasterCard compliant ATM’s. I know it costs money to upgrade but it would be a popular ATM considering tourists fly in here.


So it’s off to a taxi to explain in English to another taxi driver who could translate to the other taxi driver that I have no money. We agree on a price which was the same price quoted by the Lonely Planet so I thought fine. The first ATM 2 kms down the road doesn’t work. We try a second and… nope, no good.

I had a contact, a French guy I met briefly in Guinea working in the Mali capital. I don’t have a SIM card yet so the taxi driver calls for me. My French friend informs that he left that day and “… will be away for a few days.” He gave me another contact Mousa, a local it turned out to be.


Mousa gave directions over the phone and eventually we drive past his place. We are on the main road and Mousa agrees to meet me there. He agreed to spot me until tomorrow and I could stay at his house. He arrives and part of me was like who is this guy really? Could these other guys have just called up a friend and said “Say you are Mousa when you arrive.” than I get robbed. So I was a bit hesitant at first but within a few seconds I knew he was the right Mousa.


I decided already in my head that I’d pay them a bit extra because they have gone out of their way. It was around 8pm, dark and limited streetlights. I was going to give maybe a couple of extra bucks but the taxi driver said (before I could offer) the equivalent of $40, maybe more.


So an argument brewed with Mousa, (the guy who never knew I existed until 10 minutes earlier) by my side translating. I said after a while “Look you don't have to put up with this. You can leave if you want to I'll handle it myself. I've put up with this shit for over 9 months now and I've had enough.”


I was thinking I could get physical here. I was so close to exploding I found it hard to breath. The bubble is so close to bursting; sometimes I can only take shallow breaths. It’s because you can’t get physical, you have to be diplomatic in these situations and it’s always with scum that are desperate for some free cash.


Eventually I reluctantly paid $21, normal rate $15. I felt so bad that Mousa had to step in for me and communicate whilst scumbag and I are yelling with pauses for translation. Mousa was embarrassed that this was my first impression of his country. I replied, “It was a taxi driver, it was expected.”


I arrived in his house and was immediately hugged by Mousa’s 2-year-old son around my leg. They provided a meal and I met his family and others living in the house. It was two young families, a maid from the northern provinces and a young guy who was a translator for an American company.


The house was the size of a normal inner city home with no backyard just a small concrete area where there was an open kitchen and sitting area. There was a bit of excitement like most people in West Africa when I mentioned I was from Australia. Mousa said “I never thought I would ever meet an Australian in person in my lifetime.”


The next day after a hot night Mousa drove me around town and tried to get money - Eventually success. We went to the Grand Marche, which was not like the normal markets more just normal streets with shops and little stands in front of them.

However when we reached the artesian area it was something quite unique. Instead of just shops and annoying people saying, “Come to my shop”. You had that still, but also the workshops. The woodcarvers carving statues and masks, others cutting up leather, a lady throwing salt onto a goat skin with blood still on it so it can dry out - An incredible experience.

I wasn’t sure if it was through enjoyment of having money of legal tender again but I decided to buy a mask. I ended up getting one for $20 - a well detailed and quality wooden carving that represented a queen from the Segou region. I impressed Mousa with my negotiation skills when I got it for about $7 cheaper than what he thought I’d get it for. I used the whole “I really don’t need it.” The old story about space in my bag - all the tourist classics you need in bargaining.

The artesian market is one of the best market areas in Africa and since last years 50th anniversary the museums in Mali are quite impressive too. It displays the rich culture of Mali. The Tuareg of the Sahara area, the Dogon Country, and its great African empires. It is so rare to see in Africa a sense of pride within their culture in museum form. On a whole, African countries really don’t present their culture well to tourist. In fact you can go through some countries and think that some don’t have any at all.

It goes through the traditional artwork like the bogplan a mud cloth of various colours and the symbolic animist religion from around the area. There is also a park that is part of the museum so that means grass… Grass! As well as miniature mosques that replicate the mosques from certain regions of the country.

It was so hot that day it was like we were driving in front of the heater. I had drunk 6 liters of water and still felt dehydrated. We had lunch at his place and we discussed the differences in life. He made the comment that “most people in the western world are living life whereas most Africans are just surviving.”

I did mention some of my staple comments with this issue. I generally speak about my father’s migration to Australia where he never had met his father before he arrived in Sydney. Since my grandfather left Greece for Australia 8 years earlier. When my dad arrived in Sydney from the boat with my uncle and a family friend, my grandmother came later. My dad was 9 and was told by the family friend, “Pete! Say hello to your father.” That story puts a few people in their place.

Also how he had to work 15-hour days 6 days sometimes 7 days a week to give me a better life. What about my grandmother on my mum’s side being one of 12 kids during the depression. This wealth of disposable income is really only a generation old in some parts of the western world. I do get sick and tired of hearing that we are all rich and life is grand and it’s been like this forever. Although Mousa was not like that.

I mention how Australia was very poor 60 years ago and through migration, hard work and through governments held accountable for their actions we are fortunate enough to be successful and wealthy. I don’t think it is luck for Australia to be wealthy. Sure we’ve had good connections but that has been earned through trust over the years.

Another good one is how much things cost comparatively. We may get paid more but things cost more money. Like to own a home in Sydney will take about 30 years to pay off. A more simple explanation is how much a coke costs. In Africa its about 25c-50c for a glass Coke – do I have to mention how much better Coke taste in a glass bottle – Where as its about $3-4 in Sydney for the same size.

We all have problems too, like how we are an ageing population in Australia and so with that we need to make sure we can support the older population. I’m not being a smart arse here but these things need to be made aware.

We also spoke about how much of Europe’s waste gets dumped onto Africa. Africa doesn’t want to be this way but it’s the only way they see they can live. China has come in with affordable new motorbikes like Sanya. Mausa said they’d “love to be able to afford better cars but can’t so we are stuck with old European models and Chinese bikes that will last 7 years not 20 years like a Japanese model.” And these Chinese bikes spit out crap from the exhaust too. I was told a week later that Senegal are making it harder for overland travelers with old cars now because people sell them to people in Senegal and then it gets transferred into an awful bus vehicle.

Africa really needs to unite on this aspect. Maybe if they say “screw you Europe we don’t want your computers that end up not working or those old cars spitting out shit all day. We are sick of being the end of the line for unwanted products. Your rubbish is being discarded on our land, not yours. We don’t want it to be our long-term problem anymore. It’s your problem now.” Maybe the western world will start rethinking what they are doing. At the moment we are thinking we are being nice people giving things we don’t want to the needy when in actual fact it’s making the problem worse!

I questioned why don’t the African countries combine and create industries that are needed within the continent and trade between one another. He informed it never works because if one country finds a niche that they profit from the other countries try to follow suit and it all falls through… It’s just incredible listening and reading about Africa sometimes. No-one wants to be left behind and with this attitude nearly the whole continent is.

Mousa lost his job a few weeks earlier. He was working in conjunction with a French organization, which has stop funding and shut up shop. Mali has a reputation of housing terrorists in the north. What’s been happening is people have been kidnapped in Niger or Sudan and neighbors like that and they then move to the vast lands of the Sahara in Mali and keep them captured there. If you are French you are advised to not travel anywhere but the close surrounds of Bamako the capital. All tourist are advised to not travel to Gao in the east (my original plan foiled.)

But Mali has very large boarders and a desert that is so vast it’s too difficult for them to manage on their own. There have been a few French deaths over the years but Mali is not a dangerous place if you stick to the main path.

Since West Africa doesn’t have many tourists in the first place. Most of them are French or Belgium so with France scaring off potential travelers from coming. There is a massive vacancy of the most iconic tourist-orientated country in West Africa.

I arrived in Djenne after an awful bus ride - 12 hours in souring heat. It was dark and I was bombarded by people wanting to be my guide. Within 10 seconds one remained. I commented in English and it was clear they would be of no use to me. I looked at the accommodation book to fill in my details and I noticed for the past 4 months the hotel has only averaged 2 tourists a week.

I felt a bit for these people who have lost a valuable source of income. I don’t normally do guides but with no map and a place made of mud I decided if I got the price I wanted I’d take one up. Traveling during these incidences is perfect for bargaining. I used this one, “Look I don’t normally do guides but I’ve heard about how the French have stopped coming and I want to help you.’ Tip - Lets not make it look like the guide is doing the favor here even though he will be. It is me who’s doing the favor. I don’t have to do this but I am a nice guy being a thoughtful human being. That’s the mentality you need in Mali, otherwise they’ll step all over you. Mali by far is the closest to Egypt for haggling in Africa.

They try and bargain with you from your first price but in these situations they will do anything to fill in the day so you have all the power. I warned that I am not playing the game of bargaining before I mentioned my first price. They say, “It is Mali this is what we do. You have to bargain.” I say, “No I don’t! Its 3000 including roof terrace views or I don’t go with you. It’s your choice, I don’t care.”

He agreed so after a roof top sleep on a mattress. The most comfortable sleep in these conditions are outside on the roof falling asleep with a light breeze, the stars above and goats bah’ing all the time.

We met up in the morning and in the end it was lucky I went with the guide because he gave some valuable information about a very unique part of the world. A population of around 33 000 it is a smaller version of Timbuktu but carries a similar history and importance from the salt, gold and slave trade to its staging post for Islamic scholars.

Walking around in the early morning around 730 most children were at Islamic school before they head off to French school. They would be writing with removable black ink, words from Islam on a wooden template to help remind them. I heard a lot of children talking when I woke up at 630 on the roof. Teachers on their break write up on the templates too.

The whole city is made of mud brick architecture of the same style as Timbuktu called Adobe buildings. The most famous one and one of Africa’s most famous images is the Great Mosque built in 1907. It is the worlds largest mud brick building and one of the great architectural feats of the world.

The walls are made from sun baked bricks called ferey, a mud based mortar and coated by a mud plaster to give everything its smooth look. They use sticks of palm called tarons that provide the stability for the foundation and are seen protruding from the walls about half a meter. It has 3 minarets and on top of them are ostrich eggs.

Like all mosques there are sections for male and female and there is a specific female entry. My guide said that females are only allowed to enter if they have been to Mecca for males that is not the case.

There is a shrine down the road where they buried alive a virgin, which has provided good luck to the city. That was years ago now and it was at around this point you can start seeing the lively action of the city.

As it was May there was finally a positive in being here to compensate for the heat and that was its one month before wet season starts and it’s the time of year to rebuild or re stabalise your house. Without it the homes will collapse from the pressure of the water.

You can see the mud being mixed with concrete (a new technique that makes the mud stronger), mud being stomped on like wine, mud dumped on the ground, mud being put into brick form, mud drying out, mud settling for a bit. You get the point. It’s a mud-a-thon and its fantastic! You even get to see the palm sticks being transported from the surrounding areas. And this is just the houses. The main event is when the whole community contributes to the maintenance of the great Mosque once a year. They have races and other ceremonies. (I was just a bit early for that.)

Further around town there was a distinct look to most of the houses. The front wall would have mud pillars and the amount of pillars indicates the amount of wives the man of the house had. At the top on the roof there would be mounds. Each mound informs how many children are there. Most had two wives from what I saw. Some though have just gone a bit over board for western standards.

There was also the house of the traditional chief and the European explorers house next door. Also the Moroccan style buildings, which was subtly different from the normal lot. They had little windows, which would open up if the wife or wives needed to communicate with the outside world when the husband is away. The opening is small to discourage any sordid thinking.

Leaving Djenne for Mopti you have to be transported to the main road. Both rides were quite entertaining. On the way there I entered via the back of the vehicle and this young girls eyes just light up. I reply back with an enthusiastic wave with both hands and from there I had her attention.

She looked back at me as I did all the faces I could think of. The big smile, lips overlapping, the blow fish, hiding the face behind the guy sitting in front of me, fish lips, open mouth wide. The kid was giggling all trip. The poor guy in front of me found the attention distracting. He’d turn around and I’d act like nothing was happening.

Later on I put my hand out and she gave me a spectacular high 5. Malian kids are some of the cutest kids around and they provide the worlds greatest high 5 collection. There is no messing about with these kids. When the hand goes out they see it there to be slapped and they hit it with as much force as their enthusiasm.

When we had a mechanical failure we all got out of the delivery bus. As we waited I saw two guys walk off a very long distance for just a toilet stop. I also saw a small baby getting prepared to do a shit on the road. Actually I didn’t see her prepare that’s a lie. I was made aware when a noise reverberated around my eardrums, now etched in my memory as I type this. A large “Bbblllububububub!” Ooooo yeah can’t wait to have kids now!!

Yet the return ride was the first time from what I recall I have ever yelled out to a driver to slow down. It was also the first time I truly thought we would flip. The guy was driving way to quick along a road that is one and a half lanes. (Oh that’s another thing, all the roads in Mali are about 1 ¾ lanes wide so there’s consistent slowing down. How stupid! If it was a money issue than do what you can properly and the rest will have to wait. Instead it’s a stop start affair. Anyway, back to almost flipping.)

A truck is in front of us and instead of slowing down we stay same pace and try to go around it. There is no room and we go off the road, twigs brake off the trees and onto me and I can’t remember if we went passed the truck or not. He stops the car to inspect his broken mirror and gets a slam on the window from me saying “WTF!” When we get to the main road I then have to put up with him complaining to other people that it was the truck drivers fault he didn’t give way.

If I could have said it in French I would have said. “How could the truck have known you were there dickhead? You didn’t slow down, you don’t have a horn on your car to tell him you are coming. It was your fault so shut the fuck up!” But you can’t say that, especially when sitting on the side of the road in 45 degree heat in the shade and you are just happy that nothing major just happened.

This day turned out to be a sand storm so when I arrived in Mopti the place looked surreal in its red mist. It was at this late afternoon I met the annoying guide who walked with me all the way to the hotel and 4WD station the next day.

He met me in the morning and walked with me all the way to the 4WD station for Timbuktu. When you make big calls in your trip like. ‘My book says I’m 8 hours away from Timbuktu and you are turning your back on it? Is this really what you want to do?’ You can’t make a rash decision, you have to sit back for a bit and just contemplate that possibly this is your only chance to ever to do this. Then put yourself somewhere down the track say 10 years and ask yourself the question. Does it really matter that you haven’t seen Timbuktu? If you can answer “I can live with it” than move on so that’s what I did.

My unwanted guide turned into a wanted guide when we got to the main road. I said, “Look, I’m just going to walk to the mosque and than the port. I have a map in my book so I know where I am going but since I know that there is a lack of work here for guides at the moment I can give you 1000CFA ($2) and you can walk with me. It’s up to you but that is all I am going to pay.” The deal was done. It was a genius move for Mali because in Mali if you don’t have a guide you’ll have a shit time because everyone will annoy you. A brilliant $2, it gave me no hassles and still a bit of info.

Along the port there is 3 degrees of salt ranging from 1-3. Judged by the smoothness of the slab of salt. The salt comes from the boats from Timbuktu and there are workers grinding the slabs to a finer salt. Some slabs are feed to the animals. These slabs can be the size of a small restaurant table.

On the water Mopti is at a confluence between two rivers the Bani and Niger. Most boats stop sailing in dry season so there are many boats anchored. My wanted guide than offered me a trip around the river for $5 so I thought heck okay and he was genuine with the ride.

It was a nice ride away from the heat – well somewhat it was still mightily hot. Whilst on the boat you ride north where the two rivers meet. There is a slight change of colour but not much. A lot of people take the ride over and do their washing on the Niger, which is further up from Mopti.

There was a lot of comings and goings to the villages across the river. These small wooden boats had motorbikes, peoples produce for the markets but the best sight was this cow at the front of a boat. It looked so relaxed there with its head just above the water - it was tranquil. I made a comment and my wanted guide said. “It’s tired and will be traded for a fitter cow.” “Will it be sold for meat?” Question promptly responded, “Yes.”

I left Mopti the next day not feeling guilty or disappointed but its typical of my travels to do this. I went to India and missed out on the Taj Mahal. South America and didn’t do Patagonia or the Amazon River. It’s not because I want to be alternative, its just how it happens. There’s no mission to explore the whole world. I don’t need to tick everything off even though it may appear so. I use some places as a direction and if the mood changes I change direction. I decided to change direction south to a much, much cooler environment. Mali is one of the highlights for cultural Africa. If only I was able to see a live music act, that’s another story in itself. I wouldn’t mind coming back again and tackle the guides on a more even playing field plus I might even be able to say I ‘traveled Africa’ by getting to Timbuktu.


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9th June 2011

DANCING IN TIMBUKTU
Enjoyed your blog...magnificent Mali...you just touched the surface...next time I suggest you visit Dogon Country & the Festival in the Desert at Timbuktu...music for the soul...you might even get married there...I did!
9th June 2011

"There’s no mission to explore the whole world. I don’t need to tick everything off even though it may appear so." Nice one and indeed agree with you traveling is not about reaching the highest number of country or UNESCO sites visited...Interesting adventure you had in Mali & love all those annecdotes you are using throughout this blog, well done! looking forward reading your next blog, cheers PS: and yes...sandstorm and 45+ degrees...same in Baghdad..
10th June 2011

Wealth is Relative
Looks like we use similar arguments on wealth and cost of living, when people comment about how much Westerners (or Australians) earn, I state how much my rent is per week, which always leaves the listener open mouthed. Meal comparisons are another good one - "See this meal here, if this was Australia it would cost...." which always gets a surprised response. The other one I receive is the belief that every Westerner has a car, and when giving them the reasons for my non-ownership of one (due to cost, it is a choice between car or travelling) it clarifies things somewhat. I'll be borrowing your ideas of using family stories to illustrate the point: my father was youngest of 10 in rural Victoria, and my mother was a post-war immigrant from Germany whose family was separated and stripped of almost everything - tough times for a little girl. As usual, love reading your blogs - Mali (with Timbuktu, Inshallah) and other parts of West Africa is on my itinerary for next year, and your current travels are providing a real incentive to travel there.
11th June 2011

haha thanks mate
Funny you mentioned the rent I just used that last night. I also use that I chose to travel instead of other perks. Actually I've used inshallah a couple of times with the shop owners too. That shuts them up... for a bit. West Africa is exhausting the hardest of the regions to travel. If you are doing a big trip like I am best to do West Africa first not 8-9 months in. French will come in handy.

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