Friday, April 1, 2011

And She Goes Anyway

I woke up early under the ceiling fan in my dark, concrete room at hotel L'Auberge in Segou, Mali. It wasn't an amazing hotel by any means, but I had A/C, a ceiling fan, a working bathroom and shower, and wi-fi.

Ugh. That bus journey yesterday. Two for two, Mali, I thought. I can't bear to go on to see Dogon Country. I'll spend the day in Segou, then go to Djenne, then just go back to Bamako to be at the Embassy of Ghana on Tuesday to pick up my passport. Last night, a freelance guide named Hama had been bugging me.

"I'll take you around town on my motorbike. We'll see crafts and the colonial part of town. I am a good guide. Here is my card."

I'd taken his card and now I looked at it. Huh, a URL. I looked it up. He seemed totally legit. Now I felt bad for him, this professional guide reduced to chatting up dirty backpackers outside hotels. It was off-season, though, because Mali in March is insanely hot. Maybe things weren't so bad in other parts of the year. I dressed and walked past souvenir-seller's row to the hotel restaurant across the street.

"Good morning, Mare-y. You'll look at my shop today?"


The room was fine. The location was interesting, though. Eating required running the gauntlet. To their credit, the souvenirs were lovely. They were expensive, though, and bulky.

I ate my breakfast, thinking about how I couldn't bear to go to Dogon. Then, slowly, logic started in on my hatred of the bus.

"You're so close."

"But I won't have any time. I was supposed to start a trek this morning and stay overnight. Now I'll only have one day."

"But you're only 5-7 hours away. You're usually half a planet away."

"Oh, hell."

Hama was lurking when I left the restaurant.

"You want a tour?"

"Yes. Here's how we're going. We'll go to the bus station, find out when the bus leaves, then race around town for an hour or so, then you'll put me on the bus to Sevare."

"You want a guide for Dogon?"

"No, I'll find one when I get there."

He agreed. I left my baggage at reception, he took a few thousand CFA as an advance to buy petrol, and we met ten minutes later in front of the hotel.

We stopped first at the Bittar bus office. They had a bus leaving, but it was a little on the late side. I was hoping to get out of town by 11.

"We have this as an option," said Hama. "But it is better if I take you to the main bus station before 11. There you have many options and we can choose."
That seemed reasonable.

He zipped me down to the river, where we looked at a statue and then went to a bogolan workshop. Men were making the bogolan, a cloth where the designs are painted on with natural paints, made from leaves and river mud. Bogolan is quite extraordinary-looking, though I never seemed to have the time or patience to bargain properly for a large piece. Hama then took me out into a leafy scenic part of town, full of colonial-era buildings, then past the Muslim Cemetery (gravestones? must read up on this), past the Catholic church, and then back into the new part of town.



"That bank…Banque Atlantique…take me there, please! I can use my card there."

I took out my daily max. Also, ATM lobbies are air-conditioned here. I basked in the cool air for a moment before getting back on the bike.
We picked up my luggage and went out of town to the bus park where I'd disembarked in such a hurry the night before. (At one point, we went around the block to avoid a policeman because "Many of them are asking for money.") Hama told me to sit tight, while he asked around about buses.

"The next bus to Sevare is coming in ten minutes. It is Gana Transport. It will be a good bus."

I had doubts. I'd been on a Gana Transport bus before. But by now, I understood. There are no good buses here. Mali is where old buses go to get new life, after they've died a hundred deaths in six other countries, each one expecting a bit less out of their buses than the last. My earlier bus rides had not been exceptions. They were the norm.
Won't kill me to sweat for another six hours, I thought.

I bought my ticket and sat in a shady spot, eating Pringle's for their salt content and waiting on the Gana bus.

And then…something beautiful pulled up. A TCV bus. This is a Burkina Faso bus. Bill had mentioned them to me. "TCV has proper buses, where things work," he'd told me when advising me on how to get to Burkina Faso next week. I'd been skeptical.

No more. That was indeed a proper, modern bus. Orange and burgundy, the colors of the Washington Redskins. Clean, with a windshield that wasn't cracked. With a staff in uniforms. Air conditioning AND windows that opened, just in case. How comfy that bus looked.

I'd do whatever it took to get on the TCV bus next week.

But for now, I got on a rickety Gana bus that pulled up. The only seat left for me was in the back, in a seat with a broken back that wouldn't stay up, by the window, blocked from the aisles by a tremendously fat, good-natured woman in a brightly colored traditional dress and a matching head wrap, who kept me from the exit when we'd stop. I wondered how to get over her more than once. And it wasn't so easy for her to get up either. Mali bus aisles are full of plastics bags containing whatever people are traveling with. Their purchases, things they are selling, food. And between these stacks of plastic bags were jugs of water.

Behind me was a lovely young American girl from the West Coast, carrying her guitar. I asked her what she was up to, and it turned out she'd been in Bamako for a few months, learning about Mali music. Now she was going east, because, well, "Have you ever heard of Ali Farke Toure?"

Indeed. Ry Cooder brought him to our attention more than a decade ago. He was an amazing Mali musician who had invented a style of playing unlike any other in Mali. He'd never heard the American blues, but his style was quite similar to our American blues. If you didn't know better, you'd think he'd been influenced by our blues, but he hadn't. He'd organically invented his own way of playing. A marvelous way. And here was this young woman, off to find out what she could about it in his ancestral homeland.

She was stuck too. We were both crammed in behind a lot of fat and luggage.

Which seemed fine until about three hours into the trip, my legs felt like they were on fire.

I peeked down, moved my daypack. What was going on? I didn't see any fire. But my legs were getting hotter and hotter.

I looked back at the musician. She looked worried.

"What do you think..?"

"I don't know, but we're really stuck back here."

We were in a firetrap, and it was quite apparent to us as the women around us all started shouting at the conductor and driver. The sweltering around our feet was alarming.

"How will we get out?"

"We'd have to vault over the seats and the people. The windows don't open. We'd have to get to the doors, but there's all these people and stuff in the aisles."

It was a sobering moment, realizing that if there were a fire, we'd have to fight our way over other people to reach the doors. I wondered if I were really that savage that I'd save myself first, and decided that while I probably was that savage, the odds were against me or anyone not near the door getting out.

Meanwhile, my feet still felt like there was a fire right below them.

The conductor responded to the other passenger's calls. He came to the back of the bus, shifted some bags and jugs around, and went away.

This didn't seem like all that much to me.

"They need to stop the bus and figure out what's happening," said the musician. She was as worried as I was.

The other passengers motioned for us to calm down. Oh, so it's okay now?

And bizarrely, it was. The temperature around my feet went down from hell-like back to sweltering.

And eventually, disgusting and sweaty and stinking of armpit, I disembarked, pushing around the bags and fat women. Just before sunset and I was in Sevare.

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