Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Day in Dogon, Part One

My pal Theo, who was on a Dragoman trip with me in Central America in 1996 (!), offered me this riddle:

Q: How many people are in a Dogon family?

A: Four. Mom, Dad, two kids, and a French anthropologist.

Har har har. Okay, that might not make sense until we go see what a Dogon is exactly.

Anyway, I woke up to a little bit of internet and morning light, right before the power went out in our part of town again. The authorities had decided to let us have electricity while we slept? Strange. But I'd already done the bit of e-paperwork I needed to do for the office, and anyway, I was going out in a car, so I didn't need power.

I checked the bathroom sink for the T-shirt I had left soaking last night. I'd worn it on yesterday's six-hour trip in 100-degree weather, on a sealed bus with no A/C. I'd been too exhausted to scrub it before I went to bed. Now it reeked of soap and armpit.


Better luck later, I thought. I packed my bag and left it to be moved—the room I'd been in had been booked by someone else and my stuff would be moved across the street to the annex while I was out. I ventured out of my room to the verandah, where delicious yogurt and fruit was waiting for me.

What is it with the incredibly tasty...sweet...yogurt in this part of the world? Oh hell. I know. Sugar. It's sweet because it's full of sugar. Just like the Coca-Cola here. Have I been tasting high-fructose corn syrup for so long that the genuine taste of sugar isn't instantly identifiable to me?

I put aside the important question about sugar, then packed my camera, water, sunscreen, and hat. Though the situation had changed now that there was a vehicle involved. I'd been worried about the two-day guided trek I'd been planning before being delayed on Hell Bus the Sequel, as I'm not taking the insane heat of Mali at all well. And the sun! Ugh, I can't stand walking in the hot sun. I know I lived in Kuwait and in Cairo, and in Cairo in July no less, but when you live in a hot country, you sensibly stay indoors or in the shade during the heat of the day. It struck me as folly to go deliberately wandering around all day in 100+ degree heat. It must strike everyone else as folly as well. No other tourists were in sight in Sevare.

But now...all I had to do was get in the car. There was A/C, and if it was off, cracked-open window produced a nice breeze.

Perhaps Hell Bus the Sequel causing my plans to evolve wasn't such a bad thing, I thought as driver Dramane pulled up in his new-ish burgundy Land Cruiser. Damn. A girl could get used to being chauffered around in style. I mean, if I weren't down to my last two thousand bucks already. (Not to worry. I have plenty of savings to blow yet.)

We drove down the main street of Sevare and took a right, passing the bus park where I'd arrived yesterday.

"We can stop here on the way back?" I wanted to buy a ticket for a bus ride to Carrefour Djenne for tomorrow—that's the junction where I could find a shared taxi to the small city of Djenne, home of the bug, mud mosque. Mankan Te owner Jutta had tipped me off that if I already had my ticket, the bus company would pick me up on its way out of town, right in front of her restaurant. I wouldn't have to pay a taxi to take me back to the bus station in the morning.

The sun was still low in the sky when we passed a toll gate and started on the sixty-some kilometer drive to Bandiagara, itself just a spread-out, dusty waypoint and marker that we were nearing the trailhead and turnoff to descend into the escarpment.

We passed some small villages of mud huts, and I thought things were starting to get interesting. The Land Cruiser had turned onto a rutty dirt piste after Bandiagara, and I appreciated its shocks, which existed, unlike in most of the vehicles I'd been in lately.

We also passed fields of onions. Dramane pointed them out to me and tried to explain, but I'd already read in the guidebook that the Dogon people had great success with raising onions. And then, we got to the scary part.

Okay, now I know what an escarpment is, I thought, as we slowly steered our way down steep switchbacks along a precarious sandstone cliff. The escarpment is 1640 feet high in places, but I don't know how high it was here. Just that the dramatic steepness surprised me. I wonder if hikers walk down this via trails, or if they get public transport to the bottom of the cliffs and trek from there.

When we reached the bottom of the canyon, we turned left and headed past a yellow mosque to the village of Teli.

And that's where you first spot the cliff dwellings. My first reaction was "Who the hell would want to live all the way up there? Were they crazy to build in the middle of a cliff?" My next thought was, "Whoa, this is the same thing as the Anasazi ruins, whatsits, Mesa Verde." Remarkably similar.

"Wow," I said aloud, conscious that no one, not even my driver who was not Dogon himself, wanted to hear that something else in the world was similar to their stunning treasure. "Amazing."

The cliff dwellings are amazing, just as they are in the American southwest. Truly something to look at, these strange, tall, rectangular, brown granaries and homes.

We pulled up and parked at Teli, and Dramane was greeted by a local man who seemed to know him, who went off then to fetch an English-speaking guide for me.

Dramane went to sit in the shaded area where drinks are available. I can't call it a restaurant or a snack bar without explaining that it was an open-air place with some tables, benches, and shade created by organic material—branches or straw, or whatever the local material is, that's what made the roof.

The guide took me through the village a bit. I met his mother, who was pounding away at some millet with four other women.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

"May I take photos?"

"Of course."

There are definitely advantages to hiring a local guide at each village. My payment to Dramane included all this and I didn't have to think about it. Which is good, since he knows how much to pay and I'm operating blind.

I was led up the cliff, which was scary and steep. I tried not to think about climbing down later. The guide picked his way up easily—he'd been climbing up here his whole life. No one lives up in the cliffs. They sensibly live on the plains near the road. But there is always shade, and even when there are not tourists, the cliff homes are a good place to hang out and avoid the sun.

I hadn't read enough to know that no one lived in the cliff dwellings and was a little disappointed to learn this.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. 

Now I could hear the rumblings echoing on the cliffs. It sounded like a party, like everyone in town was drumming. But it was just the pounding of the millet. Grain was important today, just as in the past, when each woman had her own granary. We were looking at those now.

The guide explained the local religion to me. "We are all respecting our traditional religion here, animism. But we are not all animists. Some people are. Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. It doesn't matter. We are all friends here and people believe what they want. But we all respect our heritage."

A lovely sentiment. I wasn't going to find out if it was true in a 40-minute visit to the village, of course, but I was impressed by idea.

I was terrified at the idea of climbing back down the cliff, though I was relieved to be out of the sun while we were up there. The guide told me one older man had been so keen to go that he'd paid a local man to carry him up piggy-back. I was glad to be able to make it down safely on my own two feet.

We walked around the village of mud and wood, watching some men plastering mud on a building, checking out the mosque, looking at incredible wood carved souvenirs that I couldn't possible buy and carry, and watching some men weaving. While I took photos of the mud mosque in the center of Teli, the guide got into an animated, loud conversation with three men who were eating their lunch.

"What was that about?" I asked as we walked back to find Dramane, so that we could drive on to the next village.

"We're just arguing about how many children is too many, or if having children is good at all. Do they help or do they just cost too much money."

An discussion one might hear anywhere in the world.

Dramane suggested I sit and have a drink, which was a good idea after wandering around in the bright sunlight. I paid for my Coke and we got back into the Land Cruiser. The drive to the next village, Ende, was six kilometers away over rutted dirt roads.

When we arrived at Ende, I saw the same thing above the village. Cliff dwellings high up, far away. Farther than at Teli? I didn't think I wanted to try that again.

"You don't want to climb?"

"No. I have seen already the granaries and what they look like, and it's scary."

"Actually, it is scary for me when the tourists are climbing. I am thinking about what I will do if they get hurt. I am nervous until you are back down again."

I agreed. It had crossed my mind as the guide romped around like a goat and I gingerly tested out each rock before placing my weight on it. I'd been particularly nervous when parts of the mud had disintegrated, revealing the loose branch foundations.

"There are other things to see here in Ende," said Dramane. He went off to find a guide for me. Time for more touristing.

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