Monday, April 4, 2011

Djenne to Bamako

Homemade peanut butter and real coffee for breakfast? Have I mentioned I adore Hotel Djenne Djenno? Besides the last time I mentioned it, I mean?

Later, I would regret not buying a jar of it in the gift shop, just as I regret tossing out my jar of Jif and my trail mix when my pack was too heavy at the last minute in Jersey City. But for the moment, I was too busy enjoying Sophie's peanut butter to think about how useful that would have been for me on long bus journeys.

Around nine, I went over to the Monday market. I didn't want the hassle of people trying to lure me into their shops, so I randomly chose a small alley that wound through Djenne's maze of mud houses, and ended up following women en route to the market.

The market was absolute chaos! Huge crowds of people everywhere, their wares spread out around them. If I'd wanted something from the dollar store, dried fish, or an Obama T-shirt, this was the place.

I waded through the crowd in the Mali heat. Too much. I didn't last long. I ended up following a boy up to a rooftop for a view of the crowd and the mosque, paid him just a little, and then fled to the haven of the hotel. At eleven, Amadou was hovering outside the gate, though we'd agreed (and he'd been insistent) on 11:30.

"I need to have the motorbike back early," he explained.

He held my backpack in front of his chest, the way all motorcycle taxi drivers have done for me throughout the world. I wore my daypack and held on tight.

First, we drove a short distance—less than ten minutes—to the ferry. But we didn't need to wait for the ferry this time. We went on a pirogue. Amadou and the pirogue motorman lifted on the moped, then lifted on another. Five minutes later, we clambered aboard the bank of the mainland and the men lifted the motorbike off of the boat. Amadou climbed on, placed my pack in front of him, and motioned me on board.

The 30 km on a moped wasn't pleasant, and I kept worrying about crashing. We weren't going slowly. And then when we arrived at Carrefour Djenne, I realized my right sandal heel had been resting on the exhaust pipe for half an hour. Ugh! Melted heel! Bad enough my sandal was melted, but I'd left black goo all over the exhaust. I tried to rub it off with a mango pit, but Amadou was going to have a tough time of it with some kind of chemical later.

I paid him the balance and bought him a plastic bag of water (and one for myself). Everyone drinks out of these here. They cost almost nothing and they seem to always be available. I hate them, because everyone also tosses the plastic bag on the ground, but this is what people do here so I try not to cringe every time I see a a field full of plastic water bags.

Amadou gulped down the water, apologized for my shoe, left me in care of a man who he said was in charge of sorting out my bus, and sped back to Djenne, a new client on the back of the moped.

"There are many buses," said the man. "We will get you a good one."

I hoped so. In Bamako, I'd heard of one tourist who had to wait eight hours for a bus.

I only had to wait a half-hour, and my guardian rejected one rickety old bus that came along as not good enough. But then an African Safari Tours pulled up...that's the one that was closest to Sleeping Camel, and Bill had reckoned I should give them a try. And my guardian talked to the conductor, then motioned me on board.

Too late, I realized I'd left my water with my pack that had gone under the bus. I boarded and had the last seat to myself. The bus wasn't air-conditioned but there were open vents and windows, and the bus wasn't sold out. Luxury and comfort compared to many I'd been on in Mali.

I asked the conductor to get my water out at the first prayer break. I could see now—the double-paned windows had been fogged over on my earlier journeys, so I hadn't known why we stopped all the time—and we were stopping so that everyone could get off the bus and pray. Once we stopped at a rural mosque, but the other times people just prayed off to the side of the bus. Some had mats, others stood.

Prayer breaks are a wonderful thing once you realize you have enough time to go pee in a bush. To do this, I had to push my way past swarms of fascinated kids, but they left me alone when they saw where I was headed. And towards the end of the trip, around 7 in the evening, I had a sugar craving and managed to fight my way through a crowd to yell at a vendor to hand me a Sprint. I was getting my sea legs. Suddenly, Mali bus travel was making a lot more sense to me.

Twice we passed broken-down buses. Everyone would go silent and stare. I'm sure they were all thinking the same thing.

"I am so glad that isn't us."

Finally, ten hours after getting on the bus and drifting in an out of a dazed semi-sleep, my eyes started to burn from diesel fumes. We were on the outskirts of Bamako.

Taxi drivers jumped at me when I got off the bus.

"Actually, I am only going to Amandine so I will take the little bus."

They nodded and backed off. My approach was totally reasonable. The little local bus was a straight shot, ten minutes to Amandine. And I was starved. I *had* to go to Amandine. And broke. I hoped the ATM was finally working.

A man in a tie who was waiting for an arriving passenger too heed of my plans to take the little bus. He walked me across the road and showed me exactly where to stand to hail the bus, and ten minutes later, I was withdrawing 130,000 CFA from the Amandine ATM. And then I got a takeaway schwarma.

Backpack on my back, daypack dangling on my front from my left shoulder, the CFA equivalent of $260 in my pocket, and schwarma in my right hand, I hoofed it past the phone card sellers (who never give up, though I've refused them a dozen times) down the street to the German embassy. I turned and walked to Sleeping Camel, where the night watchman let me in and went to fetch Bill.

Fortunately, he wasn't asleep yet.

"Well, you know where you're going," he said. "Go ahead, silly, into your room. You don't need to ask me, key's in the door."

He was funny, this Bill.

I thought a minute and then responded appropriately.

"I have schwarma."

"Yes, you do. I'll talk to you in the morning."

I headed straight for the shower. I mean, after I finished my schwarma and took off my luggage.

Home again. Or the closest thing to it in this part of the world.

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