Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Residence

Whisk. Whisk. Whisk.

Every morning at Sleeping Camel, I woke early to the same sound of the patio being swept by a young Malian woman with a teensy bundle of sticks.

"Why don't they use brooms?" I'd asked Bill.

"I bought them proper brooms. They won't use them!" He shrugged. I chalk this up to being used to whiskbroom-like bundles of sticks, like people who insist that flinging laundry at rocks is better than using a washing machine. (To which I say that I prefer my clothes to last longer, thank you very much, and I'd add that my back likes tall brooms as well. I know, Marie the Cultural Imperialist and her brooms and washing machines. Bah.)

I'd usually turn on the A/C and shut the windows when I heard the whisking, to try to get more sleep. Not today, though. Today, I wanted to be at the Embassy of Ghana as soon as it opened, to apply for my tourist visa.

I pulled a towel around my pajamas to walk off down the hall to the bathroom and shower. I could see Martin the German master auto mechanic packing up his Land Rover to head north to Mauritania. He didn't see me. I let him go without interrupting him. He had to get on the road.

On my return to my room, with my wet hair and towel, I shamelessly walked through a group of families and the white-haired Michigan academic who had been interviewing them all week. He'd been in Mali for a long time on a research project. I could never work out if he was a doctor or recording language. He seemed to do both. He had an idea, though, about bringing slightly used Kindles to the remote village he'd been spending time in. They had electricity, but no internet and no bookstores. Maybe Kindles would last long enough there for people to enjoy the stock of books on them.

I walked down the road, past the German Embassy, and to the main street where there was a green hippo with a soccer ball statue. I flagged down a shared taxi and prepared to swelter in the little moving (somewhat) furnace. When you can get a breeze, traveling by hot taxi is all right, but morning rush hour has no breeze. Just mouthfuls of diesel smog. Mmmm.

I had in my bag—my nice bag, not my grungy daypack—several printouts. One was an airline itinerary claiming that I'd left home before the visa rules had changed. (Er, you know I teach a Photoshop class, right?) One was a letter detailing my proposed itinerary—can you blame me if I listed high-end hotels and stops at places I had no intention of visiting, such as Mole National Park (which has smaller animals but nothing on the parks of East Africa)? The third was a "To Whom It May Concern" letter explaining that I really wanted to see Ghana and that the visa rules had changed after I left home.

I walked into the embassy, and the woman behind the desk had a cold. She sniffled her way over, had me supply four photos and fill out four identical forms, looked at my Mali visa, and said "One moment."

She disappeared into a doorway for a second, then returned.

"Okay, no problem. Come back on Friday."

Stunned, I said "You don't want to see my itinerary or airline ticket?"


I wasn't thinking too fast at the moment, confused about why I'd just slipped through when everyone else was having problems. But I was thinking fast enough to know I needed to get out of Bamako and see the rest of Mali.

"Is it okay if I return on Tuesday instead of on Friday? I want to go do some tourist things, maybe go to Dogon Country."

She paused, thought. "Sure."

"Okay, Tuesday. I will return on Tuesday."

The whole process had gone so fast that I was puzzled. I walked to the nearby Radisson Hotel and sat down for a minute.

Did I just get the visa that is impossible to get right now? And why?

I caught a taxi back to Amandine, the patisserie near the Sleeping Camel and the nearest place that every taxi driver knew. The wi-fi was out, but at least the power was on. They had a generator—Bill had just ordered one. (His Hungarian friend's joke being, "Which one will you get? I think the red one is better than the yellow one.")

The waiters at Amandine found it amusing that I ordered a double-espresso and a glass of ice every day, and brought me one without asking today. I sipped my iced coffee and prepared to go out into the midday heat to walk back to the lodge. A news broadcast on the action in Ivory Coast was on, and the customers were all riveted by the news. I couldn't understand a word, though, as it was in French and my French is too elementary to catch much that is said at normal conversational speed.

At the lodge, I guiltily skulked past Michel, the guard. I'd forgotten that I intended to buy him some Gazelle-brand tea (he's always drinking tea), since he'd absconded with my backpack yesterday and scrubbed it mightily. (It was filthy.)

"They said I got my visa," I told Bill. "I'm going back on Tuesday. It was no problem."

He was confused too.

"Did they ask to see anything?"

"My Mali visa. This seemed important to them."

He thought a minute.

"How long is your visa good for?"

"Five years. I got it in the US because it was good for five years and it wouldn't expire before I got here. Every visa that is good for a year or more, I got before I came."

"That's it. You're considered a resident of Mali for visa purposes, because you can stay for five years."

Really? Cool! I'm a resident of Mali. That's excellent.

"I'm going to go to Dogon Country in a hurry, stop by Djenne on the way back for the Monday market, and then go to get my passport on Tuesday."

"Yeah, you could do that. Try to get as close as possible on Monday night, then finish up on Tuesday morning if you don't make it back."

"I suppose I could go to Segou today. It's three hours, right?"

"More like five. And it's hot."

"I'll take the bus all the way to Sevare or Mopti tomorrow then."

Patrice chimed in. He works the bar during the day.

"You should go buy your ticket now," he said. "That way when you arrive at the bus station in the morning, you won't have to deal with deciding what bus to take when you are carrying baggage."

He was right, of course, but I knew that lots of buses left at 8. Surely if I just went at 7, I could just get a ticket on one of them? And it was hot as hell, and I was tired, and I just wanted more of that fruit and yogurt I was always ordering from the kitchen.

I'd head to the gateway to Dogon Country in the morning, do a two-day hike with one night spent in a village, and head to Djenne on Sunday. There's a beautiful hotel there I wanted to stay in, and then I could see the big mud mosque and the Monday market, then head back to get my passport on Tuesday. Then I could head straight to Burkina Faso the next day.

How hard could it be to get a bus ticket in the morning, anyway? Anyway, I wanted to see the actual bus, to get one with either A/C or windows that opened. I ordered some yogurt and then had another shower. Damn, Mali is hot.

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