Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lazy Doesn't Pay

I was up before the sweeper today at Sleeping Camel. Ugh, too early. Misery.

I gobbled up the pain au chocolat I'd picked up the day before at Amandine. Just before seven, I sweet-talked Patrice out of some Nescafe and hot water from a Thermos. (Breakfast starts at seven.) The only coffee-related thing worse than Nescafe is a mid-afternoon splitting lack-of-caffeine headache.

I slipped out the gate and walked to the main road to hail a mini-bus to the Sogoniko bus area. The Bradt, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide all agreed—there were lots of eight o'clock buses to Sevare and Mopti, the gateway to Dogon Country. So I figure that by getting there before 7:30, I'd have no problem finding one with a seat. I could also see the buses so I could avoid the sealed bus with no air-conditioning in hundred-degree heat problem that I'd encountered from Senegal to Bamako.

But when I got to the main road on the other side of the German Embassy, I was perplexed. All the traffic was going one-way. The wrong way. Over the bridge, past the statue of the green hippo kicking a soccer ball, and into Bamako, not away towards the bus station.

Oh, shit. The Pont des Martyrs bridge is one-way during rush hour. Rush hour starts at seven.

I dodged mopeds and buses to cross the scooter lane and then the street, and approached the traffic cop.

"Je vais au Sogoniko, mais auto est…" I had already reached the end of my French. I motioned the wrong way, to show that the traffic was all going in one direction.

He nodded and pointed down the street.

"Primera intersection."

I took off, walking the long dusty block to Amandine. The sun was coming up. Another sweltering day in Bamako. I sweated.

Two-way traffic did begin a block later. I hesitated for a moment…should I get more cash from the ATM at Amandine that took my Citibank card? No, no. I'd checked last night and the machine had been out of cash. Did I really think that someone had refilled it at six this morning?

I'd tried last night because Banque Atlantique—the bank that sponsored the ATM I'd been using—was the only bank in the country that I could use. But I could still use my Visa to get cash from any ATM as a Visa cash advance. I needed to not worry about this and get to the bus station.

A green van with open no-glass windows (local public transport) almost mowed me down as it stopped.


The conductor waved me on. I climbed in awkwardly, hitting my head as I tried to navigate with my backpack. We drove about ten minutes, stopping constantly to let new people on or off. A stern older man cautioned me as we neared the bus station.

"Go with Bittar. They are a good company."

The green van stopped. I got off and he handed my backpack out to me. He pointed at a Bittar sign across the street.


I nodded. I understood. I wasn't so sure though. People recommended Gana Transports too, and that trip from the border had been hell. Bill had said it was the luck of the draw, just depending on which bus you got. He'd suggested I try African Safari Tours, which had the benefit of being closer to Sleeping Camel and had its own station. I'd been too lazy to try to find it, but I'd seen it from the green bus as we whizzed down the road to Sogoniko.

I crossed the street. Bus touts approached me.

"Sevare, Sevare!" The language of bus stations is the same throughout Africa. You yell out your destination and people lead you to the bus.

But wait…this was wrong. The tout was leading me AWAY from Bittar, past the other companies, to where the ticket offices were turning into hovels and shacks.

I hesitated. He grabbed my arm and tugged.

"No, no. This is far enough."

"Just here."

He took me the distant corner of the bus park. It was now 7:40, and I was getting a bad feeling about this. And it was scorching out, of course. He directed me to a ticket window.

"Quelle heure?"


"No. I want a bus NOW." I marched off back towards the other end of the bus park. Now I was probably too late to get an eight o'clock. bus.

"There is no eight bus." The tout had caught up to me. "This is the first bus."

Yeah, right. Ha.

I kept walking. He gave up.

Another tout grabbed me. "I know a nice bus that is leaving at 9. Air con."


He led me back to the same ticket window. Really?

"Quelle heure?"


"The bus leaves at nine?"

The ticket seller wrote the number 9 on a piece of paper.


"Yes. It is that bus. Here, come and see it."

I went and looked at an orange German bus. It didn't look too bad.

"Okay, nine."

And like an idiot, I handed over my 8,000 CFA fare.


The tout took my bag to the bus. "Here, you can sit on the bus and wait. Look, you got the first seat."


Disaster. If I bought the first seat, this bus wasn't going anywhere for a long, long time.

"Give me my money back! This bus is not leaving at nine. It's not air-conditioned either, is it?"

"Are you calling me a liar? This is a nice bus."

"This bus is not air-conditioned, the windows don't open, and it's not leaving at nine."

"I am not a liar. Look, air-conditioning!" He flicked open a vent. As if a vent meant that the a/c worked.

I got off the orange bus, pushing aside the turnstile at the front that showed me this bus has once been urban transportation. I went straight to the ticket seller.

"I want my 8,000 CFA back."

The ticket seller stared at me impassively. ARGH. I am an idiot! Why didn't I listen to the old man? Why did I let that tout drag me over to the far end of the bus park?

Patrice had told me to go buy my ticket the day before. Why didn't I listen to Patrice if not the old man? These people live here. They know a thing or two about Bamako.

8,000 is more than $16. I couldn’t just walk away. Or could I? When was the bus leaving?

I went back onto the orange bus and sat down for a while. The maintenance crew—four young men in flip-flops and Obama T-shirts—came on and started doing stuff with wrenches.

"Where are you from? What's your name?"

I told them and then asked when the bus was leaving.


This was going to be a long day.

Sweating in the heat, I stared out the window of the bus. In front of me on the dirt road that served as main street in this park of the bus park, I could see touts literally throwing themselves onto the hoods of approaching taxis in attempts to stop them so they could get the passengers onto their buses.

I had been had. By experts. I was out of my depth here. I had assumed the touts would help as they did everywhere else I'd been in Africa. But touting here was highly competitive. As I watched, a passenger walked up with his bag of rice on his head. A tout grabbed the rice and ran away with it to a bus, the passenger chasing him and yelling after him.

I demanded my money back three times, once an hour. I was miserable. I noticed that a nearby vendor was hawking antibiotics, so I did learn something today. Namely, that you can buy pharmaceuticals in bus parks in Mali.

Just before noon, a bus employee came on, picked up my luggage, and told me to follow him.

The orange bus pulled away and a different bus parked in its spot. This bus was really crappy. The bus employee climbed up into the bus, tossed my bag into seat #2, and installed me on seat #1.

And then the conductor called out names. People pushed onboard.

The man who was in seat #2 demanded I move my bag.

"Conductor! Mon baggage!" I motioned to him to put it under the bus. He told me to put it under my seat. A large backpack? Under the seat? That wasn't even possible.

"No. Take it under."

The crowd was surging onto the bus. The man sat down in #2. I had the backpack in my arms. What the hell?

"LET ME OFF THIS BUS. I AM LEAVING." Screw this. What a nightmare. Why had I waited this long to throw away the $16?

The man in seat #2 didn't move. The crowd kept pushing on. I pushed back. I was getting off.



The driver, conductor, and man in seat #2 all yelled at me at once. Huh. So they did know English.

I sat down. What else could I do?

Except cry. I could cry. I put my scarf over my head and cried. The bus finally took off after noon, me on it, not wanting to be on it, but crying, my backpack shoved under my feet, and me incapacitated by being overwhelmed.

We stopped ten minutes later, of course. So everyone could get off the bus and buy water. Silly me, I'd bought my water at the bus station. What was I thinking? But this is the system. You leave Bamako, then ten minutes later you stop for water and snacks.

You also stop to pray, check your tires, pay policemen at checkpoints, and for just about any possible reason. We stopped two-and-a-half-hours in for a flat tire, once to get it repaired at a tire shop (which just looks like some guys by the side of the road with some tires and a few steel gadgets), and once when we stopped for prayers, the bus wouldn't start.

The bus crew, passengers, and random passerbys had to PUSH-START THE BUS. My good. This bus was never making it to Sevare. I thought back to the border bus that was due in by midnight in Bamako and had limped in around nine in the morning.

Not again.

I was utterly miserable in seat #1, which doesn't have leg room even if my bag weren't shoved under my feet. The lack of opening windows mixed with 100 degree heat and sealed windows was sickening. I didn't have any tears left, but when the guy next to me gently asked "Are you tired," I nearly started crying again.

"No…it's…a long day."

He nodded.

"You are a smart traveler. You can see our transportation problems this way. You see the real Africa."

Well, that is certainly true. But when we limped into Segou after five—about when we should have been in Sevare—seeing the real Africa didn't stop me from exercising my right as someone who has enough to throw away a little cash.

"This bus is not making it to Mopti. I am getting off." I don't think #2 believed me. He laughed.

"No, really. I am leaving."

He laughed again.

Now I was glad that my bag wasn't under the bus. I tugged and pulled until my bag came lose from below the seat, and dragged it off the bus. I strapped on my backpack, marched to the road, and hailed a taxi.

I quietly fired up my iPhone in the back seat. The iPhone gets my vote for most amazing travel gadget. I hadn't had data service on it for weeks, but I had a mediocre camera on it that I could surreptitious photos with while pretending to text, I could take notes about expenses, and I could update Twitter with it. And my Kindle's Rough Guide to West Africa had somehow automatically ended up on my iPhone, so I could pick out a hotel in the back of a taxi without finding and turning on my Kindle, which has a way of attracting attention.

I tried two hotels, and settled on the second one. I had to walk past a row of souvenir sellers to get to my room, but my room had A/C, a shower, and wi-fi.

To hell with Dogon Country. No way was I getting back on another bus in this country.

Which presented me with some problems.

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