Adventures in Mali
02/01/2009 - 02/12/2009 90 °F
Ancient Tellem cliff dwellings in Dogon Country, Mali
The discomfort of long miles on rutted dirt roads persists in my memories of Mali, much as its fine red dust colors my shoes and clothes. As we drove for hours in our rented Toyota Land Cruiser, my legs would begin to stiffen. Sitting in the cramped back seat, my knees would throb as the journeys stretched to six hours. We left long plumes of that red dust in our wake, during our week in Mali: East from the capital, Bamako, to the river town of Mopti; North into the Sahara, to historic Timbuktu; South to the pink cliffs of Dogon country; Finally, retracing our trail back westward, past Djenne's beautiful, mud brick mosque.
Tombori Mountains along road to Timbuktu
My friend Steve and I had hired a car, guide and driver for our sightseeing. It cost us way more than I'd guessed it would. Though poor, Mali is a relatively expensive country to visit. Rental car companies, for example, insist you hire a driver as well -- especially when undertaking the grueling trek to Timbuktu. Neither of us wanted a guide, but since drivers as a rule don't speak English in Mali (they'd "move up" to being guides if they did) -- and neither of us were comfortable with our limited French -- we gave in. We ended up arranging our "program," as Malians like to call it, at our hotel in Bamako on the night we arrived. The Tamana Hotel has an inhouse tour company, Tamana Adventures, that set it all up for us, costing each of us over $1,000, including most of our lodging, meals and bottled water. There was a chance that Steve might be able to get the car rental portion reimbursed through work, so it might end up being a tad cheaper for us in the long run.
In our pre-trip research we'd agreed there were three sights we couldn't miss in Mali:
· Dogon country
Unfortunately, all three of these are miles and miles from the unexciting Bamako, where international flights arrive. We'd lose pretty much a whole day on each end of our journey, going to and from Bamako. What's more, Timbuktu is yet another full day's drive north. With only six days of actual sightseeing, that meant four would feature long travel days. Normally, I balk at spending so much time in transit. However, there really didn't seem to be another way to see all three, and we couldn't imagine missing any of them.
Donkeys laying in the road to Timbuktu
So, Steve and I "sucked it up" both monetarily and physically, and became road warriors in Mali. We lost a good bit of time on our first morning at the banks obtaining local currency. Tamana Adventures did not take credit cards. In fact, we never encountered a single place that did in the entire country. I'd brought along $500 cash, since I'd heard ATMs there can be tricky. Steve had no problem with his cards, but I couldn't get the machines to take either of my three. I had to physically go into a bank and get them to give me a cash advance using my card. The moral here: Bring whatever cash you may need for Mali -- don't depend on getting it from ATMs!
Our plan had been to stop off in Djenne on that first day, ending the night in Mopti. It quickly became apparent, though, that we'd lost too much time in the capital that morning. Our driver, Samba, tried to make up time -- putting the pedal to the metal as often as possible. The constant stream of people, goats, donkeys and cows crossing the road slowed our pace. Goats seem to be Mali's answer to our deer in the Midwest. They will leap out in front of your car from the safety of bushes along the roadside. You can almost see it in their baffled expressions: "My friends are on the other side -- I HAVE to get over there!" Samba had to stop time and again to avoid hitting stupid goats, otherwise meat would have been on the village menu that evening!
Postponing Djenne for the return trip, we made it to Mopti as darkness fell. There was no time for sightseeing. Instead, we grabbed dinner and spent some time at the hotel's internet cafe. This would end up being the last internet we found until our final night of the trip. Over beers, Steve and I sat out in the hotel's courtyard, catching up on each other's travels. We hadn't seen each other since meeting in Syria in 2005, but had kept in touch by e-mail -- always swearing we'd do a trip together one of these days. His posting to Nigeria in the British foreign service made Africa an obvious choice. Mali was high on both of our lists of places we wanted to see, and since his wife isn't thrilled about travel within Africa, we'd finally arranged our trip together.
Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu
Timbuktu was one of the major lures that brought us to Mali. During the medieval era, the Saharan market town became extremely wealthy -- rumored among Europeans to be a city of gold. It cashed in on its location as a meeting point for camel caravans criss-crossing North Africa and the goods of sub-Saharan Africa brought up on the nearby Niger river. Wealth and fame followed, which led to it also becoming a haven for Islamic scholars. Thousands of manuscripts filled its homes and libraries. The town's fame lingered for centuries, long after it fell from actual importance and power. Many 19th century European explorers died trying to be the first to visit and return from Timbuktu. Those who did reach it were disappointed to find the legendary city sunk back into a sleepy desert town, with buildings of crumbling mud brick rather than gold. Its monopoly on trade was long gone, but the mystery of its name continued to draw visitors. In a way, this aura continues to this day. Timbuktu's fame is what had Steve and I rattling around in the back of a 4x4, watching as the road deteriorated from packed dirt to sand. Outside the windows, the vegetation grew sparser as we entered the fringes of the Sahara.
Mali has many ethnic groups, and it is the Tuareg that dominate Timbuktu and the north. Most groups coexist peacefully, each with their own role in the nation: The Bambara are its most numerous, and hold political power; The Fulani herd most of the nation's cattle; The Bozos (I chuckle at the name every time, too) are its best fishermen. However, the desert Tuareg are Mali's problem children. Upon Mali's independence, they felt disenfranchised. This broke into open rebellion in the early 1990s until a peace treaty was signed in 1995. This is observed by most Tuareg, but scattered groups still launch attacks on army bases, raid villages or rob wayfarers to the far north at gunpoint. As recently as a month before our visit, Tuareg "rebels" attacked an army base in the far north. Others kidnapped four Western tourists driving through the Sahara to a music
festival. I asked our guide, Sidibi, about the political situation. His opinion is that much of the dissent is bankrolled by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who profits by northern Mali (and the oil reserves that stretch underneath both countries) being undeveloped. Neither Steve nor I were worried, though. The incidents have all happened in the north of Mali, days away from where we'd be.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived at the ferry across the Niger river. Since Timbuktu was only 10 miles or so beyond the ferry, we should have a few hours of daylight to explore the town. However, the ferry operated on the "leaves when full" principle so common in the Middle East and Africa. So far, it was just our vehicle and one other occupying the four spots on board. After 45 minutes of waiting, I decided to investigate. The cost for each vehicle was 5,000 CFAs -- about $10. This meant only an additional $20 stood between us and our goal of Timbuktu. I told Sidibi to tell the ferry captain that I would pay for the two empty spots, and we were soon moving. It just seemed silly to me to invest all that money to visit Mali, then be stingy on less than what I'd spend on dinner and a movie back home.
Mosque along the road to Dogon Country
Once across, we drove into town and were soon checked into the Hotel Bouctou. We unloaded, then set out on foot to explore Timbuktu. As my sandaled feet felt the dust and sand of the fabled town's streets, I began to feel a bit like Rene Caillie, the Frenchman who was the first Westerner to return alive from Timbuktu. He found the town's glory faded and was depressed by its drab appearance. Steve and I had expected a sleepy town of perhaps crumbling monuments. The squalor and filth that choked the streets repulsed me, though. With only a little bit of effort and civic pride, Timbuktu could be an atmospheric relic of the Middle Ages. However, garbage lay strewn about everywhere, and dead animals rotted untouched for days by the listless inhabitants. Although Tuaregs predominate in Timbuktu, there is a distinct mix of ethnic groups in town. So, perhaps it is too harsh to blame them solely for poor upkeep of what could be an economic and cultural magnet for this part of Mali. The West has poured money into here -- like it has all of Mali. It seems you can't drive 15 minutes on the roads without seeing a sign proclaiming a cooperative between Mali and the European Union, France, Japan, Luxembourg or some other "first world" nation. The West certainly has not turned a blind eye to Mali's -- and Timbuktu's -- poverty. However, it is my opinion that citizens need to put aside nepotism and avarice at a certain point, and pull themselves up. They must sweat now for the future of themselves and their children. Timbuktu shows no signs of that spirit.
The town's grand sight, the Djingareyber Mosque, is mostly encased in scaffolding and off limits to visitors -- though we saw no work being done. The Library housing some of its famous, historic manuscripts showed evidence of foreign dollars, with a half dozen medieval books in a glass display case. Stacks of others moldered in a wooden cabinet running the length of one wall. The western-installed climate control system lay idle -- not running for want of spending money on power. Sidibi and one of his friends guided Steve and I through the streets of Timbuktu. Each dingy alley, each open trash dump of a field -- with children and goats poking through it -- further deflated the image of the fabled market town in our eyes. I left the next morning convinced that only committed history buffs who need to say they've "been to Timbuktu" should visit. Otherwise, travelers should point their caravan elsewhere, as markets have done likewise in the intervening centuries.
Market day in Bamba, Dogon Country[
We were lucky and snagged the last spot on the morning ferry across the Niger. Once across, we drove south, back across the demanding roads until we reached Douentza, where the blacktopped main road meets the dirt and sand one from Timbuktu. We had lunch there while sharp-eyed Samba went to repair a leak he'd spotted on our Land Cruiser. More than two hours later, the gasket replaced, we were bouncing further southward into Dogon country. The road was even worse than the Timbuktu one, and only one lane wide. This vexed Samba, as we met a constant stream of donkey carts heading the other way who didn't want to yield. Steve and I could tell mild-mannered Samba was getting exasperated. The late afternoon sunlight was slanting low from the west when we reached our first Dogon town, Bamba. Built in the plains at the base of the Falaise -- an escarpment or line of cliffs that runs northwest through Dogon country -- Bamba was bursting at the seams with activity. Today was market day.
We followed Sidibi into the colorful crowd of Dogon, Fulani, Songhai and others, as they sat behind wooden stalls or blankets heaped with their fruits, vegetables, dried fish, clothes or other wares. People pressed around us on all sides -- none closer or more persistent than the ever-present Malian children. Some merely wanted to greet us with a cheery "Ca va?" (How's it going?). Others begged for "cadeaux" (tips), water bottles or ball point pens. I would like to swat the idiot traveler who popularized the idea of passing out pens to the children of third world countries. Even if you brought an entire suitcase full of them, they'd be gone in your first or second village. More importantly, you are teaching them to beg (and pester) tourists. More than one Westerner has returned from Africa checking the mirror to see if they really do look like an ATM machine. To me, the children were so cloying and intrusive that I felt it prevented me from fully experiencing the market. On the other hand, Steve (with a family of four kids), was charmed by them. Which was fine and dandy with me, as I did my best to slough them off on him throughout the trip!
Dogon village of Yendouma
Sidibi kept up a running explanation of various goods for sale, all the while handing out kola nut gifts to the village elders he met. Some villagers had no problem with being photographed, while others reacted angrily to the camera. My gaze kept wandering from the colorfully dressed throngs to the Dogon houses that loomed above the market, climbing the slopes of the hillside towards the cliffs. This was my first sight of the photogenic Dogon villages with their mud brick buildings and thatched "witch's hat" roofs. An animist people among Mali's mostly Muslim population, the Dogon were pushed to the cliffs in the 1400s by other groups. The Dogon themselves shouldered aside the Tellem living there, who the Dogon refer to as a "pygmy" people. They had built villages high on the cliffs like the Pueblo buildings in the American southwest. The Dogon culture survived into the modern era partly due to its isolation and inaccessibility of its villages on the cliffs. In the last century, Dogon have begun to build houses further down the slopes or even onto the plains, as slave raiding and other dangers disappeared. The ones highest up on the cliffs are being abandoned or left to the elderly, as the young choose not to haul water and food up the rocky paths so high each day.
After our sensory rich visit to Bamba's market, we drove to the village of Yendouma, where we'd spend the night. It is another village on the slopes that is gradually creeping down each year. Our "hotel" for the night proved quite a shock to Steve and I. Sidibi said most tourists simply grab a mattress and sleep in the open air on the dusty rooftops. The alternative was an airless, windowless cell with a stone shelf for mattresses. He showed us the shower -- a five gallon bucket of water with a ladle. The bathroom was next door, a room with a hole in the stone floor, swarming with flies. I'd read that accommodations in Dogon were very basic, but I'd pictured more than essentially camping on the roof of a building! Steve and I prevailed upon them to set up tents on the rooftops and sweep a bit of the dust and rocks into one corner. The idea of sacking out in the open, as much as mosquitos love me, was just about unthinkable. I'd wake up as one big "mozzie" bite!
Mollified a bit by the tents, we ate dinner by flashlight on the rooftop. Sidibi asked if we wanted beers, which would be warm since there was no electricity. We said sure, why not? As I took a sip of my beer, looking out at the stars that began to fill the night sky, it suddenly dawned on me: Today was my birthday! We toasted my turning 46 while we looked out over the village campfires, listening to the sounds of the people, their goats and the outrageously loud braying of their donkeys. I mused there were worse ways to spend your 46th birthday than waking up in Timbuktu and going to bed underneath brilliant stars in Dogon country. As it was, those romantic sounding goats and donkeys, combined with the uncomfortable tent, meant it was a mostly sleepless night for me. I've never loved camping, and I certainly hadn't packed (or mentally prepared) for it!
View from cliffs on our first day of hiking in Dogon Country
As much as we hadn't anticipated our Dogon hotel, we were eager for our Dogon hiking. We started early before the heat of the day could catch up with us. Following a path, we criss-crossed back and forth, uphill towards the looming cliffs. Looking back down, the views across the valley were sweeping. The pale red earth shone in the morning sun, contrasting with the yellow-orange gleam of the sandstone cliffs above. Here and there, patches of green vegetation marked the fields and scrub brush. Giant baobob trees stood like gnarled sentinels guarding the path. Sidibi broke open one of the baobob's gourd-like fruits, letting us taste the chalky, white fruit inside. It was surprisingly sweet, the white substance slowly dissolving in your mouth until you had only a dark seed, which you spit out. After days and days in the Land Cruiser, it felt good to exert myself, and I all but bounced up the trail.
Eventually, we rounded a bend and glimpsed the village of Youga Diri just beneath the cliff face. Above the mud brick Dogon buildings, I could see the ancient Tellem dwellings perched precariously in recesses of the peach-colored cliff face. For the most part, the Dogon did not take over the Tellem structures, building their villages beneath them, but still halfway up the slopes to avoid attacks from the plains. Some of the Tellem buildings appear to utilize caves in the sandstone face of the cliff, while others are also made of mud brick, like the Dogon ones. Sidibi pointed out that the oldest buildings were conical in shape, some several stories tall. Newer ones were built in a rectangular style. He explained that narrow pathways along the cliff face led to them -- much more precarious and steep than our trek up to Youga Diri. The Tellem buildings are off limits to visitors, though Dogon elders occasionally ascend to them to perform ancient rituals. The sight of the crumbling buildings along the cliff face, with the Dogon village clustered below, was incredible. As sunlight caught them, their orange-red color reminded me of the cliff temples of Petra, in Jordan.
Dogon huts with characteristic "witch's hat" roofs
We continued upwards, eventually crossing the spine of the Falaise. We were rewarded with a dramatic 360-degree view of the countryside. To one side, was the red earth valley inhabited by the Dogon. On the other, tan desert stretched away to the east and south. Far below, we could make out a single file of hump backed African cattle being driven by their Fulani herders to more fertile patches. The distance faded away into a gray blue haze, beyond which lay the border with the neighboring country of Burkina Faso.
After a short break in our wide eagle's nest atop the cliff, we descended to the other side through two steep gorges. As we walked along a narrow cleft, we came upon the startling sight of Youga Dougaweow. Its ancient Tellem buildings rose underneath a rocky overhang and inside a deep bowl in the cliffs. Sunlight reflected brightly into the bowl, turning the mud brick a deep orange-red color, as if an oven's heat was emanating from within them. All around, the brighter sherbet colored sandstone of the cliffs reflected the sun's rays. Even the very air seemed to glow and dance. We rested awhile, admiring the view of the half dozen buildings -- perfect as museum models. One cone stretched three stories tall, tapering to a flat top and pierced by dark windows.
Continuing on, we came to the inhabited Dogon part of Youga Dougaweow. It seemed noticeably rougher and poorer than Youga Diri, on the other side and part way down the slopes. The inhabitants of this village faced a more grueling uphill walk each day to bring up water and food from the plains. It was a living village, though, and as we poked amongst its buildings we could guess the hardships and struggles that the Dogon put into daily life here on the cliff top. A 20 minute downhill scramble brought us to the much larger village of Youga Natl. Row upon row of mud brick huts, with their distinct "witch's hat" thatch roofs, stood on the plains. It also had a camp with a restaurant where we'd eat our well-earned lunch that day. The owner of the camp had set up his tables on an airy, roofed platform with a fantastic view stretching into the distance. The chairs were comfortable, the drinks cool, and the breeze refreshing after three hours of climbing. I took off my shoes and stretched out. While waiting for lunch, I dozed off several times, waking up refreshed and enchanted by the blissful view.
After lunch, we checked into the Hotel Chameleon in the village of Banani. This was our third night in accommodation paid for by Tamana Adventures, and Steve and I saw a trend. In a word, they were borderline. For the most part, our hotels were dingy and dirty, and in the Chameleon's case, featured the only surly staff we ever encountered in Mali. It had real showers and flush toilets, though. Even the rooms had screened windows on three walls to have a chance at catching a breeze. We checked out the rooms, picked one, and insisted they put up mosquito netting. It would have been nice if they cleaned the layer of dust off the sheets, too, but that was apparently asking for too much. Our reaction to our accommodations sparked an interesting conversation between Steve and I. We marveled at how our minimum acceptable level has changed through our years of traveling. Until Mali, I considered hostels "roughing it." They'd have been a luxury here! Later that night, I met one of our fellow guests at the Chameleon -- the U.S. Vice Consul for Mali. He was staying with his wife and two kids, and all were happily sacking out on the rooftop on mattresses, while grizzled, veteran travelers Steve and I groaned and whinged (a nice English word) about the $%ithole we were staying in! Of course, the vice consul and his family came prepared to camp out, where as we hadn't.
Dogon village of Irelli overlooking the plains
We drove to the Dogon village of Irelli that afternoon, after the heat had died down. We climbed through the village, which sprawled from the plains almost all the way up to the cliffs. Tellem ruins loomed above Irelli, too. Sidibi sought out the village elders and presented them with the customary gift of kola nuts. We were invited to a village celebration a man was throwing in honor of the birth of his sixth child. Several dozen villagers sat in the shade, high above the plains, watching their children dancing to the beat pounded out by two drummers. The beaming father passed out bowls of millet beer. The taste was sweet, but had an mistakable beer-like tang. It was interesting that the villagers segregated themselves by age and sex: The elderly men sat in a shady place of honor; The women clustered together opposite; The young men and older boys gathered around the drummers; The children danced in the center or mingled with all. Steve's video camera was a huge hit, as usual, and the children performed with extra enthusiasm when he brought it out. It was a heartwarming welcome and acceptance we received from the Dogon of Irelli.
We enjoyed the display and pandemonium for awhile, then hiked back down through the village. Dusk was beginning to creep in, and I was looking forward to the Chameleon's shower, as I'd passed up on the bucket that morning. Upon arrival at the hotel, we discovered that the power was turned on only for a few hours in the evening -- even though they have solar panels and a generator. In the evening, Steve and I were forced to once more "rough it" with warm beers!
The next morning we walked through the village and began climbing towards the cliffs. Like so many Dogon villages, Banani stretches in loose clusters of buildings from the plains all the way up the slopes of the hill. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone dazzlingly off the mud huts and cliff face. The colors were breathtaking, and as we rose above the valley, the views were nearly equal of the day before. Sidibi had taught us the sing-song greeting of the Dogon the day before. It features an extended question and answer session, where the first asks, in turn, how the other is, how their father is, their mother, their children, etc. The other answers fine (which sounds like "say-yo") after each inquiry. The role reverses, and the same questions are run through. It is actually pretty easy, since you need only know a half dozen words. My attempts at it produced surprise and chuckles among the Dogon, though, so I don't know if I was doing everything right or not.
Dogon village of Banani shines in morning sun
We rested awhile as we reached the top of the cliff, watching the occasional villagers climbing past us. The two men with the goat were having a difficult time of it, as it must have sensed it was being led somewhere unpleasant, and bucked and struggled. We strode along the cliff top to find another village built there. This cliff actually ended in a plateau, and our driver had taken the road to meet us here after our climb. First we wandered through the empty streets, noticing that many of the buildings were made of concrete and not in the mud brick and thatch of the villages on the slopes below. Sidibi pointed out old niche graves in the rock face, which were then walled up with mud bricks. He said that most had been raided years ago by grave robbers looking for artifacts to sell to collectors. A mosque shown in the sun at the end of the village. In front of it, perhaps two dozen souvenir dealers had set up their wares. Steve and I realized that this might be our last chance to buy something in Dogon country, so ran the gauntlet of their aggressive salesmanship. I picked up a nice wooden mask of a type I'd noticed yesterday. Once the dealers knew what I wanted, they competed with each other for my business. I felt bad for the others who didn't make a sale, but was happy I was able to pay a price I felt was a good deal, but fair.
This was to be the end of our time in Dogon country. Most of the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent driving towards our next destination: Djenne. We reached the river town of Mopti around lunch time, and Sidibi took us to the Hotel Bozo, which is on a point of land surrounded on three sides by river. There were more tourists here than we'd seen in one place at any other time in Mali. The outdoor cafe was breezy and pleasant, and we enjoyed a relaxing lunch while watching Mopti's busy river traffic bustle along the waterfront. It was at this point that we had the Kola Nut Confrontation. When we'd negotiated our package, Tamana Adventures had told us that they would take care of everything in Dogon country -- accommodations, food and any village fees. However, while I'd been out running around trying to get money off my cards that next morning, one of the workers had told Steve to give him 40,000 CFAs for the kola nuts which the guide would give as presents to the village elders in Dogon country. We assumed that was part of the package, and that they had just been asking for the cash in advance. We'd arranged to pay half that first morning of our tour and the balance here in Mopti. Sidibi insisted that the roughly $80 we'd given them for the kola nuts was outside of the package -- not included in it. We argued back and forth, eventually agreeing that they would pay for our accommodation and meals in Mopti (which originally wasn't part of the agreement) in recompense for the unadvertised $80 expense.
River town of Mopti with its fishing boats
We took another small ferry to arrive at Djenne, which is in an island of sorts between two rivers. Today was also market day in Djenne, and the streets were packed as we drove through town. Most tours try to arrange to be in Djenne on market day because it is a large one and fairly well known. We checked into our hotel (the nicest in town, Sidibi assured us -- where the President stays when he's in Djenne), and shortly afterwards began our exploration on foot. The dusty streets of the old town were a good bit cleaner and more well kept than those of Timbuktu. The later afternoon sunlight gave the maze of tan colored buildings a warm glow. We wound through the back streets until we suddenly arrived in the main square, and the Grand Mosque stood resplendent in front of us.
The largest building constructed of mud bricks in the world, Djenne's mosque is an example of the Sudanic style of architecture in Mali. It's rounded towers and projecting wooden beams are complemented by the smooth coating of mud, or "banco," that is reapplied every year after the rainy season. It gives it a very otherworldly look -- very few sharp lines and a mostly smooth, rounded appearance. If Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi lived in the Middle East, he'd have designed buildings that look like the Grand Mosque. We climbed to the roof of a nearby house to get a chance to step back and appreciate the mosque from above the crowd and congestion of the streets. It is definitely one of the more unique buildings I've seen. Sidibi said he'd look up one of his friends in town and see if maybe he could get us inside. Officially, non-Muslims are prohibited inside -- ever since some idiot European photographer used the inside for a seamy, flesh-bearing fashion shoot. Sometimes, I think Americans have more in common with the Muslim world than we do with our forebears in Europe! Knowing the moral sensibilities of Islam, who -- with even a modicum of common sense -- would use one of a country's holiest sites to photograph a "United Colors of Benetton" style, soft porn advertisement?
Djenne's mosque - largest mud brick building in the world
Sidibi's friend came through, and Steve and I took off our sandals in paced quietly through the interior of the mosque. It was extremely dark inside, and somewhat claustrophobic, with the closely spaced rows of arch-like columns that filled the interior. I guessed the extra support of the numerous columns was probably needed, since mud brick is unable to bear the weight that stone or other materials can. All in all, the interior was somewhat of a disappointment. It was a bit of a thrill to be defying all those "Entree Interdite Aux Non Muselmans" signs posted by every entrance, though. Mali is a country that has one foot in the Muslim world of North Africa, and the other in that of sub-Saharan Africa.
After tip-toeing around the mosque, we rejoined Sidibi outside. He took us on a tour of the rest of the town. The kids were every bit as eager here for our tips (which we didn't give) or to sell souvenirs to us (which we did not buy). They also burst into action every time we raised our cameras, hoping to get in the picture and then rush to see themselves in the LCD screen. We ended up in the main square again, where most of the vendors for the market had packed up and hopped aboard large trucks, piled high with goods. The colorfully dressed people perched atop bags of rice or millet as the trucks belched black diesel smoke. Local merchants loaded up their wares onto donkey carts and headed home, as well.
Before dinner, Sidibi located an internet cafe for us. I was eager to update folks on the fact that, no, I had NOT been taken captive by Tuareg nomads and simply had not been able to find any internet connection since our first night. I alternated struggling to type on the French keyboard (the Q and A switch places, among other changes) and swatting mosquitos darting in at my ankles. Back at our hotel, I got my first look in days at my grizzled appearance (I'd last shaved on the morning of our arrival in Mali). Yikes! The gray in my stubble means I can't pull off that unshaven look as well as I used to in my younger days! We saw another large collection of Westerners at dinner -- mostly French (as in all of Mali) -- at a place Sidibi had picked out. The restaurant was geared towards tourists and featured traditional drummers and the coldest beers we had in Mali.
And for the most part, that ended our sightseeing in Mali. We still had one full day in the Land Cruiser before we reached Bamako. Samba drove at a much slower pace, though, as our flight back to Paris did not leave till 11:45 pm. The extra hours in the back seat brought back the familiar aches in my knees. I watched Mali go by the window, much as I had done on our first afternoon. The donkeys, goats and people all criss-crossed the road in front of us, as they had done before. It all seemed less irksome, though, than it had nearly a week before. Even the vendors did not seem as intrusive and persistent. Perhaps, like the red dust I could see coloring my khaki pants, Mali had worn its way into my skin. The memories were there, of course: Of the glory faded from Timbuktu's streets, of the fantastic cliff villages in Dogon country, and of an exotic mud brick mosque, whose outer layer is reapplied every year after the rains try unsuccessfully to wash it away.