Mali – What an experience **Beware, long post**

Another reason that it took me so long to update my blog is because I decided to go on vacation to Mali. My friend and I heard so many great things about Mali that we decided to go and visit right after Thanksgiving. So the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Sam, my friend, showed up in Kedougou, she lives in another region, and we left on Sunday. I asked my family here what was the best way to get to Mali but seeing as how they have never been they couldn’t really help me. However, my brother called up a friend who travels to Bamako, the capital of Mali, often and she helped us out. She called up some of her contacts at the boarder and told them we were coming and asked them to help us out. She organized a ride from the boarder to Kenyaba, the first city after the boarder, and then a ride into Bamako. On Sunday we took a sept-place (those old station wagons that I talk about) to the boarder of Senegal and Mali where we had to get out of the car and walk across the boarder. Once we crossed, per my brother’s friend, I was supposed to call one of her contacts to come and pick us up; however, she forgot to mention that my Senegal SIM card doesn’t allow me to make calls in Mali! Thankfully I could still send texts, so I sent the people who were supposed to pick us up a text but never received an answer, so I sent one to the girl in Kedougou, she must have recieved it because 20 mins later a car pulled up and asked if I was Ania (my Senegalese name). They drove us into Kenyaba where we tried to find a bus leaving for Bamako that day, our ride to Bamako had to go to Kedougou for a funeral. Unfortunately, no car was leaving that day so we spent the night with the people who picked us up, don’t think I’m crazy for staying with random people, they were police officers. Now a side note, the hospitality of West Africans is unmatched, we just met this woman at the boarder who was supposed to help us get a ride to Bamako and when that didn’t work out she not only allowed us to sleep at her place, which is just a room, but took us out for dinner!! These people are some of the most generous that I have ever met. So we crashed at her place and she even got up at 4am, on a work day, to take us to the bus station where we waited for the bus to take us to Bamako. I must say traveling in Mali is some what better than in Senegal because you travel by bus so there’s more room; however, they aren’t too luxurious and the floor of the bus Sam and I were on kept opening up under our feet!

We finally arrived in Bamako mid-afternoon and went straight to our hotel to clean up. Our hotel was simple, a room with two beds and shared bathrooms, but it was clean and the bonus, they had hot water!! So after we took our showers we decided to go out and get something to eat and then walk around for a bit. Sam and I found an ex-pat restaurant that had delicious food, I gorged myself on spaghetti carbonara. After lunch we walked around to see some of Bamako, honestly, not much to see, so we went back to the hotel to rest. Sam and I did some research on the internet about what to see in Mali and one of the things was the fetish market in Bamako. Now before you think this is a market that sells whips and chains and other random things, the real definition of fetish is “an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency”, so the market had monkey heads, dead birds, and apparently horse penis that the man explained would help my sex life!!! So we walked around there to see all the random things you could get, they still have witch-doctors in Mali, and then we headed off to the regular market to see what they had, but unfortunately that part of the market was just like those in Senegal. Once we got through the hustle and bustle of the market we walked around Bamako some more realizing that there isn’t too much more to see. Once back at the hotel Sam and I decided that tomorrow we would try and find a hotel where we could crash their pool and just relax, at this point we had two more days in Bamako and we ran out of things to do. Nonetheless, we did hear that there was a really good Thai restaurant so we decided to spoil ourselves and go there for dinner. What a great idea it was wonderful!!
The next morning we get up and head to a hotel that we saw the day before, a super nice one, and see if we can’t sneak into their pool. So we walk in like we own the place and ask how to get to the pool, once there we get a beer and find some chairs, we’re ready to go into the pool only to find out that if you’re not guests at the hotel you have to pay $12 to use the pool!!! That is way out of our Peace Corps budget, but the man was nice enough and allowed us to just lay out. After spending the day lounging around, Sam and I decided that we should start packing things up and as we’re packing things up a guy comes up and starts talking to us and invites his friends over. It turns out that these men are from Lebanon and they’re here on business. They were very fun, just some older business men who were having fun on their last night in town. So after talking for a bit they invite us to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant and then out dancing. Sam and I decided why the heck not, so went back to our hotel, using the car service that the men had, change and head back to the hotel to meet them. These men were very surpised that we came to Mali on vacation and even more surprised of how we live in Senegal, they couldn’t fathom why a person would leave the convinences of the Western world and live in a third world country. We tried to explain but found it a moot point. They took us to a delicious Lebanese restaurant where they just kept ordering plate of food after plate of food for us (I think they took pity on us after hearing about our lives in Senegal). After our delicious meal we went downstairs from the restaurant where there was a club, one of the guys ordered a bottle of champagne for us and then a bottle of Belvedere (I told him I like vodka), Sam and I were just sitting there asking ourselves “Are we really still in West Africa?” After a night of amazing food, drinks, and dancing Sam and I decided it was time to head back to our hotel so we bid the men goodnight and took their car service back to our hotel. The next day we just recooperate from our night out; however, that evening we get a call from one of our new business man friends inviting us back to the hotel for drinks and dinner. Once again Sam and I say why the heck not and so we head over to the hotel. We meet up with the men, have a drink or two, talk and have another wonderful dinner. This night is a tame one and it’s cut short because we have to get up at 5am to catch a bus to Dogon country the next day.

Dogon country is a region of Mali that is about 10 hours north of Mali, about 6 hours from Timbuktu (yes, Timbuktu is a real place!) and span an area of 125 miles. These are one of the few places left in Mali where people get to practice their old traditions. We almost didn’t get to go because of Al-Qaeda’s presense in northern Mali. Sam and I wanted to not only see Dogon country but also head up to Timbuktu but after talking to the safety and securit coordinator in Mali we were advised not to go. Not only that but 2 days before we headed off to Mali two French tourist were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda and while we were there a German man was killed and 2 Swedish tourist were also kidnapped. This all happened in the northern part of Mali, around Timbuktu so hence another reason we didn’t head up there. Anyways, we got the OK to go to Dogon country with a map of where we shouldn’t go and headed out at 5am to get there. I called up a tour guide and arranged for him to take us out for 5 days/4 nights. What a great time!! Ok now a little background on who the Dogon people are. They emigrated from Niger and set-up in the cliffs of Mali about 700-800 years ago. These cliffs offered them protection from the Islamic influence permiating Mali. The Dogon people are mostly anamist and practice fetishism (remember the real definition of fetish!!) and still use animal, and in some tribes human, sacrifices to please the Gods (for more about their religion and to learn about both male and female circumsision and why they do it go to Wikipedia link). The Dogon area is composed of three distinct topigraphical regions: the plains, the cliffs, and the plateau and we saw all these places!!!

We met our tour guide, Hassimi, at his house, after some confusion of where we were supposed to get off the bus we ended in Hassimi’s town (we were supposed to get off at his hotel, Oops!!) and he allowed us to spend the night at his place. The next day bright and early we headed to our first destination, a small village on the a rocky plateau. We walked around the village that was up and down hills and I just marveled how these people went about their daily lives having to walk up and down these hills and even use ladders to get to certain places in twon. To get water they had to walk about 3 miles down the rocky hill to a spring where they filled up their basins and then carried them back up on their heads. Talk about some tough people!! After we wandered around the village for a bit we headed for our second place that day, a hike!! Hassimi dropped us off on the side of the road where we met a local who then led us down the cliff!! Now I’m not much of a hiker so this was a bit of a challenge for me but after a few hours I succeeded in setting foot back on terra firma! After our hike we just sat around with Hassimi, had dinner, and went to bed, it was a long day. The next day Hassimi told us to say good-bye to the car because we wouldn’t see it for the next 4 days. We then set off on one of our many hikes of the week. This one wasn’t too bad, it was a simple 1.5 mile hike through the desert. We reached our next village where we got to see one of the original Dogon villages, the one in the cliffs. I’m amazed as to how these people lived there (not for the feint of heart). Hassimi explained that not only would they walk up and down the cliffs countless times a day but they also used very strong vines to bring up good, materials, and sometimes, men. We walked up to the village and looked around and what was still standing, it was impressive to see a place where 700-800 years ago was a bustling village. After wspending the morning walking around the village we, carefully, made our way down and had lunch. We then set off to another village where we would spend the night. On the second day we had more hiking through the desert and another village to see. One the third day we had on of the more difficult hiking days we walked the normal 1.5 miles in the morning and we checked out how the Dogon women made indigo fabric, how the artisans make their masks, and how the men make their mud cloths, but after lunch we had about 4 mile hike with about 2.5 miles up a mountain!! If you look at Hassimi you’d think he was just a big guy that would be able to scale these mountains, I’m not sure if the Dogon people bred with mountain goats or what, but he climbed the mountain like he was walking up steps, of course I was the last one all the time, but even Sam who hiked back in the US was having problems keeping up with Hassimi!! However, once we reached the top the view was amazing, there was just nothing around for miles and miles, you really realized what a vast wourld we live in and how insignificant parts of our lives are. Both nights on the mountain we stayed in animist village, unfortunately no rituals were performed. Now the last day, as the the saying goes, what goes up must come down!! Hassimi showed us earlier in the week how we where getting down, it was just a crack in the mountain, and I thought he was kidding but nope, he wasn’t!!! At first I thought, ok this wasn’t hard, but after taking a rest Hassimi grabbed my backpack and I knew it was going to get difficult. It took about 2 and a half hours to get down, I mostly sat my way down on my butt!! Not falling, thankfully, but I’d sit on the rock and then try to find a good rock to put my foot on, again Hassimi awed me, he not only carried his backpack but mine and still had to wait for us to catch up. After our hike down we got to take a Dogon taxi (a cattle cart) back to the car. Once we got back we headed to the town we started at and Sam and I tried to catch a bus to Djenne, it’s where the world’s largest mud mosque is, ever year after the rainy season they have to rebuild it.

We hopped on a bus and headed to Djenne to find out that even though this is a popular tourist destination they do not make it easy to get to. We were dropped off on the side of the road and told we were 22 miles away from the town of Djenne and we had to wait for another bus heading that way. as it turned out we got an overpaid cab to take us there, but the tricky Mother F’er told us to cross the river and he’d bring the car with the car ferry. As we stood on the opposite shore we watched the car pull away and head back to where we started. A man then approached us and asked if we were Peace Corps, we said yes and he said he lets Peace Corps volunteers who come in stay on his roof for $5 and he’d give us dinner and breakfast and he’d get us into Djenne. Seeing as how Sam and I didn’t really know where to go or how to get into Djenne but walk the 2.5 miles at night into the town we took him up on his offer. What a terrible idea!! If you think that it’s never cold in Africa think again!! Sam and I ended up sleeping on the roof in about 55 degree weather with just a thin blanket covering us, we cuddled for warmth and Sam became my big spoon. After we finally thawed out we decided to go see this mosque, I kept saying we have to see it because it’s a World Heritage site, but still have no idea what that means. Anyways, we saw it, took our pictures, even posed for a few with the Chinese tourists, and decided that that was about all there was to Djenne and it was time to head back to Bamako. So we got on a car that took us to the side of the road again where we waited about 2 and a half hours for a bus that was going to Bamako. We were lucky and we got the last two seats on the first one coming by (as much as I complain about being white here, sometimes it has its advantages). So Sam and I proceeded to take a 12 hours bus ride from the side of the road into Bamako, where we got so tired of all the stops that the bus made, to pick up more passangers (the sat on barrels in the aisle) or to drop some off, that we decided to make it into a drinking game. Hey, don’t judge, it helped pass the time. We finally made it into Bamako at 1:30am. I called the hotel ahead of time and told them we’d be getting in late so they left the key with the guard. After getting in our room we took nice hot showers and then passed out. The last day in Bamako was just a day of resting. We caught a 4am bus back to Senegal and were in Tamba (the region to the north of me) around 11:30pm. After sleeping in the regional house there Sam and I parted ways at the garage (the sept-place depot) and went to our respective sites. It was a long and tiring trip but worth it. If you want to see a really amazing part of this world, go to Mali.

This is me enjoying my Lebanese dinner. Can you tell I how much I miss meat?

Me at the fetish market. Monkey head anyone?

Sam and I enjoying the comforts of Bamako, yup that IS a snickers ice cream bar!!!

This was a warm-up climb, here I’m showing my hiking abilities, or lack thereof, keep this in mind as you see the pictures of what I hiked!!

While looking at the buses that drive through Mali I noticed they all had emergency exit stickers and exit signs written in Polish!!!

This is a picture of the first village we saw as we started our journey through Dogon country.

One way to get from one level of the village to the other is using a homemade ladder. Talk about this girl taking her babysitting responsibilities seriously!!

Another way to get around is by using a Dogon slide!! Sam and I had a great time going down it!

So here are the women walking down to get water from the spring…

Here is the spring that the village uses to get its water…

And after you fill up your basin with water and put it back on your head, this is the walk you get to have to return to the village

Welcome to Dogon country!!!

After being dropped off on the side of the road, this is what I got to hike down.

And here’s a picture from the bottom of my hike. I swear I hiked down that, I have witnesses!!!

And our hike through the desert starts!

The cliff village we visited.

This is one of the streets in the village.

And the village just keeps going up!!

A picture from one of the caves in the village.

Me inside the cave!

The village may keep going up but when you get to the top the view is awesome!!!

What the houses in the cliff village look like inside.

This is how the houses are held up on the cliff, just some stones and a few pieces of wood!!!

Our lodging for the night, all the buildings are made out of mud, just like all the houses in the village!!

Day 2 of the desert hike, yup I’m still going!!

As we hiked through the desert I kept looking at the mountain not believing there were villages there. Can you find it?

There it is!!! Talk about some good camouflage!!

Sam and I chilling in a baobob tree.

Hassimi, always the gentleman, helping me out of the tree!

Ever wonder how they make those wooden statues black? They burn the wood!!

So during our hike through the desert we stumbled on some camels roaming around.

The sunset at the top of the mountain.

Sam and I taking in the sites above Dogon country

So if you look far into the background you will some sand dunes, this is the beginning of the Sahara desert!

Sam and I posing in front of the animal trophies displayed on one of the houses in an animist village.

Anyone hungry? This is dinner in an animist village, not my dinner that night though.

Total integration, sharing a bowl of millet beer with some locals!

As I said, what goes up most come down and here was my preferred method, it’s what I call the sit and reach approach.

See why the sit and reach approach is great, here I’m trying to cross a ravine (I think you can see the drop behind me) using those homemade ladders. As always Hassimi was trying to help me (or laugh at me) and kept trying to hand me a piece of grass so he could pull me across!!

And if you think I was being a big baby with my hiking style, see that first vertical crack in the mountain, that was what we had just hiked (or sat) down!!!!

How does one get back to your car? By Dogon taxi of course!!!

As w were enjoying our ride back the driver suddenly jumped off the “taxi” and handed me the reins, literally!!

To get to Djenne we had to cross a river and I just think this is a great picture showing how we do things here in West Africa!

Think they never did human sacrifices? Here is a sign in front of a tomb that says “Tomb of the young girl, Tamapa Dienepo, sacrificed to protect the city against bad spirits.”

The largest mud mosque in the world, it’s actually pretty freakin’ big!!!

And if you haven’t gotten enough of my photos of my trip then check them all out at Alex’s Mali pictures



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