Bamako, Mali, November 3 - 6, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bamako is the capital city of Mali and a place we'd spend three full days and four nights.  There's not enough in Bamako to see or do to normally warrant such a long stay, but most of us needed to get visas from the Nigerian embassy, a potentially time consuming process.  Bamako is set in a valley along the Niger River's banks beneath steep escarpments.  It's a predictably busy, chaotic place full of crowded markets, colorfully dressed women, swarms of motor bikes, and intense heat.  The walls of the escarpment appear to trap exhaust fumes from motor vehicles as well as the heat.  Meanwhile, the winds that blow sand in from the Sahel and Sahara must make Bamako one of the world's dustiest cities. 
Our hotel/campement, Le Relais d'Joliba, was along the Niger's banks across the river and a few miles upstream from the city center and had a rather nice swimming pool as well as a decent restaurant and bar, spots I'd spend quite a bit of time at during our stay in the city.  Between the extreme heat in Bamako and the long stretch of nights in my tent since Dakar, I decided to join some of the others to share an air conditioned bungalow
Malians overall seem quite friendly and proper, and I got a real sense of most of the country, including the capital city, of being a rather safe place.  That's not to say there's no hassle by pushy salespeople and faux guides attempting to befriend you for the commissions they'd make on anything you'd buy in their presence, but it's generally a rather friendly place. 
A group of us ventured out into the night on our first night in Bamako, a Saturday, to explore the city's renowned music scene.  We ended up at a great club with live modern Malian music, drumming, and some dancing.  Besides the seven of us there were only a few other grains of salt in the sea of pepper.  The beer was cheap; the music was good; and the finely dressed crowd out for the evening was enthusiastic.  I must learn the secret of how most Africans manage to look so fresh with clothes so clean in the heat, dirt, and dust everywhere around them. 
At one point as I was sitting down with my group sipping my beer, a muscular young man with short dreadlocks who had been dancing the night away alone came over to me, grabbed my hands, and pulled me out of my seat to the dance floor to join him.  "Hmmm, this is really weird," I thought.  "I'm dancing with a local man in a club in a Muslim country where it doesn't seem like it's the tradition for guys dance together.  I hope this doesn't get me into trouble."  But after about ten minutes my dance partner released me without any negative repercussions and told me, "Mon, you good dancer!" 
I spent one of my three full days in Bamako engaged in true sightseeing.  The National Museum of Mali is said to be the best in West Africa and does have a nicely laid out, though not too extensive collection, and a pleasant location in a woodsy part of town away from the greatest chaos.  The Museum of Bamako, though, was hardly worth the few cents worth of CFAs I paid to get in. 
Much more fun were the markets.  Foremost of these is the Maison des Artisans where craftsmen were at work on traditional Malian crafts and surrounded by their wares for sale - drums, koras (a plucked banjo-like instrument), masks, statues, and carvings, leather slippers, wallets, handbags, belts, and chests (many in illegal wildlife skins like python, lizard, and crocodile, as well as camel and cowhide), silverwork, cloth, blankets, woven textiles, bronze, Touareg swords and daggers, and wooden furniture.  There was some fantastic stuff that I would have loved to buy but with limited room on the truck and concerns about cost and reliability of Malian Post, I managed to resist the temptation. 
The second big market was the Grand Marche, the city's huge central market that sprawled along the streets many blocks in every direction its central market halls.  It's filthy and fascinating with food and household wares, slaughtered animals and sewage.  And there were plenty of fierce-looking market ladies ready to give "the look" as soon as I tried to pull out my camera. 
Most interesting was the ghoulish Fetish Market between the Grand Mosque and the Assemblee Nationale (Parliament) on Place de la Republique and surrounding streets.  Here there was to be found everything an aspiring witchdoctor could possibly need for his spells from animal pelts and dried shriveled up animals of every sort to dead cats and dead rats, to animal paws and shrunken monkey heads and extraordinary herbs all appropriate for a specific purpose, whether that be to cast a spell on an adversary, create a good luck charm, or to concoct a special tonic to help with one's libido.  None of the fetishists spoke much English other than what they needed to know to demand some money from me for taking photos of their wares, so I wasn't able to converse with them to determine what it was I would need to cure all that ails me. 
Our trip leader Dave mentioned several times that Grandpere, our guide for the remainder of our trip through Mali, would be joining us is Bamako.  On the afternoon of our arrival at the hotel in Bamako we met several young men around the hotel whose role seemed to be to attend to our needs, whether that be to collect our laundry to take for washing, give us a ride to an ATM on a motorbike, arrange a taxi for you, go to get beer for the truck bar, or anything else.  I came the believe that first day that the ringleader of the group, a buff young man with short dreadlocks was "Grandpere". 
The following day, my full day of touring in central Bamako, I had already visited the National Museum and was standing in the garden at the Place de la Liberte photographing a statue when Grandpere passed by on his motorbike and stopped.  Grandpere said the group was meeting somewhere to do a tour on the escarpment viewpoint (something I had not heard any mention of), and I needed to join them, so hop on.  I naively did so, even though I had never been on a motorbike before, let alone one in as chaotic and traffic-ridden a place as Bamako.  "Put your arms around my belly.  Put your right foot there.  Left foot there," he yelled as he revved up.  We were off and running, and I was using up yet another one of my precious nine lives I've been going through so quickly in my travels. 
A couple miles up the hill and just below the escarpment, Grandpere stopped at what turned out to be the Bamako Zoo.  "Why are we stopping here?" I asked. 
"David told me to show his tour group Bamako.  We go to Point W Lookout and Hippodrome and markets.  This is zoo.  You like zoo?" 
I hadn't quite figured out what Grandpere was up to in insisting that I join him on his motorbike for a personal city tour that day, but the Bamako Zoo was revolting.  The lion enclosure was full of putrid remains of donkey corpses thrown in as feed;  the baboons were sorry and frightened looking; the leopard cowered in terror in the corner of its small cage; the hyenas paced back and forth neurotically in their small enclosure; and the chimpanzee got up out of its sleep to dance and clap when Grandpere chanted a loud samba tune at it while another chimp was drinking the local version of orange Fanta from a plastic bottle someone passed it through the bars. 
By this point I was angry enough over Grandpere's deception with the motorbike tour, disgusted enough with conditions at the zoo, and approaching meltdown in the scorching heat that I threw a fit at Grandpere when we got back to his motorbike.  This wasn't just a little annoyance hissyfit but rather one of the biggest tantrums of my life, one full of aggressive gestures and four letter words that could easily have crossed the line into well-focused acts of violence. 
Back at the hotel that evening I learned that my motorbike buddy was not in fact the real Grandpere but rather an imposter named Mamadou, one of several dodgy geezers who make a relatively good living hanging out around the hotel offering services to tourists at exorbitantly high prices (like those we paid for our laundry).  Between my tantrum and my threats I would have expected Mamadou would have come nowhere near me over the next two days in Bamako, but I was wrong.  When he saw me that evening, he immediately came over to me.  "Hey, my friend, you want to buy drum?  I give you good price.  Your friend buys drum....Big one."
"Get lost, asshole!" 
Mamadou and his bud Amadou had a way of finding me as I was walking around town the next few days and offering me their services everywhere I went.  As I was standing at the Place de La Nation taking a picture of the Independence Monument Mamadou appeared from nowhere.  "My friend, you need taxi.?"
"No, I don't need a taxi.  Go away!"
"If you need taxi, I have car.  It right over there.  I show you!"
"No, just leave me alone.  I like to walk." 
Then on the last day in Bamako Amadou pulled the race guilt ploy on me as I was walking near the Grand Marche.  "Hello, my friend.  Remember me - Amadou from Relais d'Joliba Hotel."
"I want to show you my shop."
"Everyone does.  No thanks.  I've seen enough already," I curtly responded as I tried to ignore him.
"I walk with you."
"No, I like to walk alone.  That's why I don't go with other people from my group."
"Why you not walk with me.  You no like Black people?"
"Black people are fine.  I just don't like you."
"In Africa you should talk with African people."
"I do.  I'm just selective about it, and I don't want to talk to you."
"You want me to bring drum to camp?  Good price for you."
"No, go away!"
"I show you silver shop."
"F**k off!"
I don't know how I could have been any ruder to these good-for-nothings, but they just kept coming back for more.  I'm not sure if they didn't understand me, were just gluttons for punishment, or got found great entertainment in pestering me like a bunch of hornets or mosquitoes. 
The evenings in Bamako were pleasant, though, and there I ate more food that disproved my preconceptions that African food would be mostly millet porridge, corn meal goo, and vegetable slop over rice.  Several of us hopped into a taxi one night and went to Africa Grill, an African themed restaurant with such local specialties as Yassa and Maffe on the menu.  I tried the lamb version of the Maffe, which turned out to be a stew in a very flavorful peanut butter and spice sauce served with rice. 
Meanwhile, the Brochettes de Capitaine, skewers of succulent white fish from the huge Nile Perch (known as Capitaine in French), at our hotel's restaurant were some of the best fish I've ever eaten and made especially good by the mustard sauce served alongside.  Being in a city again I also couldn't resist the temptation of French food and rounded up a posse of my fellow passengers to take a taxi one evening to Le Campagnard, Bamako's premiere French restaurant, for steaks with French sauces, wine, and a few games of pool after dinner.  All in all I ate well in Bamako.
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