Mopti, Mali, November 8 - 9, 2007

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

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Friday, November 9, 2007

The road northeast to Mopti was through a progressively drier landscape, one broken by a few stretches of irrigated rice fields along some of the Niger River's small tributaries.  Through the drier patches Fulani men, distinguishable by the unique conical hats they wear over their turbans, wandered with large herds of long-horned cattle.  The region in central Mali also seemed more prosperous, and the neat mud brick villages had rather little litter strewn about compared to so many areas we had passed through.        &nbs p;      
We were visited at our lunch stop that afternoon by a Bambara couple who brought us a watermelon as a gift in exchange for several bags of crushed aluminum drink cans we had stored in Daphne's wood rack until we could dispose of them properly.  Why could they possibly want aluminum cans, and for that matter, why are little kids in these parts happy with an empty coke can as a "cadeau"?  The couple spoke some French and told one of the French speakers on the truck they would melt the cans down over the fire and shape it into bowls for eating, a level of both poverty and ingenuity I find hard to fathom
Mopti is sometimes called the "Venice of Africa", a nickname that may be a bit of a stretch, but it's nevertheless a fascinating city on the Niger River's banks, with a historic mud brick old town and characteristic mud brick mosque and surrounded by rice paddies and canals.  Our early November visit coincided with the Niger River's high water level after the summer rainy season in the highlands in Guinea where the river originates, so the rice paddies were flooded and sometimes dry areas around the city completely flooded giving it that famous quasi-Venetian feel. 
Mopti is the starting point for most Niger River excursions to Timbuktu, so we even encountered a few other whiteys of the backpacker variety on the city's bi-weekly market day.  Their presence, though, didn't detract much from the marvelous menagerie of mankind that Mopti is on market day - colorful markets along the Niger River, piles of dried fish, people peddling their wares from boats on the riverfront, crowded pirogue and pinasse ferries taking people across the river and canals, market ladies in their flowery brightest and best, all with head rags that perfectly matched their dresses.  Most interesting of all is the variety of people from different tribes, some easily distinguishable from each other by physical appearance, such as the Fulani men's broad hats and the Fulani women's tattoos around their lips which greatly exaggerate the appearance of their already voluptuous lifts.  Although the Fulani are traditionally cattle-herding nomads of the region, there are also many people in the area from the Bozo tribe, traditionally the fisher folk along the river, and the mostly agrarian Songhai tribe.  
Everyone was friendly and welcoming, but as is the case where there are tourists, there are always people who have learned how to make money off of them as "guides", pushy trinket salesmen, touts, or hustlers.  And they learn young too.  I was looking at the Misire Mosque, the famous mud brick one with the crenellated roof with parapets in the so-called Soudanian style typical of the region, trying to find good angles for photos, when a young introduced himself to me.  He said his name was Mohammed and he could take me to the roof of his house for pictures for 1,000 CFAs (just over $2).  I negotiated Mohammed down to 500 CFAs, probably about a half day's wage in for most workers in this part of Mali but well worth it to me for a better vantage point of the mosque and the old town.  Mohammed went to get a key and took me into a residential building near the mosque, up three flights of stairs, and unlocked the door to the roof for a spectacular view.  Mohammed then guided me around the old town in the limited amount of time I had in town before I had to be back at the truck, taking me into all the souvenir shops for "special prices" at places he'd get a commission if I bought something.  Mohammed told me he was 13 years old and claimed to have taught himself five languages through chatting with the tourists (French, English, German, Spanish and Dutch) because he wanted to be a tour guide.  One nice thing about having "a guide" with you, even if it's a 13 year-old, in a place like Mopti is that you are his possession, and as long as he is with you none of the other would be guides pesters you. 
We stayed that night at a campement with a nice bar in Sevare, a crossroads town a few miles away from Mopti and the River, and had a pretty good camp dinner of brochettes cooked over an open fire.  This was the first of three spots in Mali where the place to pitch our tents would be on the roof of the hotel, in this case a roof with no guardrails and lots of rusty rebar sticking out about six feet high, ready for when the hotel's next floor will be built. 
I suppose I tend to identify with nomadic people like the Fulani and Touareg, so I started my shopping spree the next morning with the vendors peddling their wares outside the campement's front gate - a broad Fulani straw hat, a colorful cotton Fulani wedding blanket, small Touareg knives and bottle openers in inlaid ebony and brass.  "I finally have some cool loot from Sub-Saharan Africa," I thought.  Now if I can only find a really nice mask somewhere!

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