Bamako, December 29, 2008 - Monday

Trip Start Dec 18, 2008
Trip End Jan 18, 2009

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Where I stayed
"Tamana" hotel

Flag of Mali  ,
Monday, November 30, 2009

David didn't let us down. Eventually he did turn up, just as I suspected he would. Sooner or later he had to.

We were on our way to the Grande Marché, or the Bamako Grand Market. Na Prisca wanted to buy a few more presents and, having seen the swimming pool in the garden, decided she needed a bikini, too. Strangers to Malian capital both of us, it seemed most logical to start any shopping of that kind on the Grande Marché.

And then, the moment we left hotel, he was there. David.

Na Prisca stiffened visibly. As for me, I felt an anxiety, as well. I wasn’t in any mood for arguments, violent or just noisy. So David was the last one I would look forward to seeing there. I pretended I didn’t notice him. However, he hadn’t picked up my clue. The moment he saw us, the recognition was all over his face, he smiled and said:

„Hello, my friend!"

Na Prisca wasn’t mollified with his friendly greeting in the slightest. She just sought to leave the scene as fast as possible. And I was confused by the mixed feelings. On one hand I felt relief upon realising there was no danger whatsoever of getting into any kind of repeated conflict this morning. On the other, though, I just couldn’t shake loose from my mind the circus David had staged two days before. Not yet, in any case. So I just shot a mean, wordless glance in his direction and passed him by as if he was a roadside signpost. That was all.

But to my utter amazement, he was so visibly at a loss for explanation of our unmistakeably hostile attitude that at that moment I knew with certainty that the poor guy was a nutter. It was as clearly written on his face, as if somebody had put it in words, that he had no idea why Na Prisca ignored him with disdain and I still felt somewhat pissed off. The guy who was selling souvenirs inside the „Tamana“ hotel garden was right. David had quite a few nuts and bolts in his head permanently missing. With no spare parts to be delivered any time soon.

Well, we left him there and just a few metres down the Rue de Bla Bla, when it was certain he had no intention whatsoever to stalk us, we completely forgot about him.

As usual, Na Prisca was not much in a mood for walking, even if today she had put on those walking shoes she had purchased back in Bobo-Dioulasso. So I came to conclusion that her readiness for walking and the footwear she had on were not necessarily in any correlation. Consequently, we again took taxi for what to me felt like just a short ride. Na Prisca told the driver we wanted to go to the Grand Market area and he effectively took us to the end of the Route de Koulikoro and dropped us off there.

Well, I didn’t mind. In fact, I was looking forward to exploring as much of the city on foot as possible. If anyone was disappointed with the length of our taxi ride, it had to be Na Prisca more than me. But to her credit, even if she was, she didn’t let on.

The spot we left our taxi on was in the immediate vicinity of the Bamako Grand Mosque. You could immediately spot its two minarets which are said to be among the tallest structures of the Malian capital. According to some sources, the Bamako Grand Mosque was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Maybe. But quite honestly, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I mean, if you have a structure which was built only ten years ago... OK, maybe fifteen at most... and then this particular structure does not stand out in any significant way – or at least you don’t see that it does – from any other structure of the same sort throughout the world, you hardly put it on any UNESCO lists, don’t you? Personally, I saw nothing in the Bamako Grand Mosque to bear out its alleged inclusion there. And unless I am consequently convinced otherwise, I will remain strongly doubtful, to say the least, of the validity of that claim. In my mind, it would be simply too gratuitous.

Of course, on another level it hardly seemed to matter.

And people were there in numbers. As common by now, almost all of them in those bright and glaring African colours, some moving about, but even more of them seemingly doing nothing and just loitering around. Some were hiding in the shadow of cars, buildings or umbrellas and parasols, but many were too lazy to as much as move away from the sun. Some were selling stuff, some were simply begging. There were turbaned guys and those dressed in western-style shirts and pants. There were women with children, sometimes on their back, sometimes off them. Some were sitting, some were carrying loads on their heads. There was a vast sea of motorcycles and a fair number of cars, all parked around.

I am not sure how much money any of those who pretended to do any business could rake in there. There didn’t seem to be any pressure on any of the vendors and if there was any crowd around any of the stalls – or goods simply laid on down on the bare pavement - it was more for the sake of chatting and socialising. It never looked to me that it was for any money transactions. Well, maybe I was missing out on something.

In any event, things on sale there were so numerous and different in nature that it would make no sense to even begin to name them here. And there seemed to be no restrictions or divisions whose boundaries and definitions couldn’t be pushed or bent. So you could see a guy selling bread-rolls, coffee and glucose, offer someone a hair-cut to boot. Or a woman peddling tooth-paste, chewing gums and - fish fried on the spot. It was all one wonderful jumble of hustle and bustle.

I was careful not to be too obvious while taking pictures. And as there was no reaction from people, I guess I was doing pretty fine. The only occasions where I would aim my camera openly was when I took pictures of the Grand Mosque itself or, for example, Maison des Artisans du Mali in the Route de Sotuba alongside the Grand Mosque to the south. Nobody complained about that.

Bamako Grand Market is an unabashedly intense place. If you’re too sensitive of the crowd, if you feel claustrophobic, if you pick up other people’s energy to the levels that might oppress you, this is not a place for you. If you are someone who always needs their own space, then you should stay away. But if such settings don’t get you down, this is most certainly a sight to see and a show in its own right. The human sea is literally spilling all over and there seems to be no way of containing it. The closer you get to the core of what Grand Market really is, the more people are bent on commerce and those slackers whom we’d seen in the area immediately around the Grand Mosque gradually seemed to diminish their presence.

Traders and sellers were occasionally a bit too insistent, but invariably friendly. Well, as for slackers, not everyone was selling or buying things, though. There always seemed to be a fair number of entrepreneurial characters who professed themselves willing to assist you in whatever you needed, particularly if you were looking for a particular item which you couldn’t locate. Because they „knew exactly“ where you would find what you were looking for.

Or maybe I am simply unjust towards them. Mali is not a rich country and people don’t have a ready access to good education and ladder to climb in the society they live in. Many literally scrape the bottom of the barrel to scrap the meagre daily living, not knowing whether they’d have anything to eat in the evening, let alone tomorrow. Maybe those helpers were simply doing their best in given circumstances.

Anyway, Na Prisca was on the lookout for a swim suit. And at least two or three guys positively knew where such stuff was on sale. Well, it soon turned out that what their idea of a bikini was, it merely translated into underwear in my language. It was sometimes funny, on other occasions stylish, but on all occasions not what Na Prisca was looking for. She had already had all the underwear she needed.

I don’t know why it was difficult to find a bikini for her. Maybe because the vast majority of people here simply didn’t have a ready access to swimming pools. Or even if they did, then they must have had more pressing concerns on their minds than what bikini to swim in when next they were in a hotel with a pool. So those things simply didn’t sell. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Mali is predominantly a Muslim country. Even if they didn’t strike me as very conservative in these parts, to be honest. Either way, at one point we lost almost every hope that we would find what she was looking for.

When she finally did.

There was this guy that one of helpers had brought us to, who was sitting in one small corner of the Grand Market, literally crowded up to his ears with shirts, rolls of multi-coloured fabric, sporting shorts, football jerseys and so on. And out of one of nylon bags, stuffed with all sorts of everything without system or order he finally produced a cute, yellow bikini. That was it.

Na Prisca nodded.

„Fifteen thousand francs,“ he declared with a straight face.

Of course, she was with a white man and this guy saw his chance to cash in on it. As far as I could tell, we the whites were as common at the Grand Market as the rain was in Sahara. I am inclined to believe that not many whites had come so close to him before, at least not for shopping.

„Fifteen thousand!“ Na Prisca shouted with indignation. What he had just demanded was so outrageous that she was tempted to turn around and leave on the spot.

And I laughed. For some reason it amused me so much that I couldn’t help offering my hand to the guy for a hand-shake.

„This guy is great!“ I added to Na Prisca in the best of moods.

At first, my hand was greeted with a sheepish smile on his part, but then the guy cottoned on to the whole thing, laughed with me and we pumped hands in the most cordial manner. Then I gave him a thumb-up with a wink and left him to haggle and settle things with Na Prisca.

Few minutes later she bought the bikini. For three thousand CFA francs.

Of course, the guy wanted to talk Na Prisca into buying a few more things. Maybe a blanket would serve some purpose? Or she might fancy a headscarf? She wouldn’t budge. And we left.

While she was looking for other stuff for the rest of her family, I enjoyed myself immensely with what the Grand Market was offering visually to a foreigner from Europe like me. All I needed to do was follow her wherever she thought she wanted to go, looking for whatever she was looking for, and every new turn, every new corner, every new twist in this huge maze offered a new scene. I found it mind-boggling how locals were able to find their own particular selling spot the next day. I always took pride in my good sense of orientation. But I wouldn’t bet I’d be able to find my way tomorrow again to the same shops we’d been today.

And there were literally all sorts of everything on offer. From food to clothes to electronic goods. And anything else in between. Everything, true to genuine African fashion, was open to haggling. And maybe equally important, it was more than clear that this huge market served as a social hot-spot for a huge chunk of local population. They came here every day to make some paltry money if possible. But they also came here to see their friends.

You wouldn’t believe that such a place can take up to several hours of your day once you get there. But nobody is in any hurry. And you can’t push things even if you want. So you adjust to the general pace, slow down to get in sync with the rhythm around you, leave any old rush behind and take it easy. When you finally say to yourself – or when your tummy starts telling you – that it’s time to go because you’re getting hungry, you realise that it’s much later than you think.

There are sotramas - battered green, doorless vans – serving as shared taxis, or bush taxis, and cruising every accessible street in Bamako, with young guys hanging out of them, as if they will fall out by the wayside any moment, shouting out the direction where they go. So there were many pushing their way at a snail’s pace even through the Grand Market main streets. But Na Prisca and I were far from being familiar with any of the names and directions they offered. I couldn’t understand them, to begin with. Na Prisca at least could, for all the good it did her. So we decided to go back the same way we had come from and then get another normal taxi as soon as it was possible.

By the time we were in the old taxi again, it was almost an hour later.

We stopped at the „Le Relax“ for a lunch, same as yesterday. Not much of a foodie, either one of us, we were perfectly happy with going to the same place that had proved to be fine for us the day before. And than, again same as yesterday, we took a stroll up the Route the Koulikoro and Rue de Bla Bla back to the hotel. Along the way we passed by the Chinese Embassy building, checked some open-air furniture shop across the street, dodged a bearable number of kid beggars and in due time entered the „Tamana“ hotel garden.

This afternoon we wouldn’t play games, but enjoy the cool water of the swimming pool instead. Na Prisca was no swimmer, so she held tight to the edge of the pool and I was hovering close by, just in case her grip slipped and she ended in the water without anything to hold on to. Of course, the pool was not too deep. But tell it to a panicking non-swimmer who thinks they are parting with the dear life.

Anyway, things never escalated and Na Prisca had a fine time, among other things showing off her new bikini.

Again, white guests were the large majority of people occupying the garden chairs in the evening and I heard many of them talking about the Essakane Festival. Some of them said they would go, some said they wouldn’t.

So... Essakane Festival?
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