Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things To Do In Mali On Mondays

So what do you do with a spare day on your hands in Mali? Luckily for me the question wasn't really in any doubt as I woke up early yesterday to catch the first bus to Djenne. During the glory days of the Malian Empire Djenne grew rich with trade and became a great centre for Islamic scholarship but declined with growing regional instability 400 years ago.

The town is built on an island within the delta region and a series of causeways and a ferry link it terra firma. Because of its relativly hard to reach location and the limited amount of space the town has retained a lot of its original mud-brick architecture. In fact the Grand Mosque is the largest mud-brick structure in the world and looms over the central square, watching everyone and making sure they behave themselves. The mosque itself is out of bounds to non-Muslims after an incident involving an Italian fashion photographer, a horde of models, some bikinis and not much else. I did, however, manage to blag my way in to have a quick look inside, and despite its huge size the mosque feels quite narrow and close on the inside because of the forest of thick pillars that hold up the roof.

Monday is a particularly interesting day to visit as it is the day of the weekly market when the usually sedate town takes a line of speed and invites everyone over for a party. The large central square is taken up by traders from all over the surrounding all sorts of goods, although foodstuffs of all varieties seem to predominate: fish, bananas, tomatoes, peppers, small local onions, peanuts, watermelons, kola nuts, oranges, carrots and goats all jostle for space. I particularly liked the fetish market where you can buy local remedies which seem to invariably consist of dried, shrunken heads of various different animals. I indicated to one of the stallholders that my voice was going (those of you who know me are probably cursing their luck that I'm losing my voice here and not while I'm with them so that they can fully take advantage of it) and what I should take for it. He scratched his wizened chin for a bit, mumbled a few words and then rummaged around his cephalic collection before presenting me with a cute lizard head. I'm not quite sure what he expected me to do with it - dunk it in my tea? wear it round my neck? or grind it up and snort it up my nose? Anyway I thanked him and moved quickly on before he actually would show me and I might regret it. I think I'll stick to cough syrup, honey and some rest.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Venices

As you head further north in Mali the vegetation gets sparser and the trees smaller as the Sudan gives way to the Sahel. The main town in the region, Mopti, has been dubbed, rather optimistically in my opinion, the "Venice of Mali" by the national tourist authority. If, by that, they mean that it's built on a stinking swamp and is overcrowded then they're probably right, but if they're trying to allude to a romantic town, with stunning architecture, marvellous works of art and an illustrious history then they're well off the mark. It's interesting to note, however, how big a cachet the Venice brand has by the number of times it's used in descriptions of other towns - the decidedly unromantic cities of Nantes, Birmingham, Basra and Fort Lauderdale have respectively been dubbed the Venices of the West, England, East and America. At least Mopti is in good company!


No, Mopti's history is certainly no match for Venice, having been built, pretty much from scratch, 150 years ago by the French as a trading centre due to its strategic location near the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers. And it is in this respect that Mopti most closely resembles its older, Italian cousin. The heart of the town is the bustling port. There's as much jostling for position on the water amongst the pirogues and pinasses as there is on the quayside between the stallholders, hawkers, stevedores, pushing and pulling their variously laden carts, buyers, dazed tourists, general chaotic scooter traffic, and, on Sundays (as if all the above wasn't enough), regular convoys of marriage parties who happen to believe that the most congested part of town requires a few more cars continuously blaring their horns. This is where people from all over Mali and further afield come to sell their wares: slabs of salt from the middle of the Sahara; myriad varieties of dried, ugly fish from the delta (I was just thankful for once that I had a bunged up nose); cereals and textiles from Bamako and Segou; fruits and calabashes from the south; all sorts of exotic nuts and spices; as well as your usual assortment of cheap tat from China (the most surprising thing I found on sale was a huge pile of beenies and woolly hats). And it's not just goods that converge on Mopti but people too. In one short day I've talked to people from almost every one of Mali's major ethnic groups: Fulani, Bozo, Dogon, Bambara and Touareg. There are also people from all the countries of West Africa: I've met Burkinab├ęs, Ivorians, Guineans, Nigerians and Senegalese, Togolese and Nigerois, as well as the ubiquitous French tourists who seem to have a soft spot for their ex-colonies and outnumber all the other toubabs by about 4 to 1. As one Ivorian lady told me: "le Mali c'est un pays d'acceuil."

Apart from getting a sensory overload at the port the only other reason to come to Mopti is to get out onto the river, either as a short excursion or as a means of travelling downstream. I will be doing the latter and have booked my passage on a cargo pinasse heading up to the fabled city of Timbuktu on Tuesday. I can't wait.

Friday, December 26, 2008

It Makes The World Go Around

I didn't last long in Bamako. On the flight from Casablanca I was disconcerted by the number of people coughing profusely. Half a day in Bamako made it crystal clear, unlike the air, which is laden with the noxious fumes of hundreds of thousands of 2-stroke scooters and old, decrepit cars and vans. The city is expanding at breakneck speed and I think it's finding it hard to cope - of the roads that aren't paved (most of them) they're half made of dirt whilst the other half is flattened plastic bottles. It is not a particularly historic town and my main place of interest was the sprawling market, which mostly consisted of motorbike repair shops, ancient electrical goods stores, tatty stationers and the ubiquitous mobile phone shops selling the very latest models. Not really what I was looking for. Instead I wanted a watch repair shop to get a new strap for my trusty, dirt-cheap Casio that I bought on the first day of my last trip. Unfortunately time is not a very important thing for Malians - very few of them wear watches, and if they do then 'bling' is always an important factor - and so I wandered the back streets in vain.

From Bamako I headed east to Segou, on the banks of the mighty Niger river, the lifeblood of Mali, which winds 1700km through the country on its way to the Atlantic. At this point it is over 500m wide and the last bridge in the country was back in Bamako. The landscape that you pass on the road is quite uniform: flat, red earth covered in dry, impenetrable scrub. Every now and again a dirt track emerges from between the bushes and leads to god-knows-where. The villages are made up of boxy, cinderblock houses with rudimentary, wooden lean-tos serving as little boutiques selling all sorts of things no-one really needs. Segou, or at least the village of Segou-Koro, some 15km distant, used to be the capital of the Malian Bambara empire that ruled the area for 150 years some 300 years ago.

And whilst you can get lost in the smog of Bamako, there's nothing here in Segou to hide the unsuspecting toubab (generic term for white person) from the touts. Here the tactic isn't so much the suffocation that one may find in parts of southeast Asia and India, but instead a subtle guilt trip. For example yesterday I was asking around about bicycle and scooter hire prices because I wanted to see the fabled Segou-Koro (despite it being on the main road to Bamako thre is no public transport) but finally decided this morning to try it out on foot (I will explain the reasons below) and see what would happen. After a few shared scooter rides, a hitch on the back of a donkey cart, and quite a lot of walking, I finally arrived and was given the grand tour. A couple of hours later one of the people from my hostel arrives on his scooter saying that he was worried about me (despite me telling the hostel that I was walking). All very touching, I agree, but when I said thank you and I was OK and wanted to spend a little more time by the river he replied that he was off, oh, and could I give him 1000 CFA (about 1.5 euros) for the effort and petrol. Now maybe it's a cultural thing and it would have been good to give him something, but the cost of the petrol would have been far less than that and I had talked with him at great length the day before and mentioned several times that I was travelling on a budget. But let that, and the Bamako cough, not let you think that I'm not enjoying myself. The Malians are generally a very open and smiling people with whom it is easy to just sit down and have a chat, even if you are complete strangers (fat chance of that happening on the Northern Line). Last night I started talking to a local at a small, out-of-the-way restaurant. Mohammed is a driver for 2 doctors (1 a toubab) and spent 4 years working in France doing odd jobs here and there. He came back to Mali when his brother died and he had to look after his mother (who, incidentally, didn't want to move to France, despite having the possibility - which just goes to show that they're not all beating on our doors). We talked about the politics of the region, cultural issues, his time in Europe, his current job (where, just so that we get an idea of local means, earns a little over 50 euros for a 66 hours week).

My second gripe, if gripe it is - I think it's more of an observation - is that Mali is very expensive. The country produces very little and high import taxes make goods very pricey. I was looking for some Strepsils for my cough, but when I saw the price tag weighing in at 5950 CFA (9 euros - or two thirds of my daily budget) I thought I'd rather grin and bear it (I have, in the meantime, found something cheaper). Even simple services are dear, especially considering the quality. I had initially decided to hire a bike to cycle to Segou-Koro, accepting the fact that I would have to pay 6 euros for the privilege (more than I've paid for a bike than anywhere else), but quickly changed my mind when I saw the bikes: rusty chains, gear cables trailing on the ground, wobbly saddles and brakes that didn't even work. And that really shouldn't be, as maintaining a bike is quick, simple and cheap - the culture of striving to provide a high quality of service seems to be lacking. Currently I'm sleeping on the roof of the hostel, which is effectively a construction site, with only a mattress provided, and paying 2500 CFA (almost 4 euros for the priviledge). And quite frankly I'm surprised I got it so low. Sure, I can actually afford this - I'm nowhere near the poor backpacker I was a few years back, however I can see how this can form a vicious circle: such high prices stifle spending and the flow of money, which in turn acts as a break on government revenue and overall improvement in living standards. Where the answer is I don't know, but I don't think it's the solution. Anyway, that's enough about money, it's not a polite topic of conversation so I will stop right there.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back On The Road Again

True to form I left home in a disorganised, last-minute hurry. The evening before we had our family Xmas dinner and gift-unwrapping - a good thing too as I received several presents from Santa that I had ordered for the trip. Although it did lead to me staying up past 2am putting music on my new mp3 player (a luxury I didn't have on my last trip).

So once I managed to crawl out of bed I started throwing my stuff together and then into the rucksack (once I found it that is - which, in itself, was a mini crisis). Things weren't helped much by having the electrician round. The full ramifications of his presence weren't clear to me until the electricity was cut off meaning the shower wouldn't work (personally I'm not too fussed about that sort of thing, but I felt sorry for my neighbours on the plane). In the rush I'm sure I've forgotten something, I just hope it's not too vital, although, to be fair, even when I'm not rushing I forget stuff. Actually I was quite impressed with myself when I arrived at the checkout and found that my rucksack only weighed 12.5kg, and that includes my tent and sleeping bag.

For me the most stressful part of travelling is the first bus ride to the airport - I keep worrying about getting there on time and have visions of the trip being over before it even begins. Once on the road (metaphorically speaking in the case of planes, trains and boats) however, all concerns melt away and are replaced by the excitement of diving into the unknown. My first taste of the aforementioned came quickly as we arrived in Casablanca and I awaited my connecting flight to Bamako. The architects of the newly extended airport had been inspired by the film Field of Dreams: "if you build it, they will come". The departure hall is easily large enough for a jumbo to land in and you feel lonely as you wander from one departure gate to another, footsteps echoing in the ether. Our plane was packed with Malians returning from the Haj, swathed in flowing robes amd clutching various souvenirs from their first ever trip abroad by plane: Arab keffiyehs, kitsch memorabilia and, most of all, bottles of Zam Zam water. Unfortunately for those unused to flying the plane was considered like a bus with wings, to be piled high with any and all junk immaginable. Many were told to leave behind excess hand luggage (which did not go down very well) and so the gangway to the plane was littered with all manner of pilgrims' flotsam and jetsam.

We did, however, finally manage to take off for Bamako. I had the very good fortune to start talking with an English student who was returning home for Xmas (his parents are missionaries in Mali) and so offered me a lift to their place and let me kip until the morning when they took me into town. I was indeed lucky as 4am is never a good time to be wandering around a town and country you don't know. Anyway, more on Bamako and my first impressions of Mali in the next post.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December Blues

December has turned out to be quite a busy month with travel preparations (including the dreaded vaccine jabs), Xmas shopping, various Xmas get-togethers and a disproportionately high number of birthdays (including my own earlier this week) - I wonder if there's something particularly fertile about March that leads to more December births, or whether it's just coincidence that I just happen to know more December people. Anyway, a fun time flowing with mulled wine and Winter Pimms, two warm arguments that almost make the cold weather worthwhile.

Before I move onto my rant below (I haven't had one for some time now and I wanted to revisit some old themes in light of a couple of recent news stories) I wanted to add a little bit of information that I had meant to post in my previous post but had forgotten. During my trip I kept a reasonably detailed diary, especially with regards to my daily expenditure, although I hadn't bothered to do a final tally until about a month ago when I was doing a little presentation at work. Apparently, for my entire 3 year odyssey I only spent a grand total of £11,000 (or almost exactly £10 a day). That includes all travel, insurance, accommodation, food and pretty much everything else during my trip (with the exception of the digital cameras I bought). When I finally arrived at the figure I was very surprised, and not to mention more than a little pleased, at how low it was, especially when I consider that over half of that was spent in the first year alone. It just goes to show that you don't necessarily have to break the bank to travel.

It's been a while since my last rant so I thought I'd comment on a recent news story from the UK that demonstrates an opinion that I'd voiced on a couple of occasions previously how I believe that we are, on this world, as we know it, fundamentally screwed. Earlier this week the people of Manchester voted on plans to implement a congestion charging scheme in the city that would have people paying to drive into and out of the city during rush hours. Before the charging were to commence the city would have seen £3 billion of spending on public transport infrastructure. The plan, although not perfect, would have seen jobs created, congestion reduced, quality of life improved and also reduced carbon emissions. Given that an overwhelming majority of Brits routinely place the environment at the top of their priorities when asked about problems facing the world one would have thought that the scheme would have been a shoe-in in such a vote. Instead Manchester voted by an overwhelming majority of 4 to 1 to reject the scheme.

This beautifully illustrates that even when people are educated and given all the facts showing a compelling argument for changing behaviour, with an associated cost and sacrifice, to avert a far greater cost and danger in the future they are unable to see past the short-term hit to their wallet. Such short-termism is the way we, and all animals, have evolved: nature rewards those that think in the present and take as much as they can. Which is why no country is willing to make the sacrifices and investments necessary without others doing the same because the immediate cost would be great, even more so if they are taken alone. Our democratic system doesn't help the situation either as political parties only look as far as the next general elections, their sole raison d'etre being to gain (elected) power, and once acquired to maintain it. All considerations have a timeline of no more than 5 years. This is why when the financial markets went into sudden meltdown it was relatively easy to find hundreds of billions of pounds to bail them out. Amazing when you think that, fundamentally, nothing had changed: there was no loss of life, disease, natural disaster or act of destruction. It was simply that the price people were willing to pay for things (more often than not imaginary, virtual, financial constructs that didn't represent anything tangible in the real world) dropped. Nothing more than that. And yet because its effects were so sudden and hit people in their wallets (where it hurts most) the political will to act was easily mustered. Unfortunately the problems we face are long-term and their effects, if, or when, they come, will move with the speed and power of glaciers, and so we will not notice their coming, but when they hit their effects will be brutal and irrevocable. It's perhaps quite apt that this week also saw the watering down of the EU's objectives to reduce carbon emissions by 2020.

If idealist, socialist, green, responsible, caring, advanced and prosperous Europe can't find the means within itself to do the very minimum required to tackle the most serious of problems just because we're having a few budget problems now then, quite frankly, I hold out very little hope of us not fucking up the world as we know it beyond recognition.

Ho-hum, sorry for being so pessimistic and banging on about green issues. It's the festive season and I will soon be travelling, so that's the last negative post for some time. I promise.