Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stampless In Bamako

Getting to Bamako was relatively stress free and I've found a friendly CSer to stay with so life is cheap and I have people to talk to. I even managed to easily find the Mauritanian embassy. But that's where the plain sailing ended. On Monday morning I turned up at the embassy gates bright and early and set myself down with the other supplicants (2 French overlander couples and a Mauritanian imam with a Liberian teenager in tow to be indoctrinated into the ways of Islam) to await what should be a formality. An angelic patience is an important skill when dealing with third world bureaucracies not just those in Africa and here it was no different. After almost an hour of waiting outside we were ushered inside to a comfortable waiting room and our passports checked. So far so good I thought to myself. Two hours later and nothing had happened except for a few more additions to our group. This was beginning to get a bit silly and so I went in search of an official to shed some light on the situation. It turns out that they do not have the necessary fiscal stamps - and haven't for a week at least - to stick in our passports and so no visas can be issued. The stamp penury seems to be acute as none of the Mauritanian embassies in the region (Niger, Senegal, Gambia) seem to have them and so foreigners are unable to get in. I was particularly sorry for one of my fellow waiters, a trader from Morocco who only wants to transit Mauritania to get home and has been coming to the embassy for the past week. This is symptomatic of the aspect of life here that is most frustrating for me: the lack of commitment to good information. At the embassy we're fobbed off with "tomorrow, tomorrow" and when asking for directions I'm either told that it's too far and that I ought to take a taxi or given a vague wave of the arm to show the general direction. In the West we like to have all the data, if possible with some schematic drawing or map, so that we can make an informed decision. But people here don't seem to understand our obsession with such details. For them if something needs to be done it doesn't make much difference if it's today, tomorrow, next week or whenever. Funnily enough y old friend Mungo remarked on exactly the same thing 200 years ago!

So my sojourn in Bamako has been extended for longer than I had hoped, and although it's not an unpleasant place I would really rather be on the move. So while I have no new escapades to relate I thought I might lump together a few random observations that I haven't been able to shoehorn into my narrative so far.

For any independent traveller there are four main preoccupations that form the basis of over 90% of the problems that need to be overcome: what will I see? how will I get there? where will I stay once I get there? and what will I eat along the way? (underlying all these is the ever-present how much will it cost?) The first three have all been touched on to a greater or lesser degree in my previous posts, but I haven't really talked about food. Now Malian food may not be held in as high esteem in the pantheon of world food as Italian, Chinese, Mexican or even Slovenian cuisine; and there is a reason for it. Quite frankly it's nothing to write home about (although that's precisely what I'm doing). The main staple is rice which is usually served with some sort of sauce, usually peanut or tomato based. If you're willing to splurge they may add either poulet (chicken), poisson (fish) or viande (meat) to the sauce. I haven't rustled up the courage to ask directly but the latter generally seems to be goat. In the evenings little streetside stalls sprout up, like mushrooms after rain, where women sell spaghetti and beans (or lentils) from large tureens - a cheap and filling combination but not one to set the heart racing. That said I have been told that the Nile perch (known locally as capitaine), which can commonly be found grilled, is quite tasty, but as I'm allergic to fish I can't independently verify the claim. As far as fruit and veg go the selection is surprisingly limited and the quality is so-so. For the former there are decent bananas, dry oranges, papayas, guavas and the odd pineapple and watermelon. As for veg there is very little apart from the ubiquitous tomatoes and onions. Mali is definitely not a country you visit for the food. Surprising really as they were colonised by the French who are nothing if not obsessed by good food. Instead the only culinary traces left by them are baguettes and processed vache qui rit (Laughing Cow) cheese. No great legacy.

One thing that has disappointed me somewhat during my stay is that, despite the history of West Africa essentially being the history of Mali (at least until 300 years ago), there is very little to show for this heritage. However this is made up for by the warmth and friendliness of the people in a country where unexpected encounters, smiling faces and surreal conversations lurk around every corner.

1 comment:

Jean-Marc Knoll said...

I can feel my wanderlust increasing with every post of your fascinating trip. I look forward to catching up for a beer and a chat when you are back.

BUT I will disagree about your slight slur on the mighty legacy of Vache Qui Rit. Ahhh, such fond memories of my French school days, although I did prefer Kiri...