Tuesday, December 15, 2009

into the mystic

the final frontier- Tombouctou- its just like any other desert town- sandy with hot, sunny days and cold, dark nights. its the mythical notions that the name conjures up that drew me to mali, the familiarity yet the anonymity of it. beyond it stretches the sahara.

the path i take to tombouctou is the long, winding niger. the public pinnasse is packed as i step aboard carefully with a massive camera pack on my back. the boatman points to the vacant mattress in a corner 'ici'. one full size mattress for 3 adults- 2 travelers i met in mopti- dao, martijn and me!

earlier in the day, as i had passed by the pinnasse on my way to the market, a bespectacled, wiry man starts talking to me emphasizing the need to reserve a spot to sleep on the pinnasse, lest it runs out of space. so, as suggested, i hand him and the boatman $7 to put a mattress to reserve a spot for me.

my friends already have a mattress as promised- the full size in sight. when i ask about my mattress, the boatman points to half of a straw mat! while i didn't expect a pillow-top sterns and foster, i certainly was hoping for one of those cushy shocking green cotton mattresses with pink flowers i saw in the market, especially since i paid more for the journey than anyone i had met so far!

this does it. a angry shouting match ensues, much to the amusement of the fellow Africans, who cannot understand a word of what i say but give a thumbs up- apparently we are not the only victims here. Dao joins in with her own complaints about the size of the mattress! finally, after some commotion arrives that shocking green mattress. the best arguments, i decide, are in the language that the opponent doesn't understand. you can go on saying the same thing over and over again without ever losing its effect :) and we are off to a fiery start!

the journey on the Niger was unforgettable, even if an aurally challenging experience.
the river stretches wide as if awakening from a deep slumber, at every bend. we pass by forsaken mud houses, perhaps inhabited during the dry season. children wave and shout 'toubabu' for foreigners.
a woman in a village shows off her baby on her back, extends her hand and shouts 'cadeau'. a lady with big fula gold earrings, her mouth tattooed black, haggles for the price of tubers.
four naked boys splash around in the niger without a care in the world. an old man holds a radio to his ears, as the latest salif keita number tunes in and out.
a lady with blonde highlights plays with an ipod, clearly one of the elite malians.
a man questions my religion and nods disapprovingly when i say hindu. paape, the 2 year old who i decide to call dennis (the menace), always without his pants, makes it his personal mission to make trouble in every possible way he can. his mother spanks him constantly. another is enamored with martijn's feet, even sleeps next to them. he departs the pinnasse with a fanta in his pocket, a bright mischievous smile lighting up his face.

every village it stops at, the pinnasse is surrounded by boats selling bread, african potatoes, stale fried fish- there's more mayhem, chaos, shouting.
a bathroom visit is a painful effort, so we set a limit of two per day on them. it involves holding on to the railing and step by step making it to a little room in the back with a hole, the niger at the receiving end of it. the pinnasse, overloaded with people, smoothly glides away.

night arrives early and thus, begins the encroachment of space. soon we are surrounded by children sleeping on every free inch of our mattresses. i spend the night, cold and awake, trying not to hurt the little girl stretched out next to my legs.
day breaks and by midday there's a welcome respite, as passengers reach their destinations. the pinnasse reaches tombouctou at the break of dawn, after 36 hours, the second night cooler than the previous due to the thinning crowd.

we walk the sandy streets to the tourist office to get our passport stamped with the magic of Tombouctou. two Touaregs walk with us, helping us every step of the way. on our return we are invited to their tent opposite our hotel for the delicious Touareg tea- three cups of tea--the first strong as death,the second sweet as life, the third light as love, as they say.
after the first cup, the souvenirs are spread in front of us- ebony, agate studded Touareg silver jewelery. we politely decline, they are gracious, and tea time continues. we part with a small piece of salt from the Sahara, a gift from our Touareg friends.

the following day, as we are hounded by a mob of children selling souvenirs, an SUV comes to a halt and a man in an American accent offers us a ride. our rescuer- Scott is a journalist who is covering a couple stories in town- including the threats to foreigners in the area (as is another Swiss journalist staying in our hotel). the recent kidnappings of a french citizen from a remote part Gao in Eastern Mali and three Spaniards in neighboring Mauritania have hurt the tourist industry tremendously- i personally didn't feel threatened at all during my short stay in tombouctou.

the station wagon bound for Mopti honks at the hotel door at 5 AM the next day. the landscape by road on the way back to Mopti is breathtaking- vast grasslands, grass an unnatural hue of pastel green, dotted with women pounding millet in colorful african block prints, babies still slung to their backs, shepherds and cow herders in touareg outfits hurrying the animals off the road as our 4*4 passes by. once in a while the driver squints and speeds past people wanting a ride, as i take photos through the cracks in the windshield repaired by permit stickers. we overtake vans with people sitting on the roof along with firewood, straw mats and an occasional goat.

Africa just as I imagined it! i sit back and savor delicious pink guavas i bought in bulk for lack of small money.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


the camel glides on the sand- ungainly gait, chewing on little somethings, looking down on people who try to control him. i hold on tight to the wooden seat fitted snug on the hump- i prefer the two-humps and the stability they offer ons the bactrian camel in mongolia..
in the touareg village, muhammad pours a shot of tea or 'touareg beer' as he calls it. 4 year old fatima, with a mohawk, hides behind the flimsy straw tent and sings a welcome song to the beat of her little clapping hands.

the stars are endless.. nomadic touaregs study stars for 5 years before they make their first 30 day journey across the Sahara.
don mclean's 'vincent' plays in my mind as i look up at the sky- a simple pleasure i have denied myself for too long in san francisco..

Thursday, December 3, 2009


i try to sit still as the old man shouts tranquille..

i am in front of a box camera as old and wrinkled as its owner. time passes and i am handed a black and white photo of me, straight from the 1920s!!

its a rest day before i board a public pinnasse en route to timbuktu- 2 nights on river niger ought to send me back in time perhaps back to the 1920s :)

country love

i have been in africa for about 2 weeks now and a lot of that time was spent waiting- waiting for buses to be fixed, for station wagons to get filled up, for meals to be served. I made it to a concert where i got to see mali's creme de la creme of music from the fifth row (for a VIP ticket price of $7)! I have been proposed to multiple times ( as are all the tourists) sometimes with an offer of 10 cows. I have had grilled lamb, shared watermelon, papaya, countless cups of tea with the locals on tabaski. and now finally, i sit and write about the Africa i have seen and experienced during walks and bus/taxi rides.

the bus/wagon weaves through a maze of finished and unfinished road, barely avoiding a cow skull on an occasion, leaving a dust cloud for the followers to swallow. i see a teenager kick a soccer ball at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, his bright yellow Ronaldo #9 jersey shines on as does his smile in the blistering heat. NY caps and Unicef t-shirts are everywhere as is Obama- he makes an appearance on pants, his smiling face embroidered on one leg, on bedspreads, motorbike stickers, even on flip flops- a pair of which i couldn't help buying.
A mother and daughter, with their high cheekbones, hold tattooed hands.
motorcycles, cycles, goats are tied on the roofs of buses along with backpacks from REI. at a police checkpoint, a policeman opens the trunk, hoists a goat by its legs, then drops it back in the trunk and the car goes on its way.

i have been on 2 long bus journeys (8-12 hours), and both have been punctuated by mechanical failure after about 2 hours.
all passengers wait on the roadside praying for a miracle to happen while the driver takes the bus apart. men and women laze around on the languid afternoon under skeletal shacks, precariously balanced on knotty wooden poles passing tea around in a little communal shot glass.
a little girl dressed in her traditional attire, the color of sunshine, plays games on a cell phone. Another girl prances about singing songs as her mother struggles to hold her down to put purple extensions in her hair-an effort to tame her wild hair.
a mother has her son tethered to her breast- no one gives a second look.
a little boy holds a dead bird in his hands, as he would a soft toy while his sister, in her shocking pink dress and braids that end in kaleidoscopic color clips blinks her eyes repeatedly at me.
i play with the 2 year old kid Mambi, who either starts crying at the sight of me, or imitates my every move.
a woman on a scooter calls out to me saying I love you, perhaps the only English words she picked up from an english movie.

i take a walk in the village, little mud houses with corrugated tin sheets as doors all opening to a common courtyard. many men have multiple wives here.
in spite of the chaotic facade, everything, everyone seems to move at a snails pace here- except the african women. they strut around in their traditional garb with a regal air about them. an epitome of grace, a shoulder casually bared sometimes, a baby slung low on their backs, they cook food, grind millet, carry water while the men sit and 'discuss', an african man said to me over a slice of watermelon.

i find a corner in the shade and try to read a book while a woman nearby pounds millet with her daughter making beautiful music, a baby set in a constant hug on her back.