8-Bamako Beer Bar_868x768SYNOPSIS:  Changing money, buying groceries and going for a walk – getting to know the new environment in Bamako. 

Did you know banknotes are printed in certain years?  And nothing is accepted at a bank in Mali that was not printed in or after 2006? Shouldn’t somebody tell you this before you pack your travel money?  What a rude awakening I had this morning!  But I am getting ahead of myself.

So, starting from the beginning:  At 7:30 AM – really that is way before my time and only due to the 2 hours I lost between Paris and Bamako – I was at the breakfast table.   And wouldn’t you know it, so was Mahamadou, a Malian travel guide.  A man appeared out of nowhere next to my table greeting me in English.   I am very grateful for that since most of what is spoken around here is NOT English. But how did he know who I was?  Well Giberi (or whatever his name is), the not so official taxi driver from last night alerted one of his friends, Mahamadou, one of the official travel guides (I checked his credentials) of a tourist in town!  You just gotta love this system.  Actually, I had read about this in my travel guide.  There it was more like this:  Dozens of travel guides crowd your breakfast table vying for your business.  Tourists are usually quite annoyed about this.

But for Mahamadou and me things were different.  For quite specific tasks I need a guide and he needed a tourist. This was not a bad match and for me, he just “manifested” himself.  If you have read previous travel blogs of mine you know that I believe in the phenomenon of “manifestation”.  That means that things will just work out.  Whatever you really need will somehow show up.  One of the weirdest manifestations for me was a hat lost in a tree at the Roman Forum just when I had left home on a hot day without a head cover and was close to a heat stroke!  You just have to trust in this! 

Mahamadou let me have my breakfast in peace and patiently waited for another ½ hour at the gardens of LaChaumiers.  He must have been there since 6 AM just to be sure to catch me.  We laughed about the fact that there are probably all but 5 tourists in Bamako and how he found me.  I explained to him that I was not his typical tourist:   I don’t want a guide for most of my journey.  I have time but a limited budget.   I like to see things that are usually not considered worth seeing:schools, factories, daily life.  I like to learn about this country every which way I can, touristy sites included.

He accepted that and assured me that it would not matter what I paid him.   The reality is that he either gets what I can give him or he gets nothing.   The going rate for a guide for the day is around $100.  That is out of the question for me.   So, we will see.  I will meet him tomorrow to do all the touristy things there are to do in Bamako – and really, that is a limited amount.  Bamako is the capital of Mali, but it’s not on the list of the noteworthy things to see.

My main goals today were to change money, get some groceries and to get acclimated.  Money first:  I got directions to go to the nearest bank.  Two security officers checked me as if I was at an airport – body check and backpack check.  Inside the bank where I faced all men waiting in line I was treated like a VIP even though I protested.  I was passed on to the director of the bank for personal and immediate assistance and led to a window to exchange my dollars for CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine), the local currency which has changed names often since colonial times and today translates as the West African Franc.

The guy behind the window sifted through my pile of 20 dollar bills which I had carefully prepared as amounting to $500 and shook his head.  He was not going to accept any of them.  None of them were printed after 2006!  Now what?  But there came Nana.  Another manifestation:  She also worked for the bank and her brother lives in the U.S.  She will be going to the States in December this year and could use the dollars.  She exchanged them for me privately!   One of the bills had a tiny triangle missing – that was a bill that she would not exchange either, so I just gave it to her as a tip for her kindness and assured her that she would be able to spend it without any troubles in the States during her visit. 

But now what?!  I took count of my money and less than half the cash I brought will pass official muster.  Funny enough most of my $1 bills passed while most of my $100 did not.  Shouldn’t that have been common travel advice?!  What if I run out of money? I guess I will have to deal with that when I get there.  Let’s hope for the appropriate manifestations!  So here it is loud and clear to all:  Do not ever take cash abroad to a second or third world country that is not brand-spanking new if you hope to exchange it into local currency in any official way! 

The trip to the bank and the local grocery store had sufficiently exhausted me.  Mind you it’s about 30 degrees Celsius or about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  And on top of that it’s dusty and polluted.  I needed a break.  My air conditioned room came in handy.   

In the afternoon, I ventured out again.  A 1.5 hour walk almost did me in.  I had a goal in mind even if arbitrary: I had tried to rent a room at the recommended Comme Chez Soi Hotel in Bamako.  But they were full.  However, they spoke English and helped me to reserve a room at the non-English speaking La Chaumiers.   I just wanted to thank them in person!  The Comme Chez Soi was located at the exotic sounding Hippodrome.  In my naiveté I expected some ancient Roman remains that had given the area its name.  Quite on the contrary it was an area that was all dirt roads and left to some haphazard organic growth – but the central stadium was in the shape of an oval Roman Hippodrome…  Did the Romans ever get this far South?  I never heard of this.   I guess it is just the name given to the neighborhood surrounding the oval sports stadium.  And for that it is rather pleasant, quiet and remote with lots of gardens.

Making a long walk short – the sun was beating down and I, the Northern European type, was not taking it very well. Somewhere in the middle of this Hippodrome area I almost collapsed.  I saw an image in a mirror and was not amused:  There was a sweat-dripping red face buried under a white “mask” of sun screen. Horrible!  I found a bar and a cold fruit drink and since I only had the large bills I had just gotten from the bank – I got it for free, as the expat French owner of the bar did not have the change needed.  Another mini manifestation occurred – he provided me with the liquids and the directions I needed to proceed that no local was able to get me before.  Rues and numbers seem to mean little to the Malians and there is no logical system to it as in the predictable grid patterns of American towns.

I found the Comme Chez Soi in the end and it is a lovely remote and quiet place.  Coralie, who had been the helping hand, was quite surprised to see me for no other reason than to thank her. Perhaps, I can stay there when I will return to Bamako 40 days from now.  What a prospect.  It still feels daunting:40 days in Mali.  But it also feels a lot more doable and real now that I am on the ground and am moving one hot step at a time.

Good night.