9-Bamako Market-Medicinal Ingredients..._1024x768SYNOPSIS:   Mapping out the trip through Mali and bumping through the markets in Bamako.  Viewing Bamako from Point G. (continues Day 10)

If I had not ended up with Giberi the in-official taxi driver at the airport I might still try to figure out what to do and how.  In other words, whenever I think something is going wrong, it turns out that things happen for a reason.   It’s the companion travel phenomenon to “manifestation”.  What would I do without either one?!

This morning I had arranged to meet with Mahamadou who introduced himself yesterday, to see the market.  It’s a place full of people and it’s safer to have somebody who has your back and is on guard just in case the pickpockets get too enthusiastic.   But he was not alone.   He introduced me to Hama whom he apparently had called yesterday morning right after he found out during our talk that I was going to hire local guides at the various points of my journey.   Since I wasn’t going to hire a single guide for the whole trip which is often what tourists do, the local guide came to me.  Hama was indeed a local guide from Djenné!  Wow, it takes 7-8 hours on the bus to come to Bamako.   For Hama to have made that trip on a moment’s notice shows you how desperately low the tourist business has gone.  

I am in a dilemma:  As a single traveler everything at the touristy going prices (hiring a guide, getting a boat, etc.) is way too expensive for me as it is usually figured for 2-4 or more people.   But currently there are no tourists.  There are no going prices. I could squeeze literally water out of rock if I wanted for little to nothing.  But I want to be fair.   But I also have my limits and a clear daily budget which I cannot exceed.  In a sense, that makes bargaining easy.  It is what it is and if I can’t afford it I have to look for cheaper alternatives or do something else.

With Hama I made an “official” contract – that is we wrote down on a piece of paper what he is going to do for me and with a hand-shake and a copy of his official guide license in my pocket, I handed over a bundle of money…   Try that in the States!   Now, I could still be the fool, and I will soon find out.   But I could also just have been the beneficiary of a smooth system of connections and passing along of favors, which will reach as far as Timbuktu.   I talked to a guide there on the phone today who has been alerted by these two of the coming of the German-American, the only tourist in town, so it seems (not one of five as I had estimated earlier).

These two have also taken note of where I will be staying in the next town and I would not be surprised if a guide is already waiting for me there who will know my name.

If all goes well, I will have a pickup at an obscure junction between Segou and Mopti where nothing comes or goes that will take me to Djenné.  I will have an English speaking family to take me in for a few days and a boat to go leisurely down the Bani River, a tributary to the big Niger.  And I am sure if I need any further guides anywhere along the way, I can give them a call.  I have no phone, but that is hardly an obstacle.  Everybody around here has at least one if not two mobile phones.

We reached the market around 9 AM and within seconds were immersed in a sea of pushing, shoving and smelling humanity, not to mention all the stenches coming from the various market items but worst from the garbage that is swept up into piles and has to be carefully circumnavigated …  This is definitely not for the faint-hearted!  But it’s Bamako and life as it is lived here.  There are the typical areas of any market organized roughly by the items sold.  Most interesting for me was the artisan market where woods were carved and polished, jewelry hammered into shape, and hides cut into shoes or belts.  I am not going to buy a thing at this moment as I would have to carry anything and all around for a good month.  I also don’t know how my budget is holding up and if there will be room in my suitcase.  I know at some point, I have to buy a mud cloth and perhaps some jewelry.  But preferably in more rural areas. 

People here are strange as far as photography is concerned.  They are definitely not as enthusiastic about it as I have found in many Middle Eastern countries and especially in Iran.  On the contrary – when my camera comes out, people wave me off, make a sign of money (only if I pay can I take their picture), and occasionally, they are generous enough to let me take a picture but visibly without much fun on their part.   That is too bad since all I can think of now are all the pictures I could not take:  The poverty among the beggars at the outskirts of the market;  the blind Albino woman who had freckles all over her face and body; the many, many young women who were balancing large loads on their heads and carried infants on their backs; (according to my guide book, the population in Mali doubles every 20 years!), the mosque in which I was not allowed to go – not even into the premises, and the overall hustle and bustle that is created when so many people mingle in such a tight space.  But that is hard to photograph no matter what.

One of the stalls off limit for photography was already mentioned in my guidebook:  The one with oddities such as dried bats, hedgehog skin, and monkey sculls – and there it was!  I put the camera at hip level and took a few blind shots.   This stuff is supposedly used in preparing medicine, especially by the Animists who make a sizable religious groups next to the 80% of Muslims and the nearly 20% Christians.   In Mali, I am told, you can be any of those three and it’s just fine, except in the North that is…  And that is of course where all the trouble was last year and where according to other news reports thousands of Christians fled fearing for their lives.   I hope to find out more about this when I get there.

After two hours of this I was completely ready to drop dead.   The heat is taking its toll on me – 2 hours seems just about my limit.   I don’t even really know how hot it is.   Perhaps, that is a good thing.  My clothes were wet when I reached the hotel room.  Wet, as if I had just washed them!  No wonder the ancient Egyptians changed their entire wardrobe a couple of times a day.  There is no other choice here, either.  I hung my dress and skirt up to dry alongside all my underwear and changed into dry clothes.    I spent the mid-day hours writing, processing photographs and recovering.  

I also decided that it was time for a change in my diet.   In Paris I had started the day with a chocolate croissant, had a Nutella pancake for lunch and a baguette for dinner.   Those were the cheapest and easiest choices which I could take in on the road or take back to my hotel.   Too much bread though!  I was positively vitamin deprived when I left Paris and bought a whole bunch of apples which I have been devouring since.  Here, too, I start the day with a croissant and Nutella is on the breakfast menu as well.  I have had cashew nuts and yoghurt for the rest of the day along with the apples.   But it was time for some local cuisine:  Street food.

Right across the hotel are rows of little stalls in which stuff is sold.  This hotel is sort of in the commercial district of Bamako.   One stall is usually empty except for a tipped up picnic table.  It comes to life around noon when a woman arrives with various large aluminum pots. One is filled with rice, a couple of the small ones hold various sauces, and a medium sized one has chunks of fish.  As my luck would have it, I ended up with the head of the fish.   Except for about two edible bites, there was nothing but bones to be had…  I don’t know what the locals do.  I should have paid more attention, but the guy next to me, who lucked out with the middle part of the fish had the big central fan-bone.   At one point I saw him take it out and when I looked again, he handed back a spick-and span clean-licked plate.   What happened to that bone?  Did he eat it?!  Perhaps, he just tossed it?  The sauce was mild and deliciously flavored.   The two bites of fish also were fine and the rice was just rice.  White and sticky, nothing out of the ordinary.  

But the one consistent and distressing commonality among all the food parts was that they all were sandy…  No wonder.   Dust is EVERYWHERE!  It especially gets kicked up by the hundreds of motorbikes that whiz by, the buses and the cars, the goats and the people who of all things start to sweep it up occasionally to keep the area in front of their stalls clean!  It gets into your throat, eyes, ears, and obviously into your food – at least, if you eat outside and within 5 feet from a busy thoroughfare in the commercial district of Bamako.

Bon Appetit.

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  1. Those guides sound so eager for your business. I hope that they are all nice and that your contract goes well.
    The street food sounds delicious! Even if there were just a couple bites of fish.

  2. Wow, Elisabeth, everything is so interesting. My hunch is that your negotiations with the guides will lead to smooth connections…a third phenomenon of your travel adventures. I remember the story of the taxi ride with those young inebriated guys…I can’t remember where you were…but I do remember that it held some tense moments…and it ended quite ok.
    Fish head for dinner! I think I might have opted for the lamb…but I being of mid Eastern descent take well to lamb. Yummo. You have a chance to sample so much interesting stuff when you’re there. Keep your vitamin level up!!! And some protein would do you well though in thinking about it probably vegetables in that heat would be the best. I don’t know…what do I know about food!!! Ha ha ha!!!!
    In Djenné is that incredible Great Mosque. I wonder if you will be able to get in there? It’s unfortunate that you couldn’t get into the mosque in Bamako…maybe as these local-color guides get to know you better, you will be able to go in with them. Would be interesting.
    I am still in awe of these journeys you take and I still want to put the whole thing together as your book of wonders. Truly your journeys are steps into times and places and people and experiences that we, normal humanity (ha ha), will never encounter unless we read your words.