15-1 Bus to Djenne-1_710x768SYNOPSIS:  Another bus ride on an overcrowded bus.  Arrival Djenné.  Culture shock! A few decisions to be made:  Roughing it or chickening out…

This bus ride started out so much more organized than the last one that I already had my hopes up.  Luggage that went to the final destination was all stored on top of the bus, including two motor bikes and a full sized metal house door, bags of rice, bundles of stuff, ceiling fans and all.  But that was nothing in comparison to what I saw on a bus at one of our stopovers:  A full heard of goats bundled up on top of the bus and stuffed in bags in the luggage compartment!  What do we do to our animals?!  Can they even breathe down there?  It turned my stomach to just think about these animals in traffic. But then, we humans did not have it much better.

This bus driver was a laid back man who gently honked when passing other vehicles and the bus started rolling, filled to less than capacity.  I got the same great spot, second row, aisle seat on the driver’s side as in the last bus and could again benefit from some breeze while on the move.  A very jolly bus manager reserved it for me.  Except for the one hour the luggage operation had taken us back, all seemed fine.  But when three hours later (!) we still had not left the outskirts of Segou, my heart sank.  We were now as overcrowded as the last bus – dozens of people along the street had been picked up – and left town four hours late…

The rest is history.  6 more hours of sweating and I arrived at “the junction”, a small cluster of buildings marking the spot where the road to Djenné parts from the main Bamako-Sekou-Mopti-Goa highway.  If you look at the map I posted earlier, my travels in good days would have taken me that way all the way up to Gora and then to Timbuktu.  But Goa seems to be out of reach (not safe enough) and the desert town Kidal is still a stronghold of the Islamists and completely out of the question.  So I will follow the river instead.  That means that much of my travels after Djenné will be done via boat rather than on the road. 

Even though we were now almost 5 hours late, my pickup, a “brother”, really more of a friend of Hama’s with whom I had arranged this whole trip, was there to pick me up.  He speaks English, sort of.  He usually does not understand what I say if I speak normally.  I have to break down sentences for him into very simple components and then make sure we are not miscommunicating.  But that is enough.   He came with a motorbike even though I had specifically mentioned to Hama that my luggage would exceed any motorbike capacity.  But what else did I expect?  Cars are as rare as you can imagine and are driven by the NGO’s, aid workers, or the richest of the rich.  But I had a 22 kg full sized suitcase, a heavy camera bag and a small backpack on top of it.  At least there should have been two bikes.  If I could have seen us both on that bike I would probably have refused to go, but what options were there?  I balanced the small stuff and my suitcase was shoved in front of the driver.  He barely could  maneuver the handle-bars now, but it was good enough for going straight and that’s what we mainly did.   35 km to go most of it thankfully, on a nicely paved road, some of it on gravel… 

An hour later, we reached the Bani River which flows right by Djenné.  Today was the big market day and I am very sad to have missed it.  Traffic was all flowing out of Djenné.  We had passed already several horse-drawn carriages filled with people and stuff.  These were the vendors who had come from all the surrounding villages.  Once a week they all gather here.  The market in Djenné in front of the big mosque is legendary. 

There is a large pinasse that ferries people back and forth on the river.  And there are a few small pirogues which leave quicker and are cheaper.  We opted for the pirogue.  I had to wade through the water to enter the boat – thank goodness for my Keens!  I will deviate for a moment to do an advertising pitch: my Keen sandals, washable and designed to last are the only shoes I have discovered in which I can travel all imaginable territories.  I can walk, hike, get through dirt and water and they come out unscathed, it seems. I have not tested them in cold water or snow, but with socks…?  Best of all, I am OK even though I am in the same shoes for almost two months.  Show me any other shoes that can do that.  But, where was I …

The ferry crossing:  A new bridge is under construction right there and in a couple of years the ferry business will likely be obsolete.  I wonder if that makes sense.  It certainly is more convenient, but what about the people whose livelihood it is to ferry?  In town, the market was still crowded, but people were packing up and all that would soon be left was the trash left behind by the day’s activities.  But I caught a quick glimpse of it from one of the surrounding roof tops onto which Ishmael took me.

And then he showed me my new home.  With Hama I had specified to live with an English speaking family.  I knew everyone here speaks French, and that this would be difficult.  But that’s what I had paid him a lot of money for.  At least one in the family should be fluent and I wanted to gain an insight into the daily life of a family.  In his “translation” that was a room within a local Bambara/French multiple family apartment of whom nobody hosted me and nobody spoke English, and an English speaking guide.  That was not what I wanted.   And that’s not what I paid for … things did not start off too well.  But OK, let’s see the room.

We walked into a big house with a courtyard around which about eight families live.  On the second floor, past the very smelly public and shared bathroom which was closed (occupied) at the time, he opened a rusty metal door and showed me into a hot, empty, spider-web covered, dusty room with a beat-up 2 inch foam mattress on the floor…  my heart sank.  Where do I draw the line?  How much of my inflated Western comfort can I give up?!

I had just left Segou, a beautiful African town at the Nile which I enjoyed in European style with an air-conditioned room I could retreat to after a sweaty morning out; with my own shower, a pool in the backyard (yes!), a refrigerator, a TV and all of this clean and with daily room service…

I knew I would give up some of this in Djenné by choosing to stay with a local family, but all?  It was already getting late and I did not want to make too much of a fuss quite yet.  For one night I could make do and then I would look for a hotel – hell, the money was gone, but so what.  I wanted to enjoy Djenné, most likely for about five days.  And I have to conserve energy.  The heat is getting to me and I have recovered beautifully each day because of my air-conditioned retreats during the day and total comfort and security at night.

I asked to see the bathroom.   It was open now and no less of a disaster than the room: another empty, concrete room with two holes:  A square one going straight down on a raised platform and a round one opening into the wall and continuing outward into a clay pipe.  The room was dark, slippery wet and slanted to make sure all waters would reach that clay pipe.  The byproduct was that it was dangerous to even walk in, because the wet floor and the slant provided ideal conditions for nasty falls.  This was my “bathroom” and it smelled horrible, and it was right next to my “bed room”…  I have got to get out of here as soon as possible!

I took a deep breath and asked for a few essentials:  a glass to drink out of, a knife to cut my mango, a plate to eat off, a towel, a pillow and a sheet for the bed.    None of these things were available, except for the bed sheet…  Am I asking too much?  Ishmael sent a boy to the market to buy the rest.  But I still don’t have a towel or a pillow.   I assured him I could do without those.   Thanks for the microfiber cloth I carry, and my sandals are good for more than walking.  Stuffed under a foam mattress they are just as good as a pillow and as one of my most essential possessions well protected that way.  I was not going to sleep in my room unless I wanted to suffocate.  People sleep in the hallways and on the roof.   I opted for the roof which turned out to be the men’s quarters, but people here are super polite as far as personal privacy is concerned and the roof was big enough for all of us…

On my two-inch foam mattress I spread out my bed sheet and covered myself with the mini silk sleeping back I brought from home.  With two ear plugs, to keep out the hammering, children’s activities, and loud conversations, I went to “bed” in Djenné.  It was loud, but at least a nice breeze was going.  That is worth a lot.

Good night. 

3 comments so far

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  1. Wow, what an adventure! Talk about going native! You will not soon forget this trip.

    P.S. How did Segou get to be on the Nile? Another of Allah’s miracles, I guess.

  2. It surely is a miracle that you are able to stay well – it must be a very strong constitution plus good shoes and lots of guardian angels on your side. So glad that you found a nice breeze on the roof – so thankful for the simple things in life.

  3. Sacré bleu (to keep in the spirit of French speaking Mali) your room and that what-is-being-called a bathroom!!!! I can imagine how you must have freaked when you saw them…well, actually you describe it quite well. Yes, Elisabeth, you must have a cool, clean place to recuperate and regroup after the days in the heat. Wow…I know something will manifest for you.
    I am glad to see you posting…it’s been a couple of days and I knew the bus ride (this time with goats!!!!) was going to be an adventure and maybe even no internet for awhile, but here are your words and your voice again…and that is nice.
    Everything is cool when the pictures are enlarged, so Martin must have worked his magic. Nice to have a bright son!!
    And at least you have your nice Keen sandals. I’m sure it all boils down ultimately to the small things.
    Take care…