Enjoy the images I have just filled in going all the way back to day 24.   More news tomorrow.  ET


33 - Departure-4 ET's Alcove_1024x768SYNOPSIS:  About the usual story of paying for one thing and getting another.   Treading water in Mopti.   Leaving Mopti on my journey to Timbuktu via the Niger River.

Anyone can fly to Timbuktu; well, I should say anyone could fly to Timbuktu.  But because of the current unrest, I am told that the airport of Timbuktu is closed to civilian traffic.  For some time now it has also been possible to take a 4WD to Timbuktu (that is if you know where you are going) and now even bus traffic is common since the unmarked way through the desert is now visibly recognizable and has been smoothed into a road for larger vehicles.

Timbuktu is not necessarily any more spectacular than Djenne or Dogon Country, yet it has this proverbial mystique surrounding it as the most remote place of fabulous riches anyone could possibly get to.   The days of riches for Timbuktu are over by anyone’s account.   But I thought it would be somewhat sacrilegious if I just took the bus to get there.   The only way to reach Timbuktu in the olden days was by camel through the desert or by the Niger River.   My only option was the river.   Of course, that is cheating too, since nowadays the vessels that travel between Mopti and Timbuktu are motorized.

I was willing to cheat even further and go by tourist pinasse, a small covered boat equipped with creature comforts that will stop where tourists want to for bodily necessities, or sightseeing.   Such a trip typically takes three leisurely days with camping along the riverside, similar to the way I did it from Djenne to Mopti in my small pirogue.  But there are no tourists…  It takes about 10 to fill such a pinasse unless you are rich and want to dish out the $800 yourself.  And aside from Chris, who had long left, I was the only tourist near and far.

The next sensible option is to find a private pinasse which typically takes only passengers, or only cargo or a few passengers along with clearly defined cargo depending on supply and demand.   It does not stop for any of the touristy things, but otherwise is direct and comfortable with seats for passengers and sensible loads of cargo; even food is provided if you pay for it.

And then there is the stupid option which the guidebook warns you about: you pay for a private pinasse but end up on a public pinasse which is cargo oriented, and typically overloaded.   People are an afterthought or the ones who accompany their stuff, and have to make do among the oil barrels, rice bags, building materials, millet sieves, garage doors, furniture, buckets, animals and just about any other imaginable load you wonder why it is worth transport in the first place!  That’s where I found myself…

What is unusual is that this typically happens with your middleman disappearing for good.  My middle man was Degedege and I know exactly where to find him.  He will have some questions to answer when I get back to Mopti!  Degedege had been very helpful in gathering provisions for my trip: apples, papayas, mangoes, oranges, a mat and loads of fresh water.  He had found a private pinasse and reserved a seat for me.  He picked me up from the hotel and delivered me to the port.   There, a little shouting match ensued between him and a few guys.  He said they had changed my boat behind his back.   Was that all part of the show, the game they played to be able to pass on blame later?  I guess, I will find out.

But Degedege assured me that this was a fast pinasse.  He even introduced me to the owner who assured me that the trip was going to be quick.   No more than two days, one night, right through – no stopping everywhere which is of course, what public pinasses do and have to do.  I felt somewhat reassured but all did not seem right.   And then as always things went fast: there was a small supply boat which took me not to the boat Degedege had just pointed out but to another one!  Now I was on that boat along with my backpack, mat, and food supply and Degedege had left.   Now I was stuck.  It was about 1 PM.   I was there early to assure I would get a seat under the covered part of the boat.  Loading was to finish between 2-3 PM and the boat was to be ready to leave by 4 PM.  3 hours waiting – but that is nothing in Africa and I am by now quite used to it.

I had worried about the midday heat, but Ganesh had provided an overcast, cloudy and cool day.   The activities of the harbor were interesting enough for me to watch: people coming and going, boats coming and going, cargo being loaded and unloaded.  Time flowed by.

I sat in my “alcove” with nothing to do but enjoy until we reached Timbuktu.   Everything would be done for me as so many times before; somebody would steer, row, shovel, work.  More passengers arrived, stuffed cargo somewhere and carved out an area of seating for themselves.  There seemed to be an unspoken system: the women and children got the covered areas which had been loaded with small sacks of sand or cement, the men took the open spots on barrels and large bags.  In fact, we were going in two boats, which I observed was common, to maximize the efficiency of the fuel versus the load.  But I also wondered what that would do for our speed.  This was definitely not a fast boat.

The larger motorized boat had a covered middle section.  The front was reserved for the crew:  captain, pole person and a helper.  The back was reserved for machinery, the motor and the machinist.   At the very tip of the tilted boat some furniture was stacked and behind it almost invisible, there was a small hole in the bottom of the boat – the toilet.

I was on the much smaller boat to be tugged along.   It had a large open front area and a much smaller covered area.   1/3 of the covered part had been turned into “my” area, my mat had been spread out over some salt bags, sandwiched between wooden boards, and backed by hundreds of millet sieves.  I had my privacy!  I liked that.  I was somewhat segregated as in front of me there was an open area where all the water collected just like in my small pirogue.  It had to be shoveled out every so often and so the person I met first was Doda, a boy of 12 or 13 whose job it was to shovel out the water whenever it reached about 4-5 inches.  That was about every 30-45 minutes, less when we stopped.

Degedege’s English, I think I mentioned it before, was limited.   He knew I liked mint tea, so he bought me loads of fresh mint not considering the fact that I neither had a thermos nor any way of making tea.  When I mentioned biscuits (in lieu of bread which would get hard too fast), he heard hibiscus…   When I checked my food supplies I realized I had useless tea supplies and fruits, nothing solid.  Not a good idea after only one day of stomach problems.  Now what?   Manifesting was in order and it came in the form of hard-boiled eggs!  I saw a woman ashore selling them and asked Doda to fetch five of them for me.   He did.   And so began our relationship.   I gave him an orange in return and throughout the trip, whenever I ate anything out of my bag, I shared it with him.   I could tell quickly that he adored the machinist, about 5 years his senior and so much higher up the ranks.  Whenever I would give him half of my fruits, he would pass half of it in turn to the machinist who therefore also became my non-verbal friend.

I was still sitting waiting for the trip to begin.  About two hours had passed when the wind picked up.  Before you knew it, trash was flying all over the place – the harbor’s surface is nothing short of a trash deposit of the highest order – and within minutes people miraculously disappeared, except for us already in the boat, just in time to escape the 15 minutes of heavy rain that followed.  I had a cover, but I also had a huge arch right in front of me which now turned out to be like an open invitation for the rain.  I folded up my mat as quickly as I could in front of me, put the rain cover over my backpack and hid as well as I could from the liquid onslaught.  As fast as the wind and the storm had come, they dissipated.   My dress at the bottom was wet, all else almost dry.  But Doda was soaked.   And it was cold now.   So cold that for the first time in the history of my being in Africa I put on a second layer not in order to hide from the sun but to be warm enough!

Life returned to the harbor quickly and more hours passed.  It was 4 PM now, scheduled departure time, but we were not leaving.   It was soon 5 PM but there was no sign of moving.  And then it was 6 PM and we were still sitting.   The sun was setting soon and finally, we were put in motion by two of the boat helpers and the two shovel boys, who pushed the boats out into the open, all walking in water up to their hips.  The water was warm, but the air was cold.  The motor started and we were finally tuckering down the Niger with Mopti at our right.  Timbuktu, I am on my way!

Not quite:  Within 10 minutes we ran aground.   Out the boys went maneuvering the boats into the open and we went on again.  Oh, my!  This did not bode well.  It was now pitch dark.  But we were tuckering along.  Were we going through the night?  Some ships do that.   Why not?   But no!  Mopti was still in sight when we went ashore, obviously anchoring for the night.   What the hell?!  Wouldn’t it make more sense to load and leave early in the morning than loading this late and then getting nowhere?  This made absolutely no sense to me.  But I had to laugh.  I was going to make it difficult for myself to get to Timbuktu and I got exactly what I asked for.

And this is how the trip to Timbuktu started.  Good night.