34-1 Niger River Running Aground_966x768SYNOPSIS:  How the trip to Timbuktu on the pinasse progressed. The daily life of the pinasse crew and its passengers and a bit of this and that.

It was barely 5:30 AM when I heard the calls for the boys: Barada (that was the official name for Doda), Shmael (that was short for the other shovel boy, Ishmael).  Doda had come in from tugging the boat last night and began to shovel out water again.   I could see him shivering.  Didn’t he have a change of clothes?  The little wet part of my dress bothered me in this cold; I could not imagine how he was coping with soaking wet clothes from top to bottom, and was still standing in the water shoveling.  And now was supposed to go “to bed” – which meant to be near the pit and shoveling a couple of times or whenever he woke up?!  I could not bear to see him shiver and sneeze and pulled out one of my dresses for him to wrap into.  He was very grateful.  Later I made room in front of me so he could sleep near the water pit and be protected from more rain, should it come.  Before I knew it, he was blissfully sniffling and coughing into my ears – not what I needed to sleep myself!  In fact, as I tried to stretch out and find some position to sleep in, I realized that my “bed” was not as smooth as I had hoped for.  There were bulges where I needed crevices and sharp edges where I needed some room.  Part by part and bone by bone I had to find a position that would allow me to sleep.  I remember thinking this would be nearly impossible, but somehow I slept.  However, I remember waking up every time I tried to turn almost moaning in pain as my body was hitting a sharp edge somewhere again.  For the first time in my life I wished I had a few more pounds and soft spots.  It was the rib cage and the hip bones and the back that were the most trouble.  Oh, brother – I thought I roughed it in Dogon Country or Djenne – far from it.  This trip was going to be the real test!

We were tuckering along before the sun even rose and I finally understood why we had to stop last night:  Because we were dicking around in the port for so long, we missed passing the first police check-point out of Mopti.  From 6 PM to 6 AM checkpoints are closed!  Now we were the first to arrive at the opening of the checkpoint: all men out of the boat and up the shore to the police station, showing passports.  One of the crew members, one of the helpers however crawled under the millet sieves behind me and “slept” at the bottom of the boat.  Nobody mentioned him and he went through this and the next check point without ever stepping out.  I soon found out why: he had no passport.   We were certainly not harboring any terrorists on our pinasse, but I realized how easy it would be to do just that.  Police never bothered to actually check the cargo.  They did not want to get their pants wet and that’s what everyone had to do to get to them:  Walk through the shallow waters of the pre-rainy season Niger River ashore.  Why bother checking if cheating is so easy?  OK, it’s not my problem, but I could not help but notice.  It took a good ½ hour to get through this but it was early in the morning and I was hopeful that we would soon be on our way at full speed.  Timbuktu, here I come!

Within the hour of leaving the first police check-point, there was a second one.  The same procedure as before, except that they took a much greater interest in me and I had to come along with the men.  My information was taken down carefully:  my name, Elisabeth.  Nationality, Deutsch.  Cause for travel, tourism.  Passport number, blank.  Too many numbers to choose from for a near illiterate police man.  After all, this passport was written in a foreign language.  I am sure that if I am ever at large this will be of great help!  I guess the Malian army has a lot to learn still if they want to ever provide effective security for their own country.

I wondered how many police stations we would have to pass this way but as it turned out after, just one more – this one with a super friendly officer who gave me his address to write to him even though he did not speak a lick of English!   We were now free and clear to go until another check point two days later.

You can tell, I was unable to blog on the boat, but I took notes and these blogs are all written at the end of the boat trip.

We finally were clear to sail, meaning turning on the engines full speed!

I was in the tugboat and the machines of the main boat were pretty much right next to me.  Aside from being loud – I had a solution for that, dark black clouds of fumes produced by the leaded gasoline were going right into my area and under the cover, which all of sudden did not seem to be such a great idea any more.  I had no solution for that.  Was I going to be gassed?  Was I going to live to tell the tale?!

I tried to assess my chances: the machinist was even closer than I was to this poison.  He seemed alive still after many years of this.  But then, he was in open air.  Was this as much poison as the worst of any third-world cosmopolitan town?  That means that you can hardly breathe, but you will be alive at the end of the day.  Or was it like being suicidal and turning on the car engine in your garage?  I imagined the headlines this would cause:  “Gas-poisoned tourist found dead in pinasse”.  Was that any better than “Tourist lost in toilet?”  which was the headline I had envisioned in Dogon Country?  You can tell I had way too much time to think!

But speaking of toilet…  It was a climbing exercise to make it from the main boat to the “toilet”.   From my point it was nearly damned impossible; not with my long dress which is constantly in the way and endangers me stepping on myself when bending over.  This very urgent problem needed a solution!  It is amazing how the little things in life can take center stage!  Remember that I had all the time in the world to think, imagine, speculate, be frustrated, etc.  I had nothing to do and nowhere to go and not even much room to turn in – even though it looked like I had the space for three.  The bulges and sharp edges of the night had not gone away and had to be maneuvered as carefully sitting as sleeping.

I was fully occupied with all these little issues when we began to go in circles.  Now what?  Rudder problems.  I stopped counting how many times over the next few days we went in circles and had to fix the rudder or ran aground.  Each time the rudder had come loose, the boys had to jump into the water to fetch the cable, push the boat, re-attach the cable and get us on track again.  Sometimes even some of the male passengers had to help and step out into the water when we had hit the ground.  But what’s another 15 minutes here or there in the scope of a trip to Timbuktu?

Bang!  That was our boat crashing into the big one after a turn at which the fishing line tying us to the big boat ripped.  What’s another 15 minutes to locate a new rope?  But guess what?  This time our boat was tied down one bay closer to the front of the big boat and all those nasty fumes which had given me a headache earlier now went over my cover instead of into it.  That was a masterpiece of manifestation.  Thanks, Ganesh!  I think I will live to tell the tale after all and I now can focus on the other need of the day, getting to the toilet.

There was no more avoiding it: I had to start the trip out of my cubby hole onto a wooden board, across the puddle of water, onto the edge of the big boat, into the oily and hot machine room where thankfully a small white table provided a surface to step on – crash!  I broke the table.  Dear god, please help me.  The machinist, the only witness to the disaster turned a blind eye and I continued.  I wonder whose table that was – would they find out?  I made it to the “toilet” which was that hole in the ground, but due to all the wooden planks we were transporting access was severely limited.  I will spare you the details, but I can only say that I wish I had that slippery, ugly bathroom from Djenne back – it was heaven in comparison.  What if I have to go #2?  Shivers!!!!!  I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

Machinist and captain communicate via a line which has been strung between the front and the back of the boat.  A small tin can has been fastened to it with some metal inside and it makes a rattling sound.  At that point, the machinist is supposed to be doing the opposite of whatever he had been doing so far – down-throttle if he had been going full speed and the opposite if he was not, and so forth.  Sometimes, the machinist stretched out and I could see him falling asleep.  He was working a full 14 hours each day and much of it in full sunlight.  And so were the two shoveling boys.  We call that child labor where I come from and exploitation known to me only from the 19th Century Industrial Revolution.  Nobody here seems to find anything wrong with this.

Doda had warmed up overnight and this day was hot.  No more shivering even though he continued to sneeze.  Now it was the opposite problem.  I could see his energy fade at midday when he crawled into the shade as often as he could only to fall asleep instantly and on whatever surface he found.  He would be woken up by the master’s voice every so often stumbling on his feet starting to shovel water.  I saw him work hour after hour, day after day.  I could hardly bear it!  This was wrong!

As often as I could I gave Doda something: a smile, a cookie, an orange, a word of encouragement, my hat.  And here is one of those little miracles of manifestation: I had forgotten to clip my nails after Dogon Country and forgotten to pack my clippers into my small backpack, the only thing I took to Timbuktu.  But Doda, who didn’t have more than a change of ripped clothes to his name had a small pair of nail clippers hanging on his pants and was just too happy to give me something in exchange for the things I had given him.  Can you just believe it?!  I could clip my nails and Doda felt so cool about having something I didn’t.

We had started the day at 5:30 AM and were still going after dark – which is 7:30 PM.  This was a 14-hour day.  With all the rudder problems and running aground, I was rather uncomfortable continuing this trip in the dark, and sure enough we ran aground again.  The boats had to be disengaged and what seems impossible happened: we lost each other!  In the dark, the small boat had gone just ashore waiting for the big boat, but they had drifted elsewhere.  Other boats were still going and it took them a good ½ hour before they found us again!

We were sitting in the dark and when there is no wind, there are mosquitoes!  I got bitten ½ a dozen times within minutes and decided it was time to get out the mosquito net which I distributed in “my” area.  Now I really looked like the Queen of Sheba!  I thought I was dealing with hardship and discomforts, but what about the others?  The women were crammed in quarters three times denser than mine and they had infants with them!  The men were exposed to direct sun all day, or rain for that matter!  I could just feel the resentment around me when the boats reunited and people saw my mosquito net.  I had more space, now I had luxuries like the net and was in a way isolating myself even more.  On top of the physical discomfort there now was the psychological one.  The “white one” (tubabum) as they kept calling me all day not knowing that I understood that word had already provided lots of food for conversation and now was superior as we had always been, starting with colonial times.  I imagined all the bad things they were now saying about me and tried to decide what to do.  Take the net down?  Who would benefit from that?  There was nothing much I could do.   Perhaps, tomorrow I could smooth things over?

As I was trying to fit myself into my bed I realized that the crevices of the night before had deepened.  Part by part and bone by bone I tried to fit into the surfaces created by my rice bags.  The bruises from the night before made it even harder than the first night to fall asleep.

Good night.  Or so I thought…  But one of the women in the big boat had gotten violently ill.  She moaned, cried, threw up overboard, and winced.    Others tried to console her to not much avail.  And to the noises of this woman in misery, and to Doda’s shoveling of water I eventually passed out.

Timbuktu, here I come!

6 comments so far

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  1. Just need to tell you my dear sweet Elisabeth, we are having beautiful weather in Michigan. It’s incredible our landscape and nature. I know you must be thinking of it, and missing it, the most beautiful time in Michigan.

    We and it will be here, waiting for you, upon your return.

    Love and peace.


  2. Excellent one, DG, and once again you have provided inspiration for my rather feeble and amateurish attempt.

    A bathroom she needed right NOW
    Poor ET climbed over the bow.
    The boat was unstable,
    She broke the damn table.
    She’s banned from all bathrooms, oh WOW!

  3. Ann sez: “And you say that you are writing a little song praising the invention of the Western flush toilet? I think I feel a limerick coming on.”

    As luck would have it, I am sort of prepared with one, a recent contribution to the limerick dictionary at oedilf.com.

    Sit upright and center your dorsal in,
    Then carefully dribble your morsel in;
    And when your excretion
    Is done to completion,
    It has to be flushed down the porcelain.

  4. Good grief! What a day and night! It is painful just to read your vivid descriptions. I am glad you brought up the forbidden topic of toilets. I was wondering how you were faring, especially on the river cruises. By the way, for your next trip, you might consider taking along a small plastic device especially made for women to urinate in anywhere. You don’t have to get up or walk anywhere, let alone over fragile white tables. I saw one of these devices advertised the other day in a mail-order catalog. You never know when it might come in handy. Maybe that isn’t quite the right word, but you know what I mean.
    Good luck in Timbuktu! When you get there, Lucy and I will be in Istanbul, but with WiFi, I should be able to catch your fascinating blog.

  5. Amazing…simply amazing. I hate to admit that I chuckled through many parts of it…then I would catch myself and think about the incredible discomfort you suffered…then I would continue reading and chuckle again. The bathroom situation in Mali is simply beyond belief…and then on your quest for relief, you broke the white table. Oh my God, that is almost worth doing a short documentary on, maybe PBS would be interested…that and all the “toilet situations” you have had to endure. I wonder if there are any more coming. Your Tales of the Malian Toilet makes great reading…I think not such great experiencing. Oy vey!!!!
    Your kindness to Doda was very moving…such a hard existence he has…you must be a gift from heaven for him. And you get to clip your nails in return…though I am absolutely positive that his gratitude extends far and beyond the nailclippers.
    I am glad you didn’t get gassed…though the smell must have made you wish you could pass out for a little while and get some relief. For me, the smell of gasoline fumes is really hard to take, though now that I think about it, the toilet situation might surpass the fume situation in difficulty to deal with.
    After this trip, there ain’t nothin’ you can’t handle. And you say that you are writing a little song praising the invention of the Western flush toilet? I think I feel a limerick coming on.
    Take care, Elisabeth…

  6. This is simply an unbelievable story from beginning to end – it is so hard to imagine such a journey for you and for Doda and the others in the big boat. I am thankful that you have the mosquito netting for we want you to return home – and would we ever consider it a luxury instead of a necessity? Oh, to be able to have some to pass on to all traveling with you.