41 Retour Mopti-2_1024x697SYNOPSIS:  As so many times on this trip, this blog is just about getting from A to B.  If you had enough of those, skip this one. If not… you just can’t make this stuff up!   My 4WD from Timbuktu to Mopti.

Reduced to 10 inches I found myself buried under the Big Lady and squeezed against the door of the 4WD whose handle was cramming into my already bruised hip bone.  Her butt flowed into my lap, her shoulder sat under my chin and her elbow jammed into my rib cage every so often when she had to handle the baby which was on her lap.  There wasn’t as much as 1/8th of an inch to move any part of my body.  I could still move my right hand though and I locked it firmly into the handle bar above me just in case the door would open unexpectedly, as I would have popped out of the car like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

As so many times before in this country when I thought things had gotten pretty bad but were just about bearable, they took a turn for the worse yet still had to be managed.  And so far I survived all of them and along the way have adjusted my standards as well.  Coming from Timbuktu to Mopti, Mopti seems like a beacon at the horizon; where just a few weeks ago it seemed that things were going down the tube coming to Mopti from Segou

Just in case Banja was not exaggerating, I did get up with the imam’s call for prayer at 4:30 AM.   I have no other way of telling time.  Both my watch and my alarm clock gave up the ghost and battery replacements did not help.   That is a drawback on days like this.  But nobody here looks at a watch.  It’s “Africa Time”.  He had said that the driver would be here “early”. By Africa Time standards I took that to mean as soon as anyone can see anything.   Indeed, at 5:30 AM he picked me up. Thankfully I had packed the night before and arranged all final items in OCD fashion so I could pack them in the dark.

What I said in an earlier post does not quite hold true after all: bus traffic to or from Timbuktu is nonexistent.  I guess too many buses bit the dust.  It’s 4 WD only or big trucks.  The 4WDs are privately owned battered old cars which are for hire.  It’s the kind of car I was driving in with the NGO people where 5 of us were comfortably sitting with our luggage.  This time I estimated 7 of us plus luggage.  I was the first to be picked up and had a choice of seating.  I could sit next to the driver with another person and would have to squeeze to give him enough room to maneuver the stick-shift.  Or I could sit in the row behind the driver which looked like seating for 3 but he told me would have to hold 4. A bit tight, most likely, but better than the front seat. That was his suggestion.  Did he know at that point who he was going to pick up?!

The first stop was at the center of town.  What I had taken for our luggage compartment behind the row of seating turned into sitting space for 6 people!  All of our luggage was bundled up on top of the car and there was no shortage of it:  Rice bags, suitcases, my backpack with computer and camera (!), metal bars, camping chairs, oil containers, a generator.  All went up and was strung to the rack on top of the car.  One person was going to ride along up there just to make sure the cargo was OK.

At the center of town, two big ladies joined me.  The three of us filled the row and we all looked at each other mumbling “quatre”?  Really, four of us should sit here?  No way.  Yes way!  At the outskirt of town there was another stop.  More luggage was bundled on top of the car and the fourth lady was picked up, even bigger than the other two!  And she came with a baby…

Believe me, the cargo area was crammed seating for 6, but even those guys looked at the four of us in disbelief – how would we fit?  I had to sit narrow side up for the door to be shut on me by one of the front seat guys and then I would slide down underneath the lady and into the handlebar as far as my soft parts allowed.  The hip bone, already bruised from the nights on the pinasse, and the handle bar however had to fight it out.  Seven hours of this seemed a long time, but more than anything I have learned here how to just let time flow by.  And what’s 7 hours in the scope of life.  I could breathe.  I had no baby.  All I had to do was sit still and trust that this too, would pass.

After about 20km we reached the Niger River and for a few minutes all could get out of the car while we were ferried across.  And who was on the same ferry, but my mission team on their way to Mopti!  I already had hopes that I could switch into their car and that this was one of those miraculous manifestation moments, but they had people and cargo loaded and could not take me.  I could see the regret in the doctor’s face.  I know he likes me.  But really, I was OK where I was.  I could breathe.  It would pass.

Douantze 190km.  It was a piste similar to the one we had taken from Tonka to Timbuktu.  Our 4WD, in contrast to the speed devil of the mission team, could not go any faster than about 40-50km/h given its age and its load.  That was fine by me.  The Sahel was gliding by showing its old familiar face: yellow sand, wild shrubs and trees and the occasional water hole or plowed field.  The ride was bumpy as expected but nobody had promised us the Autobahn.

Douantze 170km.  There must have been rain around here.  Much of what was just sand and dry land a few weeks ago had turned into lush grassy grazing fields.  There were clefts in the sand which indicated the makeshift route of pouring rains.  Those had already dried out again, but the grass was its fertile offspring and proof of its short-lived appearance.

Douantze 150km.  Somewhere around there things changed and the road turned into a hardened washboard of a million ripples.  This was as if somebody was turning on an internal motor in my head which was rattling my ears and my brain at a high speed.   This was painful!  No escaping it.  I was still buried under the Big Lady and had been biting my tongue over the pain in my hip bone.  Now this!  How on earth was I going like this all the way to Mopti?!

Douantze 130km.  The washboard motor kept drilling.  I think I got more than anyone of it since I was pressed so tight to the rattling door.  If I could have just freed myself from it perhaps the rattle would go down?  But there was not a 1/8th of an inch to move anywhere.  There were herds of cows out there watched over by herdsmen who wore those distinct Fulani hats.  I had bought one.  It had gotten squished on top of the car with all the other cargo until I rescued it.  It now was fastened at the rack and probably flopping in the dust up there.  I was wondering how my camera and my computer were doing, rattled by this road.  They have been through a lot in this country!  On with the ripples.   Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 110km.  Where was Douantze anyhow?  I seemed to have heard the name before but my head was battered and I could not formulate a clear thought or picture the map.  Could you get brain damage from something like this rattle?   Is it like having a concussion?  How much rattling of the brain can there be before the brain snaps?   Perhaps, other parts of my head would be affected?  Perhaps, I will lose my speech?  First I was reduced to 10 inches sideways and now to thinking stupid thoughts.  This was too much.  110km.  We did not even get through half of this yet.  Douantze is not Mopti, but it sounds like a real place perhaps with a real road going from there to Mopti?  Perhaps, it will be the end of this misery?  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 90km.  I was grateful for these stone markers which like clockwork popped up at the side of the road assuring us that we were making progress.  The road obviously was not ready for buses or regular cars. At times it was not even there.  But occasional speed limit signs were posted as if for a good joke:  Limit 60km/h.  Curvy Road.  Bump in the road.  Are they kidding?  There was hardly a road and you had to go in curves anyhow given all of the erosion and bumps were a given.  Somebody out there really had a good sense of humor!  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 70km.  The washboard motor kept drilling painfully deep into my head and my ears felt as if they wanted to fall off.  There were camels out there, wild ones, it seemed.  But I am sure they had an owner.  A camel was just too valuable of an asset.  In fact, some of the herdsmen were using camels.  Camels are just such cool animals.  Somehow they have this air of majesty around them, until they spit at you, that is.  My limbs were still locked between the Big Lady and the door, when a noise startled all of us.  A woman sitting in the cargo area had gotten car sick and threw up…  The driver took no notice. She was on her own.  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 50km.  The washboard torture continued.  Once in a while the piste had eroded too much and the driver had to carve out a stretch through the Sahel sands before he could get back on track.  Those were moments of bliss. The motor in my head turned off but I knew it was just a teaser.   Back on the ripply road we went sooner or later.  Now some of my buried limbs had fallen asleep but I could not move, not exercise a single muscle.  The baby slept blissfully and so did the mother.  Her head was sliding towards me.  My head is rattling, my ears are vibrating, my limbs are asleep, I can’t move 1/8 of an inch and this woman is falling asleep on me?!  I could have screamed.  But I did not.  I could breathe.  I was going to make it.  This too, shall pass.  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 30km.  There were mountains now in the distance, substantial ones.  I knew that Mali was famous for its mountain climbing but I had not seen much other than flatlands.  This was a nice change of scenery and picturesque.  Occasionally we passed an animal carcass, a cow, a goat, even a camel once.  Road kill?  Hardly.  Not that I have seen any drivers slowing down much when there are animals in the road. They just lean on their horn and hope that the animals do the sensible thing.  But what makes an animal just die like this?  Do they even get as old to die of old age? I bet most animals are slaughtered for food before they reach a ripe old age, but then, what do I know? I am a city girl just keeping my mind occupied as long as it still functions. On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 10km.  Police checkpoint – all out of the car.   What a relief!  My dress was soaked where I had been buried from the body contact I had with the Big Lady. I looked like a rag.  I had just washed this dress; you wouldn’t know.  It was stained, dusty, soaked, wrinkled and the color had begun to fade, from all the washing.  Tanks had been placed at this police checkpoint pointing away from the town, ready to shoot at any potential intruder.  Sacks and tires formed several road blocks but the check was just routine and went quickly.

No more ripples.  The road was paved now leading into town.  We had reached Douantze.

Surprise, surprise.  I had paid for and hired, so I thought, a 4WD to take me to Mopti.  But the 4 WD was done.  The driver pointed to a bus and said: Mopti.  Really!  There was another ½ hour delay but this bus ride was nothing short of amazing, in comparison that is.  Yes, the road was bumpy and full of potholes, but it was paved.  Yes, the bus was sticky and hot but everyone had a seat – nobody was crammed on top of me. I had no babies to hold, no luggage to climb over, no Big Ladies to deal with that buried me.   It still took us three hours before we reached, not Mopti but Serere, a town down the road.   And again I had to find a bus to change to, but who is complaining?

For hours, my head and ears retained the echo of the ripple ride and felt as if they were still vibrating. But they weren’t.

By the time I reached Mopti, 12 hours had passed.  That was much quicker than the 6 days it had taken me to reach Timbuktu.  But I can’t say it is a piece of cake leaving Timbuktu either.

I boarded a taxi and was on my way to the hotel when within minutes two guys on a motorbike pulled up next to me smiling into my window.  “Remember me?” the one guy said.  “Remember me?” the other echoed.  Yes, those were the guys I had promised to buy a hat from once I returned from Dogon Country.  I had gotten sick and thought they had forgotten about me.  But they had not.  They had been waiting and they found me.  And so I bought another hat.

Doux Reves, Dominique’s hotel was hopping!  I could not believe it but there were young men swarming around looking like they had business to do. What was going on?  For the first time in years the hotel was fully booked.  It was election time and a big rally for one of the presidential candidates, along with a big life music concert, were planned for the next day.  These were the photographers and the journalists covering the event and some international election observers were also part of the mix.  How exciting!

You know it only takes one second for me to change plans and the prospect of live Malian music was all I needed to hear.  I could cut my time in Bamako short by one day, couldn’t I?  Well, I just would.  Let’s hope there won’t be any problems with transportation or I will miss my flight.  St.Christopher – high noon for you to watch out.

Dominique had reserved a beautiful big corner room for me; a suite, practically.  Yes, it was hot but spacious and I liked the feel of it and the layout and I have seen hot by now.  I felt so welcome and at home here, it was ridiculous.  A few weeks ago Mopti felt like a letdown.  Now, it was like homecoming.  I could count on internet at 6 PM and electricity for 12 hours.  And if that would fail, Dominique had a generator she would run for at least 3 hours.  I could have a cold beer and a cold shower.  Someone would be able to communicate with me in English.  I would have a towel and soap, a mosquito net and a fan.   Mopti was a town with its problems, but a town which still had life blood in its veins.  I was happy to be back.

Good night.