The end of the Dogon trek


           Our walk for Monday morning was a circular route, about 1.5 hours to the village of Sogou. Once there, we looked around, talked to some folks, and then headed back to Endé-Toro, where we planned to spend the heat of the day. It was market day at Endé-Wo, and Hassimi thought we should see that.

           There are lots of craftspeople and tourists at Endé-Wo, so I thought I would try my negotiating skills at getting rid of some more unneeded items. At the top of the list was a denim shirt that Susan had sent me from San Francisco as a model to use for having a new one made by Mamadou the tailor in Nouakchott. She told me that when he was finished with it, she didn’t need the old one back, so I brought it with me on this trip, partly to wear in case I got cold at night (I used it once) and also to see if I could trade it away for anything.

           I thought that Susan would like some of the indigo cloth that is locally made and dyed. It was easy to find somebody who wanted to trade some for the shirt, but I didn’t get as big a swatch of cloth as I had been hoping for. I had wanted something that could be used as a table cloth, but eventually settled for a scarf. The merchant was happy to have his photo taken wearing Susan’s shirt and the scarf.

           After our rest, when the heat subsided, Carl and I took our afternoon walk to Yaba-Talu. It took only about an hour to get there. Hassimi drove Grandmom and all our belongings, stopping occasionally to make sure that we stayed on the right path.

           Carl especially liked the name of this village, and it made him think of Fred Flintstone saying, “yabba dabba doo.” He referred to Yaba-Talu as “Yabba Dabba DooLand ,” then had fun explaining the Flintstones to Hassimi. At the previous villages, the bottles of beer and other beverages were stored in cool water in clay pots, but the place where we stayed in Yaba-Talu has a gas-powered refrigerator, which afforded us the pleasure of a nice cold beer that evening.

           Our fourth and final full day of trekking was Monday. Hassimi had chosen two villages on top of the escarpment for us to see. First we walked to Benimatou, noted for its Christian, Muslim, and animist residents living together peacefully, the Dogon Jerusalem, absent the animosity and the driving force to blow each other off the map and into the oblivion and their own versions of the hereafter. We had our lunch and spent the afternoon there. One of the village young men took us on a tour, which included the Catholic church. Nobody was worshiping that day, but he did point out to us that the center aisle separated the men from the women during their mass, as this part of the culture has been brought into the religious practice.

           Our afternoon walk was to Indellou, an animist village on the Falaise de Banjiagara, the French name for the escarpment. Within a kilometre of the village, a ragtag bunch of boys discovered us and followed us all the way to town. When we arrived we could see the village of Dounjourou below us on the Plain of Saynogondo. We arrived in time for sunset, eating some mangoes and watermelon, and then our dinner.

           After dinner, we could hear nearby chanting and drumming, but since it was dark, we couldn’t see where it was coming from. I picked up a lantern and went out to investigate. I traced the music to some young people in a small building, singing and clapping. As I stood outside, watching from a respectful distance, a young woman from inside noticed me, came outside, and said, “Viens!” (Come!) As I entered the rectangular building, I guessed that they were probably having some sort of worship service, with the “pews” on the right for the congregants and a lectern on the left for the service leader, who was leading the signing next to two drummers. One lantern lit the building.

           Not wanting to sit next to the drummers or the leader on the left, and be the focus of the congregation’s attention, I moved to the right and sat on a low bench against the wall. As soon as I did that, some of the folks snickered along with their chanting, and I realized my mistake: all of the participants facing the leader were women, and I had sat with them. I got up and moved to the other side of the door, next to one of the young men.

           I thought that perhaps the room is also used as a school, but I couldn’t tell. I was fascinated by a chart, obviously made to facilitate reading, in which all letter combinations in the Dogon language were lined up. Vertically along the left was a row of the consonant sounds. To the right, each letter was followed by the various vowel sounds. They used the same alphabetical order as in English. The first horizontal row read, “ba,” “be,” “bi,” “bo,” “bu,” and there were two with symbols that I had never seen before. Between “be” and “BI” was a “b” with a symbol that looked like the sign used for the euro, and between “Bo” and “Bu” was a “b” with a backwards “c.”

           While I was lost in studying and figuring out the chart, the chanting and drumming stopped. A young woman told me that they were going to begin praying now, and that I could stay if I wanted to. Not knowing how long that was going to last, and how rude it might be for me to leave in the middle of it, I decided that it would be best to pick up my lantern and leave.

           The night air was perfect: a gentle breeze, not even a hint of chill, delightfully warm. We slept under a covering, but it was outside. It never got cold that night.

           The next morning, I was up at the break of dawn, and headed to the edge of the escarpment to see the sun rise over the plain. The air across the plain was very dirty, and reminded me of Los Angeles smog. It’s certainly not created by traffic, as there is very little of it in this part of the country. The dirt, though, is very easily stirred up, and contributes to the poor quality of the air. During this entire trip, my allergies have been in overdrive. I have been taking medication for several months, and in Nouakchott it has been very helpful, but with the dust in the air it is almost as if I were not taking anything at all! My nose is in an almost constant state of dripping. You can only imagine what my Q-tips and handkerchieves look like. At the end of every day, the part of my shirt that had been tucked in looks clean, but the exposed are is covered with a dusting of the fine reddish-brown dirt.

           On our way out of Indellou, we walked past several of the houses with doors opening onto their courtyards. Hassimi pointed out to us the fetish domes called omolo that were placed in the open areas. These are made of hard-packed mud and are there to protect the villagers. Each family has its own, and there are also communal omolos in shared spaces.

           Ambling downhill is much more difficult for me than going up. It’s easier to make deliberate steps while ascending than to fight the push of gravity behind me on the descent. There were several times when I lost my footing, slipping down rocks that had dirt on their surface, but I was able to keep myself upright.

           Grandmom was waiting for us in Yaba-Talu. First we had time to freshen up a bit after our downhill climb. I enjoyed the opportunity to use a method that Carl had introduced to me during this trip: taking off my shirt, submerging it in water, wringing it out, and then putting it on again. Very refreshing! Hassimi and Grandmom took us back to the Peace Corps house in Sevaré.

           We didn’t see any other local PCVs this time, but there was a trio from Togo. It’s always enlightening to compare notes with other Volunteers, and we all asked each other the predictable questions: What sector are you working in? What’s your site like? What do they eat? What languages do they speak in your country? Where are you from in the USA '>? What’s your Country Director like?

           On our first time through Sevaré, Carl and I spotted a restaurant where we wanted to have dinner upon our return. Called Mankan Te, its sign included the words “végé-resto” and the menu had lots of vegetarian choices. Upon perusing the menu, we saw that there was a dish principally comprised of spiced millet with sauce. Having seen village women pound millet every day in Dogon country, seeing the millet granaries and thatched roofs of millet stalks, we decided that we should at least give it a taste. In the USA, millet is used mainly as birdseed, but we enjoyed the taste, and thought that it was not strictly for the birds.

           We spent a most uncomfortable night in the Sevaré Peace Corps house, stifling under our protective mosquito nets, not able to get much sleep. We were off the next morning to nearby Mopti, located on the Niger River, one of the tourist centers of Mali, where many travelers arrive by boat and arrange their Dogon visits. The street salesmen are aggressive there, and we were constantly approached by people who wanted to sell us any number of items; knives, camel leather boxes, and blankets seem to be the local favorites. Okay, I thought, I can feel it. I am not leaving Mopti wearing these running shoes! My road show garage sale continues!

           I don’t care for shopping, but Carl thinks I enjoy it. There’s nothing that I felt that I needed to have, and I would have been happy bypassing the whole process. But since I still had to get a few gifts and get rid of some things, I didn’t dismiss all comers. In one store, after I bought a few necklaces as gifts, I pointed to my feet and asked Oumar, the shopkeeper, if he was interested in my shoes. He was! What I wanted in return for them was some indigo cloth. They sell it in strips that are about four inches wide, unrolling it from a spool and selling it by the meter. I negotiated a trade that included some money and the shoes. Since I had four pairs of white socks with me, too, and threw them in at no extra charge: We are friends! I give you good price! You are my brother! I am your son! We are cousins! I never realized I had so much family in Africa!

           My bag was at the office of the bus company where we were going to be taking the 3:00 PM bus to Ségou, so I had to go back there, put on my sandals, and then return to Oumar with the shoes and socks. Another happy trade and a photo to go with it! We had lunch at Restaurant Bar Bozo, which is named not after Bozo the clown but the Bozo tribe whose main livelihood is fishing on the Niger River.

           We were ready for our first bus ride in Mali, and our first decision was to choose and find a bus company for the voyage. Some French tourists recommended Bittar as reliable. One of the features of bus travel here is that there are many different companies, each with their own schedule and garage, since they do not share a common terminal. Locating a company for any particular trip, finding out the location of its garage, and the departure times for your destination is a research project akin to a doctoral dissertation.

           We found Bittar easily enough and had been told that the trip from Mopti to Ségou was supposed to be about two and a half hours, so we expected to arrive about 5:30, during daylight. The trip stretched into more than six hours! There were many stops, though not too often for discharging or picking up new passengers, as most people were going all the way to Ségou. Every stop was a marketing moment, as vendors tried to sell their wares to bus passengers. The gentle ones settled for calling from outside the bus, but the more assertive ones climbed aboard through the front door and left by the rear exit, hawking their plastic bags of ice, water and juices, apples, oranges, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, bananas, grilled meat, cakes, cookies, and some items I didn’t recognize.

           Once we were rolling, some passengers threw their banana skins and other refuse out the bus window, while others dropped their garbage in the aisle or under the seat. Across from me, an infant threw up in the aisle, baby puke jiggling on the floor like an amoeba, enveloping peanut shells, orange peels, and discarded scraps of paper.

           When we arrived in Ségou, the driver opened the baggage compartment so that we could get our luggage. When he shined the flashlight inside so that we could identify our pieces, I could see the light reflecting back to me from a pair of eyes! My luggage was right next to a sheep that had been placed in the compartment. Fortunately, the sheep had not urinated on it!

           A taxi driver at the bus station knew where the Peace Corps house was, so he took us to it, telling us the names of the neighborhoods as we drove along the way. First there was Hamdalaye A, one of the older neighborhoods, then Hamdalaye B. The Peace Corps house was in the newest section of Hamdalaye, which is called Hamdalaye 3. A, B, 3! I’m sure that makes sense to somebody!

           The Ségou house was the nicest one yet – clean, spacious, and well-maintained. We had a comfortable night there, the only ones other than the resident guardian. The next morning we took a walk down to the river, first stopping at the Bittar bus station to inquire about the trip to Bamako. There was a 2:00 departure, but the agent at the ticket window would not let us buy a ticket in advance or leave our baggage. “Come back at 1:00!” he barked. We left our bags with the snack bar concessionaire.

           Carl wanted to take a boat ride on the Nigerhat he wanted, which was not exactly what most of those Bozos wanted to offer. Carl speaks excellent Spanish, but very little French. I had to do a little negotiating or translating for him occasionally, though he was picking up and improving his French remarkably well (and I’m not just saying this because I know he is going to be reading this). All he wanted was a little trip on the river for about half an hour, but the boatmen were more interested in a longer voyage, around to some of the islands, and to villages on the other side of the river.

           Not wanting to get onto the river myself, I thought it would be much more fun to stay on the bank so that I could become the prey of the Tuaregs trying to sell their silver knives and camel leather boxes and picture frames. I left several of them scratching their turbaned heads, trying to understand what I meant by saying that I didn’t want to carry a knife with me because I am a pacifist and I didn’t want to buy any leather products because I am a vegetarian.

           We had a leisurely lunch at Soleil de Minuit, choosing the restaurant partly because it is French for the name of a longstanding gay bar in San Francisco, the Midnight Sun. When we got to the bus station about ten minutes before 2:00, the guy in the ticket office told us that the 2:00 bus had already left. Considering the usual delays here, that was hard to believe. I eventually pieced together the story that the scheduled 2:00 bus was stopping in Ségou along its route from somewhere else to pick up passengers, and that our bus was really delayed, so the people holding tickets for the 2:00 departure were allowed to get on an earlier bus, if they were already at the station. The next Bittar departure was scheduled for 3:30. Never mind in this country.

           We took a taxi to another bus company, dejected that we were forfeiting the opportunity to add to our Bittar Frequent Flyer Miles, and found that there was a 2:30 departure. We watched the top of the bus get loaded with an assortment of articles, most amusingly two motorcycles and a wheelchair. Oddly enough, though, the luggage compartment below the bus was never opened for us, which meant that everyone’s pieces that did not fit in the ridiculously small overhead area had to be placed under a seat or in the aisle.

           We experienced a new first while getting ready for the trip: boarding the bus by roll call! When buying a bus ticket here, one gives a name to the ticket-seller. The driver’s assistant then uses the list of names, calling them out in the order of the seats purchased, so the earlier one gets the ticket, the better choice one has in choosing a seat.

           Our two-and-a-half-hour trip to Bamako stretched to four, with many stops, and at each stop, people had to tiptoe through the luggage, buckets, jugs of anywhere from twenty to forty liters, bulging plastic bags, and other assorted belongings brought on board. I hate to write this, because it is so damned cliché, but there were also several live chickens in the overhead bins toward the front of the bus. At one point, when the bus stopped abruptly, a chicken was sent flying out of its bin. It had been tethered by a rope, so it dangled upside down by its feet, squawking until its owner could get up and return it to its temporary roost.

           We arrived in Bamakoafter dark and took a taxi straight to the Hotel Le Djenne, a different from the one where we had stayed previously, lured there by the description in the Lonely Planet guide. It was beautiful, crammed with artistic touches and items made by local craftsmen. This was to be Carl’s last night in town, and I was staying one more after his departure.

           Friday morning, we headed downtown so that I could see about buying my ticket back to Nouakchott. I decided that instead of flying to Ouaga from Bamako, I would be adventurous by taking buses and making two stops along the way: the southern Malian town of Sikasso, and then onward to Burkina’s second city, Bobo-Dioulasso (that last part pronounced “joo-LAH-so”). I had been planning to visit Bobo from Ouaga by bus anyway, so aside from the difference in transport, it meant that I would be going in a straight path instead of doing a round trip, and that I would see a little more of Mali and Burkina from the ground.

           By this point, my baggage doesn’t have much clothing in it, but I have been collecting books at the Peace Corps houses. Unfortunately, the books are much heavier than the clothing, so I looked into mailing them back to Mauritania from Bamako. In the end, it was too expensive, costing $35 to send six pounds of books. Considering that I am still waiting for a box sent to me from California last March, I didn’t want to go through that again. Remarkably enough, two of the books I have found in the Peace Corps libraries are ones that are in my still-to-be-delivered box.

           After a stop at a bank to use the ATM (it was out of order, so the transaction had to be done by hand inside the bank), we went to the Peace Corps house where we had stored some things with the night guardian, so that we would not have to travel around Mali under greater weight.

           We went back to our hotel and started rearranging things. Carl had already graciously agreed to take a bag of things home for me, which will lessen my load at the end of my service. In the process of rearranging everything, I opened the front section of my bag, where I had placed my house keys, some Mauritanian coins, and cell phone, only to find that the cell phone was missing! This added a new unanticipated complexity to the day, as I had to go to the Peace Corps bureau to inform them of the theft that had taken place on their property.

           That’s when I found out that staff gets Friday afternoon off here, so most of the administration was already gone for the day. Somebody arranged for me to meet the chief of security at the house later in the day to fill out an incident report, necessitating another trip over there.

           Carl and I went out for a last dinner together before his late flight home. Then he went to the airport and I went to sleep.

           The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, I was off to the bus station for the trip to Sikasso. I inquired with the receptionist at the hotel to see about the correct taxi fare, as it is common practice to overcharge white travelers who are unaware of the correct fares. I found that we had paid one-third too much when we got back to Bamako a few nights earlier, so we hadn’t done too badly, as it was better than paying triple or even more!

           The recommended bus line I had been looking for – this time YT – had a 10:00 AM departure to Sikasso. As my taxi approached the station, young men ran up to the cab, running across two lanes of oncoming traffic, to try to get me to take the bus line that they represented. They stuck with us all the way to the parking lot, touting their company. They get some sort of commission for every ticket-buying passenger they accompany to the window.

           I had been led to believe that the trip would take only three hours, maybe four. Bus fares increase with distance here, so when I heard what the price of the ticket was, I knew I was in for a long trip! And yes, there was a 10:00 departure on YT, but Diarra’s bus had its engine running and was getting to leave tout de suite. I saw that the Diarra bus didn’t have any windows that opened, which I took to be a good sign, assuming the presence of air conditioning!

           Once on board, I sat in one of the few remaining seats, in the very back row, which was a step higher than the rest of the seats, offering more light, since there wasn’t a seat back directly in front of my face. The air conditioning system was not there, though, and those little round air-blowing units usually in place were empty, leaving holes that looked like cup holders were mounted upside-down in the overhead area. Fortunately, the bus had two rooftop air vents that remained open during the trip.

           All went smoothly and in relative comfort, the trip taking a little over five hours. The Sikasso Volunteers were plentiful, friendly, and welcoming. Their their well-kept house had one room that served as a single, with all others filled with bunkbeds. Since the single was available, I took it.

           There is a small office at the Sikasso house, and I was allowed to use the computer there, which gave me the chance to get caught up in my posts for the last two weeks. I must have spent five hours typing during Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. My only regret was that I was breaking my self-imposed Internet-free shabbat. But I have had lots of no-Internet days lately!

           I went out to dinner with a bunch of Sikasso-based PCVs and was impressed by their friendliness.

           At Sunday at around noon, I packed up and was off to Bobo in Burkina. I didn’t know any departure times for buses, so just had to wing it. At 12:30, when I got to the Sogebaf bus station, a few kilometres out of town, I found that there had been a departure at 10:00 AM and that the next one was to leave at 4:00, giving me more than three hours. The ticket-seller warned me that the bus would leave at 4:00 sharp, and that I should be there by 3:30. Yeah! That’ll be the day!

           Since I had a few hours to kill, I left my luggage in the ticket office and headed into town, since it was market day and I hadn’t really seen much of Sikasso. Not that there was much to see, but I like non-touristy towns, even if it is just for the fact that I can see the way people live their normal day-to-day lives without the imposition of the tourist trade.

           When Carl was with me, I could ask him for a time check, since I had traded away my watch in Tombouctou. (By the way, he delivered a new one to me when he came to Nouakchott, so I will have that when I return.) In order to be sure that I got back I time for the bus, I brought my travel clock with me.

           I got back to the station about 2:30, having walked from the town center. I could see that this was a smaller bus – not a minibus, but with seats for only about thirty people. I was on it and ready to leave at about 3:50. Then, whaddya know, everyone’s stuff was already strapped to the top and we departed at 3:58, right on time, considering a two-minute margin of error.

           After about an hour, we arrived at the Mali-Burkina Faso border crossing. Everyone got off the bus and handed passports or identification cards to an official. We milled around for about ten minutes, then collected our papers, and got back on the bus. That was easy!

           We didn’t drive more than two kilometres before we stopped again, everyone getting off, and handing our papers to another official. In a few minutes, he called us by name, and we got back on the bus. Okay, then, we were on the way!

           About three more kilometres down the road, the bus stopped again and everyone got off. This time, after waiting for a few minutes, an official pointed down the road a few hundred meters. I didn’t know what he said, so I just followed the crowd. The bus driver followed us in the bus, and when we had reached the designated spot, everyone got on, and we were finally on our way!

           In a few more kilometres, the bus stopped again, everyone getting off. This time, people seemed to arrange themselves more or less in a line, approaching an official who took a quick glance at our paperwork and handed the documents back to us right away, with everyone getting back on the bus once he had seen their papers.

           The fourth was the final time, right around sunset, so we made the rest of the trip in darkness, arriving in Bobo-Dioulasso shortly after 8:00 PM.

           I’ve gone on long enough. Read all about Burkina Faso next week.