They spell it “Tombouctou


          I completed last week's post without offering impressions of Bamako. One of the most noticeable differences, especially in comparison to Nouakchott, is the abundant greenery. The Peace Corps maintains a house there for Volunteers. Sitting in the yard, gazing about, all one can see are trees, trees, trees!

          The view inside the house is another story altogether, though, as all one sees is disarray. Volunteers and staff were friendly and welcoming. Carl and I would have been able to stay there had we wanted, but we decided not to deal with the mess, so we found a hotel nearby for our three nights in Bamako.

            Only main roads in Bamako are paved. Once you head off them, the side streets are reddish-brown dirt the color of terra cotta flowerpots, riddled with rocks that make for bumpy riding and the need for careful walking, especially at night because there are no street lights and it's easy to stumble on that surface.

          The most heavily trafficked thoroughfares are distinguished by having large and well-maintained roundabouts with huge, though not necessarily beautiful, monuments commemorating Malian independence, peace, African unity, and distinguished people in the country's history. Main roads are lined with makeshift stalls, shacks, markets, and stores, some of which are barely big enough for one person to enter. A large number of these appear to have been constructed with whatever materials people could scrounge together, such as the entrances of thin tree trunks supporting corrugated metal, burlap, or straw roofs. At night, many of the storefronts are lit by lanterns or television sets.

            My first order of business on Monday was to get a tourist visa for visiting Burkina Faso, my destination after two weeks in Mali. After I got the Burkina visa, Carl and I paid a visit to the Peace Corps bureau, where I caught up with our former Mauritania Country Director, now in charge of the Mali program, one of the largest in the world, with about two hundred PCVs. She has her work cut out for her! She is up to the task, though; and it was comforting to see a friendly face in a foreign capital.

          In order to save ourselves some time and allow for visiting other parts of Mali, Carl and I had long ago decided that we would fly to Timbuktu (local spelling, "Tombouctou"). We had to wait until we arrived in Bamako to pick up the tickets at a local travel agency, because the agent in New York who had booked our itinerary could not make these. When we went to the travel agent to pay for and get the tickets, the employee who issued them informed us that our flight time had been changed from 8 to 11 AM.

           I had other pressing business to deal with at the travel agency, since my remaining flights had been canceled. I was originally scheduled to fly from Bamako to Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-doo-goo, commonly known by the first two syllables), capital of Burkina Faso and then from Ouaga to Nouakchott. I needed to find alternative flights, and when I worked with the travel agent to do that, I discovered that the agency in New York had gotten me a really terrific deal in the first place; replacing the canceled flights was going to cost twice as much as I had already paid! I have three words of advice for anyone planning travel by plane within Africa and purchasing tickets in the USA: trip cancellation insurance.

            Upon our arrival at the airport the next morning at 10:00, we learned that the plane would be leaving even later than the already-delayed 11:00. I've been here in Africa long enough so that I not only expect this to happen, but I respond to this routine delay with the same dispassion I would as if somebody had just said, "Today is Monday." So what else is new?

            While waiting for the flight, we discovered that the plane originally intended for us had been chartered to another group. Our wait was for a replacement to be found. (This sort of thing happens all the time. Similarly, in Mauritania a few weeks ago, an Air Mauritanie flight that was supposed to be going to Banjul, The Gambia, was temporarily transformed into the Mauritanian equivalent of Air Force One so that President Maaouiya could fly to Egypt to attend Yassar Arafat's funeral.)

            We made a scheduled stop in Mopti (rhymes with HOPE-tree) and then landed in Tombouctou at 2:45, almost four hours after the originally planned arrival. Of the thirty-three passengers on the plane, Carl and I were the only two who were not being met at the airport by pre-arrangement. The self-appointed guides and promoters of Tombouctou were waiting for us on the tarmac as we made our way down the stairs from the plane. The eleven Americans on the Mali Fabric Tour climbed into their waiting vehicles, as did the workers for USAID and other agencies, which left us as the slim pickings for the guides.

            Carl and I had already decided that we didn't want or need a guide. Between us we have traveled independently in upwards of sixty countries. (We have known each other for twenty years, but this is our first trip together.) Tombouctou is not a big place. All we required was a hotel room in town and then we could fend for ourselves.

            The first would-be guide who foisted himself upon us was Ali Baba, and we assumed that the pack of "helpers" surrounding him were some of his Forty Thieves. Then along came a smiley guy whose name sounded like "Chicago," as unlikely as that would be in this part of the world. I thought, It must be a Tuareg name, "Shekaagou."

            We stood in front of the terminal and discovered, once the agency cars left, that there were no buses or taxis to take us the six kilometres into town. Shekaagou offered us the only remaining available option: one of us on the back of his motorcycle and the other on that of his friend's, no helmet for driver or passenger, as we clung to the drivers around their waists, festooned as we were with our packs and other possessions.

            As we sped from the airport, I flashed back to a similar scene in China in 1996, when I was traveling with my friend Susan, where motorcycle transport was the only option, our motorcycles leaving the port where we had just arrived, and the drivers turned in opposite directions, both of us thinking, We're never going to see each other again.

            Safely installed in our hotel, we found that Shekaagou stuck to our side like a puppy, telling us in his charming way all about Tombouctou. And, like the little dog that followed us home, we decided to keep him! I asked him about his name, and learned that while his given name is Al Hadi, he got the nickname Chicago from a visitor who came to Tombouctou a few years ago. There is no doubt about it: he's a local celebrity. Everywhere we went, people called out, "Chicago!" and he appeared to be as well connected in Tombouctou as Mayor Daley is in the Windy City. We felt we had made a good choice!

            Tombouctou was founded around 1000 AD as an encampment for Tuareg nomads. While the men were out tending their animals, a woman named Bouctou was put in charge of the settlement; "Tom" means "well," and the town became known as Tombouctou, the site of Bouctou's well.

           Once a city of 50,000 and the height of wealth, fashion, university and Islamic studies, with expansive libraries and the largest mosque in Africa, Tombouctou was the southern terminus of the trans-Sahara trading route, the site where salt was exchanged for gold, ivory, and slaves. It reached its height of sophistication during the Songhaï Empire from 1463 to 1591, at which point, in the course of one day, an army of Moors invaded with muskets and cannons, looting its massive treasures. The city never recovered, and has been a ghost of its former self for the last four hundred years. But the mystery of the name and its lure remain.

           To this day, caravans of anywhere from sixty to three hundred camels still carry up to sixty kilos each of salt from Taoudenni, some 740 kilometres to the north, making the sixteen-day trip mostly at night during the months of October to March, when the temperatures are at their coolest.

           There is abounding conflicting information about the value of a trip to Tombouctou. I had been warned that it was dusty, dirty, and bleak - in short, a lot like Mauritania! I was pleasantly surprised, finding it to be much cleaner than Mauritanian cities, though the sandy streets have the occasional puddles of stagnant mystery water that we had to be careful not to step in. The style of architecture, mostly mud bricks, was pleasing to my eye, and there are many elaborately carved doors and windows, with metal touches. As Carl said, "It's hard to be disappointed when your expectations are low." I'm not so sure I would go so far as to agree with author Kira Salak, who referred to Tombouctou as "the world's greatest anticlimax."

           Carl, Chicago, and I traipsed through town, following the curving and narrow streets, to see the principal sites: the Djingarei-Ber Mosque, where we were allowed not only to enter but climb up onto the roof, the Sankoré Mosque, a museum with a courtyard that boasts the original well of Bouctou, and the markets. One of our unexpected sights was a pair of men under a tree, sitting on low benches, playing Scrabble.

           I was tipped off by previous PCVs who came to Mali that there are many merchants who are willing to trade their wares for the possessions that tourists carry with them. I packed a lot of items that I was willing to trade away: a watch, toothbrushes, pens, pencils and sharpeners, T-shirts, sport shirts, and running shoes. I made my first trade in Tombouctou - my watch, some pens, pencils, and some money for two bracelets. One guy, taking a look at the running shoes I wanted to get rid of, told me that they were "from before Africa's independence," by which I took him to mean 1960. You think so, mister? Before I leave Mali, somebody else is going to be wearing these Asics! I guarantee it! (I had heard of one Volunteer who traded a pair of his sneakers, described as "ratty," for a carved wooden walking stick. Though I wasn't in the market for a walking stick, I felt confident that I would be able to find something.)

           Mauritanian culture dictates that travelers return to their friends back home with souvenirs from their trip, so I needed to find little trinkets that fit my criteria, namely: small, lightweight, useful, attractive, and reasonably priced. There's not a lot that fill the bill in all ways, but I did see some letter openers, bottle openers, slingshots, key chains, and carved figures. Key chains are out for most of my list, as I have brought them back from Senegal and Tunisia; Mamouni already has two. Chicago told me that he knows the guy whom the other shopkeepers buy from - something of a wholesaler, I guess, so we went to check out the prices. I then told Chicago that I wanted to compare prices at the crafts market. I found that he was right when he told me that the prices would be more than double those at his wholesaler's place, so I went back and got ten letter-openers. Mr. Costco didn't do trades, so that wasn't an option, but a Tuareg selling silver bracelets on the street sold me two in exchange for some money and my watch.

           Chicago also knew the best Internet connection in town. On our first night, he pointed us in the right direction, but we found a place with a slow connection. The next day, he showed it to us - a place that we never would have found by ourselves: the computer lab in a public school.

           Chicago was also invaluable in arranging our transport out of town, directly to Sévaré, our next destination. The only catch was that we had to be ready to leave our hotel at 5 AM. Why? Because the trip involved crossing the Niger River on a ferry that had room for only four vehicles, and if we got to the port much later than 6:00, we'd be waiting long hours for the ferry to shuttle across the river, a one-hour round-trip for the ferry. The next morning, when we got to the port, there were three cars and a truck already waiting to board the first ferry. We were able to make the first crossing because after the first three cars drove aboard, there was not enough room for the truck, which allowed ours to become the fourth and final vehicle for that trip.

           We made it to Sévaré in seven hours, mostly in comfort, one person per seat, in our SUV. Our first stop in town was the Peace Corps house, where we were included on the list of those allowed to stay: Mali PCVs, PCVs of other countries, Mali RPCVs, siblings of PCVs, and best friends of PCVs (limit, two). Not allowed to stay are parents, grandparents, and family friends of PCVs, non-Mali RPCVs, individuals doing research in Mali, and those not affiliated with the Peace Corps. As in Bamako, there was no way that the Sévaré house was going to win a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, though it does have an excellent library from which I was able to borrow a few books, and there's a terrific hot shower, both of which are always welcome.

           We were the only ones staying overnight, but there were a few PCVs living in Sévaré to help us with our first order of business - arranging for a guide to tour us through the area known as Dogon (rhymes with NO-john) Country, probably the most visited region of Mali. We had several recommendations and eventually decided on the first one we met - a friendly guy named Hassimi, who had recently shown around some Mauritania PCVs and smiled as he rattled off their names.

            One of the deciding factors in choosing Hassimi was that he has his own car, which meant that while we were hiking we would be able to leave our possessions in it, rather than carry everything with us wherever we went. Most commonly, trekkers who hire guides take public transport to their starting Point A and then walk everywhere on their route, until their trip terminates at Point Z. Hassimi's vehicle allowed the approach that better aligns with my four-word hiking philosophy: Walking good! Schlepping bad! I would sooner walk twenty miles unencumbered than five with a pack on my back.

            Hassimi's car is a sight: a 1968 Peugeot that he calls Grandmom. Perhaps automobile aficionados would be able to tell the year and make by its shape; I only knew because Hassimi told us. All the letters spelling "Peugeot" have long since disappeared from the surface of the vehicle, along with the side mirrors. Inside, there was no rear view mirror or radio; Hassimi had installed a new one that also played cassette tapes. The clock, odometer, and speedometer had long ceased to budge.

            Hassimi's door was the only one that could be opened from both the inside and outside. Each of the other doors had its own peculiarities: the one behind the driver could not be opened at all. The front passenger door could only be opened from the inside and the one behind it only from the outside. The seatbelts did not retract from their casings.

            Grandmom was unevenly covered in matte-finish silver paint from an aerosol spray can. What was left of the upholstery was in tatters. In order to open the trunk, Hassimi had to get a wrench from under his seat and stick it through the hole where the lock used to be. It took a lot of jiggling to get the hood opened so that he could add water to the radiator.

            All that said, Grandmom performed reliably throughout our time with her, bouncing to, through, and from the remarkable Dogon country. I am going to mention the names of the villages we visited because they are so delightful to say, though you are certainly not going to find them on any but the most detailed map. According to Hassimi, there are 283 Dogon villages that have at least 1,000 inhabitants. He wanted to show us a variety of them, so that we would have an accurate picture of what the area was like.

            The Dogon people who moved into this part of Mali replaced the group that was here before them, called the Tellem. What ultimately happened to the Tellem remains a mystery, but they did leave behind some dwellings that were built on the side of sheer sandstone cliffs - amazing to see that people could actually construct, get to, and live in them!

            Dogon country is dominated by a land form that I had previously not heard of: an escarpment, defined as a steep slope or long cliff that results from either erosion or faulting and which separates two relatively level areas of different elevations. Imagine, then, a long flat plain below, alongside of which is a sheer cliff hundreds of meters high (the City Boy in me guesses that it could be upwards of twenty stories in some places) that stretches for some 150 kilometres, twisting and turning along the way, on top of which is another flat plain. It's almost as if there were a stair step placed there for a giant. And along that sheer cliff area, accessible by rock "stair cases" in irregular placements, are mud houses built into the side of the cliff. It reminded me of the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. There are active villages both on top of the escarpment as well as below. The remaining dwellings on the vertical sides have long been abandoned, but are in good condition, so it is easy to see how people used to live.

            Our first stop was the village of Bandiougou (BAHN-jyoo-goo), off the road along the 63 kilometres from Sévaré to the regional capital of Bandiagara (BAHN-jyah-gah-rah). This town is situated west of the escarpment itself, so there were no hillside dwellings, but the town is built on a hill, necessitating a lot of up-and-down climbing over rocks, and around narrow passageways that separate the homes. It was replete, of course, with many curious kids who followed us wherever we went.

            Next, our stop in Bandiagara was of critical importance, as this was the place where we had to buy a few kilos of kola nuts, the preferred offering to Dogon people whose pictures we might want to take. It cost about $6 for two kilos of the reddish kola nuts, which looked a little like chestnuts, and had the same kind of crunch, but had the most awful bitter taste. I imagine that that is what cockroaches would taste like. One little bite was enough for Carl and me!

           Bandiagara marked the end of the paved road, so we continued on the remaining twenty kilometres to Kani-Kombolé in time for lunch, which we followed by several hours of just hanging around. The noon-to-four time period was reserved for eating, relaxing, talking, reading, and doing whatever we could to avoid the heat of the day. This is the dry and "cooler" season, when the temperatures do not get as hot as during the rest of the year, though they did usually climb well into the nineties or slightly over 100. Once we got past 4:00 PM, though, we were usually ready to move around, accompanied by a bit of a breeze and falling temperatures.

            Every compound where we stopped for our meals or overnight stay was complete with an array of Dogon handicrafts for sale: wood carvings (animals, whistles, replicas of granary doors, figures praying for rain, masks), metal work (mostly animals), and cloth of either indigo or bogolan (mud cloth).

            Dogon towns are clustered together and frequently begin with the same root name, then have a different suffix. From Kani-Kombolé, for example, we hiked up the escarpment to Kani-Bonzon. From the bottom of the escarpment, it was not clear how we could possibly get up there, as the side of the cliff seemed to go straight up like the riser on a stair. However, once we approached, the rock path became more evident, twisting left and right, eventually reaching the top. Once there, we saw a magnificent baobab tree, which proliferates in this area. Hassimi explained that the baobab is considered to be sacred, and its wood is forbidden to be used in making fires. The fruit is called pain de singe, which translates as "monkey bread," though I thought it tasted like monkey turd. It's another one of those acquired tastes, which I can see I won't have enough time to stick around and acquire.

            Kids were fascinated by us wherever we went, calling out, "Ca va?" to ask us how we were, and extending their right hands to shake with us. (Where has that hand been, young man?)This was much preferable to the "Toubab Chorus" but was probably the only French most of these kids spoke, as we tried to engage them in conversation, only to find that we couldn't get any further than, "Ca VA?" They also know the word cadeau (gift) and were not shy about asking. Carl brought a copious supply of pens with him, most of which were given to him by drug companies to advertise their products, so there are lots of little Dogon kids using them now, doing their scribbling with ads for antidepressants, antibiotics, antihistamines, and drugs to lower cholesterol, correct erectile dysfunction, and treat HIV.

            Architecturally, the Dogons do a remarkable and aesthetically pleasing job creating their buildings with natural materials, resulting in villages that are picture-book perfect and just what one may expect an African village to look like. Compounds are comprised of several buildings, including the sleeping rooms and granaries, both of which are segregated by sex - yes, even the men's and women's supplies of millet are kept separate! In every compound we visited, we saw only men and boys; the women were behind the scenes or spending their time in different compounds.

           Most homes have been constructed of stone, with mud used as mortar to keep the stones in place, mostly along the top portion. The basic building block for granaries is made of earth, water, and the dried stalks of millet, which are added in the formation of the bricks to give them strength and durability. The millet granaries are made of the mud that has been covered over, stucco-like, with another layer of mud that gives a smooth finish. Roofs use one of two materials: the millet granaries with straw that is pointed like an inverted cone and the homes with millet stalks lying horizontally on top. Many of the doors and windows of the homes and granaries are intricately carved with figures, a hallmark of the region.

            Most of the homes have a porch-like area in front, in which the overhanging portion is supported by tree trunks or branches. Each village has a toguna, a low-roofed public meeting place and shelter for men, who socialize and conduct village business under the low roof that is supported by nine pillars made of either carved tree trunks or mud bricks. It's surprising to see how low the roof lines are on the togunas, as it is necessary for men to stoop down so that they can enter.

            None of the villages has electricity, so we were in an area where city lights did not compete with the night sky. The first night we slept on the roof of a building, under the planetarium-perfect sky. The only thing missing was the voice of the narrator and his laser light to point out the constellations he was talking about.

           After that first night in Kani-Kombolé, we drove to Téli. Leaving Grandmom in the village, we walked up the side of the escarpment to see some of the cliff dwellings. After sitting for a while, sheltered and overlooking the expanse ahead of us, we headed back into the village for lunch. Hassimi did an admirable job of explaining my vegetarian needs in each village, and we always had something delicious waiting for us, such as sweet potato stew, macaroni, rice, couscous, or potatoes with tomato or other kind of sauce.

            It didn't take long for the villagers of Téli to find out that there were tourists in town, and there was a steady stream of them parading through the compound where we were eating and lounging during the afternoon, showing us their cloth, carvings, and other crafts for sale: the Dogon Home Shopping Network, but we couldn't change channels. I traded a sport shirt, a T-shirt, and some pens and pencils for a few small carved figures, happy to get rid of some more stuff I didn't want. Hassimi thought it was funny, and wondered out loud if I would have any clothing left at the end of my trip.

            In the middle of the afternoon, we ate some watermelon, Hassimi telling us that the Dogon word for it is sana. Carl chimed in that it is sandia in Spanish. I realized that I had never heard the French for watermelon (pastèque), but I did remember that it is suiko in Japanese, and contributed that to the discussion. When the teenage boys heard the word in Japanese, they asked me, "Nihongo wa dekimasu ka. Anata no namae wa nan desu ka." (Can you speak Japanese? What is your name?)

           Needless to say, I was surprised to hear Dogon teenagers speaking Japanese! They had learned many phrases from a Japanese tourist who had come to visit during the previous year, fell in love with the region, and stayed around for a few months - long enough to build a beautiful stone school for the village, with labor being contributed by some of these boys and other villagers.

           Our stop for that evening was Endé-Toro. While we were waiting for dinner, a local man came by to inquire whether any of us would like a traditional Dogon massage. Both Carl and I were game, as well as pleased that the cost was as reasonable as it was, the equivalent of $2. The masseur used an oil that comes from the karité tree. He did a fine job.

           Shortly after dinner, we heard drumming and a bit of commotion outside our area of the compound. There was a large group of French tourists in another part of the auberge, and the management had hired some local dancers to put on a show for us. When we arrived, the drumming was in full force and a young man was sprinkling water onto the dirt dancing area, to keep it moist so that the dancers wouldn't kick up a lot of dust.

           Imagine an area roughly the shape of a rectangle. At the north end were several boys whose primary function was to keep the campfire going by feeding it with dried stalks. On the east side were six drummers with drums of various sizes, as well as a few spectators sitting next to and standing behind them. We were part of the audience seated on the south end, facing the central "stage" area. To our left, coming from the western side, were the dancers and the "wings," mostly dressed in Western street clothes, and all barefooted. They advanced toward the drummers in pairs, trios, and small groups, with no apparent segregation of men and women during the first few dances.

           After a while, some of the people in the audience got up to join the villagers, much to the delight of the Dogons. We saw an all-male dance in which the lead dancer led his countrymen behind him, jumped ahead to do a solo, and then turned over the stage to the next one in line.

           When we decided to call it a night, the drums were still pounding. I returned to our room to prepare for bed and found a scorpion crawling around. I had never seen one before. Fortunately, it was slow. Carl took our kerosene lantern and placed it on top of the scorpion, both of us thinking that the heat would kill it. But a few minutes later, when he removed the lantern, the scorpion was still moving around, so he killed it with a good few whacks with his shoe. I favor kind treatment of animals, but draw the line at scorpions invading my sleeping quarters.

           We went to sleep to the beat of the drums, happy to be in Dogon country and satisfied with all we had seen so far - a great way to end the week!