Thursday, February 8, 2018

Bamako, Mali

Just when I thought I had the ways of Africa figured out, or had at least come to accept its many challenges, it became more and more complicated and frustrating. Patience remains the key, but while one struggles to be patient, it is diffucult not to feel like a helpless victim as one is overwhelmed by stress and uncertainty.

As I closed in on Kati, knowing I had an oasis ahead with my long-time friend Bruce, I could begin to relax a bit despite the increasingly rough road and chaos of a city to negotiate.  All I had to do was find someone with a phone and have Bruce come lead me to his abode.  I began looking for a phone in some small villages as I approached Kati to give Bruce an initial warning, but without success.  No phone was to be found either at an electronics shop on the outskirts of Kati.  A pharmacist had a phone, but when he called Bruce, we received a message that his phone was out of service. My heart plunged.  It was approaching dark so I'd need to find a hotel.  The pharmacist didnt know of one, just  to continue further into the city.  Though Kati was of significant size, just north of Bamako, it had no evident central district where I might find a hotel, just rows and rows of nondescript shops along the congested paved street that continued on and on, such as had been the story through all of Mali.

When I came to another pharmacy a mile later I gave Bruce another try with the same disheartening response that his phone was out of service.  I had them try Sounkalo in Bamako to see if he knew an alternate way of contacting Bruce.  His phone connected, but he wasn't answering.  The trio of pharmacists behind the counter had no ready answer about a hotel, finally telling me to turn left a couple blocks up. That wasn't assuring at all. A few blocks after turning when I could see no sign of a hotel I stopped to buy some bananas and asked again.  I was told there was a hotel just a couple blocks up on the left.  When I got there, I saw no evidence of it. It was near dark and I was getting desperate.  How is this one going to turn out, I wondering,more out of curiosity than desperation as I knew wherever I ended up for the night would seem like a triumph.

I told a guy hanging out straddling a motorcycle I was looking for a hotel. He didn't know of any,  but he was helpful enough to ask a group of guys with motorcycles across the street who appeared to be the local version of a taxi stand. He came back with the thrilling news that there was a hotel down the alley, the first door on the left.  There was no sign for it, but yes indeed, there was a row of rooms inside the wall for rent.  Several were occupied by residents.  I was shown a room with no windows, but it had a shower and a fan.  The guy wanted $30 for it, an utterly absurd amount, and accepted $20, still a bit much, but within my level of tolerance.  It had no wifi, but he said the pharmacy on the corner did.  Before I took a bag off my bike, I zipped over to try to contact Bruce.

Bruce miraculously responded within a couple of minutes and said he knew exactly where I was.  It was just a couple blocks from the school where his wife worked.  Fifteen minutes later I had that long-awaited, joyous site of Bruce and his wife Kafoune.  Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

We returned to the hotel to fetch my bike and my ten thousand francs.  The proprietor was gone.  No one around knew where he was, but someone gave us his phone number.  Kafoune called him.  He said to return in the morning for the money.  At this point I didn't care much.  Kafoune was adamant though.  She was appalled that I had been charged so much for the room.  That would have been the local's price for a week or even a month.

It was now pitch dark.  Bruce and Kafoune had shown up on a motorcycle, with Kafoune in command.  It was an eight minute ride to their residence in thick traffic, the last few blocks on a dirt road.  I used my lights for the first time on this trip. They shared a walled compound with several other families, some of whom were sitting outside.

Bruce and Kafoune married last July.  She is still awaiting a visa to the US.  She still lives with her parents, though is in the process of building her own home that won't be ready until next January.  Bruce is happy to split his time between Africa and California, where he lives out of a van in Santa Rosa while he administers the Arlene Francis Community Center.  He brings to Africa his organizational skills to assist the disadvantaged and promote environmental causes.  He's trying to battle the epidemic of litter in Africa, figuring out a way to recycle the tons and tons of plastic bags and bottles that are everywhere.  One start was to post no-dumping signs across from where he lives, though they are hardly heeded.

He lectures at the school where his wife and mother-in-law work, trying to get the students to dispose of litter in receptacles rather than haphazardly dropping it as is the custom.  The next afternoon while we hung out at the school library Bruce prevented me from picking up litter.  He said he prefers to do it in the presence of students, so they will join in.  The litter truly is a scourge, but is totally accepted.  Bruce's mother-in-law, Maria, attends educational conferences all over the world.  Her first impression of the US was how clean it was, and also that not everyone was toting guns.  Her friends were all frightened for her when she attended her first conference there in Denver,  thinking guns would be everywhere.

Maria, like Kafoune, was a genuine dynamo.  She had the urge, as did Bruce, to join me exploring Mali via bike, not this year but maybe next.  If the Issis presence in Timbucku has been cleared up by then, it would make an enticing destination.  Bruce has yet to get there in any of his sojourns in Mali, the first in 1999, followed up in 2002, 2007, 2010 and 2017.  Now with a wife in Mali, he is working on gaining a Mali passport, which will make it much easier for him to travel in Africa, sparing him the cost of $100 visas for Americans in many of the neighboring countries.

Not only are visas costly, but they can be a monumental chore to obtain. After a day of rest in Kati, I spent a day-and-a-half in Bamako trying to get a visa to the Ivory Coast.  Kafoune was well aware of what an ordeal it would be and insisted on accompanying me to the embassy.  She was truly my guardian angel and saviour.  It was a not unpleasant twelve mile ride to the embassy, trailing her and Bruce.  She led some of the way and let me lead and set the pace on the open road before we hit the congested maze of the city.  She had no mirrors, but managed to keep me on her wheel.

I could remain calm knowing I didn't have to stop and consult my GPS as I would have innumerable times otherwise.  The internet gave two different locations for the Ivory Coast embassy.  We had to wait to leave until after nine when we could call to confirm where it was.  I also needed a visa for Liberia.  It didn't have an embassy in Bamako, meaning I'd have to go 500 miles out of my way to the capital of the Ivory Coast to get it.  That wasn't such good news, but I accepted it as an opportunity to get to know the country better than I would otherwise.

We didn't have the address for the Ivory Coast embassy other than it was behind the Radisson Hotel, which had been the site of a terrorist attack a few years ago.  Once we got to the Radisson we had to ask several times before we found the embassy.  I was told in. Very stern manner that  I had to lock my bike across the street and also that I had to wear long pants to enter the embassy.  And then the official we dealt with was equally stern behind his vast desk piled with papers.  He gave us a list of demands I had to fulfill, including a prepaid hotel reservation and photocopies of a bunch of my documents and also verification of where I had stayed in Mali.  

Kafoune and I went off on her motorcycle to find a copying shop and also the city hall where they could document my stay with Kafoune.  I had become a metal ball in a pinball machine.  We easily found a copy shop but had to go to two different city offices.  The second was jammed with people.  We were sent to several different offices packed with women sitting at typewriters besides stacks of paper.  It took half an hour for us to get what we needed and a charge of ten dollars.  

When we returned to the embassy over an hour later it was closed for lunch.  We had to wait 90 minutes for it to open. Getting a hotel reservation was too complicated to take care of in this time.  I hoped it would be waived, as it has been on other occasions in consideration of my means of travel.  But this official was unbudging.  He also rejected my passport photos, the same that had been accepted by Mali in Dakar. I could at least have them taken at the embassy for $5.  I was on the verge of forgoing the Ivory Coast and simply heading back to Senegal and ducking down to The Gambia.  But Bruce assured me that Sounkalo, who I'd be spending the night with, would be able to reserve a hotel for me, as he knew he had done for others.  

Kafoune led me for eight miles more through the thick Bamako traffic and left me at a school near where Sounkalo lived.

It was full-on chaos, but it was therapy to be back on the bike, somewhat in control of my destiny after hours at the mercy of the Ivory Coast embassy.  Sounkalo showed up twenty minutes later, hopping out of a taxi after a day of work in the city.  That was another joyous reunion.

It was a ten-minute walk to his apartment.  Boys were playing soccer on the wide dirt road in front of his home.  

A young woman was selling the dough balls that I continually munch.

After a shower we easily booked a hotel in the capital of Ivory Coast that I could cancel if I chose after I got my visa.  Except half an hour later the confirmation of my reservation was annulled, so we had to book another hotel.  Since we had already printed out the reservation I thought that would be enough to get the visa, but Sounkalo said the embassy would call the hotel.  I wasn't sure about that, but accepted his experience in such matters.

We had the meal of rice and peanut sauce that Sounkalo had promised me when I alerted him that I was coming to Mali.  And it was as sublime as promised. It had been two days since I had had rice, as Bruce resists it.  It had been meat and potatoes for dinner with him and Kafoune.  It was like a dream hanging out with Sounkalo after having met him at Telluride last fall, especially since he wasn't certain he'd be able to return to the US and Telluride this summer.  His work has suffered considerably with tourism near dead in Mali due to the Issis presence in Timbucku and the northeast of the country. Lonely Planet and the US State Department highly recommend travelers staying away.  

It was eight miles back to the embassy.  Doing it on my own I had to stop several times to verify directions.  I stopped at every bank I passed to try to break five and ten thousand Franc notes.  It's hard to get change from shops for any note larger than a one thousand.  Not every bank would change money but I did change sixty dollars worth, almost enough for the next two weeks on my budget.

I greeted the embassy official with the happy news that I had a hotel reservation.  All seemed in order as he stapled my photos to the forms and checked off box after box and had me fill in a few empty blanks.  Then it was more sitting and waiting.  Three hours later I was told he had called the hotel and couldn't confirm my reservation.  And that was that.  I wasn't going to try to make another reservation and suffer the same fate.  I wasn't at all looking forward anyway to having to go through all this again for visas to Liberia and then Guinea and Sierra Leone and Guinea-Biseau and The Gambia, and trying to get back to Dakar in time for my flight.

I had a noteworthy ride to Bamako.  Now I'll head back the same way and then explore more of Senegal in the next month.


dworker said...

No wonder no one visits Ivory Coast and the others. Their bureaucracy makes it impossible. Too bad you could not get in.
I have been to the north of Senegal. There is a 'national park' along the ocean front. But poachers have killed all the animals. The beaches are still pleasant, but that is all that you will get.

Jeff said...

Glad you were able to visit Bruce & everyone—sending you both many good Vespucci wishes!