When I open the grocery store refrigerator, I'm always hoping to be surprised by a mango juice that had been my favorite treat or a calerie-laden flavored milk (chocolate, strawberry or banana) or a yogurt drink. I have to be happy with simply some somewhat cool water that I can pour into my own water bottle. Food too has become minimal. Bananas and hard-boiled eggs are rarely to be found any more. All I can count on is sardines and dough balls. One village in five will have someone with a table and chairs and a pot of rice and a pot of some sauce to put over it. Sometimes when I peek into a pot I'm disappointed to find it is full of utensils and the food is done for the day.
Hardly a soul stirs from their spot on the shade as I slowly pass through the villages straining to catch a glimpse of a large white refrigerator that indicates shop. Even when I stop and walk past men sprawled in the shade, few have the energy to greet me. Most only speak their local language, which they know i wouldn't speak. It is so rare for a white to make an appearance in these villages the kids aren't accustomed to being given candy, so don't come running with their hands out as in Senegal. I am such an unlikely site, people seem too perplexed to react.
The most responsive folk are my kindred spirits out in the countryside--young men sitting in a horse or donkey-drawn cart hauling a load of wood they have gathered. The goat herders too give me a cordial bonjour.
It is well into the dry season and the air above is a brown haze from the dirt and send blown up by the Saharan harmattan winds, though the air has been mostly still, making for easy pedaling. The terrain was flat for 420 miles across Senegal and the first 100 miles of Mali before it climbed 700 feet up onto a plateau. The haze is a welcome sun filter sparing me from having to use sun glasses or sun block. It's also a relief being spared of the sun beating down on me.
The vegetation is thinning, letting the occssional baobab stand even more prominently above all else. They cheer me on and answer the question how did I ever find myself in this unlikely of locales.
When it comes time to camp, I have to pedal over the hard ground for several minutes to be distant enough from the road not to be seen. I awoke to my third flat tire one morning, another wire sliver puncture on my rear tire. And I discovered I had two broken spokes. One was on the freewheel side, which meant I had to find a vise or a hefty wrench. I was fortunate to pass a bike mechanic on the outskirts of a town. He didn't have a vise, but he did have a wrench and the strength to remove the freewheel after several attempts. He used my remover and my spare spokes, as he had none. He was a maestro with his spoke wrench, giving each of my wheel's 48 spokes a pluck and then adjust-ment where need be.
Wifi continues to be an extreme challenge. A booth providing telephone service in Kayes advertised wifi, but the operator couldn't find a password that would work. After innumerable attempts he headed off with my iPad, saying he had to ask at an office around the corner. I wasn't sure if that was the last I'd see of it. He returned five minutes later with no success. As I was leaving town, having given up on trying any further, I came upon a hotel/restaurant that advertised wifi. No one I had asked had mentioned it.
In over 150 miles since Kayes, I have passed just one hotel and it was closed. There have been no restaurants catering to the motorists of some means who might be interested in wifi as there was one instance of in Senegal. For several hundred miles in Senegal and Mali the road has followed a rail line no longer in use that used to connect Dakar to Bamako, another indication of a faltering, rather than growing economy.
The road remains paved but it has turned rough. Broken down vehicles are frequent, some abandoned and others guarded by their drivers until help can arrive.