The trip to Segou
The trip to Segou
On March 9th Marie and I arrived at the Bamako Bus Station at 10:00 a.m., fully realizing that our bus would not leave on time. However, it did leave a few minutes later and we began our three-hour trip, which lasted, from 10:15 a.m. until 3:15 p.m.
The bus presented well from the outside and was actually quite clean on the inside. It was built for air-conditioning (tightly sealed windows); unfortunately, the a/c had not even been considered as an option when the purchase was made. All seats were filled, with the passengers representing all levels of the lower and middle class. In my opinion, the upper middle and highest classes (considering financial status only) probably represented less than two percent of the Mali population. My fellow passengers were dressed in acceptable clothing for the area, but which would have been considered shabby by western standards. However, they seemed to perceive life in a very fun-loving manner; they were very gracious, considerate, and kind to their fellow man (that’s appropriate here, not person). Of course I was the only Caucasian.
I was observing the countryside as we were traveling, but will cover that along with other comments below. Upon arriving at Segou, of the 50 passengers, Marie and I were the only ones immediately surrounded by the five taxi drivers and their assistants, overwhelming us to accept their services.
Marie explained to the taxi-driver what we were looking for regarding a hotel, and we were taken to three before we made our decision. The final choice only had a fan, but it was set up in such a way that it served the purpose intended very well. The owner of the hotel was Caucasian and most friendly. I asked him if it would bother him if I guessed where he was born. When he replied, “Not at all.” I said, “Lebanon.” He replied, “How did you know?”
“I already know that you are very fluent in French and English, and most likely other languages, as well. You have the best presenting hotel for the price ($12) I have been in since Africa, two months ago. But at the same time you are not charging ridiculously high prices. Although you have a rather seemingly competent lady at your bar, you stay with your guests, making sure they are comfortable, with all their wants satisfied. You do not mind working in areas other than your native country. You have had an immediate answer to every question I have asked during the past 30 minutes and I know your answers are correct in that I was listening to comments from others pertaining to these same questions. You are very happy and jolly. So far during my travels in the developing world, only the Lebanese present as you do.” “Jim, that’s quite astute of you. How did you become so discerning?” “Just deductive reasoning, Ahmad.”
The next few days consisted of spending many hours on buses, stopping at towns en route for overnight stays, viewing the countryside, and mingling with fellow Africans; by this time my skin was starting to darken. From Segou to Mopti took seven hours, 9 am to 4 p.m.; from Mopti to Djenne, 12 hours, including a ten hour wait for the bus which departed when all seats were filled; from Djenne to Mboti, three hours; from Mopti to Sikasso, our last stop in Mali, from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. the following day. This last bus ride was my worst to date, perhaps comparing favorably with my bus trip from Kathmandu to the Nepal/Indian border two years prior. At one point, I woke up at 1 a.m., and found myself jammed because there were two persons too many sitting in that row. And for the first time in my life I experienced claustrophobia: I wanted off that bus!
The buses used for these trips were quite inferior to the one we had taken from Bamako. This was because not all passengers had seats. I guess I should have felt fortunate that Marie and I, in one way or another were always lucky in that respect, which I believe was often due to her manipulating.
For a moment I need to mention Djenne separately. The primary reason I went to that city, led me to delaying my journey by two days, was to view the biggest and most impressive mosque in Mali. Jan, the Hollander, and others had recommended it. We arrived too late to see it on our day going in, but promptly walked to it the following morning. On the way we passed an Italian couple who told us that the inside of the mosque was closed to non-Moslems. Later I learned that an Italian movie company had trashed it (probably un-knowingly) by doing part of an X-rated movie inside, and that was five years prior. Nevertheless, I continued my quest. When I got to the entrance steps, I observed a sign that confirmed what the Italians had reported. A Moslem had just taken off his shoes and was about to climb the steps when he raised his index finger and waved it left and right indicating the international sign for no no. Because he used his right hand, I was not offended. Also, the use of the index finger helped.
Marie indicated we would not be able to get in and might as well move on. However, there were some locals sitting in the shade of their truck, and I asked them what I would have to do to get inside the mosque. The speaker told us to go around the right side and talk to one of the officials.
The first official was sitting outside a small room with a closed door. He stood, bowed graciously, and replied, “No way.” I asked to see his boss and bowed while so doing. The boss came out of the small room, smiled, bowed, and said “Sorry sir, but no way.” I bowed again, thanked him and asked him whom I needed to see to gain entrance into the mosque. He had a puzzled look on his face, but sent his runner with the task at hand. By this time, Marie was looking at me with an expression of disbelief. I whispered, “Marie, never, never give up”.
The runner returned, and asked me to follow him. A short distance away I was brought into the presence of three young men who looked me over very carefully, then did an acceptable body search, then asked a series of questions, all of which I apparently answered to their satisfaction. I had just completed reading The Koran a few days prior. However, I did hedge on, “Was I a Moslem?” However, I did say I was working on it.
One of the young men left the area and returned in about ten minutes. I was brought to a small, well-furnished room, and was told to sit down with a very old man. He was probably in his late 60s, with a long well-cared for white beard, and wearing the most presentable Moslem cap I had seen. There were two other elders with him. Again I was asked a number of questions, and I could see, while discussing my case, that they were having difficulty coming to a decision. By this time, I was being led to believe that the mere presence of an infidel in their sacred mosque might require a million years of cleansing.
Finally, the senior man stood up and told me he would take me to another area of the town where the decision could be made at the highest level. A light went on over my head. Like Abraham’s Covenant with God, which I believe the Jews still follow as part of their religion, this same Abraham is heavily mentioned in the Koran. I concluded that I was about to lose face, or experience a small reduction in body weight. I explained to the old man, with Marie’s help, that I did not realize that this was going to take so long; although I tremendously appreciated his help, I had to move on to a very important appointment. As Marie and I were leaving, I stated that, “there are times when it is prudent to give up.”
Back to Sicasso, on the morning of Mar. 15, 2001, Marie and I boarded a bus heading for Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. I had been told that I could get into Burkina without a visa by Jan during our discussion in Bamako. Subsequently, however, I had been told and shown two travel books, which indicated a visa was essential, and was to be obtained prior to reaching the border. By that time, I was too far away from the capital to return, so I decided to wing it.
The officials on both sides of the border presented no significant problems. On the Mali side, I was called aside because the-man-charge was having difficulty locating my visa permitting me to enter Mali. By this time I had given away all my fake Rolex watches (for the semi-sophisticated, who only look at the pictures in a magazine once in a while, this is one very impressive gift). He asked me to find it, which in a fraction of a second allowed me to conclude I should have brought more Rolexes. Did not this person have the ability to instantaneously identify his own country’s visa as easily as a tail-gunner of a B-I 7 was able to identify the silhouettes of enemy aircraft during World War II?
I shook his hand, gave him one of my most gracious smiles, saluted, and told him about my army experience and that I knew his job had to be very difficult. By this time Marie was assisting me. I relayed to her that I wanted her to translate, not interpret (I am not using the two verbs as meaning the same here). Very quickly, instead of a watch giver-outer, I became a comrade-in-arms. Emitting a happy sigh, he stamped my passport. I smiled, and under my breath said, “Eureka!” One of my first rules in traveling is to show much respect to all officials, especially border guards, and more so, if they are wearing a uniform, and even more so if the official is low-ranking.
We were allowed to proceed to the Burkina Faso border where the senior official called me into his office and explained that his men had not found a visa on my previously collected passport; I replied that I was aware of that, but I had planned to obtain the visa at the border, recognizing he had such authority and that he could assist me. Of course, I expected to pay the designated price and any add-on because I might be adding to the difficulty of his job. Big smile. He shouted an order to a private, who disappeared for a few minutes. The officer then blew the dust off his treasure, affixed one page on my already heavily-burdened with entries passport, and added the four required stamps. However, he only charged me 10,000 CIFA ($14). I felt I got a bargain. Many days later, when reentering from Niger, I learned from one lady that she had paid 30,000 CIFA; she smiled and stated I would have to pay more prior to leaving. If I had seen her again, I would have told her I eventually had to pay more, which would not have been true, but anything to help a woman be right. Unfortunately, I did not see her again.
We arrived in Bobo in mid-afternoon, same date, registered for a good room with all the amenities that I look for, found a good Internet cafe within ten minutes walking distance from the hotel, located acceptable African restaurants, and a people who were at least as friendly as and perhaps even more so than the Irish themselves.