I've got some catching up to do. There will be slight duplication in the beginning of this post, my apologies.
I will be attempting to cover my time in Burkina Faso (briefly), followed by the bus ride of a lifetime to Sevare, Mali, trekking through Dogon Country, a trip up the Niger to Timbuktu, the fabled city itself, camping with Tuareg in the Sahara, followed by my return to this home away from home that I've found in Sevare, Mali. I'm thinking out aloud right now, but if it occurs to me that one or more of these stories isn't going to be enjoyable to type, than they can't possibly be enjoyable to read, and I'll pay them only cursory attention.
'Due in part to strong historical ties, but also because of the harsh environment and difficult living conditions, relationships between different sets of neighbours are based on mutual respect and interdependence. There is a strong sense of both family and community, which transcends ethnic and clan affiliations and, despite depressing economic statistics, makes Mali one of the world's richest countries in human terms' - excerpt from Bradt Mali guide book. This is how I've been trying articulate my feelings about Burkina Faso, although with regard to Burkina Faso, this description is a gross understatement. As for Mali, I'll get to it shortly.
My five days in Burkina Faso seems so long ago now, although I only departed on Christmas Eve. Recounting my time there would be a little boring, I think, as it isn't sufficiently fresh in my memory to do it justice. The thing that really stands out is the dignity of the people. There was never any hassle from sales folk, a friendly 'ça va' wherever I went, a surprising efficiency about the place - the one internal bus I took left a whole three minutes late - and even when it was apparent that I couldn't speak French and the locals couldn't speak English, they would bend over backwards in an attempt to help me. Which brings me to the story of my departure from Bobo-Dioulasso, and my journey across the border into Mali.
It all started with me wandering around town, looking around for the headquarters of either of the two bus companies who might just operate a service from Bobo to Sevare, Mali. Looking every inch the foreigner, with a map of the city in one hand and my phrasebook at the ready in the other, and proudly wearing my Shane Warne terry-towelling hat (no poms in this part of the world - thank god!), a local bloke approached me, and although his English really was only marginally better than my French, I was able to communicate the purpose of my mission. As we walked along, he told me of his travels in the region as a semi-professional footballer and artist, and we swapped stories about Ghana and he intimated his jealousy that I was heading, eventually, to Senegal, as this was his favourite country. He had travelled extensively through the region, and although I take more than a small amount of pride in being sensitive to the various forms of cosmopolitanism that exist in the world, it occurred to me that I was being further educated in this field.
We arrived at the first - the biggest and most obvious - bus station, and my friend made some enquiries on my behalf. No dice. So he suggested a smaller company, better known to the locals. Sure, why not. When we arrived, he had soon arranged (as I had articulated was my preference), a ticket to Sevare, leaving the next day at midday, to arrive at 22:00, costing 7000CFA (West African Francs - the single currency used by various Francophone countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal - the three Francophone countries through which I'll be travelling). The CFA is pegged to the Euro, and 1000 = almost exactly $2, a 15% improvement on when I started planning this trip - go you Aussie dollar! Back to Bobo. I was to 'check in' at 10:00 the following morning. All in all, a fantastic result, I thought. My friend asked me to have a look at his shop, to see if there was anything I liked. Fortunately, there was, and I was happy to offer more than the going rate for what was a rather small piece. He made a tidy profit, I didn't get pushed into paying significant overs or buying anything big, he was well looked after for helping me out, and I obtained the bus ticket that I sought. A successful morning's work, leaving me free to enjoy the rest of my last full day in Burkina Faso.
I arrived at the 'bus station' the following morning shortly after 10:00am. It was comprised of a driveway barely big enough for a mini-bus, and a couple of make-shift benches for those waiting. As these were under shade, and there were only a couple of others around, I caught up on some sleep, before I was woken shortly before midday. I was told to hop on the back of some random bloke's motorbike. Guess where he took me? Yep, the station where we had originally enquired about getting a ticket. No dramas, I tell myself, just go with the flow. Upon our arrival, all I could think was that this was surely a Malian bus company, because nothing Burkinabe could be so dysfunctional; ten or twenty people standing around, discussing how various cargo was going to be loaded. Chairs, buckets, watering cans, goats, motorcycles, etc, you get the picture. So I waited around while this was sorted, and was informed that this bus was for Bla, where I was to change for a different bus that would take me to Sevare. This is where my mind started to get a bit ahead of things - I was comfortable with being in Bobo, and I had done my research about Sevare, but Bla? What if I got stuck there......??? A quick look in the guide book was called for, a book that has 300 pages dedicated to Mali alone. Surely, any town where an international service changes would get a run, right? Nope. Not a mention. At this point, materially speaking, I was taking a bus to nowhere.
My name was called out, and I boarded the bus. '11' was on my ticket, and I figured this was my seat allocation, except I couldn't find anything denoting which seat was which. I asked, as best I could, a woman where my seat was. She was able to communicate that the number was meaningless, and offered me the space between her and the window, which was extremely kind, as a seat out of the sun's way (as this was) is a coveted spot in this part of the world, even on a late departing bus. I couldn't refuse, and she really was an extremely lovely lady and I mean no offence when I say this, but she might just happen to be the reason behind half of Africa's food security issues - she was utterly enormous, easily the biggest person I've seen here, and a giant by western standards. And you can put this down to malnutrition in this part of the world, but I have bigger shoulders than the average African bloke, which sets the scene for the next few hours.
We left some time after 14:00, more than two hours late, but not nearly as bad as other occasions. I was still confident that we would arrive at Bla, change - even if meant something of a wait - and head for Sevare. Well, true to form nothing too exciting, that is to say, wrong, occurred on the Burkina side of the border. And to be fair to Malian Immigration (about whom I'd heard stories), not only were there no problems at the border, but the officials asked me to join them for a cup of tea. I also had my first experience with a public toilet in Mali. When I ask 'where is the toilet', though, what I really mean is 'which tree needs watering?'. They don't see it like that. They construct stone walls about 5m x 2m, and about 1.4m high, divided with another couple of stone walls into three 'cubicles' - two sit-downs (holes in the concrete-covered ground) and one 'stand-up', which simply has a hole in the corner of the cubicle, something like a goal at which the blokes are supposed to aim. That's right, 1.4 metres high. Plenty high enough if you're sitting down, but just low enough - and the cubicles close enough to the main street - for everyone to see you if you're standing up. And of course, the 'goal' requires that you face everyone. Well, it was good for business, as I got stagefright, and had to wait for a lull in the traffic - both human and vehicular - before returning for a successful mission. A great result for the bloke who attends to the toilet though. The going rate is 50 francs, but I gave him 300 on both occasions, the first time out of guilt (as though I'd insulted his toilet), the second time out of relief. His image will never leave me though. Here was a man who runs a public toilet at a border crossing in the Sahel for a living, yet was just so happy - I couldnt help but feel a little pathetic with some of the precious behaviours I exhibit at times. He also happened to wet himself laughing at the sight of my relief the second time around. And although I can't speak a word of Bambara, there was no confusing what he said - stagefright and its comic value for others knows no borders.
Well, there were no problems at the border, I thought, but no, that was just Immigration, of course. Customs was another issue. They decided to check everything on board, Malian style, which means taking everything off the bus, not really checking anything at all, and then leaving us where we were back at the bus station in Bobo, with a thousand cooks standing around, trying to determine the least efficient way of reloading the cargo. I swear to god, the goats could do a better job. Or at least this is how it appears, there could well be some value in the way that things are done, but it's hard for an outsider to understand what that might be.
So, after a couple more hours wasted at Customs, we hit the road again. For about five minutes. Stop. Allah Time. I started singing this to the tune of MC Hammer while the men of the bus alighted, rolled out the mat, turned to Mecca and prayed. I kept it quiet though - don't think they would have appreciated my input. Eventually, we hit the road again, but it was well and truly getting dark by now, and we were barely into Mali. Discussion among the passengers soon revealed that this bus would stop in Bla, and continue on to Bamako, which is more or less the same direction, but is situated at a 120 degree angle from the direction of Sevare, not to mention a solid day's drive. It was important that I alighted at Bla, but where would this leave me? I had paid for a ticket to Sevare, and although I wasn't too concerned about the money, I was concerned about reaching my destination. We continued into the night. It gets dark very early in this part of the world, and with no electricity in most places, no street/place name signs, and my complete inability to speak French, my journey now came to resemble something of a lottery, as there was no way of knowing at any time where I was, or how far we were from Bla, the town that, according to Bradt, need not exist.
I think that for anyone who has endured (and to be honest, quite possibly enjoyed) that bus/train ride, there is an overriding feeling of helplessness that characterises the journey to some degree, some kind of uncertainty that paints the whole experience in such a light that the passenger is desperate for the journey to end. This could be because they are unwell, it is oppressively hot, the vehicle is cramped beyond belief, the poor quality of the road, perhaps the passenger feels that their safety or security is threatened by the soundness of the vehicle/road/driving or an intimidating co-passeneger, but in my case, it was, as mentioned, that I needed to be taken from Bobo to Sevare, and anywhere else would simply be another realm - no language, no knowledge of the local area, and as it was now pitch-black, no idea where I would stay once dumped in Bla, if I was lucky enough for this to heppen. Having been in this part of the world for a while now, I've acclimatised pretty well, but stepping back for a minute, I can't think of too many places in the world more isolated than the outer edges of Mali.
We passed one town after another, and my friend seemed to be asking me if I was going to Bamako. No, I replied, 'Bla'. Village after village we passed, with no more than a few people gathered around kerosene lanterns, illuminating the fact that this 'highway' was taking us through villages of no more than a few huts or makeshift houses. People would disembark at various times, and there would be the odd police checkpoint, although their function remains one of West Africa's great mysteries. The bus continued on its way and so late was it getting, that I was hoping that it would never reach Bla. Although I was entirely correct to believe that my security was never endangered, for me, when travelling, it's simply a fact of life that any challenge is less intimidating in the light of day. Alas, we arrived in Bla. One other person stepped off with me. I turned to the bus driver and simply said 'Sevare?'. He pointed to the other passenger. I tagged along with this other bloke, who took me to the second of Bla's two streets, to what was more or less a bus stop. A brief conversation between my new best friend and a local ensued, and he put his luggage down, said something to me and walked off. I dropped my backpack to the ground and used it for a seat, wondering what the hell was going on. He returned with two loaves of the most delicious, crusty French sticks I have ever had, and handed one to me. We sat for a few minutes, and one of the few phrases I know in French is 'where can I buy...?' and he pointed me to the source of the world's greatest bread. Noting that the public toilet was close by, I took the chance to use it - the attendant there refused my money, perhaps out of pity, but more likely out of hospitality, a 'my urinal is your urinal' kind of thing. Either way, it's things like this that stick in your mind.
I returned to my friend with two loaves in tow, in an effort to reciprocate his generosity. Then the most amazing thing heppened - a bus turned up, heading for Sevare. I had to pay another 6000 francs, and I was sitting on an empty fuel container in the stairwell (why they wouldn't just let me sit on the stairs, I have no idea), but I was on my way. For about ten minutes. The bus broke down, and everyone eventually hopped off, realising that this wouldn't be fixed quickly. An hour and half later, we were going again - for less than five mins, broken down again, this time in company with another bus in the same situation. Everyone jumped off immediately this time, knowing that a long wait would once again ensue. I don't know how long it took to fix, or if it's still there. The locals had obviously seen all this before, and every time a vehicle bigger than a VW beetle went past, they would try to flag it down. We'd been waiting for about an hour and a half, when the strangest looking bus I've ever seen turned up. I honestly don't know how to describe it. If the broken down bus was 30 years old, then this must have been at least 50. It had the strangest headlights - loacted above the driver, they spun around and around, which left me wondering if it could have once been an ambulance - it certainly wouldn't have looked out of place on the set of MASH. A few girls had flagged down this bus, yelling 'Sevare? Sevare?'. With a positive response from the driver, they went rushing to grab their bags, and I followed. We jumped on board, paid our money (another 4000, but I was way beyond caring), and found our seats. There was plenty of room, which was a bonus, but as our refugee from the 4077 left an automotive triage behind, I looked around at the other people on the bus. It wasn't just the transport that was from another realm. These people were the ugliest, weirdest-looking freaks I had ever seen. I know that sounds horrible, but I'm sugar-coating things as best as I can. Just watch The Dark Crystal, and you'll get a better idea. I have read quite a bit about the ethno-cultural diversity of this region, and can recognise the physical differences of a number of different peoples, but I'm at a loss when trying to explain who these guys were. Thankfully, they were quite rude, so I don't feel quite so bad about being this horrible. Besides which, I just don't trust pale Africans, except for albinos, of which I've seen four; two in BF (in only five days!), and one each in Ghana and Mali, but albinos and the albino-citing league ladder is another story. At any rate, I figured it must have been about 03:00, but we were on our way to Sevare.
At this point, I realised it was Christmas, which just made me laugh (sorry Mum - didn't quite make it to Midnight Mass). It was also at this time that things started to get extremely cold, I mean, really very cold - something to do with the holes in the floor of the bus, perhaps? I was in and out of sleep when there was a commotion. The girls with whom I'd boarded the bus were making a fuss and getting off. Should I get off too? What were they going to do? Why were they getting off? I basically decided to stick my head in the sand. I had paid for the bus to take me to Sevare, and therefore, this would happen - it's not like I'd ever been let down by someone making such a promise before, right? It soon became apparent why the girls left. Even for someone who knows nothing of Malian geography, I could tell that we were so far off the beaten track it wasn't funny. I was confident the bus would, in fact, terminate in Sevare, providing it didn't terminate beforehand. This land was like a scene from a movie - barren but not desert, the only houses were constructed by whatever these people could get their hands on. The villages on the road to Bla had no electricty, but for this part of the world, kerosene lamps remain some distant hope. This may always be the poorest region I ever experience, and even then, from the relative comfort of the bus. And I'll never really know where it was.
It struck me as being odd that the girls were so afraid of a little detour to...wherever this was. Then, two things happened. Was this a mirage? There had been a degree of daylight for some time now, and on the side of the road, there was a very small sign which read 'Sevare - 90'. Thank God. Whatever happened from here, I was less than 100km away from the familiarity of Sevare - a place that I'd only read about but arriving there would surely feel like coming home. Then it occured to me why the girls had disembarked. Something had just gone amiss with the bus, and despite attempts to fix it, we more or less limped the last 90 km to Sevare, taking nearly three hours to do so. This is what they'd been afraid of; any brakedown in the land of the gelflings would have meant a wait of, potentially, days, for another vehicle to come along. Just exactly would I have done then? I honestly can't say. Who knows, I might have even ended up marrying a gelfling and having freak-show babies of my own. Incidentally, with about 50km to go, the other half of Africa's food security issues boarded the bus and decided to sit next to me, despite the fact that there were, by this stage, spare seats everywhere. Why do people do this? Another one of West Africa's mystreries.
So here I am in Sevare. I've had several adventures since, but I'm too typed out to discuss them now. I might need to stay in town for another day. This place has become a base for my travels into Dogon Country, up to Timbuktu and into the Sahara, and the place where I'm staying, Mac's Refuge, has proven to be something of a home away from home. In relative terms, Christmas Day saw the most amazing lunch and dinner I have ever known. After a couple of weeks of rice, sauce and bread (not to mention the bus ride), to have so much meat, salad and vegies was unbelievable. If you're ever in this part of the world, I recommend you stay here - just don't ask me for directions.
Until next time, all the best from Sevare.