#2, Senegal/Mali, Dec. 31, 1990

Dear Everybody,

That second night in my room on the boat I was awakened by birds (?) rats (?) mice (?) bats (?) squeaking in the wall right near my head. There were holes in the wall and for a second, I saw feet come through the hole in the wall. It was so unnerving that I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I did get a little more sleep in the other bed that was not up against the wall.

After breakfast, I taxied to the airport to get my flight to Timbuctu. A couple of hours later the flight was cancelled due to ‘poor visibility’ because of blowing sand. I was told there would be a flight the next day. I had a nice conversation in the airport with a young Dutch woman. She was married to a Malian musician whom she said was the most famous blues musician all over Europe and Africa. He was with her, and looked like an American black jazz musician with his black suit, black hat, high-heeled black shoes, gold jewelry and he was wearing sunglasses indoors. They had a nine-month-old baby whom they were taking to her husband’s village near Timbuctu, so the relatives could meet her. The Dutch lady’s student brother was also traveling with them.

I went to the Hotel Sofitel, but there were no rooms available. However, I had discovered a hotel near the airport, which was much better than Le Bateau. There was no hot water, but I showered and shampooed anyway—what a relief!

The next morning I was at the airport by 7:15, and they promptly loaded us on a nine-passenger airplane. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the plane engine started, and so they took us off again. I decided to go back into town while we waited, to go to the bank. I did get some money changed (it took forever!) but when I got back out to the airport, the flight was cancelled! They said it would go tomorrow, for sure!

Back in town I went to the market and bought some sandals and a blanket, and ordered a bou-bou to be made to my specifications. A bou-bou is a flowing, wildly patterned garment with a tunic top and pants to wear under the tunic. Lunch at the Bar Mozo was Capitaine (fish), French fries and onions.

Saturday morning—back out to the airport! A 48-passenger jet-prop plane arrived at 8:30, and by 9:15, we were on our way to Timbuctu! Finally! I sat next to a Swiss man who worked in Rabat and was in Mali on vacation.

We arrived Timbuctu at 11:00 after making one stop. We were loaded into a bus/truck to go to the police station and present our documents. Then the Swiss man and I took a taxi to the Sofitel, where I had reserved a room at the Sofitel in Mopti. Surprise —they didn’t have my reservation, and they had booked out all their rooms to a group that arrived on the airplane, also. The desk clerk said that there might be one possible room! The Swiss man was trying to get that one and he could speak French with the desk clerk, which I could not. So I said, “I made a reservation here, but if that one room becomes available, I’ll share it with you, if it has two beds!” We waited while the desk clerk and the tour leader went over the roster—and waited, and waited. The Swiss man finally left, and I waited some more. Finally, the desk clerk said I could have the room. He called the bellman, nodding for him to take my suitcase, and also the suitcase of the Swiss man. I guess we were sharing the room! Fine.

I had a mediocre lunch at the Sofitel, and went out to explore. I was immediately swarmed by 14 boys, all about 13 years old, who all wanted to be my guide. I appointed three of them to the task and told the others to leave. The three showed me around this small town. We saw the houses of three European explorers. The first of these to arrive in Timbuctu was a Scot, named Gordon Laing, who was killed on his way home; his house was pointed out. Next we stopped at the house of Rene Caillie, an explorer that arrived in 1828. He had traveled for many years, disguised as a Moor, and lived to tell the tale. Heinrich Barth, a German, who also had a house, arrived in 1858. He had traveled for five years from Tripoli through Nigeria, disguised as an Arab. He nearly lost his life, but he, too, made it home to tell the story of Timbuctu. At that time Timbuctu was pretty run-down, as it is today, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a rich place of great learning and academics.

We visited the three mosques, which are some of the oldest mosques in West Africa. They were all fairly small and not terribly impressive, but they were old. I saw an outdoor communal oven where they baked the bread. All of the bread that I ate in Timbuctu had sand in it—probably from baking it in an outside oven! We walked on to the Grand Marche, the market, which was pretty small and pitiful. In total, the town is quite picturesque with its sand everywhere, but it’s pretty small and doesn’t take long to cover.

 

 

 

Before heading back to the hotel, I engaged a camel that would take me to visit the Tuaregs at 5:00, then went back to the hotel. At 5:00 the boy with the camel came to tell me that I could only have 10 minutes on the camel since so many tourists had come! I went to take a look, but I cancelled, as, by then I had pretty much seen what there was to see.

 

 

 

At dusk I walked into town, and two of my guides showed up and directed me to the small restaurant, Le Poulet, where I had an omelet and a Fanta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was sitting outside back at the hotel, I heard a drumming noise and some music. One of my boy-guides was there, so I asked him what the drumming was about. He told me a marriage was going on, and asked me if I would like to go. So off we went.

We walked quite a ways. Timbuctu has two main streets at right angles to each other and we were walking diagonally from one to the other, crossing areas with small sand dunes inhabited by Tuaregs. We finally reached a house where people were dancing and clapping in the street. My guide asked the doorman if I could go in the house, as the groom was in there. He let me pass into the vestibule, and I could see the groom sitting in a circle in a large room with about 15 or 20 of his male friends. A Coleman lantern was burning in the middle of the group. The Marabout was standing, then he said some words and they all took a prayerful pose, holding very still as the Marabout said the prayer, which was long enough for me to take a non-flash picture.

We went back outside so I could take some pictures of the dancing being done by children and young people, who seemed to love having their picture taken. They clamored and all tried to get in each picture. Then I distributed some chewing gum, which really caused bedlam! It was fun to interact with these energetic young people. My guide and I walked back to the hotel in the dark with a full moon shining overhead. I went to bed and the Swiss man, my roommate (!) came in and went to bed a little later.

The next morning the Swiss man and I introduced ourselves—his name was Maurice, and we ate breakfast together. He had planned to go to the desert with a guide to see the camels and invited me along.

The dunes were beautiful in the morning light and the camels were exciting to see. We also saw a cemetery of sand that had big urns overturned on each grave with a name written on the urn. This was just to mark the spot—the guide said that there was nothing in the urn. We saw some people loading up camels to get ready to set out for who-knows-where!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went off to the airport; our plane came in about 10:30, circled the airport several times and landed. When it arrived, there was a lot of sand in the air, and the plane was not visible to us until it was very close to the ground. Apparently it was doubtful that he would be able to land as the wind was very strong and was kicking up a lot of sand.

I got back to Mopti about 1:00—Maurice stayed on the plane and went on to Bamako. I finally got a room at the Sofitel—what do you know, they actually had my reservation which I had made many days earlier! I went off to eat at the Bar Mozo, and when I was walking back to the hotel, I heard someone calling to me. It was Mamadou! He came from Bamako to escort me to the Dogon as we had agreed. He told me he recognized me by my nose (!)—never mind that I was one of only a few white people in town!

Today is New Years Eve Day—what a day it was! We planned to go to Djenne, and Mamadou turned up at 8:00 as we had agreed. Before getting the truck/bus, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to stop at the bank and cash some travelers checks. This took one hour! So by the time we got to the truck/bus, it was 10:00 and this one weren’t going until 10:45. They still didn’t go at that time, as the truck wasn’t full enough, so I asked Mamadou to ask the driver if they would go if I bought two more tickets, which cost about $5 each. He did, I did, and they did.

I thought we’d never get there. We stopped many times. One time at a police check the problem was that Mamadou didn’t have the right papers, and this cost more money, but finally we got to the ferry, put the truck on it to cross a river and arrived in Djenne at 3:00! I was fairly crabby by this time, as I hadn’t eaten all day and I was frustrated by the slow progress. We went to see the beautiful mosque, which was the reason to come here. It was made of mud, constructed in 1905, but built in the same design as the previous one on the site, which was built in the 11th century. It’s a grand example of Sahel-style or Sudanese architecture. It’s really quite breath-taking, and it was worth it! This being Monday, a robust market was in progress in front of the mosque. The people were wonderful to see, but at that moment, we went to eat as I was starving!

We ate grilled chicken, fries, bread and drank beer. Ah, now I felt better! I met the cook, Joseph Taylor, who was from Togo. He sat with us and recited the whole history of slavery.

 

Back we went to the market, seeing the many women who had gold rings in their noses, and many gold earrings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The truck left to return to Mopti at 6:30 in the dark, although there was a full moon. The truck was cram-packed full with 20 passengers, and this time I was sitting in the back of the truck, too. We stopped many times to let people off—once for the driver to pick up and load some wood on the roof of the truck, which he had to deliver to his house before he would take us back to my hotel. And once the truck had to be repaired. The temperature cooled off a lot, and it was quite uncomfortable in the truck as it neared midnight. Delays, delays, delays—a slice of African life!

We finally got back to my hotel at 12:30 AM. Since it was New Years Eve we each had a whiskey to celebrate, but it was also because Mamadou had a toothache and he thought it would help kill the pain. I’m not sure he’ll be able to go to the Dogon tomorrow as we had planned.

Carol

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