February 13, 2012

by Mike Reali in Bamako, Mali

Saturday, 11 February, 2012

Our first day in Bamako. Time to get out and see some of this city we’ve been working so hard to reach. Cities fascinate me, so after having spent so much time in the desert I was looking forward to finding out what this place was all about, since like just about every other place we’d visited I’d had no real preconception of it.

Unfortunately Bamako’s public transit system consists of taxis alone. Instead of a bus system the streets are filled with these old Mercedes vans, many brightly hand painted in green with different designs, windows cut out of the sides, a chain closing the space where the side door used to be, and people spilling out of them. These are Sotramas, taxi vans; and hell if I’m going to be able to navigate the city in one of these without speaking the language. Then there are your regular yellow taxis. Without a meter in them the price is agreed upon up front. None of us being french speakers, Christian set us up with a driver and gave him an itinerary for us. We’d pay him 5000 CFA an hour for how ever many hours we wound up spending. After hitting a bank for some cash we drove past the National Museum on our way up to see the Presidential Palace, but were stopped at the top of the hill. We were not allowed to go any further. This is the only evidence of the recent unrest that we’ve seen or heard of. Going back down the hill we stopped at the National Museum and Botanical Gardens this time and did the most touristy thing we’ve done in the past two months. We went up to a kiosk and bought tickets to enter the Gardens and the Museum. I had to laugh; it seemed very out of place on this trip.


The Botanical Gardens basically make up a beautiful public park. Literally as soon as we stepped past the ticket collector some guy was on us, asking us where we’re from, trying to play tour guide. He’d been hanging out just inside the entrance, blatantly waiting for a few tourists just like us to enter. No sooner did I enter the park than I was aggravated. I just want to walk around a damn park; I don’t need someone to tell me which direction to meander in, and everything that’s in the pamphlet that I just got at the door. Yes, I can see that’s the tea house. Yes, I know the museum is over to the right. So after making the usual small talk I politely told him we’d just like to relax and wander around the park. But he just kept walking with us. I felt like I was stuck on a track, being pushed along, so I suggested we all split up and just meet back at the museum later. Stephen said he was going to go sit in the cafe and enjoy coffee and wifi, and as Dennis and I walked on this guy was still with us. What got me was he showed us where the path was that goes high up the hill, Point G it’s called, where you can get a panoramic view of the city, which is what I was hoping for. So I lightened up and followed him. It was a bit of a hike, and we’d essentially left the park, but we got the view, I took some photos, and the guy said we could keep walking and come down the other side, closer to the museum, which is where we wanted to end up. So ok, we follow.


As we’re walking he wants to know do we smoke, do we like beer, do we like women. He says he’s a musician, and he can show us where we can see some good live music tonight. He’ll give us his phone number and we can call him and he’ll come to our hotel on his motorbike and lead our taxi to the venue.

I’d considered the possibility of him robbing us once I realized we were isolated outside the park, but these kinda guys are more scammers than literal thieves. He said he didn’t want money as compensation, he just wanted a Coke. But as we walked around this hill we weren’t descending, we were only getting further away from the park. And then my camera battery died and I’d forgotten to carry a spare, so I was really in a foul mood. Dennis was happy as a clam, telling him all about our trip, and the ambulance, and Dakhla. I was looking down at the fantastic view of this crazy market we were heading towards and wishing my camera worked. His agenda obviously included taking us to this market, and eventually we walked far enough that I remarked that we’d have to take a taxi to get back to the museum. And this guys says, “Oh, you’re tourists, you have plenty of time!” So I explained to him that we did not; that we were paying for a car that was sitting outside the museum waiting for us; that our friend was there waiting for us as well. This was no leisurely stroll either. We were hiking in 90 degree heat, high above the city.


Finally we start descending, and we’re dropping straight into this gritty open air market. A woman balancing a giant bowl of some cargo on her head ascends the hill past us, now just steep rocks. We’re passing massive piles of trash, piles of plastic bottles, people busily toiling away amongst filth. We get to the bottom and everything is covered in a greasy blackness. A deep trench gutter runs between the roadway and the ramshackle stalls, and it’s filled with all manner of refuse. Wooden planks bridge the gap between the stalls and the road. The rear one third of a car body serves as an ottoman for one shop proprietor.

Our guide is now pointing to restaurant that has real authentic food, it’s very good he says, and he suggests if we’re hungry we can go there now. Again I explain to him why we can’t. I offer to buy him his soda now, only the soda he requested has now become a beer, and you can’t find one here. But he tells me things are cheap here, and if I want a water or something it will cost a lot more at the museum, which of course is true of any museum. I was dead thirsty by now, so I said ok, show me. He leads us to a stall and indeed a liter of water is only 400 CFA. And it’s cold too.

It had long since become clear to our guide that I was not keen on the tour, but he’d become extra buddy-buddy with Dennis by the time we finally began the long trek back to the museum. The road that takes us there runs behind the stadium, and on one side you have the trash trench gutter, and on the other a long row of empty abandoned market stalls, some literally filled to the top with garbage. Once we get to the park entrance he has to explain to the guards how he took us out and all the way around so we can get back in. He acts like he’s cool with all of them and leads us right past them, but one of them follows us in to examine our torn tickets. You could tell they’re not down with this but obviously we don’t know any better, we’re tourists.

So ok, now let’s get this guy his beer and be done with him. We start to head toward the cafe to get Stephen and I say we’ll get him his beer there. But I realize there’s no reason both of us has to go. I told Dennis I’m gonna go ahead to the museum to save time while he takes care of this guy and gets Stephen at the cafe. Nonsensically this guy suggests that I give him the money for the beer and Dennis can give me my change later. I said, “Dennis, you can take care of it, right?” He says sure, and I trot off to the museum.

It was now nearly a quarter to five and I was worried that the museum would close soon. Fortunately it was open until six. Inside there are three exhibits: archaeological, fabrics, and masks and carvings. Sadly, a fourth exhibit of photography is closed. I was perusing the Dogon masks when my former guide appeared beside me. There was a problem. The cafe can’t make change, so he needs 5000 CFA from me and afterward he’ll give me the change, or some such bullshit, and he was talking fast like this was very urgent you know because the guard let him in to find me and Dennis obviously was still at the cafe.

I was fuming. The balls on this guy. Stonily I said, “You’re telling me the cafe can’t make change?”

He confirmed, and repeated his story with the same urgency. I turned and walked past him, heading toward the exit. He says, “Wait, where are you going?”

I said, “I’m going to the cafe, we can settle it there.”

“No no no no no!” he says, “Stay here, enjoy the museum!”

“It’s no problem, it’s not far,” I said, “we’ll settle it there.”

But no, now he’s adamant that I stay at the museum, don’t worry about it!

I imagined that Dennis was with Stephen waiting for this guy to come back, and that he was gonna pull some similar shit with them, but let them handle it. I was sick of this asshole. So I went back into the museum and tried to relax.

After a while Stephen walks in and I tell him the story. He says he didn’t see the guy and he doesn’t know where Dennis is. That was strange, I thought. But we took our time and made our way through all of the exhibits before setting off to find Dennis. By now we were going on four hours with the taxi. We looked out front for him, and checked the cafe. While in there I tried to by a Fanta, but they couldn’t change a five thousand. Made me actually wonder if maybe the guy wasn’t lying after all.

I figured if Dennis wasn’t at the museum he must’ve let this dude drag him someplace else. We were heading back there to check when he came running over from across the grass. I told him how the guy came looking for me in the museum for money and that I thought he was lying to me, and Dennis was able to confirm it.

“How much did he get offa ya?” I said.

“Twenty-five,” he says.

He started to offer an explanation, and I said, “Wait, do you mean twenty-five thousand?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Twenty-five thousand?!” Stephen says. “You gave him fifty dollars?!”

Well you can imagine Dennis felt pretty bad about the whole thing. He’d gone against his instincts and placed cash into a stranger’s hand for nothing. We tried not to push the subject, but neither of us could imagine handing over that kind of money to someone, especially since you would’ve had to do it at least three times to equal that amount.

We hopped into our taxi and headed off to our next stop for a late lunch at a Lebanese owned patisserie/restaurant aptly titled “Le Relax”, that appeared to be popular with other out-of-towners. Dennis tried to write off the fifty dollars as a pricey learning experience, and we all reflected on how far we’ve come. Getting lost in London seems like ages ago, and we’ve weathered much to get here. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s not easy to put it all into perspective, but one thing that was key still rings true; You have to take things as they come, one step at a time.