Monday, 12 October 2009

She Says - Big Bad Bamako

10-12 October
Well, our initial happiness at being in Mali is being distinctly soured by staying in Bamako, the capital city. We arrived here from Nioro after a long hot ride, but nonetheless unexpectedly arriving, as we were all under the impression that the road would be mostly piste (dirt) and therefore take us some time to get here. We didn’t have a great start to the day, as Xander came out to start packing the bike, was told by the guardian that the bike alarm went off several times during the night and someone had been messing with the bike, then Xander found the rectifier warning light was on again. Thinking it was just because the battery was low from running the alarm all night, for some reason he checked the wring to the rectifier that he had previously repaired in Morocco, and found part of it had burned through again! He fixed it up, with some thanks to Ron for giving us a new roll of electrical tape after finding ours had crapped out, but now we’re just waiting to see what happens…Here in Bamako, Xander has cut open the plastic faring covering the rectifier some more (something he did a while ago to help cool the rectifier, a common problem on this particular bike), and now he is out adding some newly purchased flyscreen mesh bought in the Bamako street market to add protection and keep the airflow going. Please allow this to fix the problem!!?!?!

So getting to Bamako was easy enough, only a few patches where the road crapped out. We stopped for lunch in a small town, yummy fresh-cooked omelettes in baguettes. We ended up with a group of kids around us, all asking for presents rather insistently. Our trick of asking them for presents in return didn’t work as well as hoped! There was a guy sitting in the restaurant with us, who very amusingly kept telling us ‘Donnez-moi une cadeaux - Africa comme ca’ – Give me a present, Africa is like this – and would shake his head at the kids. Occasionally, an adult or the stall holder would shoo them off but they wouldn’t stay away for long! We started seeing a lot of signs for support projects from groups like World Vision and Christian organizations and couldn’t help but wonder if the kids are persistent about gifts due to the influence of aid organisations…The bike generates a lot of interaction for us from the locals, mainly big waves and smiles as we pass on the road, though some people are more sombre and stare but wave when we wave, others especially kids can go extremely manic when they see us! It’s certainly an advantage with the bike – no four-wheel-driver is going to get that kind of in-transit interaction with people. We’ve noticed that society is more ‘normal’ here, where men and women interact freely and are rarely separated, so we are now getting more interaction with women ourselves, from talking to them in the market in Nioro to getting smiles and waves on the road.

We had several choices of places to stay in Bamako, and two districts to choose from. Feeling fresh enough, we decided to try and find a hotel that sounded good but our book described as having an obscure location – ‘head west from the hippopotamus roundabout, turning off opposite the SNF petrol station’. Huh?! Well, obscure it certainly was! After suddenly finding ourselves in central Bamako, as seems to be the way with big African cities, we somehow managed to stumble across the hippopotamus roundabout – yes, it’s a roundabout with a giant hippo statue in the middle of it! We even found the SNF petrol station, but it all went wrong after that. We poked around, then got instructions from the station itself, then asked people on the street – there was no sign of this place. We gave up and decided to stay in the district well outside town, managed to find out what street we were on, and actually found the hotels we were after! After not being convinced by the security of the on-street parking at the first hotel we inspected, the manager told us about their sister hotel, Hotel Park, that has a locked parking compound. Better than that, it has a complete garden full of trees and little thatched huts with fans for sitting under. It’s an absolute haven inside a manic city! It’s costing a bit more than we wanted (20,000CFA – about 29 pounds), but the security helps and it’s not that expensive really (cheaper than the sister hotel!).

Managing to arrive once again on a weekend, we decided to look for the Burkina Faso embassy on Sunday, just so we knew what we would be doing this morning to sort out our next visa. Turns out the guidebook lied once again, and the embassy is no longer near-ish to our hotel but over the other side of the city centre – if it was ever over here! We worked this out in two ways – different address listed in the book to the map, and then searching on the internet and actually finding street locations worked well, and helped enormously this morning. So today we set off for the embassy, taking our first taxi, and getting waylaid on the way by a scam artist. Now it might sound pretty stupid, as we are wise to scams and have pushed away hundreds of wannabe guides and hustlers and people selling us things over the last few months. But this guy seemed genuine in his trouble and we thought we were protecting ourselves as it happened. Xander was also feeling that unless we take a chance to help people, how are we ever going to get these wonderful experiences we always hear from other people about how they got invited to stay with locals, etc. To sum up, he couldn’t get money out of a Western Union transfer because he was missing a code and needed to make a phone call to his girlfriend in Switzerland to get it. He said was from Ghana, and here only for a drumming festival. The guy should get an Emmy for his acting, as he honestly seemed desperate. Ghana is English-speaking, so we believed him when he said he couldn’t get help from the French-speaking locals. We figured it would be OK to help him as using a telephone boutique, which are everywhere, would be the only actual cost, then we just had to go with him when he got his money to get repaid. It started going wrong and we got suspicious – he seemed to speak with people, he buys cigarettes (no money?!), he asks someone to use their mobile, Xander gets distracted and I decided to allow the mobile call instead of finding a call boutique, the phone call works and he gets his code. Now suddenly he has to go find his friend to get his passport in order to get the money, and he changes from wanting to go back to the French embassy (near where he found us) to the Ghana embassy. He tries to make us catch a cab back, we refuse, but what I don’t understand is he stays with us and keeps walking. Eventually we part, us realising it’s a scam and the money has just gone to the guy with the cell phone, who our friend presumably gets a cut from – stupid us. The guy seemed genuine, nice and friendly with extremely good English. We make arrangements to meet him in two hours at the French embassy, but we already knew he was unlikely to show. At least we were only talking about 10 pounds lost, but I bet that was a lot for our friend and his mobile chum!

So we push on to the Burkina Faso embassy, as we felt we really needed to get there early and it was the only reason we left the guy behind. We get there and they tell us that the combined visa for Burkina/Benin/Togo/Niger/Cote d’Ivoire no longer exists. We read in our book that they try to tell you it doesn’t exist, but after repeated asking, an English-speaking woman tells us that visa option is no more. We had already read last night that we could get border visas for the main countries we want of the five, and gave up. It was only to save money, but also border hassle and to get long enough visas to stop and enjoy places without having to go and extend any visas. So be it! Frustrated but OK, we walk into town and visit the markets, including the artisans’ market where people have shops selling artwork but are also sitting there making it as you pass – leatherwork, wooden and metal sculptures, paintings, jewellery, etc. We move up to see the fetish market, basically supplies of dead animals for use in medicine and voodoo. We got to see a grisly mix of crocodile skins, animal feet, monkey heads, small cat pelts, teeth and bones. I have to wonder how many endangered animals are going down this path? Xander asks an old man if he can take his photo, he agrees, but then gets hassled by the nearby stallholder for including his products in the photo. They argue about money, Xander hands over a small coin, mistakenly handing him some Mauritanian ougiyas. The stallholder throws it to the ground in disgust – easy, Xander picks it up and walks off!

We decided to end the day and walk back to the hotel. Another English-speaking scammer tries his scam on us, this one a ‘jazz musician from Jamaica’ who has been robbed and is just trying to get to the airport. I’m not entirely sure what his scam was - maybe he was hoping we would offer to pay for the airport cab, maybe just internet time to get a money transfer as he hinted at that as well. He kept insisting he wasn’t a hustler, but we weren’t falling for anything. His story wasn’t event that good, nor his accent. We left him to go talk to the police again (Interpol he says – yeah, right!) after he refused to look for the Canada embassy with us, near our hotel we thought, as they seem to supply all the colonial-British embassy support. We had a long, hot, but OK walk back, even finding a pharmacy selling decent-grade mosquito repellent as we are getting low. There are several very Western supermarkets near our hotel, as it is the rich area where all the ex-pats live, but the DEET level of mozzie repellent is dismal. We found a Mali sticker for the panniers in the market, which made us very happy. It’s a shame we couldn’t find one for Mauritania, but Xander has left space for it so we can get one made later.