Thursday, 15 October 2009

She Says - Djenné mud and maybes

13-15 October
Our last day in Bamako was quite enjoyable. After the previous day’s hustle and bustle and bike repairs, we had a pleasant meal in a Korean restaurant near the hotel. It was really nice food, but in a very upmarket setting, and prices were a bit more than we were happy with. However, we hadn’t really worked out how street food worked and when the little restaurants were actually open, and I didn’t feel up to street food really. So we compromised on two reasonably priced dishes. Portions were a bit small after the Chinese we had the night before – yes, you get all varieties of food here for the ex-pats! – but it didn’t leave me with the same slightly dodgy tummy…

The next day was for us to explore. Our guidebook noted that the National Museum is worth seeing, plus up the hill behind it are old cliff dwellings and rock paintings. We catch a cab to the museum and make our way up the road past the zoo, not actually heading for the cliff, but winding ever further up the hill towards the hospital and our destination, Point G. Feeling OK in the early morning though it was muggy and warm (we had heavy rain one night, even hail!), we trudged onwards and eventually came to a rough track that was signposted for Point G. We follow it around, surrounded by dozens of butterflies of at least 6 different species, from medium-large very pale green ones to tiny blues, plus a good number of dragonflies and birds calling all around. We couldn’t really see the birds, they stayed quite hidden amongst the bushes, except for the large birds that I assume are hornbills from their beaks – we’ve been seeing a lot of these since we arrived in Mali. The track continues past a building and we start to get into more cliff country – so the paintings are around here somewhere? We don’t have a clue where we are going, what we are looking for, and if there will be any sign of it anyway!!! We keep walking round till we are opposite the zoo and what we believe to be the Botanical Gardens (which they were). There’s definitely a cliff here and it looks like a point, but we see nothing to indicate where to go. Looking down, we see carvings on the top of a rock, but they definitely look recent. We decide the best thing to do is get down a level so we can try looking up the cliffs for any evidence of the paintings and dwellings. A rough scramble over rocks and through the grass gets us there. I have to admit I was a bit anxious because after 4 years in snake-free UK, I didn’t have my ‘snake senses’ back on full sensitivity yet! The cliffs were really cool, but no rock art or cave dwellings to be seen. After hunting around a bit, we give up and head for a large sign at the Botanical Gardens, and hope we will just be able to slip out onto the road somewhere. A couple of kids overtake us, just as we see a small sign indicating the rock paintings off to the right! The kids point out the path to us, we walk down, and eventually Xander finds a well-paved track leading up to the small sign, which we couldn’t reach from where we were originally standing. Great, something to follow! The track peters out as we approach a big fence. We stop in the shade of a tree and see some black and white paintings on the rocks here, but they look far too recent, down to dribble marks on the white painting like it had come from a paintbrush, but not so bad on the black painting. We follow the fence and use it to guide us up to the cliff face above, eventually finding several more white and black paintings. I THINK the black ones were real, but they seemed awfully fresh – who knows?! I didn’t know what to expect or look for. The style was very strange, lots of straight lines with arrowheads on the ends. I grabbed a few photos, and starving we made our way out to the large sign on the edge of the gardens. Sure enough, it was about the paintings! It noted the paintings can be very faint, so we still have no idea if what we saw was the real paintings or not. Oh well. Surprisingly enough, this sign was one of the only things we’ve seen written in English lately.

Following the lead of the kids we saw earlier, we headed through the Botanical Gardens and out the gate - no problem! We grabbed a couple of bananas from a lady on a street stall and walk back to the National Museum. While pondering whether the museum had a café or not, a security guard from a nearby building came over to talk to us in English, telling us where the museum entrance was and there was a restaurant but it was expensive. We headed back up the road to grab a watermelon from another street stall (well, wheelbarrow anyway!), and went back to the guard and his friend to share it. It was nice to be able to spend time with someone who wasn’t hustling us or causing a problem and just happy to chat, and to return some of the niceness we have been shown. Off to the museum, which isn’t as large as the guide book made it sound, but it had a very good collection of archaeological artefacts (mainly pottery statues and vessels, plus some arrow and axe heads), wooden statues and masks from various peoples of Mali, including the famous hugely tall masks of the Dogon people, who we are planning to visit if we can afford the hiking fees. The final exhibit was all about textiles, showing the different sources (cotton, wool, etc) and how pieces are created and used, particularly using complicated tie-dyeing techniques I had no idea about (and I rather like this stuff!). This area is where indigo blue famously comes from. There was also a good sample of 11-12th century fabric fragments taken from funerary grottos in the Dogon country. Being keen on sewing and handicrafts, I found this pretty fascinating!

We spent the evening catching up on a backlog of emails and internet work, plus uploading the now two-month-old Spanish blogs. We were particularly hunting for information on how to go about crossing through Nigeria, as we’ve heard it can be a bit testy there, and a guy we met in Nouakchott, Spanish Dani, wrote to say he’d been told an armed escort would be required. We’re looking into whether it may be worth shipping the bike from Ghana/Benin/Togo, around Nigeria and Cameroon (between which is a very bad road crossing), and into Gabon. It will cost a fortune, but so will a hired guard and accommodation and fuel each day. We hope maybe we can hook up with other travellers in a convoy to cut costs and increase protection if we go that way. We had a simple meal of street food stew to top off the day (yes, we found a little restaurant that was open!) and packed up for an early night.

We spent last night in San, a bit over 300km from Bamako. We had an excellent street food lunch in Segou, which was where we had originally planned to spend the night. However, we had travelled well and were not too hot, so we pushed on to make an easy trip into Djenné today. In San, there was a choice of two hotels and a campement, where we had decided to go but it was a bit of a construction site. They directed us to their hotel (Hotel Teriya) further up the road and we decided the place was nice and a good price (12,500CFA – about 18 pounds). We had a nice little round hut with a strong fan, cutting our costs from the air-conditioning we’ve become a bit too accustomed to! Dinner in the restaurant was delicious – fried chicken, a beef and onion stirfry/stew-thing, and really good chips. We chatted with a German guy who sponsors a boy through World Vision and visits him each year here, and a woman from the British Virgin Isles who is travelling here for a month. She runs a store selling jewellery and other bits and pieces that she sources from around the world, mostly from Bali, but now she will work on a Mali section. I was jealous of all the cool cloth and jewellery she was able to take home! Her guide contacted a guide friend in Djenné for us to talk about hiking in the Dogon country, and to possibly stay with him or get a tour of Djenné. Feeling very cautious about guides and hassle, we agree to meet him today and see what he had to offer.

We set off this morning a bit later than usual, but with only 130km to travel we could relax a bit. Expecting some dirt piste after the turnoff to Djenné, we actually hit it beforehand when a diversion was indicated. Apart from dust from trucks and other vehicles, we made it through easily along the 10km of dirt, and reached the Djenné turnoff, where it became a tarred road! We had to pay a tourist tax to enter the city, all properly set up with a roadblock and official receipts, then followed the road through flooded fields to reach the Niger River and an exciting new method of transport for us – a small ferry across to the island of Djenné. I have to admit I was feeling a little nervous as well as excited! It wasn’t a big trip, but you hear bad things sometimes about water crossings in third world countries. Anyway, it was absolutely easy, the bike was wheeled on without question and fees were all standard, but it just added a level of mystique to have to take to the water to get to our destination. We had some very persistent jewellery stall attendants talking to us while waiting for the ferry, but manage to shake them off in the end.

So now we’ve made it to the next big item on our to-see list – the mud mosque of Djenné. As we entered the town, a guy sprints over – “Hey Australians, are you here to see Alex? He’s inside!” We had made arrangements to meet somewhere near the mosque – “everyone knows me, just ask for Alex” – and Xander had already placed bets on someone grabbing us as soon as the big motorbike was spotted. We chatted with Alex in the restaurant he was in, and arranged a guided tour around town – 3 hours for 6500 CFA (about 10 pounds), more than we really wanted to pay but less than the 10,000 CFA that was his starting price. I only tried haggling for less content in the tour, but he dropped the price instead. Yes, me haggling, because Xander didn’t really care to have a guide, but I felt it would give us better access to the city and photos. We set up to meet our guide at 4pm, had lunch in the restaurant (unfortunately it wasn’t that great), and our guide took us to the hotel we had decided would be best as they had secure parking according to the guide book. Xander got to try his hand at checking out rooms, and was surprised to find the annexe across the road had smaller rooms for larger prices! We relaxed for a few hours in the lovely garden of the compound, taking photos of birds and lizards, and enjoying a good view over the town and river from the roof terrace. Have I noted that pretty much everyone spoke English here?! Such is life in a tourist town.

So mud construction is big in this area, we saw a lot in Morocco too. From mud bricks to a complete coating of mud, these buildings are almost fully reconstructed each year after the rains sweep much of the mud away. The Djenné mosque is very impressive, quite a large building with spikes of wood sticking out of it. We always thought this was some sort of design feature, but turns out it is for people to climb over the mosque to add a new layer of mud each year! The main towers and corner-points are topped with ostrich eggs, which (I’m trying to remember…) were for good luck. Our guide took us around the town, and using him as a buffer, we were more free to take photos of people and buildings. We had a few of people say no, though a couple actually retracted when they saw we were with a guide, so I think it was money well spent. A few kids asked for their photos to be taken, but it was so they could get money. One guy actually did some kung fu fighting in order to get us to take his picture - for fun! Hopefully we got some good shots through the town; however, it still felt rather awkward and difficult even with a guide. The walk only lasted 2 hours in the end, but we didn’t mind as we saw the entire town and got to look over it from the rooftops that should have been excluded from the tour, and honestly we didn’t have a lot to ask the guide to stretch things out! We bought a watermelon that Xander wanted (he’s such an addict!), which ended up being our dinner, and shared it with several others at the hotel. We meet with Alex again and talked to one of his Dogon country guides to get an idea of costs, difficulty of trekking, where will we leave the bike and luggage etc. Alex presented a standard 3 night/4 day hike all inclusive for CFA 22,500 per person per day – basically 2 days’ budget each day, which is reasonable considering the guiding, accommodation and food costs. We won’t commit though, as we want to check other guides (especially in Dogon country itself) and see what other options there are, and Xander felt Alex ‘seems like a slick operator’– I agree, so we are being careful! I already had my guard up while making negotiations for today’s guide, but it all worked out fine - anyway it’s a small island to run from us! So now we will head towards Mopti for a day or two, before heading down to Dogon country itself.

The hotel grounds here have been absolutely FULL of lizards! A man confirmed the name while I was chasing one along a wall – “his name is mugeira”. There have been loads of birds. We have weaverbirds building a nest in the hotel grounds, and have been able to watch birds at a small ground-level birdbath, which was loaded with frogs tonight. There were more tiny red birds – first seen in Nioro – these are a dull crimson with wings ranging between dusky brown to blue-grey, and come quite close if you sit quietly. As we have travelled across Mali, we have been seeing so many birds, particularly bright red ones of two varieties – one incredibly red like it was fake, the other a deeper crimson with a dark green band running around its body. Weaverbird nests are frequent. We’ve seen several trees full of them, incuding one over a waterhole that was being used for washing and bathing by some women. We stopped for photos, and the women were not concerned by our cameras, although we did try to make it obvious we were there for the other birds! Near the Djenné ferry we found nests that were huge tangled messes in the trees, and seemed to house several types of bird, even with a few small weaverbird nests attached! Other birds we’ve seen are: large hornbills; big crow-like birds with white on them like Australian currawongs; and large crow-looking birds with long tails and iridescent green and blue plumage when in the light, otherwise they looked black. Similarly, we’ve seen small starling-like birds. Butterflies and grasshoppers are common and Anubis seems to delight in eating them. Ergh.