Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu 4: Meeting Mali's Ladies of the Night

There are two routes from Nouakchott, Mauritania to Bamako, Mali. The best route follows a good road southwards to Dakar, Senegal, after which a 3 day comfortable train trip eastwards completes the journey. The hard route heads directly eastward by road through the desert for 1000 kms, stopping for some 30 or so police and military checkpoints, each manned by someone asking for a "gift", before turning southwards for 500 kms over unpaved bumpy, sandy roads, where breakdowns are common and the heat is relentless. As I didn't have a visa for Senegal I took the hard route. It was a gruelling 4 days of travel to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Timbuktu is in Mali and all things going well I will be there in a few days.

I hitched a ride with a French man who was transporting an old French van to Mali to sell it. An American girl and her Canadian boyfriend also rode in the same van. The driver was born in the Ivory Coast, and he was almost a perfect blend of African and European. He knew how to use the perfect combination of humour, deception, and argument to avoid giving "gifts" at the checkpoints. He helped us negotiate good deals on accommodation and money changing. And despite the hassles, the heat, the breakdowns, and getting the car stuck in sand, he never lost his cool.

The four day drive had some fascinating scenery and transitions, which partly made up for the difficult drive. The first two days was through pure desert and the villages were far apart. People were predominantly Moors, Arab-looking desert dwellers. Men wore light blue robes with white scarves wrapped around their head, while women each elegantly wore a single piece of bright cloth, from neck to ankle, and which also covered their hair. They used a loose end of the cloth to hide their mouths when they talked to me. As we turned southwards, the desert gradually turned into Savannah and then light forest. We started seeing black Africans in greater numbers, until by the time we crossed the border into Mali, all the villagers were completely black. Women wore bright patterned dresses with matching material used for a kind of hat. A piece of material wrapped around their back and tied to their chest might carry a sleeping baby like a backpack. Women collecting water from the local well balanced their water container on their heads as they walked easily along the roads.

On the first day of the trip we drove until to midnight, so we saw the desert come alive at dusk. Groups of men in the desert all face Mecca and make their sunset prayers. Camels and goats are herded up and driven without warning across the dark road, leading to a lot of roadkill. The villages, composed of small rectangular windowless clay huts, lifeless during the day, have their doors thrown open, animals are cooked on fires by the roadside, adults recline under canvas coverings, and children run around, enjoying the chance to hassle tourists stopping for an evening meal. We stopped for the night nowhere in particular, so I got out my sleeping bag and slept coiled around the van seats with both the doors open and a cool breeze blowing through.

Things didn't go well on the third day. The road was so bad we only drove 100kms, getting stuck in sand, often going only at walking pace, over bone crunching roads. We stopped in a town where we heard there was a nice hotel with showers but when we checked it out it was full. It was already getting late, almost 11pm, so we gladly took a bare concrete room with one thin ragged mattress at the next place we tried, to share between three people.

If I wasn't so tired I would have noticed earlier that there were a few women wearing particularly revealing clothing hanging out in the courtyard of the "hotel" - and one particularly unfriendly man. If I wasn't so tired I would have wondered why the women greeted us so flirtatiously. If I wasn't so tired I would have been certain what this place was when one woman stopped me as I passed by and said in nonsense English, "You may sleep me?" But when the same woman came in our room, and in French told the French-speaking American that she would sleep with us, four in the room, the penny dropped. With some trouble we explained that, no, we would only sleep three in this room and she must sleep elsewhere. Sure, travel is a time for new experiences, but a foursome with a Malian prostitute is not high on my list of things to do before I die.

Hopefully my next entry will be from Timbuktu.

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