Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mali and the Festival Au Desert 2008

What to say about the trip? It was hard, a lot harder than I expected, partially because I became ill part way through. It reminded me just how much I hate group travel, although at the time it was the best way to do what I wanted to do. It was far too rushed. The main problem was that the tour group, which was supposed to be two separate groups of 15 and 12, was actually run as one group of 27 which caused any number of problems.

Mali deserves time. It is hot (very hot), dry, dusty, harsh, extremely poor, beautiful and fascinating. The people (those who are not trying to sell you something or begging) are warm and gentle. The continued chants of “toubab, toubab, babu, babu, donne moi un cadeau, donne moi un bic, donne moi un bonbon” become really tiring. At first you think how lovely all the kids are waving at the car then you hear the call “toubab, toubab, cadeau ……”. Everywhere you go – cadeau, cadeau, cadeau, toubab, babu …..

Would I go back? Possibly but not this way. I think I could do it independently given more time – and it’s a country that needs time to wander backstreets and really get a feel for the country and hopefully a little understanding – but I would not go alone. You really need at least one other person with you for moral support. Its that kind of place. Its difficult and it can wear you down.

We started in Bamako the capital, a nondescript, dusty city. I didn’t end up seeing much of it as I was jetlagged after traveling for just under 40 hours to get there and too tired and sick of the group to do the city tour on the last morning – just as well I didn’t as they got back late (as usual) and I had to leave to catch my plane.

Then a full day drive to Djenne, stopping at a really vibrant market but arriving so late that it was dark by the time we reached the ferry (this was to become a pattern, usually caused by the difficulty of feeding and marshalling 27 people). Djenne is on an island in the river (not sure if it’s the Niger at this stage) and you take a ferry across. The next morning we did a far too brief walking tour of the area surrounding the mosque and the Monday market, which was stunning. The colours of Mali are drab brown and red earth, even the sky is brownish from the dust but the colours on the people have to be seen to be believed. The markets are truly vibrant. It would be good to spend time in Djenne either before or after the Monday market in order to wander quietly and explore the back streets.

On the road after another long, long lunchbreak and on to Mopti. Time only for a drive through, a look at the artisans’ market and a drink at a bar overlooking the port. Lovely hotel (Y Pas de Problem) complete with great restaurant and tiny kitten. Didn’t expect to see cats in this country but have seen quite a few.

Next morning to the jump off point for the pinasse trip on the Niger. Two lovely relaxing days just sitting around and watching life on and by the river. Stopped at several villages along the way. Surprisingly cold on the boat. The worst part was going to the toilet. Very unnerving walking along the side of the boat holding on to the top, then navigating across the engine area and maneuvering yourself into the blue box that was basically a seat over a hole. Then you have to get out of the box and repeat the process back to your seat. Naturally as soon as I started to climb out the boat tipped to that side and I was hanging on over the water for dear life. I spent a lot of time with my legs crossed.

The pinasse trip finished at Niafunke, from whence came the late Ali Farka Toure one of the great Malian blues musicians. We stayed at the campement which he had owned and is now run by his family. We were extremely privileged to be given a show by Alkibar, a group composed of young family members, I think a lot of whom were his grandsons, who seemed to be being trained in their art by Toure’s brother. We saw Alkibar again a day or so later at the Festival au Desert.

The first few days of the trip had been in minibuses. Now we were down to the serious traveling and transferred to 4WDs. I can’t praise the drivers highly enough. Those men are amazing, the way they can handle the cars over sand and really, really rough roads, some of which were hardly roads at all. I love 4WD travel. Its rough but its fun. Left Niafunke and basically headed out into the desert for about 4 hours. Stinking, stinking hot day and, because of the dust and sand, they didn’t use the aircon in the cars.

This was the day I started to get sick. Arrived at the festival site and there were Tuareg and camels everywhere. Incredible setting, a stage on flat ground with a large sand dune opposite and camps set amongst the dunes. We were 3 dunes away from the stage, pretty much in the last row of camps. To make matters worse we were told to pitch our tents at the base of a dune because of the wind. The meal area and main tent as well as the toilets were at the top of the dune, although there was a lower dune off to one side that was easier. This is where I realized I just wasn’t fit enough, or maybe I wasn’t well, I really don’t know, but I started to have real trouble with continually climbing the dunes. We were also left to pitch the tents totally alone. Everywhere else there had been people to help but here in extreme heat and strong wind where some of us really needed help, there was noone. I got the tent up on my own – a fact of which I am extremely proud considering the conditions but I was shattered afterwards and stayed that way for the rest of the festival.

Went over and had a look at the stage area then slept for a couple of hours. Didn’t have the energy to go back over after dinner when the main acts were on, however from the camp we had a clear view of the stage, albeit in the distance, and the acoustics were wonderful, so I just sat by the fire and listened from there.

Next day walked very slowly over the market and ended up at the artists tents (no 5 star accommodation here) started chatting (in execrable French) to a man who came out of one of the tents. “Fatigue?” “Oui fatique”. Another man stuck his head out of the tents and beckoned me in. So I end up in one of the tents with half a dozen musicians. Really wish I could speak French. Managed to have a basic conversation. Turned out they were Super Khoumaissa a traditional group from Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali. I asked them about the instruments that were lying around and next thing I knew I was getting a private performance – one on the gourd drum, one a guitar and one singing. They sang a whole song just for me. Wonderful experience and something that’s very special about this Festival. The musicians aren’t kept away from the audience and enjoy meeting people. Later that day at the camel parade got talking to an Irishman who turned out to be Liam of Liam and Paddy (Liam O'Maonlai and Paddy Keenan) who had been traveling in Mali, meeting and playing with the musicians and making a film. They were playing at the Festival the next evening.

Just before sunset again negotiated the dunes to watch the camel race, rather than a full on race this turned out to be the Tuaregs racing as fast as they could either alone or in twos or sometimes threes and basically showing off. Went to the beer tent (can’t believe how much beer I drank on this trip, it was nothing to down a large bottle of Castel at one go) then managed to lose the people I was with, they went outside while I bought a bottle of water. What I didn’t realise was that they’d gone out the back door. I went out the front and couldn’t find them anywhere. So looked across, spotted our camp and headed in what I though was a straight line towards it. I got lost. It was getting dark, I was wearing sunglasses and didn’t have my normal glasses with me, so when I took the sunnies off everything was blurry. It wasn’t fun. Somehow I ended up way down the other end, at the right dune but several camps away. By this time it was pitch black and I was stumbling up and down sand dunes in the dark by myself. Not happy. Finally found the camp, staggered to the tent and collapsed. Missed dinner but they kindly found me something. Absolutely no energy left. Just couldn’t face any more dunes, it was all I could do now to get from the tent to the toilet, to the meal tent. So again sat by the fire and listened. After a couple of hours went to bed but stayed awake and listened to the rest of the acts.

One thing about the Festival was that anything you wanted to buy eventually came to you. You wanted a bottle of water, wait a while and a boy would show up selling it. Every Tuareg had a roll of jewellery under his robe (all genuine silver and made in his village of course, funny how every family in every village made exactly the same things). Actually some of it was real silver and even the Tuareg silver which is not pure silver is rather attractive. Everyone else was selling CDs.

On the morning of the third and last day I felt terribly tired and just stayed in the shade in the big main tent. Felt okay at this stage just really, really tired. Had a bit of lunch (stew and rice with sand – everything was served with sand, even the bread and jam) but started to feel a little odd. Went to the tent to lie down. All of a sudden I got that terrible I’m going to be sick – now, feeling. Only just made it out of the tent before I was. Then realised I’d shat myself. Oh God, stuck in the desert, vomiting, shitting myself and the toilet at the top of a dune. It wasn’t a big dune but the way I was feeling it could have been the largest dune ever created. Made it to the loo, cleaned up, threw knickers away and crawled back. Then realized I’d also shat on the sheet. So I had to wash the sheet. About this time people realised I wasn’t well and started arriving with rehydration salts, stemetil etc. They really were wonderful. One girl even got up in the night and went with me to the toilet. Some of the individuals were lovely, it’s the whole group travel thing I don’t like. That was it for that day, didn’t even get out of the tent, just stayed there. At least I was awake and heard the concert – all of it till 5am when it ended.

So I actually didn’t see the concert, or only from a distance. I did, however, hear it and just being there and the atmosphere was pretty special.

The next day I felt a little better, had taken cloggers for both ends which were working, but decided to stay off the food. Another bone shaking ride over the piste into Timbuktu, again arriving later than scheduled. Timbuktu’s glory days are definitely over, its impoverished with sewerage running down the centre of the backstreets. Still, its another place that deserves time, which we didn’t have. We did another rushed driving and walking tour but I was so exhausted that I dipped out before the artisans market (seen enough of those and bought more than enough jewellery already) went back to the hotel and to bed. Didn’t surface till morning. Timbuktu is depressing on the surface but I think if you had the time to wander and dig deeper it would be extremely interesting.

Next day got the “I’ve been to Timbuktu” brag stamp in our passports, spent ages at the post office, then headed off for Dogon country. Unfortunately all but one of the cars missed the first ferry and got stuck in Kourioume for about 2 hours waiting for it to return. Believe me, Kourioume is not a place you want to get stuck. Its one of the most impoverished holes I’ve ever seen. This of course made us extremely late for the rest of the day so that we missed what we were supposed to see and got in after dark again.

The next day improved. Headed out along the base of the escarpment, the Falaise de Bandiagara. The villages are built along the Falaise with some rising up to the middle level of the escarpment and some ancient Tellem villages built into caves in the cliff, high, high up near the top. They remind me very much of the Anazazzi (sp?) cliff villages at Mesa Verde in the US. Camped on one of the terraces at a beautiful, tranquil campement in the village of Koundu. Was still feeling week so opted out of the “easy” walk that afternoon. Just as well I did as the guide ended up telling a couple of people who were quite fit but slower than the others to turn back because they were slowing the group down. If he told them to turn back, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Again I think it was because we were running late and it was rushed. It’s the sort of place where you want to take your time, drink it in, take photos, not kill yourself to do the whole climb quickly. I and a couple of the others walked around Koundu which was quite fascinating, a totally different culture to any we had seen so far.

Next morning, because of the problem with the “easy” walk, a lot more people decided not to do the hike (which by all reports was quite difficult) and instead we went to the village of Yendouma, another beautiful and fascinating village. Many of the villages here are craft villages – Koundu had wood carvers, Yendouma dyes indigo cloth etc. Back to the campement and waited for the walkers to return, which they had about an hour and half later than they were supposed to which, of course, made us late for the rest of the day. One night here is nowhere near enough, this area really needs time, a lot of time, there is so much to see, and at my own pace I’m sure I could do some of the walks – just not at the pace they were keeping. Stopped in Tirelli to see the mask dancers. Expected this to be very touristy but it wasn't. Its put on for tourists, of course, but its something very traditional and very much still part of Dogon culture and the setting on a rock platform above the village was definitely authentic.

Very late arrival in Bandiagara and a total debacle, the room bookings had been stuffed up to the extent that some people didn’t have rooms. By the time they sorted it all out it was very late. The next day was very wearing. We picked up the minibuses again as we were now back on the tarmac but we drove, with one village and one lunch stop, for 12 hours straight all the way back to Bamako. This is something else that should not have happened except the tour company had managed to book some people on flights that left at 3am the next morning, instead of the morning after when they should have been booked. So instead of breaking the trip with an overnight stop, as is usual, we had to push on.

About this stage I lost it. I got into my “I never want to see any of you ever again” mood. Admittedly I think I was worn down by the illness which was still hanging around – by this stage most people seemed to have picked up a virus of some kind – and just couldn’t be bothered doing anything. Didn’t go to the group farewell dinner, I’m sure I appeared extremely rude but I’m glad I didn’t go as they ended up not eating till 11pm and a couple of people had to come back to the hotel early because they fell ill. There was a city tour the next morning but I really didn’t have the energy or the interest anymore. Figured a lie in and lounging by the pool would do me far more good before a 6 or so hour flight followed by a 16 hour transit in Nairobi and another 9 hour flight. And it did, when I was saying my goodbyes that afternoon at least one person remarked that I looked much better than I had a breakfast.

So off to the airport. Ah Africa. First the plane was late then we walked across the tarmac expecting to board (having already been scanned) only to have our hand luggage hand searched and to be personally scanned and patted down. Why they couldn’t do this earlier in the terminal is beyond me.

So to Nairobi. Wasn’t sure what the situation would be but everyone said it had calmed down and it was now okay in town. Ended up having a lovely day. Kenyan Airways put me up at a transit hotel which turned out to be the Intercontinental and I rang a friend whom I hadn’t seen for 3 years and shouted him lunch in probably the flashest place he’s ever seen. Although it was good to see him again it was sad to hear that his shop had been trashed and all his stock looted. At least he was safe and unharmed.

So to Bangkok. I hate Suvanarbumi airport, I really, really hate it. There is nowhere comfortable to sit or lie down during a long transit, only cold floors or uncomfortable plastic seats – and not many of them. Its basically a massive, multilevel, overpriced shopping mall. I probably should have realised this but I was tired and everywhere else, if I had to show it at all, I just showed my yellow card at Immigration. But here, after queuing for an hour and a half just to reach Immigration I found myself turned back to Health Control which was back down the corridor before the Immigration lines. I wasn’t the only person this happened to. There were a lot of unhappy people around. So I blatantly lied on the health form. Had I had diahorrea (sp?), vomiting or sore throat in the last week. Well, yes I had but I wasn’t going to tell them that and get held up for god knows how long.

Finally cleared the airport after 2 hours, just as my pick up was about to give up and leave. Spent a night at a very nice hotel in Bangkok then a week at a very ordinary beach. The Europeans and Americans seemed to think it was lovely – I’m Australian, it was very ordinary and the water didn’t look all that clean. The resort did have an extremely nice pool and I ended up doing absolutely nothing except reading 4 books, swimming in the pool and eating Thai food. Didn’t even feel like looking around the local area, which isn’t like me at all. By the time I got back to Bangkok I felt much better and did the tourist half day temple tour which I actually quite enjoyed.

Then another 9 hours back to Sydney.

Did I enjoy it – at the time, no, in retrospect it was pretty amazing. Would I do it again – not in that short a time and definitely not with that large a group (although it wasn’t supposed to be that large a group – one of several matters that I and just about everyone else took up with the tour operator and have now been compensated for). Would I recommend Mali as a destination. Definitely providing you know what to expect in terms of weather, travel conditions and hassle. As I said earlier, it’s a country that needs and deserves time. Give it that time and it could be very rewarding. I wish I had had more time to give it.
The end.

For lots more photos have a look at my photo album.


foto-sh said...

great pics . i love to read them again

Craig and Steph said...

Hi Ann - My husband and I are contemplating going to the festival and Dogon country in '09, and we found your blog to be very informative in terms of setting expectations. We would be staying for 5 days near Bandiagara and doing some volunteer work in a Dogon school, visiting Bamako, Djenne, Mopti, and Timbuktu, and spending our final days at the festival. Thanks for sharing such a detailed blog! Feel free to contact us if you'd like. Happy and safe travels! - Steph & Craig