December 30, 2007 at 8:41 am Leave a comment


Our plane landed in Mali’s capital Bamako half an hour late, around 3:00 am (with the two hour time difference, it was almost the same time we would usually be awakening in Aleppo). We had no Malian currency, neither sim nor phone card, immediately reawakening that traveler sense of needing everything at once. So we were completely thrilled to see a man holding a sign with our names on it. He put our two small suitcases into the trunk of a very decrepit 1960s vehicle that made me realize how well-maintained that car had been, the one I was so dubious about six months ago in Morocco. The driver asked whether we had ever been to Africa before. Morocco doesn’t count, he said. That’s Arab Africa. This is black Africa. No, we haven’t. First time. Welcome!

We drove along fairly empty streets to the hotel, where a man carried our suitcases down the street and into a wonderful hotel room, showed us how to use the mosquito netting and left us to sleep. When William awoke this morning with a fever and a terrible cough, we decided we wouldn’t stray too far today.


Even staying on the hotel grounds, though, it’s pretty clear we’re not in Syria anymore. It is 90 degrees and sunny here. We’re back to T shirts and sandals. The trees look like enormous versions of our own greenhouse plants, or the sort of displays one sees in the more exotic sections of a bit city zoo. I kept a cute 3 foot tall potted rubber plant in my college dorm room. The one shading the breakfast area in the hotel courtyard here must have a diameter of 8 feet. We have two ficuses (fici?) in our dining room in NC, one probably 8 feet tall, the other a climber whose size seems to astonish newcomers. Here they are gigantic! It sort of makes this place feel like home, the same trees in the dining room, but the scale is a bit different.

When I walked to the main street to get some phone minutes and buy a couple of sandwiches, I realized that this road seemed to come straight out of all those novels about Africa I’d read over the past decade or so. Bought a couple of very undercooked hamburgers from the place across the street, a restaurant with two cooks, one Indian and the other African, each for his own special cuisine. No hamburger cooks, alas.

First impressions always seem fascinating to me, though I often realize I was wrong. Today I am struck with how colorful this small section of Bamako is. No women wearing black veils over black coats, no white stone buildings. (And women are everywhere, working as shopkeepers, receptionists, and cleaners, covering their heads but not their shoulders or arms.) Men and women alike wear lots of colors, a strikingly colorful landscape, even if we hadn’t just been coming from color-deprived Aleppo. (Note, though, that, while public spaces in Aleppo seem to be uniform shades of stone and black, with intermittent red checked scarves covering men’s heads, the private spaces are incredibly ornate, and Syrian textiles are wonderfully complex.)

We will function in French here. William suggested Arabic to the driver last night, and what he spoke reminded me much more of what we had heard in Morocco than anything I’d learned in classes in the US or on the streets in Syria. It seems people go back and forth between French and the other local languages. French is Mali’s common language here, among the great diversity of languages that this country’s varied groups speak. (We have met few English-speakers, even among people who serve tourists.)

Entry filed under: Mali, Travel.

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