Posts filed under ‘Travel’

Back to Bamako

Abdulaye, the terrific driver who had taken us to Severe, just happened to be in Mopti, returning in an empty car to Bamako, so we rode along. Four hours back to Segou, through the same remarkable countryside. We stopped there for lunch, wending our way through the weekly bazaar to a riverside restaurant. The sounds and smells were quite remarkable, but all I can do here is the photos.

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Segou’s waterfront was fascinating to watch. People and products moved from the shore to the small craft and back, people were fishing out in the river, bright colors, lots of activity.


At the weekly market, people were too busy to really notice us, a marked difference from most of our stops. When we stopped for gas at one of the “gas stations” along the road, we drew the usual crowd of curious children and merchants selling textiles and jewelry. There are gas stations as I’m used to them in Mali, places with pumps and hoses and the like. There are also tables with liter bottles full of gasoline to serve drivers between the widely-scattered larger establishments.


We arrived back in Bamako around 5, checked into the hotel that had wireless access a week earlier to try to contact various travel agents and family and airline companies to make some plans. Nothing seemed to work. Their internet connection was down. When we called, the Royal Air Maroc ticket agency said we need to call either the Bamako or New York office. We had four different phone numbers for the airline’s Bamako office, none of them correct. The New York office insisted we had to contact our ticketing agent. When we tried that, we found they had sold the business, kept the tickets already written, and were only available by email. We decided we couldn’t do it the “right way,” so instead we showered, repacked, ate dinner, tried to sleep a few hours, and went to the airport in hopes of flying standby.

Airport scene was pretty wild, an overbooked Air France flight with everyone trying to make it to Paris. Once they cleared out, we convinced a sympathetic ticket agent that we really needed to leave and really couldn’t contact anyone to change our ticket. I’d just about given up when they handed us boarding passes with a warning that we wouldn’t find a seat from Casa Blanca to JFK.

We decided to take our chances, and arrived in Casa Blanca after a sleepless night. There we found another terrific Royal Air Maroc agent who put us on the waiting list. Before we had a chance to contact anyone to let them know we were headed home, we had boarded the flight for JFK.

January 11, 2008 at 6:44 pm 1 comment

No Longer Throwing Caution to the Winds

When William’s fever reappeared in Segou, we had decided to skip camping in the Dogon areas and went to Mac’s Refuge instead. It was just what we needed, a couple days of Mac’s good food and friendly company, a couple of days to do nothing. We met some very interesting people over meals there, Peace Corps volunteers, a woman cycling across Africa and into Asia (five months, she says), a man working on Mali business development for the EU, and Mac himself, who grew up in Dogon country the child of missionaries, and returned there a missionary himself. Now he runs a bed and breakfast for people needing the warmth (and American breakfasts) he offers.



Mac called in a Malian doctor, the tallest doctor I think I’ve ever seen. After listening to his lungs, the doctor told William to rest and prescribed antibiotics and numerous other things. (House call: $25) By the second day, William was feeling better. On the third day we decided to continue north to Mopti, the jumping-off point for tourists heading into Dogon areas and Timbuktu.

Walking into the terrace restaurant at the Ya Pas De Problem hotel felt like entering Star Wars’ Mos Eisley space port, except this time everyone in the place was human and each had only one of two goals: either to get to the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu, or to sell their services to those who wanted to go. These were people who hadn’t made plans yet to hook up with an organized tour. They had come to Mali, gotten as far as Mopti, and then mixed with the variety of guides and drivers and captains who were looking for clients at the busiest spot in town. Those who wanted to be hired were dressed in a remarkable array of clothing and headgear. One captain with a long silk scarf that wound around his neck and almost down to his knees wanted to sell us a trip on a small pinasse, a river boat. It would take three days going up the Niger to Timbuktu, he promised, seeing the most interesting villages along the way. Seemed too good to pass up. But we had a reservation in Timbuktu in two days. So we were in there with the rest, trying to find someone with empty seats in a 4×4 headed to Timbuktu.

We had come up with a couple of good leads, and then I got a fever. The next morning, the one before we were supposed to leave for Timbuktu, we decided to turn back. We couldn’t imagine the 12 hour bumpy ride to Timbuktu, then another 40 km of desert to get to the festival, followed by sand and cold and all-night music. Sad to say, we felt our age and acted it. So it was back to Mac’s, with my fever and William’s cough, to wait for a ride back to Bamako.

January 10, 2008 at 6:41 pm 1 comment



The photo of the mosque at Djenne that I have been showing my class seems to have no context, just a strange and spectacular building set off by itself.

It isn’t set off by itself. It is in the center of an unpaved dirt courtyard, surrounded by children playing, goats sleeping, touts offering guiding services, stalls selling assorted goods, and two foosball tables used by young men.

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It is, without doubt, an imposing structure, built of mud bricks, with poles sticking out at regular intervals to allow people to scale the walls to remud the structure. It was rebuilt in 1906. There was little the French bequeathed their former colony in Mali (baguettes, French language, and remarkably little infrastructure), but, like in Morocco, here too they began refusing non-Muslims entry into mosques. So I was unable to see what the structure looks like inside.

The mosque, a World Heritage site, seems to be what brings people to Djenne. The town lies on the other side of the Bani river, and the crossing requires the use of a four-vehicle car ferry. Our drive up from Segou passed through many more small villages, an 18-wheeler broken down on the side of the road, a collection of overloaded minibuses, motorcycles, goats, cattle, and horses. After passing through miles and miles of wheat fields, then watermelon fields, then mud-brick-making fields, we turned off the main road and encountered flooded rice fields before crossing the river into Djenne.

After seeing the mosque, we set off in search of the mud cloth William had been commissioned to find. There is one famous mud cloth maker, a matriarch who looks to be in her 60s. Her son explained the various motifs, the groups who used them, and the methods still being employed to make the cloth. It is quite impressive stuff. We were invited up onto the balcony to see the view of the city from there, and found mud, cloth, and plant material for dyes awaiting use.


They tell me Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world, though I don’t know how that is measured, and Djenne is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Along the route today, we passed two villages where signs announced proudly that electricity had come in 2006. . In side the town, There are no paved streets, houses are small, and the sewer system is a series of open trenches in the middle of the streets. Nonetheless, children walk around barefoot. Apparently, the street sewer is a result of well-meaning development projects. Water had been brought into town only for cooking and drinking, while washing and other tasks were done on the riverside. Those who arranged to pipe water into town didn’t consider the greater output, and there was no planning for what to do with the waste. See “How Not to Parachute More Cats.”

January 10, 2008 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

On the Road to Segou

The road from Bamako to Segou takes almost four hours. Almost as soon as we left Bamako’s sprawl, we were in a small village celebrating market day–along the main highway. Our driver, Abdullah, slowed down as he wove through people, stalls, animals, and large vans unloading merchandise.

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Most of the road, though, is quite rural, miles and miles of scrub interrupted by roadside villages with a few houses and a mosque. We started off listening to a taped sermon by one of Mali’s most famous imams–in Bambara language, with intermittent Qur’anic quotes in Arabic. When that ended, I requested music, and Abdullah put on a Tracy Chapman cassette. By midway, we were listening to music from Mali.

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Small village mosque, larger village mosque

People sat along the roadside, apparently watching each other and the varied conveyances cars going by. We passed a broken down bus, a van, and a car stuck on the side of the road. Small herds of small cattle grazed in the scrub, while groups of fewer than six goats reserved the space closer to the road. (Abdullah honked at them to convince them to stay on their own side.) He reassured me that there really was someone tending them.


Segou seems more prosperous and less frenetic than Bamako. It is a river town, and I was impressed with the amount of activity along the Niger’s banks here. We just missed taking a huge canoe (pinasse) across–still hope to get on the water at some point during our trip.


In the continuing series, Che here is a revolutionary cola.


January 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm 1 comment

Second Impressions

Bamako is different than anywhere I have been. The smells, the sounds, the clothing all seem quite unfamiliar. Only the old man kneeling on his prayer rug on the main road offered a sense of familiarity.

We took a taxi to the national museum this afternoon. The textile collection is fabulous, beginning with fabrics printed on jacquard weaves introduced through Syria.  Cotton, combination, wool–Mali’s textiles are remarkably varied in fibers, patterns, weaves, colors, and uses. The other big exhibit in the national museum right now is on ritual objects. Many are masks, with accompanying descriptions of the kinds of initiation and worship in which they are used. I was particularly struck by one placard explaining that, when Islam was introduced, local rituals were adapted to the new faith. The curator seemed not to understand the irony when, in the same hall, s/he explained that Islam forbids the representation of human figures. Human figures are present on almost all of the amazing carved masks and statues in the exhibit.

The hall portraying Mali’s long history included some pottery and glass shards that had originated in Egypt and Spain. I was impressed with the efforts to include not only all of the various groups present today in Mali, but also the museum’s efforts to place the country within its broader context. That was particularly evident in the collection of photographs, whose creators were from all over the African continent.

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The ride back was as remarkable as the museum itself. In Turkey and Syria, the large bazaars are near, in, or attached to large monumental structures. Here, the market seems to be rows and rows of temporary stalls, lean-tos, three sided single-story structures made of impermanent materials. Those with carts or tables or baskets seemed even more transient. Walking along the road this evening, driving in the taxi this afternoon, I was struck by how different Mali is from Syria, or even Morocco.

People wear remarkable clothing, varied in color and in style. At the same time, the cars seem all of one kind–very old, quite run-down, poorly maintained, all giving a sense that you may be the last passenger ever to travel within. People are all along the streets, walking, sitting, talking, getting into minibuses that share the vintage of the cars. An open ditch filled with black water and garbage ran along the sidewalk we walked this evening–even opposite an impressive looking structure with a sign reading “National Institute for Research in Public Health.” This is Mali’s biggest city, and her capital, but we have seen only one building that has more than one story. There are some real restaurants, but even more stands that cook food for those passing by. I have a strange sense that the city is temporary; in the morning, the markets and the people may have moved on.

December 31, 2007 at 10:40 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.)

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


Out walking with Katie in Aleppo’s old Christian quarter Saturday evening, we followed the Christmas carols to the Greek Catholic Church. A group of high school girls wearing Santa hats was practicing for a performance, singing carols in Latin. The acoustics in the small, square church are terrific. Someone was trying to make a PowerPoint presentation work behind them–tech frustration seems one of those universals.

We wanted to buy a tree, and people reassured us it was easy, just go to Sulaymaniye’s main street and look left. But all the trees there were paper or plastic! When we asked, we found it is forbidden to cut trees for holiday celebrations.  All of our advisers simply assumed that we were looking for the “regular” kind. In the end, William brought home a terrific tree, about two feet tall, with small lights at the tips of each pretend plastic branch; the lights change colors and flash in interesting combinations, apparently randomly. The box says the tree is made in the United Arab Emirates.

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Aziziya has extensive decorations, lights, Papa Noel, sleighs and reindeer. I haven’t found a nativity scene.  The radio has been playing familiar Christmas tunes, lyrics in Arabic.


It’s been nice having Katie around, and we miss Ian. And friends. And we wish you all a wonderful 2008!

December 26, 2007 at 8:10 am 1 comment

Moving Day (What, no insurance?)

Our plane ticket isn’t until December 28, but Eid likely begins on the 19th, and generally lasts four or five days (but after the last holiday some people didn’t return to work for a few days extra), so we needed to get all of our things packed and to the shipper TODAY! The past few days have been a bit frenetic, as I tried to finish the last chapter (which, alas, has become only the penultimate chapter), and we looked for a shipper, had a carpenter make us a box, bought our Christmas gifts, decided what we would take with us to Mali, and packed everything else.

Our wonderful friend Muhammad took William to an amazing wood shop in a very old hammam to order the boxes, which were delivered the next day. Together, they formed a meter cubed.

The boxes were too big for a taxi. But Aleppo has a cargo equivalent, a Suzuki fleet of privately owned old battered pickups that charge about $4 to haul stuff.

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Muhammad brought a Suzuki, a driver, and the driver’s 16-year-old son over this morning, and we loaded our two wooden boxes, our two suitcases, and assorted packets of gifts and books. We followed the Suzuki through a remarkable maze of mud-covered pavements (the rains have been continuous, and the drainage seems overwhelmed), watching the young man bouncing in the back of the truck (as I thought about seatbelts). 


When we reached the Atlas office, we unloaded the truck. We put the suitcases and assorted small packages into one of the wooden boxes. We were delighted to learn that it would all fit into just one of the boxes. But then we discovered that the thing weighted 150 kilos, heavy enough that one of the workers was convinced the bottom would break. It was completely fascinating to watch the conversation. Six men discussed the various options. Divide everything into the two wooden boxes? Ship one wooden box and one cardboard box? Three cardboard boxes? What about the tray? Two tape measures, one scale, six men. Everything came out of the wooden box. The wooden box weighed 30 kg. empty. We repacked it all into two cardboard boxes. The shipper needs a complete list. Can’t send CDs because the Syrian government won’t allow them. US government prohibits sending medicine and needs a breakdown of everything in the boxes. Syrian government wants to know what kind of books and posters I am taking out of the country. Everyone was very helpful, lots of advice all around.

weighingthebox.jpg Weighing the box

 deliberations1.jpg Deliberations

We just had a few questions. What would the insurance cover?

Insurance? Muhammad asked. Haram! You don’t need insurance. No one will take your things. Why would you need insurance? I know these people, my things always arrive safely.

We explained that things get taken in Washington, the destination for the boxes. No one ships anything in the US without insurance!

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After repeated phone calls, the Atlas manager insisted it was impossible, but promised a manifest that he would sign. His signature would indicate that our things would arrive safely. Why would we want insurance?

Suddenly insurance had become a sign of our distrust. It was one of the clearest examples of cultural dissonance I had experienced in Syria– and perhaps ever. We called our bi-cultural friends. “Of course not, we never do insurance.” He called his friend, who ships containers of furniture to the US. No, he does not get insurance either.

We now have a small, green piece of paper promising that our two boxes will arrive safely in Washington, DC a few days after our return from Timbuktu. And as Muhammad points out, we have his friend’s promise, and Atlas has never lost anything, even in Washington. Why would we need anything else?

December 18, 2007 at 10:23 am Leave a comment




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It’s difficult to write about Istanbul. I arrived for the first time 25 years and one month ago as a graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship hoping to carry out dissertation research in the Ottoman archives. I’m sure that I was struck then by the strangeness of the city, the challenge of the language, the confusion that results whenever such large groups of people share the same space, to say nothing of the frustration of the bureaucracy that refused me access to the archives for three months, and the remarkable camaraderie and generous assistance of all twelve of the regulars in the Ottoman reading room when I was finally permitted entrance.  (The archives some years ago moved to a larger location with better light, and when I last visited, almost 100 researchers were working there.  Some things haven’t changed–I’m again waiting for research permission, this time to use published newspapers in a public library.)

I’m no longer struck by the city’s strangeness, which may be partly because Istanbul has changed; it’s probably more because I’ve fallen in love with Istanbul over the years, and perhaps because I’ve now spent time in places even less familiar.  

Istanbul is beautiful, stunning, shockingly appealing. We approached it this time from Anatolia, riding the train for many kilometers from the furthest suburbs into the heart of the city, then taking a ferry across the Bosphorus to the old city. The skyline has changed in the past 25 years–sort of. To the right, there is a second bridge connecting Asia and Europe; straight ahead there are large skyscrapers jutting above the older buildings. To the left, though, are those seven hills and their spectacular domes and minarets. At the risk of sounding like one of those nineteenth-century Orientalist travelers, I admit that the view of the old imperial capital from the water is breathtaking.

I had three goals for this trip. I wanted to spend time with Katie, who is teaching English in Istanbul; I needed to talk with colleagues about some research questions before finishing the last chapters; and I planned to make some logistical arrangements for the student group I hope to bring with me to Turkey for seven weeks this summer.

Katie is wonderful. So is her school. The day after we arrived, she took us to see the place she works, and rumors circulated that Katie’s mother was visiting! I was reminded of that first time, when Katie was a toddler, that I heard a child’s loud whisper in an auditorium, “That’s Katie’s mom!” I’ve been quite delighted to be “Katie’s mom” ever since. Now some of her more courageous young students stood outside the door to the English department office, trying to catch a look. Two actually came inside, probably 4th graders, who ventured to answer my questions about their names and their favorite football teams. (Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have been engaged in fierce competition this season.)


We saw her house, up five longer-than-usual flights of stairs in an old building on the Asian side of the city, in the not-yet-gentrified outskirts of Moda. Her house is in the process of becoming heated and furnished, and the neighborhood is terrific. She walks through a wonderful fish and vegetable market on the way up the hill every day as she returns home from work. She has developed a new set of friends, partly through work, partly through old friends (Katie came for the first time 21 years ago), partly through the local couch-surfing group.


William and I were staying far from the real world of Istanbul, in the part of the old city near the great monuments most frequently haunted by carpet dealers. Within five minutes of stepping out, someone finds a new and creative way to suggest you go into his shop to look at his rugs. As I found myself warning new tourists about these men, I realized that I must sound quite like them when I suggested that the new tourists go to my long-time carpet-seller friend instead to look at his carpets!

William has been sorely missing the NFL season, and we were delighted when Katie invited us to visit one of her friends and watch a Packers game. Our Turkish host was little interested, but William was thrilled.

The rest of my time was spent walking, drinking Turkish tea, talking with friends about my book, and making arrangements for the summer. That summer plan made it just a bit easier to leave Istanbul this time.

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November 20, 2007 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

To Istanbul

We decided to try the train to Istanbul, but the closest place to get it is Adana. The bus ride from Antakya to Adana took me through places I’d been reading about for years, the mountain pass town of Belen, the port city of Iskenderun/Alexandretta, Dörtyol right on the previous border between Syria and Turkey. We got to Adana just in time to eat some spicy kebab, try the locally-favored beverage (salty turnip juice), sit in the “wait foring room,” as the sign read, and chat with the staff before boarding a sleeping car for the 19 hour trip.

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The trip was so wonderful we decided to return by train, too. We were accompanied by a large group of women on their way to an Amway convention in Istanbul. They had brought huge quantities of their own food, and took over the dining car and kitchen, laughing and talking as they prepared a spicy bulgar/vegetable/hot pepper paste dish I had never seen before.

The scenery was spectacular. I’d once driven through the Taurus mountains, but was so nervous about the trucks that I didn’t appreciate it as I should have. This time, we sat watching out the window (when we weren’t watching the food preparation).

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November 19, 2007 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

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