A ride From Hell Would’ve Been Better … not to Mention Faster
Once in Afghanistan I was in a helicopter flying from Morales Frazier, a small FOB (Forward Operating Base) to Bagram Airfield, the main military base in Afghanistan. Morales Frazier is a bumpy 90-minute mountain-pass Humvee ride from Kabul but only 10 minutes by helicopter. That evening as we boarded the helicopter the temperature on the ground was pleasant. Very quickly, however, as the helicopter rocketed up into the starry black sky, the rotors pulsating wildly over high mountains, the temperature in the unpressurized cabin dropped to nearly freezing. Completely clueless, I was only wearing a T-shirt and light hoodie under my flak jacket.
I had never been so cold, ever. As my core body temperature got lower I kept telling myself that I could handle this. ‘You’ll be OK,’ I told myself, ‘at the very most it’ll take 15 minutes until we land.’
Well, unbeknownst to me, due to air traffic, which is always heavy around Bagram, the busiest airport in Afghanistan, the helicopter kept circling over the mountains. I was sitting behind the open door, being blasted by arctic air. Even if I had been somehow able to loosen my safety harness, my bags were secured on a pallet in the back so impossible to try to retrieve a warm jacket.
The cold I felt reached the level of disbelief. How long will this last? How much can my body endure? How can it be so fucking cold in the nighttime sky when on the ground it’s piping hot? I shut my eyes and tried to go to a happy place. I thought about hanging with the Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers earlier that day baking under the sun, firing off big weapons on the shooting range. As I was about to go into hypothermic shock, the lights of Bagram’s airfield came into view. Alleluia.
Until Mali that helicopter adventure ranked highest on the Worst … Trip … Ever! scale. It was about to be displaced with my Malian voyage from Kita to Manantali.
When Rollo and I purchased our bus tickets for 2500 CFA ($5) each in Kita, the man who gave us our scrap of paper with a barely visible purple stamp on it mentioned that the bus might actually be a “camion” since one of his busses was down. I convinced myself that he couldn’t mean a truck truck. He probably meant a military-like transport used to move refugees, where there’s a big wooden bench in the middle of the truck bed and people sit with their backs to each other, their possessions in front of their feet.
When, however, an actual truck truck rolled to a stop in front of us, I tried my best to stifle a Joan Crawford, No-it-can’t-be! gasp like in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane when she hesitantly picks up the silver lid to discover a dead rat on her dinner platter.
With no choice, I started moving with the crowd towards the truck. One of the cargo gates in the back was opened. Cargo was being loaded on the wooden boards of the truckbed. After two large transport carts were upended on the truckbed and scooted towards the driver’s cabin, people started to board.
Like the previous transport, the young men elbowed everybody out of their way and boarded first, choosing the most comfortable spots. There were some women and some kids, an old lady and even a baby. They were helped up by the more mature men. As the women meekly sought space in the truck bed they reminded me of small forest mammals looking for a meager pile of dry leaves to bed down in for the night.
Rollo and I went to the front of the truckbed just behind the front cab. In the corner were a few enormous Chinese synthetic bags. I was about to step on one to get a better vista of the outside when an alarmed, thin man stood up and spluttered, “There are tomatoes in those!” I shook my head. Does this guy really expect his tomatoes to not turn into ketchup in this crowded truck?
Once everybody was settled in, the driver closed the back gate and the truck began to ponderously roll forward.
We drove exactly four minutes before the driver grinded to a halt in front of a warehouse. How are they going to pack more cargo and passengers in this truck? I asked myself.
They found a way.
It was like that scene in Star Wars when Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Chewbakka are in the garbage compactor of the Death Star and the walls start closing in.
Like I did in the helicopter in Afghanistan, I mentally went to a happy place. I also took pictures, lots and lots of pictures, to distract myself from the discomfort. Standing on a wooden handle of one upturned cart, I had a good vantage point at the front of the truckbed. I used the ginormous bag of tomatoes for balance.
I was glad to be underway again when the truck cranked into first gear, but five minutes after leaving the warehouse, we stopped again, this time at a lot where young men and boys were working on automobile body parts.
While I was snapping away, I heard some shouting. Rollo tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out a woman who was yelling at me. Apparently she didn’t want her picture taken. In Muslim countries taking pictures of people is often frowned upon because devout Muslims think by capturing someone in a picture or painting them you’re taking away their soul, that’s why you rarely see depictions of people or animals in mosques or Moorish/Islamic temples and palaces.
How presumptuous, I thought, that this woman would think I was taking her picture. She had been standing on the sidelines. I was focused on the men loading more shit on the truckbed. I didn’t even see her in the lens frame. Nevertheless, I put the camera down for a while.
The screaming woman proceeded to board the truck, climbing over the sidewall into the truckbed. She tried to stare me down but I paid her no heed. Rollo said he overheard she was the daughter of the driver. As my sister Jill would say, Grrrrreat.
Whoever she was, she’d done this trip before. She brought along a blanket, a pot of stew, water, warm clothes and a light. A bark leapt from her throat whenever someone tried to encroach on her claim of space.
More passengers scrambled up into the bed, then oil drums that said USA on them were loaded on the back end before the gate was again pushed closed. You could smell the gas fumes coming from the barrels. The only way to get out of the truck now was to either climb over the greasy drums or clamber over the tall wooden truckbed walls. Some men in the back lit up cigarettes. If this truck doesn’t blow up it’ll be a miracle.
In Kita, as we waited for the truck to arrive I had asked an authoritative-looking guy in an orange boubou and saddle shoes how far Manantali was from Kita. He said 130 kilometers. “The first 30 are paved, the rest is dirt,” he explained ominously.
130km = 72 miles. That’s like from my hometown of Columbus to the Nebraskan capital of Lincoln. I figured that at most it’d take three hours to get to Manantali if we ever got underway.
Though the truck had pulled away from the Kita bus stop at 4:30 PM, or as they express it in Mali, 1630, it took an entire hour just to travel the few miles to reach the highway. Five minutes after riding on the blacktop we stopped again, this time for a checkpoint. Another 20 minutes. The soldiers manning the checkpoint wore blue fatigues and were as pompous as you read about in books and see in movies. The sun was deep on the horizon when we continued on our way down the highway.
The blacktop was pristine. It looked brand new with a solid white line in the middle and white dashes on the side to designate the wide shoulders. It was odd how this beautiful road had practically no traffic. Besides our truck there were only a few other vehicles. How could such a lovely road, bordered on either side by trees and some rock outcroppings, lead to such misery?
The Twilight Zone is Exactly 104 km Long
At 6:30 PM we turned off the highway onto a dirt road. “Manantali 104 km” an arrow-shaped sign proclaimed. It had taken two hours to get from the bus stop to this corner, a total of 40 km/24 miles.
The truck pulled to the side and cut the engine. Most male passengers crawled over the truckbed walls. The woman who screamed earlier followed them without a problem. The other women waited for the driver to open the back gate and then were helped over the gasoline drums. At this junction, where the dirt road to Manantali met the highway from Kita, were a few round thatched mud houses that resembled chocolates in straw hats.
There was a cleared-off lot that had a dozen roughly hewn thick tree branches pounded into the earth that served as columns to hold up a dry-grass roof and some walls made out of weaved reeds. You could say that this was rural Mali’s version of Burger King. But there was only one thing on this menu.
Over a grill made of red mud bricks, blackened by smoke, a man was cooking up sinewy cuts of meat then hacking them into pieces with a crude knife. He sprinkled rough salt over the greasy pieces of meat and wrapped them in brown paper.
There was a mad scramble to this primitive fastfood shack. You snooze, you lose, is the mantra in Mali. By the time I got to the grill it was swamped. Oh well. I don’t like gnawing meat off bones anyway and I hate having greasy, sticky hands. I peed behind a tree then heaved myself onto the truck wall and climbed back into the truckbed.
While there was still some light and I had a weak signal left on my phone I sent a text message to the Manantali number that our new friend in Kita, Sidibé, gave us. I typed out the sms in French to a person named “Baba”: “Bon soir, I am a friend of Sidibé Bakary, my name is Ken, I am coming with a friend to Manantali in a few hours, hopefully we can meet! Ken & Rollo.” Shortly thereafter I heard a beep on my cellphone. The text read: “ok.” Well at least I knew there was someone connected with this number.
So far I had remained optimistic. This was adventure right? … Rrrright? How many Americans would travel like this? How many people get a chance to travel with Africans in the back of a cargo truck? This’ll make a great topic of conversation at dinner parties, surely.
The story began to change once the sun set and we entered the fourth hour of this odyssey. The dirt road was not grated and was very narrow. The driver, in order to not to burst a tire, drove as carefully as he could around the bigger potholes, which often meant barely rolling forward.
I started doing the math in my head. This dirt road was 100 km long, which equals 60 miles. From one end of Manhattan to the other is 15 miles, so that would be like going back and forth two times, which you could do in 4 hours without killing yourself. Well I could definitely bike faster than this truck. There weren’t really stones or rocks in the road. It was just red dirt with a layer of dust and deep ruts and indentations caused by rain.
I’d been standing the entire time since we’d left Kita, but now branches from trees, which tightly bordered the one-lane road, were strafing the sides of the truck. More than once, when I wasn’t paying attention, the skinny Tuareg man next to me wrapped in a cinnamon-colored head scarf and wearing a butterscotch robe, pushed the branches out of the way before they hit me. I thanked him each time, noticing that he had a ring with large red piece of glass on his righthand finger. I liked these Tuaregs, they were so mysterious, so Raiders of the Lost Ark, their faces hidden behind their scarves.
The fourth time branches almost took me out, I decided to sit down.
Rollo had been sitting for quite a while. He was on one end of the upturned cart handle. Another person was sitting on the other part of the handle. I scrunched my butt on the few inches of free handle – there was nowhere else to sit. Turned out the handle had a big hook screwed into it. So to add to the discomfort you had to avoid the hook while sitting. Ultimately I forgot about the hook and when I suddenly stood up it tore the back of my pants.
It was official: I was no longer in a good mood.
The truck rarely traveled more than a few minutes at a constant speed. It continually slowed down to maneuver the holes in the road, and the driver often stopped so he and his compadres in the truck cabin could go pee and stretch their legs, which seemed to be every 20 minutes.
I noticed that although there were towering powerpoles and massive powerlines following the length of this road, none of the little mud villages below them had electricity.
Two hours on the dirt road turned into three then four then we had mechanical problems and didn’t move for another hour. We traveled another hour then the truck stopped in a village. It was one in the morning. You’d think everybody in an unelectrified village would be in bed, or in mat, but there was a group of men moving about in the darkness. I squinted and saw below us two huge wagons loaded with watermelons. These were all loaded into the truck. Nobody could accuse this truck of wasting space.
Another hour passed. I set my camera on something stable and snapped pictures in the dark. I then jumped onto the dirt to see what was going on in the world outside the truck.
There was a group of young guys standing on the sidelines watching the watermelon action. I struck up a conversation with a tall, strapping teenager. I asked him what the name of this town was. “Tomadjima,” he replied. “How big is it?” I continued. He wasn’t sure, but replied “big!” I enjoyed talking to this good-looking guy. He must’ve felt kind of special because he tried to tell me about the village but the more nervous he got the louder his voice rose.
His name was something like Funeke Dumbeli (or was it Funky Dumbbell?). Here in the seeming middle of nowhere, in a village constructed completely of round huts (rondevals as they call them in southern Africa) and pens of animals, was this young guy who apparently was educated and was wearing an immaculately white T-shirt. It reminded me of when I was in Afghanistan and you’d go to some godforsaken little village located off some dusty road where there was no running water or electricity and the men would be wearing unblemished, pressed white shalwar kameezes (long dress shirts) and matching flowing pants (which the soldiers called man-jammies because they looked like pajamas).
I then turned towards a rail-thin older gentleman with gray hair, white beard and a simple Capuchin-monklike brown robe with a hood. He had a calming, wise demeanor like Morgan Freeman. I asked him how far Manantali was from this village. He replied, 27 kilometers. I asked him why his town wasn’t electrified when there were powerlines right above it. He explained that Tomadjima wasn’t important enough to receive electricity. Then we began discussing politics. I assumed this wise man, Adama, was a professor. He told me he was a farmer.
I could’ve sat and talked with Funeke and Adama all night long but the driver tooted the horn, which meant we were getting ready to roll. I shook the hands of my new friends and scampered back into the truck. I should’ve photographed those two guys. Well, maybe I’ll return someday.
It was now very chilly. Only 15 miles to go till Mandalay (the name I used because I couldn’t remember Manantali). But the trip didn’t go any faster. We stopped off at another village to let off passengers and pick up a few heavy-lidded ones. Finally, we saw the bright lights Manantali’s famous massive dam.
It was exciting to see these bright lights appear out of the black as the truck labored up a steep incline on a narrow twisting tree-lined road. I didn’t know what to expect of this town. By the looks of the large round dirt plaza where the truck circled to a park it wasn’t much. A few crude lightpoles lit up this small sleepy town. I had sent a few texts to Baba during the trip when I had a signal but never heard back.
I looked at my phone. It was now 2:30 in the morning. Now what?
Trampled by a Herd of Wild Elephants! … (almost)
I jumped out of the bed of the truck and Rollo handed down the backpacks. The thin Tuareg man who had several times along the dirt road saved my ass by pulling me away from unseen strafing tree branches, was struggling in his robes and sandals to get down with his walking stick. I put out my hands and he handed me his prized cane. I carefully set it on the ground. He was no able to use both hands to get down.
Standing in the quiet plaza Rollo and I tried to figure out our options, which were few.
We could try to find Baba Cissé’s place, which our friend Sidibé vaguely mentioned was a hotel/restaurant called “Pierre de Coline.” We could attempt to find some type of accommodation that might be open in the middle of the night – sounds crazy but once in a little South African shithole town called Steinkopf, which was immersed in blackness, we found a hotel with a light on in its office; it was like seeing the celestial lights from the gates of heaven.
Another option we had was to bed down by the truck like several passengers were doing. They only had thin blankets. We had sleeping bags. But the lights on the few poles in the plaza were very bright, plus it would be soon be very loud as the locals got up with the chickens. In a few hours there’d be donkeys and carts and people setting up their little stands to sell their wares.
So Rollo and I decided to venture away from the square and see what we could find.
One thing I quickly noted about Manantali was how unnoteworthy this town was. The buildings seemed to be all low-slung, dingy mudbrick affairs. Now why is this town supposed to be special again? We staggered into the darkness, exhausted, lost and hungry.
I squinted, spotting a light inside a little clapboard hut. Like two moths, we flitted in the direction of the flame. Illuminated by a fluorescent cylinder were two young guys sitting on metal-framed chairs outside.
I think they were as surprised to see us, two white faces popping out of the night, as we were to see them.
“Bon nuit,” I began hoarsely. First I asked if they knew a guy named Baba Cissé. They shook their heads, slowly chewing mentally on the name. Then I asked if they knew of a hotel/restaurant by the name of Pierre de Coline. One guy shook his head and the other seemed to recall something by that name.
“It’s up the road about a kilometer away, I think,” the shorter guy named Karim said, pointing vaguely in the dark.
Under different circumstances I’d be up for a walk but not in the middle of the night in a place we know nothing about, not sure what we’re looking for. Not to mention I’d about reached the end of my rope physically. “So is there a hotel or something around here?” I continued, knowing I was grasping at straws. The slow shake of the head and lost look was expected. Nevertheless I experienced momentary pangs of panic. Now what!
“Maybe we can sleep over there?” Rollo suggested, pointing towards the dirty back stoop of some business along this quiet dirt thoroughfare.
I sneered. I was too tired to remind him that it was 3:00 in the morning, that the owners would probably arrive at the crack of dawn and who knows how they’d react to strangers sleeping on their property. I pictured some crazed barking dog bearing its fangs dripping with saliva as it strained a makeshift leash, which was held by an owner debating whether he should let go.
“Well is there any place we can just lay down until the morning,” I asked, struggling with my French.
Karim thought a bit, then said he knew of something. “Suivez-moi,” he said quietly.
We followed him to the end of the dirt street, up a blacktop, through some tall dry grass, down another road then saw an outdoor bar that had some lights on. It was surrounded by a few bungalows. I hoped maybe someone would be around to pay for a bed, but Karim pointed to the concrete benches covered with old cushions and the metal chairs with weaved elastic-netting which Malians seem to prefer.
Karim disappeared into the night. Rollo and I looked at each other for a second then pulled out our sleeping bags. It was chilly. I was exhausted but also wound up. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in the open. What if some thief snuck up on us and made away with our stuff while we were sawing logs. All my money was on my person. If that got stolen I had no Plan B.
We decided to sleep in shifts. Rollo was swaying on his feet about ready to pass out so I let him take the first shift sleeping. I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway if I knew he wanted to.
I pulled a chair in front of his bench, placed my backpack behind me, put on my coat and my sleeping bag, and kept guard. I shut my eyelids to rest my eyes, but couldn’t sleep. I’d hear a branch crack in the dark or some strange monkey howl (just like in the movies).
At one point though I did drift asleep. I know I did because I was suddenly ripped out of a dream by the thunderous, confusing noise that was rumbling nearby. It sounded like a truck or train engine. In the distance I could see dust being kicked up by a line of blurry, fast-moving animals. Holy shit! Was it herd of elephants or wildebeests? I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t find my damn glasses.
When I finally located my glasses and put them on, I squinted into the darkness. The stampeding hordes of wild animals turned out to be ten donkeys running down a nearby road. Damn donkeys!
I then glanced down at Rollo who had also woken up but had been in a much deeper sleep. His mouth was agape, his eyes were wide open. He slowly turned towards me dazed. The donkeys were gone before he fumbled to put on his glasses. He gave me a What-in-tarnations! look.
What a picture that would have made.
The only look I’d ever seen comparable to Rollo’s was a girl in high school who was a sweet-hearted stoner. During P.E. on afternoon we went bowling and when she wasn’t looking I pressed her manual reset pinsetter button. As she slowly released her bowling ball down the wood, the automated pinsetter apparatus came down and swept her pins into the back gutter. Her ball hit the protective leather strip and began to slowly roll backwards. The look on her face, mouth agape, eyes wide in disbelief were exactly like Rollo’s. (I never did fess up to that girl who never figured out what happened.)
Rollo asked if I wanted to sleep and he’d be the lookout. I couldn’t picture him staying awake so I told him to go back to sleep, I’d remain vigilant. Well again I rest my eyes for a little bit, I was becoming acclimated to the ambient sounds – dogs barking, donkeys braying, birds chirping, roosters crowing – and they lulled me to sleep. I was mentally back in the truck, bouncing around endlessly not knowing whether we’d ever get off. And then again I was startled awake.
This time it was a human.
If this had been America there would’ve been two menacing black metal barrels of a shotgun pointed towards our heads. Instead it was a wide-eyed slight black man holding a staff. Try explaining in French at 4:00 in the morning after barely resting for 20 hours and nearly being crushed to death by a pack of crazy stampeding elephants (… or mildly aroused clopping mules) that you couldn’t find a hotel because you arrived so late into town and you were led to this bar by a merchant who said it was OK.
It was clear by the way this guy vigorously shook his head that we were not going to be allowed to sleep here. We started to collect our things. We motioned towards the vacant-looking bungalows behind us and asked if we could sleep in one of them. He nodded his head sheepishly. We asked how much. He paused a moment then blurted out: 5000 CFA!
That worked out to $5 a piece. Though by U.S. standards that’s crazy cheap, for Malians that was a little pricey. The outside of the bungalow looked much better than the inside, which was dusty and unswept. There were two single bedframes that held rotting mattresses and torn sheets. But anything was better than being outside in the elements.
We didn’t bother to take our clothes off, we just slid into our sleeping bags.
Before we passed out from exhaustion, Rollo murmured in his slight German accent, “And the royal family upon arriving in Manantali is escorted from their gold-leafed carriage by the state ministers to their royal suite where they find featherbeds and satin pillows stuffed with the softest of down.”
Juxtaposing the picture Rollo painted with our actual, sad current conditions made me erupt in laughter. The more I thought of his regal portrayal of our trip and how we traveled like cattle in that truck for nearly 10 hours and now were penned in these shabby digs sleeping on flopbeds like two bums, the more I laughed. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I hadn’t laughed so hard in years. “The royal family is met by the royal courtier at the gilded gates of their summer palace after their royal journey from the capital of the empire,” I gasped between fits of laughter. “Children sprinkle rose petals before their golden shoes.”
It felt good to laugh, at first.
All the stress I’d built up regarding this trip melted away. But then I couldn’t stop laughing. I hoped Rollo realized the exhaustion was the reason behind my hysterical chortling, but then I feared he might think I’m nuts, because I was fearing the same thing. I tried to reign in my laughter. I tried to not think of Rollo and I as royal hobos. Little paroxysms of tittering laughter would escape, like Chief Inspector Dreyfus on the Pink Panther after Inspector Clouseau drives him insane.
I felt a little déjà-vu and was reminded of a memoir I’d read the previous summer by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind. She wrote about her experiences as a political prisoner for 20 years under Stalin. She ended up in Siberia and was compelled to cut down trees in the deep snow with another woman equally as unskilled in manual labor as she was. They were on starvation rations and could barely handle the saw but they were able to make jokes to keep their spirits up. As they dragged themselves home in their filthy rags, stooped over double, with skin peeling off their weather-beaten faces, eating snow to remain hydrated, they made up stories about themselves from the society page of an imaginary Western journal. "A gay troop of Amazons returned the other afternoon from a delightful promenade into the woods to visit the latest chic lodge where they enjoyed an exquisite répas of lobster bisque and crème brulée with a surprising garnish of fruits de bois!”
I drifted off into a deep sleep, still smiling at the thought of the royal family.
Couch Potatoes, Malian Style
We’re shaken out of our slumber by a banging on the door.
It’s the little night watchman. “You must go now, the boss is coming!” he says urgently in French. “You must leave immediately; if he finds you here he will charge you double!” I look at my watch. 8:00 AM. The Royal family is awoken by harp music as courtiers prepare a bountiful meal; orange blossoms perfume the morning breeze.
Having spent about five months in Afghanistan with the U.S. military and having to hustle at a moment’s notice, I was packed and ready to go in a matter of minutes. Rollo was still sluggishly stuffing his sleeping bag into its pouch.
“I’ll wait outside for you,” I said nervously, not wanting to rile up this little African any more than he already seemed. The watchman kept on staring at the bungalow across the courtyard, then at me.
“Ou est ton ami!” he demanded.
“He’s coming, he’s coming!” I replied, not knowing what was taking Rollo so long and what this guy’s burning desire to get us out was all about. I wasn’t feeling too hot. I was hungry and tired and had no desire to deal with this right now. I didn’t want to leave my bag untended but this guy was about to blow his aorta.
“Rollo, you gotta hurry!” I panted as I ran in and out of the room. He was still stuffing his little backpack – the only piece of luggage he brought. I was relieved when he finally appeared in the daylight. The guy not only wanted us out of the room but off the property.
“My boss is coming! You must go!” he implored. Rollo, who’s an editor at a small newspaper in DC, decided at that moment to sit down and check his Blackberry messages. Now my aorta was about to burst. I tried to stall the watchman by saying I had to go to the bathroom. Rollo nabbed the toilet paper from the Bamako hotel we stayed at, something I had failed to think about. Thank you Jesus!
I used my first African hole toilet. You have to be careful how you position yourself. I was proud I didn’t splatter on myself … I think. When I came out, Rollo was still immersed in his Blackberry.
“Maybe we can find a place to eat and you can check your messages there,” I suggested. “This guy seems really jonesin’ for us to leave.” Rollo shrugged and started to walk while still engrossed in his phone. Now I know why they call it Crackberry.
It was weird to see the same landscape in the day that we stumbled through last night. The town was definitely nothing special. No great architecture or buildings of note, nothing over one story. We crossed the blacktop in front of the hotel and proceeded up the dirt road towards the only place we knew of: the stand last night where we met Karim who led us to the hotel.
Different guys were working. They had no idea who Karim was. I hate confusion. I then asked the two new guys if they knew of a guy named Baba Cissé or a hotel named Pierre de Coline. Their eyes glazed over and they shook their heads slowly. OK, next topic: food. “Is there a restaurant or something around here to get some breakfast?” I asked half-heartedly, looking around not seeing anything even vaguely resembling an eatery. Again they shook their heads, but pointed to something around the corner saying it was some type of café but no food.
I was irked. Why did we come to this town in the first place? Sidibé had suggested it but didn’t go into any details and we took him at his word. Maybe we’d make a mistake.
We lugged our backpacks to the little café that the guy indicated. There was a rickety bench and a couple of old wooden chairs in front. A severed goat’s head was lying on the ground next to its hanging carcass at the other end of the patio, which was under a straw roof. Inside the little ramshackle hut was another wobbly bench with some guy eating an egg. Aha! Food!
The big stocky owner reminded me of the towering voodoo priest Damabala in the James Bond Movie, To Live and Let Die. We asked if we could order some eggs as well. He said of course. So we each ordered two scrambled eggs. People came in the little shack intermittently to buy baguettes, which the owner kept under some brown paper on the plank of wood that served as a desk and table.
Although this place couldn’t get any more rudimentary – the owner was stooped in the corner holding an old skillet above a fire of branches –my mouth was copiously salivating like Pavlov’s dog. I was so hungry that I didn’t even mind when the owner, scrounging around for utensils, handed me the fork of the guy sitting next to me who had just finished his meal.
In fact I thought it was a good thing to take his fork.
I had brought along with me from New York a lot of articles that I hadn’t had time to read in the States. One New Yorker article, entitled ‘Nature’s Spoils,’ by Burkhard Bilger talked about bacteria, fermentation and health. I recalled it saying that humans had grown “suicidally dainty.” That our ancestors were rough beasts: hunters, gatherers, scavengers, and carrion eaters, built to digest any rude meal they could find. That fruits and vegetables were a rarity, grains nonexistent. The human gut was a wild kingdom in those days, continually colonized by parasites, viruses and other microorganisms picked up from raw meat and from foraging.
I felt I could do with a little bit more bacteria in my gut. Americans like Howie Mandel were doing themselves more harm than good by lowering their resistance to germs because they avoided them so much. I wiped the fork off with my handkerchief and proceeded to use it to devour my eggs and baguette.
Mali may be very rough around the edges but their bread is fantastic. Somehow the recipe and ovens for French baguettes survived French colonization. I would hazard to say that although South Africa has exquisite food, their bread isn’t nearly as good as the bread in Mali. (That may be due to the Dutch influence in South Africa. The Dutch have remarkably tasteless white bread even though they’re bordered by Germany and Belgium, which have some of the best bread in the world.)
“Your bread is so good here in Mali,” I told the owner. “But where do you get it?”
“Il y’a quattre fourniers dans la ville!” the owner replied. Four bakeries in Manantali? Where I wondered.
I noticed the owner used bits of chicken bouillon when preparing scrambled eggs and I gotta say they came out scrumpdilicious! He had coffee as well. Instant packets that we poured into two unwashed plastic cups. The water was heated on some bricks over a fire of sticks next to the grill.
Feeling refortified and a thousand times better, we asked the owner, if he’d heard of Pierre de Coline or Baba Cissé. Negative on both. I kept on texting and calling Baba’s phone but no answer. I even called Sidibé to ask if he knew anything. He said he’d contact Baba. If I hadn’t received his “ok” text yesterday I’d doubt his existence.
In the meantime we chatted with the owner. His name is Mamadou and he’s from Guinea. He sleeps in the back of his shop, which he opens up at 5 AM and closes at midnight. (Anyone who says Africans are lazy can step into Mamadou’s shoes – or rather sandals – for a day.)
We told him about our arrival last night and about the strange little watchman of the bungalows. Mamadou chuckled saying that guy was known as Kapi le Petit and that he definitely wanted us out before his boss came to he could pocket the money. “He probably charged you double the normal rate,” Mamadou said in his deep voice.
We then went out front and sat on the chairs thinking of Plan B. Perhaps the royal family would have to return to the imperial palace of the previous night.
A roundish guy pulled up on his moped and entered Mamadou’s for breakfast. For shits and giggles, I asked the guy if he perhaps knew a guy named Baba Cissé.
“Oui! Je le connais, il est mon ami!” the guy responded. Paydirt! This guy not only knew him but was his friend. He proceeded to send a text to Baba, which was immediately answered. Hmmm. “He’s coming right now,” the friend, whose name is Mohammed Aré, replied.
Mohammed explained that he was a construction manager, currently working on eight buildings. He’s originally from Bamako, as was Baba, which is where the two met. Then, speak of the devil, Baba pulled up on his moped.
The only thing we knew about Baba, who appeared to be in his early 30s, was that he was a friend of Sidibé’s. Baba knew even less about Rollo and me but nevertheless had Rollo mount his moto. I got on the back of Mohammed’s moped. It wasn’t too far to Baba’s.
I was expecting some type of freestanding building, something that said Pierre de Coline. Instead he lived in a long building that connected five separate homes. In front of him was another similar building. The toilets and showers were in buildings at either side of the complex.
Baba was however not poor. In fact he’d probably be considered upper middleclass. He had cushy furniture that looked like it was made in Pakistan or China, a big TV and a prized satellite dish. Rollo and I left our shoes on the front stoop before entering Baba’s livingroom.
Baba gave a girl some money. Five minutes later she returned with a plate with several skewers of cooked meat and some raw chopped onion. I was starved but since I noticed Rollo eating slowly I curbed my appetite instead of quickly gobbling down the meat.
I noticed a sticker above the screen of the Samsung TV that said ‘BABA CISSE TECH OPERATEUR ENERGIE MANANTALI.’ “Tu travais chez la barrage?” (You work at the dam?) I asked. Oui, he responded though it was unclear what exactly he did there or why he wasn’t at work that day. The dam of Manantali is a big thing for Mali he explained.
The hydroelectric dam was built on the Bafing River between 1981 and 87. There was a 13-year wait while a loan with the World Bank was worked out to install five turbines. The first megawatt of electricity was produced in 2001. It’s one of the most important economic developments in West Africa. It lights up Bamako, 300 km to the east and provides hard currency from Senegal and Mauritania who buy the electricity to light up their capital cities of Dakar and Nouakchott. (Never mind that villages only a few km from the dam have no electricity.)
“Could you maybe take us to the barrage later?” I asked. Baba assured us he would, then returned to his TV. Baba and a friend were trying to adjust the satellite dish.
It was 9:30 in the morning. Rollo and I wanted to inquire about our room but didn’t want to sound pushy so we waited for him to bring up the subject. After sitting on the couch for an hour watching him and his friend fruitlessly fiddle around with a control box to get rid of the static on the few channels they could pick up, Baba paused for a moment, turned to us and said our room would be free at noon.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? I was confused. What room was he talking about? Weren’t we staying in this place? Again we didn’t want to be too inquisitive, lest we get under our host’s skin.
Baba went back to the TV. It was a gorgeous day and I wanted to be outside, doing something, exploring.
A pretty young thing came sashaying in. Baba introduced her as his second wife. (He’d explained earlier that his wife and two children (aged 10 and 4) lived in Bamako.) The second wife was from Côte d’Ivoire. She made clear that she didn’t want any pictures of herself when she saw my camera. She set a bunch of bananas on the carpet in the middle of the living room. As with onions, Rollo doesn’t like bananas so I ate enough for the both of us. Baba motioned towards the carpet, murmuring to toss the peels on the floor.
Noon came and went and we were still sitting on those fucking couches, watching TV. The big event in the news was Côte d’Ivoire’s contested elections, where one man won and the other refused to step down. They broadcast a crude video of the president explaining why he refused to cease power. He was flanked by two burly, intimidating dudes that looked like New York bouncers. Baba, his friend and second wife kept on tsk-tsking the TV set, moaning. One domino falls, the rest will soon follow.
At 12:30 Baba heaved himself up from his marshmallow couch with effort and beckoned for us to come with him but told us to leave the luggage. I thought we were going to the room but instead we did a circular tour of the town. I think he did it more to impress the townsfolk with his white guests than to show us anything.
Baba’s sexy young second wife served up couscous with meat when we got back. By the two small pieces of meat on my plate I could tell she didn’t like me. Baba’s plate was spilling over with meat, but I guess that’s fair. Afterwards some neighbor kids came in and everybody watched a Filipino soap opera, La Longue Attend (The Long Wait), dubbed in French. Baba explained the before school classes resumed at 3 PM the kids liked to drop by his place to watch the show.
The soap was so bad that I fell asleep on the couch and I never sleep during the day. I wanted to astroproject myself to somewhere, anywhere that didn’t have a TV.
When Dr Jeckyll gets Hungry Mr. Hyde Appears
I was o.d’ing on TV by the time Baba finally hauled his ass up from the couch at 3:30 PM.
We walked to a building a few dirt paths away. Our room, painted institutional-developing-world-green, had a closet and two mattresses in it and that was it. Our Ritz Carlton. An a/c unit had been built into the wall but no air-conditioner was ever installed. Instead there were bricks inside the metal casing. There was however a fan, which was good because there was little ventilation otherwise.
Although I’d been pent up all day I input notes in my laptop while Rollo slept. It was nice to have a little mental time to myself. I was about caught up when Rollo roused to consciousness. He took a 30-minute long shower and came back bleeding. I thought he should’ve left his beard; it looked good.
While Rollo was slathering on mosquito repellent – he’s always checking his arms and legs for bites – I head out to take a shower. I was confused. There were two buildings. One seemed to be for toilet use, the other for showers, yet they both could be either. Since there were no porcelain toilets, just holes in the ground it was hard to tell.
I really had to go and was mortified when the hole I decided to use was either clogged or super shallow. Panicking I used toilet paper and threw the brown ball in another hole which turned out to be a water gutter. I feared Mr. Hankie might roll out into the courtyard, so I hurried, dried myself off and hustled back to the room.
Rollo and I left the room at the same time, but he seemed to want to do his own thing.
I passed by Baba’s to see if he wanted to hit the dam. But he was in the middle of eating something that looked like a fat burrito, so I headed towards some baobabs, a tree that mystifies me and took pictures of them and some kids, then head in the opposite direction towards a rocky outcropping. I wanted to capture the sunset.
I climbed up to a ledge and took pictures. In the valley I could see in the distance several streams of smoke swirling phantasmagorically straight above into the windless evening air. I got a good view of the dam to my left. It was immense and there were several pick-ups and cars going back and forth on the road that led to it.
In Mali I think it’s not easy to be alone because two curious boys followed me up the rocky cliff. I kind of wanted to be by myself and think, but if you can’t beat them, join them. So I turned my lens on the two boys. They liked being photographed, a trait I adore in people. They told me that most everybody with a car in Manantali worked at the dam. On the way down they pointed out their mother down the road who was walking behind some lumbering cows with impossibly huge horns. A fat gendarme on a bike glowered at me as I left the boys and headed back to Baba’s.
When I got back to the room Rollo still wasn’t there, so I ventured towards to the center of town. At Mamadou’s there was a butcher outside his place who on a table was hacking a side of meat into bite-sized bits. I didn’t know how you were supposed to purchase them so I asked. He put his hand over a length of meat and said 500 CFA, then moved his hand further out and said 1000. 500 seemed sufficient, so I gave him the money and he chopped me up some pieces of meat. He salted them and I sat in front of Mamadou’s with my meal.
The meat turned out to be very gristly and bony. There was deceptively little meat on the bones. I was disappointed. I don’t like gnawing meat off bones. While I was struggling with a piece I see Baba ride up on his moped, order some meat then disappear behind the building. I wasn’t sure if he saw me.
“Baba?” I called out cautiously, as I tossed away my gristly bones and sought him out.
“Ken!” he exclaimed half-heartedly. I got the impression he didn’t want to be bothered, which is fine. I can understand how you can feel obligated to take care of people you don’t want to host. Baba was one of the few overweight Malians I saw. Now I knew why. He had a pile of meat in front of him which he was demolishing. This must’ve been his fourth big meal of the day and the night was still young.
“Have you seen Rollo?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s at my place,” he replied. I slowly head back for his place. I stopped off at a little Catholic rondeval (round building) that we visited earlier during our quick tour of the village.
Joseph, the caretaker, was inside the church. I called out his name so he wouldn’t be startled. He turned towards me, beaming a benevolent smile. The inside of the church was brightly lit. On the back wall was a crucifix is with an African Jesus.
Joseph, a stout, centered man spoke with a nice soft French accent that was soothing to listen to. He had told me earlier that he had translated the hymnals in the church from French into Bambara, the main language of Mali. He, his wife and seven children lived off the money he got from parishioner donations and the archdiocese. I can’t imagine how little that must be.
Joseph told me that on Sundays he gets 20-40 people. That’s pretty good for a country that’s only 5% Christian. Joseph isn’t an ordained priest but holds services most Sundays because the priest only comes for big festivals – the biggest one of the year being in two nights, Christmas Eve.
There was another rondeval in front of the church, a guesthouse that also served at Joseph’s office. He had some old nonworking computers in one room. (Imagine trying to have a computer in a country that’s hot, dusty and has no service to turn to if the computer breaks down.) I thought if I ever came back to this village it’d be nice to stay in the guesthouse. That was one of the few things I had heard about Mali before leaving the U.S., that here most Christian places had guesthouses.
Before I left I prayed this trip would go well. I also prayed for my future, my family, my sexlife, love, money and Africa. I hoped I’d see Joseph again as he waved goodbye while I continued down the dusty road to Baba’s.
I stopped in the now cool darkness to listen to the Muslim call to prayer. The guy who was doing the chanting over the speakers had a gorgeous voice. He sounded young, and … sexy. I looked up at the full moon and the dazzlingly bright stars and thought I wouldn’t mind living in a place like this, at least for a while, and be able to experience these things every day.
When I found Rollo he was in a black mood. He was sitting in Baba’s patio, hungry and thirsty. He had been under the impression that we were all going out to dinner then having drinks. I don’t know where he got that notion but I told him I’d just seen Baba at Mamoud’s pigging out on meat and that there surely would be no meal tonight with him.
Then Baba appeared. “Ken, can I talk to you inside?” he asked in a very serious voice. Oh, oh. Here it comes. He’s gonna hit me up for money. I followed him inside and sat on the couch.
I was happy to be wrong.
Baba reported sternly that his father was sick and that he had to leave the next day to care for him. I felt honored he consulted me in such a reverent manner. (Between Rollo and I, I was definitely the elder agewise.) I saw where Baba was going with this. He was worried about taking care of us. I told him he had been too kind and hospitable already, being somewhat sincere, and said that he needn’t worry about us because we planned to leave early the next morning.
Baba smiled. He then came out in boxers and flipflops, carrying a towel. Before he took his shower I noticed he actually had a pretty good body. Rollo and I hung around, sitting on the couch watching more TV. It was some terrible US movie full of violence and drugs. It was in English but had Arab subtitles. The people in the living room – two chums of Baba’s, the young Ivory Coast wife, a few kids – understood neither.
I murmured to Rollo we should go to Mamadou’s to get something to eat before it gets too late. Baba was coming back before we left. I told him where we were going. He waved good-bye then quickly grabbed a beer from his unlocked outside refrigerator.
Rollo was taciturn, practically snarling. There were two young guys hanging outside Mamadou’s when we arrived, one was a barber from Guinea, the other from Burkina Faso. The barber from Guinea said I looked “sage” (wise) and he could tell that between Rollo and me, I had obviously been the one to spend more time in Africa.
I didn’t say anything. I just nodded my head smiling. Rollo however countered, saying that in fact he had lived in Africa longer. He followed his statement with a flinty-eyed scowl towards me. Inside Rollo and I ate scrambled eggs – the only thing on the menu at Mamadou’s – then head back to our Ritz Carlton digs.
I didn’t know what to say. He was in such a foul mood that I decided to say nothing. He then spoke up. He revealed that his forehead was warm and he wasn’t feeling good. “I’ve had malaria before,” he said. “If I have it again it won’t be good. I don’t know what the next step would be.” I thought he was really saying, I’m not having fun with you, I think we should part ways. I began to bloat with self-doubt. My chest felt tight.
I reached for his forehead to feel if it was hot. He jerked away. This guy’s a little extreme, I said to myself.
As we continued to walk and the food began to work its way into his system he slowly returned from the Abyss. He began talking again in his more typical gentle way. In the room I lit one of the mosquito coils I’d brought from South Africa with matches we got at Mamadou’s. I plugged in my charger to juice up my camera battery, set my phone alarm for 0545 and lay my head on some rolled-up clothes that served as a pillow. The pleasant incense-like smell of the smoking mosquito coil filled my nostrils.
The quiet swoosh of the overhead fan lulled me to sleep quickly. My last thought: What a day.