Sidi Ifni & Weekly Fireflies

I’ve decided to start a new weekly wrap-up, which will hopefully encourage regular blogging on at least my part (I can’t speak for Jon). So this first ‘weekly’ is a recap of our last few days in the former Spanish enclave of Sidi Ifni, and some impressions and observations from the last week. Departing from Dakhla was a welcomed move – not that Dakhla was unpleasant by any means, it’s just a very sleepy coastal town that presented itself with a mixture of West African/Mauritanian and Moroccan/Arab/Berber cultures. In other words, not really having a grasp on any of those cultures at this point, we were mostly just confused. Personally, I was also ready to move beyond the vast stretches of bleakness and see some landscape. I’ve read and heard that Morocco is a dramatically beautiful country and I wanted to see it for myself.

A 9-hour bus ride brought us to the city of Laayounne – home to about 200,000 Moroccans. Not much to say about it, other than it was refreshing to be in a somewhat urban environment. This fashionable town even has a Vegas-style neon-lit fountain. Cool. We spent one night there and boarded a bus at 7:30am Goulmim – described by our Rough Guide as a ‘drab administrative town.’ The bus ride was the most interesting yet (excluding the beautiful dunes of Mauritania), with the desert giving way to sweeping plateaus, plunging cliffs into the sea, and lush inlets carving valleys from the sea into the desert. The 7-hour ride brought us to Goulmim in the early afternoon, with an easy change to a ‘grand-taxi’ (bush taxi) for the hour-long ride to Sidi Ifni.

Moving north towards Laayounne


Not more than 15 minutes out of Goulmim we found ourselves winding through the colorful hills and lush valleys of the Anti-Atlas. Such topography! I was stuck again on the middle seat of a car filled with too many people (there were 4 of us in the back seat of a regular Mercedes sedan – one of whom was a…well-proportioned woman). An adventure!

Road to Laayounne

The Spanish built up Sidi Ifni as a military garrison in the 1930’s when they colonized the area. The town is set high above on a cliff, with a nice beach and steep stairs leading down to the water. It’s famous for its art deco architecture – which honestly not knowing much about architecture doesn’t seem very impressive (I think I got spoiled in Greece!) – but it must be unique to Morocco. It’s lovely nonetheless. We opted for a hotel on the beach, rather than up high, which has essentially given us the chance to get a nice workout every time we want something (food, water etc).

Jon’s healing another wound, similar to what was on his feet, so I took the day Saturday while he tended his wound and headed 10km north to the beach of Legzira. Just a few hotels nestled into the cliff, Legzira is a rocky beach famous for the red archways carved away by the sea. It was nice to find a private little cove where I could sunbathe, and then explore the rocks. I had planned to walk the 10km (6 miles) back to Sidi Ifni, but the tide never really went low enough to cross one of the rocky sections. Luckily I didn’t get too far before figuring this out! A kind Englishwoman and her Moroccan husband gave me a lift back to Sidi Ifni, thankfully before I felt too dejected walking alone on the hot, exposed road back to town. It was nice to have a little solo adventure for the day. A non-date-day as a friend recommended – nice for coming back and sharing stories with your travel partner.

Staying an extra day here allowed us to check out today’s Sunday flea market – the produce section of which made the Portland Farmer’s market pale in comparison, at least when it came to quantities of things. I’ve never seen bigger piles of oranges and carrots! It also allowed us to enjoy the phenomenon that is Saturday night in Sidi Ifni. Apparently everyone gets dressed up to walk the town starting around 8pm – who knew there were actually so many people here!

Tomorrow brings an 8-hour bus ride to the grand city of Marrakech! Very exciting.

Here’s some other weekly thoughts:

Are they arguing or just talking? I may not know a lot about this culture, but one thing I’m convinced of is that Arabic is a language for making one’s self known. People are always talking loudly, and very unabashedly in the presence of others. Whether it’s on the cell phone, or like the larger woman and her young son who talked over each other the whole way to Sidi Ifni – I’ve decided that the most important thing when learning Arabic is to speak forcefully. Maybe they’re just talking about puppies?

Solo vs Couples Traveling: My non-date-day solo adventure to Legzira highlighted the stark contrast in the experience one has as a solo female traveler vs a couple traveling together. From taking breakfast in a café where I was joined by a kind gentleman who gave me a lift to Legzira (yes, I’m very trusting…); to the willingness of anyone to talk to me – it was interesting see how people treated me differently without Jon there.

“Camping Cars” – French for Retired RV Tourists: There are lots of them – easily over 100 are parked in the two ‘camp grounds’ right next to our hotel. They are all French. Not much else to say, it’s just curious.

Coffee: FINALLY good coffee, freedom from Nescafè. Give me a noss noss (Arabic for half half – half coffee half steamed milk) and I’m a happy girl.

Olives, dates, oranges and argan: The presence of any of these during a meal is fabulous – and this is where argan oil comes from – a highly prized oil used in western beauty products. Here it’s mixed with almond butter and honey for a delicious bread dip. Yes please.

Cliffs: I can now safely say that the majority of the entire Saharan coastline is a very steep cliff. We saw everything from Nouakchott to Sidi Ifni – it was far.

Part 2: Senegal to Morocco: Impressively Bleak

The road out of the Mauritanian side of Rosso was rough. There were so many impressions of the road to Nouakchott and the next 3 days were so strange and interesting, I’ve decided to share them as the fleeting thoughts I jotted down as we traversed Mauritania. Read on for the story of Senegal to Morocco. Scrub turns to beautiful orange sand dunes, camels, goats, people with flowing robes of blue, white and black and turbans to guard from the desert. The real desert – the Sahara. Skeletons in the sand – cars, cows, this place claims everything. Close call passing a car, our extra passenger starts shouting match with driver – so much more dangerous! Major insults being past back and forth - woah this is a different place! Lasted a long time; they’re pointing fingers in each other’s faces, yelling. But, then they made up, passenger bought snacks for everyone and then proceeded to invite us to stay at his home. Huh. Maybe Mauritanians are really nice, but just direct? Incredible desert sunset. Can’t believe I’m in the Sahara. Nightime arrival. So. Tired. Dusty. Hot. Africa – Arab Africa – it’s a different place.


We paid our driver a bit more than the regular taxi fare to drive us across town and stop at a bank plus deliver us to the Auberge Sahara (on the road to Nouadhibou). Thierno offers to come in the morning for breakfast and to help us get to Nouadhibou. WOW. This guy is amazing. Thank you Senegal.

Auberge Sahara great for meeting travelers, but not so clean. Our room littered with cigarette butts. Gross. Mama Africa across the street had excellent plates (I recommend the beef) for cheap. We went back there for lunch. Upon paying for the room, I asked the group of gentlemen in the office what the best way to get to Nouadhibou would be and the owner, Mohammed Sidi, said, “oh well, if you want you can come in my car, and if you’re not pressed for time, I’m accompanying 15 French RV’s for a night of camping in the desert and then we’re going to Nouadhibou. If you want to camp with us I’ll loan you a tent and then drive you all the way to the Moroccan border the next morning.” Wow. 30euro buys us transport (with A/C!) to the desert and to the border, meals, a tent, and the experience of witnessing an entourage of French RV tourists. We didn’t sleep – too worried about the potential for bed bugs, while getting eaten by mosquitoes and trying not to breathe in the everlasting scent of stale cigarettes.

Nouakchott -> Nouadhibou

The road = flat, expansive nothingness. Blue sky on the left signals reflection of the ocean, yellow on the right signals reflection of the desert. Again with the fiche – we used 4, with the potential for 3 more but since we were with Sidi who apparently knew everyone on the road, we didn’t have to use as many. This land is like a painting – orange sand dotted with flecks of green brush. Camels – more of them than people here. Wind blowing ripples in the sand dunes like mist – incredible. And this is just the side of the road. Camping in the desert – not so glorious as it sounded. It’s the uninteresting part of the desert. French RV tourists are kinda… unincorporated or unaware of their surrounding culture. Spent most of our time hanging out with the Mauritanians, drinking tea, chatting. The soldiers are really nice. Wished we’d planned to stay here longer.

Nouadhibou -> Moroccan Border

Nouadhibou = under-developed, spread out, strange town we couldn’t figure out. French RVs stayed near an expensive hotel (that we ended up staying in for too much – despite being told it was a 4-star hotel we’d get for cheap…some other kinds of 4 stars I guess, and it was NOT cheap), inconveniently out of the town center. How the heck do we get a taxi? Where to eat? Why are ouygias (the currency) so darn expensive?? I do not get this place at all. People are aloof, not open like in Senegal/Mali. Got to have lunch in a home though. No one wants me to take their picture. So glad we’re not staying here longer. Up side was getting to tag along with the RV tourists for their music/cultural night, their ride and tour of the world’s longest train – the iron ore train that travels 650km east into the desert, and a trip to the market. We got a big chunk of shea butter for $.35. YES. Nouadhibou is still strange. It’s surrounded by beautiful ocean, but the developments are in the center of the land, not on the water. Massive amounts of undeveloped space, littered with trash. I know the people are nice here, but how do you access them? At least we tagged along with the auberge owner and got a ride to the Moroccan border, nice!

Travel tip: On both sides of the border of Mauritania and Morocco there are 4km of no mans land. This means that if you don’t have a car – you must take a taxi or bus through the checkpoints on either side, and then past each “Poste Police”. You cannot walk across the ‘no mans land.’ Since it doesn’t belong to any country, the “road” is barely a path beaten into the rock – and it’s 4km long. It is also apparently heavily mined, which is why you can’t go on foot. Coming from Mauritania, basically you’ll have to cross 2 sections of 4km areas to actually get into Morocco. I imagine taxis can be expensive: it’s a niche market. We’re happy we had a ride. On the Moroccan side, our auberge host’s wife runs into another tourism friend, who, like Thierno, befriends us and helps us make the crossing. He is dressed in a billowing sky blue boubou with a white turban and has the kindest face. We have Moroccan breakfast – flatbread with olive oil and jam, and mint tea together. Yay.

 Western Sahara

The differences between where we’d been and where we arrived were stark and noticeable. #1: No trash. None on the Moroccan side. #2: Actual buildings, meaning, real structures that probably have working plumbing and aren’t crumbling. Combined with the trash, Jon points out this is a country that pays attention to detail. #3: Open and friendly border guards and police, all with a smile ready to help you get through. Basically we weren’t met with the skepticism that said, “why are you coming to Mauritania, no really, whatever you say we won’t believe you…”

Not surprisingly, the beginnings of Western Sahara are the same as northern Mauritania. Impressively bleak. I was delighted at the presence of any kind of topography, a pile of rock here, and a distant sandune there – anything calling out – I’m interesting look at me! But for the most part the drive presents itself with the challenge of simply appreciating the flat and expansive nothingness.

Dakhla is a small but developed town on a spit of land, like Nouadhibou, surrounded by blue/green ocean that changes color depending on the direction of the sun. Apparently the bay creates a haven for kite surfers. Perhaps another trip. I’m intimidated by Moroccans thus far, and thrilled when I meet Senegalese in town. I realize how little I know about Moroccan culture – good thing there’s time to learn. The food is good and cheap, and the weather is great. We’ve stayed in Dakhla a few more days to help Jon heal another small wound, which is getting better Allhumdililaay. This sleepy town is a nice intro nonetheless. It’s easygoing, no one hassles us, and we met THE guy with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. He is so happy, and it makes us happy. His name is Ibrahim, although we call him Aladdin. I am happy to be here – and very much looking forward to the beauty that I know awaits in this North African country.

450km to Layounne tomorrow. Then to Essouira and Marrakesh.

What are your strangest travel experiences?

Senegalese Taranga to Mauritanian Spirit

I’ve been trying to come up with a clever phrase to describe the experience we’ve had in the last week – and it’s been a challenge. Rifs on the movie title Extremely Loud Incredibly Close come to mind – extremely hot, incredibly dusty; extremely kind, incredibly strange – but the one that seems to fit the best is one that the writers of Rough Guide: Morocoo coined: impressively bleak. St. Louis, Senegal to Dakhla, Morocco has certainly been one of the more curious experiences I’ve had in my (short) life. I’ve divided this into 2 posts because it was just getting so long. The first part is Senegal to Mauritania. The Second is Mauritania and into Morocco. Enjoy!

Dakar -> St. Louis

We woke up early after only a couple hours of sleep on Feb. 10 after going dancing in Dakar with our hosts Dieyna and Abdou and the two LC students who are studying in Dakar, the same as I did 10 years ago. Senegalese night clubs don’t get going until 2am so we didn’t get home until about 5am. It was a fun night, but exhausting – nonetheless I was happy to get my fix of live mbalax and people watching.

We headed by taxi to the Gare Routière Pompière to take a bush taxi to St. Louis. The 150km ride was long but not horrible (I am SO tired of sitting on the middle bump!) and we arrived at the St. Louis Gare Routière in the late afternoon. We took another taxi 12km to the Zebrabar – a campement outside of the city that’s beachy and is right on the River Senegal in the Parc Nationale de la Langue de Barbarie. The accommodations were cheap, but the meals were outrageously expensive. Bummer.

2 days later we headed to St. Louis to stay in the heart of Ile Nord – the old colonial center of St. Louis (which was the colonial capital of all of west Africa in the 18th – 19th centuries). I think I’ve decided to rename St. Louis to Stinky Louis because frankly, this town is rank. The combination of fishing village, trash, river and ocean, not to mention very old plumbing is well – really smelly. If it weren’t for the decidedly charming city center, great bars, actual coffee and friendly people – I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in St. Louis.

Another 2 days later we prepared to say goodbye to Senegal. Although we were ready, Senegal left us with its best. Our last night we had a fantastic meal at a tiny restaurant aptly called Restaurant Taranga, where we ate for a total of 4000cfa ($8) with beverages. Nothing fancy about this place, but the owner was over and above kind. A good laugh at a local boutique, and a nice chat with the door guard for the hotel left a smile on my face and a thought of ‘oh geez, I do love this country.’

St. Louis -> Rosso Border Crossing

I will not lie in saying that given the lonely planet thorn tree forum reviews of this place, I was downright nervous. But before I could act on my nerves, we had to wait almost 2 hours before leaving. We were convinced to take a Ndiaye Ndiaye (big white bus – 25 seats) to Rosso instead of a sept places. We realized as soon as we bought our ticket and boarded that there was no way the bus was leaving ‘toute de suite’ (right away). I knew that these buses didn’t leave until filled, but for some reason I let the driver convince me that we’d leave right away, when really, ‘toute de suite’ in African transportation lingo means ‘sometime today.’ Awesome.

Travel Tip: Don’t confuse Rosso with Ross-Berthio. They are different. When we stopped in Ross-Berthio I was concerned we should get out and I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if this was our stop for going to Mauritania. He said no, and that he was going in the same direction. Ahh, we should share a car! I said. Best. Move. Ever. Our new friend Thierno Ba, gave us one last parting gift of Senegalese Taranga and essentially took us under his wing for the rest of our journey. Not only did he make sure no one took advantage of us, made sure we were always headed in the right direction, and he paid for all our fares, which was incredibly generous.

I can see why people have trouble at Rosso. There are certainly grifters waiting for anyone looking the slightest bit confused, and there are no signs or any indications of how to get from the Gare Routière to the pirogue; or how much it should cost. The single best tool (aside from the fiche) was a sincere and hearty “Asalaam Malekum” coupled with a smile to greet anyone looking official. This and any wolof you might know does wonders for softening officials; and people trying to grift you for that matter. Aside from the extreme heat, all in all it wasn’t a bad experience. The river is a scene, with kids diving and playing in the seafoam green water. It’s a nice last display of the Senegal that’s all out in the open and in your face; the Senegal that teases, and vexes, that’s easy and hard all the same; the Senegal that’s continually fascinating. I smiled as we crossed the River and I looked back to say goodbye, not sure of the next return, if ever.

If you’re reading this and preparing to cross the border, see our lonely planet post for details. Border Travel Tips.


I knew we had arrived into an even more arid place, when dust and sand billowed from the taxi seat as we got in to connect with the bush taxis to Nouakchott. Our cab driver was especially proud that the passenger door was held together by a rope – “C’est uniquement comme ca en Afrique!” he exclaimed with a big smile (It’s unique in Africa!). It’s things like this that you just have to laugh at and call it good. I couldn’t even be worried that I would fall out if the door swung open – there’s a rope there of course it will catch me!

The kindness of our new friend, Thierno, was overhelming in that without having someone speak Arabic or Wolof, connecting from the Rosso Gare Routière to Nouakchott would be difficult. The drivers of the various modes of transport descended on him like vultures, all tugging and pulling. This is a culture of in-your-face dealings. Thierno says they all just want money – perhaps it’s true? People at the border seemed really kind. Getting a coke, we were overpriced, even though there’s a fixed price for everything. Boo. We finally decided to take a 4-seat Mercedes car instead of a shared taxi – more expensive but much more comfortable. We paid for all 4 seats (even though were 3), and then the driver decided to take another passenger. Awesome. This should be interesting.

Next stop: Nouakchott.

10 years later...

Almost to the date, I landed in Dakar once again. I was sad to leave Mali, and was actually a bit nervous to come to Senegal – would I remember how to get around, would it be very different? But as we flew over the peninsula, and got to see the entire city and surrounding water, I was so excited. Now that I’m here, it doesn’t feel strange, or unfamiliar. It feels like it did 10 years ago, except I don’t have to relearn everything. Plus, being in Senegal is so much easier than Mali. I didn’t even realize the apparent not-so-subtle differences. I didn’t realize how underdeveloped Bamako is, and just how developed Dakar has become. More services, more construction, infrastructure, it’s all around more modern. Bamako, while a major city, has a provincial feel, like a never-ending village. It’s not a bad thing, just my observation. I suppose that coming to this part of Africa feels normal at this point. There are certainly things that make me say, “WOW,” but I understand the daily rhythms and so it just feels like a regular place to me.

We have been kindly welcomed into the home of a friend of mine I met while studying here in 2003. He and his wife have embodied the Senegalese notion of Taranga or Senegalese hospitality. They have opened their home, fed us, and toured us around the city in the last week. It has been such an amazing gift, we are often left wondering how we could ever properly say thank you.

Grand Baobab

In the last week, it’s also been wonderful to do so many things I never did during my entire four months the last time. Believe or not, I never went to the beach, not even to walk, while I was here last time. Taking strolls along the ocean, visiting the fish market and enjoying the proximity of the sea has been a lovely shift from the stark dry desert of Mali (although I really did enjoy that it only took a few minutes for my hair – and everything else – to dry in Mali).

We visited my old neighborhood, SICAP Baobab, and walked the still-familiar path from the Baobab Center (where I took classes), past the boulangerie and the cabine telephone – which is now a boutique because everyone either has a cell phone or home landline, why would they ever need to go to a telephone center – past the 500 year old Grand Baobab, the namesake tree of the neighborhood, around another corner, past more familiar homes and shops and to the little soccer (sand) field, just opposite the home where I used to live. It was wonderful to walk down memory lane, and I cannot wait until Monday night when we have dinner with my host family.

It's huge! That's me at the veerrry bottom

We’ve marveled at Dakar’s new features as well – the world’s now largest statue, made entirely out of bronze, costing the country more money than it would have taken to lift the shanty town at its base out of poverty. We strolled the sparkly new shopping mall filled with European shops – all boasting huge sales, and then played a game of cosmic bowling in the most beautiful bowling alley I’ve ever seen. Everything so shiny and new – presumably because they are too expensive for the majority of Senegalese to enjoy. Just like the huge sculpture that costs 3000cfa – more than many people’s daily wage ($6 USD) to ascend to the top, former president Abdoulaye Wade’s blatant waste of money almost mocks the Senegalese people, giving them something that links them to the western world they seem to long to be a part of, yet keeping it out of reach in a resentful way.


Honestly, I feel the same way about Senegal as I did 10 years ago, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I recalled the email I wrote to friends and family on May 21, 2003, just a couple of days before I was leaving from my semester abroad here in 2003, and want to share it, as it continues to sum up feelings I have about being here, and what it might be like to leave again.

“But what a country. I'm not sure what I'll do when greeting people doesn't include an inquisition about the family, friends, uncles, brothers and sisters. And what to do when there's no ferno at every corner with a pot of attaaya brewing. What to do when visiting friends isn't a short two minute walk down the street past the telecenter and to the right. and What to do when I can't bargain for the price I want (things are too expensive in the states anyway).

I will always think of all the little children that are everywhere, who look scared, then curious, and then so excited with their big dark eyes when they see me coming. It's images of mothers with babies on the back and a bucket on the head that will always remain. It's traffic jams with 10 yellow and black taxis coming from every direction trying to go everyother direction, and no one is moving. It's carts and wheelbarrows full of mangos and oranges, next to little stands that sell peanuts and cookies for 25Fcfa. And it's the constant sound of buzzing and humming coming from the small, dimly lit 'coutures'-the tailor shops-always busy making boubous and dresses, and something for an american or two wanting to bring home a bit of Africa.

In this whirlwind of rough political and economic times all over the world, Senegal keeps moving. As always things change and Youssou N'Dour comes out with another album, but Senegal is always still Senegal. It's just amazing, and I am so grateful to have lived here.”

I suppose the only difference there is that Youssou is now the Prime Minister and I can’t go hear him sing at his Club Thiossane for $4. The oranges now cost 75cfa (500cfa to the dollar). Oh well.

Jon and I are planning to head to the Casamance on Tuesday, an overnight ferry ride (we’re still being cautious about inland travel). The Casamance is the region of Senegal below the sliver of a country, The Gambia, and is lush, green, and inhabited by the Diola people. It’s also home to tropical beaches, more fresh seafood, and a slightly different culture. I’m looking forward to seeing a new part of this fascinating little South Dakota-sized country.

Until the next time, ba beneen jerejef waay (until next time, thanks!). Bisoux ciao.


We are not long for Mali. Every day our options for exploring the country shrink and I feel more confined. This is such an unfortunate circumstance…no visiting villages, no travel South, no music, a feeling that we can go no where outside the city without the minute chance of being abducted or put in harms way. The funny thing is that you would never know what is happening by sitting in the mango grove and having tea until someone tells you that there are check points on every bridge to make sure that dangerous people don’t enter the city. Ironically, we have heard that the only arms being seized are leaving the city, not entering it. I guess that should make us feel a little more secure. I think we could stay in Bamako for quite some time and never be in danger, but I’m starting to ask myself if there are greener pastures elsewhere. Jess and I are still enjoying the food, which gets cooked for us every day (thanks Salli) for like $4. I am really enjoying the national dish of Mali, cheb, which is a rice dish with veg and some meat or fish. I have had one alcoholic beverage here (Flag, the most common beer here, which taste pretty much like every countries most common beer; inoffensive and easy to drink) and have had no want for another; people just don’t drink here and I don’t miss it. I’ll save the drinking  for Europe.

We went to the grand market on Monday, which was pretty cool. We went to the actual practical market and also the artist market. While the regular market was a little slow, the artisanal market was absolutely dead. We were told that we were the first tourists there in over 6 months, and the desperation was palpable. Every seller would tell us that “looking is free” and they will make us “best price”, then throw everything they could at us. Jess and I very much overpaid for some items (gifts for family) and felt pretty good about it. It was pretty sad, but even when sellers did not close the deal with us they were gracious and wished us well.

Luckily, by the market was a pharmacy where I bought ibuprofen. I have had ongoing problems with my feet: First they cracked and bled, then I got some kind of heat blisters trying to wear shoes to protect the cracks which quickly burst and left open sores, then I tripped and bruised my right foot. Ironically, the plantar fasciitis I suffer from is nearly none existent here. I’ve actually run out of band-aids trying to cover the sores so that the swarms of flies don’t get them infected…really annoying. At least I’m toughening up my feet!

I can only imagine that we will leave in the next couple of days unless a compelling reason to stay presents itself. This is definitely not the way I wanted to see Mali, but I am still really glad we came here.

Sewn Together

“We may not have much, but we are sewn together by the fabric of each other,” said Mouktard Kone, the esteemed griot (oral historian) Jon and I had the pleasure of being introduced to our first night in Bamako. It’s statements like these that will always keep the Malian people close to my heart. While I thoroughly enjoyed Belgium, there was something in the back of my mind that whole week that really just wanted to be here. I couldn’t help but seek the warmth. Not just in terms of weather, let’s face it, Belgium was cold, Mali is hot; but in terms of being surrounded by people who at their core are kind, generous and radiant.

So what is it about this place that is so special? Hmm, complicated. Yes, Mali is a very impoverished nation, but here money isn’t where happiness lies. To give you an example of what very impoverished means – garbage service comes once a month – maybe, and it doesn’t come to everyone’s home, it comes to a drop off spot in each neighborhood. Where that spot is, I have no idea, because trash is dumped all over the place. There isn’t infrastructure to support garbage service, trucks, fuel, people, a place to process it all – it just isn’t there. If you stop and think about your weekly garbage service, you begin to realize all that goes into it. Imagine that going away. How would you improvise?

It’s easy for westerners to spot the economic poverty – to tie it to money – but Mali reflects a different way of life, where everything isn’t based entirely on your net worth. It’s based on its people – people whose lives are stitched together, a real community of people relying on each other.

Take for example Abdou Karine. Abdou is a well-digger by trade. Wague tells me he’s dug over 370 wells in his lifetime – by hand. No machines, no fancy equipment, just Abdou. Um, what?? But Abdou is poor, he has nothing in the ways of material goods and even though he is highly respected and skilled at what he does, he remains poor, with no means for improvement. But Abdou has the best smile I think I’ve seen in a long time. He came to the Center yesterday to receive a gift from Wague – who sold his pottery in the States to give $200 worth of cash and food to 15 families in the neighborhood. I came out to see them and Abdou was smiling and raising his hands and laughing, throwing his head back with that smile – like a big Stevie Wonder smile when the music is particularly at its peak. I sat down with Abdou and just watched him talk with Wague, mesmerized by how sincerely happy this man is, it’s a kind of being at ease, of truly being happy without attachments that I only hope I can have a taste of in my life.

Of course it’s not all roses and ponies. Jon, Wague and I were planning to go downtown to the grand marche (main market) to pick up some things today or tomorrow, when we received word that we are not to go downtown for a few days. Spontaneous protests against the government and military quickly remind me that beloved Mali is unstable. While things seem as normal as ever in the neighborhood (we’re about a 30-40 minute drive from downtown), we are still in a country deeply wounded by religious fundamentalists that have taken the North, and a dysfunctional and extremely underfunded government that can’t really do much about it without international help.

Over the course of a day the situation has changed. All schools are cancelled for at least a week. Apparently in a town just north of Mopti (2000 miles from where we are in Bamako, yep that's like the distance from Portland to Chicago, it's not close to us) a group of islamists went to a school yesterday (totally independent of the protests that were going on downtown) and the soldiers had to tell them that unless they dropped their weapons they would be forced to shoot – which could have resulted in hundreds of children being injured or killed. Fortunately the islamists were disarmed, but the government is now worried that some may be trying to instigate similar events in Bamako, and so gatherings, especially school, are cancelled.

This brings the heartache I feel about this situation full force to the front of my mind. Mali. Benign, kind, poor and happy. A country infiltrated by foreign extremists with no care for that sewn cultural fabric they are pulling to threads. I still feel safe here, almost protected by our neighbors, although the prospect that nightly jaunts to the music clubs, and days wandering the Artisinal (artisans market) is long gone. It’s a stark reminder that Mali is already changed from the place it was 3 years ago, even 1 year ago. This makes me sad.

Wague must have sensed it because after our morning tea he suggested going for a walk around the neighborhood with the lovely Batoma, a kind teenager who lives across the creek. Wague says that Batoma and her family actually used to just live under the banana tree because they had no home, and they gardened mangos and beans to get by. Through the kindness of visitors, Wague and neighbors they’ve moved into a home and Batoma became one of the sponsored students through Ko-Falen. Just a few years ago, Batoma wasn’t in school and now she’s at the top of her class in high school, and by hanging out at the Center, has a good working knowledge of English. She inspires me.

On our walk we explored the neighborhood and the creek banks, which are home to mango trees, papayas, pomegranates, bananas, and the crops, which are harvesting beans, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter eggplant and others. Since no one is in school there are kids everywhere, and we quickly make friends through the use of the camera. It should be noted that when children see a white person, they call out “Toubab!!” which just means “white person”. But when they see us interacting, just being people, not confined to fancy cars and hotels, an older kid says, “no, call her tanti” (aunti) and just like that, I’m transformed from some anonymous white lady to their aunti, and friend, not a stranger. All I can do is respond with thanks, photos (which they never get to see) and smiles. It’s not much, but it’s what we can do to be part of the fabric, to respond with the same kindness that has been bestowed upon us. My spirits are lifted, and I can't think of any other place I'd rather be than in sweet Mali.

*side note* school is cancelled, including the afterschool tutoring held at the Center, but depsite this, the 24 kids came anyway, ready to study, and not willing to miss a day of the extra practice that will change their entire education. I will never complain about any kind of study again.

ps: click on the photos for a larger image

We have internet!!!!


We arrived in Mali at like 1:30 AM, de-boarded the plane and then took a bus maybe 50 feet to the terminal; yes, 50 feet. Why could we not have walked the 50 feet instead of queuing for a bus?…no idea, that’s Africa.  This was an apt introduction to a concept that you just need to get used to in Mali from what I gather: It is that way because it is. Why do we ride the bus 50 feet? That is what is done; conversing on the topic beyond that is really just conjecture. Mali is dusty, but full of rich smells. There is a smell of earth and life that is new to me…smoke, desert, humans, trash, long standing water, rich stews with African peppers, livestock, but mostly there is just a deep smell of something indescribable.

To a Westerner, the overwhelming thought while driving into Bamako is that this is a poor nation. Buildings are low, warn and filled with people; the roads dirt until Chinese made bridges driven mostly by dying Mercedes cabs, motos and well warn feet. The town is an impossible maze of streets and buildings/structures. Families live in large walled structures, usually with a small courtyard for pets/animals and making tea. This is really all one would get at 2 AM.

Come morning, the town comes alive with voices, cars, laughing, working and generally an overwhelming sound of many people living together. Malians are loud and very social; if not for knowing Wague and hearing Malians talk before, I would think that people were screaming at one another with demands. Nope, that’s just talking. At any time someone may yell your name from any hearable distance; you acknowledge them and if appropriate come together and talk.

*Side note* As I write this there are two horned cows eating garbage across the street and a small group of people just wandered by; I doubt they remarked on this. A herd of cattle wanders the street in town.

Beyond the looks and smells, there is one driving force to life in Bamako: The people here. These are the most open, straight-forward, happy people I have ever known. Everything seems to revolve around relationships new and old. We are lucky to be staying with a well respected member of the community and last night walked to several houses meeting friends of Wague. People just kind of walk the streets, checking in on old friends and distant relatives (there is a joke told with almost every encounter about familial relations, with one party asking us to take their family names and us stubbornly saying we are Diakete, Wague’s family; this always elicits laughter), or you sit in your courtyard and have people come see you.

I’m trying to learn some pleasantries in Bambara as I have no French, which can be frustrating and involves a lot of smiling and staring dumbly. People are really nice about it though. We laugh as they ask why I have no French.  Surrounded in what we would call squalor, in a place where no one understands me and we are the only White people for miles, I have not once felt unsafe or unwelcome.

*Side note* A woman just threw garbage off her roof into the small “stream” outside the complex…a cow moans in the distance…the wind blows…there is the call to prayer.

In about 36 hours you stop caring what you look like. Maybe this is just me, but we stand out here so much it really doesn’t make any sense to worry about my hair or a small mark of dirt on my sleeve. Most of our day is spent just sitting around; reading, talking, eating the food that is made for us which is mostly stews made from bouillon, a small bit of meat and some veggies, and put on white rice.

Jess and I were able to switch our $1100 US into CFA today…we were handed like 500,000 CFA. This should last us at least the entire month we are here. When asked, Wague said that most people here make about $50 monthly, but he is always quick to point out that the quality of life here is really not about the money. The cynic in me thinks that this is exactly what is easiest said by those without money, but in reality he is correct: A great many people here exist day-to-day not in desperation, but as a life style gauged in terms of success by how you are thought of in your community. Wague is by no means the richest man here…far from it, but his generosity and dedication make people sing songs to him (literally, oral historians sing him praises and place him admirably with his ancestors). In three days, I have yet to spend a single CFA.

3 days in and Jess and I are still the only Westerners we have seen. You get used to people staring at you pretty quickly. I made tea today and people seemed to like it. The ritual of Atiya, green tea brewed and consumed very slowly amongst a group, happens throughout the day. We also went to the market, which was interesting. The market is kinda gross and smells pretty bad, but there was any number of random things to buy there. It was BUSY and maze-like so I am glad we had an escort (the wife of Wague’s brother). Everything was pretty much local, or at least I assume this as most stalls sold the same fish, veggies, and spices. I was in the market for some flip-flops for the shower, which I purchased for 500 CFA (or one US dollar).

*Side note* I’m sitting here with my computer writing this and the woman who cleans the center, Nana, is wiping down the mats around me. I resist the urge to get up and out of her way and my feeling bad that she is cleaning around me. She hums and keeps going. She cleans all day; every single surface every single day. She lives with Wague’s brother as she does not have family in the area. She is soft-spoken, gentle, and always smiles. She seems wise for her relatively few years, or maybe she is just content. I really like her…but have never had a conversation beyond some Bambara niceties because I cannot speak her language.

Unlike in Cairo or some other large markets, Malians are not aggressive sellers so the only hard thing is just staying out of the way of busy people. I guess in the city center the sales get a little more aggressive. We had planned to go today or tomorrow but Wague said there are large protest today with students clashing with police…throwing eggs and rotten food and the like. So, another day at the center which is not too bad at all.