Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Leave Mandoli for the Big City and Make Some New Friends

After Gao, we went back to Mandoli and I spent the next couple of days in the village getting my stuff together and saying goodbyes. Then I headed out to Bamako for a few days before taking off. For your dozing pleasure, here's a little review.

I Carry Water Like the Big Men (Or, Small Women. Whichever.)

I decided to try carrying water up the cliff from the spring. So, I did some light stretching (not really) grabbed a 5-gallon jug (really) and joined the chief's first wife on her water run. Here's the break down.

Her: Age-60ish. Height: 5'2" Weight: 100lbs give or take.

Me: Age-26ish. Height: 6'2"ish. Weight: 230lbs.

And, so we set off.

Now, I think I mentioned that the women usually do the hike to the spring wearing flip-flops. But, it turned out that I was wrong. They do it barefoot. I opted for my Merrell hiking shoes.

And down we went. I can't say much about it as I'm trying to block it out. But, in sum, it was friggin' hard. I mean gut-wrenching, heart-pounding hard. Like a workout from a Rocky training scene hard. Except they wouldn't show it because the general public would never believe anyone could actually do it.

That, at least, was my perspective. The chief's wife didn't seem to have too much trouble.

After we got back to village, she didn't want me to take her picture because she didn't like what she was wearing. But, I can assure you she looked fine and exactly the same as she had when she left for the spring. Now, here I am after my triumphant and painful return. Notice the forced smile and awkwardly stiff back position? It hurt. And, Rocky, you don't even know.

Please note that only some of this is sweat. I also spilled water all over myself trying to carry the jug on my head and trying to carry it like a baby. None of those carrying positions made it any lighter. But, spilling water all over myself did.

That said, wouldn't it be crazy if my hips did sweat like that?

The Kids Get Kisses

Ms. Emily Rechter sent Hershey Kiss stickers and the kids loved them. This pic doesn't even do it justice. They loved them. And, as soon as the other kids saw them, we had a crowd outside of Heather's door. Luckily, Em sent a bunch and there were plenty to go around. It must be noted that it was undeniably cute to watch them running around with big Hershey Kisses on their foreheads.

Whenever You're Feeling Good and Hungry, It's Skyline Time.
Even in Mandoli.

My last night in village in the village, as a thanks for taking me in so warmly, I served Skyline to the chief and his wife and to several of Heather's neighbors who I had become close with. They loved it. I'm not even kidding. Loved it. Like the kids with the Hershey's stickers. Anyway, it makes me happy when people like Skyline. And, it makes me happy that, thanks to the warmth and hospitality of you guys at home, I was able to share it with people I cared about halfway around the world. So, thank you again.

You'll note that, in true Malian fashion, we ate the Skyline out of a communal bowl using our hands. (Re-applying crackers and cheese as necessary.) It's really an awesome way to eat it. I think we should all try it when I'm back.

I Leave Mandoli. And, with it, I Leave Some of the Finest Luggage Ever

Samsonite has nothing on the Northlich bag.

43 of us (not including the goats) packed into this truck for a 20-hour trip to Bamako. This truck made Chris Baker's Prospector Van look like a Maserati. Seriously, the driver would turn the steering wheel completely around and the van wouldn't alter course an inch. Which made traversing washed out roads and the thinnest highway I've seen (at least since Ireland) all the more impressive.

Part of the reason the trip took 20 hours is because we ended up spending 5 hours next to a washed out road. It was actually kind of fun. Especially this part.
In situations like these, Malians seem especially easygoing and incredibly helpful. No one was overly upset or yelling. And, together, they rebuilt this road as I watched. Perfect strangers who definitely were not road builders by trade.
And when a pickup driver was brave (or dumb) enough to try an alternate route through a field and got stuck, more strangers jumped directly into the mud to help him. It was incredible to watch and speaks volumes about a really amazing culture.

Bamako? Bama-OK!
Sorry about that dumb title. But, they're blaring music at this internet cafe and it's loud and I'm going to use that as an excuse. Plus, it made me giggle. Anyway. I spent several days in Bamako and I met several wonderful people. Two in particular who not only took me in, but also befriended me and helped me see an entirely different side of Mali's biggest city.

Meet Dana and Arnim. They are awesome.

Thanks to my new friends, I went to a Malian/German wedding. (Keeping my one wedding per country streak going.) And, I got to dance to traditional Malian music and 50 Cent (not at the same time).
And they took me to a crazy hike called a hash. And, a restaurant where I got the biggest cheeseburger ever made. It was Guinness Book of World Records big. And, it was awesome. Did I mention it was big?

Here are some random pics of Bamako. I wish they could capture the feel of it. I'll give that a try with words at a later date. In the meantime, it's time to move on.

Friday, September 07, 2007

My Overwhelming Fear of Worms Crawling Into People's Ears (Which Came About After Seeing Star Trek III: The Wrath of Kahn) Is Removed, and Promptly Replaced, by Seeing Worms Coming Out of People's Other Body Parts.

Heather and I went to Gao in the northern part of Mali to do a Guinea worm project with the Carter Center. Guinea worms, for those that don't know (and I didn't know), are worms whose eggs live in fleas that are sometimes found in the water that people can drink. When the egg finds itself in a person's stomach, it hatches, and over the course of the next year, grows up to four feet in length.

Then, when it has matured, it burrows through the body (even through bone) and waits just on the inside of the skin. When it senses that the body is in contact with water, it breaks through the skin and shoots its eggs back into the water so the process can start over again.

It should be noted that, because they can burrow through anything, they can come out anywhere. And, I mean anywhere. Imagine the worst place for it to come out of a body and it can do it.

I'm sure Wikipedia has more info (and pictures - so if you're bored at work and can't think of a good thing to Google to pass the time, Guinea worms would probably be a good choice).

Anyway, we decided to head up that way. What should have taken 9 hours ended up taking 24 hours and involved us sleeping by the side of the road and paying 40 dollars to a guy with a pickup truck so he would drive us around a washed out road.

Waking up by the side of the road. When you're on a hot, crowded bus for 10 hours, sleeping by the side of the road on a cool night is actually rather pleasant. And, the view is amazing.

After our big (well, long) trip, we managed to make it in time to meet up with Steve who was the Carter Center volunteer for the Guinea worm project. And, he took us to meet the medical director for the region.

She, however, put a stop to everything. Apparently there were bandits in the area and they had attacked two different groups of people over the past two days - taking one of the groups hostage. The medical director said it was much too dangerous and she was not going to allow us to go.

Steve was upset. Heather was outraged. And I... well I thought she had a good point. I'm scared of bandits. And, while were at it, I'm kind of scared of Guinea worms.

Still, I have some pride (seriously) so, I halfheartedly pretended that I was mad about the whole thing. "That's outrageous!" I said. "I can't believe we can't go!" "How unfair!" But, inside, I was thinking, "Thank God you stopped us." And, "I hope we can go back to the Peace Corps house and take a nap." Luckily, we could. And, happily, we did.

Regardless, Steve promised to have us over later to show us videos and pictures he had taken during other Guinea worm extractions he had done. We did go over and it is seriously crazy. In case you haven't stopped reading this to Google them (or to Google the color Green or other Google searches that are much more interesting than this blog), they take them out by winding them slowly around a stick and it can take days for them to come all the way out. Did I mention that it is crazy? They've been found in Egyptian mummies. So, they've been around for awhile. But, thanks to the Carter Center, they will hopefully be eradicated within the next 10 years. And then, maybe I'll be able to sleep at night.

Anyway, other than bandits and Guinea worms, Gao was pretty fun. Here are a few pics.

We took a trip out to the Gao sand dunes. Then, I went for a little jog.
(Actually, I thought I saw a Guinea worm.)

On our way back from the sand dunes.

Gao at dusk.

Coming home from Gao, we got a ride from a guy who did not seem to care that the road was so flooded it could easily have been mistaken for a river. We somehow made it through but we were pretty much the only ones.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Maybe You Can't Buy Happiness, But Happiness Sure Can Be Sent By Air Mail

Thank You


In case you’re wondering, EZ Cheese completely works as a substitute for cheddar cheese in Skyline. And, I also can’t think of anything luckier than getting to eat Skyline in Mali. Heather and the other volunteers have loved it too. Thank you also for the nice notes and all the great gifts. Including, Jonathan Wolff’s lone sock. That will surely come in handy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

If It’s Wet, And It’s Falling From the Sky, It Might Be Pee

Shortly after I arrived in Africa, my friend Sally (who was in the Peace Corps in Guinea Bissau) wrote me an email and mentioned that the best tasting thing, after spending some time in the African heat, is an ice cold bottle of Fanta.

After reading that, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And, after about a week in the village, it started to become a small (okay, large) obsession. A soda I never drink in the States was something that I now craved almost as much as air conditioning. If Fanta ever wants to increase their sales, they should put their entire target market into an African village for a week. I can guarantee that sales would skyrocket. I cannot, however, guarantee a good cost/benefit ratio.

Anyway, after about a week in the village, we were finally going into the nearest big town (Bandiagara) to go to the market, stock up on food - and I was going to get my Fanta.

But, that brings me to the subject of Malian transportation. First, here are some things you should know about traveling in Mali.

Things To Know About Malian Transport

- There is no air conditioning on public transport. If you are lucky, a door will be left open or there will be no windows on the vehicle.

- If the driver decides to play music, it will be loud and the speakers will lack anything that resembles bass.

- Livestock rides with people, or in the luggage compartment below the bus, or on the roof. People also ride on the roof - sometimes on top of luggage. Luggage rides with people, or on the roof, or appropriately enough, in the actual luggage compartment (but next to the livestock).

- Buses will stop often and seemingly for no apparent reason.

- There are no bathrooms on the buses. However, when the bus does make a random stop, any area around the bus is fair game for bathroom going.

- And, finally, whatever the maximum vehicle load is, take that number, double it and then throw it completely out the window because you will never be able to imagine how many people and how much stuff Malians will fit into a vehicle. You know those pictures that you sometimes see of a bunch of people filled to the brim of a phone booth trying to break a Guiness World Record or something? Well, picture a bunch of those crammed phone booths driving around Mali with goats and some sacks of grain on top of them and you’ve pretty much got what it’s like to travel here.

Also, while I’m on the topic and dragging this out, one of the most common forms of Malian transport is a little van which looks like it was designed by the same guys who created Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. Here’s a pic of one and you can decide for yourself.

I Lamely Try to Get Back to My Original Point

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve made a serious digression from my original story. If you will recall, I was talking about getting a Fanta and you were getting sleepy and considering clicking over to the streaming webcam of a pitch black room because even that would be more interesting than this. But, I will continue on and if you do switch over to the pitch black room, let me know if anything’s happening over there.

Here I am, on the road to Bandiagara, waiting for the bus. I’m very, very excited to be getting a Fanta.

This is the flatbed truck that took us to Bandiagara. It wasn’t overly packed - maybe about 38 people in the back with almost enough water jugs and sacks of grain for everyone to sit on. They even stopped to put all the live stock (except for the chickens) on the roof. And, that’s where this life lesson begins.

I Finally Get To The Point

If there are goats on the roof of your vehicle and one of them has to pee, and if your arm is hanging outside of the truck, there is a chance you’re going to get peed on. Keep this in mind. And also keep in mind that this was way worse than me spitting on myself in Doolin.

In Bandiagara

The market at Bandiagara. It’s a lot like Findlay Market. Except with more buckets of rotting fish scattered about.


Coming back from getting my Fanta-On, I was rained and hailed on while hanging half-out of a jam packed flat-bed truck.

It was totally worth it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

If It’s Mali, It’s Mandoli

Mandoli is the name of Heather’s village and this is the tagline I came up with for the village in hopes of increasing its tourist activity (current tourist activity – me). So far, it hasn’t caught on like I’d hoped. Perhaps because it’s in English. Or, perhaps because it’s really bad.

Heather has been living here for almost 2.5 years. She loves it and they clearly love her. Mandoli is actually made up of 7 small villages in close proximity to each other – each village is made up of about 100 people.

Mandoli welcomed me with great warmth and even gave me a new name – Liaree Arema. Arema is the last name of the entire village, so now when I travel around Mali, people know what region I’m from based on my last name. Anyway, they have made me feel like a part of the village. And, with your permission, I’d love to give you a quick tour.

This is Heather’s kitchen. She is an amazing chef and is like Emeril with her two-burner camp stove.

There is no electricity in the village. Heather is the only house in Mandoli to have a camping stove and she is one of the very few to have a car battery that will power a lamp for a few hours. I asked her if it would also power a video iPod with surround sound speakers but she told me that I was missing the point of village living. I’m still not sure what she meant.

Heather’s dining room and lounge.

This is the shower. It’s oddly refreshing to shower outside - and you’ve always got a great view.

The view from the shower.

The bathroom. Or naygen as it’s called here. I was a little worried about the naygen. One, because it was new form of bathroom going. And, two, because I have the balance of a drunk, one-legged baby. And, since I can’t even walk through a room without careening into various items (the door frame, a table, etc.), the idea of squatting while going to the bathroom was starting to sound like an Olympic event. And, in fact, when I first tried it out, I was like a Weeble Wobble™. But, I’ve since gotten better and now am like a heavier Weeble Wobble™ with a wider base. I’m still wobbling but it’s much less likely that I’m going to roll backwards. Also, I’ve realized that these things are much more sanitary, and therefore, more enjoyable to use than almost any gas station bathroom I’ve ever been in back in the States.

This is the view from Heather’s bathroom. Quite beautiful. Unless someone is in the tree. Then it’s quite disturbing.

If you walk out Heather’s front door and look to the left, this is what you see.

This is Binta. She’s Heather’s neighbor and one of her closest friends. The boy with her is her son. He is named Sali Fu which is one of the greatest names ever. I love saying it. Sali-Fu! You should try it. It’s awesome.

Some women from Heather’s village. They are usually smiling and laughing but Malians take pictures very seriously and more often than not usually look very serious in them.

This is the beginning of the path to the spring. Right around the house in the center of the picture is the only place that I can get cell reception. It’s got a great view but not very comfortable seating.

This is the path up from the spring. The women and children do this several times daily. And, the women usually carry back 3-4 gallon jugs or buckets of water on their head each time. This picture doesn’t really do a great job of capturing it, but it is really steep and watching this is just amazing.

One of Heather’s priorities is to increase the village’s access to water. She has already built a well in the women’s garden and is close to completing a second one. She is also trying to get an old pump restored which would give the village easy access to bacteria-free water.

Some of the younger kids in the village. They are so fun you wouldn’t even believe it.

This is Sali. Her favorite move is to head butt your legs and then immediately hug you. It’s tough love and I totally fall for it.

Got Millet Cream?

The buildings with the pointy roofs are where the Mandoli villagers store their millet. In the three-month rainy season, they need to grow enough millet to last them for the entire year. It’s one of the reasons that global warming is such a concern here. As the growing season shrinks, they won’t have enough crops to feed their families.

Here I am working in the women’s garden – which was one of Heather’s projects. My basic work plan was to plant something and then go sit in the shade for 20-30 minutes. It was actually pretty similar to my process for writing headlines.

When the kids are old enough and considered responsible, but not old enough to work in the fields, (usually 7-9) it is common for them to start herding the family livestock. They usually spend the entire day out in the plains and you won’t see them coming back to village until dusk.

More young herders and an angry looking bull that is seriously giving me the evil eye. Luckily, as you can see, the kids were carrying very small twigs to help stop the bull if things got out of hand.

And, finally, here is a much more fun pic of some of the kids taking a break from herding for a quick dip. It’s hard work, but they do take time to have fun and they are also very proud of their responsibility to help their family.

So, that’s my tour. It was probably longer than it should have been. But, I hope it gives you a little idea of what village life is like.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I Arrive in the Land Where Civilization Began and Finally Start to Get My Tan Back

I apologize now for these posts. I have a feeling they are going to be rambling and disjointed. Now, you may be wondering how this is different from any of my previous posts. I don't have a good answer for you. But, as I sit here, I'm realizing that my pictures and my notes and my thoughts are all over the place. So, I'll take a stab at capturing a bit of my trip so far and I'll thank you again, as always, for taking the time to read a bit about it.
Upon arriving to Bamako, my friend Heather (, who is a Peace Corps volunteer, met me at the airport. We spent the next day in Bamako, and then travelled to Segou where we spent a couple of days and then moved on to Sevare for a night. And then on to her village, which is called Mandoli and is near a town named Bandiagara.
Mali is beautiful and the people have been incredibly welcoming, friendly and gracious. Mali is also very, very hot. I mean almost Cincinnati hot.
Here are some photos of the trip to her village.

This is Segou. And, gives a pretty good idea of what a larger town in Mali looks like. Except, in your imagination, you should probably add a bunch of motor scooters, some donkeys and a goat or two. Actually, maybe this isn't a good representation of a Malian town.

This is the Niger River. As you can see, some people like to fish on it. I prefer to drink a beer next to it. To each their own.

These vases were beatiful. Unfortunately, my shopping advisors were not around to help me pick one out. Cherlyn, Errica, Court, Cathy, Theresa, Carey - we're going to have to come back here so I can get a vase.

This from the window of the bus on the way to Sevare. The bus was incredibly hot, as no public transport has air conditioning. People were sitting everywhere including in the aisles. The driver was blasting music and I was kind of tired. But, the view made me forget everything. It looked like a beautiful, constantly changing picture. Or, like a really cool screensaver.

While in Segou, we visited a craftsman co-op. Here, artisans are making traditional Dogon cloths. The dye is actually made by boiling the bark of a tree and the ink they are using is a special kind of mud found by the Niger.

It’s rainy season here. Which wreaks some serious havoc. Two main roads have been washed out. And, even regular roads have some pretty impassible puddles.

While in Segou, we went out to listen to some music. It was really great. One, because the music and instruments were so fun and interesting (they have a xylophone that is made out of gourds) and two, because it was so similar to going out in an Irish pub.
It was the same feeling in a completely different setting.

The bus station in Segou. If you’re wondering, the chickens tied by their feet to the handlebars of that motorcycle were still alive. And not very happy.