Hombri & the Bus to Bamako

Mali 2008

La Main de Fatima, a finger-like sandstone mesa is part of the chain of buttresses that lines the approximately 200 kilometer stretch of road between Hombori and Douentza. Why such a Christian-based name in such a Muslim country, I have no idea. The middle finger rises about 600m above the plains.

The Auberge Tandanko in Hombori is run by Hamma, a tall Malian in his early 50's. He's the kind of guy who says, "That'll be 100 Euros" ($150) when he means 100 CFA (20 cents), then stands there with a straight face, waiting for you to react. He's also the kind of hotel owner who sits and watches T.V. from 6:00 P.M. through the 11:30 news, only he does it in the open courtyard. See picture below.

The courtyard of the Auberge Tandenko. Hamma's empty T.V. table sits next to the kitchen/dining building on the left.

Hamma watching the 6:00 News.

The Auberge consists of a 20 x 30 foot single-storey stone and stucco building for dining and storage, a large courtyard with about a half dozen grass huts, and a small brick building which houses 4 bathrooms, complete with cold-water showers. Most huts are single occupancy, some double. The beds consist of a thick comfy mattress on top of a two foot high box made of branches. The floor is earth, but clean. That, in fact, is the feel of the whole place; earthy and clean.

My sleeping quarters at the Auberge Tandenko.

We arrive around 2:00. This is the dining building. It is much cooler than the sun-burnt courtyard. Hamma makes us some lunch, after which Tigani (left), our guide for the previous two days, collects his exorbitant fee, and leaves.

Stone and lace. The entrance to a small storage room in the dining building.

After lunch, the two young men who work for Hamma take us on a walking tour of Old Hombori. They are Amadou and his assistant, Mamadou. No kidding. I ask Amadou, "So, where's Miriam?" He laughs, barely. I've just made my first 'Dad Joke', in French, to a Malian! (Amadou and Miriam are a world-famous Bamako musical duo.) We walk across the fields and through Hombori, the bustling strip of commerce which has built up along the main road. The old town is way up in the rocky hills. It has not changed since the 11th century.

Gilles is high up in the rocks of Old Hombori, gesturing below to Hombori that has grown up along the 1,200 kilometer long Gao - Bamako Road...

A lovely French couple, my age, asks to join us on our tour. His name is Jacques and mercifully, he speaks a little English and is anxious to practice it. Thank God; another closet linguist. We talk about the Toronto versus the New York accent, and Quebecois compared to Parisian French as we climb the rocks toward the old town. His wife, Michelle, is a smoker and lags behind. I'm a little concerned, but they seem to have an ease about it that only many years of marriage can bring.

Looking up from Hombori to Old Hombori.

Overlooking the 11th century village. It may look like the ruins of Pompeii, but it is inhabited and, in fact, thriving.

A view of a distant mesa between two homes.

Once inside Old Hombori, one sees that it is a maze of high-walled streets. Until directly in front of it, one doesn't know if a doorway will lead to another street, a stairway, or someone's living room.

These Old Hombori kids were pleased to pose.

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After returning to the Auberge, Jacques and Michelle ask me if I'd like to come along and watch the sunset from the Hondo Miyo dunes about 5 minutes by 4x4 north of town.

Sunset view from the dunes.

We return to the Auberge Tandenko to find several tables have been placed among the huts and around the courtyard. Hamma personally serves a delicious dinner to each of his guests. Gilles, David and I dine together and I buy them a beer to thank them for sharing the last couple of days with me. Tomorrow morning. we will get on the west-bound bus together. I still have not figured out how my movie will end. They are going to get off at Douentza, find another guide and hike through the amazing Pays Dogon. The Lonely Planet guide says it "figures prominently" on the "10 places to see before you die" list. Dogon Country consists of a series of villages located high among the cliffs of the 125 km long Falaise Bandiagara (Bandiagara Escarpment). The people are legendary, bordering on mystical. I could share the trip with them, or I could stay on the bus and go to Bamako, the capital of Mali and home to one of the greatest music scenes on the planet. Trying to do both would be more hectic than I am up for.

I check the bus schedule with Amadou and make sure that we can purchase our tickets in the morning so I can postpone my decision. I'd like to sleep on it. As I'm getting ready to say goodnight to David & Gilles, Mamadou comes up and informs us that we have to get our tickets tonight. He will gladly run over to the bus station, which is closing in 20 minutes, and buy them for us. The jig is clearly up for Mr. Movie Writer. It's time to hit the ol' Underwood and hammer out the big finish. The pros and cons buzz around my brain while Gilles and David sit quietly watching me. Mamadou stands beside the table all but drumming his fingers and tapping his foot. If he had a watch, he'd be checking it. The guys give him their money; 4,000 CFA each for a ticket to Douentza. Young Mamadou looks down at me. I look at the gray slats on the wooden table, then up at Orion. So as not to look like a total clueless nerd, I reach toward my pocket for my wallet, somehow confident that by the time I get my wallet out of my pants, open it up and pull some money out of it, I will have made a decision. So I open my wallet and out comes 10,000 CFA and I say , "Bamako, s'il vous plait." I am writing, starring and directing. Simultaneously.

Bamako was scheduled as a 13-hour bus ride, but ultimately, in my mind, it won out over the idea of more bouncing around in a 4x4, and hiking with a hefty pack on my back in the 30-35° Celsius heat (that's high 80s to mid 90s to you Yanks - and this is WINTER). Besides, I had seen the rural - the villages along the Niger, camping in the Sahara, the Douentza Reserve... It seemed time to balance out my Mali experience with a little city life, and a more 'civilized' hotel with some actual hot water, even if it did mean traveling 13 hours to Bamako, and then an additional 8 hours to get back to Mopti next Sunday for my flight out.

Up at 6:30 to get a shower, meditate and have breakfast in time to make the 8:30 bus. This is the sunrise scene that greets me. Hombori Tondo is the highest point in Mali, 1155 meters. That's Mamadou walking through the gates into the courtyard. I pack my bag with clothes which he had laundered and hung out to dry last night (6 items x 50¢ each).

Below, scenes at the bus station. I could only sneak a picture from behind of these women in their bright dresses. The young person below was not nearly so shy. I gave him a rubber ball with a red Maple Leaf on it; one of a half dozen toys I had picked up in the Dollar Store in Toronto.

On the bus to Bamako. We rush to the station for the scheduled 8:30 departure. The bus pulls in at 9:30. Advertised as a grueling 13-hour trip, it actually takes me 17 and a half. I arrive at 3 A.M.

My two French mates and I sit at the back of the bus. There are 5 seats and I have the center one with the whole aisle to stretch out my feet. Well, almost the whole aisle. We stop about every 20 minutes, or whenever there is someone at the side of the road, even though the bus is full. So there are people - old folks, moms with babies, young children - and their baggage sitting in the aisles on the floor.

At 12:30, the bus pulls into Douentza. I happen to run into Issaka. It's like we are lifetime pals. Big hugs and backslaps. I say good-bye to David & Gilles and get back on the bus. I am alone, for the first time since Paris. But it's different now. I am up for it - a seasoned traveler. The seasoning will get a little rank in the coming hours, and the punching bag clown will take a steady, monotonous yet punishing series of blows, but he will bounce - or at least creak rustily - back.

The heat of the afternoon builds. I am still at the back, but sandwiched into a corner. The phrase, "I prefer the 4x4" threatens to take over my mind. Then...a breeze! Someone has opened a roof vent, and a tiny, blessed, thin wisp of moving air reaches my face. We stop in town after town. This is the 'milk run' extraordinaire. At each stop there are vendors. Fruit, whole cooked perch, deep fried and wrapped in paper, drinks, but only in the bigger villages. I am glad I have my water bottle, but don't dare to drink too much, for fear of having to pee. It's a real balancing act to stay hydrated. I am also glad I have my healthy fruit bars I brought from Noah's in Toronto.

Into the late afternoon, there are now 6 of us in five seats. I'm back in the middle, more or less. On my far right is a young girl, maybe 15, who giggles occasionally to herself. Next to her is middle aged man. He is one of only two grumpy people I encountered in two weeks in this country. (The second will be a waitress at Le Hogon in Bamako.) He is constantly shooting annoyed looks, and making hmmph sounds as if they will speed up the bus. Next to him is a gentle old man with Muslim prayer beads in his hand, and a 7-year old girl curled up asleep across his lap; her feet up against the grumpy man and her head against my thigh. She is adorable; all gussied up with a long blue and yellow dress, blue fingernails, and three lengths of yellow yarn adorning her left ear. They are tied in bows through holes where you would expect to see earrings. Then there's me, and to my left is a young woman who is really not shy about needing a seat and a half. Fortunately, she is very pleasant in all other ways. We strike up a conversation. She has been at the Festival au Desert as well, working. It seems she's a sales person for a group of Bamako women who are trying to dig themselves out of poverty and misery by making beurre de karité (shea butter). I tell her I would be interested in getting some for the women in my life, so she takes my email address, and gives me her business card. Her name is Fifi.

As the afternoon turns to evening, the Malians put on touques and button up their jackets. One man gets up and closes the vent. I can hardly believe it. I sit sandwiched and sweltering, knowing this is all I can do; sit, swelter and know that it will be over. Sometime. As I begin to compare my situation to movies and stories about torture, asylums and solitary confinement, a big smile comes over me and I almost laugh out loud at the hyperbole. I thank god for humour as I stare into the sweaty darkness, Fifi dreaming blissfully away on my left and the old gentleman's thumb working his prayer beads on my right.

Well into the night, I find a single seat near the front of the bus, and catch 2-3 hours sleep. When we finally arrive in Bamako, I stumble off the bus. Instantly there are what feels like 10 taxi drivers in my face clamoring for my business. I try to ignore them as I search in the dark compartment under the bus for my bag, praying it is still in one piece. I find it, and then I find Fifi. Fifi lives in Hippodrome, the same area of Bamako as my hotel, and we share a cab. I am happy to let an experienced Bamakonian (?) haggle with the cabbie, and tell him, in their native Bambara, where to go. I pay for both our fares. Since returning to Toronto, I have not heard from Fifi, nor have I contacted her, but I intend to. The plight of the women in Mali is a cause that I would like to support.

It is 4 A.M when I arrive at the Hotel Rabelais. The night watchman asks my name, and has a key for me. He shows me to my room. Before collapsing on the big, soft, marshmallow of a double bed, I take a hot shower. A hot shower. Can I say that once more? 17½ hours on a crowded bus, 6 pees in very strange and sometimes not so private places, 3 extra stops for Muslim prayer time, at least 4 dozen unidentifiable aromas, and now I get to take A. Hot. Freaking. Shower. There are not enough sighs, superlatives or soft exclamations to express. So let me just say it once more. No, let me just think it.

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