The Toque (continued from Chapter 13): When I think the moment has come, I go up and greet him. "Bon jour, ça va?" etc, etc. Then I tell him I really like his hat and I show him mine. I can't think of the damn French word for 'trade', so I ask him if he knows Canada, and hockey, and perhaps he'd like my hat? He doesn't say anything. I say I have a son who is about his age and he would love to have a hat with Arabic writing. He starts grinning, looks to the left, looks to the right, conspiratorially, takes my hand with both of his and leads me around to the other side of the bus where there's no one else around. I explain that the Maple Leafs de Toronto are a professional ice hockey team. "Tu connais ice hockey?" I ask him. He doesn't respond, but he's grinning. I don't know what this kid's thinking. I'm guessing he wants to negotiate - they all do - but hoping he doesn't, 'cause I'm almost broke.
Finally, the silent grinner speaks. "You have a son who's 20? And he would enjoy having my hat?" Well, when I hear it put that way, do I ever feel stupid! "If that's so," he continues, "I would like to give it to you as a gift."
I must not be understanding right. "Pardon?" I say.
“A gift,” he says. “For you.” “Un cadeau? Pour moi?” It’s sinking in that he’s genuine. I hold out my Maple Leafs toque in trade. He shakes his head. I put my hand to my heart; I feel my eyes beginning to tear up. I have heard the word cadeau a thousand times in the last two weeks, but always from the needy. Old women, lame beggars, urchin after ragged urchin in the villages along the Niger and in the streets of Bamako. Always an urgent question: "Cadeau? Cadeau, monsieur? Cadeau?" But this is a statement. Simple and genuine as can be.
“My name is Aruna. What is yours? Can I get your cell number?” I oblige gladly. As I reach for a pen, I briefly consider giving him 1,000 CFA, but my instinct quickly asserts that it’s better not to. We shake hands, both hands. We kind of hold hands like that for a moment, nodding and chuckling. Knowing.
Afterwards, as I watch Aruna kibitzing with his co-worker pals, I see he is respected by them. He is the good-natured one, the one who's ready to give, to have a laugh, a play-fight punch in the shoulder. He's the kind of kid who is a leader because he is smart and kind, not because he is tough and threatening. Of all the Malians I have given my cell number to, I vote Aruna the most likely to use it.
Bus Ride to Mopti/Sévaré. I get the seat I have been wanting on the bus. It's an aisle seat on the right side, just behind the side door. In this seat (I have been thinking about this since we began lining up) you get the best legroom, plus quick and easy exiting and re-entry. You also have the best view of the vendors as they rush the bus at all the little whistle stops.
The bus departs at 7:40; forty minutes late. We hit Segou at 11:00. A full one-hour stop for lunch. Arggh. Our estimated 3PM arrival in Mopoti/Sévaré is way gone, for sure. I'm thinking maybe 7, but we end up pulling in a little before 6:00. Eleven-ish hours, depending on how you slice it. The trip is overall more pleasant than the Hombori - Bamako ordeal was. This bus has working speakers, and they play great music. I hear many of my favourite artists, and there is even an interview with the beloved Malian blind singing duo Amadou & Miriam (Dimanche À Bamako) on a local station.
The movie above should give you a flavour of life from the seat behind the rear exit doors.
The young man sitting next to me is a volunteer worker up near the Algerian border. Because of the language barrier, I don't really understand his explanation of his job, but I know that is a dangerous area. I also know he has the coolest footwear this side of Queen St. West.
This little fellow boards the bus with his mom about halfway into the trip. They sit across the aisle from me. He is sleepy and it takes me quite a while to coax him out. Mom is a bit reluctant as well, but ends up giving me permission to snap this picture, and they both get a big laugh out of viewing it on my camera.
Prayer time is five times a day. Every day. The bus makes a special stop and most of the men gather to kneel on the concrete slab. I'm all for separation of church and state, but there is a part of me that wishes prayer were this public and this routine in North America.
Once we've arrived in Sévaré, there is the usual hubbub, or is it ruckus?... hullabaloo? brouhaha? Anyway, there are a lot of taxi drivers clamoring for my business.
The guy I choose has to start his 'so-beat-up-I-can't-believe-it's-legal' little yellow Datsun from under the hood. It lumbers and chokes its way out of the parking lot and into town. We stop in the middle of an intersection and he turns the car off (with the key), gets out, and goes over to two uniformed cops standing on the corner. He talks to them for a minute and then walks back over, lifts the hood, cranks her up again and we're off.
“What was that all about?” I ask.
To the best of my ability to understand French, his explanation is as follows: “You have to pay a tax every time you come into town,” he tells me, “and I have already been in once today, and I can’t afford to pay it again.” Then he goes on complaining that a cabbie can’t make a living here, and you have to play it smart and stay on the good side of the police.
At the Hotel Flandre - the same place Mahmoud took us to upon our arrival in Mali - I get a hot shower. Dear God. Thank you for small pleasures. No, make that HUGE pleasures.
I go downstairs and have a delicious dinner in the courtyard and write in my journal. Tinariwen plays from a laptop sitting on a counter. Perfect. Besides appreciating the hot shower and the meal, I am also grateful that all the bus riding is over, and that I made it here in good time for my Pointe Afrique flight to Paris in the morning. I still have time for a walk before bed, so I head down the street for an internet café and write a note to Sharon. The air is almost like a beautiful summer night in Canada. The moon, which was new when I arrived, is now filling the night.
Street life under a full moon in Sévaré. Parents sit outside on plastic chairs talking and watching their children play, while the Imam chants the evening prayer in the distance.
Monday, January 20th. Up at 4:30 with the Imam. The mosque speakers are blasting. I stay in bed until 5:10. Bread and Nescafé for the last time, then off to the airport.
There is an intense swarm of vendors outside the Mopti/Sévaré airport. I have decided to spend all of my CFA rather than lose money trying to exchange it for Euros. I have hardly anything left, and anyway, it's much needed in their economy. They are on me like a herd of mosquitos. Can they have read my mind? I score some beautiful bracelets to bring back as gifts.
The last stragglers in the check-in line are none other than my Douentza Reserve pals, David and Gilles.
The 8:30 flight departs at 9:10. Take-off is very emotional. It's a real marker for me, leaving African soil. So many weeks of planning, leading to such a rich experience... all in the past now. It's time to carry it into the future with me, whatever that may look like. No. Not yet. For now, it's time to just feel the lift-off from the runway, and the strange sadness of leaving a place that has so quickly become dear to me. It almost feels like the weight of that sadness could keep us earthbound, but I know that's not how it works. The engines will thrust, the plane will speed, and there will be an instant when the wheels leave the asphalt and there is that airborne feeling; the miracle of floating in this 950,000-ton sardine can; the mix of sheer silent gliding grace with the violence and roaring of engines and clanking of landing gear that we call human flight.
We soar over nothing but Sahara for 2½-3 hours. Northern Mali, Algeria, maybe Morocco. So desolate. We may have conquered flight and outsmarted the cycles of sun and moon, but through my little 14-inch portal in the sky I am witnessing one thing first hand that has not changed: Population is still directly proportional to water. I think of Tinariwen's latest CD, Water Is Life, as I watch the terrain go from orange-brown sand to gray rocky plains, sometimes mountainous, and finally a city springs up as we reach the Mediterranean coast.
The north coast of Africa. My guess is that this golden patch buttering the mountains by the Mediterranean is Al Jazair, Algeria - a 3½ hour flight from Mopti/Sévaré. Months by camel.
Northward across the Mediterranean, the world is another matter altogether. This is the city of Marseilles on the south coast of France.
I remember 1998 travelling with my wife and three children to the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain. That's when I first experienced how close Europe and Africa really are. Isla de las Palomas is a stone's throw from Ksar-es-Srhir. Less than 20 kilometers. As a kid growing up in an upstate New York town of 600, the inhabitants of Africa - or the Amazon jungle, it didn't make any difference - were just that. Inhabitants. They weren't people. They were tribes. They were savages. They were Pygmies, or Zulu, bare-breasted and brown. They had mating habits, not marriages. They were anything but people with flesh and feelings like mine. They were the subject of a 10-year-old boy's fantasy games of hunting and war, and often the butt of humour.
Jonathan Winters: "The Great White Hunter"
I grew up listening to Winters, arguably one of the funniest men living on the edge of mainstream comedy, and mentor to Robin Williams. But Winters was not shy about using stereotypes for humorous effect.
Those early impressions stay with us far longer, and run far deeper, than we would like to admit. I consider myself an open-minded and relatively unprejudiced man of 58, and although those are the principles by which I lead my life, I think it wasn't until well into my fifties that I really began to get it. If you had asked a twelve-year-old Lou "Are all men created equal?" he would have said yes without a blink, but he didn't really understand it in the bones of his bones. And how could he? The only Africans he knew had been in America for so long, even they didn't think of themselves as African (and the term "African American" hadn't been invented yet). In my small town, anyone who had a 'foreign' look, even if it was just clothing, or who spoke with an accent, even if it was just British, was the object of stares and whispered curiosity, and the subject of family dinner conversation.
I think my bones finally absorbed it on this trip to Mali. But the eye-opening realizations I gained there are the type that are so deep they sound superficial when spoken. As in "What - you didn't know that all people need to laugh?" or "feel the touch of another’s skin?" or "love their children?" How about "feel needed?" and "have four walls and a roof?" Because I saw with my own eyes, not in a photo or a movie, walls and roofs of every possible description, children being loved in the most impossible of situations, folks laughing in garbage-strewn shanties with faces that looked just like the faces back home but in a place that was nothing like home, I knew the world in a new way.
Everybody kibitzes. They don't all do it in English, but they do it in Tamachek and Bambara, Urdu and Inuit. And more importantly they all slap knees, lean back and laugh, or roar, furrow their brows when negotiating and pout when a friend is leaving the neighbourhood. Everybody. The Zulu, the Pygmies, Tuareg, Songhai, and Perl; the Sumatrans, Tibetans and Chinese; the Laotian hill tribes and the Kakadu in Australia; the Incas, the Iroquois and the Iraqis. To me as a boy, the thought of a tribal African wracked with tears was as impossible as a barking cat.
In Mali I finally learned that the sameness is more important than the difference. The sameness is the foundation of our knowing other cultures. Without it, learning about the differences is meaningless. Or worse. It just widens the gap and feeds the fear. With it, there is the possibility of empathy and real dialogue; communication between real equals, with respect.
Stuff. I remember my inner dialogue shortly after take-off from Toronto nearly three weeks ago - "The law of conservation of energy does not apply to the energy we spend amassing our stuff, our matter." In a sudden jolt of turbulence, I thought the unthinkable, yet always-thought, thought, and I felt it go, silent as lightening, through every mind on the plane: a crash. I let myself wander into that foreboding, forbidden territory. What would it be like? The sudden drop, the rush of blood in the body, the panic, the scramble for a mask, for a flotation device, are we even over water?, perhaps the resignation if time allows, then the inevitable and instantly forgotten impact and the scattering of luggage and limb, wing and throttle, guts and glory... And all the energy I had put into collecting my stuff and cramming it into my knapsack would no longer be anywhere. It would be gone. It would be not. And the same goes for the stuff itself. Neither the energy nor the matter, would matter.
The thief, sleeping somewhere in Paris at that very moment, must have received my thoughts in his dream, and was sent out in the morning, a robot on an unconscious mission, to Charles De Gaulle Airport to intercept me. My realization about energy and matter was still an abstraction and needed to become material. But not, thank God, through an air disaster.
Maybe I am just trying to make sense out of the random, but I can't help but notice a thread here. I can't help but notice that after those several hours in Paris dealing with loss of stuff, the shock, the mourning, the partial recovery of my stuff, and the full recovery of my balance - seeing with dramatic clarity that I can have my center without having my stuff - I headed for Africa, where there is a whole different view of stuff. And there I again had to find my strength and my center, regardless of how much stuff I had or how much they didn't, and what they had instead. I had to get to know the punching bag clown as he leaned left, swayed right, bobbed back and forth, but, miraculously, never stayed down. I got to know him, and respect him, and I got to like him a little better. Maybe I am just trying to make sense out of the random, but that's what we humans are so good at. All of us.
Thank you ...
- for the challenges, and the support of friends and family, to face them
- for all the stuff I didn’t lose
- to the pilots and crews, for five successful take-offs and landings
- for the beautiful faces of the children of Mali
- to the thief in the Paris airport. May you live a long, joyful and prosperous life
- for the breath that continues to course through my body, and my awareness to appreciate it, occasionally.