Chapter 8: Crisp Boxers & Stiff Drinks

By 4:00 each day in West Palm Beach we were home from work, plopped on the couch snacking, watching the latest Ellen show we had on the DVR and trying to decide where to get take out.

At 4:10 PM today we were on a patio next to our school with 3 colleagues, drenched in sweat, learning new steps to an African dance from a Malian dancer with tiny dreads who only speaks French and who we sort of understood, with three drummers pounding on interesting looking, handcrafted drums, and with the Niger River and the green hills as our backdrop.

Dancing With the Non-Stars (that’s me at far left totally in synch, and Jamey at far right just standing)

During our frequent breaks (and thank god they were frequent) one of the resident tortoises the size of a manhole cover ambled by. And the clouds were like a Jesus painting. Seriously, are we really here?

We were looking for a change of pace in life and I think we’ve found it, like when a child finds a surprise by sticking a fork in an electrical outlet (which, by the way, in Mali are round with 2 little prong holes). The world as we knew it is long gone, and we are loving the contrast.

Stopping at a roadside stand yesterday, we paid $6 for five bags full of fresh vegetables that in the U.S. would have cost $100 at Whole Foods. But at our next stop, a sort-of

Bananarama

Western style grocery store, we paid $40 for a sad little Made-in-China ironing board that’s dorm room size. Later four of us ate lunch for $5 each at a local restaurant specializing in heaping plates of traditional West African food, then at the drugstore around the corner I paid $75 for 8 Meflaquine pills. So I guess the moral of this story is if you want to stretch your cash when you come to Bamako, eat lots of local food, wear wrinkly clothes, and embrace malaria.

It’s been a week of especially crazy contrasts. The students returned to school. Well, 84 of the original 200 kids from last year actually returned. The U.S. still hasn’t allowed the dependents of its Embassy staff to return since the March coup (even though things in

Faculty of the American International School of Bamako

Bamako are A-OK) so we are short a whole gaggle of American brats. Apparently the Dutch and Danish, who never even evacuated in the first place, aren’t big scaredy cats like some countries I know. There is a senior class of one this year, a cool Malian-Dutch kid who is the sole student in Jamey’s AP Physics class (so much for sitting in the back of class texting while the teacher lectures!). He’s a shoe-in for valedictorian from what I hear, and definitely will be in top 5% of his class. On the elementary side of the school every other classroom is empty since three of us are teaching combined classes, K/1st, 2nd/3rd, and 4th/5th, freeing up classrooms in between us. It makes for a spacious environment, plus I have pilfered everything from the now REALLY empty classroom next door so it’s like having my own private Target.

I have seven Grade 5 students and six Grade 4 students so far. From the minute the first student walked in during student orientation and told me my classroom smelled like gin I knew I was in the right place.

My expansive classroom/Olympic gymnastics venue

Among these 13 they speak Danish, French, Portuguese, Bambara, Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, and English–only 2 speak English as a first language and half of them are tri-lingual! I have the child of the Danish ambassador, the child of the current Mali Prime Minister, and two children whose parents teach at the school too. No pressure (he says as he takes a swig from the bottle of Bombay Sapphire hidden in the crayon box).

The classroom discussions have been a tad interesting too. Example from the first day:

Me: Do any of you have teachers in the family?

Gin Student: My grandmother teaches college in Vancouver.

Me: Your grandparents live in Vancouver? I love that city.

GS: Well my grandmother lives there. My grandfather is gay and has a boyfriend and they live in another city.

Me: Did I hear the bell for recess? (swig, swig)

And what I found bizarre is during that exchange not one student even winced. Hell, even I don’t even know anyone with a gay grandfather!

One of the students’ Andy Warhol-style self portrait.

On Friday I played the song “Perfect” by the band Simple Plan, a heart wrenching, based-in-fact song in which the two brothers in the band sing about how they didn’t meet their father’s expectations (even though they are successful, wealthy musicians). I asked the students to analyze the lyrics for the main idea. PM’s son answered, “It’s just so cliché, Mr. Fessler.” They are keeping me on my toes for sure.

We bought a vehicle from a departed teacher (one who left the school, not one who died).

Bamako street scene

It’s a Honda SUV-something-or-other, totally not my style plus it cost a gazillion dollars to fill with essence (that’s French for gas, pronounced ess-AHHHNCE) But an SUV is totally necessary to drive on the things that pass as roads here. The red clay back road we take to school is less than a half mile long, but it’s an adventurous half mile with foot-deep water covering all of the road in places, mini jagged boulders, mud pits, parts that look like a smaller scale version of the Grand Canyon, and random bushes growing in what would seem to be the center of the road. Riding to and from school is sort of like getting a magic fingers massage from one of those vibrating mattresses, so it’s not all bad. I’m not an auto expert, but I’m thinking these conditions play havoc with all that stuff underneath the car (the other day we were riding with colleagues in their SUV and  a shock literally fell off the bottom of the car into the tire).

Jamey did drive on an actual main road last Friday for the first time, which is far better than our crazy back road but still crazy in many other ways. Our director had invited the faculty over for happy hour, gin and tonics by the pool, and I couldn’t resist (plus Jamey was my DD). So off we went on Sotuba Road, two lanes that somehow handle 4 or 5 lanes of traffic, full of motos (motorcycles), cars, little buses, donkey carts, people hauling big carts of eggs or bananas or auto parts, and people walking everywhere. Thankfully everyone travels at a slower pace than most places we’ve visited, but having motos zoom up on either side of you at the same time when you have your turn signal on and they still stay next to you, well, it just makes for a surreal driving experience. The gin was good by the way, Bombay Sapphire, and she also had US-style junk food, like chips that tasted Ruffles-ish. Definitely worth the dangerous first drive.

Our home is looking better everyday. On Saturday we had a driver take us across town (which in and of itself is a complete thrill ride) to buy some curtains from a World Bank Brit

“Hakuna Matata” says our living room!

guy who was transferred to Senegal. African print material, well made, and featuring our current favorite POC (Pop of Color)…orange…which of course was inspired by the plastic dog I wrote about in a previous post. They instantly brought life into every room of our place and pumped up the Africa-ness. I also used one curtain panel to make pillow covers that I whipped up by hand (thank you Grandma and mom for teaching me how to sew when I was 9). Last step is having one of the maintenance men come to hang our many, many pictures—apparently the solid concrete walls almost require a jackhammer to get a nail in them. Even our gardener has done his magic, which is a miracle since we gave him directions in French (or what we think was French). We now have potted plants everywhere–along the porch, on the roof deck, in the house, at our front gate…come to think of it I may have mixed up the number 5 with the number 55 when I was ordering these. He also took the vegetable seeds we brought with us and planted a raised bed garden next to our house, so I’m looking forward to haricort verts, salade, and other French names that sound so fancy even though they are just plain vegetables.

It is truly bizarre having a gardener, a maid, a driver, and full time guards just for our house. I’m not used to having people open the gates for us, carry our backpacks or groceries in, keep the yard looking perfect, scrubbing the floors and shower and kitchen every day, washing and ironing our clothes daily, and fanning us with long palm fronds (okay I’m making that last one up).

View from our roof deck

Plus they do all of this hard work for so little money…a little more than $100/month for a full time, 5-day-a-week maid (we spent more than that on groceries for the week). The guards get less. Even less than that for the gardener. In the states I was resigned to the fact that as a teacher we were at the bottom of the earnings totem pole, but here we’re freakin’ Richie Rich! It’s a little uncomfortable and hard for us to wrap our heads around. But man do I love coming home to a stack of ironed boxer shorts and socks.

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Chapter 7: Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

Just when we were getting used to our very personable rooster, he literally flew the coop. At least that’s what we think Fati (our maid) said in French to us this afternoon. Or she cooked him—hard to tell with our low level French comprehension.

Our rooster, just before going on holiday.

I did enjoy seeing this little rooster come to the glass front door every morning to get our attention. We wish him well on his adventure –or- hope he provided nourishment for an impoverished family, whatever the case may be. I’m pretending he’s on a little vay-cay.

We’ve just completed a full teacher-only week at AISB (American International School of Bamako). Today I was sitting at my classroom desk freaking out over scheduling, curriculum, classroom interior design, etc. when I looked out the window, saw the Niger River, and thought, “Holy crap! I’m in Africa!” Amazing how school stress can make you forget you’re in a third world country on another continent. This stress is different than what I experienced in the U.S. though. By this point in Florida I would have been surrounded by piles of FCAT test data (the high stakes Florida test) letting me know which of my students may not pass

I can see the Niger from my teacher desk. And some playground equipment.

the next FCAT in 8 months, deciding which students are most likely to pass and are actually worth the extra investment of time, being told not to schedule field trips or anything else remotely creative or enjoyable or to definitely NOT teach social studies and science–subjects not on the 4th grade FCAT–until April 2013 when the three week FCAT testing window is over, and being reminded how my salary, my job, and my health will suffer if my students don’t produce high test scores. Ah, the good ol’ days. At least now my stress only involves deciding which creative activity to do first, and how to create an inviting classroom in the light-filled, cavernous space assigned to me.

Our first week faculty meetings could not have been more different from what we were used to back in Florida. Our director actually apologized for keeping us so long at our first meeting–which went a whopping 70 minutes and actually involved time for teachers to talk about their vision for enriching the lives of students….as opposed to staring blankly at PowerPoint slides of color-coded test data and dreaming about less stressful career options, like alligator wrangling.

Growing a living maze in one of the school courtyards. I imagine some kids could get lost in there for days.

The answer to many teacher questions was “Just use your professional judgment,” something that made me do the happy dance in my head because it meant that this school considers me a professionals and capable of making judgments on my own! Every morning there were fresh French pastries, and at lunch the school cook, Fanta (yep, just like the soda), prepared a meal for the staff. She even made me a special garlic-free portion of every meal due to my allergy and unwillingness to have explosive diarrhea during Week 1.

My split class so far has nine 4th graders and eight 5th graders. They include the Danish ambassador’s son, children of officials with the Dutch, South African, Indian, and Nigerian embassies, a child of an African Union Commission official, and a Microsoft Mali exec’s kid. No Americans yet since DC hasn’t given the all clear sign for American Embassy dependents to return here, but that could happen in a couple of weeks. Apparently the US are always the last return because of so much paperwork they require. Go figure.

Our getting-to-school routine is a welcome change. As we come out of the front door our watchman dashes to greet us and open the gate. Then we walk about 7 minutes down an orange clay road which, if it’s the rainy season as it is now, may include an impromptu stream and series of car-sized puddles. We pass a couple of unfinished soon-to-be fancy two-story homes (although I’ve never seen anyone

Jamey takes the lead on our 7 minute walk to school.

working on these yet), fields of rice/corn/lettuce, two mules, various Malians either on a moto (scooter), bike, or walking–and in the case of women or girls, usually with something large balancing on their head, a couple of shacks made of sticks and scraps of plastic sheeting that are about the size of a walk-in closet and they house whole families. We greet everyone we pass with a “bonjour” and they seemed kind of surprised that we take the time to speak to them. Once we get to the school the guards and drivers out front greet us with all kinds of French and Bambara phrases (how’s it going, did you sleep well, you have mud all over your shoes) and then practice remembering which of us is Jamey and which is Jeff. This process is reversed on the way home, except that when we walk into our house it is sparkling clean and all of the dirty clothes we left are washed and ironed in a nice stack, including socks and undies, the dirty dishes we left in the sink are washed and put away, and our muddy shoes from the day before are clean and lined up at the door. It’s like being 8 all over again.

After school yesterday one of the teachers organized a Friday happy hour at a local hotel on the river.

Happy Hour on the Niger with our worldly colleagues

We caught a ride with fellow teachers Thomas and Cindy and their two kids as we don’t have a car yet (although we did just agree to buy one left by a teaching couple who didn’t return this year). Hard to imagine that we will soon be navigating the craziness on these main roads! First, there aren’t curbs on these TWO-lane roads that seem to accommodate three or more lanes of traffic, which consists of SUVs, giant trucks, gobs of motos (they zip around your vehicle on the left and right side—just inches away from you, and dart from the side of the road at any given minute.), carts pulled by donkeys, small beat up yellow cars that are actually taxis ($2-$3 a ride), locals crammed into green, open-sided vans that sort of represent a bus-like service but without set stops (as the vehicle slows down a guy shouts out where it’s going and people clamber to get on), and all of this happening within a haze of dust and exhaust. Lining every inch of the road on both sides are buildings (masonry or ramshackle stalls) selling things or just open areas where people are selling more stuff like gas in jars or 80s looking sofas and side chairs, all just plopped in the dirt and fumes. And there are people everywhere, just walking, or herding goats, selling phone cards, milling about. The robes they wear are bright and how they keep them looking so clean amidst all these clouds of dust is a mystery to me. This could be a great commercial for Tide I think.

A donkey cart merge.

On this particular ride with Thomas and Cindy last night, we detected an unusual sound as we made our way along the chaos. After pulling over we noticed the shock had fallen almost completely off and was hitting their tire. So we waved down a couple of taxis. Cindy, Jamey, and I rode in a taxi already occupied by a soldier in the front seat, his rifle wedged between his legs. We took a short cut through a market area where sheep butchering was going on, and where I glanced at piles of sheep intestines, heads, and other assorted body parts. Never a dull moment on a taxi ride through Bamako.

A happy hour sunset over the Niger.

Of course all of this craziness contrasts nicely with our eventual destination, a lovely hotel with a covered deck extending over the river where we sat quietly enjoying drinks and watching the sun sink into the river. Not a sheep intestine in sight.

Of course just sitting with our new colleagues is a treat because they are all fascinating people who could write books about all they’ve done. Just in our small group of Americans last night was someone who grew up in Nepal, another whose mom works for the State Department and who went to high school in Moscow, the Danish ambassador’s wife and son who have also lived in Thailand and Ecuador (I’ll have the son in my class), someone who worked in the Peace Corps in Niger, sisters from the US whose family moved to Mali years ago and whose mom runs a store offering crafts from women’s cooperatives in the region, and another who has taught at international schools around the world for 20 years and who rock climbs and teaches yoga. Sure beats sitting around chatting about the last episode of True Blood (though we did that too). We ended up at an Indian restaurant with the most amazing food and garishly decorated crown molding. And the Indian waiter spoke excellent English and French and had no problem leaving the garlic out of my delicious dal (spicy lentil stew served over rice).

And because I’m a teacher, here is a little lesson on a big Islamic holiday: During the past 30 days the Malians have been observing Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where they fast from sunrise to sunset (no liquids or food, which I didn’t realize at the faculty meeting as I snarfed down a croissant and coffee while sitting next to our Malian bookkeeper). It officially ends with the sighting of the new moon (there is actually a moon

Courtyard near my classroom. Flower Power!

sighting committee who makes this determination). On the way home last night our taxi driver told us the committee had spotted the moon. This means Eid ul-Fitr, Festival of Breaking Fast, begins and lasts through Monday, so our Malian staff at school as well as Fati our maid will have the day off on Monday. There will also be lots of family meals, sweets, wearing of new clothes, the giving gifts to children, prayer, and giving to charity. There is something about killing a sheep too, but I’m going to leave the details of that part out of this lesson.

And I’m sure our rooster will return once the celebrating is over.

Chapter 6: Waking up in Bamako

The front of “Maison du Coq,” our abode.

On our first morning in Bamako our driver was coming to pick us up at 9 sharp, so we awoke a couple of hours early to get a good look at everything in the light. I mean who knows, there could be a leper colony next door, or cat-sized spiders crawling on the ceiling. Thankfully the bright sunlight revealed no lepers or spiders, just our rooster and cats.

View of our garden and our hoarse rooster, who is still skeptical of our motives.

From the roof deck, that watery orange road alongside our house just glowed like a painting by Thomas Kinkade, painter of light. A boy walked along the road, and his white robe was blowing so perfectly in the breeze that I thought this wasn’t real. Behind him were several girls in green and yellow and orange robes who balanced various things on their head. It all made for a scene out of a foreign film, and boy do I hope I continue to appreciate simple things like this as time goes on.

Today was a whirlwind. After our driver took us on the 5 minute drive to school, Caroline, our school director, met us at the gates and introduced us to all of the guards and drivers–who already knew our names. Greetings are extremely important here. So it goes something like this:

Person 1: Bonjour!

Person 2: Bonjour!

Person 1: Ça va?

Person 2: Ça va?

Person 1: Ça va bien?

Person 2: Ça va bien.

Person 1: (insert more things in French or Bambara like, “May you be blessed” and :Hope you have good health” etc. and go on for up to 5 minutes)

Some school architecture.

Caroline took us through the school where we met the staff (who also already knew our names). Apparently we are rock stars because, unlike the other 5 new hires, we are the only ones who didn’t back out of our contract and showed up. In other words, we were the crazy/committed ones.

The school looks great…a real surprise at the end of a very nondescript, bumpy orange clay road. It’s two stories in some parts and has great details like curved towers, intricate stonework, voluminous indoor spaces, courtyards with gardens, a perfect combination of indoor/outdoor connections, and a location right on the Niger River (pronounced knee-zheer).

Looking at the Niger River from the school terrace, except I do not have a martini at the moment.

There is a large second floor terrace off of the library with sweeping views of the river, and we understand that they hold cocktail parties here for parents. Liquor and education, the perfect pair.

Jamey’s classroom is the size of two science labs. It has everything he needs and more—plenty of those lab table thingys, a private safety shower in case students spill chemicals all over themselves, LCD projector, white boards, storage, cool equipment like a distiller, a fume hood, you name it. It opens into a sassy little courtyard full of plants.

My 4th/5th combo classroom is just down the hall and is also the largest classroom I’ve ever taught in…again one could do a long tumbling pass right down the center. There are windows on 3 sides–one wall is lined with windows looking out onto a terrace, another has a view of the Niger River, and another set look into a planted courtyard. There is an LCD projector, tables (vs. individual desks) for the kids, and tons of furniture to choose from since the school has downsized teachers and students by half since the coup last March…100 kids vs. 200 in pre-K to 12. I have the biggest group of everyone, nine 4th graders and 9 5th graders. It’s so darned big that I’m racking my brain on the interior design and space planning. I could park a car in there and it wouldn’t interfere with anything. Since the school closed unexpectedly in April with the coup, everything was left exactly like it was on April 2nd–stuff still in the student desks, math problems on the board, and a big bar of Godiva chocolate in the teacher’s bottom desk drawer (is it sad that even having been in there for 4 months without AC and with plenty of African critters roaming around, that chocolate bar still looked good to me?). There was also a skinny turd-like thing on the floor, so I don’t know if that’s some exotic lizard excrement or what.

It’s really just like an American school was lifted up from the US and dropped down in Bamako. Everything we are used to having, they have–well, except for standardized testing mania, stressed-out teachers, and a government that continues making policies that harm teachers and students.

Later Caroline took us on a drive to a couple of supermarches (grocery stores) which were surprisingly like stores in the states and fairly well stocked. They do have odd combinations of items sometimes, like flat screen TVs for sale immediately adjacent to the Pringles (of which they had 12 varieties). Of course most of the products include only French names and descriptions so it’s an adventure deciding if we are buying shampoo, juice, or all-purpose floor cleaner (“lemony fresh” can apply to a lot of products, we have discovered). Paying is fun too since 500 CFAs (their unit of currency, pronounced see-fuhs) equals 1 dollar. So our total for our shopping trip (43,000 cfa) sounded like we had bought a nice car.

After shopping Caroline took us to her house in a fancier part of town (just up the block from the former president’s daughter’s home–the one who was chased out in the coup) and it was twice as spacious as ours. She has beautiful art collected from her travels and work around the world (she has worked at international schools in Rome, Zambia, Vietnam, and Bangledesh, and has travelled really everywhere else—including a 7 month overland journey through Africa in the late 80s). She’s having a BBQ Sunday night here for our little faculty of 20, so we look forward to meeting our colleagues.

Our sunset canoe cruise on the Niger River.

In the following days we had some memorable experiences. Caroline took us and a couple of other teachers on a boat ride on the Niger River, in a traditional Malian canoe (this one with a motor, I might add, which most do not have). It was so quiet out on the water, like a different world. Found out that the man-eating hippos are nowhere near Bamako. Also found out that we do not want to touch this river water. At all.

Jamey and I also went alone to a clinic to get our second round of vaccinations. You just show up–no appointments necessary. Dr. Toureg was super nice, spoke English, and had a giganto fish tank in his office. The shots didn’t hurt a bit, but as before the price sure did. At least this time our new school insurance covers the cost.

And finally Caroline took us to the US Ambassador’s house for drinks and later dinner at a restaurant down the way. We were joined by a coupe of US Embassy nurses and another teacher who works at our school’s satellite location, a gold mine waaaay out in the middle of nowhere. She’s from Alaska so she’s used to being far away from civilization. The Ambassador was fascinating and oh so interesting. She’s casual and funny and she plays the flute too. Who could ask for more.

Our canoe had me, Jamey, the media specialist Jenny from South Africa, Caroline our director from Australia, Anka the secondary math teacher from Holland, and Sushma an administrative asst. & psychology teacher from India. Love em all!

Chapter 5: Good Golly Miss Mali!

So we’ve been in Bamako for almost 2 days and I am just now writing my first in-Mali blog post…partly because we don’t have Internet connected at our house (maybe by this weekend), partly because we’ve been occupied every waking second (more on that later), and mostly because it’s difficult to even begin to describe what we’ve experienced in just 36 hours. It’s like a party of sights and sounds is going on in my head and I’m the really, really drunk one someone has to guide around. But let me try to kick this off.

When our Air France flight started its descent into Bamako, the rain clouds had just passed and the sun was out so we could clearly see the landscape below. The soil was the color of Snooki’s skin, that unnatural orange that sort of glows in the light. The vegetation was vivid green, and next to that Jersey orange it was like a pop art painting. The airport was not a huge building, maybe from the 60s, and we departed the plane from a staircase down onto the tarmac (also very 60s) where a modern bus whisked us 30 seconds away to the terminal.

Unloading on the tarmac, just like in the old days.

Caroline, our school’s director who is originally from Australia, was meeting us at the airport but didn’t know if they’d let her through to the visa/passport area where we would be for a bit. So I was prepared, having written a few French sentences on a piece of paper in case I needed them: “Our director is waiting just outside if you have questions,” and “Does the AC get any colder than this” and other essential information. Most of the foreigners (and yes we were also surprised that we weren’t the only non-Malians entering the country) were directed to a tiny office to present our visa to a couple of youngish Malian army women saying many things in French. So in this room the size of a bathroom stall were a group of uniformed French soldiers, a couple of 20-something kids with backpacks, a CIA-looking guy with slicked back hair, Jamey and me, and the two army women. Everyone else apparently understood the directions and were gone in a few minutes. And there we stood as the women asked us something and we just smiled, Thank goodness it was at this time when Caroline bounced through the door with the originals of our visa and handed them over. We were through step one.

Next we zipped through passport control with nary a hitch and then collected our luggage which appeared just as we walked up to the moving belt. Even the big box was there containing the plastic orange dog we bought in Paris, not a dent anywhere. Siri, one of the school’s drivers, quickly loaded everything on carts and we were off through the airport. Caroline was marveling at how fast and problem-free this process was for us, and how just the week before her flight was 6 hours late and it took her more than an hour to clear customs and get her bags. And then….another Malian army woman stepped in to ruin our party. She pointed at the box I was wheeling and said something that maybe was “What’s in the big box you drug smuggler” or something to that effect. Of course how do you tell someone in a poor country that it’s a plastic orange dog by a famous Finnish designer that we bought in Paris that surely cost more than this soldier’s entire monthly salary. I told her it was an “object d’art” which was in one of my Rosetta Stone lessons or maybe it was something I saw in a movie. She didn’t get it. Then Caroline said “chien” (French for dog) and barked.

The offending dog, at its birthplace in Paris.

Maybe the soldier thought it was a live dog or maybe she was in a bad mood, but she made me follow her to another room, this one with an older Malian army woman with flawless makeup and a pretty big attitude. There was also a guy in a shiny robe-type thing doing calculations on a pad, and various male soldiers coming in and out saying something in French. The army woman ignored Jamey and me as we stood before our box with a plastic dog, so we just smiled. Suri, our driver (which I think has the same name as the child of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes), came in and said something in French to the woman and she did not seem amused. She barked at him and he began opening our box, slowly unveiling the plastic orange dog. To say she was dumbfounded is an understatement. We didn’t understand her, but I’m sure she was saying something like, “What in the hell is this? You think I’m going to get a promotion for finding an orange plastic dog?” Suri and army woman went back and forth and the conversation was heated. I kept tryng to interject with bits of French saying “it’s for children,” and “it’s just a toy and of course it didn’t cost 145 euros even though that’s what the price tag on it says.” She banished Suri from the room and they locked the door.

Army woman punched something into a 60s looking adding machine and held it up while she said lots of things in French. The machine showed the number 50,000. Was this the number of lashes we were going to get? The dollars she wanted from us? The temperature outside? I kept saying “I don’t understand” in French while Jamey supressed a smile, apparently finding this whole thing amusing. The shiny robed guy used broken English to say something about “CFA” (the unit of currency here that we had no clue about in terms of how it compared to dollars or euros) so we figured out she was charging us some kind of tax to bring this in. I said “euros?” and she punched in another number, 76, and held it up. We knew that mean over $90 dollars and at this point I was ready to pay just to get out of there, so I began to take the cash from my pocket. Then Caroline burst through the door again, timing her arrival perfectly. She doesn’t know much more French than me, but another soldier who knew some English explained that army woman was really ticked because Siri had insulted her, which may or may not have been true. Caroline apologized for his actions and the woman waved us away with our box and without paying a ransom.

Come to find out, we are at the tail end of Ramadan and the Malian Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset—no food or drink. Plus they get up early to pray and stay up late eating and drinking so they get little sleep. So in other words, they are all pretty cranky about now, and army woman was no exception. But we had survived with euros intact and we were on our way.

We were glad it was still light because there was much to see on the drive to our house, which I must mention was in an ice cold air conditioned van. Ahhhh. The whole scene outside was very movie-set-like. Women in bright robes balancing gigantic things on their heads, like containers and cloth wrapped bundles.

Bamako street action.

Motor scooters careening around everywhere (and they don’t wear helmets). Little open air stands lining the roads full of vendors selling everything and offering every service, from haircuts to autobody work. Donkey carts pulling wagons of corn. Huge Mercedes semi trailer trucks barreling along, horns honking. It was too much to take in, especially after just watching a quiet, sweet little rom com movie with Ewan McGregor on the flight here. But we were loving every minute of it.

The “road” leading to our house was orange clay and after a few days of rain looked more like the Niger River, except with more bumps. It was dark by the time we pulled up in front of our walled compound, but we could see our gateway stoop was adorned with a large concrete chicken. Interestingly, rather than using addresses, you can identify your home with a unique sculpture, so we are the Maison de la Coq (House of the Cock/Chicken). And that’s kind of funny.

Our compound’s guard came out to greet us and carried our bags through a lush little garden to the porch that runs the length of the house. We saw right away that this place is big, really big. The part of the house you enter from the front door is three spaces, living, dining, and kitchen. A giant living room big enough for Gabby Douglas to do floor

Gate to our house and garden with our large chicken standing guard.

exercises. Lots of windows too, and rattan furniture. Dining room with very formal-ish wooden table and chairs (secondhand from the American Embassy here; anything that is formal-ish and dark wood is probably a hand me down from the Embassy). Double ceiling fans and a long, skinny remote-controlled AC unit at the top of the 10’ tall walls. The kitchen is very blue, every wall surface covered with midnight blue ceramic tile. But it has a American-sized fridge and a gas stove. It has a pass-through from the dining area so the space flows well. But geez is it blue.

Off of this three-part space is a long corridor, with the master bed/bath coming off the left side and 2 guest bedrooms and guest bath off the right. The master bedroom is gigantic too, about the size of the apartment in West Palm Beach we lived for the past year. We moved the furniture around a few times so it didn’t look like an auditorium, and it looks fairly comfortable now. The queen-sized bed has a sort of canopy structure over the top draped with a mosquito net which many people use in case one of those critters gets in the house. The master bath is a little scary, also very blue with tile floor to ceiling. We are trying to decide what furniture to put in there to fill the space since it’s echo-y, and echo-y is not good for a bathroom if you catch my drift. The guest rooms on the other side of the corridor are each half the size of the master and work perfectly as extra storage for our things.

Lots of things happening on the outside. On top of the house is a roof deck the size of the whole house, and it includes a thatched-roofed cabana. There is a small maid’s quarters if the maid lived on premises, but since ours doesn’t this is used for laundry and a bathroom for the maid, gardener, and guards. The whole yard is surrounded by a 6’ tall wall and lots of plantings, most of the same plants we had in South Florida. There is a metal door/gate going to the street that the guard opens and closes as we come and go. And the best part of all is that we inherited 2 very cool cats and a rooster who sounds like he needs to clear his throat before he crows. Supposedly there are chickens too but we didn’t see any.

Other teachers live in homes just adjacent to us and have a pool that we can use anytime, but they are just now arriving in the next days and we haven’t met them yet. We just needed to sleep at this point!