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.
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.
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 suppressed 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.
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
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!