Making friends through Mali and Guinea - don't fear ebola
Mali is such an exceptionally interesting country to me. I'm spellbound to the history of the country of which I knew nothing about until I arrived. I sort of feel equally ignorant as to when I was traveling through the Balkan region visiting countries in Europe more than a year ago. There is so much which I don't know.
Let me tell you about an amazing woman! Her name is Sarah and she has been hosting me in Bamako until I left Mali. Sarah is "a friend of a friend" as I wrote in last weeks blog. But she is also one of those people who proves that "a stranger is a friend you've never met before". I thoroughly enjoyed her kind company and all the amazing stories she has from having worked more than 20 years in the Danish foreign ministry. But she went beyond common kindness when I needed her.
Sarah - can't you just hear her laugh? :)
The day I picked up my passport from the Guinean embassy I could have left for Guinea. But knowing that I would soon be needing visas for both the Ivory Coast and for Ghana I thought it would be a good idea looking into my options of obtaining one or the other in Bamako. So after having picked up my passport Monday morning, I headed out to the Ghanaian embassy who informed me that if I applied that day (Monday) then I would have my passport back along with my visa 2 days later: Wednesday. Then I headed out to the embassy of the Ivory Coast who pretty much said the same. Hmm...what to do? None of them would allow me to start the process in Mali and pick up my visa in another country. I called Sarah to hear what she had of thoughts? And Sarah suggested that I would ask one of the embassies for permission on keeping my passport, while they processed the paperwork without it. That way my passport could go through the process at the other embassy and once I got it back, I could swiftly return to the embassy who had been processing my visa application (without my passport), and they could give it to me on the day.
The Ivory Coast embassy was kind of posh in comparison to the others.
So I asked the Ghana embassy if they could process my visa application without my passport? They said no. So I told the woman at the counter that she had a nice face (which is true). And after a while she agreed to speak to her supervisor. And minutes later they said okay. I gave them 2 passport photos, copies of my passport, copies of my Malian visa, a filled out application form and a letter requesting my visa. Then I thanked her many times and rushed over to the Ivorian Coast embassy. But they were now closed for lunch. I talked with the guard for a bit and he told me to come back at 2:00pm.
I returned at 2:00pm but was then told that they open at 2:30pm. So I returned 30 minutes later. I waited inside the embassy until it was my turn and finally mr Konan called me over to his desk. Mr. Konan is a very proper man with an attitude and he was dressed in a white suit which he might have borrowed from Blofeldt in a James Bond movie. And he wasn't keen on giving me the visa for some reason. But he had to process me. It was now almost 3:00pm. I had all the copies and the passport photos read...but "Blofeldt" wanted a hotel confirmation and an invitational letter as well!! And then he told me that they would close at 4:00pm. I explained that I wouldn't be able to get an invitational letter in less than an hour. But he strongly suggested that I would. After a little while he accepted that the hotel reservation would be enough.
In Henri's taxi you need to cross wires to get it running :)
As fast as lightning I was out og the embassy and back in the taxi with my trusted driver Henri. Henri had been chauffeuring me a few days before and since taxis cost next to nothing in Bamako I got his number and made him my preferred driver :) I let Henri know that we were in a hurry! Something which he took serious! We raced off through traffic in order to reach Sarah's residence which was on the other side of town. Meanwhile I spoke to Sarah on the phone and updated her on the situation. 20 minutes later we met at her apartment. But since she doesn't have a printer she started her car and raced over to the Danish embassy where she works. I then completed the documents she needed to print and forwarded them to her email. Then I too raced over to the Danish embassy with Henri at the wheel.
Soon after Sarah came flying out of the embassy with multiple documents in her hand. She helped me fill out the french application form and off Henri and I went with almost no time left. If I didn't get to the embassy of the Ivory Coast before 4:00pm then I would loose a day which I couldn't afford to do. Henri again took it serious and this is where you can tell if a taxi driver is the owner or not. Henri clearly isn't there owner as he hit every pothole at a racing speed!! We were racing through the back alleys as the main roads would surely be congested!! Gogogo!! Common Henri!! Faster!! I'm almost sure we drove over someone's toes at one point. People are everywhere in Bamako and traffic is sort of crazy even when your not racing through it.
Ofcourse Mali has proper gas stations too. But this is more fun.
Then suddenly Henri pulled over. What's going on?!! We needed air in the front left tire. Okay. Common common common...and off we went again...for about 4 minutes before we ran out of gas! Noooo!! Well, luckily gas is something you can buy in used soft drink bottles on most street corners. Common common common!! We were racing again and 4:03 I jumped out of the still moving taxi in front of the embassy and dashed towards the gate. The security guard from earlier smiled at me and let me pass. And "Blofeldt" processed my documents after a while and sent me to accounting to pay. MADE IT!! YES!! :)
As a final little twist the lady at accounting told me to come back for the passport Wednesday afternoon. I explained the situation and after a little while she agreed that I could collect it Wednesday at 11:30am. So far so good. And there was no way I would have made it without the help of Sarah! :)
The following day was a kind of "day off". I was now waiting for the visas to be ready so I thought I might take a look at the city. I discovered that the national museum was nearby the zoo and decided that it sounded like a plan. The national museum was quite small but well worth the visit. And I was the only one there. Unfortunately everything was in french so I didn't understand what I didn't already know.
The zoo was a pleasure to visit too. I love visiting the zoo and have done it in many different countries. I also hold an annual pass to the zoo in Copenhagen which I'm still paying for although I won't be visiting for the 4 years this project may last. But I figure the money goes to the animals well being.
I had "eye contact" with a crocodile which after some time ever so slowly submerged itself in the green water so that it became completely invisible. Creepy! But fascinating. Then, when I was walking past the elephant, a deer which was inside the same enclosure completely stopped what it was doing and observed on me instead. As I walked past it, its head slowly turned with its eyes fixed on me. It was as if it was saying: "what in the world are you?!". There were many school children in the zoo and several times I felt like I was the attraction :)
On my way back to Sara's apartment I passed the Bamako museum and though that I would have a look. It was expensive compared to the other to attractions and it really wasn't worth the visit. It's a shame with more than 150,000 years of history to present that they haven't really managed. But it's most likely the lack of funding and not the lack of will.
There is an unusual large amount of scooters in Bamako compared to any of the other West African capitals I have been to. In that sense it resembles Asia a little more. Still heading back I found my way to the main market and walked through it. That experience sort of resembles a scene from a western movie where a stranger walks into the saloon and everything stops. I might as well have been blue. I think it has been a long while since a European walked through there. But everyone was still really friendly and there was no shortage of smiles or people who wanted to talk to me :)
Henri helping me buy a ticket to Guinea (through the small window).
Wednesday arrived and I left Sarah's apartment with a heavy heart. But the show must go on. Henri picked me up and we went to the embassy of the Ivory Coast and picked up my passport without a hitch. Then we went to give it to the Ghanaian embassy who told me to come back at 2:00pm. Hmmm...that left me with about 2 hours of spare time. So I convinced Henri that it would be great to visit the nearby Musee des Armees. It was free to visit and worth the time. But it wasn't extraordinary. What made it better was a sergeant who gave me a tour and explained about the military's history within Mali - dating back around 100 years before colonial times. Outside there were 2 airplanes, a few boats and a small tank. All of it was rusting and will be gone soon enough due to the weather conditions. I suggested the sergeant that it would last longer if it was covered but he only shrug his shoulders and said with a smile: "money".
An old Russian airplane and the first presidents first car (Oldsmobile).
Henri and I picked up the passport and headed out to the terminal to find me a shared taxi to go to Conakry in Guinea. We succeeded after a while and said our goodbyes. I'm quite fond of Henri and his taxi which doesn't start with a key and a standard ignition. He needs to cross the cables under the dashboard as car thieves do in movies. Perhaps it wasn't his taxi after all? ;)
The shared taxi to Conakry, which fitted 14 people inside!!
We were able to fit 14 people into the taxi!! That's probably as close as I will ever come to joining a circus. The driver + a woman with 2 children in front. 4 grown men in the middle. And 3 adults along with 3 more children in the improvised added backseats. Then the obligatory 6 elephants on the roof and away we went. 1,000 kilometers during the next 24 hours in a taxi which REALLY couldn't fit anyone else. I began to miss the bus ride from Dakar to Bamako.
It's funny how everyone in the taxi starts to function as a team. Almost like a family. Strangers holding each other's children, everyone sharing food, everyone looking out for each other. My final glimps of Mali took place through a dreamlike landscape of mountain formations which hardly seemed possible. The landscape was remarkably green and a hundred termite mounts covered a field making them look like tombstones as they were all perfectly aligned with each other.
it was clear that the military at the border had no idea what they where there for. Their focus was fixated on squeezing some money out of the weak. Immigration wasn't quite sure on how to handle me with my visa. So it took a drive back to som military barracks to get confirmation that I could cross. Big signs warning against ebola were visible throughout the landscape. Some one from the military took my temperature through a "temperature gun" pointing it at my ear: 36.5 degrees Celsius. "Next!"
Yes! There really was 14 of us in there!
Guinea is a miracle to look at through the windows of moving car. The landscape is gorgeous and I was expecting Timon and Pumba to walk out onto the road at any time. I saw several places where Simba's father could have stood and told Simba that "some day, all of this will be yours". Lush green areas, plenty of trees, mountains and rock formations, wild flowing rivers... There were plenty of checkpoints on our way and most of the time it felt like it was all about getting some money twisted out of the locals. I passed every time. Housing along the road was mostly simple circular mud brick huts with pointy straw roofs. But don't be fooled. They contain radios, mobile phones and in some cases laptops and television sets. But water is largely collected from wells or rivers and in front of most homes a woman would be grinding corn in a large mortar. Basic life for sure. But in beautiful surroundings. Somewhere between all those trees and mountains there are still people infected with the Ebola virus. Malaria is a common decease and cholera is also ordinary. Not surprisingly when you look at the amount of garbage which is to be found everywhere you find people.
It amazes me how people can be blind to all that waste. And it amazes me even more that the window of a car or a bus is commonly regarded as a waste bin. The adults calmly drop anything they do not need out of the window and the children do the same. No one stops to think that there might be a connection between all the crap lying around and the careless disposal of waste. Or no one cares. It's one of those things that run deep inside me. I grind my teeth when they do it but I say nothing. Because here I am a guest.
It's a while since I have traveled with public transportation which didn't break down. It hasn't been that long since I slept for 3 hours on a bench in a random village in Guinea.
As we approached Conakry, which is the capital of Guinea, it was clear that humans are not good with nature. This country is basically "honey and gold" and the extreme traffic, the unfinished buildings, the broken mud roads, the garbage which lies everywhere - it all intensified as we got closer and closer to Conakry. It was noted in the commentary below last weeks blog that "Conakry is a shit hole". And perhaps it is. It however contains a number of remarkable colonial buildings and a few good restaurants. Besides, the entire city is surrounded But from what I have seen it is overcrowded and neglected. It is such a contrast to traveling though the country.
Entry to Conakry.
But as we approached Sylla Yaya who shared the taxi with me (and 12 others) invited me to stay in his home for the night. So here I am. I have been given my own room in their humble home, I have been fed with rice, fish and a well tasting but unreasonable hot sauce, and then they o fevered me more and more and more food :)
In Guinea people like spicy hot food!! But it's really good! :)
Yaya has a wife and 2 children. His brother life's here too and it is somewhat unclear what the connection is to all the other people who run in and out of their home. Friends and family. I do not speak enough french to understand most of what Yaya says to me. And nobody here understands English very well. So we are down to the basics. But one thing is for sure: "a stranger is a friend you've never met before" ;)
Yaya and I :)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - on a race against the clock.