African Games

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, March 18, 2006 was originally posted on March 19, 2006.

DAY 2: When I told people I was going to Mali for my next trip, most confused it for Bali, Maui, or Malawi. Mali, if you look on a map (or just Google it) is the largest country in western Africa, encompassing fertile soils of the Niger River to the south and the Sahara Desert to the north.

This trip to Mali is my third visit to Africa, the first being a two-week safari through Botswana to Victoria Falls in 2000, and the second time being four months of my big Global Trip 2004, traveling from Cape Town to Cairo and over to Morocco. This time around was no different, in that it brought me all back to the scams, hustles, touts, and general confusion of traveling through a developing African nation. If backpacking is a video game, then Mali is definitely one of the harder levels (Level 1 being Australia, Level 2 being Thailand, etc.) but I was up for the challenge.

MY FOUR HOUR LAYOVER in Paris was a breeze — albeit trying to figure out the wifi-network at the airport — until we got on the shuttle bus to take us to the plane. The bus, full of many Malian businessmen decked out in suits, stood idle as instructed until a French woman opened the door and said something too fast for me to comprehend. I did understand desolé (sorry), which was followed by sneers and boos, and I figured that there was going to be a delay. At least we got to wait on the plane. Everything turned out to be okay, except it took an hour and a half, ultimately getting us into Bamako, Mali’s capital, much later than expected.

At 10:30 we touched down in Bamako’s small international airport where our big jumbo jet was the last plane, the only plane, in sight. The door opened and let in the hot 28°C heat, but at least it wasn’t humid. Everyone rushed out of the cabin and over to the small arrivals hall where the chaotic scene of customs followed. After a passport stamp and an inspection of my WHO travel vaccination card, I went over to the baggage carousel to get my bag.

“Mon ami,” said a man with an official-looking airline badge on his shirt.

“Oh,” I said, thinking I was to show him my claim ticket. He looked at it and let me go.

“You give me money,” he demanded of me.

“Pourquoi?”

“Parce que vous êtes mon ami!” (“Because you are are my friend!”)

I chuckled and gave him a “non” and walked away to look for an exchange counter for local currency, although there was none to be found. I asked an American woman who seemed like she’d been to Bamako before, and she told me there was none at the airport, but the hotel could do it.

“I just need cash for a taxi.”

“Oh, [I don’t know.]” She was with two others and they had a private pick-up arranged already.

“You’re not going to the Hotel Djenné by any chance are you?”

“No, sorry.”

And so, just minutes after arriving in Bamako, I went off to exchange money on the black market.


OUTSIDE THE AIRPORT was nothing but a small parking lot and a little concession stand — and dozens of touts asking me if I needed a taxi. One guy followed me as I tried to get change from the little stand across the street. Of course, word got around fast that a solo traveler was lost and confused and soon about six guys were harassing me to change money with them, but I held my guard and went only to the cashier. He didn’t have change for a 20 Euro note and, long story short, I managed to get it changed through a confused shifting of bills between him, the cashier, the cashier next door, and two other street touts — one of which wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave him two Euro coins for helping me. I’m pretty sure I got screwed over in the rate — I can’t process numbers fast in my head; I went to art school — but after having been in transit for almost 24 hours, I was too tired to care. I recalled a truth I had discovered on the road: just accept that when landing in a new place, you are going to get screwed one way or another. I just hoped I didn’t get any counterfeit bills like I’d had in the past.

With some cash in hand, I followed the first tout as promised to his taxi, although it wasn’t his taxi at all but another guy’s private car. The tout was just to be an escort/translator for the driver. Before leaving, he pointed at the sign by the taxi stand that stated that all rides into town were at a fixed price of CFA 7,500 (about $11 US), and I made sure that it was the final price to go all the way to my hotel. Soon I was in the back seat with my bags with the driver and “escort” in front, and we were off to the city under the dark African sky.

“What is your name?” the escort tout asked me.

“Doug,” I told him, an alias I often use when I don’t want to reveal my true identity to shady people.

“My name is Hassan,” he told me. We shook hands and then, not surprisingly, he started pitching to me all the many things one could do in Mali, many of which he’d be happy to show me. I feigned a slight interest, but turned him down, always stressing that I just wanted to go to the hotel because “Je suis très fatigué” (“I am very tired.”)

“We have to stop for food,” Hassan told me.

Here we go again with the mind games, I thought. “No, just go to the hotel first.”

“But you have 10,000. The driver wants to get change. It is 7,500.” He wanted to get a “drink” so that we could get smaller bills.

“We can get change at the hotel,” I told him sternly. “Just go to the hotel.”

“Okay, okay. The hotel.”

We continued on the twenty-minute drive into town. I sat quietly in the back with my bags while the two in front told secrets. While French is the official language of Mali, many know the tribal dialect of Bambara, most likely to talk about tourists without them knowing.

“Oh, today is Sunday,” Hassan suddenly remembered. “Every Sunday, all the families from the villages come to town for a big party for dancing, smoking hash…”

“Non, merci,” I declined. “Je suis très très fatigué.” It was almost pitch black outside, and I knew nothing was going on. I had read about this scam in my book, where locals invite you to a party and bring you to a strange location, only to wait around for more people, and the people that show up are cops who try to bust you on drug possession, even if you don’t consume any. It was a common scam in other parts of Africa (as well as Siberia for that matter) and I wanted to avoid it completely. There are a lot better things than sitting around in an African pound-me-in-the-ass prison.

It was nearing midnight and the streets of Bamako were dark and shady. Most Africans know better than to waste electricity at night, and so only a few main roads had street lights, which was sort of creepy. I did feel a little safe, for I was in a Muslim country; despite the American media’s violent images, I’ve always felt safe in a Muslim country because you’re life is never really threatened — they prefer to scam foreigners with mind games instead. To survive, you should just be alert, practice common sense, and play back.

Eventually we found the hotel, where the night manager had been waiting for me. “Eric Trinidad” was written as a reservation for the night, and my strategy of hiding my true name to Hassan was busted. I was down one in the mind battle, and Hassan (if that was his real name) continued playing to win. I gave them the CFA 10,000 note I had and they didn’t have change of course, and so Hassan suggested the driver go out and buy me drinking water to get change. He came back with water and CFA 9,000 back. I paid my fees and even gave the change to Hassan to stop bothering me. He asked for more, for his help and “for food” as he wanted; I just wanted to be left alone and hit the sack. We bickered back and forth about money, and I just gave him the change from the 10,000 after paying the driver and a Euro coin to shut him up and get rid of him. He left me that night, but somehow I suspected that wasn’t the last of him since he now knew my real name and where I was staying.

After a long two days of travel, I had finally arrived at my humble little room (picture above) at Le Djenné, thankfully with A/C and a TV that, at that hour, was playing American hip-hop videos, followed by Sleepless in Seattle. Tired and down a couple dollars more than needed, I just remembered you win some, you lose some, but it’s all apart of being in Africa again.






Next entry: Guidance Counseling

Previous entry: The Red Eye To Paris




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Comments for “African Games”

  • greetings from bamako… its like 110 degrees here and I think I almost
    got heat stroke… anyway, my usual schedule for posts is to write and
    post an entry the day after it happens, so I’m on schedule. Tomorrow’s
    entry about today might be a little late though, as I’ll be on a 7 hour
    bus ride to Mopti. Don’t fret, more entries to come…

    Posted by Erik TGT by way of markyt  on  03/19  at  03:08 PM


  • Pound-me-in-th-ass prison? Is that a technical term?

    Posted by RachitaBanana  on  03/19  at  03:14 PM


  • Is it still a vacation if you have to write a blog everyday?

    Posted by tjw  on  03/19  at  03:16 PM


  • Hip hop videos and Sleepless in Seattle? Man, even I wouldn’t watch that
    and I pretty much drool anything in English (living in Japan and
    refusing to pay for cable I have limited English viewing options). Are
    they any better in French?

    Posted by Liz  on  03/19  at  04:16 PM


  • DOUG!!!! Come on, you should use “George” as your alias. You are so
    continental. I love the “office space” reference.

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marsha

  • TJW: No, definitely not. Many have told me they tried to do a daily and
    didnt realize it was more work than a regular 9 to 5 job… esp when
    trying to use this stupid french keyboard!!!!

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • LIZ: its in english on nigerian tv… today the tyra banks show was on….

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • OMGosh! Be careful out there! But, it looks like you know what you’re doing.

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • Glad to see you are committed as ever!!!

    Posted by Lisa  on  03/19  at  06:04 PM


  • you now have a new nickname. your room looks sweet!

    Posted by bil Chamberlin

  • Those touts have no idea who they’re really dealing with, now do they?
    —christy

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/19  at  08:28 PM


  • Erik, why was Australia the hardest level of backpacking(or is Level 1
    the easiest)?

    Posted by Dan3  on  03/20  at  02:05 PM


  • i???m finally reading the new blog:) harassers everywhere!! is it worse
    than egypt? onto the next entry…

    (i???m STILL jealous)

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/22  at  05:50 PM


  • another sbr here! i was very surprised to see another new blog had been
    created when i just randomly passed by the old site.

    level 1 i assume is the easiest?

    it sounds like you’re in quite a tough location!

    - natalie

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/25  at  10:21 AM


  • Hi

    I have a wine business (based in Cape Town) amongst other things, being:
    holiday accommodation, arranging safari’s and adventure trips and I’m a
    personal chef. Everything under one umbrella, so to speak.

    Besides being an agent for the Africa Travel Co., in Cape Town, I’ll
    sort out your accommodation and book your flights FOR FREE.

    So, PLEASE, look me up if you’re ever planning to visit Cape Town. Check
    out my website (sorry it’s VERY basic) http://www.geocities.com/janizaf
    or e-mail me .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Regards

    Janine

    Posted by Personal Chef

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Trippin' To Timbuktu" (originally hosted by Blogger.com), which chronicled a trip through the West African nation of Mali in March-April 2006.

Next entry:
Guidance Counseling

Previous entry:
The Red Eye To Paris




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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