Change of Heart, Change of Mind

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, March 30, 2006 was originally posted on April 03, 2006.

DAY 14: The sun gradually rose up over the Sahara sand dunes, warming up the landscape from a frigid night 10 km. outside Timbuktu. “Bonjour,” I greeted Alco.

“Bonjour.”

The simple nomadic Tuareg life of him and his family continued that morning in the encampment.  Alco tended to his flock while his children looked on, who then later joined him for a little quality family time with dad and Aura (picture above).  The women started up a fire to cook, but for meals later; breakfast for me this morning only consisted of tea, nuts and dates.  I didn’t complain for this was the way they lived in the desert simply, peacefully. It’s a shame that it had been tainted two weeks prior; I’d heard from multiple sources that the U.S. Army had secretly been deployed there, the desert outside Timbuktu, for combat training under desert conditions before being sent off to Iraq.

Before the sun got too hot, we rode off back to the town of Timbuktu and arrived on schedule at about nine.  “Merci,” I thanked Alco, giving him a well-deserved tip for the peace in the desert. He accepted and then went to get some food for his camel.


HAMA WAS SUPPOSED to pick me up at nine, but again he was late — this time by half an hour. I knew he was on “African Time,” which I would have let slide if I wasn’t paying him to be a bit more professional like Van, who apologized for tardiness even if he was two minutes late. Hama finally arrived in his Opel car, blaming his tardiness on not seeing us earlier and deciding to come back later.

No matter, he drove me the short way back to the house to get my belongings before Richard (still pronounced “ri-sharrr”) came in the Land Cruiser for our journey back to Mopti. I paid Hama back for the tobacco and the drinks so as not to have any favors owed to him. Concurrently, I “accidentally” misplaced the shirt he gave me under my bedsheets, so he couldn’t say I owed him a gift in return. He was still coming off as a pretty shady guy.

Richard, still jovial as ever, arrived with the two passengers he’d picked up at his boss Youssef’s request for the ride back to Mopti. I’d hoped they were paying Youssef well so I could get some retribution in the end. It was a man and a woman who didn’t seem like they were together, but seemed decent enough.

Over the Niger and back on the Piste we went, this time southbound the way we came. It might not have been as hot as it could have been with the hazy overcast sky, but it was dry enough to get our tires stuck in a sand trap on an incline.  Richard, the other guy, and I took to the bush to fetch sticks and branches to provide traction (much like my experience in the Serengeti), which only worked to an extent. Richard went under the carriage and futzed some wiring to get the front wheel drive working and in a short time, we were off again.

Richard continued to be an off-road master on the Piste and the sidetracks, although with all the swerving around, the woman in the back got carsick and vomited out the window. At our mid-way break on the Piste back in Bambara Maoude, she laid out on a blanket she put on the floor while the rest of us had tea. In the world of Islam, you can’t have enough tea.

A couple of hours later we were finally back on the asphalt for the two-hour stretch from Douenza back to Mopti.  “Au revoir, Tombouctou!” Richard said to me, smiling.

“Timbuktu,” I said, staring out the open window looking to the north where we had just come from.  “Adieu.”


IT WAS SMOOTH CRUISING down the highway through the bush until we saw a big accident of two crashed motorbikes ahead. Three older Muslim men in galabiyyas were on the ground, bruised and bleeding in pain — or were they? The blood on their hands were bright bright red and dried up, and I thought that there’s no way it could be real. I started thinking the whole thing was staged as a robbery set-up. There’s no way real blood that dry can still be that red, I thought.  It looks like Crayola paint.

Richard and the other guy were not as skeptical and leaped out the car to the rescue.  As they helped the poor men, I gradually learned and accepted that they had legitimately crashed, and the bloody scrapes were in fact real — there was tons of bright red blood oozing from the cuts in their dark-toned skin. Feeling guilty I got out of the car to help anyway that I could. I didn’t exactly have any first aid supplies for such a catastrophe, so all I could give were wads of toilet paper for them to apply pressure and stop the bleeding. Luckily for them, Richard had a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in the car — but it was only a temporary solution.

“[Can we take them to the hospital at Konna?]” Richard asked me for my permission.

“Oui, oui, oui,” I answered, eager to help.  It was the least I could do since I wasn’t a doctor.

With that said, I helped Richard empty all the cargo in the back to mount and tie up on the roof rack. I helped the old bleeding men inside the vehicle. The other guy aided a little, but was more concerned about the bikes, trying to carry the one with the busted tire on top of the other one.

“[Forget the bikes, their health is more important,]” I assumed Richard said to him in Bambara. We abandoned the two motorbikes in the sand and started the journey to the hospital, fortunately in the same direction we were going anyway. The old men were groaning in the back, but were thankful we’d come to the rescue.

Even with Richard gunning it down the road, honking at cars, mules, cows, and people to get out of his way, it was close to an hour to the nearest hospital. We parked at the checkpoint gate in Konna, where curious villagers came to find out our story and then help. I helped the old men out of the Land Cruiser who were then escorted to the hospital by locals.

“Merci, merci,” one of the old men said to me genuinely, still feeling in pain. Another man simply put his hands together and bowed me peace the Muslim way, and I reciprocated before he went off to get his much-needed medical attention.


ON THE WAY BACK to Mopti, I felt like a dick, a real jerk. Initially seeing those old men in an accident, I immediately assumed it was a set-up for a hold up, when in the end, the men were innocent victims of a mechanical mishap. I felt bad that I had automatically assumed they were up to no good; I had turned into one of those people constantly assuming people are out to get you, the type of person I spoke against in an earlier Blog entry when I’d arrived in Mali.

And so I thought about the situation with Van.  Perhaps he was telling the truth, that he had been legitimately robbed of his money and cards.  Then again, it still could have been a confidence scam for something else.  What a mind job. But after the rescue of the old men, I decided have a change of heart and give Van the benefit of the doubt again. I decided that I would proceed as planned: return to Mopti, then go with his friend Coloumby to tour the famous mosque Djenné for a day before returning back to Segou to see Van again and take some photos for the web page I’d said I’d make for him. I could not assume Van was up to no good; so far he’d been an honest upstanding guy — or was it a case of it being too good to be true? Either way, for the sake of the story, I figured seeing him back in Segou would provide the answer of his intentions, and I’d have at least some sort of catharsis for the overall story of mind games, good or bad.


THE LAND CRUISER arrived back in Mopti before sundown and I had Richard bring me to Hotel Campement where there was a cybercafe and the office of Youssef’s Mali Voyages. Youssef was there, sitting outside with his baseball cap, trying to look like a big boss man tough guy — and it worked. Next to him was an entourage of street touts, laughing and carrying on.

Youssef, in his broken English, sat me down on the bench so we could discuss the retribution for the car share with the other two passengers.

“They are my family,” he stated suspiciously.  “They don’t pay.”

I was pissed but too tired to argue. If anything, I saw any missing retribution going towards saving the lives of those old men in the accident. Youssef and the younger touts carried on, smoking and laughing, ignoring me while I checked into a room. I saw that Richard went over to the touts and it looked like he scolded them to do something with their lives. Richard was only the second person other than Alco that I was happy to tip unexpectedly.

Seeing the behavior of Youssef and the touts, it all became clear: there was some sort of tourism mafia in Mopti, and it stretched all across the country to the tourist hotspots, all interconnected via cell phones. Youssef was the boss of Mopti, being top dog because he owned a 4WD — a must to have any legitimacy in the Minister of Tourism’s eyes. Youssef had his tout cronies to work for him and drive him in business, even before arrival in Mopti. Van was one of his men in Segou, a charmer, a Johnny Fontaine if you will, who had led me to him. I gathered there were other bosses in the other cities — perhaps that guy that bossed around Hama in Timbuktu — all “made men” because they had tour agency fronts and the possession of a vehicle. Hama, already a hot-headed bullying type, would strive to be the new boss of Timbuktu; he told me he was going to eventually parlay his little Opel car into a 4WD to start an agency — and take over. I’m sure in ten years he’d have his younger tout cronies to wash he car for him.


I WAS BACK IN MOPTI and all its hawkers, touts, and mind games, even more so this time because I was no longer tied to Van as my shield against them. Like the Slackpackers I’d met before, I was a free agent, i.e. fresh meat in a tank full of sharks.

“You want a ride to Bamako tomorrow? I have a free car, one passenger,” a complete stranger approached me with. I hadn’t even had time to breathe, let alone plan my next move.

Soon Van’s friend Coloumby showed up on his motorbike; Youssef had called him to say that I was in town already — the two were obviously in cohoots. Coloumby asked me if we were still going to Djenné the next day as planned at the agreed professional-level price, and I already felt that he would have been another Hama, a “petit guide” as the Bradt guide calls them, that would simply lead me places but not tell me anything. I told him I’d think about it, but first I needed a break from the exhausting day and a Coke from the cafeteria. He kept on waiting for an answer.

“Let’s call Van,” I suggested.

“Oh, I talked to Van today,” Coloumby told me.

“Yeah?  How is he?”

“He’s okay.”

That’s odd, i thought.  Didn’t Van tell me he’d been robbed of all his money, all his cards?  Certainly that would translate to not being okay.

“Really?” I asked Coloumby.

“Yeah.”

“And you talked to him today?” I asked to confirm.

“Yes.”

“And he’s okay?”

“He’s okay.”

No mention of a robbery.  Something fishy was definitely going on and I didn’t want to pursue the mind games any further.  There’s the catharsis right there, I thought.  Les jeux sont fait.  Game over.

Before I could give Coloumby an answer, he scrambled to try and call Van. He had to find a free phone because he had traded his phone in for that new TV he’d gotten the other day. He didn’t have to call Van just yet though because Van had already left a message at the Mali Voyages office. “Van says for you to call him,” Coloumby told me.

I finished my Coke and went to the land line call center with a feeling I knew what Van was going to tell me — or did I?

“Hi Van, it’s Doug.”

“Oh, hi Doug,” Van said on the other line.  “Did you talk to your brother?”

“Yeah, I got an email from him [in Timbuktu].  He said something about my aunt having an operation or something?”

“Yeah, he called me because he thought I went with you to Timbuktu. He says there is a family emergency and for you to call him.”

“Oh really.  Yeah, I knew my aunt was going to have an operation.  I’ll call him.”

“Okay.  Call me and let me know, or I will just see you in Segou.”

“We’ll see,” I told him.  “I’ll call you back.”

I spent the next half hour checking e-mails and making some international phone calls, one to my brother, Blogreader markyt.  “So it’s worse?” I asked him.  “So I should come home soon?”

“Yeah, mom says you should try and come home,” he said.

“Hmmm… that means I’ll have to skip Djenné, but okay.  I’ll see if I can get an early flight.”

I called Van back and explained the situation. He was bummed I wouldn’t return to Segou; he really wanted to take me to a “special place to take a picture of [him] for the website.” He never mentioned being robbed at all; perhaps he had forgotten he’d told me? Hmmm…

Coloumby was at the doorway, still waiting on an answer on whether or not we’d go to Djenné the following morning.

“I don’t think I’m going to Djenné tomorrow anymore,” I told him. “I have to go back to Bamako. My aunt is having an operation.”

“Okay.”

“The Bani bus goes straight to Bamako?” I inquired.

“Yeah… seven o’clock.  I can get a ticket for you.  It’s 10,000 CFA [with your big bag].”

I was still concerned with the emergency at home and only had eight on me. I sent him off, telling him I’d pay him back when he had the ticket. When he returned, he said the office had closed, and that when I went to try and get a ticket in the morning, the cost would not be 10,000 but 4,000. Coloumby was already trying to scam me out of 6,000, even in a time of crisis.

I’m so outta here, I thought to myself.

That night my mind was made up; I would call it quits and start the journey home. I had already accomplished my mission of reaching Timbuktu, and had already achieved the peaceful climax in the desert. Anything in addition most likely wouldn’t measure up, especially not the additional mind games and annoyances.


IT WASN’T UNTIL LATER that evening that I realized that everyone gave me the wrong location of where to get the express Bani bus to Bamako early the next morning; it wasn’t across the way where the public buses were, but about two blocks away according to the Bradt guide. Lonely Planet’s map had it listed in a different location so I ventured out into the dark, tout-filled dirty streets to confirm.

Immediately I was followed and teased as a “Japone”, but I just ignored the street gang, kept my head straight and marched on — which only ended up in more ridicule. “Oh, vous êtes militaire?!” one approached me with.

I ignored him and marched on.

“Militaire!  Militaire!” everyone taunted as I walked down the road, laughing and pointing fingers. I ignored them and everyone else that tried to approach me, although it was a Catch-22. Even when I tried to ignore some people, it blew up in my face because they’d just yell at me for ignoring them and not being respectful. One man by the hotel really tried to tear me a new one because I was apparently rude to ignore him, but I simply said sorry once, ignored him and walked back to my room.

I’m so outta here, I thought to myself again, packing up to take the early bus the next day.  That phone call from my brother was just what I needed…






Next entry: Escape From Mali

Previous entry: Tuareg To Tuareg




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Change of Heart, Change of Mind”

  • NEXT UP: “Escape from Mali” (or “April Fool’s Day”)

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • So is Van the good man or not?.. And how is ur aunt?

    Posted by Chup  on  04/03  at  01:33 PM


  • What a day. Checking Mali off the list of places to spend a vacation…

    Posted by Dan3  on  04/03  at  05:07 PM


  • This is a super crappy situation but it’s going to make a good book, or
    part of a book Erik. The tourist mafia!

    I’m so glad you are safe, and made your way to Europe.

    Posted by sara  on  04/03  at  06:06 PM


  • Check out the interesting article in the New York Times travel section
    on Mali dated April 2. I found it through my Yahoo news page.

    “Bamako remains one of the poorest capitals in West Africa… But it is
    also perhaps the most welcoming, and visitors find almost none of the
    hassles encountered in other cities in the region.”

    It goes on and on about Mali’s music scene, etc.

    Posted by sara  on  04/03  at  11:47 PM


  • If you’re aunt is really sick, my condolences. If it’s really part of a
    sneaky plan to get you out of there, well played!

    Posted by nerokerr  on  04/04  at  12:00 AM


  • Whats the deal in Paris? I heard there were riots by the Eiffel Tower?

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marrsha  on  04/04  at  12:32 AM


  • I saw the riots in Paris on the news this evening. I hope you didn’t
    jump out of the frying pan into the fire! But it’s Tuesday and I gotta
    feeling you are back in the US of A by now?

    Posted by Janice  on  04/04  at  02:06 AM


  • What are you using to keep your laptop charged over there? Did you take
    adapters with you for the outlets?

    Posted by Dan 3  on  04/04  at  05:02 AM


  • CONCLUSION COMING UP VERY SOON.

    SARA: Yeah, its funny, unlike the other big blog with a bunch of random
    stories, this Mali blog is actually a story of characters, character
    development, and suspicious plots. I guess that’s the positive part of
    all this…

    As for the NYT article; yes, Mali is actually a big deal on the world
    music scene—ashame I didn’t see much of it live. But true, Bamako,
    although poor, is where I had the least hassles walking around,
    comparatively speaking with the other Malian cities of course…

    MARSHAx3 / JANICE: Riots in Paris? I didn’t hear of anything; sounds
    like the news media dramatizing stuff again. Then again, I was on the
    other side of town in the Latin Quarter.

    DAN3: Mali got most of its electrical modernization by way of France, so
    it ran the standard 240V two-round-prong system of Europe. Most computer
    adapters (you should check yours) adapt up to 240V AC power
    automatically, and you only need to match pegs to the holes on the end
    of the cord

    Posted by Erik TGT

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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:
Escape From Mali

Previous entry:
Tuareg To Tuareg




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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