The Slackpackers

This blog entry about the events of Monday, March 27, 2006 was originally posted on March 31, 2006.

DAY 11:  As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I had recently received an email from Butch (Egypt) who said he admired my style of backpacking, where you spend a little more money — as opposed to “slackpacking” (a term he coined that I will definitely borrow) when you travel on the super cheap.  Not that there’s anything wrong with slackpacking — it is adventurous and perilous, and above all, cheaper — it’s just a different kind of travel.  I don’t know if its because I’m older or more financially stable, or just tired, but so far I hadn’t regretted paying the extra money to have Van guide me around.

With Van gone, I only had one other traveling companion to turn to that lazy day in Mopti:  Blog, that constantly nagging companion in my head that tells what to do for the sake of a story and when to write it.  If not for the Blog telling me to “see where it goes” with Van, I might have dumped him earlier.

Anyway, I spent a solid eight hours on blog duties — it really is a full-time job — before I casually wandered Mopti and its narrow streets, its port (picture above), and the people washing their cars and clothes by the Bani River.  I went to the only store in town with Western goods and stocked up on provisions for the road trip to Timbuktu the next day:  Pringles (an international staple), water, olives and Laughing Cow cheese — to make olive and cheese sandwiches like I’d had so many times with Sebastian in Morocco.

For a final meal in Mopti, I decided not to slackpack and go to the Restaurant Sigui, a pleasant but humble place with outdoor seating and really good capitaine grilled on skewers.  Lonely Planet said it was amongst the better (but more expensive) places to eat in town, making it a meeting place of touts, hawkers and other travelers.

“Are you that guy that’s going to Timbuktu tomorrow?” called out a voice with an American accent.

“Yeah,” I replied to the American-looking white guy walking in.  At his side was a Spaniard.

“A guy in the street says there’s a Japanese guy going to Timbuktu tomorrow at six in the morning,” said the Spaniard.

“Ha, everybody thinks I’m Japanese.”

I was talking to American Mike and Spaniard Alfredo, two travelers trying to get to Timbuktu — although every option they were looking into was turning into a dead end:  the river was too dry and boats kept on getting stuck in the river bed, and the public land transports were dicking them over on a departure time.  (They don’t leave until they’re full, with about a dozen people.)  It would seem the pair of travelers would never get to the mythical city of Timbuktu, but I was turning into their White Knight.

I told them about my arrangements with Van and how Van actually subcontracted the car situation with Youssef at Mali Voyages, although it seemed everyone in town knew about it — the guy that had approached Alfredo to share my ride to Timbuktu could have been anyone that heard the news of my travel plans.  Everyone knew everyone and they all shared info via cell phones, especially the news of foreigners and their plans.  Perhaps it was why I hadn’t been hassled as much as the other two; word got around that I was spoken for already with Van.

Mike and Alfredo were fresh meat however, little fish in a tank full of sharks, although perhaps not the richest fish out there.  They were definitely a pair of slackpackers, hitchhiking across western Africa without much guidance, sleeping outdoors and crashing at people’s houses — in fact, they had slept at their Dogon guide’s house the night before in a room full of mosquitoes.  As thrifty as it sounded, it wasn’t always advantageous; sleeping at a house in Mauritania of a local they thought they could trust, Mike was robbed of 400 euros in his sleep.  When they woke up, their host had skipped town, never to be seen again, even after setting up a sting with local police.

“Oh, it’s great to just talk to another traveler again,” Mike told me.  “There’s nobody here!”

They were good company and I told them I’d see what I could do about Timbuktu.  “I’ll call my guy [Van].”  The pair and I believed that since I rented the car all to myself, it would only make sense that they just pay me off, but we knew this was Africa and someone would want a cut, most likely Youssef at Mali Voyages, owner of the car.

“You’ll be here?” I asked the two, sitting at my table at the restaurant after I’d finished eating.

“Yeah, we’ll be here,” Mike answered.  “Can I read your book?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s great to be reading a guide again.”  He was learning things he hadn’t known in his super budgeted travel, like the fact that Timbuktu required a 5000 CFA tourist tax.


“OUI, ALLO?” said the voice on the other line.

“Van, it’s Doug.”  I explained to him the situation that I had two guys interested in joining me and asked what I should do.

“I will find out,” he said.  “Call me in twenty minutes.”

I regrouped with Mike and Alfredo, and we wandered down the port that night where were ran into three girls from the UK that they had noticed earlier — Joanna, Rachel, and Olivaria — apparently the only other travelers in town, traveling through western Africa.

“Hi, I’m that ‘Japanese guy’ going to Timbuktu tomorrow that everyone seems to know,” I introduced myself.  “Erik, but people around here know me as Doug.”

We chatted a bit, complaining about how bad the touts in Mopti were when you weren’t spoken for.  “I think Mopti is the worst city in Africa,” Alfredo said.

“Everybody lies!” Mike said.

The five Westerners continued to chat while I went to call back Van.

“What do they want to do?” Van asked over the land line in the cybercafe.

“I think they don’t want to do the tour.  They just want the transport.”

“How much do they want to give you?”

“I have to find out.”

Regrouped, I explained to the guys the situation.

“I’ll only go as high as our upper ceiling,” Mike said, meaning CFA 12,500 each (about $50 total).  He understood if I didn’t want to do the deal with them since $50 wasn’t even a quarter of what I was spending.  (I was paying for a service usually split 12-15 ways on a public transport.)

“You’re definitely on a different budget than us,” Mike said to me.  Getting robbed 400 euros really set him back, and he was trying to stretch the money he had received from his parents via Western Union too.

“Don’t worry, I’ve been on that budget before,” I told him.

The six of us went down to the humble local food stalls set up in front of the shantys where locals hung out and gawked at us Westerners passing through.  The kids constantly asked for “un cadeau, un cadeau” (“a gift, a gift”) or just plain money, which got pretty annoying after a while.

“It’s like they think I’m an ATM machine,” Mike said.

I bought some bread for my olive and cheese sandwiches, and joined the others as they settled in at a table at a food stall run by one lucky man who got all our business that night.  The six of us swapped travel stories while splurging on 50-cent omelettes and coffee.  I told the tale of being stranded in the Serengeti and almost dying on Everest.

“I’m going to your city next week,” Joanna the blonde Brit told me, eating an omelette, wishing she had the local food some woman was eating.  (She ordered it.)

“New York?”

“New York, [on business,]” she said.  She was only traveling in Africa for a couple of weeks with her cousin Rachel but would be back to work, and then away on business from London to D.C. and NYC the following week.

“I should be back by then,” I told her.  I gave her my contact info.

The locals gazed upon us with curiosity and desperation, still asking for money and gifts.  Two kids fought over Joanna’s leftovers.  The whole time I still wondered what I should tell Van when I called him back.  I was willing to just do the guys a favor and just have them come with me to Timbuktu — whatever they were willing to give me would offset my cost no matter how little.  We were still sure that Youssef, the owner of the car would want some more money for gas or something.

“I’ll only pay if you get the money and not him,” Mike told me.

“I’ll call my guy and tell him the situation.”


“VAN.  IT’S DOUG,” I said on the phone call Mike paid for.  “Okay, they can only give me twenty-five.  I know it’s not balanced, but it’s okay, I’ll help them out.”

Van explained to me that it would be tricky because the deal with Youssef was already settled and we’d be altering a done deal.  “In your country it might be different, but in Mali, they don’t think like that.”  He said most likely I’d have to give the driver CFA 20,000.

“So I give you twenty-five and you have to give them twenty, and you only get five?” Mike vented on the way back to meet the others at the food stall.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to do it unless you get the money, not some con man.”

And so, our car share arrangement was honorably discharged.

“I wish we had met you earlier,” Alfredo said.


WE SPENT THE REST of the evening chatting with the girls — I shared more stories like the time a sign had fallen on me in Brazil.  Mike, already one year into a year-and-a-half RTW trip, told stories of how he was beaten up in Bangkok by a man who struck his head with a wooden stick, and then was struck in the head again in a water sports accident a couple of weeks after.

“The Universe wanted your head open,” Olivaria said — which sent us on a philosophical tangent common amongst long-term travelers.

“You ever think that coincidences aren’t accidental?” Mike brought up.

“Yes,” Olivaria said.

I smirked, as it was a familiar revelation I’d had myself.  “Every traveler comes to believe that.  I like to say it as, ‘there are no coincidences,’” I said.  “It’s become the one true thing I believe in.”

Nothing more than long-term travel convinces you that everything happens for a reason, that everything is governed by fate.  Sure you can choose your own destiny, but your decisions are based on the events in your life that are brought on by fate.  I’d had the conversation many times on the road on my big TGT2 trip: in Beijing with Paul, in Xi’an with Elisa, and in Bangkok with Nirmal and Ariel (whom I met in Laos.)  The lack of coincidences and existence of fate is definitely a common philosophy backpackers come to believe as one thing leads to another which leads to another which leads to another, etc.  I told them how getting mugged at knifepoint in Cape Town ultimately took me on an unexpected tangent that led me to having dinner with a Priya in Dar-es-Salaam, who was actually my old neighbor in Jersey City, NJ who went to the same coffee house as me.

With the car share deal off, what my encounter with the slackpackers in Mopti would bring I wasn’t sure about just yet, but I was certain it would present itself when the time was right.

“We’re going back to our hotel,” the girls announced, standing, ready to walk away.  They were exhausted and just wanted to rest since they’d be off in the morning.

“So I’ll see you in New York?” I asked Joanna.

“We’ll see,” she said.  “You’ll take me out?”

“Sure, I’ll take you out,” I said.

The girls went off to rest while I walked down the street with the guys.  They wondered where they would sleep that night since they didn’t want to blow money on a hotel.  “You think that restaurant will let us sleep on the floor?” Mike wondered.


I WALKED THE LONG, dark 1 1/2 km. back to my hotel on the north end of town to pay off my bill and pack up before learning early the next morning for Timbuktu.  To my surprise, Youssef the guy from Mali Voyages, barged in like a tough guy with his intimidating gangster demeanor.  Apparently he had gotten wind of some sort of situation.

“[So, you have two more people?]”

“No, no more.”  He was surprised.

“Je ne sais pas…  The deal is the same,” I said.  And he left.

Sure it would have been nice to have had the extra company to Timbuktu, especially with those guys, but perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.  I knew that as long as they had the will to get there, they would, just in a harder, but cheaper way — but with that comes adventure, and that is what slackpacking is all about.






Next entry: Timbuktu Or Bust

Previous entry: Western Unions




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “The Slackpackers”

  • First? Yippeee!!!!!

    Posted by Janice  on  03/31  at  07:23 PM


  • The reporter has been exposed….

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marsha  on  04/01  at  06:31 AM


  • Slackpacking. more like laxpacking. Just contemplating sleeping on the
    floor of a restaurant…whew..it speaks for itself.

    Posted by Elisa  on  04/01  at  08:23 AM


  • is she hot?

    Posted by bil Chamberlin

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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:
Timbuktu Or Bust

Previous entry:
Western Unions




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