To Segou

This blog entry about the events of Monday, March 20, 2006 was originally posted on March 21, 2006.

DAY 4: “Erick!” called the voice of the conductor to the mob of people waiting at the front door of the bus.

“Ici!” I called out — although the guy knew there was only one Asian-looking guy in the roster and knew where to find me. He waved me in and I boarded the dusty bus with no air-conditioning (not even a fan) just before high noon.

The Somatra bus company, with its own terminal 6 km. south of downtown Bamako, was from whom I bought a ticket to the town of Segou, 235 km. west of the capital. When I bought the $6 ticket, the guy at the counter wrote my name down with my ticket number for the roll call, a smart way to handle crowd control and freeloaders.

I carried my big backpack on board and stuffed it by my legs in front of my seat, and the young Muslim man next to me didn’t seem to mind the tight situation. Usually (in other countries), my big bag is usually stored underneath or on the roof, but here, those places were used up to haul bigger cargo, mainly the refrigerator on our roof (which fell pale in comparison to another truck I noticed hauling slaughtered goats). I take it that there aren’t many small cargo trucks in Mali and so people just ship things on buses that are going places anyway — in fact, I saw that this bus was going to deliver mail to Segou as well.

The three-and-a-half hour ride to Segou was my first look into the big Malian countryside and all the little villages on the way. The farther and farther we got out of the city, the less Coca-Cola billboards we saw, the less signs of civilization — although it didn’t stop the honk-happy driver from honking the horn any less. For three and a half hours, the bus journeyed down the dusty road under the hot African sun, so hot that most people on the side of the road just sat under the shade and watched life go by. Other people on the way went about their day, riding their bikes from village to village (picture above), hauling goods via mule-pulled wagon, or just playing around. Many village people made a living off of selling goods on the side of the road — mostly to each other — unless a bus stopped. Then, they would invade by bum rushing the front door to get in to sell passengers anything from pastries, fruits, carrots, to potatoes.

A couple of stops and pee breaks later, we arrived at the Somatra station in the town center of Segou, not far from the weird-looking welcome statue. I walked about ten minutes to a hotel I’d read about, which was offering me a room with a fan, TV, but no private bath for CFA 10,000 ($20). Figuring I could do better, I walked down the block to the more popular hotel, Hotel L’Auberge, near the banks of the Niger River, where I was approached by a tout who followed me.

”ça va?” he greeted.

”ça va.” I said. I don’t remember exactly how he figured it out, but he pinned me for someone that spoke English.

“What is your name?”

“Doug,” I answered, using the moniker given to me at my job during the dot com era since my internal office caller ID forever listed me as “Doug”, the name of the guy who set up the phones and always forgot to switch it to “Erik.”

“My name is Van. Where are you from?”

“Uh, Philippines,” I said, trying not to reveal my true true American-born self.

“I don’t know that one.”

“C’est près de Chine,” (“This is close to China,”) I said. He followed me to the hotel counter/bar where Marwan, the owner I had read about, one of two Lebanese brothers, pinned me for an English-speaker as well. I asked to see the one fanned room he had available for only that night, and he gave the keys to Van to show me.

The room was not much different from the other hotel other than it was four more dollars, but had a private bath with hot water, CNN International on the TV, and access to the hotel’s pool, which was the clincher. I left my bags in the room and checked in, using my real name on paper, although Van, who escorted me to the pool area and had the waiter bring me a Coke, still called me “Doug.”

“Doug,” he said. “I won’t forget it.”

“What was your name again?”

“Van.”

(I’m so bad with names… or was that his real name anyway?)

Immediately, Van started pitching stuff to me — i.e. a tour around Segou and Old Segou 6 km. away — but not in an aggressive way at all. He had a kind face that was hard to pin as genuine or not, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt; the owner trusted him to show me the room, and none of the staff kicked him off the premises — a common thing hotel staffers do to keep undesirables out from harassing their guests.

“You think they would let me in here if [I didn’t do good business?]” Van testified.

Over my ice cold Coke, he pitched me the tour around Segou as well as onward tours for the rest of my travels through Mali, particularly in Dogon country, the famed region of the west that is one of the reasons to be to Mali in the first place. I made sure we discussed things first, and he agreed, saying that after my time with him in Segou, I’d be convinced to hire him as my Dogon guide.

The Segou tour he pitched for CFA 32,500 ($65) hit all the spots listed in my guidebook, although I only had my Lonely Planet pages with me at the time, which stated everything could be seen for less than half that. Van played up his expertise.

“This is not a Japanese tour where we go around things very fast and just take pictures,” he told me, playing up his knowledge and the fact that, unlike many other guides, he actually spoke English. “What good is seeing something unless you learn something about it?”

True, I believed that; I had been on too many “just show me” tours in my travels and learned nothing about places and regretted it. I knew on this trip to Mali of only three weeks I didn’t have to skimp as before, and would rather have good knowledgeable guides, especially if I wanted to write about my travels after in articles.

“Is this your final price?” I asked, pointing to the 32,000 figure I wrote in my notepad.

“This is Africa,” he said with a smile. “That is the negotiating price.”

I bargained him down to 25,000 ($50), which I still thought was steep and started pouting.

“My grandfather always said not to worry about money,” Van started, before recalling wisdom that money wasn’t the most important thing in the world.

“Well, I have to worry about money,” I told him. “It’s my money.”

“Yes, yes, you do.”

I told him I’d be back in an hour with a decision after looking at my Bradt guide back in my room since I didn’t trust Lonely Planet that much. (Almost always outdated, the Lonely Planet pages I had were published in 2002, when the US dollar was much stronger; in 2006, the dollar had fallen to about 60% what it used to be then.) Upon research, the Bradt guide said that going around Segou with a guided tour was almost obligatory, and you could arrange decent ones with the guys hanging out just outside Hotel L’Auberge for CFA 25,000 ($50).

At fifty bucks I was still pretty skeptical, and I realized just how much more expensive Mali was compared to other backpacker destinations. I once did a four-day tour in Bolivia of the famous salt flats and deserts for $60, and I was now paying $50 for one day? In Peru or Thailand, splurging on a room meant spending $8/night, and in Mali $10 just got you a bed in a dorm? In my other travels, exchanging $100 could last me a week; here it was more like a couple of days tops. I was starting to think three weeks in Mali was going to be way more than anticipated.


“OKAY,” I ACCEPTED when I saw Van later. “Tommorow.”

He asked me for 15,000 of the 25,000 up front which I was wary to part with but gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“I will meet you here at 8:30.”

I walked him out the door and waved him goodbye, hoping I hadn’t fallen into a scam. I realized he said everything I wanted to hear, and by the book too. Marwan looked on, looked at me, and sucked his teeth twice to make me think otherwise — although it could have been for anything, including the fact that he knew my real name and Van only knew me as Doug. Suspicions are a problem many travelers face, trying to figure out if a local is genuinely friendly or not, but the wrong thing to do is assume everyone is out to get you — its not healthy.

“This is not Bamako or Mopti where everyone is out to get you,” Van told me earlier that afternoon. “People in Segou are friendly.” Perhaps this was true; Diarra from Bamako was from Segou, and even the Bradt guide said Segou was more laid back and friendly than the big tourist hubs because many travelers skip it.

After a delicious dinner of capitaine Segouvienne (river perch Segou-style, with tomato and onion) amidst tables of French people, I could barely sleep. I didn’t know if it was because I was queasy from feeling I might have been had or if it was the fish. The next morning I realized it might have been the side effects of my malaria meds.






Next entry: In Van We Trust?

Previous entry: Guidance Counseling




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “To Segou”

  • Okay folks… here’s another. I will be late on the next one as I will
    be on a bus most of the day tomorrow… stay tuned!

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • First! Ha, I always wanted to do that! Anyway, i didn’t realise Mali
    would be so expensive either, I guess you just figure anywhere outside
    N. America and Europe is going to be cheap. Can’t wait to find out how
    the tour goes…

    Posted by Barney  on  03/21  at  03:00 PM


  • Whoo…. my fav blog up and running again. Have a great trip. - Dusty (lubu)

    Posted by Dusty  on  03/21  at  03:11 PM


  • i was afraid to open the “pee break” picture.

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • AH - you left me hangin’! Now I will be worrying about you and whether
    or not you were had all day long ~ poo.

    Posted by Elisa  on  03/21  at  04:42 PM


  • Hmm, would it not have been appropriate to ask Marwin the hotel owner if
    Van was on the up-n-up?

    Posted by darin  on  03/21  at  05:24 PM


  • Hurry hurry!!

    Posted by bil Chamberlin

  • Yeah, what IS that welcome sign supposed to be?

    Posted by sara  on  03/21  at  06:10 PM


  • Looks to me that the Welcome sign is a giant POO. This blog is not
    complete without it!!!

    Posted by Lisa  on  03/21  at  07:32 PM


  • i do believe that the big “poop” statue, haha… is actually a statue of
    the continent of africa! whadda yall think? yay? nay?

    Posted by architeqt

  • Gotta love the developing world’s traveling, versus the US idea of
    traveling… massively different.
    Why do you think it is so different in terms of price??
    It is interesting to me that the pic of the people by the side of the
    road sitting is all guys, and then the “people going about their
    business” is mostly or all women… Very intersting…

    Posted by tallgirl

  • architeqt, I do believe you are correct….but I’m sticking with the poo
    theory, it’s so Erik!!!

    Posted by Lisa  on  03/22  at  03:03 PM


  • wow, didn???t realize it was so pricy there… i???m sure the $50 tour will
    be worth it! think of all the kodak moments… is it a private tour? or
    group?

    (i???m STILL jealous)

    —elaine

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/22  at  06:56 PM


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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:
In Van We Trust?

Previous entry:
Guidance Counseling




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