In Van We Trust?

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, March 21, 2006 was originally posted on March 22, 2006.

DAY 5:  Segou has a great significance in the nation of Mali as a whole, as it is the origin of the Bambara people, whose language is second to French in the country.  The history of Segou can be traced back to the early 18th century when all the area tribes were joined together and formed an empire that was crushed by the French in the late 19th century with their guns and nasal accents.

IT WAS JUST AFTER SUNRISE when I got out of bed and transferred hotels since L’Auberge was full that night.  I went to the Hotel Djoliba down the road, where the CFA 10,000 dorm room with shared facilities was still available.  I wanted to clinch it before running into Van, who was trying to sway me to stay somewhere else — I was still wary about the guy and his intentions.

“Doug,” Van called to me at 8:28 when he met me back at L’Auberge’s bar two-minutes ahead of schedule.  I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we rode off to a bank as requested so I could exchange some travelers checks.  The first bank wouldn’t do it, so we drove to the outskirts of town.  I was wary as to where we were going, but Van took me to the right place and I got enough cash to last me a couple more days.

On the way back into town, there was a loud noise; the tired underneath me had blown out and flattened.  Great, I thought, still suspicious of Van’s actions.  This was probably planned.  He’ll probably try to get me to pay for the repair or something.

“We can go to the hotel and get a new bike,” he said, also mentioning it was far.  “Or we can get it fixed here.”  Conveniently we were right across the street from a little bike repair shop, one of many in town.

“Okay, fine,” I said.  “As long as we go someplace.”  A ten-year-old boy fixed the bike in about twenty minutes whilst Van kept apologizing to me for the mishap.  In the end, it was he who paid off the repair — the first example of me gaining his trust.  We rode off 6 km. to the west of the city as planned, where the history of Segou began.

THE ORIGIN OF SEGOU starts in the 17th century when a Bambara king Biton Mamary Coulibaly united all the tribes and ruled from Segoukoro (Old Segou), an old town of mud houses and narrow passageways where his grave still lies in the center.  It is still inhabited today by 3,200 villagers.

Van, true to his word, was quite informative in his tour.  “This is the Grand Palais, the Grand Palace,” he said, before going into detail about the times when it was good to be the king.  The king settled all disputes and had the final word on all affairs of his people.  Sitting in his guarded palace, he’d get what he wanted.  If he wanted some tobacco, he’d tell someone to tell the guard to tell someone to tell someone to tell someone to get it for him, and voila, it was there.

A descendant of the original king was more merciless because he only had one eye, and according to legend, if anyone mentioned the number one to him, the king would take it as an insult to his eye and kill him.  (This went for 11, 21, 31, 41…, so math class was probably a problem — not that they had any.)

As Van showed me around the village (picture above), we saw kids bundling tobacco, the village market, and the former “young corridor” where, each year, 20-yr-old men came to be circumcised into manhood.  There were also many mosques, including the oldest one built in the 18th century, still in use, and run by a cool-looking imam.  Old Segou lies on the bank of the Niger, where the Bambara people traded with the Bozo fishing tribe who lived across the way.  They had, and still have a coexistence, trading fish for millet, the grain pounded for consumption.

According to everything I had read, a visit to Old Segou requires a stop to visit the current chief to pay a $5 tax for permission to visit and take photos — a tax to be used for an upcoming school and hospital.  However, the chief was busy when we arrived as a UNICEF SUV was parked outside; diplomats were working a deal with him to help the Bambara children.  We were instructed to give the money to the chief’s flunky.

“Do you have 1,500?” Van asked me, even though he was supposed to pay the fee as part of our deal.  He claimed he had no small bills, so I paid it when he said he’d pay me back.  We’ll see, I thought.

The money was worth the while though, to get pictures of the town and its people:  kids in particular since they were so eager to be photographed, posing with thumbs up and an occasional karate pose.  The mother of one group of kids was excited and posed for another; they all laughed and smiled when they saw themselves on the little digital screen.

SEBOUBOUGOU, or “middle Segou” is sort of a suburb of Segou town, if you can call it a suburb with the lack of 7-11’s or a mall.  It was an area of mud houses, some mosques, fruit tree farms (with protective covers to keep away animals), and some stores.  “Can we stop for a Coke?” I asked, riding in the back.  Coke, under the hot African sun, was a known weakness I realized in Zambia.  We parked and sat on the chairs of a Coke vendor under the shade and it felt like being in suburbia after all.

“Allons-y!” I said.  We continued the tour.

With the economic value of the Niger River, the French came to Mali in the 19th century when most European nations were scrambling for African territories, and took over.  In Segou, they started building colonial houses and offices in order to establish their version of way-of-life.  Van told me they imposed their schools, government, “justice” and “freedom” in the European style (sound familiar?) but were faced with insurgents of the Bambara people.

“[They] would rather die than be in the enclave of the French,” Van told me as he cited the history of the French occupation, a tale of violence and tribal espionage.

In 1960, Mali finally gained independence from the Frenchies; old colonial buildings were converted for use of the Malian government, although some had American-inspired graffiti on them, written by local rap-loving youth.

LEAVE IT TO THE CATHOLICS for imposing another way of life on the villages, although not in such a widespread way.  With only 2% of the country Christian, there were only some outposts a non-Muslim way.  In Segou, it is centered around the Catholic Mission, which was also a pork store and brewery, where millet was processed, brewed, and fermented into beer.  As a Muslim, Van declined alcohol and marijuana — although he had a weakness for Dunhill cigarettes — but that didn’t stop me from having a beer.

The day continued with lessons of the town’s boats, pottery, markets, and cemetery, until we arrived back at the patio at L’Auberge to chill out.  Van paid me back the CFA 1,500 he owed me and I paid for the remainder of our agreed fee.

This guy’s not bad after all, I was starting to think.  More importantly, he speaks decent English unlike most of the people I’d seen, local and foreigner.  He convinced me to do a sunset tour on the Niger later where we’d go to the Bozo fishing villages on the other side of the river, and I agreed.

AT FIVE we were together again on the banks of the Niger, home of pottery stores and stage of a huge annual festival in February.  Van and I hired a pirogue boat and driver to take us on a relaxing voyage across the way.

Touring the Bozo village was equally interesting as the village that morning, with people building pirogue boats, bathing in the river, making fish traps, and building thatched roofs.  The kids of the village were equally enthusiastic about photo opps.

“Photo! Photo! Photo!” called out three naked kids at the bank.  I happily obliged them — but then their father got really angry and attached me verbally in some native tongue.

“He says that we should know better not to take their photo when they have no clothes on,” Van translated.  “It’d be different if they had clothes.”

“But they asked…” I said.

“I know, I’m trying to tell him but he doesn’t want to hear it.”

Van apologized in my behalf and although the man was still pretty pissed, we walked away.

“In most places [you need to get permission to take photos.  Tourists end up paying CFA 1,000 per photo and it gets expensive, especially in Dogon,” Van explained.  “Instead of money, it’s better to give them a cola nut.  [It will not only give you permission but earn you respect.]”  The cola nut, he explained, was a treat rare to the Dogon people.  “It’s more [special] if it comes from a tourist because they think, ‘how did they know about the cola nut?’”

We walked to the “shopping village,” which was not that in terms of suburbia, but a place where tribes from all over convened to trade goods — although Van just bought another pack of Dunhills.  The sun began to set, so we got back on the boat to cross back over to Segou over the Niger (or, as Van pronounced it in a politically incorrect Dave Chappelle funny way, “niggère”).

Van found the opportunity to talk more business with me and pitched to be my guide in Dogon country where he claimed to be just as knowledgeable.  I told him that this first day was a test to see if he would be good, and he pretty much passed it — he was informative and defended me against touts and angry Bozo men – and I started feeling bad about giving him a fake name.

I told him perhaps I’d go to the tourist hub of Mopti and find a group first to lower the price.  “Trust me, there is no one there.  This is the low season,” he said.  This was true too; I was in Mali during the highest, driest season — not even the Niger water level was high enough for the usual big tourist Niger river cruises.  But he told me we could make up a contract if he really wanted me as a guide and if we found people, he’d lower the price.

“I know you, you know me,” he said in the boat.  “I know what kind of tourist you are.”

I chuckled.  “What kind of tourist am I?”

“You are like the Japanese.”

“Yeah, I know I take a lot of pictures.”

“But you are also interested in history.”  He noticed I’d been taking notes all day.

Back at L’Auberge, we discussed it further and he asked me to come up with a contract and price for a proposed three-day tour of the famed Dogon country.  Figuring I spent $80 for that day which was justified by the book, I came up with a $400 3-day price with everything included, including transport and food.

“What about cola nuts?” I asked.


In the end, we wrote up the contract on an existing form he had in French.  I was still a little wary, but listened to my gut.

“Uh, this is my real name,” I said when I signed.  “But some friends call me Doug.”

We’d take a bus to the tourist hub of Mopti the next morning, for I knew, under my own judgment, I had bound myself to Van for four more days.

Next entry: Guy Talk

Previous entry: To Segou

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “In Van We Trust?”

  • What, no 7-11? How does one survive?

    Posted by RachitaBanana  on  03/22  at  07:24 PM

  • Ok, “Doug”, I have seen the pics yet but I am picturing fishermen
    dressed up as clowns?

    Posted by Janice  on  03/22  at  08:35 PM

  • Ooops…....haven’t seen the pics yet….....I was getting too excited
    at the prospect of being second!

    Posted by Janice  on  03/22  at  08:38 PM

  • yay1 I am so happy that Van turned out to be a good guy after all.

    btw - the picture at the top of your post didn’t come out…

    Posted by Elisa  on  03/22  at  11:36 PM

  • did you ask if VAN was his real name? smile glad he wasn’t a scammer!

    you’re taking photos of naked kids?? haha.

    i can’t remember my password, so i have to be anonymous…

    (i’m STILL jealous)


    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/23  at  01:39 AM

  • Van seems like a smart guy. He knows that western people feel better
    with a written contract but if he decided to bail how would you enforce it?

    Posted by anthony  on  03/23  at  02:23 AM

  • i think there is a problem with the connection to flickr. I see the pics
    (w/o captions) on flickr…

    Dude, your gut hasn’t turned you into a veggie yet, so it’s good that
    you trust it, even if you feel you were silly in doing that at the end
    of the day… I’m still feelin’ that one for you.

    Posted by tallgirl

  • I’m on a 33K connection and I’m hating life… does the pic’o'day even
    show up on the top of this one? I can’t tell; i can’t even get the word
    verification graphic to show up so my brother is posting this on my
    behalf. anyway, i gave up trying to upload the 20+ other photos I have
    for this entry; i just keep on crashing, so you’ll have to wait…

    Long story short, I’m in Mopti, with Van, who is continually a good guy
    so far—much better than the one other option I researched over here
    at a travel agency, at least in terms of service. We are headed to Dogon
    country for the next three days, so I’ll be in the N.I.Z. (No Internet
    Zone) until Monday. I’ll try and catch up afterwards; hopefully I can
    find a faster connection then, but it looks pretty grim out here. I miss
    the much more developed world of South America and Asia!

    I want you guys to know I’ve been reading your comments and appreciate
    them wholeheartedly; I never have time to reply since I’m always cut
    short on time or cut short on my connection. Either way, keep them
    coming because it’s the only reason why I’m doing this blog. Special X’s
    and O’s to all the ladies out there wink

    I will warn you all that I’m already thinking of cutting my 3 weeks out
    here to perhaps 2 or 2 1/2 if I can get an earlier flight… I’m only
    about a week away from seeing all the main points of interest here since
    it really IS the off-season for a reason, with not many things going on,
    it’s too hot to climb, the river at its lowest point, etc., etc. I’ll be
    in touch if it happens.

    Anyway, thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you all later on the Wide
    World Web…


    Posted by Erik TGT by way of markyt  on  03/23  at  10:34 AM

  • Dougerik:



    Posted by Lisa  on  03/23  at  12:21 PM

  • Hey Erik-A friend recently got me hooked on your Global Trip blog and
    I’m really enjoying living vicariously through your 2004 travels as I
    readjust to cube life for awhile (we were in a lot of the same places at
    the same time in South America, so it’s especially fun to read those
    entries!) And now it’s great to be able to follow your latest adventures
    more or less in ‘real time.’ Keep up the great work and happy travels!

    ~C smile

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/23  at  01:10 PM

  • Looking forward to seeing the photos Erik. 33K? I didn’t know that still
    existed in the world!! What was the name of the brewery there and what
    beers do they make? Try any?

    Make sure that Van knows your audience would be very upset if he pulled
    a fast one on you…

    Posted by Jordan

  • what do you give a segou person whose watchin their figure?
    diet cola nut

    Posted by terence  on  03/23  at  02:08 PM

  • E- just a thought since you are already out that way…why not check out
    Ghana, land or gorillas and freaky indiana jones bridges through the
    rainforest? I hear there’s a bus (fun fun) between the capitals. Would
    be a good way to spend that last week versus in NYC. Its cold as crap here.

    Posted by Jess  on  03/23  at  02:16 PM

  • I looked up pictures of Mopti and it looks interesting. Can you eat
    something gross for us? And take a picture? Just a thought. And I’m so
    glad that Van turned out OK, but I would be wary too at first. Your tout
    stories always get me fired up!

    Posted by sara  on  03/23  at  02:24 PM

  • omg Terence! *chuckle*

    Hmm..I wonder if more people would leave comments if you didn’t need to
    type in a password. You didn’t have to with the old blog. But I guess
    you can do what Elaine did and make yourself anonymous and put your name
    at the bottom.

    Keep it up Erik, I’m reading!

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • Hey Erik, don’t worry, if Van ends up screwing you over, I’ll smite him.


    Posted by nerokerr  on  03/23  at  06:31 PM

  • Did you research when “the season” was down yonder?


    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/23  at  08:20 PM

  • I don’t type a password! I choose “other” then type “Lisa” in Username,
    fill in the word verification and hit “login and publish” and it
    publishes my comment without a password.

    Posted by Lisa  on  03/23  at  08:21 PM

  • Dougerik-
    I agree with Jess, you should go see some gorillas - you big naked
    picture taking PERVERT.

    Posted by Office Samurai

  • Bring us back some cola nuts yo!


    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/23  at  10:39 PM

  • Lisa: I didn’t realize you can do that. :/ Thanks!

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • erik! you can’t cut your trip short!!! i’m having too much fun
    travel-surfin’ with you. i wake up to your page every morning… it’s
    especially fun watching you go through what i will be later this year -
    hey, make sure you tell VAN that i’ll be coming through in late november
    and expect him to take me around! (seriously, tell him.)


    Posted by architeqt

  • If you are looking for something to do for a week, there is an orphanage
    in Malawi run by a wonderful “angel” lady from my hometown here in
    Canada. Remember how moved you were the last time you visited one? I
    dream of going there one day… I could do it vicariously through

    Posted by Janice  on  03/24  at  02:26 AM

  • Elaine,
    You’re STILL jealous? Good grief, girl, you need to go a travelling!

    Posted by Janice  on  03/24  at  02:27 AM

  • Enjoying the entries and comments immensely! Looking forward to the pic’s.

    Posted by Rose  on  03/24  at  12:54 PM

  • in the ghetto van
    <> we

    Posted by markyt  on  03/24  at  05:20 PM

  • Yo George… I’m still here… if you finish early you’ll definitely be
    the winner of the Amazing Race…

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marsha  on  03/25  at  03:41 AM

  • Greetings from Mopti… I’m back after a tremendously HOT 3-day trek in
    Dogon country… Van has turned out to be a great, honest guide and I
    might even say a new friend. He still calls me Doug. We are in
    negotiations for further travels together—after this session, I am
    going to meet his grandparents for tea.

    I’m at another cybercafe in Mopti (there are only 3), and although it is
    the bigger one, it is also on a dial-up 33.6K connection… how I will
    be uploading photos for the next couple of days I dont know yet—which
    is a real shame because some of them are pretty amazing.

    More amazing than that is the fact that in the vast remote region of
    Dogon country, I met four NYU students travelling the other way (towards
    their summer session in Ghana)—one of them is actually from
    Hackensack, NJ, one town away from where I grew up.

    As for cutting it short; I’m still thinking of doing cutting it by 1/2 a
    week (no biggie for me)—in the end it will be okay since the costs
    out here are way more than I expected anyway.

    Shout outs to all the Blogreaders posting comments. I am taking a break
    day in Mopti tomorrow and hope to have more entries up—hopefully some
    more photos too.

    JANICE: btw, elaine is almost as traveled as I am… she just doesn’t
    have a blog. in fact, coming to Timbuktu in my mind was a race against
    her and well-traveled Samer (who also commented and is in the Moscow
    entries)—its sort of like the new age of exploration for us. Looks
    like Im going to win!

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Glad to see your tour turned out so good. Been reading your blog since
    about the time you got back last year, so I’m looking forward to those
    pics and even more entertaining posts.

    Posted by Melissa  on  03/25  at  06:06 PM

  • <>
    the trip sounds supah ii desu! You’re giving me ideas if I can get a
    kitchen pass from the carbon based wife unit someday. thanks for keeping
    us up to date thru the comments…looking forward to pix.

    Posted by Dave and Melody  on  03/25  at  07:50 PM

  • I’m relieved that Van is good. And I think it’s awesome that your
    relationship is turning into friendship.

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • yo erik! haha… a race against me and janice huh? well, you definitely
    won for timbuktu, but i’ll be the first to ouagadougou! lol, i really
    wasn’t trying to rhyme… anyway, did you tell van that i’m coming? i
    want him as my guide. i’m serious!!! you got to get his info and hook us
    up. one of the benefits to you beating me to timbuktu wink


    Posted by architeqt

  • Hey Erik, thanks for keeping us posted despite the slow connections.
    Can’t wait to see the pictures. They’ve got to be better than my desktop
    image which is currently a spreadsheet…

    Posted by Dan 3  on  03/26  at  12:52 PM

  • nice blog so far! let’s see more pics

    Posted by little ding dong  on  03/26  at  08:43 PM

  • I’m glad the pics are up!

    Posted by Yvette  on  03/27  at  06:35 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, which chronicled a trip through the West African nation of Mali in March-April 2006.

Next entry:
Guy Talk

Previous entry:
To Segou


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.)

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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.

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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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