Saturday, February 17, 2007

Everything that I know about Real Estate I learned from the New York Times

I have lived in New York City for 22 years, and by definition that makes me real estate-savvy. It happens by osmosis. We live, eat, read, talk and drink real estate there. Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about real estate, you know a thing or two about it. You must, since everybody else does, and you don’t want to appear like a social misfit.

So plunging into the real estate market here in Bamako was not scary or intimidating. Until I realized that I was in completely unfamiliar territory. (I blame the New York Times: they had never, ever featured the Malian real estate market, and, after all, that is where I got all my info on real estate!)

It started when I realized that – like everything else here- we will rely on personal connections. Yes, apparently real estate agents exits, but I guess only complete losers go to them. We started by visiting one of Malé’s acquaintances, Alfa, also from Timbuktu. Alfa was wearing a suit and was having one of those mid-morning meat snacks (at 10am or so), that the Timbuktians like to have. When he finished, we met up with another Timbuktian, just so that the car would fill up nicely. Then we stopped at a shack and were joined by another man. This one stood out, because he was not from Timbuktu. I gathered that he was the one that would actually show us the apartments. Until we stopped again and gathered up another man at a street corner. This one was the guardian, who had the key to the first apartment. Or so we thought: when we finally got to the apartment, he ran down the street to retrieve the key from somebody else!

Eventually we all entered the first place: Malé, myself, Alfa, the other friend from Timbuktu, the shack man, the guardian, and the man who had the key. The place was actually like a small free-standing house, surrounded by a wall. It was build around a court yard. The main building was a living room and three bedrooms and a bathroom, and then there were another three rooms off the courtyard. Those, I was told, are used to board maids, relatives, friends, or just to store stuff. The kitchen was just an empty room without water, window, or outlets. (This is how the kitchens are here, I learned. Just a big storage space. Which is fine, if you don’t plan on having a fridge, a stove, running water, etc.) Now, because I am an astute observer (and real estate-savvy, as I said) I noticed something right away: the place was a dump, as we in the real estate business say in New York. Plain and simple. Especially if you consider that we were looking at above-average price points, so to speak. So, not to offend anybody or anything, I very casually asked if the owner was going to do any work here on this place. Oh, yes: once he gets the three months security deposit, he will do this, that, and the other. Interesting.

We went to the next place, which had a similar layout as the first. Here I noticed two things: there was a well in the court yard, and also, the house had not been completely constructed yet! (Which I could tell by the missing windows and doors, and all the building material that was lying around.) This house, too, had three storage/staff rooms, but here there clearly were people living in them. There was a bed under a mosquito net, and a full clothes line, and a woman cooking food, and some children playing. I know that I was asking a lot of dumb questions that day, but I just had to know: who are the people that are living here? The construction workers and their families, I was told. Once the owner gets the three months security deposit (industry standard here, you see), he can complete the construction work and the happy tenant can move in, in a month or two or three. Depending, you understand.

Well, I was so baffled that I forgot to inquire about the well. But luckily, the next house also had one, and I got a chance to inquire. Malé, infinitely patient with all my questions, explained to me that most houses here have a well in the court yard. Yes, dear Reader, you just have to ask yourself why the Manhattan real estate market has not come up with that! You see, the well water can be used for cleaning and washing, and it is free! The water that comes out of the tap has been treated and therefore costs money. It is used for drinking and cooking. It is a brilliant concept, except for the small detail of having to actually haul up the water via a bucket or a goat skin or something. Well, can you picture me already at the well, hauling up buckets of water? Exactly…!

The five or so men looked at me expectantly. They had shown me some of the finest properties, and were sure that I was pleased. I patiently explained to them, without wanting to offend anybody, that the houses were so big, and that it really was just Malé and I who would be living there. We really did not need 3 or so extra outside rooms for staff and in-laws, and the well…. Well, I could do without one. Can they show me something smaller? They nodded, but not very sincerely. Even though I believe they understood my French, they didn’t really understand ME. But, off we went. We dropped of the key guy, the guardian, and the guy from the shack guy, and we went to a different neighborhood.

In the vicinity of the next property we picked up a new shack guy. I understood now that this was a “steerer” of sorts: not to drugs, but to real estate. He steered us to a three story building just south of the river: a high rise of sorts. There we looked for a different guardian, and he went to get the key guy. Then all 7 of us walked up three fights of stairs. All of the men were commenting on this impossibly strenuous exercise, and that was probably the reason that the apartment was still available. The apartment was much smaller: just two bedrooms, but it had a real kitchen (with running water and a sink, an electric outlet, and –gasp!- the first built-in cabinets that I had seen in two months!). It also had three balconies and three exposures. You could clearly see the river, and the thriving sheep market that was just down the street. But the best feature: it had a super market on street level! I could actually just go downstairs, go into ONE store, and buy everything that my little heart desired!!!! But the apartment also was much more expensive than we wanted ($250), and it, too, was a little run-down, to say it politely. Again: I was assured that once the owner got his money, he would clean and paint and repair. I was very much in love with the fact that the bedrooms had shelves (also a first), but I was holding out. The five men looked at each other and looked at Malé, sympathizing with him on his difficult wife, and we all climbed down the stairs together, the men wondering about why anybody in their right mind would want to do that everyday.

That time we dropped off everybody, and Malé and I continued together. We now went to meet his other friend, Bokum, from Timbuktu. He had just finished eating a little meat. The next couple of steps were familiar to me already: go to the shack at the corner, pick up the steerer; go to the neighborhood, meet the guardian and the key guy. This time we were north of the city, in a newly developed neighborhood, where palatial villas stand side by side with shacks. The apartment was one of two apartments surrounding a court yard. It was newly build, so it was not (really) dirty, and the things were all in working order (more or less): the windows and doors opened and closed, the light switches were still there, and the electrical outlets were inside the wall, not dangling to the ground. The other apartment was occupied by the owner, a woman. There was a guardian who was there 24/7, and there was room for the car. No, there is no super market, and it is a little in the ‘burbs, so to speak. But it is clean(ish) and quiet. She was asking for $140, and once we would give her the three months security deposit, she would plant some bushes, and finish painting, and finish the roof. And, you guessed it: there is a well! How could I resist…. We sealed the deal with a hand shake, and moved our belongings in yesterday.

I will post a picture of me hauling up water from the well shortly….

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tales from the Edge of the World: The Yoghurt

I admit I have a problem with dairy products: I cannot get enough of them. And don’t give me any low fat, no fat, reduced fat, skim-milk products, either: I have been known to add Half & Half to friends’ skim milk to make it more palatable to me. I crave rich, creamy, fatty dairy products like other people crave chocolate or coffee. I must have it, and preferably several times a day. So, when I first visited Mali, I was reassured to find out that they are one of the largest livestock producers in Africa. Where there is live stock, there are cows, and where there are cows, there is milk, and where there is milk, there is yoghurt/cream/cheese/quark/sour cream/crème fraîche…. So even if there are other quality of life issues that I must contend with in Mali: I will get my dairy fix and all is well….

My optimistic outlook began to be somewhat challenged in Bamako. Shortly after my first arrival in 2005, I noticed huge billboards everywhere announcing “Mali Lait” and its various products, especially their yoghurts! Good stuff, I was thinking, and I started to look for a store to buy some. Problem is that I cannot really tell which store sells what: the sign over the store is usually not a good indicator of whether or not they sell yoghurt. You have to enter the store and look for a refrigerator. Or a freezer that only works enough to be used as a refrigerator. Which you don’t know until you open it, or ask. So you start asking the merchants for yoghurt. Considering that there are all these “Mali Lait” billboards along the roads, I had to wonder why the merchants look at you like you have two heads, or like they never heard of yoghurt. (It also makes you wonder about the effectiveness of the other most common billboard, besides “Mali Lait”: the one where they warn about the dangers of AIDS and HIV infection. I sure hope that that public awareness campaign is more successful than the yoghurt one…) Ok, so wandering from store to store was not a very successful strategy. I resorted to another one: asking people where I was staying if they can find me some yoghurt. Success: this way I eventually was introduced in Bamako to the famous “Mali Lait” yoghurt, and it satisfied all my German expectations of a good dairy product: it came in a little cup, and it was creamy and cool and full of milk fat!

I was a happy camper, until I moved on to Mopti, where I had to begin my search all over again. This time I was staying with PeaceCorps Baba, who considered my desire very dubious, and only relented after numerous requests. I am not sure if he just thought it unnatural to want to eat yoghurt, or if he doubted my ability to digest Malian yoghurt, but eventually he introduced me to a new product: “Mali Lait” yoghurt in a little plastic baggy. Oh, it is like drinkable yoghurt, and you can bite a little hole in the corner and you can suck it out of its baggy, and it, too, is delicious and passed the German quality inspection with flying colors. (When I became very violently ill after a couple of days with a random intestinal bug, PeaceCorps Baba swore up and down that it was the yoghurt, that I never should have eaten in the first place. He sat in his living room and told all of his family, his entourage and all of the visitors that day of my illness and what caused it, and they all sat around and shook their head at the risk taking behavior of this foolish German woman.) But it was too late: I was hooked! I had tasted Malian yoghurt, I knew that it existed, and I would no longer take “no” as an answer….

So this time around Bamako posed no challenge. I knew what I wanted, and –granted, I had to ask for it a couple of times – I eventually had my yoghurt every morning, with a banana and some delicious dark Malian honey. Life was good. Until I got to Timbuktu. There, to my horror, I was told by the one merchant in town who deals with French butter (another holy grail of dairy products in my book, and usually where you can find one you can find the other…), that there IS NO YOGHURT IN TIMBUKTU. Well, just shatter my world, why don’t you! Did the man really understand the impact that his words had on me? I think not. I couldn’t believe it! This would seriously impact the quality of my life there in Timbuktu. It is much harder to face sand storms, scorpions, outhouses, and endless meals of mutton meat without any yoghurt in sight. Soon I resorted to a new strategy: I would make my desire for yoghurt part of my social palaver with people: everybody who I spoke with for more than 2 minutes (the standard length of social greeting) had to endure my questions about yoghurt. No, they all shook their heads: there really is no yoghurt here in Timbuktu. Boy, it was going to be hard living here. In January my friends all came and left after a couple of weeks, and they, too, had to endure my constant whining about the lack of dairy products in this town.

And then, one day when it was just me and Malé and his friend Mohammed, and I started yet again about the yoghurt, Mohammed said: Oh, there is a woman just down the street. She makes and sells yoghurt, and he will get me some tomorrow morning. Just like that. The same Malé and the same Mohammed who had been listening to my yoghurt cravings for over a month now. Why, I asked them, have they not told me about that before? They evasively stammered something about, oh, they did not think that I was talking about THAT kind of yoghurt. What kind? The delicious, cool, white, creamy, rich kind that Mohammed brought for me the next morning? Yup, that’s the one that I was looking for. And so, every morning after that, Mohammed brought me two little baggies of homemade yoghurt, and I couldn’t have been happier! I ate it with Mango, with bananas, with honey, and I ate it even when I had yet another mysterious intestinal episode. The only time I did not eat it was when the woman’s daughter got married and she did not make any. I was a little shaken up, but I understood. Sort of.

Now that we have resolved the yoghurt issue, I can move on to the cheese issue. No, they all say, there is no cheese to be had here. But then one day Malé told me that the Tamashek make cheese, sometimes, somewhere, somehow, but he cannot imagine that I really want to eat THAT kind of cheese. Well, there is just one way to find out, and I will, next time I am in Timbuktu….

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Some more pictures needed....

I have not figured out how to label the pictures that I add, so here some explanations to the pictures from the previous post:

1.Ava and the donkey ride

2. Male's daughter Hamsetou, Mirja's daughter Ava, and the rooster Daphne

3. Visit with Bebe's mother, the Tamashek Artisan

4. The rocks by Douentza, between Timkuktu and Mopti

5. Tellem village in Dogon Country

And then these pictures here:

1. Male on the ox cart

2.Male and Haike climbing up the cliff

3.Male, our chief, and the village chief, Dogon dance

4.Male, Ava, and Rana looking for Hippos

5.Male's daughter Hamsetou and his son Moustaphe (the carbon copy of his dad)

Traveling with Friends, Family, and a Rooster named Daphne

December 28th, 2006, Bamako
Mirja and her two girls, Rana (9) and Ava (5), arrive from Berlin today, and I am so relieved that we finally got the car and can actually pick them up ourselves!

[It wasn’t until yesterday at 5pm that the final signature was placed on the final document by the final very important administrator after three weeks of running a bureaucratic obstacle course. Luckily I did not actually have to do anything to make it happen – it was aggravating enough, though, to have Malé tell me about all the different challenges that he encountered everyday. My only other reference to a system that requires a person to spend eight hours a day in an office, day after day, waiting and praying –literally, 5 times a day- that an employee will eventually do what they are hired to do, and that at the same time is designed to dissuade the person from utilizing the system in the first place, is the welfare system in NYC. Let’s just say that the tales Malé told make applying for welfare look like a walk in the park! Especially considering that things were this slow with bribery…!]

When we get to the airport, we have to actually park the car in a parking lot with electronically time-stamped tickets and gates that open and close automatically! They must have just bought and installed that system, and I will have to come back in a couple of months to see if it still works… The plane lands as scheduled, the luggage is all there, and we pile into the car. I am so perplexed at the sophisticated parking lot (and Malé has never parked in such a lot), that it takes us a minute to figure out where to pay for the ticket, but when we finally do, we can leave and head towards town. At the hotel, we eat a delicious dinner salad on the roof underneath the stars before we all go to bed.

December 29th, 2006, Bamako – Ségou
I neglected to mention to Mirja that right next to our hotel is a brand new Mosque with a kick-ass, blow-your-turban-of-your-head loudspeaker system that will blast us all out of bed at about 4am. It’s so loud that apparently even some Muslim neighbors are not enchanted. But nobody really says anything, and it’s not like I can call 311 to complain about noise pollution, like I would in NYC… But luckily Mirja and the kids sleep right through it. We have breakfast together, and then we spend some time walking around the neighborhood. Mirja and the kids have never been to West Africa, and they want to get a taste of it. There is no need, however, to go into the center of Bamako for that: the little neighborhood where we are staying will offer plenty of “taste”: the streets are teeming with cars, donkeys, mopeds, little children and pedestrians, the vendors are selling everything from beauty products to produce to paper goods, live sheep or poultry. The absolute show stopper for everybody, however, is Rana and Ava. White people are odd-looking and interesting enough here, but little white people, and blond and cute to boot, are just absolutely amazing! People stare at them, follow us, and want to touch them, but it’s all very friendly and manageable. We buy some things for our trip, such as chips and cookies, and then we buy some sparklers (Wunderkerzen) and other dubious looking Chinese fireworks. It is, after all, New Year’s in two days, and we are planning on lighting up the town of Timbuktu! But other things that we are looking for we cannot find: we would like some nuts and some coconut and some fruit. I am exhausted and I take my visitor’s to Mamadou’s little hotel around the corner, and then I do what Malé would do: I tell Mamadou what we want, and he sends random kids on the errand! Ten minutes random kids converge back to the place, and deliver the wanted goods. In the meantime Mirja and the kids and I recuperate from our strenuous shopping exercise on the sofa.

After lunch we finally leave town to head towards Timbuktu. I am not sad to leave Bamako behind, but I already know that I will miss the WiFi connection and the Hotel Kempinski….

We make good time, but because we left so late, we only make it as far as Ségou, about three hours away (230km). For different reasons it’s really not a good idea to drive after darkness, and by 6:30pm or so it is pitch black. We arrive at Ségou at around 7:30pm, and we stay in a very nice little hotel there, L’Esplanade. Yes, we are heading for the desert, but the kids brought their bathing suit, and we go for a little swim after dinner.

December 30th, 2006, Ségou - Timbuktu
We take off very early in the morning since we have about 800km until our destination. We drive for a couple of hours until we get to San, where we stop to have breakfast. Even though it’s the big Tabaski fest today, the restaurant is open and we have café and baguette with butter and confiture – the breakfast staple here for foreigners. (Malians would want to eat meat, of course). We continue, breeze through Mopti, and our next stop is Douentza. We eat something, and then we buckle down for the real adventure: it is there that we leave the relative comforts of the asphalt road behind, and veer north, towards Timbuktu, on a road that the locals call “les escaliers” – the stairs. We have to drive 190km on that road, which takes about 3-4 hours, depending on the shape of the vehicle and the driver. At the end of that road it is a miracle if the car is still in one piece, and if the passengers have not thrown up! We survive the road, and we arrive at the board of the Niger River. The ferry is there, and we make the crossing. After that it still takes about 20 minutes, and we are finally there! Malé’s neighbors have prepared the house for us with incense, and we eat a delicious meal that his mother has cooked for us.

December 31st, 2006, Timbuktu
Today is really the official day for Tabaski. The Malian government had decided that the people should celebrate it on the 30th (so that it doesn’t interfere with New Year’s?), and some people did, but others are celebrating today. Since we can’t really distinguish one party from the next, it doesn’t really matter. (I am just glad that the sheep for Malé’s family have already been slaughtered, and we are not confronted with any remnants, either.) So we just dress up nicely, and sit around, make nice, and receive visitors. The kids get to acquaint themselves with Malé’s children: Moctar, 12, Hamsétou, 9, and Moutaphe, 5 (and the spitting image of is dad). Mirja brought coloring books and crayons for the kids, and they are a total hit! Soon there is a kid everywhere you look, furiously coloring away, and also several big teenagers and adults join in. At this rate the books will be fully colored in about one day…

The other highlight of the day is when Ava gets her promised donkey ride. At this point Malé has established the motto for the next couple of weeks:
Whatever Ava Wants, Ava Gets.
Ava wants to ride on a donkey, so Ava will get a tour of the neighborhood on a donkey. Luckily Malé’s neighbor has three, which he really uses to collect the garbage from the neighbors. But, lickety split, the garbage donkey is changed into a special donkey for Ava, and tours the neighborhood with her. We accompany her, of course, and at every corner we accumulate more and more kids who follow us. At some point there must have been about 30 or so. (They probably still talk about that afternoon…) None of this fazes Ava one bit; she just focuses on her donkey and enjoys the ride.

After dinner we are so pooped from our exhausting day (receiving visitors, walking around with a donkey), that we decide to take a disco nap before heading out for a big New Year’s celebration. Well, let this be a warning to you: disco naps only work until you are 30 or so; after that you never get up once you lay down! And so it was that we all slept through what we are told was a big event in party town Timbuktu…!

January 1st, 2007, Timbuktu
Today is another holiday, of course. The kids play in and around the house, and we receive visitors. A little later in the day it is up to us to visit Malé’s mother. She lives in a house right in the old part of town, and her rooms are filled with beautiful, pristine sand from the desert, that gets meticulously sieved and raked every day. For visitors she places mats and mattresses on the sand, and we recline while the kids draw in the sand. She always cooks several meals for different families and visitors throughout the day in her courtyard kitchen, where the chickens hang out. They actually like to nestle against her feet underneath her chair while she supervises the helpers that work for her. Her meals taste great, and there is always a bit of sand in the sauce…. Ava mentions that she would like a chick, and (Whatever Ava Wants, Ava Gets) soon Malé has a chick delivered to the house. Ava is delighted, and tells us that the chick’s name is Daphne. We welcome Daphne into our travel group…

Later we take the kids to a bar/restaurant for a beverage. We toast the New Year with Fanta and Coke, and then decide to really let loose… Up on Malé’s roof we give each kid one sparkler and one dubious Chinese fire cracker to light! They sparkle and crackle and smoke and blow up, and the kids squeal with delight! We applaud and cheer, and everybody agrees that this was one of the best New Year’s celebrations ever!!!

January 2nd – 3rd, 2007, Timbuktu
We spend the next days exploring Timbuktu, visiting the mosques and the markets. Of course we also have to visit our guide’s family, where we drink some tea and look at the handcrafted leather bags and pillows that his mother does. She is the president of the Tamashek (Tuareq) women’s association of artisans (or so), and she proudly shows us photos of her travels to the United States and Europe. Mirja wants to buy some souvenirs for the kids, and she gets a quick training in price negotiation: it takes forever, you always end up paying too much, and you buy things that you did not really want.

January 4th, 2007, Timbuktu – Sevaré/Mopti
We leave town very early. (We = Mirja and her kids, Malé’s son Moustaphe and his daughter Hamsétou.) The trip on the “stairs” is uneventful, once we got used to the pipi-poop-vomit breaks that we have to make every 30 minutes or so to accommodate the kids. The second stretch, on the asphalt road to Mopti, is much better, and we get to the hotel in Sevaré in the afternoon. Here we meet the rest of our group: Peter and Fiona (NYC), Kady (Berlin), Oumou (Malé’s niece from Bamako), Naf (Malé’s friend from Timbuktu), and Mary (Baltimore). They took the bus this morning from Bamako after having arrived from Morocco (Peter and Fiona) and the U.S. (Mary) the previous day. We all shower and change, and have a delicious dinner before we go to bed.

January 5th, 2007, Sevaré – Bandiagara – Dogon Country
“On everybody’s list of the top 10 places in West Africa is the homeland of the fascinating Dogon people, the huge Falaise de Bandiagara that extends some 150km through the Sahel to the east of Mopti. The landscape is stunning, and the Dogon people are noted for their complex and elaborate culture, art forms and unique houses and graneries – some clinging to the bare rock face of the escarpment. (…) Before the Dogon reached the escarpment, it was inhabited by the Tellem people. The origins of the Tellem are unclear – Dogon tradition describes them as small and red skinned – and none remain today. The vertical cliff is several hundred meters high, yet the Tellem managed to build dwellings and stores in the most inaccessible places. Most cannot be reached today, and the Dogon believe the Tellem could fly, or used magic powers to reach them. Another theory suggests that the weather climate of the previous millennium allowed vines and creepers to cover the cliff, providing natural ladders for the early inhabitants. The Tellem also used the caves to bury their dead, and many are still full of ancient bones. (…) The best way to see the Dogon Country is on foot. (…) Ancient tracks link village with village and the plateau with the plain. In places, carefully laid stones create a staircase up a fissure in the cliff face, while elsewhere ladders provide a route over a chasm or up to a higher ledge.” (Lonely Planet West Africa, 2002)

Well, Dogon Country, here we come! We rented a mini bus (old school bus), we have a guide, porters, water, made arrangements for an ox cart, and we are ready to go! The bus drops us of on top of the plateau, close to the cliff’s edge. We each carry some water and a small bag, but the porters take the majority of equipment and advance us. Peter and Fiona, however, are experienced trekkers and hikers, and they like to carry their own stuff. We soon reach the edge of the cliff, and we get a good view of the valley below. The air is a little hazy, but we nevertheless get a sense of the vastness below: a dry, rocky landscape, dotted with some vegetation and huge Baobab trees. Very quickly the meandering path turns into a steep decline, over and under huge rocks. We spend about an hour climbing down, and then we have reached the valley. We walk across some farmland, and soon we have reached our first destination: a stop for beverages. Malé, because he clearly is the big cheese among us, gets a (free, of course) foot massage: apparently a common occurrence since he does not bat an eye.

Soon we take off again, but now the entire luggage and all the children are loaded onto an ox cart. We don’t really look at the ox too closely, and it is only when the beast takes of at about 20 km/hour that Kady remarked how it had a crazed look in its eyes. But it’s too late now, and we just see a cloud of dust as the ox thunders towards the next village – we hope! The rest of us follow the dust cloud. It is a peaceful and quiet walk, and occasionally we pass villagers on ox or donkey carts or mopeds or on foot. The many huge Baobabs that we pass are impressive: the Baobab is a bizarre, monstrous, outer-worldly looking tree, and it makes sense that “Little Prince” felt that it threatened his planet. Its fruit look like “Leberwurst” and not very appetizing, but people here make a delicious juice from it. The tree’s bark is stripped and turned into straw-like strands that are dyed and used to make skirts and fringes for the traditional Dogon masks. As a result some of the trunks look oddly pruned and carved.

We soon get to the next village, and we find our encampment by asking the villagers if they have seen a crazed ox pulling two white and two black children and a bunch of luggage. The kids are there, and so is the luggage, so all is well as we rest and wait for lunch to be served. We may be in the middle of nowhere, but the beverages are ice cold, and the chicken in onion sauce with rice is delicious! After resting a bit (hey, that’s right! Here we rest before meals and after meals!), we continue. We have 4 kilometers to walk before we reach our encampment for the night, and this time we get two ox carts. But the crazed ox is not one of them, and I wonder what he was demoted to … All the bags and kids are loaded on one, and we sit on the other. The kids complain that their ride is much too slow now, and why can’t they thunder down the path as they did before….

We get to the next encampment just before sunset. (Sunset is always more or less at 6pm, and sunrise at 6am. It’s a strangely orderly and symmetric occurrence in a country where rarely anything else is that way…) It’s a beautiful encampment with multiple buildings arranged in a circle. There are beautifully painted little guest rooms, but we choose to sleep on the roof instead. Dinner is served underneath the stars, and then we retreat to our roof. I remember thinking that since we are sleeping directly underneath a Baobab tree, one of those big “Leberwurst” look-alikes better not fall on my head in the night….! But the only remarkable activities that night are the huge bats that pass overhead as they hunt their dinner.

January 6th, 2007, Dogon Country
The next day starts with a delicious breakfast of freshly fried “donuts” (“beignets” = “Schmalzgebackenes”) that we can dip in honey – and Nutella! (We have realized that Ava and Rana need Nutella for their imminent survival, and so we never leave the house without it, so to speak.) We visit the beautifully constructed museum of the village. I realize that the building’s impeccable 90 degree angles and precisely constructed interior is the result of a German project: it resonates deeply in me, and I get a little homesick. I like 90 degree angles…

We leave the village by taking an ox cart. We travel along the valley and marvel at the cliffs above us. In particular at a mesa-like tower, that sits on an impossibly narrow base. It probably will stand like that another couple of thousand years, but it looks like it will tumble any minute. Later the ox cart drops us of at the foot of the cliff. There are several porters who will take most of the bags, and also will carry the kids if they get tired. We now have to climb up the same cliff that we descended before. The path is steep but manageable. It looks so well constructed and maintained… I know that it’s not the Malian National Park Department that created it, but the villagers themselves. We must be experiencing Saturday rush hour, because we encounter many villagers that bound up and down the stone “staircases” (barefoot or in flip-flops), carrying water and vegetables and other goods on their heads. We also encounter the village chief, an experienced hunter who carries a homemade gun and an array of fetishes and amulets around his neck, including several crucifixes.

Just when I am really tired and out of breath, we reach a plateau at mid-level. It is the village’s garden, and it is out of this world! It is completely surrounded by cliffs, and yet it is lush and fertile, the soil is deep black, the onion fields are pungent, the tomatoes are red, and there is a meandering river that runs through the fields. It is so completely unexpected, and it is absolutely beautiful. I feel like I am in a movie: it is visually arresting.

We climb some more, and we finally reach the top of the cliff, and the village where we will spend the rest of the day and the night. It, too, is visually stunning: its little stone houses, its granaries, and two outhouses that are perched at the absolute edge of the cliff. After lunch we get a tour of the village. Like many Dogon villages it has three neighborhoods: a Muslim one with a mosque, a Christian one with a church, and one for the Animists. Some of us wanted to taste the locally produced millet beer that the Dogon are famous for, and we get a bottle delivered. The German beer drinkers are not horribly impressed, but they are polite and drink it anyway. We rest until dinner is served, and this time we sleep in the little guest rooms because it is much cooler up on the cliff than in the valley. A group of English travelers is not so lucky: they arrive just as it gets dark, and there are no rooms for them anymore … we are very pleased with our guide, who made all the necessary arrangements throughout the trip.

January 7th, 2007, Dogon Country – Djenné - Sevaré
The next morning we walk a little bit until we get to the village’s dance area. We each have contributed about $6 the evening before so that we can see a dance performance. The dancers wanted the money the night before so that they can buy some millet beer and drink it before the dance. At around 8am they don their masks and costumes that are kept in a secret place, so that nobody sees them change. Soon the first dancers and the musicians emerge, and we are treated to a wonderful performance that is rich in symbolism and history, of which we understand nothing. Two dancers who have their feet tied onto stilts join the others, and eventually the dance concludes with the chief thanking us and wishing us well for the rest of our journey. It is almost 9am, and the dancers rush back to their secret place to change out of their masks, just in time for worship. It is Sunday, after all, and the little church is already toiling its bell….

We soon leave the village, and climb the last couple of meters to the top of the cliff, where our minibus waits for us. We drive about 2 hours until we reach our hotel in Sevaré. This is a welcome opportunity to shower and change our clothes that we have been wearing for the last couple of days. When we are all shiny and clean, we get back into the minibus to visit Djenné. (All, except Fiona, who is not feeling well and decides that she cannot stomach another almost 2 hour drive until Djenné.)

Djenné sits on an island in the Bani River (a tributary to the Niger River), and to reach it we take a ferry. It is a beautiful and old city, and the architecture is almost all traditional Sudanese-style mud constructions. There is also a complicated thing about the pillars and columns that indicate how many wives and how many children the patriarch has, but I forgot the details. The most famous structure, of course, is the huge mud mosque, that sits imposing at the center of town. Unfortunately we will not experience the market, which takes place on Mondays and is supposed to be the most interesting and biggest of all Malian markets. We leave after just a short visit, and drive back to Sevaré, where we will spend the night before heading to Timbuktu in the morning.

January 8th, 2007, Sevaré – Timbuktu
We cannot travel to Timbuktu in the minibus, that’s for sure, and we have rented a
second car with driver. We split up the group: Mirja, all of the kids, Oumou and myself travel with Malé, and the others are in the rented car. The owner of the second car had insisted – to no avail- to get the whole rental fee in advance and we soon understand why: there seems to be something wrong with the car. The car emits huge black clouds, and the driver has to stop every once in a while to add oil. He also is driving only about 80km/hour, and that’s on the asphalt road. We are under time pressure, since the last ferry sets across the river to Timbuktu at 6pm. It only gets worse once we get to the “stairs”: the other car cannot keep up with us. But since we have to kids in the car, we have to stop every 20-30 minutes for pipi-poop-vomit breaks, and at those points the other car catches up with us. Until the time that it doesn’t…. We wait and wait, but the other car is nowhere to be seen, heard, or smelled. Malé turns around, and we soon see it at the side of the road. Now it does not drive at all anymore. Oh, our friends are glad to see us. At first the plan is to for us to turn around and get the mechanic from the last town. But after a couple of meters I suggest to Malé that we just pile the entire luggage and all the passengers into our car, leave the driver with the stalled car, and continue towards Timbuktu. Once we reach the ferry Malé can call the car’s owner and send help to the driver. We turn back around, and manage to squeeze 9 adults, 4 children, and the entire luggage into our car, African-style. We probably could have fit the other driver as well, but he has to stay with the car.

We reach the ferry point at around 7pm. I am mentally prepared to spend the night on the ground, beside the car, as Mary and I did in 2005. But that time I was not traveling with Malé, who can just make things happen: he calls the ferry’s owner, and soon we hear the lumbering motor of the ferry, arriving to pick us up and deliver us to Timbuktu!

January 9th – 10th, 2007, Timbuktu
We spend the next couple of days in Timbuktu at Malé’s house. We eat, we nap, we go shopping, we tour the town, we play with Daphne, the rooster, and we receive visitors. It's exhausting.

January 11th, 2007, Timbuktu - Essekane
Unfortunately Peter and Fiona cannot come with us to the desert festival at Essekane. Their flight leaves Bamako early in the morning on the 15th… it’s difficult enough to get out of Timbuktu, but because of the festival all available cars are heading towards Essekane, not back towards Mopti. The best chance seems to be a flight, but all the seats are already booked. All of the sudden there is word that another –unscheduled- flight will leave Timbuktu today. Malé hustles Peter and Fiona towards the airport. Yes, it seems that they will leave on this flight: tickets are bought, the luggage is loaded, the passengers board….All of the sudden the pilot announces that he will not take any passengers, and everybody is to leave the plane. Malé returns to the house with Peter and Fiona, who now are not sure how they will leave. As we are standing around, scratching our heads, Malé receives a call from the airport: it seems that a Minister has intervened on behalf of two sick passengers who were to be evacuated with that flight, and has ordered to pilot to take the passengers to Bamako. Our friends jump back into the car and race to the airport. Only when Malé finally returns by himself, after having seen the plane take off, do we have –somewhat- reason to believe that they are en route to Bamako… well, at least we know they are heading somewhere.

The rest of us pile into the car to begin the 3 hour drive to Essekane. Malé claims that we are driving on a road, but it doesn’t resemble any road that I know: we are just driving up and down the sand dunes. This time we only have two kids with us, so the pipi-poop-vomit breaks are reduced by half, but I worry about Daphne, the rooster, who is traveling in a carton: do chicken get motion sickness? We get to the gate that marks the entrance to the festival just after darkness, and after some hard-core negotiating about the entrance fee we finally enter the ground. Like I said, it is dark already, the grounds are huge, and we don’t know where Malé’s friend Yahia has his encampment. Malé drives up and down the sand dunes, looking for his tent. Because you risk sinking into the sand when you diminish your speed or stop altogether, the search is done at great speed, all the while people and camels and other cars are milling around us. At times it takes a literal leap by a pedestrian to get out of our way! Eventually, though, we find Yahia’s tent. We are offered to pitch our tent next to the cars, between some dunes, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all! I would rather pitch the tent on top of the dune, where we have a great view of the grounds…. (During the night, when the wind and the sand was battering our tent, and I couldn’t sleep a wink, I realized that there was a reason why nobody else had their tent on top of the dune….)

January 12th, 2007, Essekane
The next morning the sand storm has not subsided. I barely dare to stick my head out of the tent, but when I do I realize the reason for why the tent’s ground felt so lopsided: yes, it’s true that dunes wander, and this one wandered away from underneath our ass during the night! The tent is now sitting at the edge of the dune, and there is about a meter drop underneath the tent. We quickly pack up everything and relocate: right there, next to the parked cars, just like what was suggested to me last night. Oh, well.

We spend the day eating and resting and wandering around, looking at the Tamashek and their camels and their dances, while they look at us (especially at Ava and her pet rooster!). At night is the concert, but Malé and I are so tired from not sleeping the night before that we do not attend.

January 13th, 2007, Essekane
Today is my birthday, and Malé surprises me with a beautiful necklace that I had seen a week earlier. (I see jewelry here all day long, but I rarely see something that I would want to wear, so this necklace really stuck out. He was not with me when I saw it, but I mentioned it to him. I was hoping that he would find it for me, but how? The man who showed it to me was a random Tamashek, who only had this one piece that a woman had asked him to try and sell in town. I did not know the man’s name, or anything about him. Well, here it was: somehow Malé had managed to track down the man and the necklace… I was very surprised and very happy!) Later that day Mirja treats me to a camel ride, and when we all take a break and sit on the dunes, sipping tea, my friends sing “Happy Birthday”! And it continues: all day long I receive well wishes and little presents. It is a very good birthday, I think.

In the evening we sit in front of the stage, waiting for the concert to begin. It is very chilly tonight, and to warm us up we walk around a bit. I enter my first disco in a tent, where we dance a bit on the (sand) dance floor. We then return to the stage area, and I stay until 1:30am or so, when I am just too cold to stay. Malé stays with Mary and Naf to watch it until 3am.

January 14th, 2007, Essekane – Timbuktu
As soon as the concert is over (4am or so), the trucks are loaded and the tents taken down, making it almost impossible to sleep. We finally get up around 6am, and pack up ourselves. By 8am we are on the road (so to speak), heading back towards Timbuktu.

January 15th - 16th , 2007, Timbuktu
We spend some more time exploring Timbuktu. Because we would like to see some Hippos, we decide to rent a Pirogues for an afternoon. The boat is comfortable covered in fresh straw mats, and we have enough room to each stretch out on a bench, while we watch the banks of the river go by. As usual, we generate a lot of excitement when we are spotted, and there is a lot of waving and greeting. But as hard as we look, after 4 hours we still have not spotted any hippos….

January 17th, 2007, Timbuktu – Sevaré
It is time for Mirja and the kids to head towards Bamako, accompanied by Oumou, and we will drive them to Sevaré, where they can continue their journey via bus. Kady and Mary will spend two days with Malé and myself in Teriya Bugu, where I hope that Malé will recover from hosting all of my friends these last three weeks.

January 18th, 2007, Sevaré – Teriya Bugu
Malé had purchased the bus tickets the night before, and he has made arrangements with the driver of the 7am bus to pick up Mirja and the kids right in front of our hotel. This way we can all comfortably take our breakfast together one last time. At exactly 7am two men arrive on mopeds, alert us to the fact that the bus is arriving any minute, and get the passengers and their luggage ready. The bus arrives at exactly 7:05, opens its doors, the bags are loaded underneath, and Oumou, Mirja and the kids just choose their seats. I am amazed at the punctuality and efficiency of the bus company!

We continue our journey, and drive about three hours south until we reach Teriya Bugu. It is a formerly privately owned huge piece of property, which was planted and cultivated by a French missionary. He also established an agricultural cooperative with the neighboring village, and today it is managed by the village and the descendants of the French man. It is located right on the Bani River, and its huge eucalyptus trees are hosts to several bird colonies. There are also monkeys and crocodiles (in cages), a flock of peacocks, ducks, and a camel. There are many buildings that used to just house the French man’s friends and families; today you can rent the rooms to stay there. There are two swimming pools, a little “bar”, and a restaurant. It is amazingly peaceful, and once the birds quiet at night, you just hear the “woosh” of the bats that pass overhead….

January 19th, 2007, Teriya Bugu
We came here to be lazy, and we are: Malé sleeps late, I read by the pool. Kady takes pictures, and Mary relaxes on a swing. Our activities are just interrupted by meals, and occasional dips in the pool. Life is good.

January 20th, 2007, Teriya Bugu – Sevaré
We take full advantage of our last day here: more sleeping, swimming, reading. We leave this lovely place after lunch to drive back to Sevaré. Mary and Kady will take the bus there to head to Ségou and then Bamako, and we will return to Timbuktu.

January 21st, 2007, Sevaré – Timbuktu
We put Kady on the bus towards Ségou, while Mary still wants to shop for her store in Sevaré. The road to Timbuktu is uneventful until we take the ferry. There, just about 50 meters from the boat, are three huge hippos, just lounging in the water! I am very pleased, but I am so sorry that Mirja and the girls are not here for this event! We arrive in Timbuktu, and now it’s just the two of us, and the house seems large and empty without all of our guests. But it gives me the chance to experience Timbuktu from a different perspective…..
Stay posted.....