March 16 – March 21
Border crossing completed, we arrived in a new country, Mali. We had heard that Mali was volatile due to the Tuareg rebellion and Al-Qaeda activity (including the kidnapping and killing of Europeans) in the North, an emerging Sahel-wide food shortage, and an election in just one month. We had debated coming here: Lee and I had already been here before, in 2005, but we thought it would be cool to see some parts again. Also, we wanted to go to Burkina Faso before heading back down to Sierra Leone and by far the most practical way to get there was through Mali.
On the afternoon of Friday, March 16, we rolled up on Bamako, the capital of Mali, and – after we were informed that another hotel we had wanted, the Tamana, had no space – settled into the friendly confines of a hotel called Sahel Vert. We had been going hard for a while on the road, and it was nice to have a break. Over the weekend, I had a couple of late nights out on the town in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood and enjoyed the small pool at the Sahel Vert during the day. We were in Bamako in large measure to get visas: Burkina Faso (our next destination), Guinea (again, for the route back through), Mali (an extension on our 7-day border-issued visa) – and had to wait until Monday for embassies and the Malian immigration office to open. We also wanted to speak in person to someone at the American embassy regarding the safety of some areas we wanted to visit — Dogon Country, Mopti, and Djenne.
Our first stop was the American embassy, where a friendly official told us with many reservations that the areas we wanted to go should be OK. Among other provisos, however, he mentioned that Mali was a perfect storm, ripe for some kind of violence, and that we should remain extremely vigilant. When we left, we concluded that we would go to Dogon Country, Djenne, and Mopti corridor for a few days, and then head to Burkina Faso.
Since we only had a one-week Mali visa, issued at the border, we could not go to all those awesome places without the Mali extension. After three visits to the Mali immigration office in a 32-hour period, we were able to secure a one-month, double-entry visa. We then turned our attention to the Burkinabe visa; at the embassy, we noticed on the price list that there was a group rate, which gave us a decent discount over the individual rate. We asked for that, but the official told us that it was only for sponsored organizations with an official letter, blah blah blah. We pled our case and tried the humor route with her but she said she sorry, nothing she could do. She left to begin preparing our visas, and five minutes later she came back and announced that we could have the group rate, if we might be able to pay an extra 10,000 CFA ($20) to her as a gift. This would still save a quite a bit. No brainer there – about half an hour later, we left with the group visa. Always nice to get the visa issued on the spot.
We only had the Guinea visa left to acquire; Lee headed off to another hotel, twenty or so kilometers outside the city, while I told him I’d rather stay, for the moment, at Sahel Vert. So we parted ways; I took all the paperwork for the Guinea visa and told him I’d get it done and join them the following night up there. But when I got back to the hotel, I quickly learned that there had been a mutiny led by mid-level soldiers, and that the Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré or “ATT” as he’s known, had been forcefully removed from power. This soon became an official coup d’etat — and the events that followed would significantly change our plans.