ANATOMY OF A MASK DEAL IN BURKINA FASO

April 3

With a dude who had earlier in the day sold me some bronze statues and who was at the moment taking me around on a motorbike, I decided to hit up a local restaurant.  He had just done his best to be my guide in Vieux Bobo, a neighborhood in Burkina Faso’s second city of Bobo-Dialossou, Just before we got there, by “sheer coincidence” of course, we ran into a merchant of Dogon Country (well known tribe in Mali) selling traditional style masks.   I was hungry, felt like sitting down, and had a passing interest in buying some of these masks since I was preparing a package of artwork to be sent home – maybe the only time I’ll buy much of anything non-perishable for the West African portion of the trip.   So I agreed to a session at a local restaurant with sizzling brochettes near the entrance (beef on a stick dish, ubiquitous in West Africa and particularly Mali and Burkina Faso).

The merchant said he’d bring back some stuff right away to show me.  Sure enough, he returned on a motorbike with an enormously bulky bag full of wooden artwork, some of it pretty decent as opposed to the crappy, generic, pan-African stuff you see everywhere.  This guy had a slick, cocky approach, transparently expecting a large margin from his Western, non-native French speaking counterpart.  For some reason asked me if I was “nervous,” as though I was about to make a gut-wrenching decision to pour my life savings into a few of his wooden trinkets.

There are times when I give people a break on the price of a good, and surely for a service (since it may affect performance), thusly paying a bit more than I know or discover to be the absolute bottom line price.  Either that or I bargain them down for the hell of it, then give them a little tip for being cool.  This is true especially when they are genuine and seem as if they could really use the extra coin.  But this guy looked pretty well off – in fact, he told me, he regularly peddled masks to wealthy consumers in Switzerland.  What’s more, he talked like a hustler and implicitly assumed that I was an utter novice at both bargaining and West African wooden masks, when in fact neither was true.  So it was game on.

Another French bargaining session of nearly an hour ensued; he initiated by cordially inviting me to sit down and have a beer “on him.” Given the totality of the circumstances here, a red flag – poorly disguised code language for “rip-off attempt in progress.”  After some pleasantries, he kicked things off with a predictably laughable price of 40,000 CFA ($80) per mask, 5 masks for a grand total of 200,000 CFA ($400).  I immediately stood up and walked away without saying a word; he dragged me back in and profusely apologized.  The next twenty minutes entailed he and I exchanging insults, mostly in good humor and with considerable laughter, yet also with a certain edginess.  During this period, after constant prodding, I introduced a rock-bottom price and subsequently refused to budge.

My new buddy told several creative lies about the masks – a mix of tired lines and (for me) new material regarding, for example, age, origin, craftsmanship and history.  I had become familiar with these masks in 2005 when shopping for them, and ultimately buying some, in Sierra Leone and Mali.  Each time I called him out, usually with a drawn out si vous plait, a shake of the head, and a chuckle (oh puleeeeeeease, you’re not sliding that bullshit by me), and enjoyed observing the awkwardness and his frustration grow.  Some of what he was saying I knew to be false, other times I just guessed; for those times without fail his post-lie resignation betrayed his remarks and confirmed my presumptions.

Despite all the silliness, I liked this guy well enough, seeing him as a charismatic salesman just trying make a buck.  I began thinking about the nature of the product at issue – he sells something that is somewhat similar to, say, a Persian carpet: a quasi-artistic item with a subjective value, some traditional significance, and with plenty of room for embellishment as to its core characteristics.  He in turn seemed to be developing a grudging respect for me.  But I also liked watching him squirm.  Enjoying the session and the appurtenant intense and rapid-fire French lesson, I started changing the subject.  I told him, “let’s talk about something else and enjoy these beers since our deal is going nowhere.”  I asked him about his life; he engaged for a time with a newfound genuineness but then brought the conversation back to the sale.  Ignoring this, I pressed on with questions about Burkina Faso; he kept coming back.  In doing so, he was letting it be known that he was keen to make the sale, perhaps even at the offering that even I thought was absurdly low – and by this point he knew that I could sense this.

Towards the conclusion, I walked away a couple of times in despair that a deal would never be reached.  Finally, I raised my price 5000 CFA, or $10, and asked him to take it or leave it: “My friend, it is getting dark, we are done eating, and I have to go.”  I soon emerged with a few masks for exactly 1/8 of the asking price; as we were getting ready to leave, he said with genuine disgust “you can pay for your own beer.”  To me this was the ultimate sign of respect for the price, so instead of holding him to his word of treating me, I agreed with a smile.  He shook his head and smiled back at me, rolling his eyes while recounting the enormous discount I had gotten.  “Incroyable” (“incredible”), he said, and then told me that he actually sold the masks for $80 each to his Swiss customers, as if to somehow save face.   “Ah, mon ami, si vous plaaaaait!”, I responded, still in deal mode.  No protest followed.

URBAN BURKINA AND A FIRST SAFARI

April 1 – April 7

We decided to take to the urban portion of the Burkina Faso trip:  its two largest cities of Bobo-Dilassou and Ouagadougu (the latter largely for visa reasons), and the only two cities of any size in this still predominantly (85% or so) rural country of 15 million.  After some time at Bobo’s Central Market, where – despite its massive scale – I just couldn’t find anything worth buying, we found a great-value French-run guest house.

One of the many nationally famous performers at Bobo’s stunningly sleek and brand new Culture Center

We went to see a music performance at the then five-day-old Culture Center, constructed just in time to host Bobo’s annual “Cultural Week” festival.  In a country where a fair number of structures, as in neighboring Mali, are built of mud, and where the vast majority of the population lives on the proverbial “less than $2 a day,” it simply seemed ahead of its time.   I had seen nothing like it in West Africa for the past two months.  I had read that the Burkinabes loved the arts, but this was stunning:  this building I saw before me bore a slight resemblance to the glitzy Staples Center a mile from my apartment in Downtown LA.  I enjoyed the show sitting next to the French ex-pat hotel owner. When a fellow long-term French ex-pat sitting a few rows in front of us looked back at him, with a look that expressed a feeling of “wow, we are suddenly in France,” he returned the look with an amazed shake of his head.  The music show was pretty cool too.  Some of Burkina Faso’s best-known artists got big cheers, and the occasional audience member ventured up on stage, interrupting a performance watched by thousands, to personally deliver to the performer 1000 CFA ($2) – in yet another disarming West African quirky spectacle.

Signs for FC Barcelona were painted everywhere in this part of Vieux Bobo, which is hundreds of years old. Just another sign of the incredible reach of European soccer in Africa

The next day at the guest  house, I met a dude selling bronze statues, for which Burkina Faso is well known.  I decided that I liked a couple of his pieces and engaged in a spirited bargaining session, which lasted about an hour; I ended up with a few new works of art.  The guy seemed cool, and it was already around 3pm, so I figured I’d ask him if he wanted to take me around on a motorbike to see some of Vieux Bobo, the old section of the city, which purportedly dates back to the 11th Century.  Anyway, I needed someone to go with me to act as a guide; by city ordinance, one was technically required in Old Bobo.  He filled me in on a few historical points, but after awhile I just gave him the camera and asked him to start taking pictures while I walked around and talked to people.  This was a very effective strategy, and one I’ll have to remember, since he loved using the camera and because no one bothered him or asked him for money for taking the pictures as  they most likely would have done of me.  Instead, he became authoritative and started instructing kids on how to pose, etc.  They gleefully complied, and I got some great pics.  I found Old Bobo to be an impressive place, structurally akin to a very poor man’s Moroccan medina, but with far more engaging inhabitants.

We then took the country’s arterial highway – once again dotted with hutted villages and people walking along the road – over to Ouagadougou (“Ouaga” for short).  We might have ventured to Ouaga anyway, but the main purpose was to get the visa de pays entente, which, as a traveler, I hope is the future of visas in Africa and worldwide.  For just 25,000 CFA ($50), this visa allows you to gain entry to five countries – Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, and Niger. We probably won’t go to Niger (though who knows, especially if we try to get around Nigeria), but the others are fair game and Cote D’Ivoire is a virtual certainty.

Residents in motion in Vieux Bobo

Inside the Burkina Faso immigration office, the woman in charge of the pays entente visa made it painfully clear that she was not wiling to engage in conversation related to our pining for an expedited service.  Perhaps some talk of backsheesh would have helped things along, but we didn’t offer.  As a result, we had about five days in Ouaga.  I spent the time largely looking at/haggling over bronze sculptures/wooden pieces, and hanging out with both locals and some of the only other overlanders I’d met on the trip.

I spent quite a bit of time with two dudes:  Razo, a Burkinabe, and Andy, a German.  Razo helped me out with a lot of stuff like giving me a ride to the art market, preparing the package, finding a guy to fix my iphone, and plenty more.  He also just generally liked hanging out and, along with Andy, the three of us had some fun nights out in the city.  Razo is very clever, always had a smile, and was constantly ready to do whatever.

The guy who showed me around Old Bobo and his family, the young ones wearing eye makeup

Andy and his friend had been driving through Mauritania and Mali for the past two months, largely in the Sahara, with another group of Germans.  What I remember most about Andy is the sheer joy he exhibits when talking to local people – he could instantly relate to them as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, and his French was fantastic, complete with a knowledge of some local slang.   No one I’ve seen on the trip better embodies what I wrote in recent passage about the capacity to enjoy this region:

“…those who bring a sense of adventure, can adapt and take pleasure in seemingly mundane and unconventional experiences, can temporarily suspend their desire for Western creature comforts, and enjoy spontaneous conversations with people – not to mention the French language – have a good chance of thriving on an overland trip through West Africa”

Andy was in Ouaga for the primary purpose of selling his car – for him and his buddy the 4×4 overlanding portion of the trip was soon to conclude.  He had a somewhat older, less equipped Toyota 4×4 than us, and was holding out for 5 million CFA, or $10,000.  A horde of sellers descended upon the guest house every day in a sort of sweepstakes designed to net them the 5% or so deposit from the sale.  After a few days Andy, who was fond of wearing a ragged, used American t-shirt that he had convinced a kid in Mauritania to give him as a cadeau, began to dress more formally.  He even went through the trouble of buying a collared shirt locally because he had been told that for many Burkinabe buyers of used vehicles, personal impressions often sealed the deal.  As hustlers, pretenders, and on rare occasions legitimate middlemen came and went, he was consistently told that 5 million was too high.  I think he may have gotten an offer of 4.5 million, but by the time I left, Andy had not budged on the price and had not sold the 4×4.  He seemed to enjoy the process to an extent, and when he was told that he wasn’t going to get his price, he’d respond by saying that he quite liked Ouaga, and was in no hurry to leave.

Razo, Andy, and me: Three guys from different lands, all understanding the universal theme of “douchebag”.

I was meanwhile ensnared in my own transactional woes, in buying some art pieces in Ouaga.  I decided to buy some art as gifts and for myself, one of the only times this trip that I have bought something non-perishable or non-service related.  I enjoy haggling, but to some end — though on at least one occasion there was no deal struck: once, after a long session a guy refused to give me a price he had already agreed upon, stating that some boss had called to veto the proposed transaction.

But eventually I gathered together a few pretty cool pieces, and the real challenge became sending them home.  I bought a metal trunk to put my new art works in and took the bulky container to the post office three times in a taxi – once it was too late, once I did not have enough money to pay for the shipping, and the final time, a customs guy was in the middle of negotiating a bribe when he told me that they were closing for lunch.  We were on our way out of town so I had to rely on Razo to go back to finalize the mailing. I was skeptical but he came through and scanned me the receipt.  Two weeks later, the package arrived in the US.

The West African road trip has been bereft of the prototypical African safaris, but here are real, live, wild elephants in a private park in Burkina Faso.

We finally decided to head to a privately-run safari park south of Ouaga – finally, a taste of the Africa everyone thinks I’m enjoying but that really isn’t very present in West Africa.  Another of Burkina’s great values. We saw many elephants at close range, a couple types of antelope, a buffalo, and loads of different birds, all for about $20 a person.  Nothing compared to the legendary East African and Southern African game parks, but still a great time — must be one of the cheapest safaris in Africa.

BURKINA FASO’S WILD SOUTHWEST

March 29-April 1

So that was Mali.  Coup et al. clearly in the rearview mirror.  Now onto a country I hoped would be a highlight of this trip, and in my mind, justified our considerable jaunt away from the Atlantic coast and into West Africa’s baking inland nether regions:  Burkina Faso (meaning, somewhat ironically in West Africa, Land of the Incorruptible).  We arrived in “the Faso”, when else, at night.  I am pretty sure we have crossed more borders at nightfall on this trip (usually right before the border closes, which is often either 6 pm or 7 pm in West Africa) than during the day.  So much for one of the golden rules of overlanding in Africa:  Don’t do it at night.

The Crusier gets dwarfed by these imposing limestone rock formations.

 

Following a hassle free border, we had to pay 5000 CFA ($10) for a “laissez passez”, (“let pass”), the document that 1) most every checkpoint officer asks for, and 2) ensures that we get through with no problems.  We found a place with very basic huts in a town not far from the border, and after a roadside dinner, I crashed promptly.  The next day, we headed where for the first time in two weeks I was able to see an actual attraction, something that people come from somewhere else to see.  Actually we came to Banfora for three things:  some giant limestone rock formations called Domes de Fabedougou, the Karfiguela Waterfall, and Tengrela Lake.

Enjoying Karfiguela Waterfall

 

After arriving in town, trying but failing to find an optimal place to stay, we then tried to at least find the waterfall and domes.  There was a gate at a road that we believed led to one of them, and a local loiterer who wanted money to open the gate and/or be our guide for a while.  He spoke only in French and didn’t seem to know anything (which was later confirmed), but we figured that as it was about an hour and a half from getting dark, and if we chucked him a few CFA, it would be worth our while if he could definitely get us to both.  He did, and both were pretty cool if not stunning. The domes were like mini-mountains, arising out of nothing, with summits easily reachable by simple rock scrambling. At the waterfall  we repeatedly hurled into the one of the few dry season swimming holes.

Lilly pads in Lake Tengrela, home to hippos to jacanas

 

That night I dined on guinea hen – many birds, rodents, reptiles, and the like tastes like chicken, except that guinea hen is far better than chicken.  After striking out at five different hotels in town for a variety of reasons (bad value, reception closed, completely booked), we finally, around 11pm, found a place to camp near the lake.  The next morning, we woke up at dawn, walked down to the lake – where we saw a couple colonies of hippos, and a mother lode of water birds including my favorite, the giant-footed jacana.

Sheep eat mangoes? Apparently so in Burkina Faso!

 

 

The day before, I remarked that we had just downed what would probably be the cheapest meal of the trip: a lunch of the West African staple riz sauce that cost 200 CFA (40 cents).  I was dead wrong.   Right after hanging with hippos on the lake, we pulled up to a roadside stand serving breakfast of dried cous cous and sauce for 100 CFA (20 cents).  I decided to splurge and wash it down with a 25 CFA (4 cent) sachet of water.  With the day ahead of us, we set off for Burkina Faso’s second city, Bobo-Dioulasso.

MALI: AND THEN THE COUP HAPPENED

March 21 – March 28

A special thanks to everyone who expressed concern for my safety during the coup in Mali.

Twelve days after arriving at the Hotel Sahel Vert in Bamako, Mali, I finally left. Why so long in a city that was originally planned mostly as a place to get Burkina Faso and Guinea visas, and an extension on the one-week Malian visa we had obtained at the border?  For one, we arrived on a weekend and had to wait for embassies to open.  Had we gotten straight on it, we could have made a timely exit.

But just as we were set to sail, a coup led by junior soldiers on Wednesday, March 21, and the resulting chaos around Bamako in the aftermath made movement very difficult.  In the first couple of days after the coup, gunshots were constant and close – most of the action was taking place near the presidential palace, just a few kilometers away from Sahel Vert.  Some reports suggested that these were mostly shots being fired into the air, but no one really seemed to know what was going on in Bamako.

Two days after the coup went down, on Friday, March 23, the gunshots were still going strong.  Around noon, I was sitting in the shaded outdoor lobby of Sahel Vert, internetting and having a drink, when I noticed some kids running.  That’s when I saw a guy with a camouflage bag and a shirt that said “police”  using a pistol to motion everyone to the back of the hotel, and yelling “go, go quickly!!” to a space not far from my room.  When he spotted me, he swept me up in the corral along with another foreigner, Pinar, a Turkish woman, and her Malian boyfriend,who had been sitting by the pool. He lined us all up at first and said something about an execution, but did not fire any shots.  The guy subsequently proceeded to go on a roughly five-minute tyrannical rant in rapid, angry French.   He seemed to be on a power trip, emboldened by a coup with which he was somehow associated, and he was probably drunk.  The dude waved the gun particularly in my face several times.

At this point, I was thinking about my conversation with an American embassy worker three days before, in which he described the manner in which foreigners were kidnapped recently in Northern Mali.  He said the kidnappers came in with guns drawn, asked the hotel staff where the “whites” were, went to the appropriate room, rounded them up, and took them away in a car.  Once a German resisted; he was instantly shot and killed.   I had no idea who the present guy was – there were constant reports of thugs who had bought military or police uniforms, which are widely sold at markets in Mali. Even the coup leaders suggested that some of those creating mayhem around the city had simply bought uniforms to make themselves more intimidating.   This guy had told me to leave my laptop on the table at which I was working; I thought at the very least he or a cohort would hoist it.  The guy continued to flash the gun a few inches from my face and look directly at me, more than anyone else.

But then, somewhat abruptly, he finished his rant and promptly bounced.   As he rushed off out of the hotel entrance, he made a point of telling me that the computer was still there and that he was not a thief.  I was glad I still possessed the machine, but was left wondering why the round-up and rant occurred; I basically understood the guy’s French — “we’re in control now, don’t go anywhere, blah, blah, blah” — but not the underlying purpose.  For a couple of days I habitually, even subconsciously, scanned the entrance carefully for similarly – or worse – minded entrants.  Pinar told me that she could not sleep for the first three nights after the incident.

I spoke to the hotel owner, Modibo, about it, and he was surprised to hear the story after taking awhile to realize that I wasn’t just full of shit.  He had been there the whole time, at the bar, but somehow missed the incident.  He said that given the circumstances of the coup, he was offering a couple of beers at the bar to a local patrol unit (of which I believe the gun toter was a part) in exchange for protection from rogue soldiers who were purportedly marauding around town in the inevitable post-coup frenzy, happily looting away.  (Fox News went the furthest of any of the online reports I had read, informing readers that rogue soldiers in this “dirt poor” country were running roughshod around the city, alcoholic drink in one hand, semi-automatic weapon in the other.)  I told him that with patrolmen like that, I hoped he didn’t run out of beer!

A few days after the gun incident Modibo introduced me to the supervisor of the gun toter.  I described the incident in detail, and the supervisor seemed genuinely concerned about the needlessly aggressive behavior of his apparently renegade patrolman.  He promised me that the guy would be disciplined, and I believed him since he seemed to have some kind of strong connection with the hotel owner that had something to do with the latter’s UN days.

The coup occurred, say those who pulled it off, because the incumbent president, ATT, was corrupt and weak, unable to do much about the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country, especially given that may Tuaregs who had fought for Qadafi during the Libyan revolution had recently returned to Mali with a huge number of weapons.  In the process, they have put democracy on hold, much to the outrage of the global community and in particular neighboring West African states. Nonetheless, the coup actually seemed pretty popular among Malians.

Day after day, this was a familiar scene. The Groundhog Day nature of my existence at Sahel Vert under unique circumstances was truly unforgettable.

For a few days following the coup, all the guests at the hotel kind of stayed in place, with our lives on hold.  Embassies of various countries, including France, the US, and Turkey, emphatically warned their citizens against movement within central Bamako – which was of course where we were located.  Roads were closed, petrol was in short supply, and apparently soldiers were expropriating vehicles, especially 4x4s like our Cruiser, for their own use.

Every local I spoke to advised me to stay put until at least the following Tuesday, when the new military government said that borders would open and travel would be allowed again.  When I finally did leave Sahel Vert on Wednesday morning, I was the first foreign guest to do so.

In the period prior to my departure, I maintained a sort of bizarre Groundhog Day existence.  The place had a motley crew of characters approaching “Star Wars bar” status:  Mike, an affable, goofy, constantly drunk, fifty-something prankster and Kiwi miner who was putting together a team to try to find gold in Eastern Mali; two groups of Mauritanians who habitually drank tea among themselves and after awhile with me, consisting of a pair of younger men who had driven a 4×4 down to Bamako to sell, and a pair of older men who ran a fish business from the port city of Nouadhibou, where we had stopped during the rally; Pinar, the Turkish woman, and her Malian boyfriend who had involuntarily joined me for the gunpoint rant party; a loner German woman researcher who projected an ice-queen vibe but who turned out to be a pleasure to speak with once I initiated conversation; various Malian staff with wildly divergent and mostly carefree personalities; a Malian hotel owner, who had worked for five years for the UN, and who did his best to keep the ship sailing smoothly; and a steady trickle of mostly younger Malians who came to use the pool for a day use fee of 2000 CFA ($4).

Bijou, who had recently gotten a job tending the bar at Sahel Vert, usually had a big smile, helping to make the time more enjoyable.

The latter group included a former Malian Olympic swimmer, who is currently the national team’s coach.  This guy was a jokester who tried to pull every last woman in the place.  I met him in the pool; he saw that I was trying to teach kids how to swim and asked if he too could learn.  As I started helping him, he shot to the other end of the pool underwater with lighting speed, did a perfect flip turn, and resurfaced with an impish smile and returned to me – all in about four seconds.  “You mean like this?” he taunted me.  Bastard.

It was then that he told me that he was a former Olympic swimmer. When I expressed doubt, he ushered me to his computer, home of a slew of pictures of him at various Olympic games, posing with the Malian swim team and other Olympic athletes.  I was astonished that impoverished, landlocked Mali – a country with no ocean and precious few pools, where almost no one could swim – had swimmers that could compete at that level.   The next day he came back – apparently he had little else to do since his workplace, the only Olympic pool in Mali, was “closed” for the coup –  and spent quite a bit of time teaching me how to do flip turns.  I can do them now, and have a new swim team to cheer for in London later this year.

I tried my best to teach some young Malians how to swim.

I began to enjoy my existence at Sahel Vert as a coup refugee to the point where it was difficult to leave.  It was an unconventional travel experience, but a productive and fun one.  My room was kind of crappy and none too cool – daytime temperatures soared over 100 degrees each afternoon, and it didn’t cool down that much at night.  But the strong internet connection allowed me to get the blog up and running.  And apart from my brief daily conversations with Mike and occasional chat with Pinar, it was all French, all the time.

 

I enjoyed the company of these guys from Mauritania, who always offered tea and plenty of laughs via giving Mike a hard time.

There was a hilarious, constant faux battle between Mike’s entourage and the Mauritanians.  Mike had been staying with a local woman – apparently paying handsomely on a daily basis for the privilege – until a younger Cameroonian woman emerged onto the scene.  He then started sharing his room with her, although there was one night where all three of them slept in the same room. Neither volunteered to leave and Mike apparently just didn’t care.  Eventually the woman from Cameroon won out, and the other one was branded a schemer and scammer, with new details having emerged from various locals after her departure.

Everyone in the hotel knew about it, guests and staff alike, and it became a constant joke.  One of the Mauritanians would crack, every few minutes, “Mike, no good” and alternately, “Mike, tu n’es pas good”.  Mike, drunk anyways, usually just laughed it off.  I would shuffle between groups:  I knocked back the customary three cups of tea with the Mauritanians, had a chat with Mike’s ever-changing and expanding entourage, jumped in the pool, talked to the hotel staff, got on the internet….and then did it all again.   Occasionally Captain Amadou Sanogo and his fellow coup leaders would appear on television in military fatigues, looking tired and speaking broken French from a hastily-prepared script, with an updated public message.   Immediately after, traditional Malian dance and song would play.

On my 12th day at Sahel Vert, I left, having read and heard from multiple sources that the borders were definitely open as had been promised.  There had been conflicting reports previously, but I wanted to take advantage of an escape window; many other foreigners were pouring out of Mali at this time, both by air and road.  I grabbed a taxi up to the campment where Lee was staying, a fun-looking place with a pool, badminton courts, hiking trails, and plenty more.  I wouldn’t have traded my experience at Sahel Vert for anything, but it would have been nice to have spent at least one day at this place.   That morning, we headed off to the Burkina Faso border without incident.  By about 10pm that night, we found a place to stay, near the border, and Mali was safely in the rearview mirror.

This was one day short of my first two-week stint in Mali.  The first one, which spanned the cities/regions of Kayes, Bamako, Mopti, Dogon Country, Djenne, the Niger River, and Timbuktu – the quintessential Malian tourist route – was spent largely on extremely uncomfortable public transport. Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience that left me wanting to travel more in the region and in Africa.  In fact, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was inspiration for a return to Africa with our own vehicle.  This time was just as unique – circumstances dictated that I spent it all in Bamako, and almost all in one small, not entirely unpleasant space.

Upon reflection, I see this second two-week stint as a microcosm for the entire West African portion of the trip:  Traveling in a region like West Africa – which, especially during the soon-to-finish dry season, is hot, relatively homogenous, largely lacking in star attractions, and devoid of signature activities – has been about finding diamonds in the rough.  Unlike made-for-budget-travelers regions like South America or Southeast Asia, it’s not always an easy region in which to enjoy yourself or feel a sense of growth as a traveler.  For some people, it’s simply boring – and there have been times when I have felt the same way.  But at the risk of sounding like a Lonely Planet guidebook, known for painting a rosy picture of even a shithole, it seems that those who bring a sense of adventure, can adapt and take pleasure in seemingly mundane and unconventional experiences, can temporarily suspend their desire for Western creature comforts, and enjoy spontaneous conversations with people – as well as the French language – have a good chance of thriving on an overland trip through West Africa.  And maybe even stuck in the middle of a coup.