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.