July 1, 2008

POST CARD: Seven Hours in Mali

My writer friend
Eliza Reid lives way up north in Iceland but still manages to get everywhere and anywhere on earth. As a new mother with an adorable son, Eliza's busy balancing words with walking lessons. She's also Canadian, so it's appropriate to have her guest star today, Canada Day. Here's a snippet from her travels across West Africa.

The Ségou “gare routière” (bus station) is milling with people. I arrive at 7am, buy a baguette with fried bananas and freshly grilled brochettes of beef, then make my way to the ticket booth to purchase the 5500 CFA ($13) one-way ticket to Sevaré, 350 km away.

I chat to the driver and the other bus employee on the trip, in case I need their help later on. One passenger offers to send 60 camels to my husband in Reykjavík in exchange for me staying with him; I scoff and he raises the offer to 80.

This bus is typical of most: the front windscreen is cracked in several places and an A3 sized posted of Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali’s President, is taped to the right-hand side, adding a further obstacle to the driver’s field of vision. West African pop music blasts from the speakers.

My small talk with the staff pays off and they assign me an aisle seat in the middle of the bus (safest) and by one of the small “sunroofs” – the windows don’t open, so the main door and the sun roofs are kept open to provide a small amount of respite from the heat. The colour scheme of the bus is based on a palette of “dirt” with “dust” accents.

The aisles are crammed with sacks of onions and bottles of local beer. The kaftan-wearing man across the aisle from me is muttering quietly to himself with his prayer beads. Does he know something I don’t?

The 9AM bus to Sevaré leaves promptly at 9:50am, tumbling east along Mali’s main tarmac road, the driver honking frantically to announce when we are about to overtake a slower van with people on the roof or a donkey and cart.

I have a good view of the driver in his tie-died shirt from the rear-view mirror. I can see when he picks his nose and his ears and when he yawns and rubs his eyes. I can see when he leans forward to pick something up off the floor or turns around to talk to his friends.

We stop at most of the villages along the way, usually small communities with mud houses and a mud mosque. Women and children clamber onto the bus to sell their wares – everything from sunglasses to plastic sacks of unfiltered water to oily clumps of dough or fresh peanuts. I buy some dough balls and give a couple to a little boy sitting near me. He smiles shyly and accepts.

The landscape is dusty, like seemingly all of Mali, and flat, dotted with baobab trees, huge termite mounds (a couple of metres high), shrubs, and fields of thin ripe millet, looking like anaemic corn stalks.

I can feel the sweat trickling down my back.

Mohammed, the bus company employee not driving, regularly climbs over the sacks in the aisle to inquire how I am. Am I too tired? Am I not too hot?

Nope. Everything’s great, Mohammed. I’m lovin’ every minute.

-Eliza Reid

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