The airport terminal: one lone, red dirt, wet-dripped-and-dried building.
I wish it was that simple in other cities.
I got to Mopti really early in the AM…it was approximately hitting about six. The airport was a tiny building (shack?) in the middle of the Sahel but it was too amazing to first catch sight of their bag handling system to initially admire my true environment.
The mouth of the baggage compartment on the big-body jet spat suitcase after pack after bag out on a flatbed truck….which initially led to just dumping the plastic, cardboard box and microfiber assortment in front of the entrance. Amazing. And even more amazing was the excuse to push through 100+ people to find your bag. Not complaining either; it really was the most fun I’ve had at picking up my luggage.
I retrieved my two large pieces after about thirty minutes of combating arms, legs and look-alike baggage. I finally had a look-about. My nerves pivoted from one foot to the next in milliseconds. Apprehensive in Africa. It was my first time here. Of all the countries I chose as my introduction to the amazing continent, I chose one of the most impoverished and adventurous. Of all areas in the world I chose to climb (as a beginner, mind you), I chose the crown of the Sahel – the Hand of Fatima. Not having a soul around I knew and being without a brain cell worth of French language experience (which is one of their main languages spoken in the country), I felt nervous. My friend Kevin, my hiking partner from Hawaii would soon arrive. He had been living here now for a few months for his duty assignment in the Peace Corps and devoting his time to help people in a small village called DounDou right outside of Mopti, building well systems for much-needed water.
Kevin was one of my only friends that lived in Honolulu when I resided there and he was also the one person that I shared a passion of outdoor adventures with. We rode around rogue on Honolulu streets on our mountain bikes; whether to hit up an indie film festival or find a way to the water to go snorkeling. We were buddies who had the same taste in music and he was down for any type of spontaneous undertaking. When I began rock climbing in Las Vegas, I would send him photos now and again, showing off my new addiction and he got inspired to try it as well. Fate had it that he met his future best friend and climbing partner, Jared, during this Peace Corp assignment and was introduced to his first lessons by cragging at the peaks and boulders of the Hand of Fatima. Another fine coincidence was, before even planning my trip to Africa, my eyes touched with wonderment upon an article on the “Hand of Fatima” in an American climbing magazine (in regards to Todd Skinner’s past achievement of climbing one of its highest “fingers”). I sat dreamy-eyed with the thought of touching this sandstone – the same texture of rock my passion was born from…but in a totally foreign place and unexplored continent. Next thing I know, Kev tells me that that’s where he’s at. And next thing I know, I am here.
I still wanted to visit Africa but Kev said I had to wait a couple months while he got settled and started on his development work on trying to get a well system constructed for the villagers in need. Understandable. I would be able to work and save some money then. Also over that waiting period, Kev had learned to climb and he was an extremely fast and able learner, it was like his build was meant for it. His main “partner in climb”, Jared, had been the instrumental person who passed on all he knew…and the gear to his hands.
Going back to my arrival, I exit the “terminal” and right away, I see Kev’s face. It was really cool to see him. I also see vendors set up with their colorful goods hungry to sell to a new foreign face. As we walk to our “ride”, we have a few peddlers approach and Kev starts speaking their language (Fulfulde) to basically say we’re not interested.
“So where’s our ride??” I ask.
“Um. Well, he left us.” Kev says in his calm manner (he is such a laid-back dude).
“What? What do you mean he left us.” I inquire, a bit concerned.
“He dropped me off, I told him to wait and now he’s gone.” Kev says completely unemotional. “But it’s cool, we’ll find another ride.” he says.
We search for a bargain among all the bush taxi drivers hanging around trying to make a quick buck. We find one. I can’t even BELIEVE the condition of the station wagon that we have chosen to deliver us to our next destination. The vehicle itself looked like it had gotten drunk off of too much oil and tumbled down the stairs in the rain and was sitting outside rusting for 20 years. I thought, ‘Can this even run?’ but I left it in Kev’s hands…and of course, the bush taxi man’s as well.
The ever-popular Madonna sticker on the glove compartment made me smile….awesome. We are NOT headed to Bamako..which is about 11 hours away to the west. The driver started the car after about 10 minutes of choking the rusted, drunk, sick, etc. looking machine. We went a ways and then it broke down. The friendly drive got out, did a little messing around under the hood…and off we went. I think we broke down one more time before arriving to a gated house. We were at the Peace Corp office (the Bureau, they call it). The house was a good size; 3 bedrooms, tiled floor, with a house manager/guard type of guy there 24 hours to watch the place. It was in a neighborhood that looked as if the French had once flourished there. All the houses had gates and upon entering through the gates, a huge yard with trees and room to play was the typical scene. In truth, the place would be considered less than mediocre compared to a house in the US….but it was comfortable to me.
We would not be staying here; the Peace Corp made a rule that none of the volunteers were allowed to sleep here unless they were ill (there were 2 sick rooms). They want people to stay in their villages and be immersed in the local culture so they can concentrate on work. Too often, people get comfortable and lose the focus of their missions. Ultimately, the Bureau was basically where I kept the majority of my things for safekeeping.
We were leaving the next day for a long bus ride to go camp in Hombourri and to get a handle on the Hand’s peaks. I had one day to catch up on rest. I took a shower at the Bureau and then we took off to go into Mopti and explore. Kev knew of a restaurant and we walked around until we were a bit tired and sat and ate at the riverside – the Bani river. On the way, I attempted to pick up local greetings and important words/phrases.
The Fulfulde language (also known as ‘Pul’ or ‘Pulaar’) is not the main language but definitely a popular one. It’s a West African language that is spoken by people of the Fulani tribe. Fulas are the minority in every country they are in…with the exception of Guinea and they are mostly nomadic; herders and traders. A lot of the volunteers are taught the ‘minority languages’ because the ones outside of the main cities need the most help so they need to learn this to communicate effectively with them. Kev picked it up very quickly and thank god he was around because French is one of the main languages in Mali and I can’t speak that either. He also picked up the cultural nuances very quickly; so that we were not harassed as much to buy from vendors or donate to every single person that approached.
It’s very hard going to a third world country and see people in need and force yourself to hold back from helping monetarily. Once you give someone money, many more will follow suit so you have to be conscious about what attention you’ll end up attracting. There were subtle ways I was able to do it so I didn’t get overwhelmed (quietly and discreetly). You feel extremely bad turning people away; I even do in the States but I do end up giving someone on the street a dollar frequently. What is a dollar???? We all should be able to do that.
Anyway, Kev stands out as a tall, lanky white guy with red hair but because he spoke the language and knew how to joke around, people respected him. He knew the proper, complex greeting. It consisted of asking someone how they slept, how is their family and a long series of questions that it just customary and polite. If the person is an elder, Kevin should speak first. If the person is a guest, they should ask first. It is fascinating to see the whole process because every sentence is said so fast (since it’s said about 100 times a day to almost everyone you see)…..the phrases are just flashed out of the mouth, monotone, meaningful and memorized. Rarely do you hear, “I slept terrible…the family is terrible, my son crashed his SUV after drinking too much…”. I think people just say the greeting as a formality and the answers remain the same.
And example would be:
Kev: Jam weeti (did you spend the morning in peace?)
Responder: Aweeti jam (the typical response is, I am at peace, and you?)
Kev: Boss fu wala
and it continues on…..
Kev (approaching someone at their home): Ah reeniki. (do you feel peace?)
Responder: Bossi fu wala (there are no problems)
One time, a very persistent peddler came and would not let us be. Kevin took the leather jewelry box he was trying to sell me and asked the peddler, “Will you buy this? Will you buy this? Please buy this. Please……”. We were laughing sooo hard. Even the peddler. Kev explained, “This is how we feel.” And the guy let us be, although he stayed to chat because he got curious on how Kev’s language skills were so on point.
Another customary thing to do is that if you want to get along with someone, you talk shit about their family. Yeah. Kind of like “yo mama” jokes but in this case, it’s called “joking cousins”. We were in the market and Kev was buying some type of nut that has a narcotic effect for his village chief as an offer of respect. The young men selling it were speaking with him, kind of teasing Kev so Kev started talking about the guys’ family..saying that his cousin was from another tribe. Everyone started laughing and next thing you know, Kev was their best friend and had garnered everyone’s respect.
……to be continued…