06 July 2008

Fun with the brothers in Mali

It’s been a while since my last post mainly because I have had a lot going on. Also, there was a 3 or 4 week time frame when there was just no available internet. Ask my brothers, they were here for the tail end of it. The biggest news is that Mike and Zack made it. After 3 full weeks in Mali, I do believe they were ready to go home. I kept them busy and constantly entertained (although they may not know it, they were my entertainment for the 3 weeks as well!) When they arrived in Bamako, I met them at the airport amidst a brawl outside the main terminal. In the ensuing fight, no one was injured, but it was fun to watch as women attacked each other with heels and men pounded each other to the ground. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good fight!

Mike and Zack came out of the terminal all grins and greetings (not Malian greetings, but the more appropriate American style). They then informed me that the bag they brought for me full of climbing equipment, new shoes, and a grab bag mix of American goodies was lost in between time zones. Without asking for assistance, we had “well-wishers” and “helpers” working for us and eventually blocking the door until we paid them. Mike offered to pay, but I would not allow it. No wonder the Malians see us as suckers for cash (Mike!). The Peace Corps (mainly our financial manager Alyssa) was extremely helpful in getting the bag back (and she even bought me lunch). It turns out the bag was offloaded from the plane due to weight and was brought the next day. They figured I could wait…. Thanks, Royal Air Maroc.

The first leg of our trip took us down to Bougoni and Sikasso where Zack freestyle rapped in a night club called Alcatraz and then threw up all over Mike’s face in a taxi the next day. I promise that the two events are not related. And we can’t forget Sophie accidentally spitting chewed up nut kernels into a woman’s face after kindly asking her to move. Maybe the Bambara didn’t translate? We stayed with Sophie in Bougoni for a night. She helped show us around Sikasso region and took care of the Bambara and French, for the most part. In Bougoni, Zack jumped into a pickup game of soccer as soon as we arrived. His integration skills are impeccable. After Bougoni, we headed to Sikasso to camp by the waterfalls for a night. After being in the north for months, I have become very accustomed to a dry desert-like landscape and was completely caught off guard by the Jungle Book landscape of Sikasso. Mogli didn’t pop out swinging on a vine, but we were met my many curious onlookers at the waterfalls as we jumped in to escape the humidity. At night, we brought out the iPod and speakers to accompany our meal of canned chicken, mango jelly, peanuts, and dates (it was REALLY good). The air was so humid by the falls and none of us could really sleep. I felt submerged in a fog all night, which is not an ideal sleeping condition by any means.

The next day we hiked back to the main road for a little over an hour and I was given a chance to practice more Bamabara, but found myself in a Senufo village. Not much luck there. But, I did end up finding multiple Fulfulde speakers by the main road and felt right at home. I can speak Fulfulde really well and am extremely confident in my abilities. Mike and Zack thought it was funny to see me attract a crowd everywhere I went as I had them rallied around me while I told stories and joked around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I go home and am anonymous again; I enjoy this quazi-celebrity status that I hold here. Plus, I have become a little more proficient in both French and Bambara… mainly bar, restaurant and taxi language. The rest will come with time. Speaking a slew of languages is very taxing on the brain, but fun, nonetheless.

On the 10 hour ride between Sikasso and Sevare, I slept for the majority, but Mike and Zack were crammed and apparently experienced hell. You’ll have to speak to them for more details. My only qualm was stepping into a huge puddle of pit latrine water in Koutiala at around 3am. That put a damper on the ride and seriously downgraded the status of my new shoes. We saw the Darjeeling Limited at one point, which was perfect considering we were three brothers meeting up in a strange place after a long absense. I even had our itinerary worked out perfectly and was on pain killers by the end of the trip!

We hit up Sevare and Douentza quickly before making it to my village. The ride to Douentza was memorable because Mike was sick. We thought he might just make it the two hours, but 20 minutes before Douentza he looked at me with his pale face and said, “I’m not gonna make it.” I whipped out a pair of pants from my backpack and tied the legs together, creating a makeshift puke bag. As soon as the pants were open and in his hand, he let loose and I just laughed. Sorry, but I have very little sympathy for throwing up and/or diarreah in Mali. If you get Malaria, then I’ll send you a get well card.

We got to village the next morning. At the main road, we were met by two guys around my age (Hama and Mamadou) who carried the boys’ bags for them. They sent a kid ahead to notify the villagers that we had arrived. Waiting under a small shade tree and making small talk, we heard the beginnings of drums beating and guns firing. Within minutes, the entire village had assembled and come out to greet our arrival. What sounded like the coming of war ended up being the most hearty and warmest welcome I have ever experienced in my life. The entire village came out with guns blazing into the air and drums beating out rhythms. I introduced everyone and we were paraded into the village with such fanfare that I could have sworn we were in a movie. The villagers sang, danced, and jumped sporadically into the air as they accompanied us to all of the main house holds in village to greet the elders. Once the hooplah calmed down a bit, we were left at my house to unwind and relax a bit. We at some toh, a goat was killed, and the kids inundated us with questions. Shortly before the sun was setting, the drums and guns started up again and we were rushed back out to the main center where singing and dancing was at full force again. We all had our turn at dancing, but the dust was choking and we were tired.

The following day we hiked up into the mountains behind site and explored the ancient Tellem houses in the rocks and caves. Tijani and Ousman gave us a lot of information that I translated for the boys. They were looking for artifacts to sell to tourists, but found nothing remarkable. On the other hand, I was able to climb around and do some bouldering. I actually climbed up a large face without thinking of the consequences (very typical of me) and found that there was no way down. It was all overhangs and straight faces. I eventually pulled a Spiderman-esque move to get down and gave everyone a good scare.

That afternoon, it was time for me to kill the goat I had bought for Mike and Zack’s arrival. The goat was brought to my house and thrown onto the ground. Zack was squeamish and couldn’t watch, but Mike was ready with the camera. The guys in village made sure his angles and lighting were right and gave me the go-ahead to slaughter the goat (so long as I said the correct prayers). I grabbed the goat’s horn, pulled his head back as he faced Mecca and let out a loud “Bisimillah!” Slicing into the goat’s neck, he reeled back, but we had a tight grip on him. As instructed, I said “Allah akbar” as the blood came out, and everyone was happy. I sliced and sliced away until I could feel his spine. I was confused as one guy yelled “keep cutting!” while another yelled “enough!” I eventually came to a happy medium and stopped cutting. It was weird killing a goat; I almost felt out of my own body. I didn’t really feel like I was all there, but the dead goat at my feet and blood all over me confirmed the fact. Anyway, we roasted the goat and he tasted great. We dined on goat head soup with rice the next morning (not so great).

After leaving village, we met up with other PCVs and headed north to Hombori for rock climbing. We arrived around 1 in the morning and planned to climb up this one block to set the top rope for the morning, but Kevin was scared by mass quantities of bats. A rabies-laden bite is no way to start a climbing trip, so we put it off until the morning. The wind was fierce and we eventually found three camping sites to set up our tents where we wouldn’t blow away. I slept well until Kevin woke me up at first light to begin climbing. Mike really impressed me this day. On his first climb, he said it would be his last due to his fear of heights. But before I knew it, he was down on the ground and then strapped in on the other side for another climb! Go Mike! Zack was also really impressive. He got off to a slow start, but was consistently making it to the tops of his climbs. The second day he really came through. We had set a top rope on this face with tiny little holds. I belayed Zack on his climb and he just plugged away until he reached the top with no problems. I was a big fan of this rock because it was were I learned to repel myself down. It was like I was in a military commercial. Wearing my harness, I had the rope doubled up in my belay device and repelled down the rock with one hand above and one hand below. It was awesome having complete control of my decent.

That second morning, we were about to leave the campement we stayed at when I saw some odd looking clouds approaching. Hell’s chariot was on its way in the form of a sand storm. Imagine rolling clouds of sand thousands of feet tall engulfing huge rock spires in the distance barreling directly towards you. It’s scary and exciting, especially when your only shelter is a dried millet stock bungalow. Although Hell’s chariot never reached us, we were in for a neat treat as everything around us turned a bright yellowish-reddish-orangish hue. I don’t know how the storm missed us, but it did.

Leaving Hombori, we caught a ride to Boni in the back of a large truck full of people. Standing room only. A goat peed on Zack, Mike hit people in the face with his giant backpack and I was berated with questions in too many languages. We made it to Boni and negotiated a too-high price to go out and see elephants. Mike, Zack, Braxton (a fellow PCV) and I hopped into a 4X4 van (aka piece of junk) and rode out into the bush to search for elephants. At one point, the van was stopped by locals and we were hassled for the “local people tax,” which was complete bull and I told the guy we had already paid it to the local elephant association. He backed off. Our guide apparently thought we wanted to see a dead elephant and took us on our way. He then asked to make sure, and I said it would be preferable to see live elephants and avoid a large decomposing carcass. He agreed and turned the van around to go back nearly to where we began.

Again, we drove out into the bush in another direction until we found fresh elephant droppings, which where succinctly collected and deposited into the van (Braxton thinks they were selling them… for what purpose, he’s not sure). In time we found a Fulani watching over his animals who claimed to have seen elephants this morning. He jumped into the van and we were off again. Bringing us to a thicket of small trees, we exited the bus and headed downwind as not to be discovered by the elephant. Quietly, we tracked down an elephant near a watering hole and followed him for a short while. Stepping out from a patch of trees, we found ourselves face to face with the elephant himself (it was definitely a “him.” The Fulani pointed this out to me with much enthusiasm). The elephant stood there for a while and threw his trunk around. After we snapped a few photos, the elephant decided it was time for us to move on. He puffed his ears up and took a few steps forward, just to let us know we were on his turf. Yes, we got out of there very quickly. We saw our elephant, so all was a success.

The remainder of the trip was pretty anticlimactic. The boys made it on their own from Sevare to Bamako, which I found to be impressive. Due to an odd set of circumstances, I ended up on a different ride with all of the bags while they were on a bus. The end of the trip was spent in Bamako where Zack enjoyed playing pool and eating the Campagnard’s tex-mex pizza while Mike sipped cokes and made friends with PCVs. On Thursday I sent them off to the airport in a taxi cab and waited to hear that they had made it home safe. They did, so all is good.

As for me, I am still in Bamako under “medical arrest.” Something bit my finger and it became infected. My hand swelled up like a Mickey Mouse glove, so I’ve been bidding my time taking antibiotics and ibuprofen until the doctor gives me the OK to go back to site. I am anxious to get back to site in order to begin the millet field tests and make sure the rabbits are ok. I should also transport all the cement to village, as well. This must all be done in July before I head out to Spain and Morocco in August to rock climb, cliff jump, and see Erica at the very end. I really can hardly wait. Until my next blog post, adios!


Lisa said...

I love the way you write! You had me chuckling and laughing at your adventures with Mike and Zach.
I am so relived that you didn't have to lop off that hand (yes your mom sent me photos of spider bite infections...enough to turn ones stomach!)
Rest and heal!
Have a wonderful time with Erica, I'm sure you miss her very much.
Auntie Lisa

Unknown said...


I have friends in Mali. I'd love to visit but it's a long way away ... Would any of your Fulfulde or Pulaar speaking friends like a free paper in Fulfulde or Pulaar? See http://soon.org.uk/fulani/free-papers.php

We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

Thanks, Jane

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave
We are in awe of the wonderful experiences ..seeing elephants in the wild, speaking and understanding languages unknown to us here. The best part is that this time in your life will stay with you forever. You were meant to do something great in this life, we know! Enjoy your time in Africa, but watch the spiders.
Grandma and Papa G.

Jeanne Tuthill said...

Elephants, spiders, and puke! Oh my!

Sounds like the Grand Adventures of Dave continue!

And I continue to live vicariously and can't wait for the next installment....it's way better than reality TV!

Auntie Jeanne

Anonymous said...

Your dad left me a message when he appraised our house in Nantucket and I just received the note when I got there this summer. Thanks for your support of the Patriots from the other side of the world. We saw the Orange win a national championship in lacrosse here at Gilette in May. I hope some good football scores get to you this fall. All the best, Bill @ Pats

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave:
So glad you had fun with your brothers and that your hand has healed.
Heard about the new library project - sounds awesome! Hope the links I sent to RoomToRead work out. Had a nice Thursday evening gathering at the pond with your mom. She is just so proud of you. Take good care of yourself! -- Kim

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