We ended up staying in Bamako for almost a whole week as everyone had something to do there. Laas was waiting for a visa to go to Ghana, and Chris and Jem had met up with a friend of a friend. I was supposed to be taking it easy as my foot had got infected again, but I had stuff to do with my luggage, as a bottle of fish sauce I had bought in St Louis had leaked all over my tools and spare parts. I dreaded to think what the salty liquid would do to the pristine condition of the spares and I had to take them all out and clean them. I have since banned liquid condiments from my panniers.
I went with Laas to collect his visa for Ghana and I waited outside while he went into the embassy. The guard told Laas that he had arrived too late and he would have to wait another day for the visa. The guard heard me talking to Laas about it and came out to explain the situation to me too. We ended up having an interesting conversation with him as he explained how complicated the situation is in the north. I got the impression that there is quite a bit of tension between Malians and the nomadic Touareg that live in the Sahara. The guard thought that any military action by Mali against the terrorists in the north would be seen by the European press as genocide against the Tuareg. Some of the Touareg where aligned with Kaddifi’s regime in Libya although not all of them are involved in dodgy stuff.
We went out for a last night out in Bamako before we were to leave the next day. We stumbled across a bar staffed by a load of girls from Ukraine with a mostly ex-pat clientele. We only stayed for a couple of drinks as it was pretty expensive, but we got to meet some fairly well-off locals (one had studied in the UK), and we even met someone from the UK foreign office, who further explained to us how dangerous Mali is for tourists. We went looking for food in another bar that was further out of town before getting a cab back to the auberge. The cab driver misunderstood where we wanted to go and he started to drive over one of the bridges back to the centre of town on the other side of the river. We pointed this out to him and he pulled over, then reversed about 1 km (no exaggeration) back over the dual carriage way bridge and down the slip road to correct his mistake! Back at the auberge, there was a bit of a party going on and we were powerless to avoid getting involved. I went to bed at about 4 am, with Laas and Jem staying on it for even longer. There was now absolutely no way we would be leaving the next day, but Jem and Chris had arranged to drive their friend to Bobo Dioulasso for a wedding so they had to go. I was woken up by Jem telling me that he would put my rucksack, which had been in his room for safe keeping, in his van. Its really lucky that I was able to mumble ‘no, I need it’ at him otherwise he may have disappeared into Burkina Faso with my passport! Laas was not waking up for anyone and I had to get his number from his phone so that we could all meet up in Bobo Dioulasso. When we finally did get up, we spent the rest of the morning walking around in the baking heat, sweating in motorbike gear acting like we were going to leave, even though there was absolutely no chance of us riding anywhere that day. We finally gave in, and chilled at the auberge for one more day.
The early night did us good and we headed out bright and early. We had to take a little detour on the way out, as the road system near the Martyr bridge becomes one way at certain parts of the day (it was funny when we first found that out, riding into oncoming traffic with loads of police frantically whistling at us!). The ride to the border was on a good quality sealed road and the landscape became more hilly with a lot more vegetation. The earth was still red, but in places there are so many trees that it starts to look like forest. There was even trees with red leaves adding a strangely autumn feel to an African landscape. We stopped to check directions at Sikasso and I dropped my bike. The side of the road was at a such a slant that once I had gotten the side stand down I couldn’t get it back up, and remember, my stand is now bent and leans the bike over too so it must have been really slanted, don’t know why I didn’t notice. I couldn’t get my foot to touch the floor on the other side either and it was a matter of seconds before I fell off. Its not the first time I’ve dropped the bike on this trip, but it is the first time I’ve done it in full view of locals, who all thought it was hilarious. At least they helped me pick it up. The border was easy. The Malian side was just a stamped passport and a bon voyage. The Burkina Faso side had about 6 policemen, all very friendly and polite and they separated me and Laas to help them with all the different paper work. Some off the guards wanted to buy Laas’ bike, but were they put off mine by the oil leaking down the right side (I’d over-filled it on the oil change). The oil was getting worrying close to the rear brake disk (not to self – don’t over fill it again). A small bribe of 2000 CFA (3.50 euro) was paid to the police. We cleared customs, which took a while but was easy enough. We needed to get laissez passer documents again, which cost 5000 CFA each and by the time it was all finished, we did not have time to make it to Bobo before dark, but we rode on anyway as there was no point in wild camping so close to the city. We took it slow as it was hard to see pot holes, pedestrians or donkeys in the poor light. Originally the plan had been for Chris to call Laas’ phone once she had a Burkina Faso phone number. The problem was that the number in Laas’ phone was not correct so there was no way for her to contact us. As a back up plan, Chris had given me the name of a hotel where we could leave messages for each other. I was able to find the street on google maps and through my GPS we were able to find the hotel, where a message from Chris was waiting for us. We had a beer and arranged to meet Chris at the main train station. Riding around Bobo reminded me of some of the more out-of-the-way places I’ve traveled in Thailand, except that the side roads were all dirt. Bikes and scooters are the most popular mode of transport and there are bars everywhere. Chris and Jem were staying with a friend of theirs at an association that promotes cultural exchanges between Burkina and France. There are two branches. The Burkina branch provides a free place to stay and free food for all travellers with all the running costs being covered by donations. The French branch arranges for artists and musicians from Burkina to go to France and is funded by the profits from their shows and exhibitions. Me and Laas slept in the camper van for the first night and in the morning we were woken up by the van being shaken around by children. The association has an open door policy to all, which includes all the kids living in the area, and being a saturday with no school, there was no place better for the kids to be than with the foreigners at the association. They are all really cute but they get everywhere. They were climbing all over the van. Zia and Lyla were clearly enjoying having made so many new friends and were running around like crazy too. Here is a video of the kids going full-tilt. The little one in the yellow T-shirt cracks me up every time!
Laas’ got himself ready to head off to Ghana. We have been traveling together for about a month now and it was sad to see him go. Perhaps we will meet up further down the road, although if things go according to plan for me, I’ll be in Nigeria when he starts out from Ghana. We’ll see what happens.
I’m starting to get my head around the street food in west Africa, and like I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, it is everywhere, just not as obvious as none of it advertised. There are women sitting by the sides of the road, with metal bowls full of food. You have to go to them and ask what there is, usually rice and some sort of sauce , then say how much of it you want (not how much is it). A torch is handy if eating unknown food in the dark. Its possible to eat huge plates of rice and green beans or potatoes in a spicy tomato cause for as little as 50p. There are also loads of barbecues selling mutton or spicy chicken salads, although their non-force-fed-steroid chickens tend to be a lot smaller then ours.
The locals at the association are all very friendly and helpful. I had to do some repairs to the bike to replace various bolts that had shaken loose on the African dirt roads and the guys went off and got my the bolts I needed for sod all money. They are all musicians too, and at night the whole area sounds like staff camping at Womad festival!
I’d decided to spend christmas in Bobo with Jem Chris and the family. They have rented a place that is much quieter than the association and since I’m going to be in one place for a while I’ve been ordering various bits and bobs to get sent to Bobo from Liverpool. Still, I’ve been thinking about my onward travels and I set off to go to the capital, Ouagadougou, to see what visas I could get. In January I intend to pass through Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. I had heard that Togo and Benin shared a common visa and I presumed that it would be available in the capital. The ride to Ouagadougou (pronounced wagadoogoo) was easy and even though I didn’t leave Bobo till midday I still arrived in daylight. Finding the auberge was a different story and although I managed to get within the vicinity, there was no way I was going to find it in the labyrinth of dirt side streets. I used my phone to get on the net and found the phone number and the manager came and found me. The auberge wasn’t really what I was expecting as there was no wifi and no bar. The most disappointing thing was that I was immediately told that there was no possibility of getting any of the visas I required in Ouagadougou. This was confirmed in guide books and I would have know had I bothered to read them (although in French) before setting off. Situations change in Africa rapidly, and only last year you could get a single visa that covered Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Togo and Benin but now there aren’t even consulates for Togo and Benin in Burkina at all. Apparently it is possible to get the visas at the border and a friendly Spanish guy, Miguel, took me to get some beers and some Senegalese food (always a good bet in West Africa). The side streets aren’t lit and I would have got lost for sure if I had wandered off on my own. We had a few beers, and it turns out that Miguel is very much the mature traveler at 72 years old! Its impressive to see someone of that age who still has such a passion to see the world. Miguel speaks fluent French but he insisted on speaking Spanish with me which was very difficult after almost two months of learning French. By the end of the night, I’d just about gotten my head around switching between the two, when we met some Japanese tourists at the auberge and I had to translate the conversations into English for them too!
The next day I’d decided to go to the Nigerian embassy anyway, partly to hear the visa situation from the horse’s mouth, but also cos I didn’t particularly have anything else to do (no guide books = no idea of what there is!). I wandered through the city without too much harassment and had a few beers at some little bars in one of the residential quarters. I found the Nigerian Embassy and although I couldn’t get the visa there, it was confirmed that I could get the visa in Benin, so all good. I wandered back to the auberge stopping for more beers and funny conversations will locals on the way. The afternoon drinking had knocked me out, and I retired early and listened to the BBC world service on a cheap short wave radio I picked up at the market (Kim Jong-Il is dead! really?).
I decided to stay one more day in Ouagadougou before going back to Bobo. I had arranged to go to meet the owner of one of the little barbeque stalls in the morning to see how he prepares the food. I thought I’d be there for a while, but I was there for less than half hour and then went back to the auberge. I was feeling incredibly lazy. I couldn’t really be bothered to wander aimlessly around the town for another day, yet I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to see more stuff (how likely am I to be here again?). I’m starting to feel like I need to get back on the road. When I was in Morocco, I had really enjoyed riding alone for the first 6 weeks, but I also craved some company and even though I met assorts of nice people, I’d still call my family and friends at home whenever there was WIFI available. Meeting Laas, Chris, Jem and family was a very welcome change and traveling with them over the last month has been a fantastic experience and a good laugh, but I have to admit that it felt good to be riding to Ouagadougou on my own yesterday and I have missed the complete freedom that you can only get from solo travel. My mind is bit conflicted by it all. On one hand, I enjoy making progress into my journey, and on the other I know that I have the time to stay anywhere I like and for as long as I like. Many people tell me that I should take my time and enjoy every minute of it, which is totally true, but if my instinct is to be making progress then forcing myself to stay longer than I want to will only piss me off. I’m sure this will change with time. I will find places that I like where staying for longer will be effortless and I won’t be concerned with how far I’ve traveled. Its all part of being ‘into the ride’. I honestly thought that these sorts of feelings would be gone by Senegal and that I would just travel without thinking about timescales or programs, but you never know when things will change. Even now, much further down the road from Senegal, surrounded by another completely alien African environment, I still ask myself if I’m into the ride yet. I’m sure I’ll be asking myself the same question when I get to Cape Town! Okay so maybe its a stupid question to be asking, but I think its pointless for me to try to force myself adopt a different pace of travel based off what I think I should be doing. I just have to travel with what feels right at the time and let the transformation happen naturally.
I got back to Bobo Dioulasso just in time to be invited to some wedding celebrations. Chris and all the girls at the association had gotten dressed up in African clothes and we all piled into the camper van and headed over to the wedding. We were introduced to loads of people who I have no idea who they are, then we went out on to the street where the party was kicking off. The bride and Groom were both on beds being held aloft by 4 men, each balancing a corner on his head. Its amazing that they didn’t drop the beds as they were vigorously dancing around, as was everyone else, as there was a group of guys playing fantastic rhythms on djembe drums. Someone grabbed me and pulled me to dance in a line with some other people right in front of the drummers. People took turns to dance in the line and then moved on. The locals where very amused by watching me dance and thought it was hilarious when I tried to copy their moves (bit like being at home then!). Some kids were dancing but pretty soon they just started playing with us. Its always the way. After the music, the women went into the bride’s house to eat something while we waited outside. I finished the night off drinking with Chris and Jem in their new place that they had just moved into.
A big meal was planned for Christmas eve, which is the usual way of doing Christmas in France. I set off to buy provisions to try to make some sort of Christmas dinner.
The meal went well, although without any roasties and we all got smashed until the early hours. A combination of export Guinness and Glenfiddich gave me a savage hangover for Christmas day! I moped around the house all morning and eventually sobered up and got the motivation to go to town. The town centre was business as usual. I’d heard that it was a national holiday but it just looked like any other day I’ve seen so far. Burkina Faso has a 60 % muslim majority, with the rest being made up of Catholics and other equally bonkers religions involving animals.
Anyway, Merry Christmas one and all! I’m hoping to be in Lome, the capital of Togo for New Years Eve and then on to Benin a few days after. I will try to find a party there, or maybe I’ll just invite some people to my tent for a shindig there. Who can say? I hope you all have a good one in my absence. Peace out!