This is the first real city we've seen since Accra, which was a long time ago. There are more than a handful of sealed roads, and there's a feeling of activity and more than two or three interesting things to discover.
Across the road from our guest house was an unimposing Chinese restaurant. Any sort of Chinese restaurant was a novelty at this stage so we quickly ended up eating there. In fact it ended up being possibly the best meal we've had in West Africa. The first time we smelt the tea, we nearly cried. Sahelian tea is bitter and unsettling, but drenched in sugar. Chinese tea is subtle and unimposing but just tastes good. I think maybe this tea is symbolic of many things in Africa: things which are complicated and possibly problematic are covered up with sugar, bright colours, or jovial behaviour. People may be friendly but simultaneously frustrated about their poverty and the general difficulty of life. Rather than dealing with the details of things, people tend to talk in unspecific open-ended expressions, leaving negative realities undescribed.
Meanwhile, all of us had some degree of hope that arriving in a proper city at the end of our long travels through Mali would be an opportunity for relief from our endless weariness. The Chinese restaurant helped a lot with this, providing an expectation of good food whenever we felt like it. In particular, there was a spicy aubergine dish which we will forever try to remember the taste of in the unlikely hope of finding something similar somewhere else...
Meanwhile, there were lots of things to do. Hannah needed a visa for Côte d'Ivoire, and Jo and I needed visas for Senegal. After a long period of general indeterminate illness, Jo was diagnosed with homesickness by a jovial doctor who seemed to gain his special expertise from spending all day grinning and greeting patients in the waiting room.
This time, unlike in Accra when we had just arrived in West Africa, we really appreciated the expat comforts of the city (mainly restaurants). During our explorations of the city we improbably found a great expat bar, the likes of which hadn't been seen since Accra, and rather than ordering a pizza I went across the street to enjoy an impossibly cheap brochette sandwich, and wished such things were possible in western countries (although of course I wouldn't wish for anyone to be as poor as the people serving the sandwiches).
We went to an expensive hotel to use the wireless internet, and while relaxing in the garden we reflected on the absence of peaceful, meditative spaces in West Africa. There seems to be nowhere at all (except in foreign enclaves such as this) where you can sit and contemplate the elegance of a garden and have clear and peaceful thoughts. Everywhere else there is bustle, noise, and chaos, not to mention filth and burning plastic. Undoubtedly this goes some way to explaining why we are all so tired and have the impression of endless hassle and never really knowing what we think about things.
After some amusing dealings with a very serious man with furry ears, Hannah got her visa and left to try to get to Liberia and Sierra Leone, a project which is surely much more adventurous (that is to say, dangerous) than anything I have attempted in any part of my year of travels. (It has been more than a year now). We hope she survives, but of course we probably won't hear much.
On our last day in Bamako, in spite of the tiresome and sometimes distressing difficulty of getting a taxi, we had a satisfying day where we actually achieved what we set out to do. In particular, we visited the well-regarded National Museum, which was an almost unprecedented opportunity to absorb some artworks and information about African culture and social issues in a peaceful and unhurried environment. It was really exceptional to have such a successful and productive day and not be frustrated by some minor disaster or convoluted confusion.