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Thursday 12 Nov
Bankass, Mali


The race was on to get out of Burkina and meet Hannah and Alex in Mali. We got on a bus to the excellently named town of Bla. The bus kept stopping for random police checks, and I was getting quite sick of getting out and handing over my passport, when at the third or fourth stop a friendly man sat us down at a table under a tree and handed us some forms entitled "Entry to Mali": we had crossed the border without realising it. The guy was friendly enough to help us "remember" the name of our hotel which we "hadn't written down" - furthering my very favourable impression of Malian immigration officials. While we were sitting around we had our first taste of Sahelian tea - perhaps the first of many interesting cultural discoveries?

Another chaotic bus trip (with arguments, confusion, and watermelons dripping in the aisle) took us to Sévaré. There we inevitably met a guide who wanted to take us to Dogon country.

Everyone comes to Mali to visit Dogon Country. The Dogon people are particularly interesting because they have a rich cultural tradition and they resisted the advance of Islam, the French, and so on, for much longer than most other people. They trekked across Mali to live in the relative geographical safety of a large escarpment (which makes the landscape around the villages much more interesting). They have lots of interesting traditions involving masks, dances, and so on, and are supposed to have a rich cosmology involving some insights into astronomy that were far ahead of western science at the time they were recorded.

Anyway, we didn't want a guide yet, we wanted to get to Bankass where Hannah and Alex were waiting. Gabriel, our prospective guide, told me that as our "private business", if I convinced the others to go on a trek with him, he would maybe give me some masks or some of the money back as recognition. This was the level of intrigue involved in organising Dogon treks. And it was about to get more interesting!

With a lot of (unrefusable) help from Gabriel and his associates, we managed to get to Bankass and found that the whole town knew that Hannah and Alex were waiting for us (they had used our meeting as an excuse not to agree to anything with any of their prospective guides). A triumphant meeting ensued, with much catching up and trying to figure out what we were going to do in Dogon Country.

After the usual walk around the town to find that there was no food available anywhere as it was after about 2:00, we decided to buy all the vegetables we could find and cook them that night on our camping stove.

Back in the campement (a sort of camp with minimal facilities where you invariably sleep on the roof), we got stuck into the serious question of organising our trek, which we wanted to start the next day due to limited time. The key question was to find a guide who could speak English, to save me and Alex from the labour of translating everything from French all the time, and Jo and Hannah from the frustration of not being able to ask questions directly. Because Mali is relatively touristy, there are people who speak English, but they're not necessarily easy to find and they don't necessarily speak English comprehensibly.

After a few enquiries it turned out that we did want Gabriel as our guide. We called him and he agreed to come to Bankass on his motorbike (a journey of several hours). That should have been the end of the story. But the other guides who were naturally hanging around at the campement weren't going to just sit around and mind their own business. When they had established that we were calling in an outsider to be our guide, they asked us if he was a member of the guides association. He wasn't - the association was composed of guides from Bankass, and while they explained painstakingly that it was essential to have a registered guide because travelling with a false guide could lead to all sorts of dangerous situations, they all clearly knew Gabriel and couldn't explain how there was any problem with us going on a trek with him. However, if Gabriel came to Bankass they would have no choice but to call the police because he was breaking the guiding rules. One of the guides who was Gabriel's friend contacted him to tell him not to come, but he didn't seem to take this advice. As we probed further into the conversation, it became clear that the main point was that we wanted to hire someone from a different town while we were in Bankass and there were perfectly good registered guides already there. I started to get pretty annoyed by this anti-competitive behaviour so I said we should go somewhere else to meet with Gabriel and organise our trek. When it became clear we wouldn't be doing business with the local guides, it turned out that it wasn't a problem and Gabriel came to Bankass and even stayed in the campement where all of this had happened. Everyone seemed to think this was all perfectly normal.

We agreed the details of our trek with Gabriel, wrote a contract (obviously, you can't be too careful given the way business seems to be done here), cooked a meal on the roof, and got ready to leave in the morning.


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Perambulation 2009

Travel blog by blex



I am going to spend a year travelling through four continents and hope that by the end of it I have learnt something.

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