Mali #6: Mopti to Timbuktu…by P-nasty

After another night in Sevare, we headed up to Mopti (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mopti). Two people on the trip started the day off with epistaxis (bloody nose). DRY air everywhere. Mopti is know as the Venice of Mali. Why, I do not know since there are not canals entering the city. I did read that there are three islands connected by dykes, though. We started loading the pinasse, a canoe-like form of transport that Malians use to go up and down the Niger River that we would use for 3 days. We would be less packed in the pinasse than the typical one. And since the “bathroom” on the pinasse is essentially a make-shift outhouse with a bottom hole that goes into the river directly, with endearment we named the pinasse “P-nasty.”

P-nasty in Mopti

P-nasty in Mopti

P-nasty kitchen, our excellent cooks, with outhouse in the extreme background

P-nasty kitchen, our excellent cooks, with outhouse in the extreme background

Before we boarded, we first bought material for our turbans. These serve many functions and are worn by Tuaregs and other Malians – that is, they are not necessarily specific to one group of people. They protect from the sun, sand, and provide warmth at night when desert evening chills appear as the sun sets. As we started up the river, villages began to appear here and there, beautiful sand/adobe mosques standing as the distinguishing feature of many settlements. Peul, Bozo, and other groups dotted the shoreline every once in awhile. Since these groups are often semi-nomadic, both abandoned and new villages were present. Distinctive architecture and clothing helped Jean identify which groups lived at some sites.

Abobe mosque in small riverside village

Abobe mosque in small riverside village

 

We left the boat later on in the day to buy some chickens from a Peul village on the shoreline at one point. Extremely poor, the residents showed some curiosity and skepticism towards us, understandably. We saw how fish is prepared there (mostly in dried form), and Jess fielded medical questions in French once people found out that she was working in Bandiagara as a medical student.  

We often passed fishermen as we traveled upstream. Since a motor is a luxury, our presence rarely went by unnoticed. I noticed only one motorboat that was not on a pinasse during the three day trip. At one point, we bought fish for our dinner from some fishermen right on the river. The capitaine (fish) here had been superb so far; however, it was hard not to think about what was actually in the water that the fish consumed. I was reading about the amount of human waste in the water and telling Jenn about this. She told me to look to the cooking area of the pinasse where the cooks were bringing in water from outside the boat. For cooking perhaps? Phew, no, we later found out as we watched where it later went – not the stew pot.

Stopping at a Peul village

Stopping at a Peul village

The sunset came as some of us sat on the boat’s roof while trying to get across Lac Debo before dark. The ashen, charcoal sky of the east took over the heavens as the sun bid us good night…and good luck since we were now stranded. The boat’s motor went caput! Now what would a trip be without a broken motor in the middle of a lake in a rather remote part of the world? Watching the sunset and fishermen brought peace to the uncertainty.

Fishermen on Lac Debo at twilight

Fishermen on Lac Debo at twilight

 

 

Head lamps came out and card games began. The sound of another boat, our savior for the evening, approached at one point hours later. Merci! We arrived at a shore around midnight, our guides set up the tents for us, and we fell asleep to the sounds of Malian music on the radio of another fishing boat docked nearby. We needed to get up in less than 5 hours to get an early start on the water.

 Sunset on Niger River

 We spent all of January 6th on the water. A nap on the top of the pinasse was a nice highlight to my day. Although warm and mostly sunny, a breeze kept me needing a sweater comfortably all day. As we continued north, we saw less trees and more sand. At one point a hippo spouted some water and startled us. Maybe we shouldn’t have been though – “Mali” means “hippo” after all. We stopped in the town of Niafunke briefly, the first sizable town we saw since we left Mopti. Staying overnight on a random shore, we went to bed early in anticipation for a 4AM wake up call for the home stretch to Timbuktu port.  

 

We couldn’t leave until 5:30AM because it was so dark, the darkness obfuscating the rocks dangerous to the pinasse. We simply slept on the boat in the meantime. Motor troubles appeared again, probably due to tainted gas, so we stopped at Dire to get more.

Children at the port of Dire

Children at the port of Dire

 

 

I sat on the roof and pondered the immense, sparse landscape extending out from either shore. Apropos the moment, Coldplay’s “Viva la vida” came on my iShuffle as I sat alone on the roof. There is a part of it towards the end of the song that I think captures the expansiveness of the desert as a distant voice echoes behind lavish, sweeping tones like a shifting sand dune. I gave a smile, did a sweeping 360 of the world around me, and took another nap. Breezy Niger joy

 

We arrived at the port for Timbuktu, the city of legend in the Western mind. “To Timbuktu and back” they say. Half as much was true so far. The port had a rough-edged feel to it not unlike ports the world over. Les pinasses lined the bank as travelers and tourists had arrived in the largest drove Timbuktu sees this time every year. And there at the top of the port was a lone, ostensibly random, unexpressive Tuareg man, foreboding to me in stature. I made a comment to Jen, something to the effect of “Yikes. I wouldn’t want to see him mad.” Needless to say Mohamed later became a quick friend and was our host and guide for Timbuktu and Festival au desert in Essakane. 

Camel time outside of Timbuktu (me)

Camel time outside of Timbuktu (me)

 

After passing through the gates at the entrance Timbuktu by car, we exited the town shortly thereafter and met our camel rides to Taochouk (spelling probably incorrect), a dispersed area of about 1000 Tuaregs a few kilometers in the desert outside Timbuktu. A beautiful desert sunset of orange, pink, and lavender hues enchanted us as we humped along the camels for a half-hour or so, laughing all the while. Tuareg children with beautiful blends of North African features led the camels along with some Tuareg men.

Tuareg boy

Tuareg boy

This was only the beginning of an unforgettable Tuareg immersion…

Mohamed and two young Tuaregs in his family

Pre-camel departure: Mohamed and two young Tuaregs in his family

   

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One Response to “Mali #6: Mopti to Timbuktu…by P-nasty”

  1. sandra742 Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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