Monday, August 24, 2009

Passing through and on my way

Each Sunday after church I collect the used tuna and corn cans and un-compostables from my hut, load books to return to the volunteer library and letters to mail over oceans into a blue plastic basket before biking the 25 kilometers to San for my weekly sleepover and grocery shopping.  I notice my back tire is low and I call out my kitchen window to Esayi to ask if he can repair it.  He laughs at me as I roll my mountain bike out of my hut and into his work area where he patches it with a smile and the tenderness of a father.

“You are not used to riding in Mali,” he gently admonishes as he heats a metal ruler to seal the patch. 

I assure him that even in America I manage to get flat tires and smile at Esayi’s continued doubt at my ability to do things like bike riding, even after one year of my biking weekly the over 30- mile round trip ride into San and back to village. 

Esayi finishes up the patch job and I stand in front of my corrugated iron door and go over my mental check-list one last time.  Typically it comes down to if I have the vitals – bankcard, ID card, helmet, journal.  I strap my basket to the back of my bike with a pink bungee cord that has reached its stretching limits with my loaded goods.  I secure my Camel-bak water backpack to my shoulders and click my helmet into place and begin the 2 hour bike ride into San.  The first half hour to 45 minutes are the most trying as I navigate sandy paths that do not provide much traction and, now that we’re in full-on rainy season, deceptively deep mud puddles that leave me in a mud wrap women would pay big bucks for at a fancy spa in the states. 

Madou at the rest stop in Sienso, one of the markers on my bike ride into San each week

These weekly bike rides are one of my favorite parts of life here as I travel from “en brusse” (in the bush) to “dugu-ba” (the big city) and then back again.  I push hard through the sand and dirt, gears straining under my heavy pushes and my quickening breath and streams of sweat signs that I am getting a real workout.  Once I reach the paved road I reward myself with long drags from the straw connected to the water backpack that Mr. Shellnutt so generously provided me before coming to Mali.  As my body re-hydrates I find a rhythm and a pace on the un-marked pavement while I count the revolutions between baobab trees.  My mind relaxes as my muscles burn and my thoughts wander from what happened in village this past week to how the crops are doing roadside to what I need to get done in San.  Motorcycles pass me every 15 minutes or so and I brighten up and snap out of my trance when they call out “Djelika!” if they know me or simply wave if we are strangers.  I focus on the road – it is a busy day if 2 or 3 cars pass me the entire trip – and enjoy the various flora and fauna surrounding me.  Colorful birds and (now that it is rainy season) lush trees with all their gloriously verdant leaves are my landscape and I relish the solitude and silence broken up only by the infrequent passing of a horse cart or a speeding passenger bus in serious need of an alignment and an oil change. 

I know I've posted this picture before but I do love these trees so much that remind me of two friends belly laughing together.  

There are multiple marking points along my route that indicate to me, in absence of mile markers or a speedometer, the duration of my trip.  The first is when I reach the paved road (only one hour left!), next, when I reach the “laughing trees” (just 45 minutes to go!) and finally, when I reach Sienso, a truck stop that marks the junction between heading North to Mopti,  South East to Koutiala or straight on into San.  Once I reach this point, women and children approach my bike and vehicles passing the police check point to sell cooled drinks in plastic baggies and tasteless cakes from large Tupperware bins.  There is a covered “rest stop” where men cook goat meat in mud ovens for passengers who are either waiting for a car to come by or for their broken-down bus to be repaired. I stop to greet and take a seat next to an old man named Madou.  Sienso is only a 20 minute bike ride from San but the heat of the sun (even though it is the afternoon) encourages me to stop and I strike up a conversation with this cute man.  I see him each time I pass by this thatched hanger of a food-stop chatting with the cooks and voyagers.  After greeting, I asked what he does here since he does not partake in the cooking of the meat and he surely could not always be waiting for a bus.  He said he just likes to come and sit here.  Talk with friends, watch the world pass by.  I asked if I could take his picture and he carefully situated himself on his token chair, cane at his side, turquoise boubou in bright contrast to his drab and monotone surroundings.  I show him the result on the screen of my digital camera and he beams at his princely portrait.  He pulls at his white chin hair, an indication of his esteemed old-man status, and asks God to bless the rest of my trip as I regroup for the last leg of my journey.  I answer with a blessing for the rest of his day and with a wave of our hands, I am on my way.  Pulling onto the paved road once again, I get back into my rhythm and look for the final marker of my trip – a cold glass of water from the refrigerator at the volunteer house. 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Did you say Wine and Cheese...?

Dinner a la guinguette with Alain, Marthine, Sarah and Anthony*

For reasons I cannot understand my plane ticket to Rgizlaine's wedding was over $100 cheaper if I made a multi-day layover in France. So I did what any clear thinking, Sarah loving lady would do and got the cheaper airplane ticket and then a train ticket with the money "saved" to visit my dear friend Sarah Perry who lives in France with her boyfriend, Anthony.
Sarah is a(nother!) treasure of a friend whom I also met my sophomore year in college as we stumbled through learning French at Hyperion, a coffee shop in downtown Fredericksburg. She embodied everything I wanted to learn about - art, bicycles, French and France. I spent many a treasured moment making pancakes in her kitchen and having sleepovers at her well-populated house on Charles and Faquier Street.

At the chateau d'Angers *

When I arrived at the train station in Angers, France, Alain, Anthony's mom's boyfriend (whew, that's a mouthful) was waiting for me on the quai. I was not expecting him and as he explained that Sarah and Anthony were on the road still and who he was I looked at him with a combination of wonder and exhaustion from travel as I processed what he was telling me. Alain interpreted my pensive expression for misunderstanding and gently asked me if I actually spoke French...I laughed and quickly explained my confusion and then off we were to the house.
Sarah and Anthony showed up a couple hours later and the fun really kicked off. We spent the next four days seeing the best of Angers and also a lot of quality time catching up on the past couple years. Letters are incredible (hint hint :) but there is nothing like real time together.

Picking strawberries at the Jardin d'Avenir (Garden of the Future :) *

On Sunday we went to a cute little cafe on the Loire river and sampled what seemed to be almost every dish (cheese platters, charcuterie, soupettes and wine, oh my!). The next day we made a plum tarte with fresh plums from the neighbor's yard and then visited a 103 meter tapestry at the Chateau d'Angers. Tuesday brought an incredible mini-textile exhibit with guided tour and a great dinner at Cami and Jean-Francois's - two friends of Sarah and Anthony's.
Wednesday we visited an organic garden/farm where you can pick your own veggies. We picked cherry tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, chives, strawberries, rasberries, lettuce and more tomatoes.
I felt pretty sick much of the visit but that didn't hamper the fun! Sarah sent me off with a brown bag lunch of fresh bread, cheese, berries and chocolate. It was hard to leave her and France (hopefully a tres bien tot!) but it's time to be back in Mali and I'm eager to see baby Christine's cute cheeks once more.
*(all photos courtesy of Sarah's beautiful camera)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ghizlaine and Brahim's wedding in Morocco

Her first dress and on the throne in the reception hall

Arriving in Casablanca I looked around the airport, breathed in the smell of fresh croissants and coffee from the cafe and thought, I could get used to this.
I met Ghizlaine my sophomore year of college at Mary Washington when she was a French teacher and lived on campus. She has a captivating personality and is certainly my most well traveled friend. Before I studied abroad in Grenoble, France in the fall of 2006 Ghizlaine invited me to spend three weeks with her family in Morocco at their summer house (they live in France) and to travel the country together. (Pictures here) When she announced her engagement last summer I immediately made plans to come to Morocco for the wedding.
On Tuesday Ghizlaine had a traditional henna party where the women of both her and her husband's families came together to begin the marital festivities. It began with her siblings going out to greet Brahim's family outside the house. We carried out platters featuring all the gifts from Brahim received during their courtship and danced in the street to trumpets and drums played by men in traditional garb. Once we had danced sufficiently we made our way inside to eat tasty little cakes and drink Coke and Fanta. At the henna party most of the guests received delicate tracings of flowers and leaves on their hands and feet. I was a little slow on the uptake and did not realize I had to make a mini-appointment with the lady doing the henna. While everyone got decorated there was dancing for those already done and music by a live band. The dancing was beautiful and fun with women shaking their hips and trying to teach me to not knock over things as I dance all over the place.... :)

The bride and me

With bride and groom at the henna party

Wednesday brought wedding day! I went with Ghizlaine to get her hair and makeup done and tried to do my own as Ghizlaine, lying on the stylist's chair, kept calling out "More black eyeliner!" We finished up around 9 p.m. (on purpose!) and made our way back to her parent's house to get dressed. I borrowed one of her sister's dresses as Ghizlaine got glammed by her outfit-changing-helper ladies. She had three women help her all night to navigate the 7, that's right - 7, dress changes that typically occur at a Moroccan wedding. Brahim's family came to retrieve us from the house around midnight and after a quick tour of El Jadida where her family lives we made it to the reception hall for dancing, food and more pictures and video than thought possible!

The marital throne

A band played upbeat, don't-stop-until-the-wee-hours music for the guests who danced for the bride and groom and in between dress changes. We had delicious food including: pastries, a shrimp dish, lamb and an ice cream dulce de leche cake with fresh fruit. The wedding lasted until 8 the next morning - those dresses are elaborate! - and the next morning saw tired but happy guests waving Ghizlaine and Brahim off to Casablanca for a mini-honeymoon before their real one to Turkey next month.

Rgizlaine in her last dress

As Ghizlaine and Brahim dropped me off at the airport a couple days after the wedding I looked around and realized it wasn't warm croissants and cafe au laits that I could get used to. Being around her family as they celebrated one of the most important days in her life made me ache for my family and friends back home and really drove home that it is sharing moments like this with those you love most that makes up the best times.

See more pictures from the big day here.
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