Ready for travel in San and then at a potty break on the way to Gao
This past week Cassie and I packed our bags and hopped on a bus to visit Gao which is a city far in the north of Mali uniquely situated on both the Niger river and the frontier of the Sahara desert. Soon after arriving we realize there is not much to see or do in the city aside from visiting what turns out to be a disappointing artisan market and climbing a sand dune and so we decide to make our visit a short one. Docked outside our hotel is a large passenger boat bound for Mopti and it leaves the afternoon after we arrive. Cassie and I book two one-way tickets on the luxury(esque) liner and a little more than 24 hours after arriving bid farewell to Gao and say hello to the Niger river.
Cassie and I paid 3,000 CFA to tent on the roof of this hotel but they ended up providing us with mattresses and mosquito nets.
The Rose Dunes are comparable (from my mid-Atlantic point of view) to Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head, NC except they are on the Niger river and part of the Sahara desert.
The bus ride to Gao from San takes 16 hours (if you make good time) with potty breaks in the bushes and limited selections of street-side snacks. The river barge, on the other hand, promises three meals a day, bunk beds for somewhat comfortable sleeping and latrines (if not hygienic at least private). We opt for third-class tickets at the modest sum of 42,000 CFA per person (about $85) which for a 5 day 4 night cruise on the Niger river gets you what you pay for. The room (or, since Cassie thinks I am being a little generous, the holding cell) comes equipped with four bunk beds which we share with another girl, Fatumata, the first night and the last night with cousins going to Bamako to sign up for university. Situated behind the hull of the ship we enjoy not only the lulling melody of lapping waves as we snuggle in our bunk beds but also the bleating of livestock since the front of the ship doubles as a pen for goats, donkeys and cows bound for market in Mopti or Koulikoro.
The other third-class passengers :)
First and second-class passengers (tickets ranging from 71,000-101,000 CFA) are a mix of policemen and army personnel along with students heading back to Bamako for classes. The least expensive ticket runs for 9,000 CFA (about $18) and guarantees you a spot in the cargo space. Owners of this ticket are either Malian families traveling on the river because it is expensive or difficult to access their village by land or hippy travelers with Therma-rest mats who find it romantic to sleep under the stars on a riverboat (which it is!). Another class of ticket owners are entrepreneurial women traveling up and down the river for the market it provides. At each stop the women, baskets balanced precariously on their heads, carefully maneuver the drawbridge off the boat and set up their wares on the cobblestones, sandy dunes or dirt paths that make up the various ports. They sell goods brought to Gao by bus while the captain loads and unloads passengers and other goods from non-descript villages and boat stops along the river. Bananas, limes, plantains and dried tea leaves – the women bring fresh produce and goods to remote villages along the Niger while residents of the remote villages make a reverse exodus onto our boat hawking flat bread, fried cakes and dried pieces of tough desert animal cheese to those of us unwilling (or unable) to get off the barge.
After breakfast each morning (sugar water with some milk and bread) Cassie and I move to the upper deck and alternate from starboard to port depending on the sun with our plastic mat, sunglasses and reading material in tow. As third-class ticket holders we take all our meals, which are announced by a bell, in our cabin. After retreating to our corner of the ship to eat lunch (rice and sauce) we reclaim our places on the top deck and continue to watch the riverscape slowly change from the sandy dunes of the North to tawny dirt with shrubs and, finally, endless marshes dotted with mud homes as we approach the Mopti region. The dinner bell, promising pasta or potatoes, rings a little after sunset and we collect our things and retire for the day. As we pass the kitchen on the way to our room we carefully navigate a path between market women (whose meals are not included in their ticket price) and their pots of first-class quality food tended over tiny charcoal-fire stoves. Seasoned river travelers – these ladies have the trip down to a science. In between ports they prepare their goods to sell, braid one another’s hair and keep someone stirring the pots so their meals are ready once they re-board. By day two on Voyage of the Mali most of the women and almost all of the boat staff know our (Malian) names and call out to us teasing that we are not tending our own fires or that we are women traveling without men and would our husbands in America mind if we took a Malian husband on our boat trip?
When Cassie and I tire of our books or magazine articles we turn to one another and talk about what we are reading or thoughts on our hearts or minds. If we do not have anything to say we simply sit and watch the river pass us by. The boat chugs along at about 10 km per hour which allows us ample time to enjoy the birds swooping in and out of rice patties and even catch four hippo heads (complete with cute twitching ears!) sticking out of the water near one marsh. At night our roommates keep us giggling as they urge us to sing songs from America or do our makeup as though we are Malian (not exactly attractive on our skin tone but fun nonetheless).
On our last day heavy rains and cold winds keep most of the passengers and crew bundled in their rooms. Cassie finishes a book in the upper deck lounge room and I stand in a sheltered corner of the balcony just outside. I scan the river as I have done nearly 8 hours every day each of the past 5 days and catch a glimpse of something in the distance. I call to Cassie and she runs out of the cabin and we stand, huddled together under an iron awning with rain pouring down in sheets, and watch together as a hippo sticks its entire head out of the water. I give Cassie a squeeze as I squeal in delight – we may not have first-class tickets but Mali continues to provide first-class experiences.