Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Koulikoro, Mali - regional capital or bust!

See what I mean when I say false bravado? :)
'Est-ce que tu veut aller à Koulikoro le weekend prochain?' Abdoulaye asks me over dinner one night last week. 'Sounds like fun!' I reply. 'À vélo?' he continues. 'Bicycles??' I think to myself; how far are we talking here? The next morning Abdoulaye Googles our destination and sends me a map showing the distance between the capital of Mali (Bamako) and the capital of the region Bamako is in, Koulikoro, as 57 km. I tell Abdoulaye I biked 100 km in 2009 – 57 km (a tad over 35 miles) will be a piece of cake! Abdoulaye brushes aside incredulous commentary from friends that the distance is too far with his winning smile and a dose of false bravado. 'Far?!' he laughingly scoffs. 'Mais on a de la force!' he says as he pumps his lean biceps in the air. After borrowing a bike from our friend Fletcher (thank you!) we add air to our tires, change a flat on mine and pillage my cupboard for snacks (Pringles! Clif bars! Coconut strips!) which we then load into the monogrammed, insulated lunch bag my Mom sent me for my birthday (thank you!). Saturday morning we wake up early and are ready to hit the road.

Morning murmurs of the city slip into our ears and the smells of a Bamako city commute penetrate our noses as we pedal past the city's limits. The racket of honking horns and men shouting at pedestrians to board their commuter bus blend together with the thick smell of hot shea butter oil, fried dough balls and the choking exhaust from cars in disrepair. It is 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and Abdoulaye and I are on our way to Koulikoro, regional capital of its eponymous territory, with enough snacks and water to make it to our final destination 57 km away. L'aventure commence! 

Roadside oranges helped us hydrate
Abdoulaye insists I lead the way and from a few meters ahead I can hear him as he practices his newest acquisition of the English language: 'Let's rub noses like the Eskimo-ses' in between encouragements to bike faster – the sun is rising! I smile and holler back – 'should we stop and put on some music?' 'Ouaaaiii!' he shouts and we make our first pause. We carefully situate our portable speakers in the discarded fruit basket strapped to the back of my bike and finish up the smoothie we brought along for breakfast. With our smoothie, another addition to Abdoulaye's lexicon, all gone and our helmets secured, we continue on. Scraggly trees and piles of trash catch our attention here and there but it is the glimpses of the Niger river and naked rock formations that make us catch our breath.

Hotel, training space, restaurant and cyber cafe
Arriving at the Koulikoro city limits 6 hours after we left Bamako, I sense the fatigue in both our voices and body language. Our water is gone and the snacks we brought along no longer satisfying – our bellies need a real meal! The first hotel we visit, the Hotel du Niger, is too expensive at 15,000 CFA/night (about $30) and too far from 'downtown' Koulikoro for a couple without a car. A friend in Bamako suggested we stop at the Maison du Jumelage to get information about goings-on in town and so we climb back on our bikes and slowly pedal further into the city. The Maison du Jumelage happens to be one of the first buildings we come upon that is actually in the city proper and so we pull in to get the Koulikoro scoop. The Maison du Jumelage is also not just an information center – but also a Maison (house) for sleeping. At 7,500 CFA/night, the price is just right. With lunch being served at their outdoor restaurant as we unload our bikes – their timing is impeccable!

Half-way there!
After filling our tummies with zamé (a red rice served with cabbage, fish and pumpkin) and Coca-Cola, and taking a much-needed nap, we set off on foot to explore the city. It is late afternoon by now but the unrelenting sun makes sweat drip down our backs and encourages us to seek shade on the western side of the street. We stroll slowly as we take in the French, colonial architecture of the city. I purchase 3 meters of fabric with a design of blue and white bath tubs and we buy hermetically sealed bags of water to quench our persistent thirst. We select a side street at random and head east to check out what is happening down by the river. As we make our way to the Niger, thumping music from powerful sub-woofers scream at us from a wedding, children play soccer in an unexpected clearing and Peul women braid one another's fine, sturdy, hair into tight plaits in front of a mud-house. 'Regarde tout ça!' Abdoulaye excitedly remarks, calling my attention to these little moments happening all around us. His joy is contagious – I squeeze his hand and we keep walking towards the red sand and lapping blue waves ahead.
A woman tending to her shell collection to be sold to chicken feed producers
Pedaling into the Koulikoro Abdoulaye and I could not help but notice the numerous abandoned factories with rusting signs lining the entrance to the city. After a few minutes by the Niger it appears their workforces have relocated. Hundreds of men shovel, with water up to their knees, piles of sand from sturdy, wooden pirogues into neat mounds on the banks of the river. The mounds are then collected by large dump trucks and taken to Bamako for use in construction. In the middle of the river, gentle splashes draw our attention to men diving and dredging, with their hands, bucketfuls of sand to be paddled back to shore. Women pull pailfuls of shells in from their own pirogues and lay them out to be dried by tomorrow's sun. One woman explains, as poultry cluck around our feet, that the shells are dried and sold to buyers from Bamako who then grind them to be used as chicken feed. The sun is quickly setting and Abdoulaye and I still need to find a riverside bar another friend said we had to visit. We snap a few shots and find an opening in the piles of shells and sand to reach higher ground.

Photo shoot at one of the abandoned factories
The riverside restaurant described to us as 'a must-see!' turns out to be the abandoned site of a former USAID project that appears to be inhabited by squatters with a refrigerator and a charcoal fire. After dragging plastic-string chairs closer to the river we re-confirm with the disinterested owner that this is indeed a bar and we have not intruded on his home. 'Oui, oui – c'est un restaurant ici!' he replies. We sit for a few minutes and then remind the owner we are there and could we trouble him for some sodas? A sulky woman saunters over to our table and looks at us as though we have interrupted a very pressing activity of hers. She says nothing and so we offer our own questions: 'Vous avez du Coca-Cola?' we ask. 'Non,' she replies and looks down to the mounds of sand that continue to be shoveled by the river. A few moments of silence ensue. 'Pomme?' we continue – apple soda? 'Non,' she answers, her eyes still fixated on the slowly moving piles of sand below. Clearly customer service is not a forté of Koulikoro's hospitality sector. We finally arrive at an understanding after asking well, what sodas do you have? 'Fanta,' she finally concedes. Yes, please – we'll take two! Night falls around us and we sip our orange sodas as we look for tonight's first stars to peek out. Music pours off the deck of an anchored passenger boat nearby. Next on the to-do list for our adventure? River-boat dancing!

All this for only 7,500 CFA/night!
We set our alarm for 11 p.m. and snuggle into twin-sized beds to take a pre-dance party nap. The fan whirls a soothing background noise and I lay my hair carefully around my pillow to keep sweaty strands from sticking to my neck. I nudge Abdoulaye when the alarm goes off a couple hours later and he draws water from the tap to replace the sweat we just expended. We shake the sleep from our bodies and put on our party clothes – the music from the boat now reaches our hotel and is calling us to boogie!

After deciding the dance party on the boat is yet another political rally (we're good on politics for tonight) we follow our ears to a club nearby and also on the banks of the river. Abdoulaye pays 500 CFA (about $1) for his ticket (ladies in free, hoo-rah!) and we slip past the girls flirting with motorcycle-lounging boys outside to enter. Once inside Abdoulaye buys me a warm pineapple soda and we scope out the dance scene. The music is too good to sit still and so I finish what I can of the soda and return the bottle so we can cut the rug. After a few songs, including the African electric slide, and enough giggles to fill a laugh track we take a break on a low-lying wall nearby. Rappers 'de Bamako' clear the dance floor and take turns swaying too and fro with the microphone as they rap in Bambara. We look around the room and decide, at our tender years of 25 and 26, that we are most certainly the oldest people here. The DJ turns on some salsa music and Abdoulaye teaches me some Latin moves. At 1 a.m. we call it a night – we did, after all, bike over 35 miles today – and head back to the hotel with promises to the bouncer that we will return to Koulikoro soon.
Don't be fooled like we were!  The city is still 5km away!
The next morning we sleep in until 11 a.m. and wake up groggy. Maybe hot season was a bad time to bike this far? We settle our accounts at the Maison du Jumelage and bike across town to take a last tour of the city. As we bike through town, a wedding party blasts past us. Hundreds of motos honking simultaneously and some doing tricks. We pull to the side of the road to let them pass and Abdoulaye points to an embankment dividing the river. 'Why don't we bike to the end?' he suggests. We do just that and along the way see an island of goats munching on bright green blades of grass and donkeys sniffing out their own snacks by the river's edge. At the end of the embankment sits a white taxi waiting for folks to cross the small part of the river left open by this mini-dam. We ask the crowd of people waiting under a thatched hanger where the bus station is for Bamako. Our bikes look pretty pooped and so we decide to cut them some slack and let them ride back to Bamako on the roof of a car. We decide we will cut ourselves some slack too and join them. The owner of the white taxi appears and says that Bamako is where this car is headed – and our fare is only 1,200 CFA – cheaper than the Sotrama! 'How much cheaper?' we ask out of curiosity. 'A Sotrama – if you can even find one now – is 1,300 CFA' he replies. Motivated by the big savings and the high-noon sun we laughingly agree. Back to Bamako!

An hour and ½ later, we unload our bikes from the roof of the taxi and carefully cross the traffic-filled streets and train tracks to arrive at the Broadway cafe for lunch. Abdoulaye orders a hamburger for himself, a cheeseburger for me and a Coca-Cola to share. The restaurant's air-conditioning dries our sweat and makes us forget it is well over 100 degrees outside. As Abdoulaye munches on his french fries and I delicately devour my burger we recount our trip from start to finish. Abdoulaye admits that while Koulikoro was great – Bamako does have some nice amenities (like this food!) to offer. We order an ice-cream and I feel my legs ache, asking me for another nap. Abdoulaye grins at me from across the table. 'Where can we bike to next?'

See more pictures from our trip here!


Cassady Walters said...

Can't wait till Abdoulaye can teach me some Latin moves! Too. much. fun.

mahlzeit said...

Very nice reading your blog, I've been to Koulikoro 13 years ago, stayed for three weeks at the "Maison Du Jumelage". It was indeed THE experiendce of my life.

Sad that google linked me to your blog as I was searching for news around the war in Mali...

Jennifer said...

Thanks for reading mahlzeit! I hope that my blog can be a glimpse of the good that Mali has to offer while we're all inundated with the bad news now pouring out today.

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