27 February 2006

Conards in Bamako

So how exactly does one explain the most significant travel experience of one’s life?  I will tell you it is difficult, and I do not think that words can do it justice.  In the next series of posts, I will attempt to describe my family’s visit to Mali, which I will call the Conards in Mali 2006. . . . . .

It all started last July, right before I left for Mali.  A few days before I departed, my parents emphatically described that they would come visit me in Mali at some point during my stay here.  Initially I took that as a pipe dream, but encouraged them anyways. Over the ensuing months, their initial statement became more of a reality.  This time, they said that they would bring over my brother and sister as well.  The initial discussions included a grand African adventure, with a week in Mali, a week on safari in East Africa, and a week at the pyramids in Egypt.  Time and cooler heads prevailed, and the grand vacation was paried down to just Mali.  What happened during their visit would be up to me.  After a few months of stress, many phone calls, and many discussions with friends and travel agents alike, I came up with a pretty good itinerary.  Come the middle of December, the dates of the Family Conard visit to Mali were set (28 Jan – 9 Feb), as well as most of their itinerary.  It was then a matter of waiting until the big day they arrived.

The month of January went by a lot slower than I had imagined, partly for work reasons, and the rest for anticipation for my parents visit.  When the day finally arrived, I was beside myself.  I knew that they all would be exhausted from their roughly 30 hour journey, but nonetheless happy to be in Africa and with the Craiger.  They stepped out of the insanity that is the Bamako airport, haggard, but happy to be here.  I had arranged for a 4x4 from work to pick them up and to chauffer us around town for the next couple of days.  We went directly to my house, where thankfully there were enough beds for everyone.  After a celebratory glass of wine/beer, we toasted the upcoming 12 day journey and our family.  We then reviewed our itinerary again just to make sure everyone was on board with it.  The one idea that I tried to instill was that this was Africa, and that plans always change, and they seemed OK with the itinerary I had set up:

Conards in Mali 2006 Itinerary

28 Jan:     Arrive Bamako-Senou
     BMP villa
29 Jan:     Tour of Bamako
lunch at Maiga’s house
Gran Marche and Artisan’s Market
Dinner at Santoro
BMP villa
30 Jan: Visit to MRTC
Doneguebougou (lunch)
Visit to Mande Hotel Pool
Finalize travel plans
Dinner at Bla-bla, drinks with friends in Hippodrome
     BMP villa

31 Jan:     Fly to Timbuktu (CAM Air)
Tour of city
Colombe Hotel (
1 Feb:     Visit city
Camel tour of Timbuktu
     Possible visit to Taureg encampment
Colombe Hotel (
2 Feb:     Leave Timbuktu via 4x4, head to Mopti
     Hotel Kanaga (
3 Feb:     Explore Mopti
     Scott to Bamako via private hire 4x4
     Head to Sevare
     Mac’s Refuge (
4 Feb:     Explore Mopti/Sevare
     Possible Piroque ride
     Chill at Ambedjele
     (Scott pre-flight check in and to Airport)
     Hotel Ambedjele (
5 Feb:     Chill at Ambedjele
     Private hire 4x4 arrive from Bamako
     Drive Sevare to Djene
     Hotel Tapama (
6 Feb:     Market day in Djenne
     Explore Djenne-Debo
     Drive from Djenne to Sangha
     Gite de le Femme Dogon (
7 Feb:     Explore Sangha and Falaise
     Drive Sangha to Bandiagara
     Hotel Kambary (
8 Feb:     Explore Dogon Country near Bandiagara
     Drive Bandiagara to Segou
     Hotel Djoliba (
9 Feb:     Drive from Segou to Bamako
     Pre-flight Check in at Air France
     Last minute errands
     Dinner at Sahara
     Airport 9:00 pm

The next morning we dined on mangoes, croissants, Starbucks coffee from the states (talk about heaven!!) and Guava juice.  We then headed out to the main market here in Bamako for their first experience.  If there is one thing that quintessential Africa, it is her markets.  The sites, smells, and feel of the markets here are Africa, and most of the things I planned were around the market; Bamako, Timbuktu, Djenne, and Pays Dogon are all parts of Mali that have incredible markets.  Needless to say our first experience was unlike the others we had during our stay.  True to the Bamako market experience, we were harassed the second we arrived.  About 10 different men surrounded us, asking us what we wanted, and that they could guide us around.  Walking through the crowded cloth market (it was my idea that they could find cloth they liked to have made into shirts/pants by my friend who is a tailor), the Conard Caravan increased to roughly 15, if you included the Malians trying to make a buck or two.  In the process, we got the first of many propositions for my sister’s hand in marriage.  One Toureg man offered 30 camels for her!!  It was a tough sell, but I figured we could use the extra money and lighten our travel burden by one person.  After an hour and a half, I could tell that perhaps my desire to have my family experience the African market was too much, both for them and for me, the translator and bargainer.  Needless to say it was exhausting, and we left more or less happy for the experience.  

We then headed over to my friend Maiga’s house for lunch and a chance to experience life with a Malian family.  Granted, this was Maiga’s Uncle’s family, but one who he considers as close as his own parents.  I have described my experiences at Maiga’s before, and this is very similar to that.  Good food, good friends, and an incredible chance for my folks to recharge and get used to Africa.  My sister got one of her trip wishes (“to play with African children” as she called it) and I got a much needed nap.  My dad gave a geography lesson and my Mom played the role of Mom: playing, scolding, and laughing.  After lunch, we had the “barbeque,” aka dinner: bbq sheep, with salad and plantains.  My parents raved about it.  We left Maiga’s full and rested after a great day.  I was eager to get to our next destination, the first of many “Sunset beers” that I had planned.  The one spot I thought was perfect was closed, so we ended up going to one of the most expensive hotels in Bamako.  We somehow were able to get into the restaurant that looks over the river to open up early, and sit near the balcony, looking at the sunset over the Niger.  It was an expensive venture, but one that was necessary.  We went home that night and just chilled as a family, something I really missed in my many months away from there.  I showed them my pictures, we chatted about home and laughed.  It was truly a good night.  

The next day was the “work day,” meaning it was the day I was going to show them where I worked, meet some of the folks I work with, and then head out to Doneguebougou, my village home for the first 3 months I was here and my current home for my remaining 3 months here.  After a late start, classic Conard style, our driver arrived and we were off.  We drove by the market I by my vegetables and other foodstuffs at, and my parents almost had a heart attack.  I explained to them that I was alive thus far, so it must be good for me, no??

We arrived at Point G, the location of the National Hospital of Mali, the Medical school, and the Malaria Research and Training Center.  My friend Maiga met us there, and we took a quick tour of the facilities and the Guest House.  My parents were rather impressed by the facilities, and could not believe the flowers and tropical vegetation that was present.  I explained to them that everything there was planted by Dick Sakai, one of our administrators who hails from Hawai’i and who dabbles in horticulture.  After our tour, we headed out to Doneguebougou, my village.  Now, my parents lived in the wilds of Arkansas, New Mexico and Montana for about 10 years, so I figured they would be used to bad roads.  I think the suburban life they have lived over the past 25 years has made them soft.  Now, I will be the first to admit that the road from Kati to Doneguebougou is horrible.  You really can’t call it a road, more like a path that happens to be wide enough for a 4x4.  And to make matters worse, we had one of the more aggressive drivers with us, so the ride was even more bumpy and back wrenching.  They survived OK, I think.  The previous week I had arranged for the cook to make Tiga dega, a peanut sauce dish that is hands down the best Malian rice and sauce dish.  Well, for some reason, it tasted like shit.  Even I could not finish my whole plate.  Luckily, the freshly picked mangoes made up for it.  I then took them on a tour of the facilities here, including the vaccine clinic and the local clinic that we staff.  Needless to say, that my mom and sister, both nurses, and my dad, who helped build a clinic, were taken aback by the conditions here.  They were impressed by the vaccine clinic, but were rather surprised at the conditions of the local clinic building.  . . . .  

The best part happened next.  After our tour, Maiga had arranged for us to visit the village chief.  On our short walk to see the chief, we encountered practically every child in the village.  Needless to say that my Mom and sister were rather happy about this encounter, and passed out practically all of the bon-bons (candy) they had brought with them.  We finally reached the chiefs compound.  He was seated outside with 2 of the village elders, waiting for our arrival.  We sat down, exchanged greetings and names, and started our conversation.  In classic Malian fashion, the patriarch of the family does all of the talking.  So, my ever loquacious dad gladly was ready for the task.  He talked about his background, his desire to visit Africa (particularly Timbuktu) ever since he was a child, and his fascination with this village.  According to Bambara tradition, everything he said in English was translated in French by Maiga, who spoke to Cossa, the village guide who works at the village clinic.  Cossa then translated everything Maiga told him to Bambara to the head elder, and then the First Elder told the chief everything.  When the chief responded, the process reversed: Chief in Bambara to the First Elder, he in Bambara to Cossa, Cossa in French to Maiga, and Maiga in English to my father, and by proxy, to the rest of us.  I am sure that somethings were lost in translation along the way, much like the telephone game we play as children.  During this whole process, I could just imagine what the chief was told: My Dad would say: “You have a nice compound here,” to which the telephone-translation game might have yielded “Your wife looks like a cow.”  (I am just imagining that of course.)  The whole encounter was incredible, and one my parents later on that night said they would never forget.  One of the conversation pieces was about my parents desire to educate others back home about Africa, especially the African Americans they work with who have never had the opportunity to visit Africa, and thus my family’s desire to take pictures to show their colleagues what Africa is like.  The chief gave his permission to take as many pictures as possible.  And in true Conard style, we did.

The Family Conard left Doneguebougou satisfied with the visit.  It was easily one of the most non-touristy things they could have done.  And after a long drive back, my parents were ready for the sunset beer at the Hotel Mande, a “resort” on the Niger River.  Dinner that night was at a bar called Bla-Bla, the place with the best Grilled Capitaine (local freshwater fish) in Bamako.  Later that night, we went next door for a drink at one of my favorite bars.  The idea here was to give my folks an appreciation of the nightlife here in Bamako.  The thing that would have topped it off would have been a visit to one of the Malian night clubs, but we had an early and very important day the next day: our flight to Timbuktu, and the start of the rest of our voyage!!!. . . . .


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