22 January 2006

Here is the Christmas camping crew. Posted by Picasa

The pool at the bottom of the waterfall. It was FREEZING cold, but it felt good anyway. And, so far, no Schisto. Posted by Picasa

A pensive moment on Xmas eve. Note the cheap beer to my left. That is known here as a bili bili ba (large). Posted by Picasa

Poor showing for the Craiger


So 5 posts in two months is not the greatest showing. I mean, one would think that moving back to civilization would afford one more time to post. I guess it is one part actually having some work to do, and 5 parts laziness. I promise I will do better.

So a friend of mine told me about this website for downloading/sharing pictures. It is called Flicker, and I will have a site before you know it. I will let you know the URL very, very soon.

Besides the Christmas and camping thing, there have been some other developments as well:

I am happy to say that after 5 months, I finally am starting my fellowship research, you know, the reason why I decided to take a year off. In a subsequent post I will describe all of the trials and tribulations of my work time here thus far, but I am in a good mood this afternoon, and I don't want to dwell on the negatives to spoil that mood. Suffice it to say that I am doing lab-based work in an Immunology lab here. The work is interesting (looking at the immunology behind severe malaria among other things), but the pace at which it is going is beyond belief. if there is one thing I have learned by doing this fellowship, it is patience.

My family is coming in 1 week to visit me here in Mali. I have a great itinerary planned for them, which includes many of the main sites in Mali that I have yet to see myself (Timbuktu, Pays Dogon, etc.) They will be here for 12 days, and I hope they enjoy it.

I am rapidly approaching my 6 month anniversary in Mali (4 Feb). I can't believe how fast it has already gone. I am debating extending my stay here in Mali by a month, or leaving, and returning later in the Fall. My decision will depend on 2 factors: if the projects that I am planning have a chance in hell of being done in June/July and if I can leverage some money to return. We shall see.

So that is about it for now. I promise to post more often, not only describing my work and such, but also just life in general. I truly love my experience thus far in Mali, and I would not change a thing (except for that research/work part).



02 January 2006

Christmas in Mali

Let me start out by saying that this was my first ever Christmas away from home.  I knew it would be a tough day, and I am glad that I chose to leave Bamako for the weekend leading up to it.  As far as New Year’s, do I have a story for you. . . .

First off, Christmas.  My American friends Carlos (a Harvard MD/PhD student at the NIH this year studying Leishmaniasis), Matt (the director of Geek Corps, an USAID-funded organization that assists with technology development in 3rd world settings), Ludovich (a friend and colleagues of Matt’s from Chad) and I decided to go camping for Christmas weekend.  We had heard of a waterfall/camping area outside of a small village called Siby about an hour north of Bamako that would be perfect.  After a hellish Friday morning packing and buying last minute items at the various markets throughout Bamako, we finally headed out in the early afternoon.  We finally made it to Siby about an hour later.  It was a small town that has recently seen the assistance that tourist dollars can bring: t had a newly paved road, clean streets, and nice “hotels” along the road that backpackers can stay in for $3 a night.  While the allure of a hotel with mud brick ovens, err, I mean rooms, was tempting, we elected for the camping near the waterfall.  

We each had to pay a tourist tax of $2 before heading out to the bush.  Once there, we got “directions” to the waterfall.  We were told that it was 17 km from the main road, and to keep going straight.  We had multiple offers of “guides,” but we were stupid Toubabs who thought we knew what we are doing (“Guides, we don’t need no stinkin’ guides” I thought to myself, but yet again, I refrained from saying the oft quoted line).  In retrospect, we should have gotten guides.  We left the main road at 4:00 and started off toward the waterfall.  Well, the villagers in Siby must have a different definition for straight in Bambara than we, ‘cause there were at least 4 different forks in the road that really complicated the driving.  After stopping about 10 times asking various villagers in the mountains for the directions, and once asking a hot, young, French, Peace Corps-esque girl, we finally reached our destination at 5:45.  Mind you sunset here is about 6:00 pm.  We got out of the car, and heard the faint sound of water amongst a rather large rock face.  We slowly walked to the sound of falling water, and we found the Perfect Campsite.  There was not a lot of water, as we are now in the beginnings of the dry season, but there was enough to make us take notice.  There were natural steps that lead down to a rather large pool of crystal clear water.  There were a few smaller waterfalls scattered about, one of which formed a natural faucet and sink.  Many large plateaus with few edges or bumps could be found near the natural sink.  There was even a built-in fireplace, with 3 walls and a large floor for the wood.  We determined we were in camping heaven, and no other camping spot would ever rival that one (Pictures to document said greatness are forthcoming).

After taking it all in, we realized that our most precious resource (i.e. light) was fading fast, so we rigged up our mosquito nets and mats on the ground, collected firewood, and set up camp.  By the time the light was gone, we were sipping on cold 40s of the local beer, and getting a fire going for dinner.  

Surprisingly enough, the bugs were not a problem.  Mosquitoes were non-existent, and except for a gnat swarm around dusk, we were free and clear, to the point that the mosquito nets were not really necessary at all.  If it were not for the cool temperatures overnight and The Craiger sans sleeping bag, I would have slept without it, but in the interest of staying warm, I elected for the confines of the mosquito net.

As far as food, we ate like kings.  We packed Matt’s 4x4 full of food and alcohol, and all of the acoutrements that go with it.  For dinner the first night we had Kraft Mac and Cheese with this Italian Beef like main course (beef with peppers, onions, garlic, and other spices) and the ubiquitous Malian watermelon for dessert.  A similar dinner was had the next night, with the Italian beef dish again, this time served with cous-cous.  Our mini-bar consisted of a wide variety of aperitifs and alcohols (rum, vodka, gin, cognac) along with 40s.  We were definitely camping in style.  

The next morning (Christmas Eve), we arose around sunrise, started making breakfast (Grits with the Italian beef leftovers from the night before, French Press coffee, and Bloody Mary’s!!) and enjoyed the cool air before the heat of the day came.  Around noon, Carlos and I went exploring the area.  There was not much to look at.  If it were not for a villager we met about a half hour walk down the main road from our campsite, we would most likely have gotten lost.  He was a local farmer, and showed us his fields of mangoes, papaya, pineapple, bananas, and peppers.  I felt like I was in a tropical paradise, better yet, on the Island where they film “Lost.”

After our 2 hour trek, I was exhausted and hot and dirty.  One view of the pool at the bottom of the waterfall and I knew I had to jump in.  While the doctor in me screamed ”Schistosomiasis,” the Craiger in me jumped in anyway.  It was very cold, but very refreshing.  In fact the cool water soothed my fears of the dreaded Schisto (FYI: From what I have read after the fact, the diminutive snails that carry Schisto prefer stagnant, warm water; this pool was moving and COLD.  To my health. . . .).  After my quick swim and tuna sandwich, I dreamed away the rest of the afternoon on a shaded rock.  Now this was how we were supposed to spend Christmas Eve.

We wanted to make a huge bonfire that night, so in the twilight of the late afternoon, we gathered wood, and a lot of it.  I am sure we could have found better uses for that wood (Inshallah) but the “Christmas Eve Bonfires to End All Bonfires” had to happen.  I elected myself as bonfire man, being the lone Eagle Scout of the group.  Right at sundown, we started the masterpiece that was to become of our bonfire, and magnificent it was.  So great it was that we had many locals stop by and admire our pyrotechnical abilities.  They Oooohhed and Aaaahhhed at its glory.  I hear that they will talk of this fire for years to come; the day that Zanble Niare, the Toubab who came to rid Africa of the scourge of malaria, made the Great Fire.

All kidding aside, one of the most incredible moments I have ever had occurred later that night.  After a few hearty Rum and Cokes, and the occasional Cognac to clear the sinuses, the four of us suddenly found ourselves silent for about 5 minutes.  I am not sure what the others were thinking about, but my thoughts were of home, and how much I missed my family and being home for the holidays, which in my mind is the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as I was imagining my house decorated for the holidays, I noticed my friend Matt reading from a small leather-bound book.  I broke our respective quiet contemplations, and asked what he was reading.  “The Bible.  I am looking for the Christmas story.”  

I perked up, and asked him to read it aloud once he found it.  A few minutes later, he approached, the book open to the Book of Luke, and said: “Nah, you read it.  I would rather hear it.”

And so I began to read the story of Jesus’ birth.  I could not imagine a more perfect setting: a bonfire giving off an almost sun-like glow and heat, a clear night revealing a sky beyond imagination, and 4 new friends, Christians all.  It was truly a powerful and unforgettable moment.

The next morning, we slept in, and had a traditional American breakfast: Scrambled eggs with peppers and onions, coffee, Bloody Marys, and 600 mg of Ibuprofen to ward off the evil spirits from the night before.  We reluctantly broke camp shortly afterward and headed back to Bamako about noon.  Despite the ensuing week of gastro-intestinal unpleasantries for most of us, I could not think of a better way to spend Christmas in Mali.

New Year’s on the other hand. . . .