Monthly Archives: March 2011

Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

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A Dairy Story, Part II: I promise to stop writing about goats. After this.

With six litres of goats milk in my fridge, and nothing else to do after some rooftop yoga (choreography by crazy redhead swiss women, music score by neighborhood construction workers and teenage footballers..) I went home to make some serious amounts of yogurt.

my bounty..

Not having a thermometer makes things interesting, but I managed to keep the milk at a not-quite-boil, and then cool it down to about 110˚. (According to my Bulgarian yogurt-making website, this is when you can hold the tip of your finger in the milk for 15 seconds without wanting to cry. I had many burned fingertips before getting to that point.)

just below boiling point

The incubating part was easy. When it’s 100˚ out during the day, and you spend two hours heating up the kitchen to some ungodly temperature, there’s no need to worry about the fecundity of the bacteria. Just to be sure, I swathed my pots of probiotics in kitchen towels and bedsheets and left my home-made sauna for the night. (Pores cleared, toxins all sweat out.)

impromptu incubator

Because I am neurotic, I woke up the next morning to thoughts of the previous night’s project, wondering if maybe I hadn’t let the milk cool quite enough, or what if it cooled too much?? Paranoid, I got out of bed (mind you, it’s not even 6am at this point), padded my way to my kitchen that had evidently remained at elevated sauna-like temperatures all night long. I unwrapped the still-warm casseroles, and uncovered the most beautiful cultured creation ever. Paranoia, placated.

successss! (to be enjoyed daily, preferably topped with fruit and honey.)

Shady Operations in Dusty Trainstations : A Dairy Story, Part 1

I officially have a dealer. In goats milk. Two days ago I got a call from Sheick Diarra, our guide de voyage on the trip out to Kayes a few weeks ago, and worked with us throughout the training on gestational and neo-natal care for goats and sheep. He left to go back to Kayes after the training ended, but not before I not-so-subtly mentioned how great it would be to have a regular source of goats milk to satisfy the need of my burgeoning yogurt and cheese making venture. So when my phone rings and he tells me there are six litres of milk en route from almost-Senegal, I knew I had it made.

8:30am, yesterday. I leave from the office with one of our drivers, call the number Sheick gave me for a certain M. Bakari Coulibaly, who was supposed to have arrived the previous night by train, cooler of goats milk in tow. Handing my phone to the driver, Monsieur Coulibaly gives him directions to the train station, where we’re to go.

women selling dried and smoked fish

It’s not quite 9am and the markets are already packed with people: women selling avocados and potatoes, men offering any number of products or services, kids trying to hawk cell phone credit or boxes of kleenex. We get to la gare, and park in the dusty red courtyard of loading docks filled with wooden crates, tables scattered here and there, and hoards of people going about their early morning routine.

piles of shoes and other bric-a-brac

After poking around for a minute and getting some strange looks from the dockworkers – I am slightly out of place here – I call my contact person again. I pass the phone to the driver, having not a clue how exactly to negotiate my way to finding 6 litres of milk in the middle of a dusty dockyard, and something tells me the message will pass easier in Bambara. Mohammad takes the phone and starts walking towards one of the loading docks where a man is serving breakfast to a few of the other workers. He hands my phone to that man. A loud and jumbled conversation follows, and I am beginning to think that dealing in goats milk might just not be my calling. The dockworker-cum-chef hangs up, walks over to a stack of wooden crates, and pulls back a large tarp that has seen better days.

Lo and behold, there lies my glacier, a cooler full of goats milk. I quickly buy a small plastic bag from a woman across the yard, and fill it with a dozen sachets of white, creamy deliciousness. We scurry back to the pickup and bump our way out of the crowded lot, tumbling back into the chaos of early morning Bamako.

9:15am: goats milk safely in my refrigerator.

9:30am: back at my desk, ready to start the day.

Reference Points for Dirty Feet

The name Mali has its origins in an ancient language that roughly translates to, “perpetually filthy feet”. Maybe this has yet to be proven, but I’m developing a theory on the subject.

dirrrrty feet. pretty nailpolish as a diversion.

But this is not something that really bothers me. What irks me the most, is the inconsiderate cockroach that has decided to make a home out of the cabinet underneath my kitchen counter. I am not ok with a 3-inch cockroach who has nothing better to do than surprise me in his cheeky cockeyed way when all I want is a little snack before going to bed.

Alas.

Cockroaches (even a solitary one) in my kitchen isn’t something I want to get accustomed to. On the other hand, there are certain things that make me feel a sense of home or belonging wherever I am. No matter where I am, as long as the sky is clear I can always pick out Orion’s Belt in the sky at night.  Humor me here; I know it’s not the most difficult thing to be able locate three bright stars right in a row, but it has a soothing effect on me somehow. There are some things, all across the world, that remain the same. Orion’s belt is one of them.

my point de répère...

Friday night I went out with a couple of friends to a comedy club in my neighborhood. Over the course of the night, only two of the jokes were in French, so most of the humor was lost on me. (I was enjoying my Pastis enough to make up for it.) One of the jokes I actually could understand, though, was an Africanized version of this joke I had heard back home about different heads of state making phone calls to God (Allah, whomever) for advice, and the rates they’re charged for the phone calls. In this instance, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is incensed by the fact that Obama and Sarkozy each paid hundreds of thousands of francs CFA to speak with God, while his call only cost 250F CFA. “What, just because we’re an underdeveloped country you think we need some sort of charity??” (Funny, because Wade probably would say something like that..)

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a comedian. The punch line is something about how it’s a local call and I know I’ve just totally killed the whole thing. But the part that’s really funny to me isn’t the joke itself, but the fact that I heard someone tell it about two months ago, while sitting at a friend’s house in DC. Only the heads of state were Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s kind of like how several civilizations across the entire world invented the wheel all around the same time, without ever being in contact with each other. A little bit less evolutionarily significant, but you get my point.

Sitting in that club, not understanding most of what was going on, I still had my Orion’s Belt. Everyone was laughing, and I knew that if Bambara was within my grasp, we’d all be laughing about the same thing.