Monday, 19 July 2010

West African Road Trip - Day 3

We left Ouagadougou (Wagga-doo-goo) at 08:00 after an early breakfast. The city had wide, straight roads, and though it was difficult to find the right road, the traffic moved very well, and we made good progress. We were planning on getting all the way to Mail today, so that on the following day we could make the final push to Bamako. But we were getting tires of spending all day in the truck, and we decided to re-think our plans when we got to Bobo Dioulasso. We were looking for a particular village on the way. Roine had read in the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa, called Ouroubono. We tried several times to find it, and asked directions, but never found it. But it did mean we did not take the direct road to Bobo, but we branched off at Pa, and went via Diébougou to Bobo.

We arrived in Bobo Dioulasso at 2pm and decided to have lunch, then find a hotel for the night, so that we could spend the rest of the day in one place, looking around and getting to know it. The tourist touts were a bit keen, but not too bad once we made it clear that we did not want to buy whatever it was they were selling. Everyone spoke French, but almost no one spoke English, and then only very rudimentary. This town was more primitive than previous places we had stopped at, and it was very warm and humid. The sky was cloudy and rain threatened, but never came.

We found a suitable café for lunch at about 3 pm, after looking in several places, one was too unhygienic, one simply was not serving food. We had rice with sauce, which was simply but filling. We also got our first taste of the local beer, Brakina, which was good enough for us. We then checked into the Hotel L'Auberge, having decided to stop travelling for today. This meant giving up on the idea of going to Bamako, because it is another 360km beyond Sikasso. We had decided that the following day we would do the short drive to Sikasso in Mali, and see what it was like. Possibly stay there the night if we found a good hotel and if the place was interesting enough. After checking into the hotel, it was about 5pm so we wandered around Bobo looking for a suitable bar for a drink and also looking for a cash machine, because the hotel would not accept any of cards. We found one that would only accept my debit card so I took out a wadge of cash to cover for tonight and tomorrow night's hotels and petrol for the following day. We stopped and asked people where was the best place to go for a drink, but hardly anyone could tell us because they could speak no English. Eventually we found the Black and White Club bar, and had a couple of Brakinas while we watched the world go by on foot, on mopeds, motorcycles and in very expensive SUVs. At one point, police turned up and started making a noise with whistles and lots of shouting. They stopped the traffic for 5-10 minutes, and then some police motorcycles and cars came roaring through accompanying some big shiny SUVs with tinted windows. Once the past, the police disappeared into the background and normal life resumed. We stayed for a couple of hours then returned to the hotel for an early night. I set up the mosquito net over the bed and the air conditioning had been on for a while, so the room was nice and fresh. But it was still a bit ropey, with old wooden furniture and poorly fitting window frames that let mosquitoes come and go as they pleased.

We had breakfast at 6:30 Tuesday morning, next to the pool. It was just a light breakfast, very French; a baguette, a croissant, some butter and jam and tea or coffee and some very sugary fruit juice that needed quite a lot of water adding to it to make it drinkable. We checked out and settled up the bill, then had to wait 30-40 minutes for our driver to return from wherever it was he had found to stay the night. Finally we set off about 08:30 and headed for the Mali border. Bobo was small enough to mean it was fairly way to find our way out of it and the road from Bobo to the border town of Koloko was very smooth and straight, and clear of traffic, so we made good time. It was strange that we saw hardly any other vehicles on this road. Clearly, we were not headed for the most significant border crossing. We stopped on the way to take photos of a waterfall, and then arrived at the first of several border formalities.

The first stop involved the police checking our passports and trying to figure out where we had stolen the car or not. The driver did not have a letter from his employer to authorise him to drive the car out of the country. I had to act as an interpreter between the policeman and the driver. Once the policeman understood what we were doing and that this was a rental of car with driver, he told us that it was OK, the three of us could go and he just needed a conversation with the driver alone. I offered to stay to help interpret, but he said it was OK he'd manage. He was very calm and smiling so we were not worried. We waited for about 15 minutes until the driver came out to tell us that the policeman wanted a bribe of 1,000 CFA (about £1.40) to buy his lunch, so we gave this to the driver, who paid it and came out grumbling that no receipt was forthcoming. The second stop was customs, and this involved a long discussion about whether our driver was authorised to drive the vehicle. It took about tem minutes to persuade them that all was in order. The next stop was the actual border where we had to show our passports and wait for them to be stamped. They just took them into a hut for ten minutes and came out with them stamped. This border was interesting because there were shacks and vendors right on the control point, and people sitting around, chatting, burning mahogany for fires, cooking meet, barbecuing sweet corn and selling all sorts of stuff. After moving on from there, we had a few kilometres in no-man's land, then reached the Mali crossing point. This time we were invited to sit on a bench with the policemen in a kind of permanent field-tent with no walls and a thatched roof. They we very friendly while they thumbed through our passports one at a time, checking the visas and copying out our details into their big book. There were 3-4 policemen, idly sitting around, and the biggest and most important was lounging half asleep right at the back of the shelter, enjoying his importance. While we waited I looked at the book upside down and noticed that we were the only people to have passed this way so far today, apart from locals passing unhindered. I wondered what they will do with this book once they filled it up. Probably sent it for filing away in some big office somewhere.

All this had taken about an hour and a quarter before we were finally on our way. But after a couple of kilometres, we had to stop to pay a road toll, buying a slip of paper for cash. Then we were on our way again. The road was growing slightly busier with carts pulled by donkeys and motorcycles or mopeds being used for all sorts of things. I think the most entertaining was the man with a live, adult goat strapped around his belly. Somehow, he managed to keep the goat and the bike under control as he made his way to town. Mali was very beautiful countryside with plenty of quite large settlements of mud huts with raffia roves. These close know communities were built out of the same red soil that they sat upon, with the addition of cow dung. Unlike similar villages in Burkina, these were much larger and seemed to be better kept. There were few concrete buildings.

We arrived in Sikosso quite early, maybe midday, and wanted to look around, as well as find a hotel for the night. As we drove around I think we were all a bit depressed by how primitive this place was. There was no sign of any industry and although this was Mali's second biggest city after Bamako, the only substantial buildings were the Governor's residence and some complexes built by various aid agencies. Thousands of people were taking part in a permanent market that is the city centre, operating out of small shacks or just sitting at the side of the road. We found the so-called best hotel intone, the Hôtel Zanga, and asked to look at the rooms. The place was deserted, the swimming pool empty of water, and only one person working there, who was asleep in front of the telly when we arrived. We asked to look at some rooms and she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head in a resigned kind of a way, clearly thinking that this was a waste of effort. When we got into the rooms, they were small, the curtains drawn, the toilet had the Muslim style of Bhutta, instead of toilet paper (basically a large teapot you fill with water to wash yourself), the rooms were musty and smelled of mould, and the window frames poorly fitting, with the balcony door not even reaching all the way to the floor. No mosquito nets meant that this would be a terrible place to sleep, so we thanked her and went on our way. We asked around and found another supposedly good hotel, this one called the Kaaky Hotel that was built in 2000. Again, there were no guests and the rooms were pokey, dark and musty. Even though they had mosquito nets, it was not a very nice place. So we decided we would not stay the night in Sikosso at all, but just have a wander before returning to Bobo. We bought some small clay pots. I bargained for the one that Sam wanted, in French, and felt quite pleased to have got the price down to 700 CFA (about £1). But when it came to a pair of smaller clay pots that Roine and I wanted, they were only asking 200 each (about 28p) so it really seemed unfair to beat the price down further. We also bought some mangos from the market for 500, and she was not interested in bargaining at all, although she eventually slipped 5-6 into the bag even though we only wanted three. We had done OK. We never found anywhere to have a beer. We had seen one really seedy place, concealed behind garish plastic sheets so the occupants cannot see passers-by and vice versa. This is a strongly Muslim community.

The drive back through Mali was straightforward and the border crossings were much easier going back. Some of the policemen thought it quite amusing that we had made such a small excursion into Mali, but although we were disappointed with such a small stay in Mali, we really needed to be realistic about how many kilometres we could cover in a day. And we need to be back to Accra at the week-end, so now we can take the return journal much more steadily. Passing a disused railway bridge that we had noticed on the way out, we stopped to take pictures of the bridge and the children and women carrying water on their heads were happy to be photographed as well.

We got a great welcome from the staff at the Hotel L’Auberge when we returned. It seems that they were particularly delighted to know that Bobo Dioulasso was more to our liking than Mail. I got the same room as yesterday, only this time it seemed fresher and everything had been cleaned properly. They had sprayed the corridors and rooms with insecticide, so we could be a bit more relaxed about mosquitoes for a while. We went to a restaurant for dinner, one run by nuns, called L’eau Vive. It was an outdoor restaurant in the courtyard of their accommodation, and the food was very good. I had a mushroom pizza with salad and chips. We had a beer with the meal, and as this was our second beer, Sammie went back to the hotel at the end of dinner, and Roine and I went to find the bar we’d seen on our first night in Bob when we were looking for something to drink. We had tried this place first the previous night, and it was deserted. They said then that it never really got going until 8 pm. As it was now 9 pm, we wanted to see what it was like with people in it.

When we got there it was already quite dark, and there was lighting at the bar, but none at the tables, so we were sat outside in darkness, watching the other customers and enjoying our beer. The music was mostly good West African stuff, with the occasional bit of crappy West African pop thrown in for good measure. Every time a new bunch of people entered, they cranked up the volume a little bit, until the loudspeakers were almost tearing themselves apart in the bass notes. The dance floor in the middle of the area had a shelter over it, and after a while some paltry disco lights flashed on intermittently. Eventually a couple stood up to dance awkwardly and jerked around for a bit, not quite in time with the music. This confirmed Roine’s theory that not all Africans had rhythm in their blood. Walking back across town at this time of night, the place now had a feeling of familiarity about it. Most of the people patrolling the streets looking for tourists had already seen us about and now left us alone, and it was a great feeling just walking along streets where people were getting on with their lives. We passed one of the continuous barbecues that are all over the town, where slow-burning mahogany logs are used to cook cuts of meat that have been tickled by millions of flies. The smell of mahogany smoke was a really wonderful part of the atmosphere of Bobo. A great end to a long day.

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