Bamako
Mali
Currency

Bamako the Capital City of Mali

The previous night was the Eve of Al Hijra - the Muslim New Year. I celebrated with Patta and the other staff in the Hotel Fana, eating a meal of cous cous - traditionally, no rice is eaten at this time - going to bed early in preparation for the full day ahead, which would include my flight to Bamako.

Tam the taxi-driver, by now a long-time friend, arrived at the Fana Hotel next morning to take me to the Mali Embassy to collect my visa. Stopping on the way to negotiate the purchase of a mobile phone charger for me .. at the local price. Not for the first time, I marvelled at the surprising ease of buying new technology in the big cities of West Africa. " I need a mains charger for my phone Tam, any ideas ?" I asked. As my phone is less than a year old and sports some of the latest technology, I was doubtful of any success.

But within 10 minutes and on only his second enquiry from a roadside seller with a battered rucksack at his feet .. the correct model was produced .. brand new, boxed and with the phone maker's name almost spelt correctly !! "CFA 3000," says the guy. Tam, in mock astonishment and supposedly almost in tears of incredulity at this attempt at overcharging him, just because he has the Toubab buyer in the car .. offers him CFA 1500 and gets it for CFA 2000. No doubt Tam, who I tipped well, will also collect a commission from this seller at another time .. and good luck to him. At a sixth of the equivalent UK charger price, and still going strong .. it was a bargain !

Having been used to organising virtually everything to do with transport, dates and times etc., it was almost a luxury to pass my Bamako transport, arrival and hotel booking details over to Mr Bayo at Odyssey Tours. His confidence in arranging everything, including the odd discount or two, was overwhelming .. and warmly welcomed. I mean, with his expert contacts running the same type of tourist business in Bamako, surely nothing could go wrong ? I almost forgot I was still in Africa !

Later in the afternoon, Tam collected me and took me to the Leopol Sedar

Senghor International Airport, just 5 minutes drive from the Fana Hotel. Having flown in and out of Africa on numerous occasions, this was the first time I had ever braved an internal flight. Thoughts were in my mind of rarely maintained aircraft held together with wire, body filler and the occasional weld ( similar to most of the bush taxis ) with the possibilities of them having outside toilets and waiting hours for enough passengers to fill them before they could leave.

I needn't have worried .. the airport was airy and comfortable with shops and catering facilities at some of the most reasonable prices I have yet to see in any international airport. For the CFA 81,500 one-way fare, Air Sénégal International provided a new-looking, very comfortable plane with wide seats and more than sufficient legroom. We took off exactly on time and were treated to tasty refreshments and steward's announcements in French, English and Mandinka. Ninety minutes later, again exactly on time, we landed at Bamako's Senou International Airport, some 14 km from the centre of Bamako City, on what was a very hot and dry afternoon.

Happy at the time and personal suffering saved in going by air, I must admit to thinking about, and feeling sorry for, Alaghi .. no doubt bumping along in the furnace-like temperatures through Kayes towards Bamako by road. But he had had 6 months notice to get his passport so he could fly with me.

Passing through Bamako airport's customs and immigration was almost uneventful, apart from the gleam of some easy CFAs to be made, in one of the immigration officer's eyes. Scantily scanning my passport, he enquired if I had my Yellow Fever certificate with me. Not required in The Gambia, but supposedly absolutely necessary to have for entry into Senegal, this was the first time in 16 years of African travel that anyone had ever mentioned it. "Funnily enough, my good man, I do" .. I said laughing and reaching into my pocket. Strange how the eager look in his eyes suddenly disappeared as he waved me on, without even waiting for me to show it to him. Nothing changes much in Africa !!

Bags in hand, I waited outside the airport for the promised chauffeured limousine ( or rather a pre- booked taxi, courtesy of Odyssey Tour's arrangements ) to glide into view and carry me away to the Hotel Mande. 30 minutes later, standing outside having an interesting conversation and sharing a few cigarettes with the Airport Security Chief, watching all the other passengers being met and greeted by their families and friends and driven away, plus having refused umpteen offers from the assembled airport taxis, shoeshine boys and assorted merchants .. I was still waiting.

One dishevelled taxi was left in the car park, with both it and its driver seeming to be at least 135 years old. So muttering "Oh what a shame, this is not what I had expected," or words to that effect,
I hired them both and was taken at a regal pace to the hotel .. but for a quarter of the price I had been willing to pay for the supposedly prearranged one .. every cloud has a silver lining !

Arriving at the Hotel Mande welcomed by the same reception personnel who were there during my stay the previous year, I naively asked which room did they have  reserved for me .. only to be met with blank looks and a degree of consternation. Despite me producing copies of confirmation faxes from both tourist agencies in Dakar and Bamako, they had absolutely no knowledge of it.

However and luckily for me, they kindly and quickly found me a room with all the comforts of home including A/C - TV and eventually .. after getting in touch with Odyssey Tour's contact in Bamako .. generously allowing me the discount which I thought had already been arranged. Confirming my previously held opinion that the Hotel Mande is THE place to stay in Bamako.

Click this Picture, which is the view from the restaurant terrace over the Niger river showing the airport tower .. 14 km away at the top left .. to see Hotel Mande pictures and a previous description.
                            
Making a quick and somewhat annoyed phone call to Mr Bayo in Dakar, to tell him that his organisation had not been quite so efficient this time, I quickly unpacked, as opposed to collapsing as I would have done normally had I arrived via an overland trip, hired a local taxi and went straight to the Marché Goulanina to see the bead dealers and their beads.

My previous and first ever experience in this market, was somewhat annoying, most dealers behaving like avaricious vultures. This time however, I was greeted in a very much better fashion, not as just another tourist but as someone who keeps his word and actually pays good, but not outrageous, prices for quality beads. I am sure the details of my previous deals in Mali, outside this market, must have spread quickly after my last visit and this time they did not want to miss out !

The first person I remembered meeting previously and who warmly greeted me, was Mr Barry ...

regaled in strands of amber, flashy African trousers and a smile from ear to ear.

I have revised my previous opinion of most of the traders on this market .. my two days with them this time were both enjoyable and very productive. Finding excellent quality beads at reasonable prices and receiving some fascinating facts and information about other areas, with introductions and directions to other contacts which we could find en route. As I have often found before, the second visit to a new place is always better than the first.

After 10 minutes catching up on each other's news and enquiring about mutual friends, just as they were asking where Alaghi was .. my phone rang .. non other than a tired Alaghi calling me, saying that he had just arrived in Bamako and if was I still in Dakar, would I like to fly to meet him now ?

Knowing the vagaries of land travel in this region, with numerous delays sometimes lasting for days, I had asked him to ring me when he arrived, as I might stay in Dakar until he rang and did not want to wait in Bamako ( where comparative accommodation is rarer and more expensive than in Dakar ) for 3 or 4 days, if he was delayed. I passed the phone to Barry, saying I had a friend who wanted to speak to him, and .. not a little surprised .. Alaghi arrived 5 minutes later with tales of breakdowns, delays and the usual extortionate fees of passage at border and police posts. He even paid twice for the same journey when he left one taxi which had broken down, to hire another to continue his journey, rather than to wait for local emergency repairs. Luckily I had given him enough transport
( the local term for the money for one's fares etc. ) to cover his expenses.

After a couple of hours of chatting and seeing some of the other traders' bead offerings to be bargained for the following day, Alaghi returned to his friend's house to catch up on his sleep and I returned to the Hotel Mande for a meal.

I had been looking forward to having another meal on the Mande's riverside terrace with its lovely views across the River Niger .. but just as I started eating, the receptionist hurried over with a mobile phone, saying there was a call for me. Non other than Mr Bayo, with profuse apologies and a long explanation for the breakdown of communications between his office and the Bamako firm he had contacted. "No problem, it is all sorted now," I said. Back to eating .. but no, another phone call. This time from the Bamako firm, with yet more apologies and assurances to sort out my promised discounts. "OK, many thanks." Now perhaps I could enjoy my meal in peace ? Nope .. a total of 5 phone calls from both Bamako and Dakar, a hotel receptionist bathed in perspiration from running back and forth with the phone, amazed looks from the other guests thinking that perhaps I was someone important to be getting all this attention and food a lot cooler than at the first attempt .. made for not a very relaxing repast !

 The surprises continued with me unexpectedly ending up spending the rest of the night until 1.30am extracting numerous viruses, trojans and other nasties out of the hotel's public access computer .. volunteered into this task by unsuccessfully trying to access my e-mails and thinking I ought to let the manager know he had a few problems with his system. Finding out I knew a little about computers, he gave me the computer office key and asked if I could please sort it out for him.

Doing my best, without any of the repair discs which I had left in The Gambia, I was reasonably pleased with my efforts. Not so the replacement, grumpy night duty manager .. refusing to even let me have a coffee, unless I paid for it ! I said something about preparing an invoice for 4 hours work at the £80 per hour UK rate for a computer technician's services and went to bed. At breakfast the next morning, the much more pleasant general manager sought me out and thanked me for my help.

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Next morning, passing by the now familiar modern monuments in Bamako City and for the first time, seeing cages of pretty birds on sale at the roadside, we went to the Burkina Faso Embassy to get my entry visa. The lady receptionist  smiled and wished me better luck this time. Somewhat of a pretty remarkable memory to say the least .. as she must have seen thousands of people since my first abortive attempt twelve months previously, when I had failed to get a visa because my passport had been too full for their visa stamp ( CFA 13000 ) to fit on a whole page that it required. Incredible !

Whilst waiting for the visa to be processed, we returned to the same food kitchen as last time and gave the family the photographs I took then, to say they were delighted would be an understatement.

We paid a quick visit to the markets around the Grand Central Mosque and sat for a while in the

shade with some of Alaghi's Hausa dealer friends, talking and watching others having roadside African haircuts. I was offered a free haircut, but graciously declined when I saw how short they were cutting !

Returning to the Marché Goulanina, we found a brand new European-style restaurant and boulangerie, that had been built during the last 6 months, right on the edge of the market. Air conditioned, fresh and clean with good food, coffee, tea, soft drinks and ice cream .. although looking totally out of place compared to the surrounding market shacks .. between bouts of enthusiastic bargaining in the 40C degree heat, it was very welcome.

We found and bought some lovely beads .. aided by Barry, whose shop was full of modern Tuareg silver, Ghanaian powder glass, bronze and brass bracelets, shells, carvings, amulets, key rings and

other treasures for tourists, but unfortunately at that time, few of the ancient and antique trade beads that I needed. A popular member of this bead-trading community, even though he didn't have some of the required types, he knew who did and introduced me to both friends and competitors with very helpful comments, asking them to treat me fairly on the prices. This they mostly did, but the occasional long bouts of friendly but intense bargaining were still necessary to obtain mutually fair prices on some items.

After another comfortable night in the Hotel Mande, Alaghi and I met for breakfast and set off to catch the Bitter-Trans bus to Sévaré, looking forward to another stay at Mac's Refuge and more friendly teasing between my English humour and that of our indomitable Mali / American host John.