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Jasmine Dispatch

Jasmine is Jammin' in Africa!

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I bet you're wondering, "Where in the world is Jasmine?" Well, I'm in Africa, can you believe it!?! After almost an entire day of flying, I finally landed in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. It was a long flight, but they kept the Coca Cola's coming, so that passed the time. I had two brief layovers, one in Dakar, Senegal and another in Abidjan, Cote D' Ivoire - I thought I would never get to Bamako. My flight got in at about 9:00pm, but it wasn't until about 10:30pm that I got through the luggage check and cleared through customs. So, there I was backpack in hand, jet lagged, and thinking to myself "Wow, I am in Africa!" So, I ventured my way outside. There are very few street lights in Mali so nighttime is darker than you could ever imagine.

The Guiness guys of Mali
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As I walked out of the airport trying to figure out what to do, a dozen people surrounded me trying to help me with my bags and boxes. Luckily, a Fulani guy who spoke English heard me and came over to help. This guy was amazing! He spoke English, French, and two of the native languages, Bambara and Fulani, so he translated and got me a taxi to the Mande Hotel, which wasn't too far. What a guy! The adventure had begun. I was in a third world country, I couldn't speak the language (which means I couldn't understand a thing either), and honestly, I was very afraid.

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Gooood Morning Mali!
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This beautiful hotel sits just on the bank of the Niger River, and when I woke up the next morning I opened my window to a breathtaking scene. In the quiet of dawn two fishermen went floating by in a canoe as I watched my first sunrise in the motherland - Africa. I was no longer afraid, the dark scary night was long forgotten, and she is beautiful.

Still, the best was yet to come - wait and meet the people! Mali is the 4th poorest country in the world, but these are the most giving people I've ever met. After I checked out of the Mande Hotel, Barry took me to meet his family. This time I did not take a taxi, we took the local Bamabus (better known as the chocho) instead. These small green vans which are made to accommodate 15 people are packed to fit up to 22 people, in addition to whatever they're carrying, from pots and baskets to babies and chickens. Public transportation in America is so different, people like their space, and a packed bus sparks tempers, attitudes, and often massive confusion. It was surprising that no one seemed to mind that we were practically sitting on top of one another- even the chicken seemed to be OK with it. The chochos will take you almost anywhere in the city for 100 CFA (less than a dollar, since 557 CFA=$1) while a taxi might charge 2000 CFA (10,000 if you're a tourist and they think they can get away with it). The only catch is you have to know where you're going and which chochos will get you there. So, How do you know which chocho goes where? Well, the guy hanging out the door will tell you. There are no designated stops or pickups. As the van rolls by the guy yells, ArydaArydaAryda! or ManabougouMananbougou! (the names of two of the main districts in Bamako, Aryda and Mananbougou). If you're going that way you wave them down and they pick you up. If you don't understand what he's saying or if you don't know the name of the place you're trying to go you could easily take a wrong turn somewhere and get completely lost. Luckily, Barry is a good teacher and he taught me the names of the main places in town so I could learn to take the chocho by myself.

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Me and my new friends from Mali
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We arrived in Barry's neighborhood after a very scenic thirty-minute ride from the main city across the Pont de Martyrs (The Bridge of the Martyrs) where hundreds of people were killed during a student led protest in 1991. This bridge is not far from the University and is heavily trafficked because it crosses the Niger River, connecting the downtown to an area called Mananbougou. We got off the chocho at a very crowded intersection where everyone seemed to be selling something - all types of fruits and vegetables, raw meat, cigarettes, tissue, key chains, watches and any other miscellaneous items people in the area might need to buy. We then passed through onto a quieter back street and walked for about ten more minutes until we reached his house. His family instantly greeted me in Bambara, the most widely spoken language in Mali (next to the official language, French,). And once they found that I didn't speak the language they even tried greeting me in English. I thought their English was very clear, but they found it quite amusing that I actually understood them and responded. It was near lunch time and Barry's grandmother, who he called the Big Mother of the house was coming out of her room to join the family for lunch. She smiled as I was able to greet her with the Bambara I'd learned upon arrival (A-nee-sho-gu-ma? - Are you having a good morning?).

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It's teatime in Mali
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They were eating beef in a delicious peanut butter sauce over rice and insisted that I stay and have some. It's an African tradition to invite guests or friends to eat, and to deny the invitation is considered rude. The women then prepared two big bowls of rice and two pots of sauce. The men took one set into one room while the women and children ate from the other set in another room. I felt a little awkward eating with the men, but I was Barry's guest so it would have been rude to leave him to eat with the women. Everything was delicious and Barry translated my appreciation and my compliments to the chef. After lunch we watched Malian music videos and I showed them pictures of my own family in California and Arkansas. By then it was time to go, but not before I assured them that I would come back once I found another hotel and unloaded my things.

I ended up in a small hotel called Hotel Ryad located just around the corner from Barry's home. The people immediately adopted me into their family there. I was welcomed with warm hugs as I explained that I was alone until my friends joined me from Ghana and Burkina Faso. They assured me that they would take good care of me until the rest of the team arrived - and they did just that. I was literally overwhelmed by the sheer kindness of the people here. It really took the edge off of the culture shock and it made my first few days alone not so lonely at all. The hotel managers Mohammed, Ryad and Abraham gave me French lessons and unlimited Coca-Cola.

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The secret sauce of Nyama
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Not only was I learning French and wired on Coca-Cola's, but also I got to eat some fantastic food. Most everyone in Mali makes a daily trip to the market to buy food for the day. Refrigerators are a rarity so there's no place to store food if it is purchased in excess and no money to waste on food that will just go bad. Peanuts, also called groundnuts, are very plentiful in Mali and are used in a variety of ways in almost every dish. Tonight Mariam was cooking Nyam, which is the same thing I ate at Barry's house.

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Cooking with Miriam
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In the Kitchen with Miriam….

Nyam was so good when I tasted it the first time that I asked Miriam if she would teach me how to cook it. She was very excited that I wanted to learn and brought me in the kitchen the moment they were ready to begin. Miriam purchased a small bag (almost like a ziplock) of peanut butter and emptied the contents in a pot, added water and began to stir. She added onions peppers, and seasonings and more water until it thinned out into a sauce. While the sauce simmered she cooked the beef chunks and added them to the sauce. It all cooked for about 20 minutes longer and she served it over steamed rice. Ariet began to prepare me a place setting at the table with a plate, knife and fork, when I told her I'd rather eat with them instead. West African tradition is to sit together on the floor, eating out of one big bowl, using only your right hand. It might seem easy to eat with your hands and certainly fun, but there was a definite technique that I haven't quite mastered yet.

After tasting all the culinary delights and getting to know the place, Kavitha and Abeja arrived from Cote D Ivoire. And a few days later we bumped into Kevin and Monica (literally) as they arrived from Burkina Faso. It was great to finally meet the Odyssey World Trekkers, and hard to believe that I'm now a member of the team. I've been following the trek since Central America, and it was awesome to finally meet these dynamic people in person. We went to dinner and spent our first night together staying up and talking for hours on end, each of us with a million stories and adventures to share. One of the coolest things about the team is probably something you wouldn't know from reading dispatches, so I'll share it now - everyone of us has a really crazy laugh! I mean when we were all together, telling stories and cracking up, we had to stop and laugh at how crazy our laughs sounded. Monica definitely has the loudest laugh, especially over Kavitha's cute giggle, then there's Abeja's hearty chuckle and my laugh which would make your sides ache. Kevin probably has the most normal laugh of the group, but he's definitely the funniest of us all - he keeps us laughing.

Jokes aside, I'm really looking forward to the Mali experience, and even more to sharing all of these things with each of you. West Africa's appeal is not its physical environment, its picturesque landscapes or the wildlife, which are all principal attractions in East Africa. Life here is often uncomfortable and the infrastructure is heavily underdeveloped, which means there's no public transit system. Every time it rains the electricity goes out, and the open sewers overflow. What West Africa does have is a sense of culture and tradition like no other - art, music, and people who are truly amazing. So, come along for the journey!

Jasmine
 

Abeja - A World Class Lesson in Hospitality from the People of Mali
Kavitha - Someone to Watch over Us
Kevin - After All, Fare is Fair!
Monica - A Letter Home One Year Later
Making A Difference - Who Wants to Clean Out the Sewers?

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