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Last week, Abeja and I were planning to travel from Accra, Ghana through the Ivory Coast to Bamako, Mali to meet up with Kevin, Monica and Jasmine, our newest team member. On the way, we wanted to visit the Panafest celebration in Cape Coast. At the last minute we postponed our departure by one day - because we had the unexpected opportunity to interview Dr. Esther Ocloo and just couldn't pass up the chance. The next day, our friends Nilboy and Leslie happened to be available to come with us to Cape Coast - and we were lucky they did! When we arrived, we discovered that people from all over the world had descended on the small town for the Panafest, and its hotels were full beyond capacity! Had we left as planned - we would have been alone, late at night, with nowhere to stay! But our friends knew exactly what to do. They had a bunch of friends who live in the area and many others who came over from Accra for the festival. Within minutes, we had unpacked our stuff in a room, taken showers, and were at the festival dancing - not stranded on the streets as could have been our fate.
A few days later, on Saturday evening, we arrived in Abdijan, the Ivory Coast, expecting to find a bustling city center. Instead, we found the streets deserted, all the buildings empty, and all the stores closed. The problem was that we had very little money, and the few bank machines that accepted Visa cards or foreign ATM's were all closed until Monday morning! There was not a single place still open to even change what little American money we did have!
We were tired and hungry from our long hectic day of border crossing, endless bus rides, and difficult interactions trying to talk in French. To make matters worse, when we finally got in a taxi to take us back to our hotel in the cheaper part of town, we realized the taxi was more expensive than we could afford and quickly asked him to let us off at an intersection. As we hurriedly jumped out of the taxi and watched it zoom away, I reached down in my bag and realized my wallet had fallen out in the car! Well, at least all that was in the wallet was the credit card...the card no one in this city could use until Monday morning anyway!
Luckily for us, we had saved some money at Panafest, hanging with Nilboy and his local friends, rather than paying all the tourist prices. Also, we met a nice man on our crammed mini-bus ride to Abdijan who helped us find the best deal on a hotel and the cheapest and tastiest local food in the market - so at least we could sleep and eat on Saturday night with the little money we had in our pockets. The next day we went to the 5 star hotel in town and changed what little U.S. Dollars we had with us into the local currency, CFAs.
Armed with a little over 24,000 CFA's (which is less than $40), we decided we should try to get out of this expensive city and start making our way towards Bamako where we would meet Jasmine, who had hopefully brought more money with her from the U.S. Since we had learned the hard way about how expensive taxis were in Abdijan, we decided to try to take a local bus to the bus terminal to ask about buses to Mali. We walked across the street to the bus stop and asked some people if we could catch a bus to the terminal there. The only one that seemed to understand our French was a nice student named Olivier. Olivier not only showed us which bus to take, but he got on with us and took us there himself! The bus terminal in Abdijan was not the friendliest place we've ever been - it was full of very aggressive people trying to get money from you in one way or another, and having Olivier there with us definitely made a difference.
Our hearts sank when we saw the sign saying 15,000 CFAs to Bamako. We only had 24,000 CFA's between the two of us, what should we do? With Olivier's help and the sympathy of the bus conductors, we were able to work out a deal. For 8000 CFAs each, they would take us into Mali to Sikasso, a border town, about 8 hours away from Bamako. That way we would sleep on the bus Sunday night and wouldn't have to pay for a hotel room, and we'd be that much closer to Jasmine and Bamako on Monday morning. Crossing our fingers we set off. Bye-bye Abdijan!
Just before crossing the border into Mali, we were woken up to switch buses. A new bus would take us in to Mali. This new company offered to take us all the way to Bamako for just 3000 CFA's more each. We quickly counted our money. We had 7000 CFA's left. If we spent 6000 on the tickets, we would still have some money to take a taxi in Bamako to the hotel we hoped to find Jasmine at. "Let's do it!" we laughed in relief. "We're actually going to make it to Bamako! Yaaaayyyy!!!" We explained to the bus people that I had lost my wallet and that this was all the money we had left, so we couldn't pay any extra for our baggage and they accepted.
After the bus took off, some men started coming up the aisles collecting everyone's passports and asking for 2000 CFA's for an exit stamp from Ivory Coast. What?!!! Nobody told us we would have to pay to leave the country! We already had a visa for Ivory Coast and an entrance visa for Mali, why do we have to pay to exit? The whole bus got involved in the discussion telling us it was customary to pay. Well, what do we do now? We simply didn't have the money!!! We started searching our bags..."Est-ce qu'il y a quelqu'un qui veut acheter un couteau?--(does anyone want to buy a knife?)" we asked holding up our Swiss Army knives. "What about my sunglasses?" I asked desperately. No luck. When we got to the border we went up to the immigration officers, ready to tell our sob story and give up our Swiss Army knives if we needed to. The officers just smiled and asked us how we liked our stay in the Ivory Coast as they stamped our passports, no questions asked! We returned to the bus in disbelief. "What just happened there? That was too easy!" laughed Abeja. "I'm not sure, but I ain't gonna ask!" I replied, relieved to have made it through one more obstacle.
Okay, this time it was for real: We really were on our way to Bamako!!! Soon enough we would find Jasmine, have money to buy food, to get a hotel, to take a shower....aaaaahhhhhhhhh! All the little things you take for granted!
The next morning, Abeja and I knew we needed to get money to find our other teammates. We couldn't afford to go to an internet cafe to see if Jasmine had sent us any messages letting us know where she was, so we went to the bank hoping to get money using Abeja's credit card. While we were in line at the bank, one of the tellers heard Abeja and I talking to each other in English.
"Oh, you guys are from America?" she asked. "Yeah, we're from California," we said, relieved to speak to someone in English.
This time, our guardian angel appeared to us in the form of Dabel, a Malian girl who is my age and interning for the summer at the bank. Guess where she goes to school? Cal-State! She asked us what we were doing in Bamako and we told her all about our adventurous past week. Not only did she lend us money until the credit card money came through, but she took a break from work and took us upstairs to use the internet in the bank offices. Within minutes, we knew where to find Jasmine, had money in our pockets, AND were invited to come stay with her family.
"I know what it's like to be in a foreign country. You guys should come stay in my home. You shouldn't be wasting all your money in hotels," said Dabel.
Well, since then, one thing after another has just fallen into place for the trek team. We found Jasmine and the three of us went to stay with Dabel's gracious family. We still didn't know what had happened to Monica and Kevin, or how we would go about finding them, but we were counting our blessings for now. Dabel took us out in the evening to a local hangout cafe Le Relax. It was fun eating ice cream and drinking sodas and meeting her nice friends, but we were all really tired, so we made it a short night. As we got up ready to leave, we noticed that a car had doubled parked behind Dabel's, and we were stuck!
We spent over 1/2 hour trying to find the careless owner of the vehicle before we got out of the parking spot. As we finally started to get in the car, yawning from our exhaustion, I happened to notice a taxi pulling up behind us and out came Kevin and Monica! Had we not been stuck for the past half-hour we would have missed them!
We all met the next day - the entire World Trek team together - and laughed in amazement at the impossibilities we had all gone through in the past week! How Jasmine managed on her own--without a word of French or a clue on where to stay or what to do in Mali for a week before we showed up, how Kevin and Monica roughed terrible bus rides and sick stomachs and ran out of money in Burkina Faso, not to mention our own stories!
We may be getting pretty good at this game - but we would never last a day if it weren't for the hundreds of people who have helped us merely from the kindness of their hearts. We might have gotten off to a rough start here in Mali, but one thing I know for sure is that I will certainly enjoy getting to learn more about the people who have already been so generous to five travelers in need!
Jasmine - Jasmine is Jammin' in Africa
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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