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Beam Me Up Scotty! Life in Mali

Traveling in Mali has been the most difficult stage of the Trek so far. I can recall many trying moments during my stay here. Waiting in the unbearable heat for a taxi, having flies land on my face and being bitten by mosquitoes were especially frustrating experiences for me. Yet probably the single most difficult moment was sitting in the pinasse on the way back from Timbuktu after two days in the pouring rain without enough food or water. It was terrible! I kept wishing that the World Trek had been more like Star Trek, and that I could've been beamed outta there... FAST!

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These kids zoomed into my camera in the pinasse!
Tourists come from many countries to visit Mali. I have noticed that most of them are from France. I think this is because Mali used to be a French colony -- people who live in Mali speak French, and it is not terribly far from Europe. The French, like visitors from other countries, and even Trekkers, come only for a few weeks. Tourist visas are only good for 30 days, and most people have limited vacation time anyway.

The richest visitors stay in nice hotels that have air conditioning and room service; they can sleep comfortably without worrying about mosquitoes. Other tourists stay in moderately priced hotels without AC but with mosquito nets and sometimes a fan for the hot nights. The budget travelers, like us, sometimes get to enjoy hotels of the last category, but at other times we have to sleep in rooms without any ventilation. These rooms are full of flies in the daytime and mosquitoes at night.

For most people in Mali these frustrations are simply a part of their daily life -- the only thing they've ever known since birth. When locals ask me how I'm doing, sometimes I respond by saying, "I'm hot." They simply laugh because they would only consider it to be a typical day under the sun. The extreme heat doesn't keep them from working outside, or even inside, without comforts such as air conditioning. Only wealthy businesses and people within Bamako (the capital) have that luxury. In the smaller towns, not to mention the rural and desert areas, very few homes or businesses have air conditioning.

When it rains heavily, Malians still work hard. You don't see many people with slick rain-jackets and umbrellas. Rather, you see folks who appear relatively un-bothered, wearing clothes that are soaking wet. Two guys sitting in front of me in the pinasse, both named Mohammed, were just as wet as I was for the long ride. Embarrassingly, only the tourists and I were complaining about it.

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Kids collecting bottles from us on the way to Timbuktu.
Especially when it's not raining, I have come to cherish my clean, thirst-quenching bottled water. It is a precious necessity to me. So I was particularly horrified when I saw children filling up old plastic bottles with water from the filthy looking Niger River (it's brown) which they then drank and even poured onto pieces of bread we had just given them. One time I gave a boy a half-full bottle of purified water. The first thing he did was take off the cap and dump the clean water out into the river he was standing in. It was a shocking sight and a sad one as well. However, children growing up along the Niger River don't depend on the occasional passing tourist to bring them their water. Rather, they depend on the river itself. The Niger River is the primary source of water and fish for their village and for others throughout the country.

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Mohammed smiling after the rains finally ended.
Traveling through Mali was tough for me. Yet, when I recall my ordeals I'll always think about the millions of people born here, who grow up, live, and die with the many realities that will likely remain exotic tales of travel for me. Above all, I feel lucky that, simply because I have the power to choose otherwise, these conditions don't have to be a part of my daily life.

But why do I possess this power that people from Mali do not have? Why are the comforts of my life almost incomprehensible to average Malians - so much so that they can't even begin to envy me for having them? And above all, why is it that hundreds of millions of people in countries besides Mali are also suffering from conditions, natural or otherwise, that we would never choose to accept in our own lives? For them, there is no "transporter room" and nobody waiting to "beam them up" to better worlds where the wealthier, protected, and pampered reside.

Kevin p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Abeja gets M.A.D. - She's Making a Difference!
Jasmine - Not-So-Renewable Resources
Abeja - Water, Water Everywhere, but Not Enough to Drink!
Monica - Corps des Volontaires Maliens: Young People Make a Difference

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