[Disclaimer: If this doesn’t make you chuckle at least a little, then either I’m a terrible writer, or you are a terribly dull person. But I want to make sure that you understand clearly that I’m in no way making fun of my hosts/friends and their culture—only making fun of my experience (and complete awkwardness) in encountering it. I firmly believe that every step of the way, my friends did their utmost to be hospitable and kind, and I would only want to offer them my sincere and humble thanks.
Secondly, I don’t claim to be a great adventurer. This is nothing out of the ordinary for some of my colleagues (and in the broad scheme of things, this is pretty minor for adventure), they just happen not to be as awkward as I am. (Nor do they, perhaps, publish their awkwardness so openly...) So, saying that, I often find myself in the middle of experiences like this, wondering what brought me to this point. Not bravery…stupidity? Caprice? Mania? But very often, when it is all said and done, I find that it was just what I needed.]
A month and a half ago, I walked into the office and Terry told me that one of our nurses, Catherine, had just told her about her upcoming wedding. She went on to share the details—beginning of August, in Bamako (the capital city), and “the wedding, you really want to be at.” Why so? “Because Catherine is a real classy gal.” And it is true. Catherine is classy. She changes her hairdo at least once a week and comes to work dressed to the nines. The way she carries herself says “African-city dweller”, not “African-village dweller” (in addition to, “I’m a classy gal”). So Terry and I hatched a little plan for my getting there and going with a group of nurses from here.
Like any good American, I tried to start organizing this trip from that day on. I quickly realized, however, that a month and a half is far too long in advance for anything to be seriously considered. So I sat on it for a month, and two weeks ago resumed my planning. But a little over a week before the wedding it became apparent that too many people wanted to go, and I would need to stay behind. (Especially since both the other anesthesia nurses were going.) I was bummed but figured other chances would come along.
Then Thursday, two days before the wedding, reality started hitting. Many of the nurses that said they were going, just couldn’t make it. The two other anesthetists weren’t going. So I began to think of ways to go. Unfortunately, by this time, a group of people that were going had already left. I thought about taking a car, but the cost was prohibitive. So I went to bed Thursday night not really sure what I was going to do. Friday morning after rounds, I found out that two other people, Luther and Asim, were leaving from the hospital that afternoon on the two o’clock bus. Asim is a lab tech and Luther is a resident physician here. I decided that I would head up with them.
Once I made this decision, I realized that I was completely lacking any details. Having traveled for a good number of weddings in the States over the past three years, I have a little mental checklist of things you have to have in order to go to the wedding: flight, ground transportation, place to stay, wedding invitation which includes times and addresses, directions from lodging to wedding and from wedding to reception, etc, etc. I didn’t have anything but the “flight” which was looking like a seven hour bus ride. This really hit home when Luther asked me, “Where are you staying tonight?” A reasonable question, I think. Where are you—foreigner—staying in the large, unfamiliar capital city that you’ve so impulsively decided to leave for in less than 4 hours? “Err…I don’t know,” I said feeling a little stupid and almost completely un-Western. But this, fortunately, elicited an invitation to stay with his family. Whether that was a sympathy-invite or a genuine desire, I’m not sure, but I don’t think he had a clue what he was getting himself into.
We finished up the morning work, and I headed home to pack and take care of some last minute details. (I mean, if you are headed into complete chaos, at least your home can be organized, right?) I left at 1:30, hoping that I had packed everything I really needed. I met up with Luther and Asim at the bus station and was getting really excited. However, after remembering that I had forgotten my malaria medication and my water bottle—possible the two most important things to pack—and having to call Elizabeth to bring them to the station (some people still need a “mom”—thought I was growing out of that…), my confidence in my packing took a real plunge. But I tried not to think about it. Why get mired down in all the details, right?
It was after this that in the midst of our small talk, Luther looks at me and says, “I’m selling you when we get to Bamako.” Selling me? To whom? “Oh there are people there that buy tubabus,” he says with a quirky half-smile and a twinkle in his eye. Somehow, even knowing that he was joking didn’t totally relieve that “Danger Will Robinson,” feeling inside. I tried to joke back, “How much will I go for?” His answer came a little too easily and quickly, “20 million cfa.” I texted Saskia, half-wanting to include her in the joke, half-wanting to make sure they would at least have a clue where to start looking for me. I tried to chuckle about this and then began to ponder what my worth being set at $40,000 did to my ego.
We loaded on the bus and had the good fortune to have enough open seats left that we sat with each other. (Not always the case…) It had been drizzling lightly, and when they finished packing everyone on, it began to feel a bit like a sweat lodge inside the bus. This happened throughout the drive too, when it began to rain, they’d close the two air vents and it would start to “cook” inside. But in good time, we took off and the air was cool and comfortable, and I had good conversations with Luther, in between looking out the window and trying to imagine what this weekend was really going to be like.
I’ve described these buses elsewhere, but I think it is worth describing again. They run all over Mali, and many continue throughout other countries in West Africa. They are widely used, and are usually full. And by full, I don’t mean that 95% of the seats are taken, I mean every seat is full, children are in the laps of adults, and some older children and 2 or 3 (or sometimes 6) adults are sitting in the aisle. And the luggage. It wouldn’t be your first thought that Africans would have a lot of baggage with them on trips, but they seem to pack all sorts of things. And since there isn’t a clearly defined policy on what is “checked” and what is “carry-on,” luggage is shoved everywhere, making the aisle virtually impassible.
But once you are in, you begin to realize that Africans are just way more fun to travel with than Westerners. There is a real sense of together-ness when you travel. Babies get passed around to whomever can make them laugh and not cry. Luggage gets rearranged and passed down the aisle. Sleeping children in the aisle are pulled closer to some concerned adult that wants to make sure they are comfortable. People buy food at stops by passing their money to the person by the door, who acts as the purchasing agent for everyone. The money is passed forward and the food passed back, and it’s like a little game trying to see if we can purchase everything everyone wants before the bus pulls off again. This food is often shared among strangers, and everyone just seems to be content. When the temperature isn’t stifling, it is almost cozy.
And I was really enjoying this togetherness until about the last two hours of the bus ride, when togetherness invaded my personal space. They had packed so many people into the aisle that a woman was sitting right between me and the person across from me, with all of her luggage. First, this severely restricted my leg room. But also, to get herself seated, she had to put her hand on my thigh and lower herself down. And every time she wanted to rearrange something her elbow would be in my lap. Togetherness: my legs and lap at your disposal.
We pulled into the Bamako bus station at 9pm, and unloaded. I had assumed at this point that one of the two guys I was travelling with actually knew how to get to the wedding party (the pre-party which usually lasts late into the night). I was wrong. They weren’t at all sure where the party was at, and they weren’t even sure where in the city we were. Luther talked to a taxi driver and tried to get him to take us somewhere (not sure where…), but didn’t like the price, so he said he was going to call his little brother. After a long wait and several calls, his little brother showed up with a friend in a car. We loaded up and started to head back to Luther’s family’s home.
It was quite a long drive back to the house. After several kilometers on paved city streets, we took a turn-off onto dirt roads and continued to pick our way through potholes for another 20 minutes before arriving at the house. We had long since left the neighborhoods with electricity, and up on the hill where the home stood, most of the houses were unfinished. So it was with this house. I was very impressed by it, however, and I think when it is finished, it will be a very nice home. It turns out the neighborhood is full of homes that are being built slowly—often as investments. The best way for Africans to save money is to put it into building materials and work slowly at building a home. Free cash gets borrowed or used for some “emergency need” in the family, so many will take any extra money they have and start building a new residence. So it may take years (or decades) to complete such a home.
We unloaded from the car and entered the house by flashlight. The floor was tiled, the ceiling intact, doors and windows were in place, and it was apparently wired and plumbed (just waiting for those services to reach the neighborhood). The walls were bare cinderblock and concrete. And since it was only three of his siblings (all in university) living there, things were a bit sparse. (His mom and dad live in a village several hours away. The house is their retirement investment, from what I understand.) I was ushered into the living room and offered a seat. A small fluorescent bulb attached to a car battery was illuminated, and I could now see the faces of his younger and older brother. Introductions were made, and then the little brother left for the kitchen. Luther took me back to the bedrooms, and after opening a couple doors and musing a bit, he announced that he and I would be sharing his little brother’s bed. Or perhaps we could say his brother’s little bed. Up-close and personal with the culture? You want it, you got it.
Luther announced that he was going to get some water so we could wash up. I quickly texted Saskia with an update. She texted back, “You are BFF now—bed friends forever.” I was already having a hard time keeping a straight face; this didn’t help. I bit my lip and reprimanded myself for being immature and ungrateful. I got myself under control right before Luther came back to the bedroom with a bucket of water. He took me around the corner to the bathroom, where he lit a small candle in the widow. By flame light, I saw the toilet, the sink, and the shower-head on the wall. A very compact, but nice little bathroom that would have been Western if it had had running water.
He set the bucket down and then gave me a pair of flip-flops to put on. He closed the door on me, and there I stood—in flip-flops 2 sizes too small, bucket of water in front of me, candlelight making my face look funny in the mirror, and my very amused mind trying to figure out what to do next. I mean, I get the whole bucket bath thing, and I saw that the floor slanted to a small drain at the base of the toilet so I knew I could just splash it on me there in the middle of the floor. I just wasn’t sure about how much of a shower this was supposed to be. Was I supposed to save some water for him? They might be buying jugs of water or pulling it from a well, so I don’t want to hog it. Or was this my only chance to shower before the actual wedding? No soap, no towel…but I had those in my bag, was I supposed to go get those? I decided to go conservative and used half the bucket to wash my face, head, hands, etc. I emerged from the bathroom, setting the bucket outside the door. Luther came around the corner to get the bucket and said, “What? The whole bucket was for you.” Guess I was wrong… Not having a clue of what to say in the awkwardness of that moment, I smiled and mumbled something about only wanting to wash my face and hands, and then quickly began fumbling in my bag to find clothes for the party.
After we had both washed and dressed, we went out to the living room to eat. I still get a little uneasy about eating here in Mali. I have enjoyed 95% of everything I’ve eaten here, so I think the uneasiness is a little unmerited. It might be more the pressure not to offend my host than the anxiety about the food. However, my fears were quickly relieved when the food came out. His little brother first brought out separate dishes and silverware, but Luther sent him back for one big main dish, saying something that I imagined was like, “My tubabu can eat with his hands.” I was thankful for this because in the midst of feeling so culturally incompetent, I needed a chance to prove my abilities, and eating with my hands, I can do. (Though, it is not as easy as you think. There are techniques…) So, out came the big dish piled high with fried potatoes and plantains, with a chicken in the middle. The fried stuff had a little onion, oil, and salt on top, and the chicken was cut in half, covered with mayonnaise and a pepper sauce. And it was incredible. Malian bachelor food—this I can do!
After dinner, we quickly cleared away the dishes and headed out. It was already close to midnight, but we figured the party would still be going strong. So we pulled a moto outside the house and loaded on. And here we must pause and discuss the “moto.” The most ubiquitous of the motos are little 125cc street bikes that have a vespa-like body. Their speed maxes out at a little over 80 kmh (50mph), but they are great for weaving in and out of traffic in the city and market. They are fairly reliable and cheap to own and maintain. But there are a couple tricks with these motos. First, while you may see as many as three adults (plus children and luggage) loaded onto a single moto, they seem better suited for a single, middle-sized adult. Otherwise they handle a little sloppily and the suspension, if at all worn, seems really strained as you go over rough road. Secondly, the moto was designed more for paved roads than for the dirt paths that are so frequent here in Mali. Again, they handle poorly in the sand, dirt, and potholes found on many back roads, frequently jarring the passengers or popping tires.
The Malians, however, have found several ways around all of this. First they are much lighter than Americans. (Even after losing 15 pounds here, I’m still heavier than most guys my age.) Secondly, the passengers have learned to really ride completely in-sync with their drivers—most don’t even hold on to the bike. And lastly, they have the majority of the roads memorized completely, so they can navigate around the worst bumps and rocks and holes.
Luther and I had no such advantages. I, the big, clumsy passanger, sat above the rear suspension which seemed shot. He, the normally apt driver, was unfamiliar with the roads, and was further inhibited by the darkness. So there we went, bumping and jarring our way down the hill—rear fender rubbing on the tire with every large bump—headed for the main road. We finally reached paved road and then took off with greater speed, which didn’t prove any more relaxing. I don’t really enjoy being the passenger. It is a mixture of fear (a few years of working with motorcycle traumas in the ICU) and personal space issues (I always think Wild Hogs as I ride), and though I have become much more comfortable with the concept, I still hold on with one hand. Furthermore, Bamako is much larger, busier, and crazier than Koutiala. Stoplights seem to mean nothing, and everyone moves along at a quick pace, with few clearly defined traffic patterns. Between the jarring and my being a little tense, I realized that by the end of the weekend I felt a little sore from riding the moto.
We arrived in one piece at the party, though we had to make several calls to our friend Paul to actual find the place, and he eventually had to come out to the main road to get us. The crowd was still lively, but much smaller than the last pre-wedding party I had been to. Someone explained to me that these parties in the city were more rare and more scarcely attended because of the restrictions on space (and music keeping up the neighbors). They are more common in the villages and rural areas. I was introduced to the parents of the groom, and then was taken out to the main tent where they were dancing.
After my last dancing episode, people paid me several (very undue) complements on my dancing. I think this was their way of being nice about me trying to adopt their culture. People also seemed to have the distinct impression that I loved dancing. And it is true, I had fun—but I didn’t think anyone was watching. So the group of people at this party that knew me insisted we go immediately to the dance floor. Unlike the last party, however, these people were all dancing in one large circle, and they were doing far more elaborate steps. (The dances go around in circles, like some kind of conga line, everyone moving in impeccable rhythm with a series of steps they repeat. It is really cool to see when they get moving.) The last party, I had tucked into an outer circle (one of about 6) that was doing easier steps and was less visible to everyone. Feeling tired already from the trip up, I wasn’t super excited to jump into this faster moving circle. I expressed some reticence, but friends, completely undeterred insisted I join in.
It became quickly apparent that I wasn’t catching on, and instead of just leaving me alone at the end of the line, they broke off and started a new line with easier steps. This was incredibly thoughtful, but just made matters worse. Now everyone could see the tubabu messing up even the easy dance. I felt like this is one of those times they should have just given me an “A” for effort and left me hidden in the midst of the group. But oh no, can’t do that. So just throw me on the short bus and call me rhythm retarded.
I ducked out early and went to sit down. I pulled up a chair next to Asim, who, always eager to practice his English, said to me rather brokenly, “Jacob, you are dancing small, small. Very good.” Yes, indeed—small, small. This coming from the French, “petit a petit” or the Bambara, “Don donni,” meaning little by little—a favorite African phrase for people trying to speak their language or adopt some other aspect of their culture. They would never admit it, but we tubabus clearly understand that the nuance behind it is, “Wow, you are really terrible, but maybe if we stay infinitely patient with you, you’ll get it…one day.”
The party wrapped up at around 2:30am, and we took off on the moto to go back to Luther’s house. On the way back, we tried to avoid a large pothole, but hit another deep one at such an angle that it threw us from the bike. We both landed mostly on our feet and weren’t hurt. So we picked up the bike and kept going, but a short time later, we shone a light on the rear tire and realized it was flat. This left us on foot, pushing the moto uphill. It was about 3:30 by the time we actually made it back to the house, and I was just exhausted.
But, when we went into the house, Luther noticed that my pants had gotten dirty during the evening. He asked if they were the pants I planned on wearing to the wedding, and when I said yes, he insisted that we wash them right then. So he got another bucket of water and a little laundry powder. He held the flashlight while I scrubbed at the red mud on the cuffs of my pants. He criticized my technique, which I took constructively, though every fiber of my being said, “I couldn’t give a rip if I go to the wedding with dirty pants tomorrow.”
We hung the pants out to dry, got rid of the water, and then got ready for bed. Luther lit the candle in the bathroom and asked if I needed to pee before going to bed. Feeling like a little child, I said, yes. So there I found myself, again, in the bathroom slightly puzzled about what to do. Do I pee in the drain or into the toilet? Unsure of how “connected” the toilet was, and not having enough water to flush it even if it was, I decided that I was supposed to aim for the drain. This was awkward due to the drain’s position, but I won’t go into the mechanics here. I finished successfully and picked up the plastic tea kettle that is used for cleaning things (think bidet) and for washing hands. Unfortunately, in the process of washing my hands, I spilled water on my feet. So upon my exit the flip-flops were a little wet. I kicked them off to give them to Luther, who shining the light on them, saw the water and decided to go in barefoot. GREAT! He thinks I peed on them.
Sufficiently humbled for one day and utterly exhausted, I collapsed into bed around 4am. I was so tired that I didn’t mind the fact that I was hot and laying too close to someone I only barely know. We were, after all, becoming BFF.