Friday, May 2, 2008

Bamako to Dakar

Bamako, Mali looks like it was hit by a bomb. The heat is searing and dry, like you’re walking around in a world of hot coals. Piles of dust and sand; piles of concrete in streets of dirt; nothing but low crumbling buildings and corrugated tin and thousands of people hip to hip and sleeping on the streets at night. Yet the Malians are sweet, calm, like they’re all walking around on heavy doses of Lexapro.

The train station is smack in the middle of the downtown chaos and information is scare. The train for Dakar, Senegal leaves on Wednesdays. Or Tuesdays. Maybe Monday. Actually, said a man lounging on its steps, “No one knows when it leaves or when it arrives. It is very bad. It leaves whenever it arrives.”

I paid a local guy named Guindo to do the dirty work – go to the station every day and find keep tabs on the train. Guindo was sure it would be Wednesday, but on Tuesday at 2 pm he called. The train was near; it would be leaving in five hours.

As darkness hit Bamako the train lurched into the station, the most dreadful looking conveyance I’ve ever seen. Covered in mud. Dust. Holes in its sides. Every window open and akimbo and made opaque with grime. Inside, it’s once white walls were black. In 90-degree heat we piled in, squeezing, touching, pressing, with boxes of mangos and clay pots and suitcases and 100-pound bags of charcoal.

But a bad conveyance is only really bad if your movements are restricted. At this point I can bear anything, enjoy everything, and in the heat and filth I sat with my legs dangling out of the doorways watching Africa roll by at 20 mph; sat piled in the vestibule at night with bodies sleeping curled around a gas stove, a lean, long legged mango seller with two wives named Moussa making sweet strong Malian tea.

The train lurched and rattled and banged. It stopped in the middle of sand and baobab trees and went nowhere for an hour here, an hour there. We passed villages of perfect conical mud and thatch huts, and boys standing by goats in a world of heat and brown, desiccated shrubs. Men prayed in the aisles and my roommates – Papasi, Monsieur Ly (resplendent in green robes) and a clay pot seller I called Fetish – shared their water and food and tea.

The truth was, it was only a very bad train if you were in a hurry or squeamish about cleanliness. Otherwise, in fact, it was a very good train.

As we ground into Dakar in the dark and dust as thick as fog 50 hours after pulling out of Bamako, I was sad to arrive. Even more so because this first leg of the LE is drawing to a close. I have one more journey to make and then it’s back to DC, back to the real world, back to missed family and friends who I can’t wait to see. But in some ways, riding the world’s slowest, most crowded, dirtiest and even most dangerous buses, boats, planes and trains is a lot easier than everyday life.