Travels and Tribulations
In June, I returned to Tubani So for In-Service Training. We reflected on our first two months at site, and learned more about how to be successful volunteers. It was nice to see everyone again, but after two weeks, I was more than ready to leave the over-scheduled, crowded life of training and return to my unstructured freedom of village life.
I stuck around in Bamako for a few days afterward to rejuvenate and ready myself for returning home (and to take advantage of the good internet access to get some work done).
Wednesday morning, my friend Laura and I rose before the sun and slipped out of the stage house with an overwhelming amount of acquired things and headed to the main road. We hailed a taxi and were soon on our way to one of the many bus stations. In Mali, all intercity travel is provided by private bus companies. In Bamako (and I believe most cities besides San) each bus company has its own gare (french for station) and if you choose to take that company, you go to its station.
Laura was only going as far as Segou, and we chose the first bus company mainly for the proximity of the Segou gare to the Segou stage house. We unloaded all of our things from the taxi, lugged them across the station, and told the ticket agent our destinations. He shook his head and informed us there wasn’t another bus until noon. We looked at our watches. It was only 8:00 in the morning.
Rather than waiting four hours for the noon bus, Laura and I decided to take another cab to a different bus station and try our odds there. I watched our bags as Laura investigated tickets, only to find that there was a bus leaving shortly for Segou, but not another one to San until the next morning. We were assured that if I got to Segou, I could find a bus to San from Segou without problem. Instead of trying our luck at yet another gare, we decided it was better to at least be moving in the right direction, especially since it was already close to 9:00.
Our bus did leave shortly, and in roughly 5 hours, we were in Segou. Upon arrival, I inquired about a bus to San. Again, I was told there was nothing until the next morning. We gathered our things and headed to the bus station next to the Segou stage house, only to hear the same thing. Disgruntled, Laura and I went to the stage house to figure out what to do next. We figured we’d talk to Djibril, the Segou regional coordinator, to seek advice.
We lugged all our things to the stage house, filled up on cool water and were informed that Djibril was on vacation. I was given advice by more seasoned volunteers to go out to the main road and hail a passing bus. If I didn’t want to do that, I could take a cab down the road further to a road-side stop that many buses stop at on their way. I oped for the short cab ride, as the heat of the day was setting in and if I stood on the side of the road it would be in full sun for who knows how long. Going up the road would at least provide shade and a place to sit while I waited.
Laura and I ate a quick lunch, then I hailed a cab and was again on my way. The road side stop was more empty-feeling than usual, but I was assured by a man who seemed to work with the buses that a bus would be coming soon. The road side stop is like a Malian rest stop, with a few food choices, some people selling fruit and bread and ‘gateaux’ (a spongy muffin-like concoction resembling nothing of cake, as the name implies).
I sat on a bench in the shade and waited, ready to be in San. I was already off schedule as I had wanted to take care of some shopping in San that evening and return to village the following morning. Now it was already close to 3:00 and I was still a three hour bus ride away.
As the minutes ticked by, the sun crept closer to slumber, and my patience dwindled. After about an hour, a bus finally pulled in, but unfortunately, it was full. I watched it pull away wondering how long it could possibly be until the next one.
After another hour, I complained to the bus man. I told him he assured me a bus would be coming soon and now two hours had passed. When would it be coming? I demanded. Again, his response was only ‘soon’. Pressing further, I demanded a time. “About an hour,” he said, which was unacceptable. By now, it was already 5:00 and it would be dark in a couple hours.
As I was arguing, a bashi pulled in. Bashis are small vans that hold probably just over 20 people when full. They are all ancient vehicles held together more with luck than with screws, and they make all the stops possible to make money. The bus I was waiting for is more like a coach bus with plush-ish seats, and it tends to be faster with fewer stops. Some even run express, only stopping at the larger destinations.
The man looked up and a look of relief crossed his face. “This bus is going to San,” he said. I told him it wasn’t a bus, that I was waiting for a large bus, that this one would take forever to get there. He insisted this one made only one stop in Bla and would get me to San in 3 hours. The apprenti (basically the ticket collector) of the bashi got off and assured me this one wasn’t making stops and that I’d be in San in no time. If we left right now, I’d be in San by 7, giving me time to relax before going to village.
I knew it wouldn’t be that easy; that it would take longer than they claimed, but I boarded anyway, figuring that it would be better to keep moving towards my destination than to continue sitting in Segou waiting for a bus that was beginning to look like it was never coming.
They placed me in the front passenger seat and I boarded with all my bags, plus my purse and Nelgene at my feet. They tried to get me to put one of my bags on top of the bus, but I refused as it made me uneasy. The apprenti squeezed in next to me (the front seat usually holds two) and I piled my things awkwardly between my feet and on my lap to make room. We were on our way.
My mind raced with red flags. All the signs I’d been given not to take this bashi were ignored in the interest of getting home on schedule. However, I told myself, to stay in Segou would mean paying 5,000 CFA (roughly $10) to stay at a stage house that was not my own, plus a cub ride bake to town plus attempting this all over again in the morning, as I again tried to leave. No, it was better to just get to San, however late I got there, so I could at least be there in the morning to take care of errands and make it home by sunset.
It wasn’t more than ten minutes of driving before we pulled to the side of the road. I rolled my eyes as my frustration mounted. A pile of things was being loaded on the roof; so much for not stopping. After 15 minutes of sitting, I gathered my things and got off the bashi. This was too ridiculous; I really should stay in Segou, I thought. It was only $10 for the night and the longer we sat there, the more the grayness of dusk settled over the road.
As I got off, the apprenti yelled from the roof of the bashi, “What are you doing?” I told him I was leaving and he said he wasn’t giving me my money back. I told him that was fine and crossed the street to start the long walk back to Segou with all my things. I tried calling Laura to tell her I was coming back, but couldn’t get through.
Perhaps 50 yards down the road, the apprenti caught up with me. “Where are you going?” he again demanded.
“Segou,” I told him.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he essentially said, “We’re leaving right now; you’ll be in San soon. Now the bashi is full, so we have no reason to stop again, we’re all friends here, just get back in the van.”
I looked at the long walk back to Segou and knowing I was making the wrong decision, got back in the bashi. Soon, we were again inching closer to my destination, though I felt no relief.
Another ten minutes passed and we pulled into a gas station (it’s common to get gas on the way out of town. I think they wait til they have everyone’s fares to buy it). Again, I rolled my eyes; it was almost 6:00 and I was still so far from home. The apprenti turned to me and said, “We just need a little gas, it won’t be long.” Then he got off to chat with the gas station attendants. As we were getting ready to go, another man got in next to me in the apprenti’s place. I looked up in time to see the apprenti get on the back of a moto and ride back towards Segou: another bad omen, but it was too late to turn back now. My decision had been made.
We progressed slowly on into the gray dusk. I sat nervously in between the driver and the new apprenti, covered in my possessions, eyes wide, justifying my situation in my mind. We passed an overturned truck on the side of the road, with enough people gathered to signify it hadn’t been laying there long. Soon, clouds blotted out the grayness, and as rain sprinkled down, we were covered in darkness, save for the occasional glow of lightning in the distance. With the rain came a wind, and with the wind came a coolness that was more ominous than refreshing.
After two hours, we reached Bla: half way. The rain had stopped and I was happy for a sign of progress, albeit slow progress. We reached the round-about in the middle of town, where the road splits, one way going to San and the then Mopti and further North, and one way turning southeast to Koutiala. Instead of turning towards San, the bashi veered on the Koutiala road and then came to a quick stop. The apprenti got out, as did many people, which seemed normal. Shortly, the apprenti came back and told me to get off. Confused, I told him no, and he again asked if I was going to San. Agitated, I told him yes, and he nodded his head, “Yes, you’re going to San, you have to get off. We’re going to Koutiala.”
I was exasperated. “This bashi is going to Koutiala,” I confirmed, gathering my things.
“Yeah, you have to take another bashi to get to San.”
“Where is the other bashi?” I asked and he pointed across the round-about. Another man appeared in the crowd asking me where I was going. I again said San, and the apprenti told me to go with him, that this man would get me on a car. A woman from my bashi told me she was also going in that direction, and we walked together across the street.
By this time, it was dark, the intersection lit by the yellow glow of streetlights, a novelty I’ve grown unaccustomed to in village. The man came to a stop in a nondescript location along the road and pointed to a bench, instructing me to sit. There were no bashis in sight, despite the crowded feeling of the intersection.
“Where is the bashi?!” I demanded.
“It’s coming,” the man said, non-chalantly. “Have a seat.”
“No!” I said forcefully, and demanded again, “Where is the bashi?” The prospect of not getting to San became increasingly real as I stared at the bench, and my exasperation came to the surface in uncontrollable tears.
“It’s coming soon,” the man replied.
Tears rolled down my cheeks and I snapped back, “No, it’s coming right now! I must go to San right now!” I felt helpless and alone and stupid for putting myself in this position and angry at being taken advantage of in a generally honest and welcoming culture. The more I considered my situation, the harder I cried and the harder I cried, the more uncomfortable the Malians around me became.
“Don’t cry!” the man pleaded. “Just sit down, calm down, the car is coming.”
I sobbed back, “No, I won’t sit! I left Bamako this morning, and they said there were no buses to San. I went to another gare and they said none til tomorrow morning, but if I went to Segou they could get me to San. I sat in Segou for two hours and they said this bashi was going to San, that I should take it and now I’m in Bla and the car is going to Koutiala. Now it’s night and I just want to go home. Where is the bashi?”
“They told you they were going to San?” he asked and I nodded. The others who had gathered around looked to the man for an explanation to the spectacle and he recounted my story.
“They’re bad,” I said through sobs, “They’re bad people,” and they crowd nodded in agreement.
The woman who had been on my first bashi again pleaded with me to sit down, and having made so many Malians uncomfortable, my frustrations diminished slightly, and I decided to sit. The man asked to see my ticket and I gave it to him. He took out his phone and called the number on the ticket. I didn’t understand all that was said, but the gist of the conversation was ‘What is wrong with you, why did you lie to the toubab, you terrible person. Now she’s here and she’s making a scene.’
Having calmed down a little, I remembered there is another volunteer in Bla, and that I had recently been given a phone list with everyone’s number. I called Max, who I had met briefly in March, explained my situation and asked if I could spend the night. He said he’d be right there. As we walked back to his house, I recanted my story and this time, my frustrations lifted. I was no longer alone and helpless, but instead in good company, albeit still stuck in Bla. An unfortunate day turned into an evening of conversation and oreos to make everything better.
In the morning, I was waiting on the side of the road by 8:00, on a bus by 10:00 and in the San house by noon. I was exhausted by my 29 hour trip home, but so thankful to be somewhere familiar I contemplated never leaving.
The good news is everyone needs horror stories from time to time and thankfully, nothing too horrible happened in this one. Now, on future trips, when the heat is stifling and the journey lagging, I can look back and know at least it’s not that bad.← 300 Cups of Tea Thoughts and Events As of Late →