Where's Allie?

Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see

1 Comment

Travel Photo Tuesday

You know that awkward travel photo that didn’t work out the way you wanted it, but it ends up being one of your faves? Well, here’s one of mine.

This was on my last day in Mali – I was walking through the city with a friend when we saw these giant cows lying around, and I decided to pose next to them. Just as I was getting close, one got up, and scared the shit out of me! Look at how huge they are! Anyway – as it got up, I jumped and sort of ran away, and a couple of men behind me started laughing and teasing me about it. What you see in this picture is my reaction to them, and it always reminds me of how much people in Mali love to joke around and have fun.

This also gives you a good idea of what many street corners look like in downtown Bamako!



It’s Tuesday again! Photo time!

Did Tuesday take anyone else by surprise? How is it Tuesday again already?! I was hoping to put together at least one new FAQ post, but time just slipped away from me! In any case, here’s this week’s travel photo! 336335_10150849787900693_2001167490_o

I took this picture at an orphanage in Bamako. There were many rooms filled with babies, and one room for the older kids, who for one reason or another have not been adopted. How do you feel about this kind of picture? I’m always conflicted – these kids were super excited for me to take their picture, but is it the right thing to do? Ultimately, I feel ok with them as long as I don’t sell them for personal profit. I actually took these for a French man whose NGO represents the orphanage.

Leave a comment

Taxi Bamako

Did I ever tell you guys about the time I was mugged in Peru? Here’s a link to my old blog (in French), if any of you guys want to read what I wrote about it at the time.

For those of you who don’t read French or who don’t want to open a separate browser window, here’s the gist of it :

In 2005, I spent a year abroad, studying at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador. In May 2006, at the end of the school year, Marina (former roommate and travel buddy extraordinaire) and I decided to take off for 6 weeks and tour Peru and Bolivia. Seasoned ecuadorian travellers that we were, we flew South from Quito to Loja, a 75$ flight that saved us 18 or so hours on the bus. We got to spend time in the beautiful city of Loja and the amazing valley of Vilcabamba and from there, we boarded a bus to Peru. I couldn’t tell you how long we spent on the bus, but it was quick and easy. We got dropped off at the border in Piura at around 4am and stood around for 2 hours amidst giant leaping grasshoppers until the guard that we could see behind the window woke up. So, around 6am, we were waved through the border, walked across the kilometer long bridge, and ended up in Peru. From the edge of the country, we boarded another bus to a town called Chiclayo and promptly fell back asleep.

Once we got to Chiclayo, we had a couple of hours to spare before boarding our next bus to the historic (and supposedly very beautiful) city of Chan Chan. We had heard that there was a really great witch market in the town of Chiclayo, but we had our backpacks with us and didn’t want to cart those through the market, so we made the risky decision of leaving our stuff at the bus station. Unheard of, right? We thought about it and decided that the smartest thing would be not to leave any valuables behind, so we took our passports, ipods, cameras and everything else worth anything with us.

In retrospect, I still think that we did the right thing, but we got really unlucky when our taxi was accosted. The first thing I was aware of was a guy pulling my camera out of my hand, while Marina, always a bit quicker than I am, was pulling me from the other direction, trying to get me out of the taxi. I looked to my left, where the guy had started pulling on my bag, and I started pulling back until I saw his gun. Um, hi, potentially dangerous stranger! Please take all my things!

What does this have to do with Bamako?

In Bamako, it’s really common to share taxis. This I didn’t know before getting here. Oftentimes, the taxi pulls up and there’s already someone in it. Generally, I don’t like getting into those taxis unless the other passengers are women. The other night, we were driving through town in a crazy rain storm, and all of a sudden, this man runs up to the taxi and tries to open the door. Well, that definitely freaked me out. Turns out that the mugging in Peru had a bigger impact on me than I thought, and I’m always skittish when taxis stop on the side of the road now. Hopefully that goes away soon!

For your enjoyment, here’s a link to a song called Taxi Bamako. I didn’t make the video, but thought it would give you a fun idea of what Bamako looks like. Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Bamako is…

Bamako is the prevalent smell of garbage, the clouds of dust, the halo of flies over my food. Bamako is a village that got too big too soon, and still hasn’t caught up to it’s new body. It’s exhaust fumes, harried drivers, impatient honking. It’s not waiting your turn, it’s pushing ahead, it’s taking what you want and what you need, before you lose sight of it. Bamako is weaving a path between small rivers in the road, formed of human and animal waste. It’s stepping over open gutters and dead animals on the sidewalk. It’s catcalls on the side of the road and leering looks at every corner. Bamako is not knowing which smile or which handshake to trust.

Bamako is exhausting. It’s trying to speak Bambara, it’s trying to be friendly, it’s trying to fit in, it’s trying to make friends. It’s figuring out a place, trying to grasp customs that aren’t quite clear. It’s memorising landmarks and strange sounds, understanding age old traditions mingling with new technology. Bamako is trusting that everything will turn out ok.

Despite all of this, Bamako is the chatter of women and the laughter of children. It’s the smell of wood chips burning in stoves in front of every home, surrounded by men playing cards. Bamako is toddlers running after older siblings, women looking out for every child, strangers looking out for strangers. Bamako is the prayer call five times a day, the rooster crowing and the donkey braying. It’s side-stepping chickens and puddles, it’s staying out of the way of motorcycles and sotramas, it’s the constant beep of traffic. Bamako is sweet tea and sweet smiles, happy children and laughing mothers. Bamako is the smell of my bedroom after the nightly round of incense, and the quiet hum of my fan as I lie in my princess bed.

Leave a comment

Look both ways

We’ve all heard this talk about African time, and africans being relaxed and easy going, but the drivers of Bamako belie that saying. If being on a motorcycle makes me scared for my life, being in the front seat of a taxi makes me afraid for everyone else’s because I can clearly see the craziness of everything. Cars, taxis, sotramas (kind of half-way between a van and a truck, about the size of an ice cream truck, sotramas are the public buses of Bamako and hold up to 30 people), bicycles, donkeys and pedestrians are constantly dodging in and out of the road, in and out of the way. Once, a motorcycle almost hit my taxi, and today my taxi almost hit a small boy. Bamako is not a place where traffic lights or traffic cops are respected, and it isn’t a place where you cross the street without looking both ways about 20 times.

Today I went to the Lybia Sofitel Laico Amitié Hotel (not sure which it’s real name is, there’s also something in Arabic written on the front) to find out about getting a gym membership, and when I left it was about 4 pm – that’s usually rush hour at home, but here, rush hour seems to be every hour. I was waiting on the corner to get a taxi, and a bunch of them kept going past in the opposite direction. They would stop on their side of the road (across four lanes of traffic) and wave me over. Um, no thanks. So, I waited for quite a while, figuring that there was nowhere else I needed to be and hoping that the storm that was threatening wouldn’t break. A man came to stand next to me at the corner, I didn’t even notice him – in Bamako, there’s so much to focus on, it’s hard to notice everything. Then, a huge truck came rattling by, and the man, who was closer to the street than I was, suddenly stepped back and put an arm in front of me to usher me back, as close as I could go to the wall that was behind me. In doing so, that man saved my feet from the truck’s wheels. Then, he walked away without even looking at me.

Thanks, kind stranger!


Bamanankan doni doni

I am pleased to announce to all of you that I am now fluent in the language of my neighbourhood. The fact that I speak any words of bambara at all makes everyone laugh. All the Bambara words I am writing here are purely written phonetically – I can’t even begin to understand how they write the words. A word that sounds like demiseni is actually written den misenw.

To the child yelling BONJOUR!, I reply BONJOUR!

To the child yelling Toubabou! (white person!), I reply demiseni! (child! – somehow it seems less insulting within my cultural framework to yell at someone that they’re a child rather than pointing out the fact that they’re black)

Sometimes, the child yells Toubabou muso! (white woman!) No restraint here, I will heartily reply Farafi demiseni! (black child!)

To the child yelling “Toubabou muso! Donne moi l’argent!” (White woman! Give me money!) I am ready with my reply : Farafi demiseni! Donne moi l’argent!” (Black child! Give me money!)

Tonight, we had a bambara lesson with our guard. This language is going to be tricky to learn – there are no references to any of the languages I know, and people aren’t telling me what individual words mean, they are stringing sentences together, which makes it hard to create my own sentences. Hopefully we’ll be starting more formal lessons soon, as I’m determined to speak functional Bambara before I leave!

I can, however, have a civilized conversation with ladies in the market, as follows :

Alex : I ni sogoma! (Good morning!)
Market lady : In cé (I receive your greeting)
Alex : I ka kéné? (How are you?)
Market lady : Toro cité, è dou?(I am very well, and you?)
Alex : Toro cité! Ika douka kéné wa? (I am very well. How is your family?) (It’s a really big deal here to ask about everyone. If you’re stuck with someone for more than a few minutes, you can expect to go around once or twice – how are you, how is the family, how is your day, how is your wife, how is your house, etc etc)
Market lady : Toro cité! (long string of unintelligible bambara words) (Very well! Long string of unintelligible bambara words)
Alex : Ma foué famou. Bamanankan doni doni. Kou mamfé francela. (I don’t understand anything. Bambara small small. We must speak French)
Market lady : Francela doni doni. Kou mamfé Bamanankan. (French small small. We must speak Bambara)
Alex : Awo, doni doni. Sabali klanché namasa dia. Djolido? (Ok, small small. Give me half a kilo of bananas, please. How much?)
Market lady : Kemefila (One thousand)
Alex : Ayi! Aka guélen toro! (No! That is too expensive!)
Market lady : Ayi amanguélé! (No! That isn’t too expensive!)
Alex : Awo, aka guélen toro! (Yes! That it too expensive!)
Market lady : Awo, kemedo. (Ok, 500)
Alex : Awo. In cé. Métaga sou. (Ok, thank you. I am going home.)
Market lady : Néfara. Cambé! (Enjoy your meal. Goodbye!)
Alex : Cambé sini! (Goodbye! See you tomorrow!)

This is the full extent of my knowledge, and it requires going back and forth in my little notebook. I am also limited to buying things in half-kilos. I can only talk about bananas, dogs and chickens. And I can only announce that I am going home, to work or to the market. Hey man, it’s a start!







How to find an apartment in Bamako, or the grownup version of piñata-ing

Remember when you were a kid and someone had a piñata at their birthday party? Remember when the piñata would finally break (and hopefully no one had been hit in the eye) and you would all dive in to find the best pieces? That’s what the past four days of apartment hunting have been like. In theory, finding an apartment in Bamako should be easy. There certainly isn’t a shortage of apartments but the thing is, Bamako is HUGE (actually, it’s not, it just feels like it is).

Here is a friendly guide to finding your own Bamako apartment, should the need arise.

First, figure out where you want to live and how much you’re willing to spend to get to work. One of the best neighbourhoods is called l’Hippodrome, because it’s close to most clubs, tasty restaurants and boasts 3 of Bamako’s 4 grocery stores (more on those later). If you work in l’Hippodrome (which I do), you’re golden (which I am). Easy peasy – find a place where you can afford to live, and walk to work every day. The problems arise when you don’t work in the neighbourhood where you want to live. Take for example Caro, my new roommate (more about her later). She works in Bamako’s newest neighbourhood, ACI 2000. It’s the most modern neighbourhood – it’s got the fancy office buildings. Problem is, it hasn’t really got much of a population. No women carrying baskets on their heads, no kids running everywhere, no chickens pecking their way down the street. At night, when everyone has left work, it’s deserted. Which is frankly worrying for a solo white girl who might want to go out at night once in a while. The other problem with ACI 2000 is that it’s kinda central, but nothing else is, so taxying there from anywhere else will cost between 1250 and 2000 CFA each way (here’s a nifty currency converter to help you out today). So, where do you decide to save and when do you decide to spend? Do you shell out 2000 CFA per day (40,000 per month!) to get to and from work, or do you choose to live close to work and forgo most nightly activities? Lucky for me, Caro decided that she wanted to live in Hippodrome and enjoy a social life, so we set out together to find an apartment.

Second, find someone who speaks Bambara to help you find a place. Like I mentioned in language barriers, not everyone in Bamako speaks French, which has turned out to be a hindrance so far. In Bamako, we have discovered 4 ways of finding an apartment. 1, ask your fellow expats or join something called La liste d’Estelle, this word of mouth thing where you get daily notices telling you about stuff for sale and things to do in Bamako. 2, find an agency and get them to find you an apartment. Thing is, their fee is normally one month’s worth of rent. 3, find a coxer. These are gentlemen whose offices consist of a chair under a tree, who get paid by landlords to bring people to their houses. They generally charge between 1500 and 5000 per visit, but I’ve also heard that the landlord gives them a cut of the rent (i.e. the rent is boosted). 4, talk to the guards on streets that you like – most villas have one or many guards outside the gate, and they all know each other and are usually quite good at suggesting available housing.

First, we asked our fellow expats. They all said “hmm, I don’t know of anywhere, but have you joined La Liste d’Estelle?” No luck there yet, so onto solution #3 – we found a coxer. We had my colleague Diara help us with our search (I’ve finally learned motorcycle man‘s name!!) so he could let us know what the landlords and coxers were saying. This little short man (the coxer, not Diara) would drive ahead of us on his motorcycle and show us places. On Friday, we saw three separate places, all terrible. They were either too far, too dirty or too expensive, or all three. I’ve kind of erased the memory. It also turns out that in Bamako, just like everywhere else, you have to furnish your own apartment and pay for utilities (I don’t know why that surprised me). It seems like a bit of a waste, especially to me cause I’m only staying for a bit over 5 months, but we can’t afford any of the furnished places, so we had to lower our prospective rent budget to leave ourselves with enough left over to furnish our new place. On Saturday, we found a wonderful, wonderful place. Three big rooms with private bathrooms, a large kitchen, a nice garden and a guard already living there, and it’s next to the best pizza place in Bamako. We got carried away and started picturing ourselves living there, and then on Sunday found out that the rent, which doesn’t include anything, is 300,000 and absolutely non-negociable. See, here’s our problem. We’re like the little kid who can’t get through the wall of big kids to grab any of the candy from the piñata and gets stuck with the leftovers that no one wants. A lot of people who live here have a healthy budget for living expenses. I, however, receive 1200$ a month and Caro doesn’t make much more, which doesn’t leave us with much wiggle room. Landlords are therefore unwilling to reduce the rent, as they know that the next expat will be able to afford the place. After receiving this news on Sunday, I decided to give up for the day – I was tired and I have a tonsil infection and it was really hot and I didn’t care anymore, so I went to Caro’s hotel (she’s being put up for free for 15 days until she finds a place to live) where I got to have a hot shower and use her wifi and enjoy her air conditioning. Sunday was a lazy, lazy day.

This morning, I went back to work for a bit and had a meeting to discuss my duties here (more on those later) then went to the doc to get my prescription – I had to wait 2 hours this time, not as charming an experience as last time. From there, I met up with Caro and we went to see a couple more places. We saw our first acceptable place within our budget, but didn’t like the feel of the street, so gave that up. Then, our coxer showed us the most random place we’ve seen so far, which was more like office space than living space, and we decided to leave and not pay him (he’s gotten 4000 CFA from us so far). Diara agreed with us and yelled at him about what he showed us, telling him he didn’t deserve anything. Then, we went back to my place where my houseboy was waiting to show us somewhere. We finally found a place that we were happy with! A cozy second floor apartment with two bedrooms, a living room and a rooftop terrace, and well within our price range – 70,000 per month. We set up a meeting to talk to the landlord tomorrow and set everything up.

Then, we came back to my place and started talking and…

…we decided against the apartment. We don’t know the laws here, we don’t speak the language, we don’t know how rent works, we don’t know how the water and electricity meters work, we don’t know if the building is safe (there’s no guard), we don’t know if our stuff will be safe when we go out, we don’t know what the place is like cause we don’t know anyone who’s lived there… there are too many unknowns for us to feel comfortable and safe.

So, after all the running around this weekend, we decided to stay right where I am. There was a French man here who moved out two days ago, and Caro will be moving into his room on Friday. Our rent is 100,000 each per month, and it includes breakfast, access to a full kitchen (which they will clean and prepare by the end of the week – Alice pays extra to eat with the family, so there was no need until now), a lovely outside sitting area, a full set of staff (a cleaning lady, a cook, two houseboys and a guard), access to an office with the internet and a printer, access to the TV and it’s 40 or so channels, room cleaning and sheet changes whenever we like, and laundry for 1000 or 2000 per week. The house is cleaned daily, which means no bugs, and across the street is a little shop that sells water and bread. If anything breaks or needs replacing, there are a bunch of people we can ask for help, and it’s all included in the price. We feel safe and comfortable here – kind of silly to pass this up!

We’ve committed to staying at least until October 15th, when we will decide what we want to do – maybe we’ll stay here until I leave in February, or until Caro’s fiancé arrives. Maybe someone we know will leave their place and we’ll take over. We’ll have a better idea of what we’re looking for, we’ll have gotten more messages from Estelle, and we’ll hopefully speak a bit of Bambara by then!

I’ll sign off for now so as not to overwhelm you (which I probably already have – maybe I should be a novellist), but I will eventually tell you about grocery stores, restaurants, Caro, my work, and Bamako’s wildlife, I promise!

Leave a comment

A couple more pictures…

I went to get my new phone today… my very own Svmsnug! I just love it! Facebook me for the number. 

When we got back from lunch and getting my phone, there was a power cut in the building so I went out and took some pictures for you guys.

I forgot to show you guys my princess bed when I posted this morning. Notice all the crap on my bed? It’s such a pain in the ass getting out of the net that I try to keep as much stuff inside with me! Getting up to pee is the only thing I haven’t gotten around yet, and I usually have to struggle out of the net at night cause I seem to be drinking about 3L of water a day here!
This is the road to our office. I don’t know if you can see, but they plow the roads after it rains (it rained last night) because otherwise the roads are really hard to drive on!
Where I work!
The office. It’s got air conditioning! It’s really hot right now (you sweat even while sitting still), but it’s supposed to get cold in the coming months. I asked them what cold was, and they said “oh, 18 or 20 degrees” HA!

When I got back, my colleague (the motorcycle one – one of these days I’ll be learning his name!) decided to give me my Malian name. It’s a tradition that I had already been told about, and people constantly tease each other about their family names – you are either smaller/taller/stronger/funnier etc than everyone else, depending on your name. I am now known as Fatumata Diara – the Diara are the strongest, most honest people. We’re just like lions, really 😀

Leave a comment

A couple of photos :)


Five minutes later…


Remember five minutes ago when I just posted about my colleague buying a motorcycle? And how I think he’s crazy? And how the traffic is crazy, and cars and motorcycles swerve in and out, within an inch of each other? And how people who ride motorcycles here must be crazy?


So, I had to go to the bank, and one of my colleagues offered to take me. I was just told that the bank was within waking distance, so I thought, why not? But, as we’re leaving the office, he takes me through the parking lot. And heads towards a motorcycle. And puts his keys in the ignition. At this point, I’m still hoping that, I don’t know… that’s where he keeps his keys or something. Nope… the guard opens the door, and my new friend tells me to hop on!


I try to protest, saying that I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, that I’m terrified. Clearly, I can’t tell him that his countrymen drive like maniacs. He shakes his head and says ‘no no, you’ll be fine, just hold on’

Famous last words?

Ok, we were fine. Well, he was fine, and I was terrified the whole way. When we got to the bank, I was shaking. And we hadn’t really driven through any traffic! On the way back from the bank, I was actually able to enjoy the sights – we drove through a market, which was beautiful and colorful… and full of other cars and motorcycles, all driving within an inch of me. But I figured, hey, I’m not the one driving this thing, so it’s not my place to worry.  But worry I did… and I won’t lie, I closed my eyes once or twice.

Just after writing the last post, I said to myself that I wouldn’t be getting on a motorcycle here. And now I just had to, and I bet it isn’t the last time. Maybe I’ll even get used to it one day!