John F. Kennedy, or On American Prestige

I’ve written before about what it’s like to be an American traveling in the Muslim world (see posts of 4.9 and 6.6), but in this post I thought I would share some more thoughts on what it means to be an American in the world today, especially after the election of Barack Obama (also see posts of 10.25 and 12.15).

This topic has come to mind yet again because we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Why, you may ask? Nouakchott is a fairly small city, being the capital of a country of only 3 million or so inhabitants, and its city center, however sprawling, is built on a fairly small number of avenues–but one of them is named for U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

This is one of many, many JFK roads throughout the world. Off of the top of my head alone, I can think of roads named after Kennedy in Paris, Buenos Aires and Istanbul, and I have no doubt that there are dozens of other cities around the world. Why is JFK so popular? Part of it no doubt has to do with the heroic stature given to him by his assassination, but it is also because of the hope that Kennedy represented to the world, how he presented America in its most flattering aspects and facets.

It is hard to imagine any country naming any street for the current U.S. President (although the San Francisco sewage plant would have been a good start–link). He is so reviled that reaction to his reign has gone from opposition to sheer bewilderment, a wonder that one person could be so ineffective, his actions at times so seemingly aimless and at others so incredibly hostile to global peace and prosperity. Before the November election, people would often respond with a one word question/statment/accusation when we said that we were American, “Bush?” They wanted an explanation, maybe even an apology. They wanted to know if we as Americans approved of the actions taken by our elected leader. We have had to answer for his actions, apologize for the state of our government, in such enlightened regimes as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, China and Iran. Imagine our position! People whose own countries torture, imprison citizens without a right to trial, push a very particular religious agenda, restrict all sorts of freedoms, people from autocracies and theocracies, were telling us how bad our government was–but, see, the thing is, they were right; the U.S. had fallen so far from it purports to be.

Yet we are happy to report, as I have explained in previous posts, that there are incredible reserves of goodwill built up for America and Americans, all over the world. Almost everyone reacts positively to us when we identify ourselves as coming from New York, not only with general politeness but with genuine enthusiasm for America and things American. It is just bewildering how often the stars and stripes is used as decoration in West Africa–the motif recurs at least a hundred times more often than the tricolore of the Republique Francaise and at least as often as the colors of the local national flag. (I’m not sure who we have to think for this goodwill–Peace Corps volunteers?)

In a Dakar taxi

A Malian truck

And, for all of the horribleness of the last eight years, I think that Bush’s reign has in some ways strengthened American prestige. The truth is that, in recent years, there has been much to challenge American hegemony. The nuclear rise of India and Pakistan, and the efforts of North Korea and Iran, challenged American control over non-proliferation. The economic rise of China put into doubt American commercial dominance. The rise of the price of oil and the fabulous accumulation of wealth in the Gulf created an entire class of super-rich well outside of the western Christian world sphere. The creation and rise of the euro created a currency to seriously rival the U.S. dollar. What have Bush’s disasters taught us? America may not have the strategic and political acumen to win wars and build strong and sympathetic regimes in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it sure has the resources and military power to create chaos all over the world. America may no longer lead the world economy in its growth but miscalculations by America’s greedy/idiot barons of finance can bring the global financial system to its knees, and reduced spending by American consumers can close factories across the world. The euro may be more valuable than the dollar but, in a time of true crisis, the dollar is still the ultimate safe haven.

In short, there is a new recognition of America’s significance in the world–that things have to go right in America for things to go well elsewhere. Currently, it seems that almost everyone in the world wishes America and its new President well–Bush may still be President, but we are now met by “Obama!” in a congratulatory or approving tone–and hopes that America can succeed, so that instead of dragging the world down with it, it can lift the world up. Maybe, hopefully, Obama will prove so popular that Obama rues and avenidas and strasses and sharias and margs and daos sprout up all over the world. Hopefully, he’ll be able to realize the dreams he currently represents not only for Americans but for so many around the world.

Inshallah.

Back in the Middle East

Back in our first “Arab” country of the trip, in Syria in April, I asked our Palestinian friend whether he really felt a kinship with all “Arabs,” including those as far out as Mauritania. The answer was a definite “yes”–everyone from Mauritania to Iraq was in fact Arab, part of the same ethnic group. I found this somewhat dubious at the time, and considering the great ethnic diversity of the so-called Arab world (see posts of 4.16, 4.25, 10.05 and 10.13), I had grown to think such feelings of kinship to be misplaced.

But perhaps prematurely. We crossed the border from Mali into Mauritania a couple days ago, and I am astonished by the extent to which, being here, we really feel that we’re back in the Middle East, more specifically, the Gulf. The feeling was immediate, and something more than the sum of discrete parts, but let me try to identify a few things that make Mauritania, at least at a superficial level, very much a part of the Arab world.

architecture – All developing countries have similar architecture to a certain extent–styles driven by cost and efficiency over aesthetics–but the boxy cement blocks of Mauritania reminded us instantly of less development parts of Oman and the United Arab Emirates (yes, despite all the oil money, when outside the fancy parts of those countries there are definitely “developing world” buildings). Not only the type of buildings, but their placement and density–sparseness of population encouraging tremendous sprawl–are similar to other desert Arab countries we have been to.

Great Mosque, Nouakchott. Built in a sort of Moorish style, but nevertheless similar to mosques in the Gulf–no doubt in part because it was paid for by the Saudis.

landscape – Now, it may sound a bit silly to say that Mauritania feels like an Arab country because it’s sandy, but it’s true. There is that certain bleakness and openness that is such common terrain in the Arab world–of course, this commonality of terrain is part of what allowed the Arab conquerors in the seventh century onward to expand so quickly into the countries that we now consider Arab.

population density – Like much of the Gulf, even “urban” Mauritania has a certain emptiness, resulting from low population density and sprawl, not at all like the crowded metropolises of Africa to the south.

food – The richness and variety of Senegalese food (the cuisine found in Mali, at least when you’re lucky) has largely been substituted by roasted meat (chicken or lamb) and rice or french fries, basically the common diet all over the Arab world (and large parts of the non-Arab Muslim world). Lebanese restaurants, which seemed somewhat exotic, fancy “foreign food” in Senegal and Mali, suddenly seem more like local food and are far more common. The quality of the meat, by the way, has miraculously improved–livestock here must be raised better, more scientifically. (And, holding true to what I’ve said about African pricing (see post of 12.18), food prices have dropped precipitously–much cheaper prices for much better food.)

the hours people keep – Arabs, especially in the Gulf states, like to stay up late. The excuse given for this is usually the hot climate, and I suppose it’s true, but the end result is that people engage in a very wide range of activities in the several dark hours following dinner, activities that elsewhere in the world would be handled during the day. Shopping centers are often open until midnight or later, and the level of car and foot traffic during those hours is also intense in Gulf city centers. Perhaps it’s because of the climate here, too–Mauritanians keep similar hours, and downtown Nouakchott buzzes late into the night.

hospitality – Not all Arabs rate highly in this regard, but it can certainly be generalized that Arab countries (or Muslim countries for that matter) have a more living tradition of hospitality than the developed countries of the west or east. Even if it sometimes feels perfunctory, there is an effort or reflex to be generous to the outsider (or at least certain outsiders). Not that Senegalese and Malians were not welcoming–they were–but the sort of formality and ritual that comes with hospitality in the Middle East is very much back, now that we are in Mauritania. (Some would argue that this relates back to the terrain as well: Arab hospitality is often attributed to the harsh desert climate, and the need to share shelter and protection from the elements.)

race – A banal comment, but, yes, the racial composition here is different from that of the countries to the south. It’s not a matter of night and day–Mauritania is something like 30% Moor, 40% mixed Moor/black and 30% black, while Mali is 10% Moor/Tuareg and 90% black–but it is a significant shift. Even in Mali’s Timbuktu you feel that most people are black, with some settled Tuaregs as well as Tuaregs coming and going from the desert; in Mauritania the average person is a tan Moor.

language – A dialect of Arabic known as Hassaniya is the official language.

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Now, I say that Mauritania feels to the outsider like an Arab or Middle Eastern country, and not an African (or sub-Saharan African) one, but the real demographic answer is that Mauritania fits somewhere in the middle. As I mention above, about a third of Mauritania’s population is sub-Saharan/black African, while another third is “mixed,” which likely means descendants of the black slaves of the Moors (some of whom, one reads, still live in a slave-like state, although it was officially abolished in 1980), making it a majority black country, as far as race is concerned. Mauritania until independence was part of French West Africa, and until 1973, when it joined the Arab League and started to align itself more with the Arab world than the former French colonial world, it was a member of the French West African central bank (BCEAO) and monetary union (the CFA Franc). So the answer to, “Is Mauritania a black sub-Saharan African country or an Arab North African one?” is by no means clear.

Faux Pas

Traveling around the world, in cultures so different from those with which you are familiar, you are bound to have some missteps, commit some cultural gaffes. Sometimes it’s as simple as wearing your shoes inside a place you shouldn’t, using your left hand to do something that your right hand should have or making a gesture that has a very different local meaning than you intended (no doubt, sexual). Or, perhaps, it is a matter of not honoring clear hierarchies that are visible to all the locals, but not to you. Faux pas are a persistent risk of travel.

One of my favorite depictions of a traveler’s faux pas was on an HSBC ad that was running for a while on channels such as CNN International. In the advertisement, a very pasty British businessman is having dinner with Chinese counterparts. As might be expected, the dinner is an elaborate production, with the group of six or seven Chinese businessmen eager to please and impress the visiting guest, who is seated at the head of the table. As you may know, one problem with Chinese cuisine, especially as one goes higher in price, is that the Chinese eat a much wider range of foods, including quite a few “exotic” items with which westerners are not familiar. Ending up with some animal or body part that you really don’t want to try is always a risk in China. The British guest in the advertisement is presented with an eel (shown to him live and slithering before it appears chopped up in his bowl), which he clearly does not find appetizing, but finishes, as the voiceover says, “The English believe it’s a slur on your hosts’ food if you don’t clear your plate.” His hosts first look on with approval, and then order another, larger eel. The Englishman looks a little more troubled, but dutifully finishes the second huge bowl of eel as the voiceover continues, “Whereas the Chinese feel that it’s questioning their generosity if you do.” As the commercial ends, a third, truly humongous giant eel is wrestled out from the kitchen, with the Brit looking even more pale and downright frightened. (link to ad on YouTube)

We’re usually fairly cautious when traveling. For the most part, we read all the relevant warnings and try to offend as little as possible (although there may be some “customs” that we are aware of and still reject, e.g., my preference for using utensils, rather than my hands, to eat most foods, including especially sloppy cuisines such as South Indian). Nonetheless, we too make mistakes, and in this post I thought I would share a story of an embarrassing mistake we recently made in Mauritania.

We were taking a share taxi ride in Mauritania, one driver and six passengers, two in the front bucket seat and four in back, squeezed into a Mercedes sedan for a twelve hour journey from Ayoun el Atrous to Nouakchott. Now, Mauritanians aren’t particularly small like, say, Indians or Southeast Asians, and so four grown men squeezed into the back is a tight fit, and hours on end with that little room creates in your mind reasonable concerns about your physical and mental states at the end of the ride. That said, there is also a great sense of commiseration and camaraderie from such a long, difficult trip. On the one real break in the journey, we all sat down for lunch, in an Arab/Central Asian style tent with mattresses and cushions on the floor. We couldn’t quite figure out how to order food or even what was available, but, back in a land of compulsive hospitality, hoped that things would work themselves out and somehow we would end up with lunch. (It turned out that, in fact, one of the passengers had ordered for the group.)

Now, just a few days before our entry into Mauritania, we had gone on a 4-5 trek in the Dogon Country of Mali. On that hot and sweaty journey, you break up your trip twice a day, for lunch and for dinner/sleep, at so-called campements, established to feed and house trekkers. There is a certain routine at these campements, one of the first things after you arrive being that they bring you a bucket of water so that you can wash some of the dust and sweat off of your hands and face in preparation for eating. Before the Dogon, we were in Timbuktu, where, at the Touareg/Canadian-owned guesthouse of Sahara Passion (link) in which we stayed, there was a similar routine. Since all food was eaten with hands, a pitcher of water, soap and a bowl were brought out before meals, for washing.

And so here we were, between Ayoun and Nouakchott in Mauritania, under a tent waiting for food. One of the staff of the establishment brought around a bowl of murky white liquid and offered it to Derek. Derek promptly used it to wash his right hand, thinking himself culturally savvy and in-the-know for doing the right thing. The boy looked puzzled and glanced over at one of his elders for support or an explanation, but after receiving neither, smiled at us awkwardly and suggested that we drink the liquid instead. Because of his smile, we assumed that he was joking. Then, one of the other passengers laughed and told us that it was “lait de chamaux,” or camel mlik, which I thought was a joke based on the classic “drinking the finger bowl” faux pas said to be committed by rubes throughout history. We laughed–we certainly weren’t rubes–and I proceeded to put my hand into the bowl, and swish it about.

After I finished with the bowl, the boy took the bowl back toward the kitchen, and Derek and I suddenly came to a realization. Smelling our fingers, it was clear what we had done: washed our hands in the communal bowl of milk.

The writing on the wall

Our co-passenger was indeed kidding, but only about it being camel milk (people do drink camel milk in Mauritania, but this was cow milk). The restaurant boy was smiling out of awkwardness and discomfort, while trying to get us to drink as we were supposed to. As we sat red-faced, hoping that the others hadn’t witnessed our stupidity, we could see the waiter whisk (the wire whisk seems to be obligatory) up another bowl of milk (they often start with evaporated milk, it seems, and then add water and sugar) for the rest of our group, as we had fouled the first one. We should have seen the milk coming. Although it was our first real day in Mauritania, we had already witnessed that Mauritanians drink huge quantities of milk, not too surprising in a desert country where little green grows but herding is a common livelihood, and the liquid in the bowl looked more like milk than soapy water. Even in the Dogon a welcome drink arrived at the same time as the bucket of water. Nobody came even close to trying to make us feel sorry or embarrassed for what we did, although of course we did. We had committed a faux pas several times worse than drinking from a finger bowl–we had used communal food to wash our hands.

Fortunately, nobody had to drink from the polluted bowl of milk, and, after the actual handwashing took place (with clear water from a pitcher, soap and a basin that was so much more obviously for handwashing), we joined at the communal table to enjoy what was incredibly tasty roasted lamb, infinitely better than we had had across the border in Mali. In the communal spirit of the traditional world, one of the passengers paid for the whole group (again leaving us to feel mildly embarrassed, as we had in Tajikistan, given our likely superior relative wealth), and we left again for Nouakchott.

What Things Cost in Mali

Mali is expensive. Now, I suppose in pure absolute terms it is certainly not more expensive than North America or Europe, but given what you get–except in the best of hotels, third world conditions–things are a horrible value.

It’s quite depressing, really, not only for us, who as tourists are tempted to ask ourselves what we are doing spending a relative fortune to travel like a pauper in Mali instead of spending less to travel like a king in Bali, but really for the residents of the country. Before I had come to West Africa, I was accustomed to less developed countries having relatively lower costs for goods and services. For example, a Bolivian may not make very much money, but he can eat a solid meal for well short of a U.S. dollar. This pattern generally holds true in North America, South America, Europe and Asia–the poorer a country is, the less things cost in that country. In this way, the people who live in a country can, well, afford to live there. In Africa, it seems the poorer the country the more expensive things (by which I mean mostly consumer goods) are. Mali is a significantly poorer country than Senegal, but things clearly cost more. We were told that the capital of even more impoverished Niger, Niamey, is even more expensive.

Why this perverse pattern? I suppose it comes down to the fact that, in countries as poor as Mali and Niger, few people, outside of the slim middle and upper classes living in the big cities, can afford to buy much of anything. The average Malian does not go to restaurants or stay in hotels, or buy bottled water or hire taxis, as tourists are wont to do. The typical Malian earns just enough for the bare necessities of life, plus perhaps some very minor savings for transport or festive occasions. The goods and services that tourists need are provided by and for a very small segment of the economy, one that needs to import almost all of the materials and knowhow that is required, at very high transport costs, or, in the case of restaurants, survive on a relatively small volume of customers. Without the economy of scale, and with the additional costs of setup and maintenance, things get expensive.

Why do I find this so depressing? Perhaps I am imposing my values, my expectations and vision of what constitutes an enjoyable life, but in a country such as, say, India, I feel like a great number of people, even if fairly poor, can afford to buy themselves a simple snack in a restaurant, if they happen to be hungry and away from home. A working class family in India can afford to go on an occational pilgrimage. Here in Mali, I do not see how anyone of typical wealth and income can save enough to afford to do much of anything. To save enough money even for a bus ride, or a meal, seems incredibly onerous and out of reach. And that, I find sad.

So what kinds of prices am I complaining about? Some examples:

Lodging for Two

“Western standard” hotel room with bath and A/C – 25,000 (USD 50)
Comfortable hotel room with shared bath and fan – 15-20,000 (USD 30-40)
Very basic room, no power, no western plumbing, no fan and usually not very clean – 6,000-10,000 (USD 12-20)

Compare to say, Bali, where an extremely comfortable room with bath and fan often costs USD 10, or even small city North America, where motels can often come in under USD 50.

Transportation

Taxi within Bamako, for up to several kilometers – 500-1000 CFA (USD 1-2)
Taxi within Sevare, for a couple of kilometers – 2000 CFA (USD 4) (compare to, say, Bangkok or Hong Kong, in a modern, air-conditioned car)
4×4 rental for a 2.5 hour trip (price quoted to us by a Dogon guide) – 50,000 CFA (USD 100)
4×4 rental for a 3 hour trip (price we overheard other tourists paying) – 90,000 CFA (USD 180)
Bamako – Segou bus (4 hours) – 5,000 CFA (USD 10)
COMANAV boat from Mopti to Timbuktu, first class – 51,500 (USD 103)
Private pinasse from Mopti to Timbuktu – USD 800-1,000

As expensive as fuel has been, I simply do not understand the price of transport in Mali. Why isn’t the market for taxis and car hires more competitive? It’s not even the quality of the roads that is at fault; they tend to be fine. I believe that some runs have inflated prices because they are run by cartels (see post of 12.16 on planning a Dogon trip), but then where does the extra margin go? The prices almost have to be due to corruption at some link in the chain. I can’t help but think that if the price of transportation were more in line with other third world countries that far more people would make use of the roads, improving commerce, opportunities and quality of life.

Food

1.5 liter bottle of water – 500 CFA (USD 1), or up to 1250 CFA (USD 2.50) in the Dogon
Basic local food, tasty enough – 500-1000 CFA (USD 1-2), but not always available
Basic restaurant, sometimes good but often mediocre, with poor quality meat, etc. – 1000-2000 CFA (USD 2-4)
Tourist class restaurant, sometimes very good but not always – 4000-5000 CFA (USD 8-10)

Food is, for the traveler, one of the most inconvenient things about Mali. Because there is essentially no middle class in Mali, outside of Bamako, there are few proper restaurants (outside of Bamako) that really cater to locals, leaving one to eat overpriced tourist food of uneven quality. There is some street food, but it is generally in the way of snacks, such as chips, or food that is wholly unappetizing to the foreigner, such as an unseasoned stew of poorly chopped-up goat parts or fried scrawny river fish. Traveling in Mali has made us realize, to an extent we had not before, what a sort of heaven countries such as Thailand are (not only for tourists but especially for locals), where food of such quality and variety can be had so cheaply. There is no such plenty here.

From Segou to Bamako, A Mali Bus Ride

Mali is a big country, in total area almost twice the size of the Texas. Now, much of that is desert that the average tourist has no interest traveling in, but even the parts of Mali that are relevant to tourists is quite large, for example, about 900 kilometers from Bamako to Timbuktu. To cover all that distance, tourists generally have two options, as far as road transport goes: private car hire or public bus. As comfortable and quick as a car hire would be, it is simply out of the reach of most travelers’ budgets, given the relatively high cost of everything in Mali (post to come), and so, for most travelers (including us), it’s the bus, and the distances involved and the false starts and delays of Malian bus travel mean that a great deal of a tourist’s time in Mali is spent on a bus. And so, I thought, what better way to give you a feel for Mali travel than to describe to you a typical Malian bus ride?

The journey I’ve chosen to cover in this post is the relatively short trip from the town of Segou, a peaceful riverside city much loved by foreign tourists (in part because of the serenity, in part because of the extremely comfortable available lodging), to Mali’s capital of Bamako. The total distance is only 230 or so kilometers and the ride is said to take three to three and a half hours (a rather optimistic estimate based on unrealistically ideal conditions, but one that the bus company will give every time and in a very certain, matter of fact manner).

There are two kinds of scheduled bus departures in Mali. The first, which is quite rare, buses actually depart at the appointed hour. For example, buses of Bani Transport, one of the leading bus companies, supposedly always depart on time (although I find this hard to believe). The second, and far more common, kind of scheduled bus departure? Completely disregarding the schedule, the bus leaves when full.

We were told by someone who travels from Segou to Bamako regularly that Somatra’s (another major bus company) 4 AM departure from Segou to Bamako always leaves on time, and that there were two other Somatra morning departures, the “7 AM” and “8 AM,” which leave after filling up (and therefore not necessarily at 7 AM and 8 AM at all). We asked Somatra about its schedule directly, and were told that there were buses to Bamako on the hour, all morning, which we knew must be something barely short of an outright lie. And so, heeding the first advice, but not wanting to get up at 3 AM, we headed to the bus station at around 7, and bought tickets for the next departure. (We wanted to take Somatra because we had earlier on the trip taken a very comfortable Somatra bus, an old-fashioned model with windows that open and great legroom. Unfortunately, most of fleet in Mali now consists of modern buses with cramped seating and sealed windows, to keep in the air conditioning, except that the air conditioning is invariably non-functioning or turned off–it is winter here and the locals tend to get cold quickly–resulting in hothouse-like conditions. Also, Somatra’s station was convenient to our hotel–inconveniently, Malian bus companies maintain separate stations, making the business even less consumer-friendly.)

We then sat and waited. And waited. There was no indication of when the bus would leave (certainly no straight answer from the staff), but, by this point in our Mali trip, we were nearly as patient as the locals, eating snacks and enjoying the characters at the bus station. Now, Segou is not a big place, and so there was not quite the level of activity and volume of long-distance travelers that might be found in Bamako or Mopti, but there were still plenty of young men selling everything from shoes (draped around their necks) to over-the-counter medicines to prepaid SIM and recharge cards (a thriving business in West Africa), livestock being transported in sacks, sometimes the head poking out, other times wholly bagged up, and flies.

Waiting room

A donkey cart, carrying freight. I have developed a great love of donkeys on our trip–could they be any more adorable?

Finally, about two and a half hours after we first arrived, the bus company indicated which bus was headed to Bamako–unfortunately one of the more modern buses with neither opening windows nor working A/C–and luggage was loaded. (Remember the supposed hourly departures? At this rate of delay, there must be quite large number of buses sitting around at the end of the day!)

Now, just because the luggage is being loaded does not mean that a departure is imminent, nor does the bus company telling you that a departure is imminent mean that a departure is imminent (as we learned in Bamako, where a bus departing “tout de suite” didn’t leave for another hour). But, fortunately in this case, our bus took off fairly soon after loading.

One of the drudgeries of a bus ride in Mali is the dull scenery outside of the window. In terms of natural beauty, the Sahel in the dry season is pretty unremarkable–flat, dusty, a mixture of brown and an unhealthy shade of green. Another hassle, and the reason that voyages take so much longer than they are supposed to, is that buses stop all the time. They stop to drop off and pick up passengers and freight on the side of the road, for security checkpoints and sometimes for, as far as we could tell without language skills, no reason at all. That said, there are some interesting distractions on the Malian road.

I developed a great respect for African entrepreneurship (and sorrow for the lack of economic opportunity) from the number of people who seem to make a living by selling food to buses passing by. Any time the bus stops, a crush of girls and young women elbow and push their way on, trying to be the first of usually three or four with their particular product, and verbally marketing with gentle, rhythmic repetitions of their offerings. With prices so low and competition so fierce, it’s hard to imagine them making much money at all, in spite of the grueling conditions. In the first picture are women selling a boiled root vegetable (not bad, surprisingly juicy and sweet) and cupcakes (gateaux). In the second picture, you can also make out in the upper right baggies of frozen juice, always tempting but for fear of sickness (sometimes thirst would win out, other times fear of tainted water prevailed).

Police checkpoints are extremely common in Mali. From our limited West Africa experience, it seemed that Senegal was run quite efficiently with minimal police checkpoints or visible bribery, while checkpoints and petty bribes were endemic in Mali. We heard that the situation was yet worse in Niger, although of course none of these countries stack up to the rampant kleptocracy and violence of Nigeria. On one of our Malian bus rides, one of the passengers took up a collection from all of the other passengers, and then turned to us to pressure us to kick in, so that they could bribe the police not to check the cargo hold (we did not contribute).

Always common in developing countries, due to the condition of both the vehicles and the roads: breakdowns and accidents. Note the U.S. flag decoration in the interior of the bus. Malian buses and trucks are often decorated with the stars and stripes–it’s amazing that people still love and respect America so much after the last eight years.

All in all, our journey was quite smooth, with no significant delays. Even then, what is said to be a three hour journey ended up taking four hours, or a total of six and a half hours from the time we showed up at the bus station. But by now we’ve started to assume that any bus ride will somehow end up taking the whole day, and so an early afternoon arrival was an unexpected windfall. (Our ride from Bamako to Segou a couple weeks ago, which we were told would take three hours but ended up taking closer to five, was excruciating–it’s amazing the difference that expectations make in the tolerability of physical discomfort.)

One is made to wonder what the total benefit to a country’s development and economy would be, were there simply reliable and cheap transportation, given transport’s role in facilitating commerce (or, in the case of Mali, in impeding commerce and raising the cost of everything). Maybe all development aid should just be aimed at transportation infrastructure and logistics? But then, how would that help to get rid of excess American agricultural products?

Our fellow passengers (the man in the middle blocking his face must be either shy or a fugitive!)