Village of Banani, off of the falaise
As a rule, we don’t like taking guided tours. We generally find that guides lack much knowledge (or perhaps we can’t afford the high quality guides), destroy any sense of discovery or serenity by leading you around like a dog and talking incessantly (perhaps some tourists feel they are getting their money’s worth the more their guide says, however useless and uninformative), cramp spontaneity and flexibility, and take you to shops and restaurants based largely on the kickbacks offered to him for bringing you. In an ideal world, of course having a guide could provide tremendous value and insight–but most guides are far from ideal. In place of a guide, I much prefer the more accurate and specialized information provided by a book. Besides, I love route finding and logistics–some might even argue that that’s what I like best about travel–and guides would steal from me that role!
Anyway, there are some trips in the world for which a guide, or even joining a guided group (for sake of economy), is necessary. Off of the top of my mind, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, exploring the Salar de Uyuni and southwestern Bolivia in a jeep, African safaris and our trip to Iran, where Americans must be guided, come to mind. And, truth be told, we end up really enjoying most of these trips, if not due to our guide then to the fellow travelers with whom we are sharing the experience. Still, we do avoid guides and groups whenever we can.
Which is why we were somewhat stressed by our trip to the Pays Dogon, or Dogon Country, of Mali. The Dogon Country is a region of Mali where a unique ethnic/lnguistic group known as the Dogon make their home. Believed to have arrived at their current homeland in medieval times, the Dogon are famous for their animist faith, in particular its convoluted cosmology (of Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery fame), their mask dances and their architecture, including the yet older architecture of the tellem people who preceded them in their current home. Located along a cliff known as the Bandiagara Escarpment, the Dogon Country is on anyone’s list of the highlights of Mali for travelers, and a 2 to 10 day tour, with guide, is considered an essential part of a Mali trip.
But, oh! how to choose the right guide and route?
Mali is, believe it or not, a fairly touristy country, one in which there is a well-established tourist circuit with all of its attendant conveniences and hassles. One of the most persistent of the hassles is the constant presence of would-be guides. Like most African countries Mali has many different ethnic groups, but almost all guides who approach you claim to be one of the two which add the greatest amount of value for the tourist: In and around Timbuktu, all of the young men who approach you are “Tuareg from the desert,” all the better to pitch to you desert trips (or, if that fails, “Tuareg jewelry from my village”). In the rest of the country, including in Bamako, all would-be guides announce themselves as Dogon, and thus well-equipped to take you on a tour of the Dogon Country.
Now, of course, there aren’t even all that many Dogon (less than a million), and certainly some of the would-be guides not only are not Dogon but neither speak Dogon nor know much about Dogon Country. Guidebooks warn that such guides will actually contract an actual Dogon guide upon arrival in Dogon Country–which means not only that you picked the wrong guide to start with but that you paid much too much. And so, we were extremely wary of the entire situation, and very anxious about finding the right person, someone who was not only actually Dogon and knowledgeable but also a person with whom we would actually enjoy spending four or more uninterrupted days.
Our first opportunity to hire a guide came, as with most tourists, in the capital city of Bamako. As a foreign tourist walking around Bamako, it is assured that you will have at least a handful of young men approach you, telling you that they are Dogon and trying to arrange for you a Dogon tour. Of course, being extremely distrustful of the whole situation (every guidebook tells you not to arrange Dogon tours in Bamako, to wait for cities closer to Dogon Country), we ignored all those who approached us, even though one young man in particular seemed knowledgeable and sympathetic (more on him below). The bottom line is that we had just arrived in the country and needed to get a better feel before we made any commitments. Although one of the guides we met might not have been a bad choice, as we figured out later, we think that this is generally sound advice–a Dutch couple we met in Timbuktu told us that they had arranged their Dogon trip in Bamako, and had a mediocre experience, with very little actual trekking (2-3 kilometers/day) along a poorly planned itinerary with little scenic or cultural variety.
Djenne was the next big hub of guide activity, but we found the would-be guides there far too aggressive. We met some Peace Corps volunteers who had a great experience (at an even better price) with a guide, but he was booked solid with other Peace Corps folk, and so unavailable. Eventually, we decided that we should head up to Timbuktu for Tabaski (see post of 12.08), and defer our guide selection for our return.
We took a boat to Timbuktu (see post of 12.07), but took a jeep back, through the city of Douentza. A French couple with whom we were sharing the jeep arranged a three day trip starting in Douentza and approaching Dogon Country from the northwest, a recommended itinerary, but we did not join them as 1) we wanted a greater selection of guides (particularly important because English language ability is scarce in Mali relative to French) and 2) we wanted to go on a longer trip.
Our next opportunity to hire a guide was in the city of Sevare, the city closest to Bandiagara, which is the most common starting point of a Dogon trip. In Sevare we stayed at Mac’s Refuge, a slightly overpriced but very comfortable hotel whose principal appeal is the affable Mac, an American former Christian missionary turned innkeeper who holds court every evening over delicious home-cooked dinners, one of the best meals we had in Mali. Mac offered us a list of English-speaking guides. While he told us that this was a “screened” list, it also seemed clear that he wanted no part in mediating the transaction–he was not running a travel agency and did not want to take responsibility for our choice. The morning after, we had a few of Mac’s suggested guides over for little interviews, but none seemed right. The first started at an overly high price, especially for transport (we didn’t really want our guide profiting from our jeep transfers), the second seemed lethargic and unenthusiastic and the third seemed to think, bizarrely, that our proposed itinerary, which we had arrived at after conversations with Mac and the first two guides, was simply not feasible in the time we proposed–perhaps he just didn’t want us as clients.
Around noon, after the failed negotiations with the Sevare-based guides, we headed to the share taxi stop for Bandiagara, hoping to maybe catch onward transit to Sanga for its market day, and sort out the guide situation there. Getting from Sevare to Bandiagara ended up being a mini-fiasco.
We arrived at the share taxi stop to find that a taxi had just left, and that seven more people (paying 1600 CFA or USD 3.20 each) would be needed to fill our car. The driver flatly refused any amount less than the full fare for all nine seats. Unwilling to pay that amount to go the short distance on the paved road, we crossed the street and attempted to hitchhike. There were almost no vehicles, but we figured that one tourist vehicle would be enough. While we were waiting, several people annoyingly walked up to tell us that we should pay for all nine seats of a share taxi, it’s unclear what their stake was in the situation but they clearly had one.
After a bit more than an hour, a green Mercedes pulled up with heavy bass thumping out American rap. We asked through the window if the car was going to Bandiagara, and a reasonably well-dressed man asked us what our plans were, whether we had a guide for the Dogon already, etc. He explained that he owned the Hotel de la Falaise in Bandiagara, and said that he could drive us there, if we stayed at the hotel and considered using one of his guides for our trek. The hotel being reviewed quite positively in the Rough Guide, we thought this a good plan. As we were putting our bags in the car, however, we were interrupted by a number of people associated with the share taxi business, who came up to complain that we were rightfully their customers and that the hotel owner could not provide us transportation, which is their line of work (as if they had some sort of monopoly on all travelers on this road). The argument quickly escalated, with people yelling at each other tussling over our bags and generally getting in each others’ faces. Some money was exchanged, from the hotel-owner to the taxi drivers, but apparently not enough. Eventually, we grabbed our bags and told the hotel owner in English (which only he among the group understood) that we would walk up the street and wait for him there.
A few minutes later, the Mercedes passed us, with the driver yelling out the window for us to go to the Hotel Flandres, which we knew to be a good 20-25 minutes away by foot. Having all of our luggage on us, and it being mid-day, we were uncertain whether to follow these instructions for what might not even end up being a good situation. Nonetheless, since we were offered a free ride (and there was a good chance that there was no other ride available at all that day, especially since we had just gotten into a fight with the share taxi cartel), and because the driver seemed so confident, we headed over. At the town’s main intersection, a blue van drove up and lectured to us, in French, that we should take the transportation offered by the cartel. We ignored him, but the van continued to follow us. About mid-way to the Hotel Flandres, when we had briefly stopped to check on a Wi-Fi connection, a man we recognized as one of the passengers in the Mercedes came up to us and told us that he had come to make sure that we got to the Hotel Flandres. We proceeded, the blue van following all along at a distance of maybe twenty-five yards. (No doubt we would have been charged a fortune for a taxi ride that distance, let alone in a big van, but here he was wasting his fuel just to enforce the transportation cartel’s monopoly.)
We waited at the Flandres for the hotel owner to come with his Mercedes. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived and said it was time to go. When we took our bags to the car, however, we saw that the blue van had blocked us into the driveway, and that quite an active dispute was underway over our ride. After more arguments, the hotel owner somehow prevailed, and with a little fancy driving to get around the van we were on our way.
About five minutes into our ride, the hotel owner first instructed us, if the police were to ask, to say that we had hired him to drive us to Bandiagara, at a cost of 20,000 CFA. After more discussion with his friend, he told us instead to say that we had a hotel reservation and so were being driven over. All this suggested that the checkpoint would be, um, sympathetic to the interests of the cartel. However, the police at the checkpoint seemed quite content with the bag of baguettes that was handed over by the driver and required no other explanation, and our host seemed quite happy with himself for getting through without a hitch.
The Hotel de la Falaise is certainly a pretty smooth operation. The rooms are comfortable and good value, the food tasty and well-prepared and the setup for hooking up tourists with Dogon itineraries and guides very efficient. After we had lunch and made clear that we were ready to discuss our Dogon trip, a smartly dressed man sat down with us. We explained what we wanted, and he elaborated our itinerary, filling in one more town he thought worthwhile (but which we previously had thought too distant). He said that our itinerary would cost a little more than alternative ones, but the price quoted (20,000 CFA or USD 40/person/day) was still lower than anything else we had been offered as a “first price,” and well within the range of the prices suggested by guidebooks (15-30,000 CFA or USD 30-60/person/day). The man introduced us to our guide, who we were assured was a qualified guide from the guide association, and wrote out a contract with our routing and a list of everything included in the price (guide fees, transport, food, lodging, village taxes, etc.). We chatted with our guide some, found him amiable enough, and agreed to leave at 7 AM the next morning.
Tellem buildings near village of Ireli. The Tellem were the predecessors of the Dogon in their current home, and traditional beliefs of the Dogon ascribe all sorts of mysterious properties and powers to the Tellem, such as dwarfism and the ability to climb the rock walls like mini Spider-Men to reach their mysterious homes or granaries built into the cliffsides. To American eyes, there is a resemblance to the Puebloan villages of the Southwest, such as those at Mesa Verde.
Tellem architecture near Youga Dogourou
I am sorry to report that we were not, in the end, very pleased with our trip. While our guide was friendly enough, he was too passive and did not assure that we received the standard of food that we felt we should at campements en route (other tourists seemed to be getting better at the same establishments, and at one point even he received a visibly better meal than we, which I found incredibly irritating). Around mid-day, he would get a bit lazy, and suggest shortening routings or longer breaks than were really necessary. Explanations were overly succinct, and, while I believe he had a good understanding of Dogon culture (he certainly was Dogon himself), I did not feel that we received very good “guiding.” Finally, his familiarity with the route was not 100%, as at one point he hired another man to help lead us (and carry his bag–thus our guide had a porter, though not we). I don’t think these faults would apply to all guides represented by the Hotel de la Falaise, but it certainly did not work out as the foolproof method of finding the right guide that we hoped it would.
So what should you do? Well, you could try your shot at the Hotel de la Falaise–just be very clear (even to the point of rudeness, like asking how long lunch breaks will be, how many meals will come with meat) exactly what you are expecting from your guide and trip. Depending on the luck of the draw, you may still have to be somewhat aggressive with your guide, as we felt we had to be, in order to have the trip you expected. But perhaps your luck will be better than ours, or your expectations lower.
Or, you can try contacting one of the these two guides:
Pebelou Dolo, 7 408 33 07, firstname.lastname@example.org
Seck Dolo, 7 874 78 43, email@example.com (the phone actually belongs to a friend of Seck’s named Toube, but he can locate Seck)
The first is a man we met in Sanga, within Dogon Country proper. Of all of the guides we talked to on our Dogon trip, he seemed to have one of the best commands of English and also a very sophisticated worldview, suggesting that he would probably give good explanations and be otherwise agreeable on a long trip. The second is the guide we met in Bamako. At the end of our Mali trip, we were back in Bamako, and ran across the young man who had followed us around the first day suggesting that we hire him for our Dogon trip. We explained what had happened on our Dogon trip, and he recognized the various problems, and assured us that, had we gone with him, things would have been better. Now having been to the Dogon, it was clear to us that Seck really was quite knowledgeable, and we had always had confidence in his language ability and general demeanor. Seck also assured that he could arrange affordable transport from Bamako to the Dogon (using public transportation as desired), or arrange to meet him there, and that his clock could start ticking once the trek started, not from Bamako. And so we think that both of these guides would be worth checking out. (If you try either, please let me know how your experience was so we can add it to this blog entry. Or, if you’d like to offer a plug for another good guide, please let me know.)
Carvings on the toguna, or case a palabres, the main meeting place for the men of a Dogon village, Kundu
The problem with our Dogon trip was not with our guide alone. To be honest, we were disappointed by the experience as a whole, including especially with the reception of tourists by the Dogon themselves. This may sound somewhat harsh to read, but we find that some peoples seem to take to tourism (or to being touristed) better than others; I would not place the Dogon at the top of this list. Compared to other places that are heavily touristed, Dogon Country, I would say, is more “ruined” than most, with relatively few opportunities for genuine and meaningful interaction (as opposed to, say, trying to be sold things) and a lack, on the part of the Dogon, of reciprocal curiosity and friendliness. Some concrete tips so that your experience is better than ours:
– Buy extra food. While there is no shortage of campements offering tourists food and lodging along the main routes, the standard of food is surprisingly low. Part of this was due to passivity on the part of our guide, but part is also due to lack of cooking skills and ingredients. Even though food is likely included in the price of your tour, you should supplement generously. Taking along a can of tuna or sardines (those red cans sardines are really quite tasty) for each meal will augment it tremendously, far better than the super-scrawny chicken, some of the thinnest and stringiest in the world, that is on offer in the Dogon. As in other parts of the former French colonial world, La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) processed cheese is also widely available, and tasty on a trek. Conveniently, such items can be purchased in the bigger Dogon villages themselves, as well as at the trailheads.
– The trail from Sanga to the town of Banani, using the staircase, is strikingly beautiful and should not be missed. One of our greatest annoyances with our guide was that he did not indicate this path to us.
– The three Yougas are definitely worthwhile. Youga Na, in particular, was, to me, the most beautiful of the villages that we visited and boasted the very best campement, with ice cold drinks and almost “boutique” decor, established with the assistance of the French (though oddly the food was horrible). If I were to suggest an itinerary, for someone in a reasonable state of fitness, I would suggest basing out of Youga Na, taking one day to get there from Sanga through Banani, another day to do a loop through the other two Yougas and then the third day stopping by Yendouma and Tiogou on your way back to Sanga. This is basically what we did, except that we hiked through Ireli on the way to Banani and slept in Banani, and also slept in Yendouma on the way out.
– In Sanga proper, which you can visit quite well without a guide at all, the Hotel Kastor is quite comfortable and good value, and offers great meals.
– Do not plan on taking a lot of pictures. The Dogon seem to be under the mistaken impression that photographs of them are highly marketable and valuable, and so treat the taking of photographs something like petty larceny. Now, we’ve encountered pay-for-photo regimes in the past, including most notably with the tribal people in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, but the truth is that the Dogon people, as a visual matter, are not all that interesting, generally not a people Derek would pay to take pictures of. When women start demanding money because they happened to get into a picture you were taking of a building, or when children who are clearly not in the picture (five feet to the right of you when your camera is pointing straight ahead) start yelling, “No! No! No!” it gets pretty irritating. (Older men generally do not mind, especially if bribed with a few kola nuts, post to come.) Dogon Country is simply the worst place in the world we have been, for ease of photo taking.
View of Youga Na