(Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 18 September

How not to ride on a motorbike

Content she's got to grips with travelling by bus in Mali, Marie discovers she's not so clued up when it comes to motorbikes

Mali is one of the hottest places on the planet.

I felt like a wimp. Hadn't I lived in Kuwait? Wasn't I a former resident of Cairo in summer? I was wilting in the courtyard of Djenne-Djenno – or Hotel Sophie as the locals called it – though the fresh peanut butter and filter coffee perked me up.

A blisteringly hot day is still a blisteringly hot day, no matter how many times you experience it.

I hurried over to Djenne's famous Monday market at nine, choosing a small alley as my route to the main square where the UNESCO-listed mud-brick mosque towered over the marketplace. I immediately became lost and had to follow a stream of women carrying baskets on their heads to find my way out of the dry, beige maze – all of Djenne is mud-brick, with few landmarks aside from the mosque.

When I arrived at the market, the mosque towered over chaos. Huge swarms of cheerful people who didn't seem to notice the heat were selling their wares en masse. This was the place to buy dried fish, plastic buckets, flip-flops, grains, and Obama T-shirts. Some sellers sat under tarpaulins, their tables set up as on every Monday. Others spread their items out on a scrap of cloth or simply on the dirt, wherever they could find space.

I waded through the crowd in the Mali heat. I didn't last long, and when a boy offered to show me a nice view over the square for a small tip, I followed him into a private house for relief from the crowd, then fled to the haven of the hotel grounds. At eleven, Amadou – my guide from yesterday – was hovering outside the gate, though we'd agreed (and he'd been insistent) on an 11:30 pick-up for the ride to the Bamako-bound-bus crossroads.

"I need to have the motorbike back early," he explained. "The owner needs it."

Amadou positioned my backpack in between his knees. Surely this wasn't safe but it's what motorcycle taxi drivers have done for me throughout the world. I wore my daypack, climbed on behind Amadou, and held on tight, sometimes to the back of the bike and sometimes to his waist. I felt awkward and inappropriately intimate.

First, we drove a short distance – less than ten minutes – to the ferry. But without a car, we didn't need to wait for the ferry, which was a good thing as there was a truck stuck in the shallow mud at the ferry dock. We boarded a pirogue, a wooden hand-carved canoe. Amadou and the pirogue motorman lifted the moped onto the boat, then climbed aboard. We motored easily across the narrow channel. Five minutes later, we clambered aboard the bank of the mainland and the men lifted the motorbike off of the boat. Amadou climbed on, placed my pack back in front of him, and motioned me behind him.

Driving 30km on a motorbike had been a bad idea from the start. I knew it. But since the bus left early in the morning, I'd have had to miss the market to catch it.

But I could have waited for a share-taxi to fill up. Of course, these would be leaving later in the day when the market was slowing down. By then, I'd have ruined my chances of getting to Bamako tonight. And tomorrow I needed to be at the Embassy of Ghana to pick up my passport with a new visa stamped in it.

Knowing that sitting on the back of a motorbike was the fastest, most efficient route to the crossroads didn't make it any less dangerous, and I worried for 30km about crashing. I had a scarf tied around my head to keep out the wind and sun, but a scarf isn't any protection against the tarmac.

"Stupid Marie"

I thought back to the Ethiopian truck crash I'd been in back in 2001, during my first trip around-the-world. That had been another clear-cut case of me doing something stupid, when I was in the cab of a clearly overloaded Isuzu truck, watching the driver chew mildly intoxicating khat leaves all night long, as we trundled closer and closer to Lalibela.

Surely I could have just waited another day to pick up my passport? The Embassy of Ghana wasn't likely to throw it away if I wasn't prompt.

But by the time this thought crossed my mind, I was committed. Amadou was zooming along – no doubt as miserable as I was – and my feet were numb, perched on the little footholds that hinged off the side of the motorbike.

Half an hour on the back of a motorbike in the baking Malian sun feels a lot longer than half an hour. But we did arrive at Carrefour Djenne, eventually, and this time I was delighted to see the mice-ridden lean-to with its promise of shade. But when I clumsily dismounted, my foot didn't come with me. I tugged.

Oh. My heel...

While my extremities had been numbed by the vibrating, unpleasant journey, my sandal had been touching the exhaust pipe.

My shoe heel was melted.

I hurried to pick up discarded mango pits to scrape black shoe gunk off of the hot pipe while Amadou apologised profusely for the motorbike, as if it weren't totally my fault for letting my shoe melt.

The biggest problem here was how he'd get the remnants of shoe off the borrowed motorbike, but all Amadou could think about was my shoe and how hard it would be fix a melted heel.

I paid Amadou the balance of my fare, scraped all I could off the pipe, then limped into the shade, where I bought him two plastic bags of water.

Everyone drinks out of these here. Water bags cost almost nothing and are always available, so no one bothers to carry water except for tourists. I hate them, because everyone tosses the plastic bags on the ground after emptying them. I cringe every time I see a field full of plastic water bags, but then I remind myself that water bags enable anyone to become an entrepreneur, buying them en masse in a city and reselling them to others by the side of the road.

Amadou tore small sipping holes in the bags with his teeth, sucked down the water, apologised again for my shoe, and left me in care of a freelance transportation coordinator who was in charge of sorting out my bus. He sped back to Djenne, with a new client on the back of the moped.

"There are many buses," said the man charged with putting me on the bus. "We will get you a good one."

I hoped so. In Bamako, I'd heard rumours of one tourist who had to wait eight hours for a bus.

I only had to wait a half-hour, and my guardian rejected one rickety old bus that came along as not-good-enough. But then an African Safari Tours coach pulled up – that's the one with the independent terminal that was closest to the Sleeping Camel, my Bamako backpacker digs. My guardian talked to the conductor, then motioned me on board.

I got on and had the last row to myself. The bus wasn't air-conditioned but there were open vents and windows, and the bus wasn't sold out. Luxury and comfort compared to the sealed bus from the border or the breaking-down bus of the trip out of Bamako. And for once, I could see out of the window. On my earlier journeys, the double-paned windows had been foggy between the glass.

We stopped for the occasional prayer break

Once we halted at a rural mosque, but other times people simply prayed off to the side of the bus. Some had mats, others stood.

Prayer breaks were bush-toilet breaks for me, so I appreciated them. Kids would swarm me when I stepped down from the bus – touching my hair and asking me questions – but I was getting better at making my needs known, and they'd usually point me in the direction of a nice bush. And towards the end of the trip, around seven in the evening, I had a sugar craving and managed to fight my way through a crowd to yell at a vendor to hand me a Sprite over their heads. I was getting my sea legs. Suddenly, Mali bus travel was making a lot more sense to me.

Twice we passed broken-down buses. All the passengers would go silent and stare. I'm sure they were all thinking the same thing.

"I'm so glad that isn't us."

Finally, ten hours after getting on the bus and drifting in and out of a dazed semi-sleep, my eyes started to burn from diesel fumes. That meant we were on the outskirts of Bamako.

Taxi drivers leapt at me when I stepped down from the bus into the African Safari Tours parking lot.

"Actually, I am only going to Amandine so I will take the little bus."

They nodded and backed off. The local bus was a straight shot, ten minutes to Amandine, a coffee shop that was a good landmark near Sleeping Camel. And I was starving. And broke. Amandine had food and an ATM, one of the few that worked with my Mastercard-branded bank card. Hopefully it would be working today.

A young man in a tie who was waiting for an arriving passenger took heed of my plans to take the little bus. He escorted me across the road and showed me exactly where to stand to hail the bus, and ten minutes later, I was withdrawing 130,000 CFA from the Amandine ATM and ordering a takeaway schwarma.

Backpack on my back, daypack dangling on my front from my left shoulder, favouring one shoe, the CFA equivalent of $260 in my pocket, and schwarma in my right hand, I hoofed it past the phone card sellers (who never give up, though I've refused them a dozen times) down the street to the German embassy. I turned and walked to the Sleeping Camel, where the night watchman let me in and went to fetch Bill, one of the owners.

Fortunately, he wasn't asleep yet.

"Well, you know where you're going," he said. "Go ahead, silly, into your room. You don't need to ask me, key's in the door."

He was funny, this Bill. I thought a minute and then responded appropriately.

"I have schwarma."

"Yes, you do. Go to bed. I'll talk to you in the morning."

Home again. Or the closest thing to it in this part of the world.

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