Tamba to Bamako: Crossing Borders

Mali Travel Blog

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At the Senegal/Mali border

On the first day of our journey by bus, by late afternoon we reached the Senegal/Mali border.  We had set off from Tamba at about 8:00 a.m. running to catch the bus.  We were relieved that we made it because it was close; the bus was pulling out as our taxi arrived.  However, after the bus turning the other direction to gas up at a nearby station (which confused us, were we headed to Mali??) with a slight delay as is so usual there and turning back around to head down the road, we ended up on the east end of Tambacounda where there was another stop.  This stop however, lasted at least 2 hours while the bus crew argued with some men on the road who had caused the stop.  Since we didn't speak the language, we had no idea what the reason for this was.  As we waited, a humorous moment occured when one man tried to engage me in conversation and I could only answer back with extremely limited French and/or Wolof, thus snuffing out any chance of communication.  The one thing that I did intuitively pick up was him asking in French (how I clearly understood this I still don't know), "What kind of person comes to Africa and can't speak the language?"  To him I answered in a newly-learned Bamana word, "Lagalagato!" and circled my finger near my temple to make the international sign for 'crazy', indicating that only a crazy person would come there without knowing the language.  He hardly reacted but I sure thought it was funny!  And he sure didn't try talking to me again which was too bad because I enjoyed the interaction.  The arguing outside the bus went on the entire 2 hours until finally something had been resolved and we suspected there had been some sort of pay off.  After this we wondered why we had run for the bus, only to sit there at the other edge of town for hours as the day heated up. 

Finally, we were on our way and rumbled down the road.  It was an experience for me to see all the baobab trees live rather than in pictures.  They are strange looking trees indeed, but amazing nonetheless.  The anthills were also impressive; those ones that you often see on TV that are 6 or 7 feet tall.  The countryside is so different here that there's no mistaking where you are.  During the morning hours, I'd see the world waking up as I peered curiously out of the bus windows.  Men driving donkey carts with a few women hitching along to head to the morning market, various people starting the daily chores in the small scattered villages, children heading to small rural schools or 'ataya' (strong tea) being prepared on charcoal burners as someone sits outside the front door of their hut.  After maybe 2 or 3 hours of this, we had our first official stop.  This was when the language barrier really became an issue because things were happening and we had no idea what was going on.  Our bus made it's way through this town we approached to a compound where a man in uniform stepped onto the bus and began collecting everyone's passports or papers.  We were very leary about handing over our passports, even to a man in uniform because should anything go wrong, you're facing a lot of trouble.  Once he'd taken every passenger's documents, we were herded into the compound where they had a covered patio with a TV blaring and local street vendors offering drinks and snacks like peanuts.  Many people used a spiggot inside the compound to refill water containers but we refrained not knowing how our bodies would handle local water.  We all waited as our names were called and declared our occupations.  As U.S. citizens, we faced a lot less scrutiny than the Africans from other countries.  As my name was called, I went into the little office and he compared my picture with my face, asked my occupation (secretary) and handed my passport back to me.  Then, I was free to go.  I waited for my friend and we walked a short distance down the road to a shop and bought water and sodas and contemplated an egg sandwich, quickly deciding against it for whatever reason we had at the time.  We waited for this procedure for the whole bus and started to figure out that some of the Africans didn't have all the necessary paperwork and therefore had to pay their way through.  The bus turned around and parked in front of the store we had been at and finally we all boarded and were on our way again. 

A very short time down the road, we came to yet another stop and frustration began to set in.  Why couldn't we just get there damn it??  This is when it also became very apparent how much more patient and stoic Africans are than us.  We had literally not gone even 10 minutes down the road when this next stop came.  It was a lunch/prayer stop.  Here we had another 2 hours to kill in the heat and wait.  Most passengers got off and found some shade to hang out or nap under.  Others went to the next door vendors and picked up necessary items or had lunch.  We couldn't even ask for food since we didn't know what to ask for.  We got off to walk around for a few minutes and spent the remainder of the time on the bus, praying for a breeze which only came at extended intervals.  When we were on our way once again, the irritation subsided and we were happy to be moving again. 

Some time in the mid to late afternoon, we came to the Senegal/Mali border.  Here, our passports were collected again and we went through a similar process as the previous stop except this time our passports were stamped and we were officially in Mali according to that.  We got through fairly quickly but this time, there was more delay because of the 'undocumented' people bargaining their way across the border.  They had to pay more money or stay behind and all of this haggling caused us to sit for another couple hours.  I was surprised at how unofficial the border of a country appeared.  The road was blocked by oil barrels and that was the only barrier to entering Mali.  I found this amusing and had to take a picture.  When the barrels were moved aside and we finally crossed the 'border', approximately a quarter mile down the road we did see the official border structure which looked something like a truck scale in the U.S.  Of course, there didn't seem to be anyone manning that post so we drove right around and continued on.  Our business had concluded at the previous stop.  Even though it was only late afternoon by this time, it felt like an entire day's journey already.  We continued on until the early evening as the sun prepared to set.

o_mendfornd says:
I'm not sure it should be the natural reaction, but I'm jealous! I'm really keen to do a trip to Africa.
Posted on: Dec 03, 2007
johnyb66 says:
great story, Im glad i will be in my own vehicle. But I will learn to be patient
Posted on: Oct 28, 2007
sylviandavid says:
It sounds so hot ... you did well... the main thing was finding water... good blog. sylvia
Posted on: Oct 26, 2007
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At the Senegal/Mali border
At the Senegal/Mali border