Classes began at Point Sud this week, so it was finally time for us to learn how to navigate this crazy city. Which, I have to say, is quite a task. Overall I feel quite safe in Bamako. The people are friendly, the atmosphere warm, and I am constantly surrounded by friends, peers, and mentors. The only thing that does scare me, is the traffic. There aren’t (as far as I can tell) many traffic laws. Or if there are, they aren’t well enforced. Many of the streets don’t have lane markers, so the streets become a jungle filled with drivers trying to get to their destinations in a timely fashion. People will often pull in and out and turn with little warning, giving the other drivers two choices: let them by, or hit them. There are also TONS of motorcycles. China started exporting them to Mali and they are super popular, particularly because they are cheap and you don’t need a license or permit to drive them. Or, if you do, the authorities don’t enforce it often. Cherif and Dragos expressly forbid us from rising them, and I witnessed why the other day. We were leaving Point Sud, and a car was pulling out onto a busy street when its rear grazed a passing “moto”. The man driving wasn’t going to fast, but the moto ended up landing on top of him and he broke his foot/ankle. People had to help carry him and his bike off the road. Unfortunately, accidents like this (and worse) are really common here.
The French word for traffic is “congestion” (totally love that), and Bamako constantly has a serious sinus infection. Crossing the streets is a total nightmare. Drivers don’t really look for pedestrians, or stop for them, or really heed them at all unless they are right in front of their vehicle. So, you have to wait…and wait…and wait…and then sprint across when you see an opening and hope no one hits you. It’s complete pandemonium and utterly terrifying. The Bamakoan pedestrian must employ constant vigilance at all times. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!!! To put things in perspective for you other world travellers, Roman streets are a public pool and Bamakoan streets are the ocean.
And then there are the sotramas. Public transportation Mali style. I should maybe start by stating the obvious, these would NEVER fly in the US. NEVER. They are basically very old and tired green vans (which are also often falling apart) that have been stripped with a wooden bench placed along the interior perimeter and two bars along the ceiling. They are operated usually by 2 men: the driver and the approntie (sp?) or “prontike” for short. The prontike is usually young, no older than say… 25, and is responsible for yelling out the stops to passerby, alerting the driver when to stop/start, collecting money, and bothering his passengers. There also seems to be a rule that the prontike cannot enter or exit the sotrama without it being in motion. The sotrama take many different routes in Bamako, so they are usually pretty reliable. The trick is, they have neither designated stops nor distinguishing external features (save the approntie yelling the destination out the window, so you have to know which sotrama you want, know where they typically tend to pullover, and learn how to flag them down. After that you can climb in, pay, and signal the prontike where you want to get off.
Now, the ceilings of the sotrama are very low and you have to sit on the sotrama, so often you have to wait for one that is less crowded (sometimes if it’s really full the prontike will refuse to pull over), and when you do get on, inevitably everyone’s squeezed in much more cozily than they’d like. An empty sotrama is a luxury. But they are ridiculously cheap and often provide interesting social experiences. The last time I rode one, a guy asked Matt which of us girls was his wife. Haley lied and said we were all his wives, so by the end of the ride he was jokingly asking Matt to give one of us to him….thankfully he didn’t. Another time we hit a car and had to stop a few moments to sort things out. And then another time, when Cherif rented a sotrama to take us all to a conference, the police stopped us and wanted us to pay them because we were at the “maximum capacity”. (Really they just saw white people and smelled cash…Cherif was not pleased. That said, apparently the president has said that the government has no money for the police and that they have to fend for themselves…so it’s maybe slightly excusable? All the same, it’s not curious how there are so many accidents here…)
So yes, sotrama are…fun. Interesting to say the least. As is everything here. The bottom line is I’m still scared to take them alone. I walked home from Point Sud today to avoid it…and because I wanted to see how far it was. Turns out it’s pretty far! About an hour’s walk! I got really tired at one point and was constantly stressing about whether I was in the right spot, so that probably added some time… At any rate, it was good exercise! And I didn’t get lost! And I know I can do that now/know where things are. And it was my own little independent Malian adventure! That said I think I’ll take my chances with the sotrama next time…I nearly passed out when I got home from exhaustion. All that heat and dust and car exhaust really gets to you. And the whole hyper-vigilant “If I get lost I’m screwed,” thing. That helps too. But as I said, all is well.
We leave for Segou tomorrow! City of Malian history and also apparently home to a really nice hotel! I can deal with that! So if I disappear for a while, that’s why. Miss you all! Bon weekend!