Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Holiday Season One Year Later

With Aunt Pam and Mom in front of the Sacre Coeur Basilica
On this day last year, I sat in a Baptist Missionary guesthouse in Bamako listening to Christmas music, reflecting, and writing a blog entry about the past month full of holidays.  One year later, the setting is different (I’m cuddling on the couch in Indiana with our puppy, Echo), the subject matter has evolved to an extent, but the soundtrack is the same!  Much has changed in the past year, and I am thankful for all of the experiences I’ve had and the many interesting people who have come into my life in Mali, the US, and in between!

After a great week in Paris with my mom and my aunt, I have finally reached Indiana, where I will stay for the upcoming holidays.  The 8 hour flight from Paris to New York seemed like a breeze compared to the “hop” from NYC to Indy- a two hour flight in a small plane that seemed like it took an eternity!  Return greetings were sweet- from my dad, my visiting brother, Abe, a younger brother, Griffin, and the 1 year old puppy I got to meet for the first time!  Dinner at Chief’s was delicious, as always, and it felt great to be home!  The rest of the night was a blur of fun as friends came out to “my” bar (it’s called “Moore’s Bar”) with a banner and a lot of energy to welcome me back. 

Kendi and Anna made me a banner!  So sweet!
The whole week was a busy one- visiting with all 3 brothers who came home for Thanksgiving, seeing my grandmother and other family, running around in Greencastle and Indianapolis, seeing loads of friends that I haven’t seen in ages, and just roaming around Greencastle to take in the changes (certainly no huge ones) that have taken place in the past 14 months.  I really enjoyed all of the reunions and activity that took place last week, but it is nice to settle down a little now and take care of “business.”  This week means 4 doctor’s appointments in 5 days.  It means lots of bonding time at home with Echo, and lots of time to spend organizing my room… though that is taking place little by little.  If you’re around Indiana this week or in the coming weeks, please drop me a line- I’d love to get coffee or visit with you!
Happy to be reunited with 2 of my bros- Griffin and Abe

Of course, Mali is never far from my mind as I consider the things I’m thankful for.  Just this morning I got a sweet e-mail from my good friend, Yaya.  I also was sure to facebook stalk all of the Thanksgiving photos from Bamako and sad to miss the birthday of a fabulous Brazilian friend!  Aside from celebrations in Bamako, the past week has been eventful in Mali in another way.  Last week, in two separate acts, 5 expatriates from Europe were taken hostage in the north of Mali, and a German man was killed as he resisted attackers.  I am including several articles explaining things further, but at this point, there are still many questions.  My reactions are as follows:  1- I am thankful that all of my friends and 'connaissances' in Mali are safe.  Those in Bamako report few changes, and that is a good thing.  2- My thoughts go out to the relatives of the tourists from Timbuktu.  3- I realize how little I know about things going on in Northern Mali and about the politics between Mali and France.  The 4th link at the bottom of this post gets into these issues… with so many actors and so many shifting allegiances, it is hard for me to keep things straight.  4- I feel for the country of Mali and for Peace Corps Mali, more specifically.  I know that in light of recent events, already low tourism levels will sag even further, straining the livelihoods of many artists, guides, etc.  And, I worry about the fate of Peace Corps Mali- already restricted to a small part of the country, but still one of the largest groups of volunteers in West Africa.  This program has introduced me to a lot of great people in Mali, and I know that the last thing these volunteers want is to see Mali closed to such a program.  

I encourage you all to read the articles above, but also to consult the map of Mali in the picture I’ve included.  Please notice that Timbuktu and Hombori are both far from where I live in Bamako.  Similar events are not likely to take place where I live.  My aim is not to alarm friends and family, but rather to share this information and draw attention to how complicated things have become in Northern Mali.  This is another reminder of how thankful I should be about my safety abroad and the lifestyle I am able to lead- both in Bamako and in Indiana. 

Reasons to Give Thanks
  1. My bed- I had forgotten, in my absence, how comfortable my mattress is!  I have never been cozier than under my quilts in bed these past few nights.  I’m also pretty lucky that this nice mattress is in a warm, happy house! 
  2. Movie stores- since I am pretty incapable of negotiating downloading sites, streaming video, or figuring out IP addresses, I love a good movie rental.  I am catching up on all of the “new” to me titles now that I’m back home near a Family Video.
  3. SunKing Brewery- I know it is a little silly to be thankful for beer… but I am!  After a year of struggling to choose between Castel, Flag, and Beaufort, it’s great to be back in the land of plenty when it comes to brew varieties.  Last week, I got to go to a tasting at an Indianapolis brewery that is seriously on fire now!  The young business started by a couple of Abe’s brewing friends won 8 awards at the Great American Beer Festival and is quickly picking up followers in the Midwest and beyond (the alehouse in Denver where Abe works really wants their beer!).  Now it actually is hard to choose what to have when I’m in the store…  
  4. The nice surveyors I met this morning on my dog walk- they didn’t mind when Echo bounded up and nearly knocked them over… all for a belly rub and some slobbery kisses.  I appreciate the general friendliness I often find around town.  I realized that in a big city I’d never be able to walk a rambunctious puppy on the street the way that I walked with Echo today.  Wide open spaces and minimal traffic aren’t always exciting, but they sure are nice to have when you’ve got a black furball straining at the other end of your leash…
  5.  Welcome home banners- or dinners, or drinks, or hugs.  Whatever it is, the welcoming responses I’ve had over the past week have been really encouraging and made me feel good to be back in town.  After being a little apprehensive about what my return would really be like, I am more at ease knowing that people are pleased to see me.  It really doesn’t feel like I’ve even been gone!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mali on the Move...

I am writing this post from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.  Right now, all I can see out the window is a mattress of cotton-like clouds, but a few minutes ago, I think I saw a very frigid looking, ice crusted ocean.  To be honest, I haven’t been making much use of my window seat because it’s too bright outside and up until this point, I’ve really only been concerned with sleeping (and eating, of course).  I cannot believe that within a few hours I will be back in Indiana and ready to eat dinner at Chief’s with my family and friends!  A quick aside to just say that travel capabilities these days are pretty crazy!  For example, former president, Bill Clinton, recently visited my hometown, and the local newspaper reported that he had started his day in New York but was flying in from Chicago for the engagement.  I’m not sure where he was headed afterwards, but I have a feeling he wasn’t spending his Friday night in Greencastle… so that means he made it to a fourth city across the country somewhere- all in one day!  The fact that this is possible… or that I can go from Mali to France to Greencastle in a matter of hours is pretty insane.  While the physical change in location is quick and easy, it’s the mental change of place that is a little harder….

Dogon masks and art at Musee du Quai Branly
When I arrived in France a couple weeks ago, I was sad to have left Mali, but ready to be in a place where I didn’t have to show the tailor how to measure the curtains I wanted, only to have to have them re-made because he didn’t follow the measurements we’d hashed out together (for example).  But the grass always seems to be greener on the other side, right?  The same expression exists in France- it’s always greener in the neighbor’s lawn!  So, as I arrived in Paris, excited to see my friend, Elise, and enjoy small luxuries like sushi, reliable public transportation, and real shopping, I was also already missing Mali a bit.  I missed the fact that there, when you enter a room or even a bus, everyone greets you.  I missed practicing my Bambara and laughing with people in the market and was really dismayed by a frigid salesgirl at H&M.  And believe it or not, I even missed rice and sauce… but maybe that was just early nostalgia or something.  I think the biggest issue was that I didn’t feel at home in Paris the way I feel now in Mali (duh!), so when I found little tastes of West Africa tucked into the folds of the city, I considered them bright points in the day. 

For example, I spent a couple of afternoons looking at African Art in a museum setting.  The Musée Dapper has a great collection of Bambara and Dogon masks that I got to see in an exhibit celebrating Masquerades and Carnivals.  I found more Dogon works at the Musée du Quai Branly (as well as some interesting stuff from other parts of the continent, and a cool exhibit on Maori art and culture).  But, these wooden works just weren’t enough, so I set off to look for African cuisine in the 18th arrondissement.  After walking around for quite a while, poking my head into a few wax print fabric shops (people- they had pagne selling for 80 euro!??!) and not really feeling especially excited about the excursion, I went into a supermarket in search of some water and peanuts to snack on.  There I met one Mr. Keita, a terice from the Korofina neighborhood of Bamako!  While looking sharp in a suit and preventing theft in the store, Mr. Keita seemed to be speaking Bambara, so as I passed through the check-out line with my snacks, I strained my ears for confirmation or what I hoped I was hearing.  “Haketo,” I ventured, “I be bamanankan fo?” (Excuse me—do you speak Bambara?).  “Eih!”  Was all the confirmation I needed to know that I had gotten it right!  We had a really pleasant chat and I left with a smile on my face and a restaurant destination in mind.
Peanut sauce- yum!
Serving up some Tiga Dege
Like most African restaurants, the place I found just around the corner using Mr. Keita’s directions didn’t have a single thing listed on the menu in the window, and the only option at the moment was thiebou djenne, the Senegalese version of fried rice that Malians call Zamé.  I took a pass and shared some peanuts with one of the cooks outside.  Then I stuck to the side streets and managed to find a little market section of the neighborhood.  I was really craving tiga dege (peanut sauce), so I decided I’d look for the ingredients and cook it myself.   I knew I was on the right track when I started to see women on the sidewalks selling veggies… Without the haggling excitement, interesting smells, or mud puddles of a Malian market, I found all of the ingredients I needed, and managed to purchase them from a Malian store owner.  Even in France, the African market seemed dominated by Chinese goods.  Chinese shopowners are well established (more so than in Mali, even), and most of the boutiques selling Maggi, yams, aubergines, dried okra, and the like were Chinese owned.  I think Chinese influence in Africa (and elsewhere) is a topic for another time… but here it’s enough to say that I was happy to find a Malian salesguy to sell me my cabbage and interested to note the Chinese presence in Africa away even from Africa…

I took my ingredients home to Elise’s and made a big pot full of tiga dege.  In an effort to spice things up a bit, I got a little eager with the foronton pepper, and made the sauce much spicier than Malian taste would allow… aside from that little kick, I felt quite proud of my cooking and sharing skills.  My sauce was better than the Ivorien mafé version I tasted later in my stay… but more on that later.  

Enjoying polser sausages with Cecilia
Dressed as Jewel and Velvet for "Bad Taste" party

Following my cooking experiment, I hopped a plane to Denmark to see my friend, Cecilia!  We met last spring in Bamako and now she’s sporting her chic wax print dresses back in Denmark where she is working on her master’s degree at the Copenhagen Business School.  It was so wonderful to see her and to get to learn about her city and her life away from Mali.  So often, I feel like people get to know one half of my life when I’m in Bamako (and vice versa), but without seeing them in “the real world” I feel like I miss out on other important and exciting things, so it was really cool to meet Cecilia’s friends and sister and to see her school, etc.  Though Denmark was cold, the bike rides, hot polser (sausages), and company made the trip more than worth it!  Though I didn’t see much African influence in Denmark (too cold for even a non- Nordic person, if you ask me!), I did get to have a great discussion about Africa, birth control, immigration, and more with Cecilia’s roommate, who is an old friend from school in Benin, where Cecilia lived during grade school.  Maybe the camaraderie and sense of community that I love so much in Mali manages to rub off on us expats who live there for a while and even survives a return to our home countries…

After sending Cecilia’s sister off to Bamako (with appropriately long skirts) and enjoying a taste of life in Copenhagen, I got back on a plane and returned to Paris.  I found my mom and my aunt in the airport, and we set out to take Paris by storm… after spending most of that Sunday catching up on sleep… In typical fashion, by the time we managed to get ourselves out of bed and ready to face the day, it was no longer day!  We found ourselves hungry and bored on a Sunday evening, which doesn’t leave you with a lot of options in Paris (where most everything is closed all day on Sunday).  We wandered several blocks south of our apartment and every possible food option in sight was closed.  Even one restaurant with a neon light flashing out front only served to trick us and get our hopes up.  Just as we were about to jump ship, turn around, and look for another street with possible dining options, we ran across a lively restaurant packed with diners.  And what do you know… it was West African!

With Elise getting excited to see Vieux!
After a look at the menu in the window (I know… risky), we decided it was our best option and found a free spot at the end of the only somewhat empty table.  We shared with a French guy and his beer, and managed to find out that there was yassa poulet, mafe poulet, capitaine, chicken wings, or lamb available for the evening.  I suggested the yassa (a sweeter onion/veggie filled sauce usually with a bit of lemon juice and mustard) or mafe (peanut sauce, with a different name) because I love both sauces and think they’re pretty universally appealing (no snotty okra sauce or fakouhy).  I ordered capitaine and aloko (fish and fried plantains) for myself, and we settled in to talk and enjoy the “ambiance.”  During the hour and a half we waited for our food (it was an African place after all- Ivorien to be exact), we made friends with some neighbors (photographers from Congo) and witnessed a failed little barroom brawl… and we got tired and grumpy and HUNGRY.  I’m sad to report that this was the one real fail of my African encounters in Europe… we finally got our food hours later, and it was bad.  Not just –ehh- it was BAD.  I could have made better mafe, yassa, and capitaine.  A sad foray into African food for my mom and aunt, I must say.  But they were good sports about the whole thing and we eventually ate something.  And hey- the aloko was great!
Sparkling smile
I think our next encounter with West Africa redeemed the sad food experience… On Monday night, we set out for a little local music venue to see none other than Vieux Farka Touré, Malian guitarist extraordinaire!  Son of deceased musician and Grammy winner, Ali Farka Touré, Vieux has really hit the big time recently and has recently collaborated with Dave Matthews on his new album.  Always one of my favorite artists to see in concert, Vieux did not disappoint his Monday night crowd!  The concert was amazing and even Mom and Aunt Pam were rocking towards the end.  We got the pleasure of hearing a couple of guest artists who jammed with Vieux for a song or two and really got a treat seeing him so up close and personal pretty far away from Mali!

African recycled art at Centre Georges Pompidou
During the rest of the week, we entered full tourism mode, and I was enjoying the Parisian side of Paris with my family.  However, that didn’t keep me from noticing little things that reminded me of Mali.  While visiting shops along the Champs Elysees on a Saturday afternoon, a wedding procession passed us- horns blaring, lights flashing, and camera man hanging out the window to capture it all.  What could be more reminiscent of a “Dimanche à Bamako?”  Perhaps the happy couple posing for photos in front of the obelesque monument at the Place de la Concorde?  J  Even the grocery by our apartment and the metro running closest to our house brought us into contact with Africans living in Paris.  I had a wonderful conversation with 2 former Bamakois on the Line 7 about malaria, research, and my Bambara skills (or lack thereof).  There’s just something nice about exchanging blessings and having a friendly conversation on public transport that made me feel more at home and more comfortable in Paris. 

I came home with a suitcase that looked suspiciously like these
As we approach New York City and my return to US soil for the first time in almost 14 months, I am filled with excitement and anxiety about my return home.  I can’t wait to see my dad and brother(s) at the airport, I have been mentally planning my dinner at Chief’s for the past several days, and I don’t care how long I’ve been up, I plan to drink some real American beer tonight with some of my best friends that I haven’t seen in ages!  But, I know that it will be harder for me to find those little slivers of Mali and Africa in Greencastle that I enjoy so much.  I know I won’t have Cecilia or another friend from Mali to reminisce with.  And I feel like this other very important half of my life might be hard to integrate with my “other life” in Mali.  I am lucky that I will have many great friends to welcome me home and keep me busy over the next month or two and that I am coming home to a small community where there is a sense of neighborliness and friendliness (mostly).  Plus, I only have to hold out for so long for another real taste of Mali, with my return to Bamako tentatively planned for January.  However, I apologize in advance for the amount of talking, reminiscing, and comparing I will almost certainly do when it comes to Mali.  I look forward to catching up with everyone I’ve missed, but I know I’ll also be trying to meld my Mali experiences with my Indiana life and I’ll always be on the lookout for any of those characteristics or traits that make me feel more at “home,” even in my own hometown.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

La Vie à Paris

Life in Paris…. Is quite different from life in Bamako !  I arrived in Paris one week ago today, and I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the things I am still getting used to… in list form:
Evening snack and drink on the river with Elise
  1.  Public transportation: A bit of a stranger to public transport as it is (it doesn’t exist in Greencastle, or really in Indiana for that matter), it always takes me a while to get used to taking the metro or bus around town in a new city.  There is something about taking the metro that makes me feel special and fancy- quite important, even.  This past week on the metro, I have done a lot of people watching.  I’ve seen children traveling alone or with parents or babysitters, people with dogs, people with strollers and suitcases, fancy Parisian women and hipster teenagers.  When you think about it, it’s not so different from taking  a Sotrama in Bamako… full of people, sometimes with animals, often with children and things to carry…. But I guess the similarities kind of end there….
  2. Being anonymous: This was something I was really looking forward to by the time I left Mali.  I was excited about the idea of walking into a café and getting a coffee without being stared at or approached.  Of course, sometimes it’s fun and to my benefit to receive special attention in Bamako, but sometimes it’s nice to feel like I’m just one of the crowd and to be able to blend in and relax in a public place. 
  3. The cold:  It’s November in Paris… need I say more?  I have a lightweight jacket that I bought in Bamako (for 1,000cfa or about $2) and a couple pairs of tennis shoes, but I am really helplessly underprepared for the weather here.  I feel like a frumpy American in my Chuck Taylors and wish I had found more sweaters and pants at the American garage sale (where I bought almost all of the clothes I brought here with me)
  4. Prices: I am really suffering from sticker shock here.  I think this is understandable for most travelers to Paris, since it is a big city and one of the most expensive in Europe.  However, coming from a place where I pay 50cents for a meal and $2 for a coat, it’s hard to get used to the idea of spending 4euro for a coffee or 10-15 euro for a cheap t-shirt.  I’m sure this will get easier with time, but it’s an adjustment for sure. 
I might be missing Mali already, but I found Mali in Paris at the
Branly museum!

Things I’ve been missing already:
  1.  Malian hospitality:  When I arrived in Paris last Tuesday, I had 2 backpacks, a 50 pound plastic bag “suitcase,” a tote bag, and a painting to carry from the airport to my friend’s apartment on my own.  It took a couple hours, a train, and a few metro changes to get there.  By the end of the journey, my hands hurt from carrying the bags, I was sweating despite the autumn chill in the air, and I was ready to cry if I saw another set of stairs to conquer.  It was finally at this point that 2 girls my age took pity on me and carried my 50lb bag up a set of stairs and on and off a metro for me- between the two of them.  But… they were Spanish!  They sympathized with me because they, too, knew what it was like to move and to essentially carry a year of your life (or more) on your back.  I  was giving up hope entirely on finding any French hospitality when I found it at my last metro exchange… A young French guy getting off at my stop saw me struggling on the stairs- leaving one bag at the bottom while I carried others to the top and then came back for the rest.  He struggled with my Malian “suitcase” up the stairs and down the street while I searched for Elise’s apartment.  When he came back an hour later and found me sitting in a café because I couldn’t reach Elise, he gave me his phone number and told me to call if I didn’t have luck reaching my friend.  Thanks, Antony, for boosting my spirits and restoring my confidence in French hospitality.
  2. The sun:  Though Paris is a beautiful city, it hasn’t been quite as lovely this past week because the sun has not been shining.  Maybe when my mom and aunt arrive, they will bring the sun with them. 
  3. Rice and sauce:  Is it possible?  I never thought I would miss eating rice and sauce day in and day out, but I do miss a good tiga dege!  My mission today is to find a great place to get one in Paris…

Things I’m loving… not a comprehensive list, of course:
With Rajai in the main square of Le Mans
  1. Seeing old friends- It has been wonderful to catch up with Elise, a friend from high school when she came to Greencastle as an exchange student.  She has offered me a place to stay, entertained me, taken me out with her friends, cooked me dinner, and organized a trip with her mother and friends to tour one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe!  What a wonderful hostess and a fun person to be with!  Rajai traveled to meet me, as well, and we spent a wonderful day together exploring Le Mans.  He surprised me by taking me to a Dogon art exhibit (they live in Northern/Eastern Mali) and we had a lot of fun catching up and wandering through the old part of town- a medieval section that actually appears in a lot of films!
  2. Good coffee:  This one is pretty self explanatory.  It may be 4 euros a cup, but it’s warm and delicious… and not Nescafe! 
  3. The park Buttes Chaumont:  The biggest park in Paris is just a few blocks from where I’m staying!  It is a gorgeous hilly park with a waterfall, a temple look out point with a great view, and lots of trees and fall colors (not like Indiana, but beautiful in its own right).  I have had the chance to run there a couple of mornings this past week and it is just great to see other joggers, couples walking, kids on field trips, and people with their dogs! 
  4. Cheese: I looooove cheese, and it’s so much cheaper here than in Bamako!  I even ate some for breakfast this morning…
  5. Late afternoon drinks:  Most days that I’ve been here, Elise and I have bought beers and peanuts around 4 or 5 and found a place to sit and have a drink outside for an hour or so.  It’s such a nice way to relax and do a little people watching and catch up after a long day.  While the pace of life is faster here than in Mali, I find that there are still nice periods of relaxation built into the day for most people!

I hope my lists don’t obscure the fact that I am really enjoying myself.  I have already visited a couple of places outside of Paris (Le Mans and the Chartres Cathedral) and made my way to several museums (Le Musée de quai Branly, Musée Dapper, and an outdoor photo exhibit) and relaxed with coffees and beers at cafés in the late afternoon.  I am having a great time visiting with my friend, Elise, and really appreciate all of her hospitality!  I’m looking forward to more new experiences as I visit Denmark and see my friend, Cecilia, for a couple of days and then as I share Paris with my mom and my aunt next week!  Look for more updates soon!

Inside the cathedral
Cathedral de Chartres
Find more photos from my trip here: https://picasaweb.google.com/104987570167325122204/November2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Coming Home

It is hard for me to believe that one month ago today, I was in Ghana on vacation.  It feels like just yesterday that I was dreading the 30+ hour bus ride, looking forward to time at the beach, and anxious about running a half marathon and traveling with a group of people I’d really never met before.  But, as always, time has slipped away from me as it has a tricky way of doing here.  In that month (and the month or so leading up to the trip when I was busy not blogging), much has happened- new friends have arrived in Mali and others have left.  I got malaria, I got better.  I ran a lot.  I watched professional soccer and basketball.  I cooked some good dinners.  I shopped.  I spent time with friends.  I took short trips outside of Bamako.  I saw a couple concerts.  I sang karaoke.  Here’s a recap of Ghana et. al.

All the ladies at the Green Turtle!  Ready to eat some lobster!
Boarding the bus for Ghana, I knew a bit about what to expect.  After traveling to Burkina Faso with Zak in February, I knew I was in for a long, unpredictable, somewhat uncomfortable ride.  I arrived at the bus station armed with several essentials in my “carry on”- a bug net (for sleeping outside when the bus stopped at night… no way you’re keeping me on a hot stinky bus to try and sleep), a piece of fabric called a pagne (an all purpose item used as a blanket, a towel, a seat cover for dirty seats, etc), a fleece (it can get chilly at night), and a scarf (also known as a blanket, pillow, jacket, and of course an essential fashion accessory).  I shouldn’t have worried so much about the ride.  It went pretty smoothly, and my traveling companions were great. 

I traveled with a fun group of female Peace Corps volunteers from Mali.  When a new friend, Ashley, told me she was going to Ghana a couple months ago at a party, I expressed interest and she invited me along.  I’m not sure if she knew how serious I was about really coming, but we made it happen!  Unfortunately, she got sick right before the trip and had to delay her departure, but her 10 girl friends who rode the bus with me welcomed me warmly.

Morning coffee and a journal entry looking out at the beach!
Once in Ghana, we visited Kumasi, Takoradi, The Green Turtle beach retreat, Kakum National Park, Cape Coast, and Accra.  I enjoyed different places for different reasons, but I really loved The Green Turtle and Cape Coast.  The days spent at the Green Turtle were blissful sun-filled beach days: reading, relaxing, basking in the sun and the ocean.  I ate lobster for less than $3 on a couple occasions, ran along the water’s edge in the mornings, drank coffee and wrote in my journal while enjoying an amazing ocean view.  You just can’t beat the sound of the waves when you’re lying in bed relaxing after a day of fun in the sun.  It really was quite a relaxing retreat, and all very private.  We had a great time being beach bums together!

Inside the Cape Coast Castle's old slave quarters
Cape Coast was our next stop after the beach and it was a vibrant lively juxtaposition to the calm ocean tides.  This city has character!  We stayed in a great hostel on the water’s edge where we danced at the bar at night and could walk to the nearby shops and the Cape Coast Castle.  I spent a sobering afternoon there with some of the other girls visiting former slave dungeons, beautiful officers quarters, and a church that were all housed under the same roof.  Unbelievable how that worked!  The rest of the time in Cape Coast, though, was bustling with walks through the market, a drum and dance show during dinner, and meeting local friends at the hostel bar.

At the Cape Coast Castle- Obama was here!
Before leaving Cape Coast, we made a brief foray into the leafy greenery of Kakum National Park.  There, we tackled fears of heights and visited on of 7 rope bridge canopies in the world!  This one was built by Canadians and has 7 sections making it the longest and highest bridge of its kind (according to our guide, William).  We posed for photos and tried the cocoa fruit... not as good as chocolate.  It was great to be in a rainforest, and as you walked along the canopy it really felt like you were traveling on tree tops!

After Cape Coast we moved on to Accra.  After a frustrating bus ride, and a not so friendly welcome to the city, I made it with 5 of my travel mates to a beautiful Peace Corps guesthouse on one edge of town.  We relaxed, slept well, and ate a great home cooked breakfast a day before our upcoming race, which was just what I needed!  When we left the calm of the guesthouse, we moved to a gorgeous beach front hotel close to the race course that a sponsor for our group paid for!  Ashley worked magic by getting a business owning friend from home to sponsor our “team,” paying for shirts, travel snacks, and two nights at the African Royal Beach Hotel!  It was gorgeous.

With Lena on the rope bridge at Kakum National Park
Race day came and things went better than expected.  We managed to start only 30 minutes behind schedule, though I was still talking to someone when they unexpectedly fired the gun and started us off.  After I got my bearings I settled into a nice pace with a couple of running buddies, Traci and Tim.  Thanks to the GPS watches and magnificent pacing and encouragement from those two, I did much better than I ever would have done on my own.  I think I clocked in at 2 hours and 5 minutes.  Not bad considering my recent illness and lack of serious training!  We crossed the finish line under a seriously brutal morning sun, and I drank fresh coconut water and cheered on other runners as they finished. 

More “vacation” followed!  A day by the pool, a little birthday celebration at the hotel for Ashley, an early night sleeping in a very comfy bed (I was out by 9pm!!), and then a foray into the heart of Accra for a day of shopping and eating well!  We really left Accra with a bang, partying in a bar that the owner opened on an “off” night, just for us!  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the sushi I got to eat, the delicious cup of coffee I had in a cute little café, and the whirlwind spending spree I managed to create.  Accra is a big city!  It felt so much more like a city than Bamako does.  It sprawls like Bamako, but also has real buildings that are imposing and tall, sidewalks, parks, and trash cans on street corners!  It suffers from the same terrible traffic woes that you find in the heart of Bamako, but Accra really felt like a different kind of Africa!
So excited for sushi!!

The whole trip was a pretty interesting an refreshing break from some parts of Malian life.  I found it convenient but odd to operate in English and really felt that so many things I hear in French regularly here just sound harsher in my native tongue.  For example:  A taxi driver honks at me and says “Tu vas ou?” in Bamako- “Where are you going?”  But when the same thing happened in Ghana, and the driver barked his inquiry at me without greeting or partaking in any pleasantries to start with, I just felt so much more offended.  It’s funny how that works.  Taxi drivers were about the same as in Bamako, but religious references were wholly different on the coast.  Christianity could be felt through signs and boutique names (“Accept God” or “Except God” haha, “Jesus is Above All”), and really a lack of Islamic majority was what I noticed.  No headscarves on women, knees exposed, open drinking, and a more “loose” feeling lifestyle.

Our jenky bus... Delissa gets rained on through the roof.
But, by the end of the trip, I began to miss some of the Mali specific things- even the ones that drive me crazy on a regular basis in Bamako.  I began to receive messages from friends back here and I really was ready to come home.  The bus ride back to Mali was a slightly less pleasant experience with several breakdowns- one within the first hour of travel!  But, we all made it in one piece.  Yes, we were grumpy, we hadn’t bathed in days, and we had cankles, but it all worked out in the end.  And honestly, I was so happy to be back.  Zak was at the bus station to greet me, carry my bags, and drive me home for a good meal and a hot shower.  I got to sleep in a comfortable bed, have my own space and privacy, see my good friends, and relax after a vacation that ended a bit stressfully. 

Zak met me at the bus from Ghana and the next week he took
me for a little break from Bamako in Selingue.
I realized during my trip to Ghana that Bamako is home for me.  It’s no shock, I guess, since I’ve been living here for 13 months now.  But, nevertheless, I felt a change in perspective during that trip.  Bamako isn’t just the place where I live- it’s my home.   When I consider what I’ll be doing in the next few months, I realized that if I leave Mali for good, I will have to make a new home somewhere else- a realization that also put into perspective the appreciation I have for this place and my life here.  Sure, I still yell in traffic (but I’m getting better!), get annoyed when I get heckled during runs, and often miss people who value punctuality, but I’ve accepted those differences as part of my reality and in some ways they’ve become frighteningly “normal.” 

Back home and being social- with Barbara at karaoke!
All that being said, it is time for me to leave my home here and return to the home where I grew up.  Plans for my departure are well under way, and all the tickets have been purchased!  Tonight I will host my friends and “family” in Bamako for a ‘house cooling party’ (what is the opposite of housewarming?) and this week I will begin the tedious tasks of laundry, cleaning, packing and organizing.  I am really looking forward to a few weeks of visiting and vacationing in Europe, followed by a much anticipated return to the US (Where will you be in late November, through December?  Let me know!), but I must admit that the reality hasn’t really seemed to sink in yet…  I’m still dreaming of the things I miss (family, friends, running at theNature park, looking nice and not melting, eating BBQ at Chief’s, Mexican food and restaurants in general, calm driving, stupid TV, going to the library, etc.) but having trouble remembering that I will be doing those things in about a month!  It will have to hit me eventually… maybe it will take the cold November air to do so… 

Home sweet home.  My room in my Bamako apartment.
How many places can one call home?  I think many- as long as you feel comfort and a sense of belonging in a place.   Once I arrive in Greencastle to the fall leaves and early Christmas decorations (I’m sure they’re already starting to appear in stores), I know I will feel that sense of ease dropping back into the flow of Indiana life.  I hope that returning to Bamako in the future will inspire the same feelings of familiarity and contentment.  I suppose we shall see (in sh’allah), as a January return to Bamako is in the works.  More on this soon!!  To be continued…. 

**For more Ghana photos check out my September album:https://picasaweb.google.com/104987570167325122204/MaliSeptember2011!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Running Through Ramadan

This evening around 6pm, after a day of apartment hunting with a friend, working on my computer on an NGO project, and catching up with phone calls after the weekend, I psych myself up and set out to run.  I pass by my guardian and his family sitting on their patio downstairs.  “I ni ce,”  I greet them.  “K’an ben sooni.”  I’ll be back soon!  My downstairs neighbor waves at me with a cigarette in his hand- “Wait,” he says to me in French, “I’ll go get my things and then I’ll accompany you on your run.”  “Next time,” I reply, and his laughter follows me out of the courtyard and down to the newly paved road that I call my street.  I didn’t bother to ask if he’d run with the cigarette or without it… 
The newly paved road where I start my runs.  

Moments later, my feet are pounding the pavement and my legs were feeling good.  After missing a long run yesterday due to too much fun and too little sleep the night before (oops), they are feeling fresh and limber.  I pass by the impressive Chinese building (not the embassy, but a consulate?) and the sign for the “Le Manguier” hotel and bar that I’ve wanted to check out since passing it during a run last week.  I head for a boutique a few blocks ahead and hang a left just across from it on to a dirt road that has turned to muddy red slop after a day full of rain and drizzle.  I can’t complain, because I love the overcast sky and the temperate conditions that make this run feel invigorating and comfortable rather than stifling and difficult in the heat of the sun.  

My route takes me past a lot sometimes used as a soccer field and across a small bridge covered in earth.  I choose the wrong path through some brush instead of negotiating puddles and I end up with muddy, squishy tennis shoes.  I turn right where the path leads away from the river to the main road near the Magnambougou market.  I look out for sotrama vans as I cross onto the pavement and start up the hill that will take me to another dirt road and another neighborhood area- I prefer these quieter dirt streets to the busy exhaust filled thoroughfares in the neighborhood… even if they are riddled with rocks and other potential ankle twisters. 
As I wind through the streets I pass the Catholic church belonging to my local quartier and I head back towards the paved road.  My eyes on the street, I look out for potholes, rocks, puddles and streams of water to avoid.  Gradually, I realize that the trickling stream I am watching wash down the street is not clear or muddy, but bright crimson red!  It’s water filled with blood, and I look back to catch a glimpse of an animal being slaughtered outside a family compound.  This is, after all, the last evening of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam.  Families all over the quartier, the city, and most likely the country are sacrificing animals at this time and preparing to break a month of fasting by treating themselves to feasts of meat and other specialties!

Praying at the end of Ramadan in Mali
The past month has flown by.  I had some expectations for my first Ramadan in a Muslim country.  I expected tired and crabby people to cross my path and bring me down.  I was worried about offending people by eating and drinking during the day while they were trying to go without any foods or liquids (including water!).  But, in true Malian fashion, people remained mainly upbeat and understanding about the way things were going this month.  Ramadan doesn’t seem to have such hard, fast rules in Mali.  I met many Muslims drinking tea as usual or waiting to fast until “next week” because they weren’t feeling well.  Granted, fasting is not a requirement of the ill, pregnant, breastfeeding, old or very young, but here there seems to be little outright disapproval of those eligible to fast who might not for a day or two or more.  When I explained to people that I was Christian and that even if I fasted, it would lack the religious significance of their actions (fasting is meant as a way for Muslims to learn about patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God by giving up food, drink, sex, etc.- think a little like Lent), they seemed to understand and excuse me from even trying.  Of course, every once and I while, I ran into the odd person who would tell me I couldn’t handle it or that it would be far too hard.  Those of you who know me understand the power of these words and my need to explain their speaker’s misunderstanding of my capabilities.  To these people, I explained that I was training for a half marathon.  Running many kilometers a day.  Working very hard at sports.  I NEED water, I would explain.  I am strong and physically fit.  But I need water to keep me healthy.  This was a good way to validate my need for food and drink and most people seemed to understand… or at least to accept this explanation.  I guess I could have always just begged sickness….

With my friend, Ryan, after my first half marathon.  April 2010.
But, in fact, I am training for a half marathon.  Next month, I will run through the center of Accra, Ghana with other expats and West Africans to complete my second half marathon (in sh’allah… God willing… ).  I began training at the start of this month of Ramadan and am now up to 10 mile long runs and feeling pretty good about it!  This running has given me my own chances for reflection and thought during a month of reflection and holy focus.  I have discovered beautiful places in my own neighborhood that I never would have found by car, enjoyed the rain and the cool weather, cleared my head, felt healthy, and even established a bit of a routine. 

My favorite times to run are early on weekend mornings and around seven in the evenings on weekdays.  These are the quietest times in my neighborhood and the surrounding quartiers and also the coolest times of the day (for those of us who aren’t willing to get up at 5 or 6 am or run late late after dinner around 10).  Running at these times helps me avoid the most potent exhaust fumes and the most congested times when narrow roadways are filled with pedestrians, motos, and cars.  I hear far fewer chants of “Toubabou!!” (white person!) and am far less likely to be nearly run down by motos (it has happened, sadly enough, even on wide roads).  If I never have to hear a child yell “bobaraba” at me again, I will not be disappointed (this means “big bootie” or “fat ass,” depending on how much benefit of the doubt you give to the namecaller). 
Ordered new shoes!  I hope they get here soon!

Long runs on the weekends bring the added benefit of variety- I can go places that I can’t make it to during shorter runs throughout the week.  I most enjoy running out past the Magnambougou market to the road leading to the third bridge that is almost ready for inauguration and traffic (or at least it looks that way to my non-engineering eye).  As you reach this route, there is a small turn off on a dirt road running towards the river.  The road takes you over a bridge, onto a concrete platform, across a one-person-wide pier and onto a dyke that runs east with the river creating a canal between it and the shore next to the road.  This dirt path is wide enough for cars, but only hosts motos, cyclists, and pedestrians, and is not often highly populated at 7:30am on Saturdays or Sundays.  The wind, the sound of water rushing under a small dam, and the bird calls and chirping bugs are the closest semblances to the beach I have found here in Bamako.  While I run on this strip of land, I enter a state of Zen that I don’t even allow reckless motos to penetrate.  I like the calm quiet of the morning hours and am still amazed by how much I can accomplish before noon when I get up and run at 7!!

But the most magical time to run is at 7pm on weekdays.  During Ramadan and every other month of the year, 7pm is about the time for the late evening call to prayer.  But, during this month, the 7pm prayer takes on a particular significance.  This moment signals the end of the day’s fast and the beginning of a large communal meal, started by steaming kinkileba tea or maybe some dates and milk.  Running at this time is a really awe inspiring experience.  The roads are empty and peaceful as members of Mali's 95% Muslim population join with their families for a meal to break the fast, and the competing calls to prayer resound from the mosques in the area.  Running down a dirt road in the fading sunlight, past a mosque where men are praying on mats lined up outside the door, I can’t help but be amazed that this is where I live and this is the place that I have gotten to call home for the past year.  During these moments, I’m honestly glad that I forced myself to put on my muddy tennis shoes and head out to the busy city streets for some exercise. 
Sometimes the sky is this beautiful during evening runs

In addition to the moments of introspection, calm roadway conditions at 7pm (in fact, the whoe traffic rush hour pattern shifted so the bridges became packed at 5 pm instead of 6 or 7) and shorter lunch waits at restaurants, and despite the decrease in street food vendors and the even shorter than usual attention spans during meetings (or the lack of attendance in general- experienced in Banankoro a couple of times this month), Ramadan offered a sense of ritual even to this non participant’s day.  By running regularly and observing revised traffic migration patterns, I felt at peace more often this month.  I hope this will remain true in the coming months I have yet to spend in Mali and throughout the decisions I will be making in the near future.  Though I haven’t had to wait all day for a bite to eat or something cold to drink, I have learned ever more about the importance of patience this month- patience with training programs, with tired fasting Malians, with the speed of project conclusions, and with the need to make big decisions and travel plans.  I hope that we can all hang on to this patience that Ramadan has showed us.  We shall see, beginning tomorrow morning, as I spend time with my host family and negotiate my way around to greet other Malian friends in my stiff bazin fabric and fancy shoes.  I know my patience will be tested as this city of millions attempts to do the same.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain… In’shallah!