Bamako, Mali's capital, is a city that impresses. It is dirty, messy, filled with many people screaming, flailing, dust, and its hot. But in the end, it leaves you with a very special souvenir. I arrived in Bamako with the legendary BK, the train Kayes to Bamako, which actually comes from the border with Senegal.
In Kayes, I had two choices: to continue on a bus that would take me on dirt roads and probably take a half day to reach Bamako, considering it had rained a lot, or take a train. The train was just about to leave. There were only tickets were in first class left.
Once everyone was on the train, we were told to get down, and that the train would leave the next day. When at last we left, it took 24 hours instead of 16, to cover something like 800 km, and the train stopped along the way. People ran to the field to use the bathroom and vendors came on board with food like roasted carnitas or cold water. Finally we arrived and found a place for religious missionaries, which is also a hostel for travelers, to say it is safe and clean place to stay. Bamako has many fascinating things to do and see. Soak up its pace, its music, sit in the street to eat with people who will usually invite you to street parties when there is a wedding or a christening, do not hesitate to participate.
The Niger River is the 3rd longest river in Africa, after the Nile and Congo. It begins by Guinea, then crosses Mali, Niger, before dropping into the Atlantic. In Mali, it plays an important role. With the bad state of the roads, or non existence in some places, the only means of communication between people and business is this river. It flows through Bamako, Segou, Mopti, Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu. In a country that is dry, they use it for washing, laundry or kitchen utensils, children come to play and bathe, and use it for irrigation and rice cultivation. In many cities, including Mopti and Djenne, you can go on a walk along the river. The more adventurous can get to Timbuktu by boat, which is 5 or 6 days from Mopti. The boat is called a "pinasse", the fisherman's boat that will take 2 or 3 people, until the big boats full of passengers and goods, animals and water supplies, can be used , but I don´t guarantee when or how to get there. Wear a sarong to keep you warm, and bring enough water for a full day. If you hurry, see Timbuktu by boat, and return with a bus.
The city of Bamako is already basically one big bazaar in which all of the inhabitants seem have something to sell and every unoccupied corner is a good place for an impromptu store. However, there is a place where the haggling, buying and selling, exchanging and skullduggery are the true protagonists: the Grand Marche, Central Market, Pink Market, or any of the other equally-valid names given to the main market in Bamako which, oddly, has no official name.
The Grand Marche is found at the corner of Avenue de la Republique and Mohammad V street, not far from the Place de la Liberté. It's not quite as spectacular as the "Merkato" of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia although it does rival it in color, aroma, and flavor. Visiting a market like this gives you the opportunity to get to know the spirit of the city (or attempt to, observe the people in their daily routine, see what they eat, how they dress, the jewelry and trinkets they like, how they argue, why and how they laugh, if they're hurried or relaxed, or if they're able to wrap up the interminable back-and-forths with the vendors.
Perched with my camera in a privileged post in the upper galleries, I saw daily life in Bamako pass beneath my feet, waiting to be captured in small moments which capture, as loyally as possible, all that my senses perceived. I enjoyed watching the colorful posts of the spice vendors, whose chatter rivaled the color of their wares in liveliness. The slimness of the vendors caught my attention, as well as the gorgeous ebony color of their skin. From up above, the roar and the coming and going of the public seems like the activity of some kind of hive, chaotic by ordered.
We left our perch in the upper galleries and went into the sea of shops and stalls, mixing with the crowd and wandering among the cloth vendors and their embroidery, the stalls of fruits and vegetables, the butchers cutting their meat with giant machetes while waving off flies, the small of freshly-cured leather, and we were surprised in the seamstress section so full of youths embroidering materials with age-old sewing machines.
The walk was unforgettable but exhausting and we'd gotten hungry. To take the edge off, there's nothing better than woofing down one of the fried platters at the street stalls.