American Female on the Loose: Part I

Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender.  I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost.  Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.

Here are just a few cherished nuggets…

Africa

Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to.  I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating.  And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.

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Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes.  I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.

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Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.

Morocco

Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments.  And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories.  This is true about my Moroccan experiences.

An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.

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I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara.  While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated.  Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.

Portugal

In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge.  The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender.  But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.

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Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.

Zanzibar

There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar.  Two occurred in Stone Town.  One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices.  The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.

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But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.

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I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.

What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.

If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target.  But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.

The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum.  Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other.  Then, they each want to take a picture with me.

The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?”  I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?”  But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.

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So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself?  But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures.  I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady.  But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today.  And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.

The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day.  I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand.  The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.

However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed.  While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards.  So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.

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I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.

Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way.  But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).

As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman.  As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.

Love Letter To Mali Part VII: A Broken Heart

I started writing my love letter to Mali back in September.  My heart was already breaking for all the people I met, and those I hadn’t met.  I was already anxious for the wellbeing of the rich cultural sites and Islamic texts.

In the interim, things have gone from bad to worse.  As I wrote each subsequent chapter of my love letter, things continued to deteriorate.

NYTimes Photo of Mali troops

NYTimes Photo of Mali troops

I have heard from someone I met while I was there.  He asked for money.  He has had to move his whole family from Timbuktu to Mopti.  Thank God they are all safe, but he has no way to get money to feed them.

I am paralyzed by a sense of impotence.  Sure, I can wire him some money.  But, as soon as my focus broadens just a smidge, I am paralyzed again.  How can sending a few dollars to one person help the situation at all?

And, to be completely honest, there is a part of me that worries about how my money would be spent.  I only spent a few hours with this person.  What if they are somehow on the wrong side of things?  Or, in such dire straights that they are forced to support the wrong side?

As I struggle with my own tiny dilemma, the world is struggling with the bigger picture.  How do we save the Malians?  How do we save the historical sites?  How do we prevent the militants who have taken over from using Mali (and Algeria and Libya) as a home base to spread terror across the region, and the world?

It is a frightening time, and a perilous situation.

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As I sit back, paralyzed, impotent, ashamed, and watch it unfold, I continue to send my love to Mali and its people.

Love Letter To Mali Part VI: Dogon Villages of the Bandiagara Cliff

After an hour we stopped at our first village.  The houses were, like the other villages we’d visited, made of mud bricks.  But, this time, with stone walls around each house.  After touring the village, we climbed up the cliff to the site of some amazing frescos, said to be painted over ancient Tellem cliff paintings, where the village holds a ceremony every 3 years to circumcise all the 12-14 year old boys.

Part of the ceremony involves a race, where first prize is a granary full of millet, second prize is the right to choose your first wife (instead of having it arranged as is customary) and third prize is a cow.

Then, it was a 90-minute drive on a rocky windy hilly dirt road to another village where we had a delicious lunch of fish, tomato sauce and couscous.  I bought a bunch of pens in the DC airport, and started handing them out at this stop.  When we drove back through this village after the Mask Ceremony, the children were all yelling “bic, bic!”.  At first I thought they were yelling “big, big” and was hoping they would go back to Baloo!  But, when we realized they were yelling “bic”, Camara starting calling me “madame bic”.

These villages have a river winding through them, and the Dogon grow green onion as a cash crop after the millet harvest.  The aroma is fantastic; French onion dip.  I started craving Ruffles.

Apparently, the thinking is that the Tellem either used to, 1) be amazing rock climbers and able to scale the cliff walls to get into their caves, or 2) be able to take advantage of vines that no longer exist.  Unbelievable.

It was another hour to the next Dogon village, where we stopped to see the Mask Dance.  Probably 50 men participated in the dance, wearing elaborate wooden masks and dancing to drums played by the elders.  The mask people are a secret society.  Oumar explained a lot of the history and symbolism of the masks and dance.

The way back was tougher on the car since a lot of it was uphill.  Suddenly, in the middle of no where, we got a flat tire.  Oumar and Camara changed the tire, and we were back in business.  While they had been changing the tire, 4 boys walked out of vast emptiness to see what was going on.  I gave them some chocolate I had been carrying around.

Once we got on the paved road, Camara stopped to get the tire repaired.  While Oumar and I waited (and I tried not to think about the fact that I was getting eaten alive by malaria-ridden mosquitos), I explained game theory to him, and we practice some Prisoner Dilemma and Dove/Hawk equations.  Pretty fun way to pass the time, actually.  That, and watching the passers-by.  The streets have goats, buses, motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, 4x4s, bicycles, horse carts and donkey carts.  One of my favorite sights, which you don’t see as often on the streets, but you can see all over the landscape, is the single file line of women on their way to or from the river with the day’s washing on their heads.

It was dark when we got back on the road.  We were clipping along, until…smash:  Holy Shit, we hit a motorcycle.  Fortunately no one was hurt, but Camara was frustrated that our car was scratched up.

I spent some of the drive downloading my photos onto my laptop, and realized a really cool set of pictures would be taking the buckets and teapots in all their various surroundings.  These are used for washing, and they are really colorful.  And they can be found in all kinds of nooks and crannies and interesting places.  I really wish I had realized this on Friday–I could have such a great series of photos!

As we were driving Camara stopped to get us oranges from one of the vendors.  What a treat!  And, during the lunch stop he gave me a pair of earrings!  And, to top it off, he got me a sesame/honey bar from a vendor in the afternoon.  Wow!  He also stopped to buy some sweet potatoes were, I am not kidding, 1-3 feet long.

He gave me all these gifts, and called me his African brother.  It is a true reflection of how close you get to someone when you spend so much time together, night and day.  I have no idea how Camara is today, or Oumar, or any of the people who were so warm and wonderful to my during my brief visit to Mali.  It is one of the fantastic and frustrating things about travel:  you go somewhere, and the people and places become part of your heart; then you leave, taking your memories and impressions and knowledge and love with you.

Love Letter To Mali Part V: Djenne

It’s about a two-hour drive from Mopti to Djenne, which has a big market every Monday.  On the way, we stopped at a village to walk around and meet some more people.  Everyone continued to be super friendly, and I continued to practice my few phrases.

One family let me try grinding the millet (which I was terrible at, and kept spilling the millet out of the mortar!).  The scene of a woman or two standing on a giant mortal with a huge stake as a pistol is ubiquitous.  Sometimes they get fancy and let the stake fly in the air for a second while they clap.

I felt badly when a few people in this village started describing medical issues they or their children were having.  I guess they are used to white people visiting being doctors.  (yes, I still have the “bear necessities” jungle book song playing in my head).

I don’t think I’ve really explained that all these villages we’ve been visiting, including the cities of Timbuktu and Mopti, are made out of mud bricks.  It is like stepping back in time a thousand years — except for the motorcycles…

Oumar was so fun with all the kids.  They just loved him.  And, when he found the older kids (5th graders), he tested their math skills.  They loved it.  And, since he did it in French, I could participate, too.  Lots of fun.

We walked past a Muslim school teaching the Koran as well as all other subjects.  The teacher was very welcoming to me, and had the children stand up and recite two prayers.  But he wouldn’t let me take any photos.  Oumar explained the school was part of a more extreme part of Islam that doesn’t condone any photographs whatsoever.

About 20 minutes or so outside of Djenne, we needed to board a ferry to cross the river.  As we waited for the ferry, there were stalls of merchants selling jewelry, masks, etc.  Everyone is “Mr. Good Price” or “Mrs. Good Price”, and they will give you “the best price” and decree, “c’est pas cher”.  Fun.  I met two guys from Holland who drove here (over 10k kms and 40 days!).  When they heard I was American they asked, “you know you are a potential al Qaeda victim here?”  Um…

Four cars fit on the ferry, and the ride is about ten minutes.  And, of course, there are more merchant stalls on the ferry!

Djenne was great.  First Oumar and I walked through all the alleyways and met some more people.  Then we visited the markets.  So much color and activity and noise.  And it is hot.  And, of course, the roads and sidewalks and all are just dirt.  And there were masses of people, buying and selling fruit, meat, leather goods, jewelry, etc.  I loved it.  We bought little fried kidney bean cakes, which were tasty, and tried a couple of types of berries and nuts.  I was trying to be careful not to put my hands anywhere near my nose, mouth or eyes since I was shaking hands with so many people, and holding babies and such.  But, then I went and touched something and put my finger in my mouth.  Oh well.

In Mopti we had seen a man selling some kind of liquid medicine that will cure:  diabetes, malaria, hemorrhoids, bad breath, fatigue, etc.  In Djenne we saw a man selling talisman and a black powder that will do all of the above, PLUS make you a genius.

At lunch we met another guide name Moussa who was complaining about a “mean old lady” he is in charge of.  I guess she is complaining about everything.  He said:  “why does she need a hot shower?  It’s a hot country.  She’ll be hot soon enough.”  I guess he had a fair point.

After lunch I decided I wanted a talisman.  So we found the magic man, and bought one for good look and protection, and to ward off evil spirits and jealous people.  Then, we found a leatherworker who sealed it in a pouch and made it into an anklet.  I should be all set!

While we were waiting for Oumar, Camara and I posed for some pics with some Fulani hats on and joked around with some of the vendors.

There was a longer line waiting to cross the ferry on the way back.  We had to wait for it to cross and come back 3 or 4 times.  And, of course, the merchants we out in force.  So, we were waiting for quite a while in the heat.  Not as much fun as the first crossing!

It was during the ferry crossings that I bought a lot of the beaded the jewelry I have been wearing lately, to keep the Malian people I met, front and center in my thoughts and prayers.

Love Letter To Mali Part IV: Mopti

I flew to Mopti, and was met by Oumar (he and Camara drove to Mopti while I was touring Timbuktu).

On the way to the hotel he taught me some words in Bamara, the main language in Mali:

i ni sɔgɔma: Good morning.

To which I (a woman) would answer: Ntze.  A man would answer: Mba.

i ka kεnε wa?: How are you?

To which you respond: kεnε, tɔɔrɔ te, ko tε, tana tε.

After checking into the hotel, we headed off for the city tour.  Which was 100% walked.  What an amazing day.  I felt like a celebrity, with everyone waving and shaking hands.

All the kids (and some adults) shouted out what sounded like Tu Ba or Tu Babou  as I walked by, which Oumar said basically meant:  hey, white person!.  I immediately thought of Baloo from the Jungle Book, so I kept picturing myself as a big grey lazy jungle bear ambling through town.  That would be worth shouting about!!

I got to play hopscotch with some girls who we happened upon as they were playing!

Sunday is the day for weddings, so we saw lots of wedding parties.  I even danced in the streets with the women at one wedding ceremony, which I was picturing the big bear dancing with all the gorgeous women in festive clothes.  Funny image I couldn’t get out of my head.

We walked from 830-100, then stopped for lunch at a riverside restaurant.  The other 4 ladies were there, so I joined them and we all had grilled chicken and rice with an amazing tomato-onion sauce.  Delicious.  But, I had to spend 10 minutes flossing later.

Oumar and I took a river cruise along the Niger.  We had our own private boat, The Alligator, and stopped at a Bozo village and did more meet and greets (yes, I was Baloo the Bear walking along the island in the Niger in the Bozo village.)  One house had a solar panel and a TV with soccer on, which was pretty amazing.

I wonder if that house is still standing?  I wonder how that newly wed couple is doing?  Did they flee Mopti?  Did they stay put?

Love Letter To Mali Part III: Timbuktu

The next hiccup was waiting for me back at the Bamako airport on the way to Timbuktu.  I saw 2 women with 5 cartons of baby chicks.  You’ll have to take my word for it, since when I got their permission to take photos, I realized I had left my little camera in the truck.  And, when I pulled out the SLR I realized it didn’t have a memory card (the extra memory card was in the camera case with the little camera).  So, I went through the motions of taking the photos, which was a little bit of fun with the women.  Then I called Camara (my driver) and asked him to come back with my camera which he did.  I love my driver.  (it’s only now in writing this that I see the humor of Camara being my camera hero).

So, then I was waiting to go to Timbuktu!!!

And waiting.

And waiting.

After having no idea what was going on for hours, and getting up to board for every flight that was departing, only to be told “non”, I learned that apparently “the plane needs to be plugged in and charged, so we will be taking off at 11am”???

I think in this kind of situation where frustration feeds off frustration, and since I was by myself I was happy just to sit and wait.  If I had been with someone else I am sure I would have been agitated.  There were 6 other Americans also waiting, 2 men I didn’t meet, 2 women from Miami (Nancy and Arlina) and 2 women from outside Atlanta (Barbara and Suzy).

Finally, we did board, a tiny little prop plane with 21 seats, and a VERY cute Australian co-pilot.  We flew for an hour to Mopti, stopped to let of the people off and get 5 more on, and to refuel.  I guess our plane only carries an hour’s worth of fuel.  As we were getting ready to take off for the 45 min flight to Timbuktu, our adorable co-pilot gave us the safety brief.

When we landed in Timbuktu, I met my guide, Sana.  Sana had me sit while he collected my bag, then we dropped it off at the hotel and we were off on the city tour.

I really liked Sana and my driver (whose name I forget–so many names were thrown at me, as Sana seemed to know everyone in Timbuktu and I met most of them).  He and I did most of the tour on foot since our car wouldn’t fit down the narrow streets.

I loved that afternoon.  Rich history.  Warm people.  Once in a lifetime experience. All the kids wanted to touch me, so they would shake my hand, touch my leg, or reach up and touch my hair.  Some were super cute and would walk up and say “bonjour” or “comme ca” or something as they reached out their hands for a shake.  Others were shy and would just sneak a touch.

There is annual desert festival near Timbuktu that sounded amazing.  Maybe I should say there was.  I can’t imagine that festival will be happening again.  Everyone camped out and listens to music and such.

Seeing the markets where to this day people from the north bring salt and gasoline and other goods to exchange with people from the south who bring herbs, etc. was amazing.  There was one moment when we had climbed up on top of the building the big market is in, when Sana had to use the restroom so I waited for him while taking pictures, that I realized I was in Timbuktu, in the middle of nowhere, without my ID, phone or money or even knowing the name of my hotel, and was basically a complete idiot.  I had total and complete faith in Sana, but what if for some reason beyond his control he didn’t come back?  Fortunately, he did, and I learned not to leave my backpack in the trunk of the car.  When we walked by the incense stall the woman wanted me to buy something.  When I declined she said I must be single, as any married woman would want the incense to keep her man at home.  Sana thought that was pretty funny!

We toured museums and mosques that house thousands of ancient Islam manuscripts. Sana and the proprietors did a great job explaining the origins and means of many of them, but it would take several lifetimes to really understand the depth of writings contained in this tiny city.

After looking at the peace flame, erected in the mid 1990s after the last uprising, I went home to get warmer clothes while Sanna and the driver swapped our BMW sedan for a 4×4.  And, we headed 30 minutes into the Sahara for dinner at a Tuareg camp, complete with traditional dancing.  Dinner was a yummy spicy veggie soup, followed by lamb and couscous.

It was just a year ago I was there, but it was an experience that won’t be possible again for a while.  Hopefully sooner than later, but I am not confident that is the case.  Timbuktu is now controlled by the rebels.  I have read reports of some of the manuscripts and shrines being damaged, and of a form of Sharia law being imposed, keeping most people inside their homes.  I have read of extreme food shortages, since most of the food comes from Bamako, and those routes are closed now.  The woman at the market, Sana, the manuscripts, the ancient mud building, the Tuarags who fed and performed for me, I think of them with a sense of hope, and hopelessness.

Love Letter To Mali Part II: Bamako

Before heading to Mali, I read Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver and The Shadow of the Sun by Kapuscinski. My trip to Mali was my first experience of Sub-Sahara Africa (not counting South Africa), and I was excited.

Those books prepared me well, for some of the cultural experiences in store for me.  And, mostly, they opened my mind and set me expectations to be even more “go with the flow” in my attitude than usual.  This was all immediately useful.

In Bamako, there wasn’t anyone waiting for me at the airport.  Which was unfortunate since there were a crowd of guys trying to provide me a taxi ride (or sim card, or whatever I needed).  I stood out like a sore thumb, being a blond, blue-eyed, American woman traveling alone.  I joked around with the vendors in French, trying not to look like I was at all concerned with the situation.  The situation being that I was alone in a country and continent that I was unfamiliar with, with no clear Plan B in place for when my transport didn’t show up.

I had hired a porter at baggage claim, since it seemed like everyone was hiring porters.  Go with the flow.  And, him standing beside me somehow made me feel more secure, which I know is silly since I had only met him 10 minutes earlier, and I hadn’t even paid him yet.  But, he was at least a head taller than everyone else in the entire airport, and I liked thinking he had my back.

I pulled out my cell phone and called my local contact numbers.  But, I kept getting recordings.  Hmmm.

Just as I was starting to think about options, someone walked up “Cynthia!!”.  It was the owner of the tour company.  He explained that my flight was earlier than expected.  No worries, just happy to see him.  I met the guide, Oumar, and driver, Camara, I had for most of my visit to Mali, and we were off to the hotel.

I was feeling very satisfied with myself that I got through the first little hiccup without breaking a sweat.

I think of all those friendly vendors.  Sure they were trying to sell me something, but when it was clear I wasn’t buying they were also content to stand around and joke with me while I tried to get my bearings.

When I read that the current President of Mali was attacked in his office, went to France to get medical attention, I wonder:  how many of those men have been directly affected by the coup?

Even when I visited, Mali had its problems; it is among the poorest nations in the world.  How is everyone coping now?  Would they be as quick with a joke today?  Somehow I imagine not, that today, survival is first and foremost on everyone’s mind.