A Trip to Mali
The Journey (6/1/2006-6/2/2006)
Airports are the gateway to adventure. They are the place where any true international adventure begins and ends. From there, you can find your way to the farthest corners of the globe. Strange then, how they are also some of the most boring places to be. Sure, they try to liven it up with art, architecture, shops and smooth looking plasma screens hanging from the wall, but when it comes down to it, we don't go to an airport to be at the airport—we go there because we want to be somewhere else.
After a late night packing (only 2AM this time… much better than our trip to Britain!), our friend Nate was kind enough to drive us to the airport. Between all the NW Medical Teams bags and our luggage, it's just as well we didn't try to ride with a team member like we'd planned. There wouldn't have been room!
At the airport Debbie, the team coordinator from NWMT asked me to keep track of a massive suitcase of baby layettes. We got it down under the 70 lb. weight limit by removing some things (not too much, though) and the United attendant was kind enough to waive the fee. We checked our bags all the way to Bamako, Mali. Smooth sailing… we thought.
First leg went from Portland to San Francisco, only about an hour and a half. As we passed over, you could just make out the peaks of the Golden Gate thrusting up through the lumpy clouds. Our time was short there; we walked straight to our departing gate and boarded within half an hour.
Next came the longest piece, 10 ½ hours—SF to London. I know there are longer flights if you go to Asia or Australia, but man, that's a long time in a plane! Amber and I were both in middle seats on separate rows. Had a nice conversation with the older couple on either side of me in the row. They were quite the world travelers (in fifteen minutes we'd covered their time in Africa, Madrid helping the RAF and the current Baltic cruise they were headed for!). Amber asked the flight attendant about getting us seated together, and the guy on the aisle next to her popped up and gave me his seat. What a huge blessing! And he was so gracious about it, even though it meant he'd be in the middle seat for the next ten hours. Sitting next to my wife made the long journey a little more palatable, though, for both of us.
Did I mention the flight was long? The food was decent, much better than I remember from our last transatlantic flight. Got a chapter of editing done, read 100 pages of Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before (excellent book, though his style doesn't make for easy reading) and dozed a little. At the time I thought I was just too tall to hit the head cushions easily, so it's a toss up between 1) sleep and a sore neck or 2) carrying on tired. I mostly just slogged through. (Although on the way back, discovered that most of the headrests slide up. D'oh!)
Heathrow, we actually had a lay-over—about five hours. At that point we changed carriers from United to Air France, and the gift of checking the extra bag screeched to a halt. Since we didn't have a receipt to prove payment, we were out of luck. The woman helping us tried very hard, calling at least a half dozen times to different places, but apparently Air France has a reputation for being hard-nosed about baggage. The delay turned out to be a blessing, though, as the one team member, Sarah, who wasn't with us from Portland joined up—five of us flew from PDX, but she was coming out from Chicago. We finally paid up for the bag (£80)and were on our way…
…to wait. Our terminal was the smaller one, without much there to do. Not like it's tons of entertainment if your bags are already stuffed, but at least the other terminal provided more to wander past for a few minutes… and a Starbucks!
There was a general surge of energy when Sarah joined up, but by the time our gate was announced (less than 30 minutes before the flight… I'd forgotten how that worked at Heathrow) everyone was dragging. Amber slept the whole next jump to Paris—less than an hour airtime. Regardless, she fell asleep despite the armrest not moving between us (a typical maneuver we use to get a little more sitting space).
Paris provided a nice surprise: Air France employees waited with signs for different connections. They led us straight to a shuttle, over to the correct terminal and once again we went right to boarding. Interestingly, after handing over boarding passes we got onto buses which drove us onto the tarmac where we climbed up uncovered stairs onto the plane. Just like something out of an old movie, and the first time even for Amber!
Baggage hassles aside, Air France treated us well… this time (see Air Chance, the last chapter). Better than average food, decent seats (at least on the Paris to Bamako leg) and back of seat entertainment. That flight was about five hours, and I chose neck pain for a good part of it. Those little bursts of sleep did me well, though, getting ready to land in Mali.
Our plane landed after dark, and we were in the middle of the center aisle, so my first chance to actually see Mali was as we left the plane. The stairway down to the tarmac was much narrower than the one we'd ascended in Paris, worn, corrugated steel replacing the more pristine steps. Night's darkness was complete, cut only in the distance by orange electric lights. The air smelled of dust as I lugged our heavy carry-on down. It was about 86º F—very warm, with a humid softness to the air.
My first sight in Mali was a soldier, clad in green with a beret, staring out across the runway with a sub-machine gun in his hands. Two or three others, similarly equipped, stood around too, watching the night. Welcome to Africa, let the sweating commence!
The airport itself was what you'd expect of an African airport—rather small, run down and bustling with life and loud voices. Daniel Thera met us just off the plane, a tall older African man wearing a flowing white tunic that almost hid pants in a matching fabric underneath. He's the director of CPAM (the Malian NGO in charge of the hospital), and he smoothed our way through customs. They didn't even look at our yellow fever cards, which were supposedly required.
A Malian NGO, CPAM (pronounced "say-pom") stands for Centre Protestante pour l'Assistance Medicale au Mali. It was spun off by the CMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance) to run several rural clinics and the new Koutiala Hospital. The clinics are all run by nationals, and the hospital staff is already looking to a future where they can turn over the reins to Malians.
Beyond was the chaos of the baggage area. No long, calm line of impatient people here—everyone pressed in, eager to get their stuff. Several uniformed men helped haul the bags off the line onto carts for us, for which I was hugely grateful. It was warm, and the bags were heavy. It was a bit of fun conveying to them which were ours—lots of shouting and pointing. We got it pretty well done, twelve bags out of thirteen, but then the last didn't show. It belonged to Bob, the doctor on our trip and the team lead. He had gone with only a slim carry-on—a mistake as it turns out since almost all his clothes, toiletries and even his anti-malarials were checked. They took a trip to the office to see about it, but flights to Mali were rare enough it would likely take some time.
They X-rayed and checked tags on all outgoing luggage (bit of a change there) which soothed the fear I'd had of Bob's bag having walked off. Without the right tags, though, no one could have easily gotten out of there with it.
The night was warm and very humid—at about 9:30PM—when we made it outside. There we met Betsy and Marcy, two of the missionaries we'd come to help. With some help we got all the luggage into the van and squeezed in for the short ride to the guest house. Marcy paid three of the men who hung around, obviously waiting. As she paid the third, one of the others got mad, saying basically, "He didn't do anything. Why should he get paid the same?" It didn't go any farther, but was entertaining to watch, almost like the parable of the works straight out of the Bible.
Short ride down dark, but busy streets in Bamako. Most of what I remember were people all over the sides (and middle) of the road and the motorbikes everywhere. The motos wove in and out of traffic wildly, evoking lots of horns and shouting.
The guest house had an enclosed compound with a couple buildings. Furnishings were simple and mismatched, but a welcome sight after the 28+ hours we'd been on our way. Drank sodas (Grenadine (pomegranates) and Pamplemousse (grapefruit)) in front of the swamp cooler. After that we took showers, having our first encounter with how tepid the "cool" water is. Then we headed to bed for some much needed sleep.
Drive to Koutiala (6/3/2006)
Woke in the morning fairly well rested. Had breakfast of pastries and mango, along with a mug of coffee. We packed up the van, this time strapping several bags to the roof-rack we'd skipped the night before. While we were doing this, Amber started feeling sick and laid down. Turned out to be the doxycycline (anti-malarial) she'd taken, so once she got that out of her system via the speediest upward track (poor Amber! Poor Jason and Marcy who cleaned up too!) she felt better, if considerably embarrassed. Luckily, breakfast had only been mango and water for her, the floor was concrete, and it wasn't too bad to clean up.
I'm going to list out things I saw along the way once I've covered the day, but the road was pretty good and paved. They have huge speed bumps in the villages, which was a bit of a shock if you dozed off.
Motorbikes, most often just called motos, are a major mode of transportation in Mali. You see them everywhere, and unfortunately they aren't always particularly safe. In the capital, at least two people die every day in moto accidents, and the missionaries have been involved in several incidents already themselves! The larger vehicle is responsible for any accident, though, no matter what.
Lunch at a nice hotel in Segou. Clean place, with rainbow lizards zipping around the patio we ate on. Good food too, although the flies were terrible. We spent as much time waving at the food as did eating it. I put my empty Coke bottle down the table a ways and looked up to see at least a dozen little black specks roving over it just minutes later.
The second half went well, except the van's top speed declined the entire time. A bit disconcerting, but we made it to Koutiala Hospital fine, but substantially later than planned. Got a tour of the facilities, which are well laid out, clean and running now for two weeks. Dr. Dan, Marcy's husband, is a lively man, filling us in while taking a break from a woman in labor who he kind of expected would need a C-section—the first since the hospital opened.
The house we stayed at was nice. The missionaries who live there are away for summer, and again it's a walled area with a night guard (who's a riot, even though I don't speak French or Bambara (the local language)). Got a shower in before spaghetti dinner and an evening with Emma, Ellie and Maggie, Dan and Marcy's wonderful little girls. At this point Dr. Dan called, still at the hospital because it looked like they'd have to operate. Bob, Sue and Sarah (the doctor and two nurses) left just a while ago to help out.
There's so much else to tell and describe, so I thought I'd do it shotgun style, since I don't remember the order of things anyway. Here's some snippets of observation made on the road to Koutiala:
- Bright colors along the shacks and buildings by the road—often blue, pink, orange on the doors of shops or painted across walls, standing out starkly from the general dull, worn-down scene.
- Motorbikes all over, often with two people on them, the second carrying bundles (one even a full door above his head!) or mothers with babies strapped on.
- Bundles of sticks propped up like teepees on the roadside to keep animals from eating freshly planted trees.
- Sheep, goats, donkeys and cattle, all roaming, frequently across the road.
- Burning brush in the fields, little piles shooting bright orange toward the blistering sky.
- Chickens in a cage under a table.
- Little shops, only as side as two doors, with shiny, clean plastic toys, cigarettes or shoes for sale.
- A goat, standing upright, clawing its way to higher leaves on the tree.
- Red, dusty soil stretched out with scrubby brush and lone, tall trees scattered around.
- People turning earth in the heat with hand axes, bent over in their labor.
- Villages with crowds along the road, selling mangoes, bananas and motorbike fuel in glass bottles, yellow almost like some beverage.
- Abandoned, partially built, or partially demolished buildings all around.
- Half-finished construction, cinder blocks with a lattice work of branches to hold it all up.
- Shelters of branches and thatch, with the carcasses of lamb or parts of beef hanging down.
- Baobab trees, odd with massive trunks like many smaller trees smashed together, and only a few large, stubby branches—no small ones at all. Betsy said there's a parable that the baobab used to be beautiful, with many gorgeous flowers, but it got proud so God turned it upside down. And that's exactly what it looks like.
- Termite mounds, some only a foot or two tall (some with strange caps like mushrooms), others as taller than a person, like a sandcastle that's been drizzled with water, but not lost all shape.
- Donkey carts, often with the driver ready to smack the stubborn, scabby creature mercilessly.
- A donkey tethered by the foot, tugging at the cord and braying indignantly.
- A flock of white egrets all perched in a tall, lush tree.
- Road blocks in villages, mostly red barrels. Never stopped—mostly for tax, transit purposes for trucks hauling cargo. Plus, they know the missionaries won't pay bribes.
- Cybercafes and cell phones.
- One boy driving a donkey cart, the other trying to catch up and jump on the back.
- Nescafe signs, a red hippo mascot for the telephone company, the Michelin Man, a building plastered with two huge Coca-Cola signs.
- A man sanding a piece of wood, leaning in close, putting his back into it.
- Women sweeping the dirt with brooms of twigs.
- Dead carcasses by the roadside, eaten out, bones alone dried out and drawing buzzards.
- Mother on a motorbike, little child behind her with a baby strapped to the child.
- Cattle, skinny and tough but docile, led by children or pulling carts despite their long, menacing-looking horns.
Of Turtles and Trampolines (6/4/2006)
Sunday, part of the team went to Malian church, but Amber and I opted to take the extra sleep. It was a good idea—I felt so much better after the rest.
We got up and made a start on lunch for the team. Marcy had dropped off the pork roast, which she'd thawed out and skinned. That should have been my first clue, but I still had images of a nice, neat roast, wrapped in plastic on a piece of Styrofoam. I was rapidly disabused of that notion as I came out into the kitchen. A whole pig's leg stuck up out of the sink, joint end up. The meat down the leg was a bit rough and shredded in places from the skinning. Not the picture of the supermarket meat department.
The meal was good, with green beans, mashed potatoes, wonderful soft bread from a nearby bakery, and strong Stumptown coffee to follow. Momadou, A Malian friend of Dan and Marcy's dropped by with tea—shot glasses of strong tea carried on a metal platter. Apparently, tradition is to do three batches off the same leaves. The first is very powerful, and on an empty stomach gave Amber a bit of trouble. It's sweet, bitter and minty, with foam on top from the way they pour it (up high, a couple feet above these little glasses). Almost like a tea cappuccino.
Spent the afternoon at the Nesselroades' house. Began with e-mail—all the missionaries have wireless hooked up to the satellite at our place—but then migrated to playing with Emma, Ellie and Maggie. They are such terrific kids, blond haired, cute as can be and all very sharp. Emma was preparing an introductory letter for later work teams which she asked me to read. They had set up a doll hospital behind the curtain in Emma's room. Apparently, two had fallen, one got in a fight (not her fault!) and the last had a motorbike mishap. Ellie took it upon herself to keep Amber cool, a much appreciated mission!
They asked if we wanted to see the turtles. We gladly agreed and headed out behind the house. I had in mind garden snapping turtles, something that might fit in your hand. Oh no! Stan and Liv (for Stanley and Livingston… although Liv turned out to be a girl) were huge, each 2 or 3 feet long. They looked like something you'd see at the zoo. Sunday was bath day for the turtles. Since the turtles bite, we splashed water on, then used long brushes to scrub them clean.
From there we moved to the trampoline. The girls were thrilled to have someone my size to steal bounces from. We played popcorn, where they curled into little balls and I bounced until they popped. Then they tried to pop me, and I ended up crawling along around the trampoline. Gave myself a nice little "road rash" on the top of my foot. Ouch!
Dinner was sandwiches. The evenings don't cool off much, but the fans in the dining room at the Nesselroades' worked pretty well. During prep we heard odd grunting noises out back. Apparently bathing put Stan and Liv in the mood. Strangest noise I've heard in a while.
Hot night, but it got a lot warmer—about 4AM the power went out. I slept okay, but clearly remember hearing the fans wind down. Amazing how rapidly you warm up when the air falls still. I hardly slept at all until the power came back.
Rain's Coming (6/5/2006)
That Monday was the first real workday for the whole team. We all trooped out to the hospital around 7:30AM. The good road in Koutiala ends half a mile from the hospital entrance. They say that the road's been graded a couple times but keeps getting worse instead of better. There are trenches along the edges now, and areas with big rocky chunks you have to drive around. Amber and I as the team young-uns, rode in the back of the Land Rover since the van with enough room is in the shop.
We arrived in time for the morning devotional. The hospital staff rotates through presenting a short piece of scripture and talking about it, along with singing a few hymns. Depending on who is speaking, it might take place in French of Bambara, with translation happening all around. The sound of their singing out on the porch of the hospital set a good tone for beginning the work of the day.
One of the major insects around Koutiala is termites. Not only do you see the mounds everywhere when you're driving through the countryside, but every time it rained swarms of them came out, getting in even though closed window screens. Apparently, people in Mali do eat the larger varieties—pop the wings off, dry them out and then fry them. I'll settle for just sweeping them up, thanks.
The hospital has been set up pretty well for electrical and computer systems. They have a server running, with several laptops on wireless networks. Cable strung between the buildings shares out the connection they have to the local satellite system. The prior team wrote a custom patient/visit program that talks to the database server. Today I double-checked some backups, researched a networking application, and tried to get networking out to the second building.
Amber dove right into her sterile processing work. She's already done some great stuff around putting together the packs, working with the surgery nurse, Sue, to determine the best way to lay it out. Beyond just her processing background, it really hits her supply and logistics too. Plus she's started getting back her French! It was such a kick to see her actually communicating directly with her counterpart without an interpreter.
Got a chance to see the first C-section baby—named Daniel, after the doctor here. He was so sweet, with light brown skin and black, lush, curly hair. It was so great to see part of the reason why we're out here. I think there are going to be a lot more Daniels born in Koutiala in the coming years.
I spent a little more time outside today, crossing between the buildings. The area is covered with red lava rocks that crunch together as you walk across them. The sun pounds down on you, relentlessly, driving sweat out of your pores within just the short minute of crossing. I needed a ladder, and at one point retrieved it from where it lay partially in the sun. The metal seared, and I climbed quickly to get past that portion.
Dinner with the local missionaries and a recently arrived electrician and engineer. Jack, the engineer, had stories to tell about wiring the hospital. They've done great work, though, despite the difficulties—110 and 220 in all the rooms, two circuits per room, CAT-5 cable enough to wire six distinct phone lines in. Jack is an intense Jewish man, with a lean face and strong nose. He told every story with a "will you believe this" passion, and truly loves the work of building what the hospital needs.
Jerry, the other half of the electrical team, in counter-point to Jack, was a quiet man. Not that Jerry didn't talk—we had a number of great conversations over the next weeks, often about family back home. He often had a smile on his face as we shared meals together in the evening. Both of them had been out to Koutiala multiple times. Some of the earlier construction work had occurred during the hottest parts of the year. I can't even imagine.
After so much heat, it was the strangest thing to step out into a cool breeze. Back home I don't know if it would have counted as cool, but here it was heavenly. Rain was on its way, you could feel it pulling the air taut as we walked to the van. Lightning began flashing, though we heard only occasional thunder on the way home.
The wind kicked up once we got back, carrying grit with it. We rushed to shut windows against the storm. Everyone sat around the house, talking and waiting, on pins and needles for what we knew, what we hoped must be coming. Thunder grew louder, and the wind whipped harder, and then the heavens unleashed. It didn't come down in a torrent, but it was no mist either. Solid drops poured down, and the air cooled off on the porch outside. We opened windows shut against the dusty wind and went out to savor it. Coolness, the first true coolness in days washed over me. The sky flashed, lavender and white with the lightning. The porch light cast moving shadows out on the swinging tree limbs. A spider jittered frantically across its web on the edge of the porch, and a toad hopped out onto the driveway, pausing very few leaps as if waiting to let the moisture seep in.
I sat on the porch, bare feet on the cool damp tiles, arm around my wife, utterly content. Rain had come.
Originally a tribal language in Mali, Bambara has become the second national language along with French (which only 1/5 of the population speaks). Where most languages are easier to understand than to speak, according to Marcy, Bambara is the other way around. So much depends on context—"ah" can be he, she, it, his, hers or its, all depending on how it's used.
ay in the Life (6/6/2006)**
A woman came to the hospital today, ready to deliver and the baby was born safe and sound. That is likely to become a more frequent occurrence. The hospital has only been open three weeks, so word of mouth will definitely increase attendance going forward. The care at the city hospital is poor enough that a place like this will likely draw as many patients as it can handle.
I messed with the network further to limited success. Amber continued plugging away at the sterile processing. Given the nature of patients—clinics mostly in the morning, only occasional surgeries—much of the team is only sporadically busy, but that's not all bad. If we all worked the sort of hours Dr. Dan does, I think we'd die of exhaustion.
After work, we stopped at a stand to buy mangoes and papaya. A man on a bike followed us back with a yellow, plasticized "burlap" sack. Marcy says he always makes an appearance to sell souvenirs to the teams. Amber and I didn't see anything we wanted, but it turned our porch into a booth at market for a few minutes.
We got wireless (6/7/2006)
With help from the tech guys back in the States, I finally got wireless working in the second building. This is good news for the part of the staff working there, and should help as they move toward using the facility more fully.
Amber took the morning to rest and slept through most of it. The heat has been particularly tough for her, and she's been working hard when she's out at the hospital.
In the afternoon I lugged three laptops out to configure on the network, but otherwise the time was uneventful. As we got home and dinner time rolled around we got what was a more typical African rain—fiercer winds, then a pouring rain for several minutes before it tapered off. The people at the other house—Marcy, Ellie, Maggie and Bob—were on the way over right during that gushing moment. Ellie and Maggie had bright, colorful umbrellas that they twirled as they hopped in the puddles.
Prayer meeting after dinner with several of the local missionaries. We spent a large part of the time sharing how the Lord has brought us here. It was interesting to hear how many of the "lifers" had deep, years-long doubts before ending up on the field. In many ways, this is a test run for Amber and me. I'm not sure exactly what He has for us, but it's good to know I'm not the first person to question what God's lining up. We'll just have to see.
Market Day (6/8/2006)
Money, money, money
The currency in Mali is the CFA franc, which is shared between several West African nations (mostly former French colonies). The exchange rate during our trip was roughly 500 CFA to $1. The main bills we used were colorful—orange, purple, blue—and varied in size from each other.
Amber and I went out with the early crew and caught the morning devotional. It was about keeping the Ten Commandments, and how we can't really do it on our own. Attendance was light compared with earlier in the week because there were three women in labor. One baby was born right at the end of devotional—Dawna heard it crying. Another may not even be actually laboring yet, and the third is laboring to bring out a baby whose been dead for some time already. How tragic! She came in after not feeling the baby move for more than a month, wondering why she wasn't getting bigger. Dr. Dan confirmed that the child had died. Those types of deliveries are more risky, and they didn't have the best medications for inducing that type of labor.
Hooked up the printer to the network today. It didn't go too badly, but reminded me how much I hate setting up printers. They're always the most cantankerous pieces of equipment!
Afternoon, Amber, Marcy and I went to the weekly market. The center of town was packed, so we parked at the church and walked in. Amber and I aren't much on chotchskies, so we decided to get some clothes made. In these small, enclosed stalls the walls were decked with lengths of cloth in tons of crazy patterns. Orange, blue, red, and green mixed liberally, sometimes in pictures, sometimes just repeating patterns. Several had names of organizations (cell phones, Mali 2002, or a midwife association) while some depicted lips with a lipstick tube, interlocking keys or African shields. The shopkeepers were kind and a couple spoke some English.
The market itself was what you'd expect—busy, hot, smelly. Food stuff sat out, often swarming with flies. Piles of onions, garlic, mounds of ginger, red and green scotch bonnets, spices in open bowls, black pungent sticky balls of "seasoning." Dried fish feature prominently all over, like little strips of leather, sometimes straight or curled in U-shapes, almost eel-like or tiny, flaky. They come from the nearby Niger river, but I still wouldn't want to eat any of them. Piles of flip-flops and cut-rate electronics—small radios, flashlights, cassette tapes. Smells pervaded the air—odd spices, sewage, piled fish, bodies and sweat though Malians are very clean, often bathing multiple times a day. Mud puddles still lined the center of some paths from the rain the night before, bits of trash stuck and trampled into it. People wandered the streets quickly, but without pushing or rudeness. They simply go about their business, or flow around those who pause.
With the fabric in hand, we went to the best tailor Marcy's found here—a place called Surprise Couture. The tailor was a tall, lanky man, with a neat white shirt half unbuttoned and straight-lined gray trousers. He lounged, long and spread out wherever he sat while we told him (via Marcy) what we were looking for. Pictures helped tremendously. On the walls were "models," hangers with faces painted above them with different hairstyles and names.
Picked up soda after that, which comes in crates of glass bottles you return to the place of sale for refills. Got cold orange Fantas which after tramping around the market for a long time tasted fantastic.
Dinner was at Veronika's house, a German missionary who has been in country for several years. We had a tasty sauce over couscous, with a powdered maringa leaf that smelled like green tea to sprinkle over top. Another German missionary, Gabby, was visiting in from the bush—she's been in country for over 20 years. An enjoyable evening, although the house was warm. Marcy tells us that Veronika will wear a sweater if they're going to run AC in the car!
Dinner under African Skies (6/9/2006)
After work, we had a special invitation to a true Malian meal. Our host was Dan and Marcy's househelp, Nuhu. We piled into two vehicles, the NW team, the whole Nesselroades' family, Jack and Jerry (the electrical team) and Veronika. Our destination was further back from the main road than we'd been in Koutiala before, and the roads got even bumpier. I can't imagine what people must drive over out in the bush!
We were greeted warmly on our arrival, Nuhu and other family members and neighbors welcoming each person individually as we filed into the compound. Nuhu's family is somewhat unique in that they don't share the walled off compound they live in with any other families. Typically, four or five separate families would share the space.
Low chairs sat in a wide circle over hard packed dirt. One small building off the front corner of the compound was the kitchen. The main house itself had a porch with a black and white, battery powered TV blaring. It had soccer on to start, but changed over to other program as the evening continued. Through the evening, termites swarmed over those of us who sat nearest the lamps.
After a few minutes the food was brought out. It came in an assortment of vessels—uncovered blue plastic, enameled metal pots rimmed with red, a plain metal bowl with a plate-like lid. The family placed the food around the circle, several of them moving and rearranging the food others had set down.
Next came the handwashing. In Mali, the meal is shared from vessels in the center, so washing first, publicly, is a very practical step. It is also a country largely without TP, so only the right hand may touch food dishes. I expected that restriction to be harder than it ended up being.
On to the dishes. The center of Malian food is "toh," a cooked, almost-paste that's used as a utensil. It is almost like cooled Cream of Wheat, largely flavorless and a little sticky. You take some toh, dip in the sauce, then eat. Typical Malian toh is made from millet, which I've heard can be funky tasting and gritty. For us, especially, they made the evening's toh instead from corn flour (same as fufu in Cameroon).
The main sauce was red (tomato?) with okra and onions. The flavor was nice, although it strung out when you lifted a bite. A beef bone rested in the center of the sauce.
Another dish was beans with sweet, caramelized onions on top. This was tasty, though didn't strike me as identifiably African. If you'd served me that in a Mexican restaurant, I wouldn't have blinked.
Last was a large pan with rice, cabbage, fish and bitter tomatoes. Yam fries were nestled down in the rice too. The fish was mild and white, served in big sections still on the bone—delicious. Even the cabbage was good, still with some structure and plenty of flavor from the spices in the rice. The rice itself was moist and delicious. Bitter tomatoes didn't live up to its name for me—it was somewhat bitter, but mostly tasted like an unripe tomato.
Dessert was a ripe banana and a porridge made from millet, milk and a little sugar. Not very sweet, but I enjoyed it. This dish had more of the graininess I'd anticipated since a lot of the Malian diet revolves around millet.
" You like beans"
In Mali, there are good natured tribal rivalries, and from someone's last name you can often tell what group they're from. It's common for them to say things like "Oh, you're from that family, you must like beans." And it pretty much means exactly what it does back here in the States.
Tea after, though we didn't stay for all three rounds as it was getting late. One slightly different thing about the meal was that only our host ate with us—the rest of the family waited or had already eaten. We all praised his wife's cooking, and she smiled as she accepted our thanks. I guess it's just a normal aspect of their culture, however unfair it might seem to us. Another thing we learned late in the meal from Veronika was that having four dishes was more than they'd typically have at a Malian wedding. Wow, what an honor!
After the meal, Nuhu told us about how his family and his wife's family had become Christian. He spoke a lot about the fetishes and secret mysteries in the village, and how people lived in fear of the sorcery. Nuhu's father-in-law had a son who fell ill, but all the magic and fetishes could not heal him. So he went to the Christians, and his son got better. It took a vast amount of courage to make that kind of change in those times when Christianity meant ostracism and difficulty at least, but many times death as well. In the face of that, he still converted and his family with him. Nuhu says things are different now, but it is strange and chilling to hear stories like that under the darkened sky in Africa.
River Trip to Kalabugu (6/10/06)
Saturday we took off midmorning to drive back to Segou. The van had been fixed and buzzed along. Did we mention it has AC? From Segou we boarded a canoe to ride up the Niger River. I'd originally had an image of a canoe like we used in Boy Scouts—slim, tippy metal structures that to this day give me premonitions of soaking. I was pleased, then, to find a craft thirty feet long, painted blue and wide enough to accommodate three people side-by-side on the benches. Best of all, it had a woven cover over its entire length, making wonderful shade from the sun. Boarding was a fun process. Planks ran along the side of the boat for its entire length. About eight inches wide, you sidestepped down these until you were even with your seat, clutching all the time to a rail on the roof. Since all you could really see was the woven cover, someone else had to tell you to duck in. The boat swayed, especially when you crouched down to slide in.
The Niger was a fairly calm river, a brownish-green hue. Although the day was warm, the threat of schistosomiasis kept us all from taking any cooling from it. Schistosomiasis is a parasite commonly found in slow moving water (anything below 5 mph). It's often carried by snails, and can penetrate even through healthy skin without a wound. The boat's motion did make for a decent breeze as we passed along. Small clusters of water lilies, green and unflowering at the moment, drifted with us. Birds flew along the shores among the cattle, goats, sheep and occasional bathers. We passed a few boasts being poled down the river. The pole only went in a couple feet some of the time, the draft was so shallow. Our motor hummed along, keeping a steady pace toward Kalabugu, the pottery village.
When the canoe landed, we immediately gathered a crowd of children around us. They clamored for handouts, demanding our bandanas, cameras, bags, anything. Dawna had some plastic bracelets that she gave out, but the children kept tight around until our guide told them to go.
Between the river and town was a barren, dusty waste. We stopped at a pair of acacia trees, which the guide explained were considered sacred since they bloom in the heart of the dry season giving life to people and livestock. From there we could see the mud walls of the village and prominently, the mosque. Most people associate Islam with the Middle East, but it is a big influence in Africa too. It's interesting to see how it has mixed with the local animist religions, so there's no conflict seen between treating the acacia as sacred and worshiping Allah. Not at all the picture of Islam that we think of in the West.
The village apparently had three parts—farmers, fishers, and those who made pottery and tools. Pottery was the women's work, and we would be in that section of the village for our tour. Today was firing day.
Low, mudded buildings formed almost a maze, which our guide led us through while the sun beat down. He took us to a place where four Y's of old wood stood upright in the ground though the original shelter had rotted away. Apparently, here the elders used to settle disputes, though now it was done elsewhere.
In the center of the village, by a really stagnant pond, the work to prepare for firing was well underway. Women carried the week's pottery out into the open area with large ashen heaps that lifted clouds at their footsteps. The pots were placed, then covered with brush which would be lit later in the day. The heat even then was intense, punishing without shade. If I stood in one spot too long I could feel the tops of my toes sizzling. Although Mali is hot, truly hot, most of the time we didn't contend with the sun. It's so warm, you simply stay inside where at least there's cover. I can't imagine working like those women, exposed to the sun's 118º onslaught.
We met the village chief, an old shriveled man with eyes clouded by cataracts beneath his white headpiece. He wore a flowing turquoise garment that looked like something from another time, but it is present day in Mali. It's strange to see pottery fired, grain pounded by hand and old styles of clothing juxtaposed with cell phones, radio towers and electronics for sale at the roadside. Our guide paid a "tax" to the chief, and we moved on.
A couple team members, Amber included, started to really feel the heat in a bad way. We ended up not staying for the firing to start, which apparently is even hotter, with smoke for good measure. We did get to see more of how the pottery was shaped—all by hand, though you'd have sworn the end product had come from a wheel. One woman we watched used flip-flops to smooth it, and odd bits of debris to mark patterns in the softened clay.
We also got to see the men, toolmakers at work. The wheel for bellowing was built from a bicycle, which a small boy turned. Half a dozen men hung out in the shade as one or two oversaw the work. A pile of completed plows sat behind them.
The village was several notches poorer than what we'd seen in Koutiala—the whole place seemed nearly colorless, beaten by the heat, smelling of sewage and dust. Can you imagine being born to that life? Can you imagine working clay with your hands and feet, sweating under 115 degree skies to bake pots which will sell for $4?
I can't, even after I've seen it.
Rest Day (6/11/2006)
Went to Malian church this morning. Dan and Marcy attend at a Bible school a few minutes outside of town. The space was round, with open windows and doors on all sides. Attendance was low as school wasn't in session, but still the concrete rattled with the echo of voices raised in Bambara with drums. Amber says that a service full-up is an amazing experience.
At lunch we met some missionaries, just returned with their daughters from school. One had just graduated—class of seven from the international school in Senegal. Interesting to hear them talk about it and realize that a decade ago that was Amber. Her family lived in Cameroon as missionaries while she was in her last three years of high school. She spent part of that time in a boarding school elsewhere in the country. It's easy to forget how difficult that aspect of life is for missionary families. They leave behind their loved ones, and often times even have to be separated from immediate family to provide adequate education for their kids. It's a tough calling.
Amber wasn't feeling too well, so she slept most of the afternoon. Sarah hadn't been doing well at all either. We're a bit concerned that she has giardia. If her symptoms don't clear up, it'll be cipro (an antibiotic) for her soon. You just can't mess around with that stuff.
Back to Work (6/12/2006)
Showering was one of the few reliable weapons against the heat, although only the first few seconds were really cold. Amber and I termed this the "cold blast" and had frequent negotiations over who got that precious first spot. Mali is the only place I've ever taken a "cold" shower and seen the mirror fog up as a result.
Walked out to the hospital this morning thanks to misplaced keys, but it was pretty mild with a high overcast that helped make it bearable. Set up more software and wrote documents for them, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Hard to imagine we only have until Thursday to finish our work. I know a lot of the team feels (in my opinion unjustly) that they haven't done much, but there's been plenty to keep me busy. Not a lot of computer-savvy folks out here, so it seems like every machine, printer or network needs a bit of TLC. It's been nice to feel productive and needed, and since they don't typically have IT available, they're very thankful.
Capitané, a firm white fish from the Niger River, for dinner with a tomato sauce. Had mango milkshake after. I've never really loved mango at home, but over here it's in season and so sweet, it's really grown on me. It'll be sad to lose that. I hear it just isn't the same.
Nesselroades' Theatre (6/13/2006)
After work, we came home to a most wonderful announcement—a new movie theatre had opened in Koutiala. I know, it sounds improbable in a town where many people run TVs off battery, but it happened right next door. We received invitations from the proprietors, Emma, Ellie and Maggie, during dinner, and we all planned to go.
The girls had made a sign for the front gate, a sign for the snack area, and individual tickets. Snacks included Coke, grape Kool-Aid, brownies and Jiffy Pop (a new experience for the girls, popped over the gas stove). They set the table up at the back of the living room, with a cooler beside hidden by a turned-over footrest to serve as the snack bar. Chairs around the room provided ample seating for all.
We came in just after the movie started and sneaked to our seats. They were showing The Pacifier, which made for an entertaining evening… if not necessarily our first choice of films.
A good time was had by all.
Of Termites and Baobab Trees (6/14/2006)
Marcy picked us up after work in the Land Rover today. The paved road ends half a mile before the hospital, but the road itself carries on into the countryside. On the trip from Bamako we'd seen tons of termite mounds and baobab trees, but no one had gotten a good picture. Today, we were going to remedy that.
Sometimes in Africa, you go off-roading because being off the road actually makes for a smoother, easier drive!
The change of vehicles tells you what the road was like. The unpaved pieces we'd been on before were bumpy, but not too bad. Past the hospital, we found more of what Amber would call "real" African roads. Huge ruts cut across it, easily two feet deep forcing you to make a way around rather than across. Stones jutted up, making a rough, uneven surface to clatter across. Amber and I ended up in the back since there weren't enough seats. Maggie joined us and sat on Amber's lap where, surprisingly, she fell asleep. I couldn't imagine, but there she was, sleeping like a little angel.
The termite mound lived up to expectations—it stood twice my height and about eight feet across. The surface was dry and hard-packed. Emma commented on how long it must have taken them to build it, and she was right—it's amazing. From the large central mound, smaller spires reached up, and holes here and there gave entrances to the mound. Oddly, didn't see a single termite while we were there, although the field was swarming with little red centipedes, ¾ of an inch long Everywhere you looked down you saw centipedes. Really freaked Amber out.
We drove farther until we reached a place where the road sharply declined, with grapefruit-sized stones all over it. From the height we could see the vegetation running off to a gorgeous, misty-enshrouded horizon. Only about an hour away on that road was Burkina Faso
On the way back we stopped at a massive baobab tree. The trunk was an easy fifteen feet in diameter. Got pictures with us standing in front of it to give scale, or it would have been hard to convey the sheer size of the thing. Several of its burly branches were so big at the trunk that I couldn't have wrapped my arms clear around them.
Part of the Koutiala Hospital's history is that it grew out of a number of long established CMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance) clinics in the country. An in-country NGO (CPAM) was formed to oversee these clinics, and CPAM eventually had the vision for the hospital as a place to refer serious patients, especially those in need of C-sections.
The village of Baramba is the closest clinic to Koutiala, only about 35 kilometers away. We went with Gail out there on Thursday morning. She's the pediatric nurse practioner, and she used to work way out in the bush. The road into Baramba was fantastic, smoother than some paved roads I've been on the in the States.
Baramba also has a girls' Bible school where we stopped for a tour. It is a very neat thing they are doing there, providing a finishing school. Education is so sorely lacking in the country, especially for women. Many people don't see the point in teaching girls—after all, they're just going to become wives and mothers, the thinking goes. It's tough to see, and to realize how short a time ago it wasn't much different in our country.
The school has a nice facility, with dorms, classrooms (lit with car batteries), cafeteria where the girls eat meals they've prepared, wells and a loom. One of the faculty weaves on the loom to make the thick cotton cloth used to make mudcloth—a style of cloth traditional in Mali, stained with different colors of mud. They get astonishing patterns, colors and variety from such simple ingredients.
Our guide was Simion, an older chaplain who is tall and wise-looking. He spends time at the hospital too, so we'd met him before. We prayed with him for the school, then headed over to the clinic.
In many ways the clinic was a smaller, older version of the hospital. Turquoise tile lined the floors in the main rooms where they see all kinds of problems, not just women and children like Koutiala is focused on. On the wall was a poster, complete with photos, of common eye problems; I kept my own eyes headed the other way. In back they had a big blue plastic freezer from UNICEF, specially designed for remote locations to keep vaccines cold and runs off of kerosene.
In a building next door to the clinic was a single patient, ill with a chest infection and malaria. We visited briefly, asking her permission to pray, which she granted. Her cough sounded so terrible, and her prognosis wasn't particularly good.
A building next door was for maternity, and we walked through the stark, simple rooms where many women bring their children into the world. How different from the high-tech, beautiful birthing suites back in the states. We also had a chance to see some babies—seven women were actually there. So cute! It's hard to see those little ones and know that by the odds at least one or two of them won't reach his fifth birthday. An interesting side note too is how light their skin is when they're born. A few hardly looked African at all except for the dark, full hair on every head.
Went back to the hospital for a short time in the afternoon, then to market with Marcy, Dawna, Sarah, Amber and myself. Dawna drew a crowd of kids with her digital camera; they love to see the pictures, always bursting with smiles at the LCD screen. We bought a bowl, one of the hand axes they use for cultivating, and some wax cloth, shiny and slick.
On the way back to the van, Amber propped the pile of bowls the group had gotten up on her head. She had to hold on with one hand, but given how wide they were, it was the easiest way to carry them. Oh, the laughter that followed us down the street. We were laughing too, and Amber made smiling eye contact with several of her humorous admirers. She says when she smiled at one old man, he almost fell off his chair. Guess they've never seen an ex-pat head-carry!
The house help and night guards had done so much for us, Amber wanted to make sure they were thanked. At her request, Jack asked one of his Malian crew to get four fat chickens, one for each of the men. We sat Daniel and Nuhu down, with Gail speaking Bambara as we presented a box of squawking, panting chickens (did you know chickens pant?) The smiles on their faces were so broad, it was wonderful to see. Bakar, the night guard received his later, and told Amber in French that he was a happy, dancing man because he had a fat chicken.
Another side note about the chickens, one of the in-jokes that has developed revolves around Amber and the chickens. She loves chickens, and has taken at least half a dozen photos of chickens in various states and poses. She so wants us to get chickens back home, but I keep telling her 'No!'
Packing to go the next day went pretty well—only a midnight finish this time. Good thing, because the van packing starts at 6AM sharp.
Back to Bamako (6/16/2006)
Jack and Jerry, the electrical team, were slated to fly out on Friday night, so our trip back to Bamako started early—loading the van at 6AM. This was partially in case of van trouble (which thankfully never happened) and because Jack needed to pick up some electrical supplies to send back to the hospital, and a couple drums for his family.
The drive back seemed far more familiar than that first ride into Koutiala. Some of the landscape farther south was greener by the end of our time in Mali, but the northern portion near Bamako still hadn't gotten regular rain yet. The shacks, mud brick buildings, granaries with roofs like thatch hats, gendarmes at the road stops and wicked speed bumps all seemed common, too common. It was a short time, but enough to see how poor Mali truly is—apparently their unemployment rate is about 70%, and even professionals often return to till the family plot simply to survive.
We got back to the mission rest house and settled in for a while. Amber and I tried to nap, but a power outage killed that idea. The air gets stuffy and almost unbearable in a matter of minutes when the fans go off. You can feel the temperature rising like someone cranked the thermostat to MAX.
Wandered out to some nearby stalls, including one where they sold drums, lined up just feet from the road. Jack tapped a few, but a thickset man with a tattered, sleeveless red shirt shook his head, took the drums between his legs (above the knees) and slapped it hard. "Frappe!" he said. "Frappe!" Not sure exactly what it meant, but we got the idea. Wish we could drum like that.
After dark, we walked a few blocks to a restaurant called La Fueve ("The River"). Now, it's important to understand that the food service industry isn't exactly booming in Mali. Out in Koutiala, a town of 120,000, there's next to nothing if you're looking for a night out (well, at least that Western stomachs could handle). Even Bamako, the capital, doesn't have a lot of places to go.
Imagine then, our surprise to walk in the doors to AC; warm, rich orange and red, tastefully painted walls; bright track lights screamed IKEA; lamps made from metal braziers used locally to make tea; immaculately set tables, dark wood and comfortable seats.
Don't get me wrong, Marcy fed us phenomenally well. But part of eating out is the atmosphere, the different environment that you enter. And boy was this one a change.
The food was delicious. I had steak which came cut into four pieces in a plate of garlic, basil butter sauce. The garlic had a hot, raw bite to it, and the meat was beautifully tender.
Shortly after the meal, Marcy took off with Jack and Jerry to the airport. Everything went smoothly with their departure (lucky guys) and the rest of us headed back to the guest house.
Forgot to mention the other joy of the day—stomach troubles. During the trip I've had minor grumbles here and there, but most cleared up after a short "break" (wink-wink). No such luck today, and just before a five hour van ride. Oi!
Started on septra to cut anything bad off at the pass, and took Immodium, which solved the immediate problems for the journey, even if it didn't make my stomach any happier overall.
A Day in Bamako (6/17/2006)
I blinked awake thinking it was time to get up. Still a bit tired, I showered and didn't realize that it was early still. I took the opportunity to write in the journal, though, until the others were up and around.
Our first activity for the day came to us—a man from Liberian refugee, living in Mali, who makes tablecloths. They're beautiful, mostly one strong color with white silhouettes of different shapes—giraffes, hippos (Mali's national animal) and more abstract patterns. Debbie had arranged for us to bring back 40 of those for some people who'll be selling them as a fund-raiser (same people who made a major donation to build the second building for the hospital and sent the layettes). We packed the tablecloths away in the emptied medical supply duffels, and bought a few of our own.
One day as we were driving along, there were huge numbers of beautiful white butterflies, filling the air with their light, easy floating. Wonderful to see… until they hit the windshield that is.
After that Marcy drove some of us to the smaller artisan market in town. Apparently the larger one is 1) hard to get to 2) swarming with people and 3) pushy. The market we went to spanned four or five narrowly spaced walkways with woven roofing over the paths for shade. Merchants had tiny niches in which they displayed their wares—jewelry of silver; colored stones; beads of all shapes and sizes; fertility statues ranging from tiny to person-height, narrow women and men with elongated features and barely human faces; masks of all sizes, many strange and otherwordly; mud cloth; drums; cars, motorbikes and planes fashioned from discarded cans (Nescafé, Coke, insecticide); leather boxes; leather picture frames; ornate Touareg knives in decorated sheaths. One man offered us a seashell the size of an American football, claiming it was from Mali. Um, isn't Mali landlocked?
Amber stepped up to negotiate for us and it was so fun to watch. Bargaining in Africa is truly a sport and makes for good spectating too. She got a 27,000 necklace down to 11,000 as they used a digital calculator to pass numbers back and forth. With another she swapped between English and French. "You're killing me." "Too high." "Was I born yesterday?" "This man took all my money!" on the way out, both of them laughing. She told one man, "Final price. Last price." He smiled and said, "In Africa, no last price."
We went back to the rest house to furiously arrange packs to accommodate newly gotten souvenirs. Next step was to drop off our bags at the Air France office in town. Bamako, the only airport in Mali only gets one Air France flight a day. Bad news, then, because the outgoing pilot was ill. By law, the pilot coming in couldn't turn around right away, so unless an alternate pilot appeared, we were out of luck.
How discouraging! Everyone was down about the news. We prayed a pilot would be found, but it didn't pull through. Our flight was delayed until 8:30AM the next day. This completely blew all our connections, and from Bamako you can't schedule much at all, so further arrangements would have to wait for Paris.
On the up side, we got to stay at the Sofitel—Hotel Libya, possibly the nicest hotel in the whole country. Apparently, Kadafi owns the hotel. Weird. Part of the story around that, though, is that when he comes to Bamako, he doesn't stay there. Instead, he stays in a tent. We had to go to the airport to get the vouchers, which took ages. Some of the team wasn't happy about the wait, but a team of 14 were arriving that night. The idea of not having a place to stay, but coping with the chaos of a new team sounded like the last thing I wanted.
On the shuttle ride to the hotel, had an interesting conversation with a Dutch lawyer who was also delayed. His story was sad, because he was heading home to be with his wife who has cancer. Our desire to get back seemed kind of insignificant next to the time this delay had cost him. He works with some type of international financing group (don't recall the details), and had a lot to say about the ways that the West has and continues to cause problems for Africa and much of the rest of the world. It's sobering to consider the scale of problems in the world. We've all heard it before, but after being so close to poverty, knowing that there's no easy solution, no quick fix, it's hard to think about.
Hotel was pretty nice, with lots of shiny tile and chrome in the bathroom, and dark wood furniture throughout. Set a 5:30AM wakeup call and hit the hay… after Amber came down with dysentery. Glad it waited until we got to the hotel to hit.
Air Chance (6/18-19/2006)
On the flight over, the old lady I sat by for a few moments had called Air France, "Air Chance." At the time I thought it was pretty funny, but little did I know how true it would be.
Amber's stomach troubles the night before persisted, although the Cipro helped get her to the point of only looking slightly grey and deathly. Our team member, Sarah, was having more trouble too, but we weren't about to miss that flight. We caught the first shuttle out to the airport, then made it to a waiting area via an absurd number of stairs. From there we got on buses out to where we loaded up into the plane. No armed guards to speak of this time, and it was actually relatively cool. They did have several people checking through all the carry-on bags, though. Onboard, before takeoff, they sprayed insecticide, attendants walking down the aisle with the misting bottles and fabric to cover their mouths and noses. Don't worry, though, it's perfectly safe. Hmm…
An otherwise uneventful flight landed us in Paris, where the fun began. It was about 4PM, but only one more flight was headed to the States that day (JFK), and it was full. The woman helping the Portland travelers simply restored us to our original flight plan, just a day later. Or that was what she said she'd done anyway.
Our accommodations were nowhere near as nice—tiny rooms at the Ibis, think Motel 6, only smaller. We appeared to be the only non-noisy-touring-high-school-students in the whole place. Food would have done an American buffet proud, but seemed about as unfrench as I could imagine. It was too late, and we were all too tired and too sick to make the 40 minute ride (each way) for a dash into Paris. A night in Paris, how romantic… ha!
The tablecloths we bought were made by a process called batik design. It's done by shaping wax on a cloth, then dying the cloth and removing the wax. This process is sometimes repeated with different colors or designs. The resulting patterns are quite stunning to see, especially with bright, vibrant colors for the background.
At dinner, Sarah didn't come down, so we checked on her and she was feeling much worse. She complained of aches, chills, headache and GI issues. She looked absolutely miserable. It wasn't cool in Paris at all, but she was asking for more blankets to pile on. All classic malaria signs. She called her doctor at home and eventually gave in to Amber strong-arming her into starting a course of Arsumax—a great anti-malarial only available in Africa. Cost $7 a course, and I'm so glad we bought it on Dan's recommendation.
Another early morning on a shuttle to the airport. We arrived in plenty of time in a shiny, airy concourse that sparkled in the morning sun. Sarah curled up under the chairs—why do airports rarely provide any sort of reclining seats, or even benches you can lie on? They seem to be in the business of making people wait, and yet punish you if you wanted to actually rest for a while. A short flight thereafter took us back to Heathrow where we changed over to United.
And what do you know, we hit a snag! Air France in Paris hadn't been able to get us actual boarding passes the day before, so we made our way to the United desk. There we found that somehow our "rebooked" tickets had been set for the original date again, you know, the one that we entirely missed. I had been satisfied with how smoothly the transition went in Paris until that moment, but then it fell apart. Of course, the Heathrow-SF leg that we hadn't been booked for was now full. We had several minutes of anxiety as we waited to hear whether we could get rebooked yet again. Turns out we could, but through LAX—an extra hour further from London and Portland both.
In this, though, we were able to see some of God's provision. Sarah's flight was departing a couple hours after our original flight was slated to leave. She would have been on her own for a while in Heathrow, so it was a blessing that our new schedule put us leaving after her. She was a little better, but she was sleeping a lot too, so I'm not sure how she would have made it to her flight. As it was, she managed to get some Phenergan down (anti-nausea drug that's OTC in England, but prescription in the States) which helped with the nausea and let her get a little rest. We saw her off once her gate popped up on the screen. She made it home safely, although it took a day or two for us to hear from her.
Lunch at the horrendously expensive T.G.I. Friday's—think all the numbers are the same, but it's pounds instead of dollars. Tasty $20 burgers. Yikes! I mostly try not to think about exchange rates when I'm in England for exactly that reason. The waiter spoke with a thick Cockney accent and kept explaining things very deliberately, like we didn't share a common language.
We arrived at the gate to board and found that by some mistake, the ticket counter here in London had printed off two boarding passes for Amber's LAX to PDX leg, but nothing for Heathrow to LAX. We'd all remained fairly cool to this point, but a solid dose of panic set in. With how close they announce the gates, there was no way we could make it back where we had originally been issued the tickets. They ended up letting us through and sorting it out, but for several minutes we were left waiting while the line passed us by, wondering if it was going to happen.
Eleven hour flight from England to LAX was as bad as expected. Amber's knee, which she bonked on the river boat, kept her up much of the time. I also didn't sleep much, reading and watching King Kong (no sound… my choice) instead. The flight attendants on that leg were our one bright spot—cheerful, helpful, all around fun. They dubbed Amber their favorite passenger, and it lightened up the monotony a bit.
LAX connection was short, and we found there that Amber, Sue and I all lost our luggage when it didn't pop up with customs. Bob and Dawna got theirs fine, but no such luck with the rest. Honestly, with our changes in itinerary, I was surprised anything made it. Kind of funny, but I think that we had our passports and boarding passes checked three separate times in LAX—once at the bottom of an escalator, and again immediately at the top, then again about ten feet away before the metal detectors. Never know who might have appeared in the middle of that escalator!
Postscript on the bags—we got home Monday night, and our four bags trickled in through Saturday. The last came with a rip up the length of one side partially "mended" with packing tape. The phone "service" Amber called asked if there was a TSA note. Um, I think typically they try to open bags, not savage them.
The hop to Portland felt much longer than it was. It had finally settled in that we would make it home that night. With the smaller seats and the excitement, I could hardly sit still.
Caught a taxi home from the airport. The driver was African-American, and Amber spotted a copy of the Koran in the middle console. She struck up a conversation about what we'd seen, what Mali was like.
At one point he asked about differences, and Amber said, "You know, if you go looking for differences, you'll find 'em. If you go looking for similarities, you'll find that too."
It's so true. We traveled thousands of miles, but found there the common joys and heartbreaks of being human. The people were warm and welcoming, and it was such a blessing to contribute in some small way to their lives. We went looking for ways to connect, commonalities to share, and I think we found them.