Friday, 22 February 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part I

“Allow me to tell you that myself, I am Antonio. And this is the lovely lady who is my wife Alicia. You are going to Djenne, no? Welcome my friend, you are number five. Now we just wait for four more. Stand here, you don’t need to move.”

I was used to being surrounded, hustled and cajoled by locals in Mopti; trying to get me to stay at their hotel, travel in their taxi or buy their artwork. It’s a busy hub of a town in the centre of Mali, a base from where people launch their trips to Timbuktu, hikes in Dogon country, or visits to the wondrous mosque of Djenne. Built on the banks of the Niger River, Mopti port serves as a centre for river transport up and down the country. Tourists get mobbed by men touting once in a lifetime opportunities, and I had learnt to deal with it.

But this Italian gentleman, Antonio, was something else. In his thirties, short and stout, he’d taken it upon himself to organise the other passengers and distribute vital information.  The guys who normally had this job were leaning against the taxi and laughing among themselves, taking a breather from their task of recruiting new passengers.

I got talking to Betty, an elder American lady who was also travelling to Djenne.

“I hate this place” she told me in her syrupy Californian drawl. “I’ve travelled through Europe, North America and South East Asia, but this place is so dusty and so expensive. The food here is so bad, but in South East Asia it’s superb. And the people! In South East Asia they’re so gentle and polite, but here they are rude – all they want is money. Can you believe yesterday a young man told me I know we don’t have much time, but I just want to get to know you better, while he was caressing my arm! I told him where to go, oh yes, I’m an old lady for crying out loud.”

Lowering her voice, and with a glance to the left and right she said “And that Antonio, he’s so bossy and thinks he knows everything. Reminds me of that air-sole I used to be married to.”

The creaky old Peugeot taxi was finally packed full enough for us to leave. I tried to ignore Betty’s chatter and focus on the flat, barren landscape we were passing through. Away from the river the land looked desolate.It was made even less hospitable by the overcast sky, misty air and gusts of wind that blew up clouds of dirt.

Close to Djenne we had to cross a river, requiring a barge to carry us over. Standing at the edge, looking into the water, I found myself chatting with Antonio. “That Betty is to me so annoying. She won’t keep herself quiet and won’t agree with anything I suggest to” he said, adding with a sly grin “yesterday a young local man told me he was interested in her, and I told him to go for it because she’s single and keen for some action!” He gave me a wink.

...continued next time...


Mopti's busy port

Ten people fit in an old Peugeot taxi. It broke down more than once. 

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