x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Being in a land without a concept of time: Mali

Things in Mali tend to happen when they happen. Scott MacMillan learns how to wait and ends up being late.

One of the European travellers at the Sleeping Camel, a Bamako guest house, notes that Africans tend to have a different perception of time. This is actually a polite way of saying that everything is always late, and there's a lot of sitting around doing nothing. Buses, for instance, never leave at the scheduled hour of departure, and even more rarely arrive when they're supposed to.

"Eight hours!" Daniel, a Ghanaian sitting behind me on the all-night minibus from the Mali-Senegal border to Bamako, had said with disbelief. I'd just told him what the man who'd sold me the bus ticket early in the afternoon had given as the likely driving time to the Malian capital. "Eight hours!" Daniel repeated, astonished, like he could hardly believe his ears. "Did you look at the map? It's not possible!" Indeed, we arrived the next morning, 16 hours after departure. This is, frankly, no big deal.

I'd already kicked around Bamako for several days, taking care of paperwork - my passport full, I'd found it more economical to apply for a new one and wait two weeks for its arrival than to add new pages - along with visa applications. Visas, in West Africa, are a major hassle. Nearly every country between Marrakech and Cape Town requires one for almost all nationalities, and they don't come cheap. A Burkina Faso visa costs about US$100 (Dh367) and twice that at the border, roughly the GDP of the country. Nigeria requires a letter of invitation unless - and this is information you can only pick up on the travellers' grapevine - you apply in Bamako, in which case it's a simply process of filling out a form and handing over a wad of cash.

"Did you see the price?" says the lady at the Nigerian embassy with a wry smile, looking up at a table of nationalities: over $150 (Dh550) for Americans, the costliest on the list. In a daisy-chain-like motif, for those coming overland from the north, a five-day Angolan transit visa - or so I've heard - can only be procured these days in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. And this is by no means certain.

Things tend to happen when they happen, if they happen. Waiting for my new passport would give me an excuse to explore the rest of Mali - something I'll call the Great Mali Detour, for my winding overland route down West Africa is now interrupted by a jaunt to Timbuktu and back again, taking in that fabled caravan town; a hike through the stunning land of the Dogons, a people who live on and in the shadow of a majestic escarpment, where they hang onto idiosyncratic animist practices; the city of Djenné, whose great mosque is the world's largest mud-brick structure; and a pleasant boat ride on the Niger and Bani rivers.

The receptionist at the Sleeping Camel assures me that the Bamako-Mopti night bus leaves at 5pm, even though they write 4pm on the tickets. I'm anxious to get moving again, so I arrive at 4.20, only to find the engine running and the conductor waiting at the entrance of the bus. "Scott," he says, for my name is on his list. "You are late. You are very late."

Late? I'd almost forgotten the concept even existed. Not only is the bus ready to leave and waiting for me, but it's also packed - and about 50 degrees inside. Guilt washes over me like the sweat running down my face, yet nobody gives me so much as a dirty look, either out of politeness or because waiting in such conditions is such a normal occurrence.

Shortly outside Bamako, a woman boards and sits down next to me. She's agitated, the way some people are always agitated, shouting incessantly in Bambara with florid, angry gestures. The syllables come out like gunfire, never ending, and I wonder what she could possibly be on about.

Riding this overnight bus was unpleasant, to say the least - the shouting, the dust, the filth, the heat and the strangeness of everything around me - and my mind was elsewhere, wishing my body was too, until something happened that completely changed my outlook.

The daredevil driver began racing the bus next to him, trying to overtake it on a narrow two-lane road. The woman stood up and began shouting at the driver, coming close to tears. Fearing for their lives, the other passengers did the same, but the driver ignored them. My pulse quickened as the passengers began screaming. I understood one word only: Allah. They were not addressing the driver anymore.

When the passengers calmed - yes, we all lived to tell of it - I found myself more present in the moment than I'd ever thought possible. I almost laughed. This is new, I thought. This is somehow vital. I leaned my head back and looked out the window, up at the stars, spotting the crooked W of Cassiopeia, fettered to her rock - the constellation a lone sign of familiarity in an utterly alien world.


Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com