Days 5 & 6, Bamako, Mali
Figuring out which countries you will need a visa for and how is the best way, or only way, to get them, is one of the challenges of international travel. Abner figured it all out for us for our trip. Ghana, the last country we’d be visiting, was going to be the trickiest visa. Ghana requires that visitors obtain their visa in their country of residence. So we’d need to get in the States before leaving for our trip. The embassy is in Washington, D.C. So, we mail off our passports and all the requested information and the application in duplicate along with passport photos and pray for the best. Which normally wouldn’t be cause for much concern…however I needed my passport for my trip to Haiti, and would have to send it in when I got back…which would give me less than two weeks for the turnaround. Abner did most of the legwork, including coming to my office to pick up my paperwork and taking it to the Fed-Ex office and doing the calling to check on the status. I got my passport back with my faboo Ghana visa in it just a few days before leaving for West Africa. What a relief it was to have that in hand. Only two more visas would be needed for our travels.
Senegal did not require a visa for Americans. We’d obtain our Malian visa in Senegal. We’d obtain our Burkina Faso visa in Mali.
Hyperbole aside, I nearly died getting our Burkina visa in Mali. I was as close to being in a medical emergency as I’d ever been. It was well over a hundred degrees in Bamako. That was just the air temperature. There was scorching heat coming up from the ground beneath us. The air was toxic. People riding motorcycles often wore medical masks to help filter the pollution from it. On our first day in Bamako we left our hostel, La Mission Catholique, in the late morning to head to the Burkina Faso embassy. Lonely Planet did not provide an exact address, but gave seemingly good directions on how to get to the location. It was just a few miles from our hostel.
We’d arrived that morning after a 36 hour bus trip (that story is another post!) and we were tired. The cabbie we’d hired to bring us to our hostel didn’t know quite know where the hostel was, and didn’t know any of the street names provided on the map we had. He got us to the general neighborhood and then after asking around, finally pulled up to our location. We thought his not knowing his way around well was a fluke…wrongo.
We flagged down a taxi to take us to the embassy because it was already oppressively hot and we didn’t feel like walking even a mile in the heat. This taxi driver had literally no idea where the embassy was. We had a map, but he did not read and could not understand maps. We found this over and over again with the subsequent cabbies we’d hailed. We finally decided we’d just walk there…seemed easy enough…well, easier than trying find a cab was turning out to be.
Getting our bearings wasn’t too difficult. We each had a Nalgene bottle of water with us. We figured we’d find the embassy before our water ran out.
Man, it was hot. I live at altitude, and so I am naturally blood doped. Despite that, I needed to stop frequently to drink water and try to stand in whatever shade I could find to try to cool down. It didn’t take us too long to get to where we knew the embassy had to be close…only we couldn’t find it. We asked and asked, but no one knew where it was. Down one street that seemed to be the one the embassy was right off of, we saw a guy in a uniform. Turns out he was a private security guard for some nice secured housing. He knew where it was and sent us off in the right direction…”down the road, cross the big street, and then go down the street on the right”. He said it in French though. It wasn’t far.
Sooo, off we went. My water was gone, but we’d come back to the little store we passed along the way once we’d dropped off our passports. Only that’s not quite how it went. We went down the road, and we crossed the big street, and we found a road on the right, and we walked down that road, only there was no embassy. We walked around a bit seeing what we could see, only we couldn’t see anything ebassyish looking. We found an official looking building with official looking uniformed men and so I asked them, in rather clear and concise French thank you very much, if they knew where the BF embassy was. By the way they looked at me, you would have thought I was speaking Bikya. I asked and reasked, slowwwwwly and clearly…nope, nada, or should I say, rien! But then a groundskeeper who overheard my attempted conversation approached us and said he knew where it was and that he would take us there, and that it was close. HE understood my French. I understood HIS French. What was with those military guys anyway???? He took us back down the road we’d abandoned, then turned down another dusty little road, and there, just a few hundred meters down THAT road was the embassy! Woo Hoo!!! We’d found it!!! Thanks groundskeeper guy! Here’s a nice tip for you for your help!
By now I’m hot. And beet red. Abner is sharing his precious water supply with me, and soon, his is gone too. We approach the guardhouse and make our request. We are told to return in about two hours, that this is when the passport office is open again. We head off in search of fluids.
IT IS REALLY HOT. We realize that there is a bit of a short cut if we take a different route, so we head back to the little store we passed on the way to the embassy. My heart is pounding and pounding fast. I’m getting redder, and hotter, and drier by the minute. My pulse is 140. My usual resting heart rate is half that. I’m feeling woozy. It’s at this time that I tell Abner that I’m not feeling well at all and that we need to get to some liquids pronto. The shortcut takes us past rotting chicken remains alongside the road. The smell of death makes me even sicker.
I’m about a minute away from delirium and heat stroke when we make it to the store. A couple of men outside the store take one look at me, and they give up their lawn chairs for us. A few liters of fluid and soda and an hour later, my heart rate is down to a hundred, I’m sweating again, and my color and skin temperature has returned to normal. Crisis averted. And lesson learned. No matter how tired I am and now matter how heavy it is, both Nalgene bottles need to go with me all the time.
We trudge back down the road, across the big street, through the shortcut, past the rotting flesh piles, and back to the embassy we go. A short wait and we are allowed access to the embassy’s passport office…
Where we learn that passports are picked UP in the afternoon, but they are dropped OFF in the morning. We’d have to come back tomorrow.
TIA, my friends…This Is Africa.
Since we are pretty certain that no cab driver will know how to get us back to our hostel, we decide to walk back. I was feeling fine to make the walk. Only our walk back didn’t quite go as planned either. At first it was all good. We walked with confidence! We found our way back to the neighborhood we were staying in.
And then we were lost. We got disoriented and turned around. Nothing looked familiar and everything looked familiar. We knew we were close, but we couldn’t find where we were supposed to be. We asked a dozen people for help. No one knew street names. No one knew where the mission was. Abner was getting frustrated. I was starting to panic. I was overheating again. And as all the life-saving water I had imbibed earlier had worked its way through my system, I was now nearly in a bathroom state of emergency. I’d been praying often on this trip already…but now I’m praying out loud. ”Please, Jesus, send us someone who knows where we are and how to get us to where we want to be”. I was begging.
Then, like a beautiful black angel, a young man, working a jigsaw puzzle of all things, motions us over to him. Without even asking him for help, he tells us that the place we are looking for is down this street, turn left at the corner, and then left at the next corner, and it will be on the right.
And it was. And we were safely back to where there was water and a bathroom.
The next day we returned to the embassy early in the morning and dropped off our passports. And we made it back in the afternoon to pick them up. And we stopped for shawarmas on the way “home” where we took victory photos of us and our freshly minted Burkina visas.
It was looking like we’d both be filling all the pages of our passports on this trip! I’ve never filled up a passport before!! At the shawarma restaurant: my Ghana visa on the right, our hard won Burkina Faso visas on our lefts!
None the worse for wear in the end, but getting this visa was a bit scary there for a minute. This was a good place to learn the water lesson. Further down the road, having plenty of water was going to be even more important as finding it would be more difficult.
After shawarmas, and without making a single wrong turn, we made it “home” once again. Feeling a little contented, and a lot jubilant.