Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hotel La Falaise

Hotel la Falaise
Map of Mali showing location of Hotel la Falaise, Bandiagara

Our upstairs bedroom corridor 

The hotels we stayed at in Mali all had their own charm (except the one in Timbuktu), but none more so than the Hotel La Falaise in Bandiagara. It was built around a central tree-filled courtyard and was quite magical in the evenings and early mornings. We loved the continental breakfasts we had everywhere in Mali - coffee and the most delicious baguettes and jam (and butter if you asked for it).

The central courtyard which had three African grey
parrots loose up in the trees. They made a real
racket extremely early in the morning

Breakfast of coffee and baguettes in the courtyard

It was quite magical here in the evening

The evening we stayed there we decided to have dinner in their upstairs resturant. It was an absolutely delicious meal; some sort of baked tomatoe starter followed by fish and baked potatoes. The setting and meal just seemed so exotic and romantic to me...utterly memorable!

The upstairs restaurant across the courtyard from our room

The upstairs restaurant

Fish with baked potatoes and a delicious sauce

Mud Cloth And Dogon Doors

Mud cloths for sale displayed on walls

Before we were taken for lunch at the one Dogon village, we were taken to another where they dyed the famous Malian mud cloth. This was done in vats of dye made from local plants and was extremely labour intensive. Malian mud cloth is made from cotton grown in Mali which is then laboriously spun and woven into strips. They are then sewn together and dyed in wonderful patterns. The final cloths are heavy and works of real beauty.

Vats of dye for the mud cloth, made
from local plants

Mud cloths, in various stages of the dying
process, drying in the sun

We were, of course, taken to inevitable area of the village where they were selling curios, most notably the famous Dogon doors, but firmly resisted buying anything as we'd already bought such a lot and the doors were really too heavy to take on the plane. Smaller versions of these doors are also used as window shutters.

A carved Dogon window shutter

A Dogon Village Afternoon

We were offered the use of these mattresses for a siesta

We were told that Ian couldn't climb up to the old Dogon cliff dwellings until 3pm as it was too hot, (can't say we disagreed with that) so we all settled down to a snooze, and in Ian's and my case, climbing up onto the roof to explore and admire the view.

The 'hotel' accommodation was either in one of
the rooms whose doors you can see below
 or under the nets up on the roof

One way of reaching the sleeping quarters on the roof was
up these terrifyingly unsafe-looking tree log ladders

Once 3pm arrived, I followed Ian and our local Dogon guide to the outskirts of the village so that I could get some photo's of their climb. I found myself standing under a tree right next to a group of village children who were being babysat by two of the oldest women I'd seen in Mali so far - they looked like being in their late 80s or early 90s, but with these harsh living conditions it's often hard to tell. Both women were sitting on the ground without any backrests sorting through baskets of grain. neither had glasses of course, so I don't know how they were seeing what they were doing. The one old lady barked out some orders to some of the children who were getting over-excited by my presence and they seemed to listen to her. They were extremely respectful in fact.

The two extremely old Dogon women and the children they
were babysitting. Note the little boy with the swollen
stomach (back left) probably caused by malnutrition

To my absolute amazement, she gave an order to a child, and this child ran off and returned with a stool which she then indicated to me was for me to sit on. This old lady was sitting on the ground and yet was polite and hospitable and considerate enough to see that I was comfortable! I was so humbled and I must say that this is the an example of African hospitality that we have witnessed time and again! While I was sitting there, I had a chance to get a good look at the children, who clearly viewed me as the entertainment for the afternoon and were trying to get my attention...too cute. I found their level of poverty depressing though. One little boy was naked with a runny nose, and all the other children were dressed very poorly and were extremely dirty and thin.

Ian said that the cliff dwellings were amazing and well worth the effort even though the heat really got to him. There were also grain stores built just outside the caves. The current Dogons still maintain the caves and use them for tribal rituals such as circumcision.

Ian and guide climbing up to the old Dogon cliff dwellings

The view from up there

The granaries were built just in front of the caves

Ian looking into the caves

Decorated walls

The granaries

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dogon Country

We had a continental breakfast in the courtyard of the Motel Severe. The bread in Mali, always baguettes, is wonderful! Then we hired ourselves an accredited guide (no escaping that) and set off for Dogon country. The Dogon area is the most visited in Mali. To quote the Bradt Travel Guide, “There are about 350,000 Dogon people living on the plateau, cliffs and plain of an area in the south of the administrative region of Mopti.”

    We saw a number of naturally occuring lily ponds
Onion fields

The countryside was quite lovely and we saw many naturally occurring lily ponds and onion fields. Onions are an important crop here. I saw a man watering his onion field with two calabashes and couldn’t help wondering why he didn’t make his life easier by using two plastic buckets. These onions are ground into a paste, rolled into balls and sold as far afield as Cote d’Ivoire.

My shoes and swollen feet causing great interest

In all we visited about four villages. The first was on a hill above the escarpment. I caused quite a stir among a group of women who were walking past as I climbed out of the car. They were staring at my feet and talking excitedly amongst themselves. Then one of them pressed her finger into my swollen foot and reported back to the group - much discussion, more staring at my foot. Our guide came to see what all the fuss was about and told me that they were fascinated by my shoes and my swollen foot. I explained to him that I’d had an accident to it and when he relayed that information there were ah’s and oh’s all around as the mystery was solved. they then inspected my watch. This whole episode took about 10 mins and greatly amused Ian. There was no mockery at all in their behaviour, only genuine, friendly interest in me.

Inside the old man's hut. Note the holes for the
'bao' game in the floor

 In the village we were ushered into a low hut where two extremely old men were sitting on the floor making ropes from twine. We were told to take a seat on a bench and then we talked to the one old man through the interpreter. He pointed to his eyes and said he needed medicine. We explained that we didn’t have any eye-drops, but he shook his head and pointed to Ian’s glasses and told us that that was what he needed. Only then did I see that his eyes had cataracts. What the poor old man needed was not spectacles, but a simple eye op. He had such a sweet, wrinkled old face, and it made us feel wretched that such a simple thing was quite impossible. Both my father and Ian’s have had these ops and it made a huge difference to them. I also noticed that he had deep scars all down both legs, so I asked the interpreter if it was permissible to ask him about them? He then told us that the old man said that he’d got them from fighting as a young man.

The other thing that was quite remarkable about that hut was how cool it was in the midday heat! The floor was rock, the very low ceiling of branches and some covering,and the top of the roof high and conical. Cut into the stone floor was a game that is played all over Africa and which we know as ‘bao’ (pronounced as in the 'bow' of a boat) from our travels in Malawi.

View from the escarpment down
onto Dogon country

After that we drove down a mountain pass to the escarpment below. Once again the scenery was quite spectacular. From one part of the pass we got our first glimpse of the Dogon cliff dwellings which are no longer inhabited but are still maintained and used for some ceremonial purposes. The people used to sleep in the caves on the side of the cliff (some say for security from marauders, others for protection from lions and hyenas) and then they built their granaries just in front of the caves clinging perilously to the side of the cliffs. They are a unique, amazing sight! later that afternoon Ian and the guide climbed up to them and went into the caves which he said were claustrophobic.

Old Dogon cliff dwellings

A closer view of the cliff dwellings

All the baobab trees had been scarified
like this in every Dogon village

Some villages had beautiful mud mosques. Note the
 protected baby mango tree in the foreground

After being taken to the village where the men dye the mud-cloth (unusual as most books say that it's the women who dye the cloth - and this time firmly resisting buying yet another one), we were finally taken to yet another village for lunch. Some other tourists were there, too, as well as three young French school teachers who were living in the village for three months and teaching there. Apparently this happens every year. When I saw the Spartan living arrangements, I was impressed by their dedication, I can tell you! Tourists also stay there as this place was an ‘hotel’. There were mattresses and mosquito nets on all the roofs and Spartan rooms with a thin mattress on the floor. The toilet and showers were roofless and the toilet had the usual cement floor with a hole in it.

Lunch was a delicious chicken and tomatoe stew in a
Dogon village with our driver and guide

Ian commented that it was a pleasure to eat such a delicious
meal made from scratch with home grown ingredients

Siesta time in the same village

Yours truly relaxing

It was a wonderfully relaxing place to have lunch - we had a delicious chicken stew on rice for lunch made with potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, garlic and onions, then watermelon afterwards. There were chairs made from bamboo that you could lie back in, and they even offered us a one inch foam mattress to lie down on, and several people availed themselves of this offer. The courtyard had the mellow vibe of a 1960’s hippie commune. After lunch everyone settled down to rest until 3pm, as our guide said it was too hot to do anything before that. I had to agree with him!

Monday, November 02, 2009


Rice as far as the eye can see. Note the fishing
baskets in the water

We caught this ferry across the Bani River to Djenne

We left Bamako at 5am on Tuesday for Bandiagari via Djenne. Mali is full of surprises and the area around Djenne was certainly one of them. There are huge wetlands/floodplains where rice is grown. They also seem to grow millet everywhere and some maize. The cattle are very handsome too. Djenne is on an island and we had to get there by ferry over the Bani river which was quite wide. We’ve come at the end of a very good rainy season so all the rivers are full.

The Great Mosque is the largest mud building in the world
and a Unesco World Heritage Site

The Grande Marche in front of the mosque is the site
of a large market every Monday

Djenne is fascinating! It has the amazing Great Mosque which was built on an ancient site of previous mosques in 1907. The mosque is the largest mud building in the world and a wonder to behold! It was being fixed/re-plastered with mud, a job that is done every year after the rainy season, so there was scaffolding everywhere. Tourists used to be freely allowed in, but a few years ago a French magazine fashion shoot in the mosque used scantily clad models in suggestive poses and caused outrage. How culturally insensitive can you get! Our guide said that we could go in if we went to see the chief and arranged a price, but quite honestly, I was just about seeing double by this time and just wanted to sit somewhere in the shade with a cool drink. (The trouble was that we’d left Bamako at 5.30 without even a cup of coffee and after one stop at a garage where they’d let me use the toilet around the back, I was so horrified by that hole in the ground with huge, buzzing flies that I’d decided I’d just better stop drinking. We’d also had no food and now, while everyone else was resting in the shade, our guide was marching us determinedly around in the heat of the midday sun – mad dogs and Englishmen?)

Moorish style architecture on many
of the buildings

Telling our guide that we were tired and thirsty didn’t help as he just carried on. (We discovered later that no guide ever lets you go until you have been to the curio shop and spent some money – we now have a carful of things that we didn’t really want to buy, but the emotional blackmail here knows no bounds.) He took us to the women’s craft co-operative, where the chief lady who had a lovely, gentle smile and a motherly manner, greeted me with a kiss on each cheek, sat us down and began to show us Malian mud-cloths. They are made from hand-spun cotton (Mali is Africa’s largest cotton producer), then woven into long strips and sewn together, then dyed with naturally made dyes. This is a time-consuming and labour-intensive task, and they are really beautiful, but I already have some. Anyhow, we realised that there was no escape, so we chose one and then started the long discussion about price. The price we finally agreed upon must have been really good from the smile that lit her face. She disarmed me further by insisting that I take the gift of a necklace from her – this kind of generosity from really poor people is something that I’ve witnessed time and again in Ghana!

The Bani River from an alley

Dirty streets of Djenne

Djenne  has great contrasts; while the culture, architecture, people and myriad sights and sounds are just a feast for the eyes, there was no feast for the nose (especially when you have a splitting headache). The slime and ooze in all the alleyways was nauseating!!!!  It was no easy task to clean my shoes that evening! Part of the problem was caused by well-meaning NGOs which provided running water to most of the houses (where previously people had washed and done their laundry in the river), but neglected to supply drainage, so everything gets thrown into the alleyways.

Mostly women selling their wares at the market

The smell in this alley was really bad

Cattle, goats and a dog resting in the heat of the day

View over the mud buildings of Djenne

House of the traditional chief

The architecture has a strong Moroccan influence and most of the buildings were double storied with access to the roof and built with mud. They all have courtyards and a maze of passageways. The windows are generally like the one in the paragraph above, and each house abuts the next one. Cows, goats, sheep and chickens are kept in the streets adding to the unhygienic situation.

The restaurant where we ate such tough beef

When we finally got to the restaurant, the beef that they brought us was the toughest I’ve ever tried to eat, biltong included! The beans-with-onions and chips were very nice though, but the truth was that we needed to drink more than eat. By this time we’d realised why we felt so terrible and we’ve taken care to drink a lot ever since. We sweat all the time (perspire is too genteel a word to use when it pours off you) and this, I’ve now happily discovered, means that you seldom need the toilet – voila/QED!

The courtyard of Hotel Sevare
Yours truly having early morning coffee in the courtyard

We  then travelled several more hours to Severe where we found a nice motel, Motel Sevare. All the hotels here have good, clean rooms, showers and air cons. They all have a central courtyard where meals and drinks are served. These courtyards have trees and are wonderfully relaxing places to sit in in the evenings and early mornings before 8am. The one in Sevare had bats feeding on the fruit trees there and making high-pitched squeaks much like a wind-mill.

We walked up the road to where we thought the guidebook said there was a good restaurant, but when we couldn’t find it we decided to just have yet another cold-drink and go to bed as we were exhausted anyway.