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There are certainly better places to eat a fillet of guinea hen with glazed radishes and drink a fine Côte de Beaune than an oversized seat in the business section of Air France. But few places that are weirder, especially at 37,000 feet in the air, somewhere over the Sahara on the afternoon flight from Paris, the capital of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, to Bamako, the capital of Mali, one of the world’s poorest. (And if, after sating yourself on vegetables and fowl, you’re having trouble choosing between the chocolate mousse — “Il est terrible!” confides the Air France hostess, using a phrase of supreme approval — and the sorbets, well, have them both.) Not that Africa doesn’t know wealth: The big men with money, even in Mali, have a standard of living and enough hired help to put most wealthy Americans to shame. It’s just that poverty in Africa is a more central fact of existence than in the United States, and therefore manifests itself in all sorts of mundane ways: bank notes that are used for years, until they are as soft and pliable as Kleenex; automobiles that are kept running until nothing is left except a motor and a chassis; city sewers, which run open along the main roads and stink of filth. Garden hoses are sometimes used at gas pumps, and taximen often don’t have enough money to buy more than four liters of gas, a bit more than a gallon. Every taxi I saw and every intercity bus had a cracked windshield. Sometimes the chink was no bigger than a pebble, but often it had multiple striations from top to bottom. Dashboards are frequently empty of all instruments and ignitions are sometimes gone as well so that a taximan might have to start his car by crossing two wires. And if you want to roll down the window, you have to get the driver’s attention so he can pass you the handle, which fell off years ago and is stored in the glove compartment. Africa deserves a visit because it is one of the most-clichéd places on earth. And what better way to explode a cliché than to see it firsthand. Unlike other countries on the continent, which can be too dangerous for the neophyte traveler, Mali is safe, hospitable, and avowedly democratic, one of the only Islamic democracies in the world. Three times the size of California, but with only 12 million people, Mali is the largest country in Western Africa. And although its colonial history, like much of the vast Saharan region, is French, it has strong diplomatic and military ties to the United States. The press is lively and free, and there is a respected, democratically elected leader of 10 years, Amadou Toumani Touré, otherwise known as ATT. During my eight days in Mali this summer, I saw only a handful of soldiers, and none of them was armed. There are no shakedowns at the various checkpoints at the entrance to each major city, where makeshift barriers of old oil drums are used to prevent commercial vehicles from passing from one city to another without paying a requisite tax. It’s not that far away either. Leave the East Coast on a late-night flight to Paris, arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport around noon the next day, and take the daily Air France flight to Bamako at 4 p.m. By 9:30 p.m., Mali time (two hours earlier than France), you’ve cleared the minimal customs formalities and should be headed to your hotel, which can be the international standard of the Grand Hotel or several other very fine hotels in the capital, or the Djenné, owned by the former Malian minister of culture, where each room is decorated with Malian art and the neighborhood is as authentically African as you can find. Traveling through Bamako, a sprawling, dusty city spread across both sides of the Niger River, it’s quite easy to veer through several hundred years of images in a matter of minutes. You may pass herds of grazing goats in the highway median on your way to the Mande Hotel on the river, where there are signs advertising pickups by DHL and FedEx, and Internet service is available in the lobby. Or see a cow nibbling the grass on a traffic island next to a sign advertising a sonogram service. It’s not a cakewalk — you have to have some tolerance for the smell of diesel fumes and the buzz of flies. In some of the most heavily touristed areas, especially around peak tourist season of late fall and early winter, it’s impossible to walk very far without being hit up by an unemployed guide looking for work, or a taxi driver in search of a fare. And it helps to have at least a couple of years of high school French. Malians, who have one of the continent’s richest histories, and are well aware of it, don’t kowtow to foreigners either. That’s good news, because it means you can glide through the country with total access to daily life. You can travel by public bus, eat in a local restaurant, and shop in a weekly market, all without becoming a tourist attraction yourself. If you want to spare yourself the inconveniences of public transport, hiring a driver by the day is as simple as talking to the hotel concierge. Or walking out onto the main road, hailing a taxi, and negotiating a price. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive either, at least if you figure the daily cost of a more traditional vacation in Western Europe. On the other hand, there are few more quintessential Malian experiences than cruising down a well-paved road toward Ségou, 150 miles northeast of Bamako, in one of the cast-off German buses now used by Mali’s private long haul bus companies, the lyrical lines of the latest Sekouba Bambino cassette wailing from the bus stereo. There is spectacularly austere scenery on either side, dry, pocked landscapes dabbled with spikey trees and the occasional herd of white-haired goats. Occasionally, the bus will slow or stop completely, as a cow or goat walks onto the highway or the driver makes a pit stop in a small town for evening prayers. There are speed bumps at each village — the Malians call them “sleeping policemen” — and the driver slows for those as well. The driver’s assistant serves small cups of heavily sweetened tea. He prepares the tea from water boiled on a small, charcoal brazier; the low flame in the front of the bus of no apparent concern, even though the assistant’s seat is a spare jerrycan of gasoline. On Sunday, our first full day, we took the Bittar bus straight to Ségou, a provincial town on the Niger River. Waking up in Ségou on Monday, from the sort of deep sleep that only the jetlagged know, I felt as if I had passed through a time machine. A hard rain just before dawn had battered the red dust into a patchwork of mud, and as I looked out past the stucco walls of the German-run Djoliba Hotel, I saw a procession of donkeys, each pulling a rough-hewn two-wheel wooden cart loaded with bags of rice, dried calabashes the size of prize-winning pumpkins, and crudely forged steel plows — a thousand things the average Malian might need. Some of the donkeys have absentee owners, like many taxis in Washington, and are rented out for the equivalent of two dollars a day. The donkey drivers, clearly intent on making back their 1,000 CFAs, as the local currency is known, work their animals hard, and many have large, ulcerated wounds. Donkeys arriving from the villages, however, where they are much more part of people’s daily lives, are clean, healthy, and well-groomed. At the weaving house, men — and only men — sit hunched behind looms, hurling a shuttle back and forth between the threads of the warp to produce roughly yard-square pieces of untinted cotton fabric. Behind another door, in a small courtyard, four women are making cotton thread, using spinning wheels that look like something straight out of an illustrated edition of Cinderella. Ségou still retains much of its colonial architecture, large, graceful residences with metal roofs that angle out beyond front porches, keeping the interiors cool even on the hottest day. In Ségou, we met Rick Barnes, a Brit traveling south from Europe on a giant BMW motorcycle. Barnes, who was addicted to playing the stock market over the Internet, had intended to head straight for South Africa, but he got sidetracked in Dakar, which has one of the continent’s few high-speed Internet lines. “I gave back everything I won last year,” he noted glumly. From Ségou, we headed five more hours by bus to Sévaré, a suburb of the river port city of Mopti, the country’s second-largest city. Sévaré, however, boasts the area’s best hotels. Another German, Jutta Ratschinske, runs the Mankan Te, while Mac’s Refuge is run by an American, John “Mac” McKinney, who was born in Mali to missionary parents. If you have a hankering for an American breakfast, McKinney claims he serves the best pancakes in Mali, six days a week starting at 7 a.m. From Sévaré, you can make arrangements to see two of Mali’s most extraordinary places, both of which are UNESCO world heritage sites: the medieval city of Djenné and its mosque, built in 1905 and big enough to hold 5,000 people, and the Dogon country, a 150-mile sandstone cliff, known as the Bandiagara escarpment, where the Telle and Dogon people once lived in small, rectangular mud-covered buildings. The huts, like the Djenné mosque, are made with the traditional brown mud finish, and need to be resurfaced at the end of each rainy season. They are remarkable buildings, rising like small, organic appendages out of the same-colored ground. Djenné is a full-day trip; it costs about $50 to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there. A trip to Dogon country, on the other hand, can last just a day or up to a week or more. No matter how you go, you’ll need a guide, if only to make sure you’re not violating a local taboo, or to find out which villages are having their market days, some of which occur not at weekly but at five-day intervals. From the top of the cliffs the reddish countryside stretches out before you, and you can see just below, in the village, Dogon women rhythmically pounding millet with pestles the size of baseball bats. Guides are easy to find; the trick is bargaining hard for a good price. Don’t pass up a chance to go to Mopti, though, where from the patio of the Bar Bozo (the name of one of the area’s biggest tribes) you can drink a bottle of Mali’s national beer, Castel (whose slogan is “The Queen of Beers”) and gaze out over the Niger River. There, beneath the usually spectacular sunset, the port teems with life, as hollowed out canoes, some as long as a city bus and piled high with people and freight, prepare for their multiday river voyages. It’s a scene that has clearly been playing out, with little variance, for hundreds of years. We got a lift back to Bamako in a private car with a French couple and a tall, Taureg driver named Babba. The three of them chain-smoked the entire trip. The windows remained closed, of course, for the air conditioning. But we got back to Bamako in six hours instead of 10. On Sunday, I went looking for Malick Sidibe, Mali’s most famous living photographer. My skimpy instructions had been to go to the city’s Grande Mosque and ask for Sidibe’s studio. The taxi driver was skeptical and his wife, sitting in the front seat, kept repeating: “Ça va te coûter cher, Monsieur,” or “That’s going to cost you a lot, Mister.” It was six dollars by the time I paid the fare, which, true enough, was a bit expensive. But we did find Sidibe, who is in his late 60s, and as I got out of the taxi in the midst of a torrential rain, he greeted me like an old friend. He’d never seen me in his life and was certainly not expecting me, but with a dealer in France and exhibits all over the world, Sidibe is used to Westerners looking him up. He was absolutely charming, and we talked for two hours. Portraiture in Africa is a well-developed art form. Much like his more famous mentor, Seydou Keita, who died in 2001, Sidibe manages to capture something that transcends nationality. “Here we take photos of everything — people with their motorbikes, with their sheep, with their bracelets,” he said. There were boxes and boxes of contact prints made from his large negatives, and dozens of old Rolliflexes lining one wall. I bought a photo of a little girl, about six years old, having her first portrait made. She looks at the camera with a proud but slightly bewildered air. Sidibe signs the photo, and then writes a title that perfectly captures the pose: “Alone, with my new dress.” A few hours later, at midnight, I fly back to Paris. I’m at work the next day.

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