Friday, March 23, 2012

Mali Fading Fast

     Mali has been one of the more stable West African countries over the last couple of decades but there is trouble in the north where the Tuaregs are pushing for independence and in the capital where a group of soldiers has staged an insurrection. The Tuaregs have been restless for some time, primarily for economic reasons. There is not much work in the desert anymore and that tribal group has suffered a great deal over the last few years. So what should concern the traveler about these developments other than a general concern about the welfare of other peoples? You can't go to Mali, or just about any other place, when the people are staging a revolt.

     What many folks are unaware of is that Mali is an especially fascinating place to visit. The name comes from a great empire that spread through western Africa and established several famous centers of Islamic learning from the beginning of the thirteenth century and endured for 400 years. There is much to see in the country even today. One might start with the famous place Westerners were banned from for centuries, Timbuktu. From its height as a center of trade for the many caravans that traversed the Sahara carrying gold and salt primarily and as a central place for Islamic studies in the madrases that were built there to the present there has been a dramatic change. For one thing, the desert is slowly encroaching on the city and its physical size is dwindling. For another, the trade and the studies have diminished greatly so the population has decreased from over 100,000 to less than 15,000 persons today. But the tourist can still get a feel for this historic cultural center. One can ride into the beautiful desert and visit the Tuaregs who still live in that challenging environment. Some of the mosques which served as learning centers eight hundred or more years ago can still be visited. The narrow streets still offer scenes which remind one of earlier days and even the market with its giant slabs of salt to be carried on the backs of caravan camels still exists though in greatly diminished form. This is not a place the traveler wants to miss.

     There were other centers of Muslim study when the area was the center of the Malian Empire. Djenne is almost equal to Timbuktu in interest. This is a place which rivaled Timbuktu in size and fame. Here too were places of learning and the Great Mosque which dominates the center of town is worth a visit in itself. It stands next to a wonderful market and the scene is perfect for great photography. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the building however so most tourists don't get a chance to see the construction of these sand-castle like constructions from the inside. Djenne is also the home of mud cloth.. One can see delightful examples of this craft hanging in the hot sun to dry. The most famous artists of mud cloth are native to Djenne.

     The heart of Mali is the Niger River which is also its major source of transportation and trade stretching from the capital, Bamako, to the edge of the desert in Timbuktu. A ride on one of the multitude of pirogues or panaches that carry goods and people along the river is fascinating because there are a variety of interesting and varied tribal groups living in the towns along the way.  The Bambara, Fulani, Songhai and others people the center of the country. The tribal Bobos provide much of the transportation on the river and also make the clay pots which hold the liquids that the people need and are traded for other goods. In the villages, the towns folks are welcoming in spite of the poverty and malnutrition that is evident almost everywhere one stops. Interesting and unusual mosques dot the landscape and travelers wave warmly to visitors from boat to boat on the river.

     One more absolutely essential stop in Mali is the Dogon area. This almost perfectly preserved traditional locale is an amazing place to visit. The hills where the Dogon people live which are referred to as escarpments are not easily climbed but a visit is a great experience. The people are known for their religious practices, their very unusual architecture and the art, masks and sculpture they produce. Their artifacts are greatly valued by collectors. A trip to the Dogon is not for the comfort traveler however. Get ready for a hearty day of climbing.  As is the case all over the Third World, one can anticipate that such traditional cultures will change markedly as economics and technology improve and visitors bring new ideas and customs in the regions. Mali, with its great tribal diversity, friendly people, varied crafts and colorful ports and towns along the Niger will delight the visitor. Go whenever the opportunity presents itself but not right now.

                                             Man with Fulani Hat, Mopti, Mali

Friday, March 16, 2012

Kids, Travels and Memories

     I am a very lucky guy. I wrote earlier that I have been able to travel with my children and my grandchildren to the Third World on a couple of occasions. These are not just trips; they are adventures as all journeys to underdeveloped and less trafficked places tend to be. One thing our whole family agrees about is that the experiences we have had together are among the most memorable and meaningful in of our lives. I took my grandchildren to the Third World to help them appreciate how other people live and to teach them to respect the differences among the peoples of our planet.  I wanted them to have the experience of being on the road without all the accouterments and pleasures and comforts that surround them customarily in their home settings. Mission accomplished, or at least well begun. When the family and I reminisce about times that were important to us, or most exciting, or most bonding, the trips we went on together are at the top of that list.

      Where does one start such an undertaking? Finances are a major issue so someplace close and some place that is not too expensive makes for wise options. For our first family voyage we chose Nicaragua, a country I had not visited earlier. It was a stroke of luck. Little, colorful colonial towns with restaurants sitting right on an open plaza at the center of town where many residents were engaged in one activity or other enabled the kids to move around freely, mix with others and wander about on the square with little worry or inhibition. Travel distances were short and there were surprises all along the way. For the kids, museums and churches and other adult captivating sites were sparse. Open spaces and natural wonders abounded. Climbing the sides of volcanoes up to the rim where one could witness the gases emanating from deep in the earth, bathing in natural hot springs deep in the jungle, helping to release newly hatched turtles and watching them rush into the incoming tide were the kind of natural highlights that made them more intimate with our planet and the activities that go on every day but which are normally beyond their access. Almost every turn in the road became a teaching moment.

     And all along the way in places we visited were stops in small, traditional villages where life moved along at an unfamiliar pace and in different ways. The Third World includes poverty almost by definition. My children and their childrens' world does not. The strolls through tiny streets or muddy roads where folks just seem to be whiling their time away without visible employment and seem to be in possession of few material things was a different view of the world than they were accustomed to.

     On another trip to Central America, we visited islands which only monkeys inhabited and found them to be as curious about us as we were about them. In Panama, we visited Indian tribes who live in the jungle and still hunt for their food. On our most recent, and unquestionably our most expensive, trip we traveled through Southern Africa. Off the beaten path, that world was dramatically different. We went on an exceptionally interesting safari where lions were playing in trees just above our heads and rhinos circled to mark their territories. We danced with villagers and had other rewarding interactions with the people we met. Perhaps the most telling moment of all came the last night of our African journey when we went around the dinner table to share what had been the most interesting highlight of the trip for each of us. My youngest grandson who was about eight at the time did not cite the villages or the plethora of animal life we had seen. His chosen highlight was our trip to Robbin Island where he learned about life in that prison from an ex-inmate, visited the cell where Nelson Mandela was confined and came to understand what Apartheid was all about. Need I say more?

Curious Visitor, Monkey Island, Panama

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bolivia-a Third World Dream

     If you are a lover of traditional culture or an avid photographer, an admirer of spectacular scenery or just someone who enjoys being in a place that is dramatically different from your customary surroundings, Bolivia might be just your cup of tea. The landlocked boundaries of the country contain a very high percentage of Indians who settled there long before the Conquistadors sailed to the New World. Many of them still speak the languages their ancestors did during Inca rule and a great number dress very much the same today as they did hundreds of years ago.

     A prominent feature of Bolivia is that it is one of the pathways into the Amazon Jungle. The eastern part of the country is rain forest. I went into the Amazon on an earlier trip to Peru so I did not explore the Bolivian rivers but I understand that they are equally interesting. The western part of the country is primarily Andean. One typically starts in the capital, La Paz, and just the experience of landing at El Alto, the town after which the airport is named, is an adventure in itself. Imagine stepping out of a plane onto ground that is elevated over 13,000 feet high. The oxygen is low and the challenge is high. If one works too hard or otherwise ignores the altitude, the price is a few days of vacation in bed, feeling horrible and missing the sites of La Paz. The capital itself is a startling place for the visitor. Along the streets one encounters Indians dressed in century old style. Most of the rural Indian women wear wide, flowing skirts and artistically woven, colorful cloths. Since the weather can get quite cool in the highlands, the outfits are mostly wool from the llamas and cover the entire body. The head ware is also quite unusual. Usually, women wear black bowler hats. In some Andean towns people wear miner's hats or hats which mimic those of the Colonial era. There are wonderful, brightly colored weavings sold in most of the towns and cities.

     My favorite shopping town in South America is Tarabuco, nestled in the mountains. Just walking down the street one can select from a variety of local crafts, especially woven goods of high quality, see the people wearing completely traditional clothing and observe the greatest variety of hats I have ever seen anywhere. Equally interesting is the town of Potosi where the Spaniards mined an enormous amount of gold and silver during their occupation of the area. There still stands a very interesting mint in the town containing a fine collection of coin presses and a comprehensive assortment of the coinage produced in the building over the years. The visitor can descend into a working mine in this delightful town and get an idea of what the miner's experience is even today. A gift for the miners you will meet, a visit to the shrine to honor miners who died there and a stop to say hello to El Tio, a fantastic, devil like creature, who protects the mine are necessities. There have been reports about child labor on this site so inform yourself ahead of time. Going into the mine was a travel highlight for me: don't miss the opportunity if you get there.

       Another must stop in Bolivia is Lake Titicaca. There are thousands of Indians in the villages surrounding this high, freshwater formation. Several dialects that were common at the time of the Inca are still spoken there. The lake is full of reeds which the locals often weave into sailing boats that the fishermen have used for centuries. One can purchase miniatures of these intricate artifacts which take a good amount of skill to fashion. They come in all sizes. On the lake, there are a number of small islands fashioned from the reeds where the Uros Indians actually live. They do their fishing from boats or holes cut into the islands right outside of their reed huts. This group also wears a distinctive, traditional dress. Their marital status is advertised by their headdress so no innocent mistakes are possible. Nearby the ancient Tiwanaku culture has left impressive monuments many of which have yet to yield their age old secrets. If you are so motivated, the little town of Casablanca on the shores of Titicaca has a church where the priest will bless your vehicle to insure your safe journey. Bring a little gift for the church or the priest if you want a blessing.  Bolivia has a great variety of offerings for the visitor even if its tourist infrastructure is limited. But that is why we call such places part of the Third World. Don't go to Bolivia for fancy hotels. Travel there for amazing scenes, varied cultural sites, beautiful Andean views, fascinating people and all the rest that one finds off the beaten path.

Woman, Murillo Square, La Paz, Bolivia