I don’t often spend Thanksgiving at home. Past Turkey Days have seen me drinking pisco sours in Cusco, eating pizza in Rome and sampling questionable Mexican cuisine in Irkutsk.
But I’m not sure any of those experiences quite compare to spending the holiday in West Africa.
I started the morning in the village of Folona, wrapping up my visit to see a school that Passports with Purpose raised money to build last fall. It was fitting, I suppose, that the two days I spent there and in the village of Menie (the site of PwP’s other school) made me realize how much we take for granted in the United States, especially when it comes to education. As I rode back to Bamako, the capital of Mali, I couldn’t help but feel thankful for everything I have.
I arrived at my hotel in Bamako just before noon and quickly showered and grabbed lunch so I could make the most of the afternoon. I was thinking more about the fact that it was my only afternoon in Bamako and less about the fact that it was Thanksgiving. Fellow travel blogger Phil Paoletta, who at the time was helping to run the hotel I was staying at, arranged a taxi for me to visit the bus station to figure out my bus to Segou the following day and then drop me off at the National Museum.
But I didn’t go into the National Museum. Instead, I wandered into the park adjacent to the museum. It was green, shady and quiet and provided a welcome reprieve from the sun and dust and chaos I’d experienced in Mali thus far. After thirty minutes of wandering around, I made my way to the ticket office for the museum only to find that there was no one working. A security guard who spoke a bit of English appeared and told me he would try to find the ticket seller, but after twenty minutes there was no sign of one, so I moved on.
I left the grounds and walked down the Avenue de la Liberte toward the center of Bamako. The tree-lined streets with broken tiled sidewalks brought me back to Central Asian capitals like Dushanbe and Bishkek. Crossing the street was an adventure, with a constant flow of motorbikes rushing by, but I eventually made it to the main market area of the city, looking down a street with the Great Mosque a few blocks away. The crowds and traffic were overwhelming, though, and I knew it would be fruitless to even try to get close to it. So I scurried past stalls of plastic sandals, pots and pans, plantains and potatoes until I reached a pedestrian overpass. Wary of drawing attention to myself, I cautiously climbed the stairs, walked to the middle of the overpass and pulled out my camera to try to capture the chaos below.
I had only snapped a few shots when a kid about nine or ten years old suddenly appeared and started pointing to a man down below. I couldn’t tell whether he was angry that I was taking picture or wanted me to take his picture. To be on the safe side, I put my camera away and moved on. Back on street level, I walked a few more blocks before catching a taxi back to the hotel.
I arrived just in time to start my official Thanksgiving celebration in Mali. Phil had arranged for a pirogue to take a group for a sunset ride on the Niger. In addition to his fiancée and her friend, a Tuareg musician and two American expats joined us. Once I got over the tipsy nature of the boat, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride and the company and especially the gorgeous sunset.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a nice Thanksgiving meal of guinea fowl, fried plantains, French fries, salad and vodka lemonades. Not exactly traditional, but quite delicious! It was also nice to chat with a few fellow Americans and hear more about their experiences actually living in Mali.
Around 10:00 p.m., I headed back to my room to try to Skype with my family back home. Unfortunately, the wi-fi was too slow to make a good connection, so instead I packed up as much as I could to get ready for my trip the next day to Segou and called it a night early. Overall, it was an incredible Thanksgiving in Mali – definitely one that I won’t soon forget!