We caught a bus up to Ouahigouya rather than spend another night in Ougadougou. In Ouahigouya (which I found very difficult to pronounce) we stayed at a hotel run by a Syrian couple who emigrated years ago. The woman was very motherly and had the kitchen fix us up some food while we washed up and settled into the room.

The next morning we left early, getting a ride to the bus station from the taciturn husband. Except that there wasn’t really a bus station. Eventually we got taken to a field from whence bush taxis depart. We paid for five places in a minibus-style bush taxi (a toyota hi-ace van converted to seat, I think it was, umpteen passengers). We had the back row to ourselves. But as soon as we left town we noticed a persistent and cloying influx of red road dust. On top of that were fumes from the engine that semed like they were being piped inside. They practically were becasue the back door didn’t close, so everythign coming out of the back of th van was inducted into the passenger compartment. We weren’t being lily-livered white folks either – everyone in the car donned masks of some sort. We tied t-shirts around our faces. It was unbearable, even with that measure. Everything and everyone was getting covered in the red dust. Finally we reached the border with Mali and we got out. Andrew wasn’t going to take it anymore. I thought we could tough it out at first, but a few more miles changed my mind.

A few 4x4s pulled up to the border control post at the same time we were there. We started talking to a French couple in one of the vehicles. They were laughing at us because we were in such a state. Our hair was red, our clothes were red, our skin was stained and dirty down to the pores. Most of the other people in the other cars wouldn’t even approach us.

We asked the French couple if they would give us a ride in their car. They agreed and we set off in a vehicle where the number of occupants matched the number of occupants it was designed for. It was heavenly.

On the way to Bandiagra, we stopped in one of the Dogon villages. We had been driving up the good road up the escarpment that the French built for their military. This village was much like the ones we would see later while hiking in the Dogon Country. The French woman was all cutesy and maternal with the village kids who held our hands as we walked around, calling them “mon petit”. Both of them were quick to whip out the hand sanitizer when we got back in the car, however.

They were both teachers and had lived abroad in the French international educational system. They were pretty interesting to talk to because they didn’t have the stereotypical French attitudes, nor those you might expect from ex-pats. We stayed with them until Bandiagara. They checked in to the hotel with the only pool in town. We looked for a driver onwards to Mopti.

While we were negotiating with the driver, we met Mabu. He offered us his services as a guide in Dogon country when we returned. We said we’d look him up. He also put us in touch with Khalil, a guide he knows in Timbuctou.

Mopti was only a hour or so away over a good road. We arrived and got ready to get on the river boat for the cruise up the Niger. While we were buying tickets, we met Mohammed, who was the guide for some Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from Guinea. We first bought regular cabins, but after realizing they were like ovens inside, we sprung for the deluxe cabins.

The cruise up was nice enough. We met some Spanish travelers, ate the meals that were announced with a bell around the whole boat even though there were only two tables being served and got to know the PCVs. The cruise itself was nice, but we passed the most interesting stuff at night. They would play music really loudly from our boat when we came into the ports along the way. It was like market day whenever the boat arrived, people came off to sell their wares and the locals would crowd around to get their necessities for the week.

We stuck with the PCVs in Timbuktu. We went around town with them. At one point I was leading the “tour” with the map in the guidebook. Then we went on a camel ride to a Toureg village. Well, village is a bit of a stretch as it is a loose collection of shelters that are scattered throughout the brush on the outskirts of town.

Oddly enough, as Andrew, the PCVs and I were arranging transport back from Timbuktu to Mopti, two other white guys showed up. They said that they were from Georgia. We were so shocked that Andrew and I said, in unison, “The country?” But, no, they were some born and bred true Southerners. It was amazing! Nine Americans meet by random in TImbuktu.

In the desert we slept out on the sand and it rained on and off. In the Sahara of all places! Anyway, we rode our camels back the next day and, after arguing vehemently with the head of the transportation syndicate, got into a 4×4 for (see what I did there?) the 7 hour ride back to Mopti. It took 11 hours.