[Chapter Two can be found here.]
“I don’t mean to be nosy, but if I don’t look American, well, you certainly don’t really look like someone who travels by bush taxi.” Sam and Paul were still sitting on the bench and Paul had leaned back to take as much advantage as he could of the now-meager shade. He tried to keep his tone as light as possible. He wanted to get the other man to talk, wanted to put him at ease, to restore a little of his confidence. The only way he would be able to help him was to get him to trust him, and they were a long way from that.
“I didn’t mean to, didn’t even know what they were, damn it, until two days ago.” Sam’s eyes were following the vehicles, the small station wagons, the vans, the pick-ups, that were pulling into spots in various parts of the yard or, newly loaded, were heading away. One group of passengers had been shooed out, and its members were now pushing the minivan to get it started. It roared to life. The driver pushed in the clutch pedal and pumped the gas as the battered Toyota drifted to a stop. The passengers clambered back inside.
“Then what are you doing here? I mean, how did you get here?”
“I’m a reporter. I write things, travel pieces, for airline magazines, mainly. On the Grand Canyon, places like that, normally.” He paused, trying to sort through his own feelings and to decide what was worth telling this stranger. Paul watched him carefully as he collected his thoughts, wondering how much energy for what might be coming that the man might have. Eventually, Sam continued. “I wanted to do something overseas, for I had never been out of the country, except to Jamaica and Mexico. Besides, I had always wanted to see Africa. I chose Mali; I liked the name ‘Timbuktu.’ So I booked a flight and came.”
“Just like that?” Paul had heard of bizarre reasons for getting to Africa, some much, much wilder than this, but most travelers spent a little time, at least, in learning something about where they were going, in preparing. It looked and sounded like this guy had just hopped on a plane. Crazy.
“Yeah. I didn’t think it would be such a problem.”
Sam shrugged. “It didn’t seem so difficult. At my hotel in Bamako, they helped me hire a car and driver to get me here, so I could take the riverboat up to Timbuktu. No problem.” Sam paused, looked at the sky and took a breath, then rattled on quickly, as though he suddenly wanted to get the story told and out of the way. “But the boat stopped running because of the war threat, and then someone picked my pocket, taking almost all my money—thank goodness, they just got my wallet, not my passport and a little reserve cash nor one credit card I’d kept aside—and the police won’t even let me call the embassy. ‘Everything is closed down until the situation eases,’ they say. So I am pretty much stuck at the hotel, which accepts my card, unlike most anyplace else. They tell me to wait, or the few who speak English do, but I can’t. I really have to get out of here. It’s too much. It has turned into a trap.” Sam slumped back against the cinderblock, into that last bit of shade where Paul already rested. “That’s what happened to me. What’s happening to me,” he said, almost in a whisper, then paused once more and looked at Paul. “Tell me, do you think I can get out of here? I’ve been trying for days…. I don’t think I can take much more of this. And I really do have to get out. My plane leaves from Abidjan in five days and I’m beginning to think I’ll go crazy if I stay here any longer. I mean, I haven’t even had anyone to talk to for a week, it seems. The ones who speak English only seem after my money, and I don’t even have much more of that, not available. So I really must get out.”
“You can do it.” Paul was pretty sure Sam could get to the capital if he needed to. There were taxis leaving, after all. “Take a distance taxi to Bamako. Or to San, and then Bamako. I doubt they’ve closed the airport or canceled anything other than the flights to Ouagadougou. Then you’ll have four days to relax by the coast.”
“They have closed it, I’m told. They’ve shut down all international communications. At least I have my ticket from Abidjan and my passport.” He laughed. “But I’ve heard that it generally takes three days to get there from here, by taxi and train. And I’ve yet to be able to leave, as you can see.”
“It does and I can,” said Paul. “Generally. But you are lucky you have five days. No one knows when the border might open, but these things don’t generally last long.”
“Well, I certainly don’t know. I’ve never experienced anything so….”
“That part,” Paul laughed, “is normal.”
They sat in silence for a moment, each watching the activity of the taxi yard. Paul debated how much he could really offer this man. Given the current situation, he’d be lucky, he figured, to get himself out of the country, let alone help someone else. No, he certainly wasn’t sure he could really help Sam; the alternative to the Bobo taxi was a rather difficult trip, Mopti to Bandiagara, then across the border illegally to Ouahigouya. Then he’d have to put Sam on a bush taxi alone to Bobo through Dédougou—another rough trip on unpaved roads—while he retrieved his motorcycle and took that down to Boromo where it had been promised. It would be a scary trip for a newcomer, even without the border problems, and he certainly didn’t want to propose something that would prove to be more than the man could accept. But he wasn’t going to wait all that much longer than noon himself, not for the Bobo taxi, and wouldn’t feel comfortable just leaving Sam to wait for the border to the south to open. Not now.
“So, it sounds like you really have been stuck.” Paul prompted Sam to go on while he continued to think the situation over.
“I have obligations, commitments. I have stayed longer than I can afford, in terms of time, at least. Besides, my ticket is one of those that can’t be changed, though I guess I could pay for another, if it came to that, but I have to get out. I can’t take much more of this, this being trapped. Really, I….” He hesitated. This time, Paul cut him off before he could speak again.
“Tell you what.” Paul had reached a decision. “Look, I’m heading that way myself, to Abidjan and then across and into Ghana. If you would like, you could tag along—but it might be difficult—if the Bobo taxis doesn’t leave soon. We’d have to split up for part of the trip, but I could make sure you got on the right vehicle across the border and meet up with you again in Bobo.” Paul doubted that Sam knew what was being offered, either positive or negative, but he didn’t feel he could comfortably leave him in Mopti without at least suggesting an alternative.
Sam turned his head to follow the course of a departing taxi, a pick-up so heavily loaded on the rack above the passengers shoved in the back that it looked like it was in danger of tipping over on its side. He wasn’t sure what Paul was offering, and he really didn’t want charity from this man, this extremely… well, untidy man. It wasn’t that he didn’t look very competent or at all trustworthy but… well, he didn’t look either competent or trustworthy. “Look, I think I can take care of myself and somehow get south in time. And how could you get us out when the border is closed? Besides, I can’t put you out. You don’t know me, and I…. ”
Paul interrupted again. “As I said, I am going that way anyway. Or almost. Also, I know this part of the world and can get around in it, can get you there. I even know how to get across the border at a place where it’s certainly not closed, or not completely. If you want to get there within five days, you’ll tag along. Let me warn you, though: it won’t be an easy trip.”
“How?” Sam looked at him like he wasn’t making sense. “I mean, it looks to me like you are waiting for the taxi, too. So how are you thinking of getting across? And why won’t it be easy?”
“Earlier, I decided I would wait until noon, then take a bachet to Bandiagara. I already checked. They are running.” Yesterday, Paul certainly hadn’t wanted to go that way. He had wanted to go south as quickly as possible, not get back to Burkina Faso. He was done with his life there, and didn’t even want the memories—certainly not a trip back that close to Djibo. That’s why he had been willing to abandon his motorcycle. He’d never need it again. But he had promised it to a Peace Corps Volunteer in Boromo, on the road from Ouagadougou to Bobo, and felt guilty that the guy would now have to make an extra trip north to get it. Now, though, it might prove to really be the only feasible route—if he didn’t want to risk embarrassment by staying in Mopti.
“Covered pick-up like the ones over there. Named for the tarp over the back. It’s market day in Bandiagara, so lots of them will be going. Tomorrow, we could make it across to Ouahigouya. That border crossing is rarely closed; even when it seems to be, you can get across. At Ouahigouya, we’ll get you on a taxi to Bobo and I’ll pick up my motorcycle and head down. From Bobo, the train to Abidjan, and you’re where you want to be.”
Sam looked pained. “Are you sure that would work?” This sounded hare-brained, but he could think of no alternative.
“I’m sure.” Paul spoke softly, though he wasn’t sure, not really. After a moment, he qualified his statement. “Or, at least, I think I am. Look. I want to get out of here, too. The difference is, I can do it. If you would like, you can tag along. Thing is, it probably won’t be easy.”
“OK. Sorry.” Sam had slumped further against the wall, looking like he had no clue what he would do, but it took him only a few minutes to make up his mind. “OK, I’ll go with you, if it comes to that.” Though no possibility seemed particularly appealing, he had decided to go with Paul simply because he had instantly realized that this was the choice that would be the most active. He had been stewing in Mopti long enough.
“I’ll go with you, if you will have me,” he said again. He hoped that the trip wouldn’t really be a much long one, or a difficult one, as Paul seemed to think, but figured he could survive that more easily than he could survive pacing back and forth in the lobby of his Mopti hotel where he was a prisoner to his credit card. Besides, what choice did he really have? When the known was driving you crazy, the unknown became the only option. Anyway, there was no one to talk to, nothing to do in Mopti. He didn’t even have a radio to listen to. And he certainly was not sanguine about what might happen over the next few days.
Besides, sometimes one just has to accept help from strangers. And to trust people, even scruffy kids like the one next to him. At least he seemed to know something about Africa.
Watching him, aware of the type of thinking running through his brain, Paul merely nodded.
As noon approached, as they sat and waited, Sam gradually became more animated, even a bit more relaxed. Maybe it was simply that he had made a decision. Perhaps he was successfully managing to keep his thoughts away from where he was. Or it could be that he was feeling he somehow had to prove he wasn’t just an incompetent relying on the kindness of a stranger. Whatever the reason, he was feeling a little better, and he started telling Paul a few things about his past.
At first, he hesitated as he talked, as though he weren’t sure he wanted to share with Paul, but he was also feeling a bit guilty, still holding his reservations about the guy who was now his disreputable-looking guide. Slowly, he told about the business that had paid for the raising of his children. About selling both the business and his house and finding himself with enough money to live anywhere he wanted to live—he chose Oregon—and never to work again, if he didn’t wish to. His wife, though, had soon gotten sick of having him around the house. She had pushed him into taking trips, then into writing about them. A new career and certain, small success.
Paul listened but didn’t feel like telling Sam much about himself in return. Instead, at one good breaking point, he got up, walked to the beverage vendor, and brought back a soda for Sam, another beer for himself, and some beignets. Sam refused the beignets but gulped the soda.
As he drank, Paul turned to see what was happening with the taxi. It was now after eleven. He hoped it would be going soon, that the paved highway would be open to traffic through the border so that he wouldn’t have to take this man into Burkina Faso by back roads. He felt more and more anxious about what he might be getting Sam into, and was starting to feel a little bit guilty about having offered to take him along.
Nothing was happening around the taxi, though. Nothing.
“How did you get here?” Sam looked at Paul, having finished his own story, seeking something to keep the conversation going. “You aren’t here just on vacation. Do you work here, or what?”
“Right now, I’m just traveling.” Paul really didn’t want to think about himself or his own past few years, not right then, at least. Leave that for another time, when they could be a little more relaxed, a little safer. “I’m doing a loop before heading down to the coast.”
“A loop? From where?”
“Well,” he sighed, knowing this was going to sound a little ridiculous, “I had planned on going to Niamey, then flying to Gao and taking the riverboat down here to Mopti. I’ve done something like that before, and had enjoyed the trip. But, when I was up in the north of Burkina Faso this time, I ran into someone, a crazy bird watcher, who was going to drive directly up to Gao through the desert from a town called Dori.”
“Believe it or not, some of the best bird watching in Africa is up there, near a place called Gorum-Gorum. It’s one of the sites where birds water after crossing the desert during migration down from Europe. Anyway, I stupidly left my motorcycle with friends, and went with him. The guy who’s buying the bike wouldn’t have been happy when he found he had to go up there to get it, which is why I’ve been feeling guilty about leaving it there.
“Anyway, I hadn’t planned on going back into Burkina Faso once I managed to get on the boat—the last one, by the way, before they shut it down—except for passing through Bobo, but I also don’t like leaving loose ends. So our trip will clean things up, if we go that way.”
Paul studied Sam. Maybe it was his own imaginings, grown from his own doubts about taking him with him, a man who could be nothing more than a burden if things got difficult, but Sam seemed less comfortable with his decision, suddenly, than he had a few minutes before. Whatever. That’s to be expected. Paul had done as much as he dared to convince him. The rest was up to Sam.
Paul turned away and sipped his beer. Sam now just stared at the ground. They sat that way, silent, for fifteen minutes or so. Sam, having talked more than he had in days, closed his eyes again and tried once more to blank his mind, to center himself. Paul watched the activity in the yard, keeping an eye on the Bobo taxi.
Eventually, just as noon came, he got up. Leaving his bag in Sam’s care, he visited the latrine again, and bought himself another beer and a few more cigarettes, He walked over to where the patron of the Bobo taxi was dozing; nothing at all was going on nearby. Across the way, though, taxis and bachets were arriving and leaving, loading and unloading.
After sitting down again and watching them for a while and finishing the beer, he turned back to Sam, who had closed his eyes, his head back against the cinderblock wall.
“Let’s go. Let’s get out of here now. Nothing’s happening over here. That taxi,” he pointed to a bachet loading across the yard, “is for Bandjiagara. Let’s take it.”
Sam opened his eyes and looked at him, suddenly embarrassed, and spread his hands under a weak smile. “Uh, I’m not sure I have even enough for a ticket. Spent almost all I had on the Bobo one.”
Paul smiled, suppressing a laugh. “Sorry, I forgot. Look, I’ll spot you ten thousand francs. That should do it until you get to a bank in Bobo.”
“You think that will be enough? It’s only about, what, thirty dollars?”
“About that.” This time he really did laugh. He got up, shouldered his pack, and headed for the loading taxi.
Sam followed, just a few steps behind.
[Chapter Four can be found here.]
[Chapter Four can be found here.]