by Arthur Kerns
This is an excerpt from my West African travel journal and dated May 28, 2000. I had just learned that my flight to Timbuktu by bush plane was canceled because a foot-wide crack appeared on the runway. Even the ex-pat Russian pilots wouldn’t chance a landing.
In May it gets hot in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. A cool 105 degrees in the shade, but if we have a good rain, not only is the air refreshed, but also the temperature drops to a comfortable level. The scent of blossoms mixes with the dusty air to give a distinctive scent. The land is semi-arid, not quite like Arizona, more Southern California.
The people smile a lot and speak French with a pleasing accent. The women wear beautiful, bright flowing caftans with twirled turbans on their heads. Men and women balance baskets, boxes, and large bottles on their heads as they move along the streets with a fluid, easy grace. Even though there are city sidewalks, most locals prefer to walk along the edge of the streets, side-stepping the litter. Perhaps this practice is left over from their village days when they walked their country roads.
Outside the window of my French colonial hotel that has seen better days, the streets of Bamako are a mix between paved for the main thoroughfares and dirt for the side and minor streets. The rainy season makes travel a slog along the dirt streets.
Flowering trees provide a splash of color to this city. Buildings are salmon-colored and bright white minarets stand out against the green foliage. Small shops and stalls line the streets; with enthusiastic people selling all matter of goods. It seems that every block has a street lined with rows of stalls on both sides. The city of Bamako has been described as one big market.
Soirées in Bamako are interesting and telling of the living experience here. They are held on outdoor patios when possible. I suppose, just to accommodate the number of guests. When they are official functions, coats and ties are in order. I went to one without a jacket and felt out of place. The local guests appear more comfortable opting to add a splash of native attire. However, we all visibly perspired, from the combination of heat and alcohol.
Like most cocktail parties, it's hard to remember the names of all the people you meet. Even more so when you are dealing with foreign diplomats with unfamiliar names and accents. The conversation begins with something that you two can latch onto, like a sport, a hobby; the weather is always a good initial start but is dropped quickly for some other topic. The main goal is to act interested in what this person is saying. In turn, you must stay witty or touch on the profound while gathering the information you want. When the well runs dry you move on. Another very important thing is to keep track of the food that's being passed around on trays. On rare occasions, you can actually discover something that resembles what you find at home, or even tastes familiar. Still, one must be careful. The next day that interesting hors d'oeuvre may come back to visit you.
Here body odor is quite noticeable. Bathing for some people is lower on the lists of necessities: finding food or seeking safety being higher on the list of life’s concerns. Nevertheless, the odor is still there, surprising you as you walk out the door of your hotel room, or pass a table in a bar or restaurant. It lingers like perfume. You can leave your hotel room and walk down the hallway and suddenly; there it is, hanging invisibly in the air around you. The lasting presence of someone who passed ten, twenty minutes, perhaps a half-hour before. Sort of like passing by a bar stool where a Frenchman had smoked a Gauloises.
During the day I’d drop by my hotel room and realize that someone had recently been in the room. Not the cleaning staff, someone else. I advised the security officer at the embassy and she said, don’t worry, no one is trying to steal anything. You are a strange person from America and they find what you wear, read, and possess interesting. You are a curiosity.
The dominant flying creature in downtown Bamako is the Fruit Bat. This sucker is immense, with a wingspan of at least five feet. A few doves fly around, resembling the American white wing dove, but bats prevail. They swarm in groups mostly in the morning and evenings seemingly with no apparent destination. When they do land, they hang upside down from trees lining the streets, chirping like birds. They crawl from branch to branch, eating mangos. Some bats hang alone, but the majority gathers in tight, dark, furry pods consisting of three to eight bats.
They have light gray backs, black wings, and buff-yellow patches on the chest. Red tongues hang out between small pointed white teeth. A frightful presence even if you don’t have a hangover.
As I write, I hear a gunshot outside the window. Peering out, I see a group of ten or so youngsters standing in the middle of the street. One of the boys has fired a single-shot shotgun. A bat hits the street, flaps a moment, and then lies still. In the tree above, the bats scream and flap off in all directions. The boys run over and retrieve the dead animal and stuff it in a black sack. Bamako bush meat.
The Appaloosa Bar in Bamako is a main center of ex-pat social life, especially on Wednesday night. It is along an unpaved lane next to a series of other restaurants, one a popular Thai establishment, run by a pleasant Belgian and his Thai wife. The Appaloosa is clean, has a number of booths and tables and sports flags and other totems of national identification that patrons donated to the establishment. The music is American, seventies-on rock, played not too loudly and gives a visitor like me a mellow feeling. The beer is cold and good. There are a lot of Americans, but mostly French and other nationals who, if they don’t have some good stories to tell—they certainly look like they do—will make them up. A comfortable hangout for spies.
Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) his award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY published his espionage thrillers, The Riviera Contract, The African Contract and The Yemen Contract.
See more in author’s website, www.arthurkerns.com