This Christmas my friends and I headed North for a three day hike through Dogon country. Getting there involved a 600k journey in four parts.
The first was a two hour ride in a dangerously top-heavy commuter bus (also preceded by an inexplicable three hour delay at the gar). Second, we had four hours of sustained discomfort spent inside a 10-passenger van with at least twenty other people. Third, once we reached the halfway point, we boarded a bus with bench seats which were spaced just far enough apart to accommodate any passengers who might happen to have no legs (there were none that day). The bus was only in motion for two of the four hours we spent on the road. The driver had to make two stops because the brakes kept failing. Luckily we were in the hands of some very resourceful mechanics who were able to make the necessary repairs using nothing but a lighter and a plastic bag. We spent a night in Sevare and then took a relatively comfortable bush-taxi ride to Bandiagara.
The next day our guide, Seikou, took us out to what is known as Dogon country, a 100-mile escarpment dotted with age-old communities whose ancestors once took refuge on the slopes of the cliff to defend themselves against Islamic slave traders. Seikou helped us climb down the cliff face and led us across the sandy pathways connecting each village.
We stopped in several villages along the way where Seikou explained some of the animist rituals and traditions that are still alive today. Every village apparently has at least one resident tortoise that the women sit on while they cook. When the food is prepared, the turtle is served first and, until it approves, no one else can eat.
We were also able to get a close look at the remnant dwellings perched on the cliff itself. While the houses are uninhabited, the mud brick structures are very much intact. In most of the villages, the cliffs actually hang over the houses below, protecting them from the elements. According to our guide, the locals still use some of the existing buildings to store grain if the harvest is good and they need more storage space. We were able to duck inside some of the houses and peer into some old burial sites embedded in the rock.
On Christmas eve we stopped in Telli where we met up with some other voluteers. We indulged in perfectly roasted mutton and calabashes full of locally brewed beer. By nightfall the stars were shining brightly and the cliff seemed to loom overhead like a slow moving shadow.
On Christmas day we hiked another 12k, stopping along the way to browse the artisans markets and marvel at some beautifully irrigated vegetable gardens (I may have been the only one marveling). We spent our final night in a small Christian village on top of the escarpment where we were treated with good food, millet beer and a spectacular view.
Finally, we rang in the New Year in Bamako where, instead of any kind of organized, municipal firework show, a chaotic scatter of amature bottle rockets and firecrackers lit the sky at midnight.