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Auto Akbar

One goal for me on this trip was to remain intentional -- to stay in the present and synthesize as much as possible -- about finding connections with others I encountered, no matter how different they may seem at first.  Take Majd, for example.  Majd was the taxi driver that took us to the airport.

The cab ride started out quiet and "normal", however a few minutes into the trip, he promptly apologized, seemingly for no reason, then turned on his radio.  After a brief bout of tuning, he ended up at station 94.30, which, at 11am every Friday, broadcasts the prayers of a Saudi Muhlah to whom Majd is devoted.  Played at a volume that drown out much other thought, this act of sonic intrusion might have generated some offense for the average tourist.  Instead of complaining, however, we chose to "tune in" right along with our driver and see what we might get out of it.

Not knowing Arabic precluded any specific understanding of the prayer.  That left only the cadence and timber of the Muhlah's voice upon which to reflect.  After listening to the prayer, I was impressed by the results.  The delivery was hypnotic and, despite its volume, I found myself focused and clear after the experience.  In fact, I felt awake, yet relaxed enough to remove any dread of the long plane ride ahead of us.  Once the radio went off, I thanked Majd for turning it on.

Should you find yourself in Paris at 11am some Friday, take a moment to find 94.30 on a radio and a place to sit, close your eyes and enjoy.  Better yet, run out to the street and flag a cab.  Who knows, if you're in the flow, perhaps Majd himself will pick you up and share his special prayer with you!


G(r)ay Pari

The portal to Mali is Paris, which makes sense as Mali was a French colony until 1960.  I landed in Paris first thing in the morning after an over-night flight from Dulles International Airport with some anticipation.  The last time I was in Paris, it was spring, the sky was blue and people were frolicking about as if everyone were on holiday.  Despite the short duration of my visit, I expected a similar experience. 

Not this time!  This trip, the sky was gray, as was the city and its people.  Everyone seemed all business,, zipping from point A to point B in their black (or gray) clothing.  With the exception of the French tri-colour every once in a while, I don't recall seeing any color on this visit.  I wonder if there's a deeper message in these visuals.  Hmmm.

Although Paris disappointed is ambiance, I must report that I did have a number of positive experiences during my brief visit.  Food, for example, was Très Magnifique!  Since I was off to sub-saharan Africa  the next day, I made sure tosample as much of what Parisian restaurants had to offer.  While I won't plug any particular restaurants, sufficed to say I could eat my way through this city going door-to-door.


Dirt Poor

sand-from-hand.jpgA number of people have asked what it was like to see "extreme poverty". There are two ways to answer this question: from the practical perspective (as is "what does 'extreme' mean?") and from the emotional one (as in "how does it FEEL to see it?") While there's still much processing for me to do, I'll address the issue here as best I can.

First, let's talk about the practical aspects of being dirt poor. By the way, I'd define dirt poor as being so poor that you value as a precious resource the dirt under your (invariably bare) feet. Mali, depending on whose stats you use, is either the third or fourth poorest country in the world. (According to the UN, Mali is a poster-child for "LDCs" -- Least Developed Countries.) What does being at the bottom of the economic scale look like in practical terms? Well, for starters, it doesn't look like anything after about 6pm. That's because you have no electricity to power light bulbs. One of the reasons people in Mali suffer from such poor education is because they must work for basic survival during the day and can't read at night. For a person who reads voraciously, and almost exclusively after 9pm, this was a shocking concept to contemplate.

No electricity also means no refrigeration. Few if any Malians can go to the market on Saturday and stock up on a week's worth of meals. Rather, they must go to the market every day for their food; without refrigeration, yesterday's tomato is rotten by tomorrow. Malians -- more specifically, Malian women -- spend the bulk of their day on the process of food collection and preparation, starting first with getting the daily water supply at a communal well, moving on to firewood or charcoal collection, then on to the market for the day's sustenance. After food prep, basic hygiene, and some rudimentary farming or craft work, it's dark again.

Dirt poor also means that "dirt" is an active part of your life. For example, the preponderance of Malian homes and buildings are built of mud bricks. They are crafted during the rainy season and left to dry in the sun. When complete, they are stacked, much like legos, and mortared together with more mud. It also means that you are scratching your own food out of the soil. Most Malians measure wealth in the size of their garden and/or the size of their goat, cattle or camel herd.

I won't even go on to the details of health care. Let me just share one little fact to serve as a microcosm for the big picture: Mali has only one endocrinologist and one eye surgeon for the entire country -- a country with over 13 million citizens. Yes, you read that right. While we have some health care issues in America, it is certainly an eye opener to understand how lucky we are to even have problems in our system to deal with. Mali's problem is that there's no system to have problems with!

I think you get the point on the practical implications of poverty in the region. It's dire. So, let's move on to the emotional implications.

It's easy to develop a guilt complex as a Western tourist if you insist on seeing Mali through Western eyes. There's simply no debating the fact that we have an embarrassment of riches. A little queasy feeling starts in your belly about your last impulse Target run when you see an entire village of people without shoes. That said, the more I observed, the more I began to understand that it's not all about the money. The reality is most of the people we encountered on our trip weren't bitter or despondent. Rather they were thankful for having something and hopeful for a brighter future. While they had a clear understanding of the benefits of "modernization", they were equally reluctant to achieve those benefits at the expense of their culture, independence, family structures or pride. What else to make of the emotional stress of poverty I've yet to crystallize, so I will leave further observations for later posts.


Olympus Stylus

12427-1464462-thumbnail.jpgOK.  To get this out of the way, here's a quick review of the camera used for these photos.  It's the Olympus Stylus 1030SW.  I purchased this camera right before leaving and had no experience with it prior.  After three weeks in the bush, I'm comfortable saying that it's the best pocket digital camera I've ever used.
I bought the 1030SW originally because it is so tough.  The S and W stand for "Shockproof" and "Waterproof" respectively.  What they left off is that the camera is also Freezeproof, Dustproof and Crushproof!  As their website says, the camera design "gives active people the confidence to take this camera anywhere and shoot in nearly any condition."  More from the website:
Accidents happen. A rugged metal body and revolutionary shock-absorbing construction are designed to withstand a 6.6-foot fall, drop or other mishap.

Innovative waterproof seals and gaskets allow you to take underwater movies and amazing pictures in a pool, lake or ocean.

Perfect for skiing, snowboarding, sledding and other winter fun, this camera is winterized to perform at below-freezing temperatures.

With a rugged body and reinforced LCD, the Stylus 1030 SW withstands up to 220 pounds of pressure so your camera and images are protected.

A wider field of view ensures you’ll never miss anyone or anything in your shot. Great for shooting landscapes, underwater scenery, group portraits and amazing panoramic pictures.

2.7” HyperCrystal™ II LCD.
With improved contrast and color reproduction, the HyperCrystal II LCD offers a more accurate and precise image display, as well as an extra-wide viewing angle and increased visibility in direct sunlight.
In addition to these pysical features, this camera also has some great firmware.  There's about a million custom adjustments you can apply to your photographs before taking them (which I've yet to learn!), a "steady cam" feature that gives you crisp photos even if the camera is moving (say on the back of a camel!) and the lens has a "supermacro" feature, which allows you to take great photos of things mere inches away (like that mosquito biting your arm!).  Other features include a rapid frame setting that uses the camera's video capabilities to simulate ultra-fast shutter speeds.  This is great for sports photos or action shots, such as the saluki chasing your land cruiser at 30 miles an hour.
 Oh, and did I mention great battery life?
Anyway, if you're in the market for the (currently) ultimate adventure/extreme camera, make sure to check out the Olympus 1030SW.

The above is all well and good, however I must report that the camera has turned out to be a total dud.  Whether I got a lemon, or it's simply vastly over-sold, I can't say.  What I can say is that my camera has been a complete failure!
I have had three total failures at this point, ironically one from a small fall (slipped off my lap to a grass lawn while seated), one from altitude (it ceased to take pictures above 5,000m in Nepal) and once under water (took it snorkeling and the case leaked, taking out the photo sensor shortly after getting back on the boat). 
While Best Buy has agreed to fix it (I got the extended warranty, even tho it is still under the factory warranty as well),  they've refused to replace it.  So, while it is working again, I no longer use this camera for travel.  I've lost too many photo opportunities to trust it. 
As you can see, this camera has no more business being in "extreme" environments than a $100 snappy cam.  Oh well.  It was certainly worth a try.

First Photos Uploaded

Well, I'm back now, so the blog will have to go in reverse order.  The fact of the matter is that there simply was not any good connectivity from Mali, at least where we were on our travels.  Even when connectivity was OK, like at the best hotel we used -- the Hotel L'Amitie in Bamako -- Internet service was USD$20/hour.

Anyway, now that I'm back, I'll start off by posting some selected pictures in the Photo Galleries.  That should get things rolling!