Full of hope and promise, full of new beginnings and fresh ideas, full of awakening and inspiration. I love the New Year. I love that once every 365 days we get the chance to wipe the slate clean and start again. I love the prospect of learning new things, righting wrongs of the past year, and in turn, bettering myself as a person. With that being said, 2008 was, undeniably, one hell of a year and certainly ended with a bang, so 2009...well “Qui Vivra Verra”
The year of 2008 was capped off in spectacular fashion with a trip to Dogon country in Mali. Stretching for miles, a 300-meter escarpment rises up into the sun laying the base for hours of breath-taking views while hiking into the small villages nestled into the side of the cliff and through the Dogon communities who make their home at the base or on top of the escarpment. Like a fresh coast of paint, I felt like my time in Dogon re-energized me and cleansed me as I turned my head towards the new year.
The trip began with surprising effortlessness. We left Benin with not much of an itinerary, with not much of a plan, all we really knew was our intended destination and yet, without much hesitation from one taxi switch to another we suddenly found ourselves at our intended destination, in a random hotel in the center Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and talking to a random Peace Corps volunteer who was leaving that very night to go back to the States. He recommended a delicious Lebanese restaurant within walking distance of our hotel and off we went with dreams of falafel. Our walk took us down the main strip of Ouagadougou and what a beautiful sight it was. Seemingly built with a little more foresight than the crowded streets of Cotonou, Benin, Ouagadougou was lit up with Christmas lights stretched out over large canopies covering outdoor terraces of one restaurant after another. The usual vendors walked the streets selling everything from flashlights and phone credit to the more seasonal items like inflatable Santas and tacky garlands, but something about the large sidewalks, holiday lit streets, multiple-story buildings, and outdoor eateries, I was reminded of home.
We actually spent the next day in Ouagadougou as well, as part cautionary measure to make sure our feet were under us before we began our Mali adventure and as part of an indulgence into our curiosities of what other West African cities are like. While we did do our fair share of exploring and buying—bumper stickers to place on our helmets (myself, a Zinedine Zidane sticker and Alex, a sexy lady sticker) and Jesus salami (it was on sale at Christmas...go figure)—a large majority of our time was spent just relaxing on the balcony of our hotel with a beer in hand as we watched the hustle and bustle of the city on the street below—an equally interesting way to absorb the energy of the city, in my opinion.
The next day was just another day of travel and overshadowed immensely by the following day which began with a horse cart ride into the mouth of Dogon country. We had met our guide the night before and after a immediate connection with him (more so on the part of Alex for whom all African men have hearts in their eyes) I could tell that we were going to have a fantastic and intimate Dogon experience—relatively speaking. The Rough Guide to West Africa reads, “[Dogon] can be swarming with travelers, especially over Christmas.” As we descended our horse cart, we began perfectly aware of this fact, immediately joining hiking teams with another group of fifteen or so Dutch and German tourists. This would be indicative of the rest of our time in Dogon—constantly sharing sleeping camps, restaurants, and trails with other eager voyagers. The influx of tourist only strengthened the paradox that I came to see Dogon as—a place desperate to hold on to the foundation of their culture; the language, the art, the traditions and yet, a place forced to adapt to the ever-changing environment around them. A westernized environment that damages the traditionalism but that creates a stable economy on which the Dogon people can continue.
The following day, Christmas Eve, climaxed after a day of hiking with a elegant night sky where the stars twinkled like diamonds above us—a view we were only privy to because of the bold decision to sleep outside under the sky. I watched for hours as Orion's belt moved steadily across the sky and no, not because of the beauty of it, but because it was so absolutely freezing with the blowing night wind that it took me several hours for my body to finally give up and fall asleep. Despite the allure of the sparkling night sky, that would be the last night that we decided to sleep under the stars as sleep tends to trump all; nevertheless, a Christmas Eve to remember.
Christmas day was, perhaps appropriately, the most beautiful day of hiking. Our path to the top of the escarpment took us across the cliff side and into tiny coves where lush greenery covered the rocky terrain. Views only an artist could imagine were plentiful and as we hiked and awed over the scenery, donkeys continually gave us accusing stares as if we were wrongfully intruding on their little paradise (come to think of it, I would probably stare accusingly, too, if tourists were treading all over my green fields). The night of the 25th we joyfully merged groups with two other fellow Peace Corps Benin volunteers and seven other Peace Corps Burkina Faso volunteers; together we watched the sun set through the dusty December air after which we happily toasted one another with several rounds of local millet beer.“God Bless Us, Everyone.”
The following morning, our large conglomeration of a group took off a steady pace hoping to make it back down the cliff side in time to see the annual Christmas celebration marked with traditional dancing and dress. Another beautiful hike down the escarpment was only slightly marred by the formation of a couple nasty blisters on my feet in addition to the embarrassingly painful problem of an allergic reaction to a “toilet paper” leaf in the bush. Nevertheless, we reached our destination before noon and after a brief lunch and repos we were back out and ushered into bleacher-esque seating to watch the festival take place. Again, in accordance to the very nature of Dogon country, the ceremony was wonderful but a bit odd. It was a tradition, no doubt, started ages ago by the ancestors of the Dogon people and yet, at present, I couldn't help feel like the age old traditions of yesteryear had been somewhat altered so as to please all the foreigners hoping to videotape a piece of ancient history. Additionally, it seemed apparent to me that most of the Westerners who were happy to sit back and respectfully watch from a distance were the ones being pushed forward through the crowds of on-looking villagers while the eagerest eyes in the crowd, those of the Dogon children, were the ones being continually pushed further and further back from the excitement of the activities. Is there a point when sharing your culture becomes harmful if you start to lose sight of where your customs came from and if you start to push away all those wide-eyed children who will grow to carry on such customs? I don't think there can be an easy answer to that question.
The final day of hiking was only a half day and after a brief moment of “Where the hell are we?” (our guide's apprentice got us lost on the escarpment) we were back down where we started and looking back over our shoulders at Dogon country as we headed out just as we came in, on a horse cart. That night we finally laid our tired heads down at a hooker-friendly, filth-friendly, overcharging hotel near the border of Burkina Faso.
If getting to Dogon country was one of the easiest and most pleasant travel experiences I have ever had in West Africa, trying to get out was unfortunately it's antithesis. After buying tickets the night before and being ensured an early morning taxi ride back into Burkina Faso, it wasn't until after about six hours of waiting that we actually left...and not with the company from whom we had purchased the tickets. We were the thankful recipients of some very kind Italian travelers who stopped when they saw Alex waving them down on the side of the road and agreed to take us all the way to Ouagadougou. After bonding during the nine or ten hour trip to Ouagadougou—most intimately when one of the guys fell asleep on my shoulder—we met up later that night for dinner and drinks. God Bless Italians who turned around what could have been a very bad day of traveling into a very interesting and pleasant one.
Because of our late arrival into Ouagadougou the night before, we decided to sleep in the next day and make a late departure out of the city in our return to Benin. This decision, while good at the time, was probably not that great in retrospect when we would be losing an hour in time difference between Burkina and Benin and when we weren't really accounting for all the unexpected travel variables that you suddenly have when moving around in a developing country...like bandits at night. Whether a little Christmas kindness from the man in the red suit or just a couple of twenty-something idealists having dumb luck on their side, we made it back to Benin just after 11 o'clock at night exhausted, hungry, and happy to be back in a country we can call home. The following days were spent unwinding and relaxing and not-so-ceremoniously celebrating the transition into a new year.
Carly (cleaning dishes): Oh, hey. It's 12:05. Happy New Year!
Alex (setting mouse traps): Oh, yeah. So it is. Guess it's 2009. Happy New Year.
And so, 2009. I hope that it will be full of new adventures and new stories. I promise that I will be equally excited to open my mind to the unknown and that in doing so I will only broaden my own narrow horizons. I will begin this year with the idea that nothing is impossible or unattainable and will do my best to live 2009 as a better me. My wish for 2009 is that in my final months here in Benin I will find a way to leave behind as much inspiration as I have gained over the past year.
Happy New Year!