It never occurs to me that spending three days hiking the Dogon Country with a complete stranger upon whom I will be utterly dependent might merit a pre-screen. It literally never enters my mind that I will be in the middle of nowhere with this person and that my life will depend on his goodwill. Or that I should make sure he's not a cold-blooded rapist or a lout who chews with his mouth open before I hop in a car with him.
It just doesn't.
In my defense, the guide puts me at ease almost instantly. He is a young, serious, well built Dogon man of about thirty with the telltale dreadlocks of a Rastafarian.
"You know why we can't make ecksees?" he asks, apropos of nothing.
I smile companionably. Ecksees, I think. What means?
"It is because," he continues, craning his neck around the passenger seat, "in my culture it is a very bad thing for a boy to make ecksees with an old woman. She will make fetish against him and then many bad events will happen to him."
I am beginning to catch on. I am the old woman; he is the young man. We cannot make ecksees because it will bring him bad luck. I have never been more delighted in my life to be an old hag with evil juju.
"Like what? What kinds of bad events? I ask, cheerfully.
"Oh no," he says, his expression becoming grave. "I cannot tell you, older sister. It would not be polite."
And then he lights up a giant spliff and inhales deeply.
* * *
When we arrive at the charming Hôtel Y'a Pas de Problème in the port town of Mopti, there is a Japanese girl's backpack stashed in my room. Like me, her bag went missing and she decided to get on with her travels without it. Only now it is here for safe keeping until she can retrieve it on her way home.
I sit on the bed and stare at it. I imagine all the lovely things inside - soap, deodorant, shampoo, clean clothes, toothpaste - all the things we both have done without for the past four days. My eyes lose focus, my head goes light. I wonder how it could possibly hurt anyone if I just peek inside to see if there is anything I can borrow...
IT IS A FUCKING BONANZA IN THERE.
The next thing I know, I am bathing with shower gel, conditioning my hair, and applying Cocoa Butter Sunset under my arms. My need is greater, I rationalize.
I know what you're thinking, people. But listen to me: giving an unwashed girl a rucksack of beauty products is akin to throwing a duffel bag of body parts at the Donner party. SHIT IS GONNA GET HECTIC.
Was I a bad person? Yes. Did I smell a thousand times better? Yes. Did I go out dancing with my fresh-smelling hair and tropical armpits? Yes. Yes I did.
* * *
All around the world, nightclubs set out velvet ropes and collect outrageous cover charges that promise entry to a Xanadu of syncopated strobe lights and watered-down cocktails. Mali is no exception. It is New Year's Eve and Mopti is all dolled up: boys in new sneakers and baseball caps, girls in flirty dresses and vertiginous heels, their parents in shiny zoot suits and floor-length gowns.
I, on the other hand, look like someone has used me to clean his windshield. Rocking the same outfit I've been washing in a bucket for four days, I am quickly lowering the tone. I skulk past the beefy door guy before he can check me out and spot my guide sitting in a completely empty dance hall.
"AHHHFRICAHHHHH," he says, laughing. Meaning: we just paid a stupid amount of money to get into this piece of shit club because the bouncers told us it was packed, but whatever - fuck it - let's drink. Mali is 90% Muslim but it has a laissez faire attitude about alcohol. Drinking is not frowned upon, nor is lighting up a joint in public before noon - but acting like an idiot is. It seems like a good system to me.
We sit in silence a while, swigging Castel and watching two girls make giggling, tentative movements toward the dance floor. Their pro forma coyness disappears as the DJ switches from techno to Afro pop. They take center stage, daring others to join them. Out of the shadows, elegantly dressed men and women step up. Suddenly everyone is shaking a tail feather, singing the songs they know by heart, their faces shining with delight.
The whole town knows my guide. "Rasta!" they call out, hugging him and slapping his back. Rasta doesn't dance, but his friend does. His friend dances like a man possessed - uninhibited, rapturous, inhabited by a spiritual force that literally moves him. He is an extraordinary dancer. With touching gallantry, he asks me to join him. And I do. We dance through Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mali. He leads, I follow.
"Elle danse! Elle danse!" exclaim the two giggling girls. We reach over undulating bodies to connect. It is midnight, and we ring in the New Year with hands clasped.