I’ve heard that it takes about six weeks for culture shock to set in. So far in Bamako I’m surprised that it hasn’t. Perhaps I’m just too busy between my new role at school, weekly squash at the equestrian club, and regular weightlifting at the only gym I could find on my side of the river. But while I’ve definitely felt that I while I live in a third-world country, I haven’t felt it as an overwhelming burden – until I left.
I departed school early on Friday to catch a plane to Accra for the Fall 2013 AISA educators’ conference, where I was to attend a session for Moodle administrators. One of my school’s perks is free transportation to the airport, so I was picked up in a school van with green diplomatic plates for the 20-minute drive south. As we approached the airport, traffic thinned out and gave way to well-manicured, deserted roads. Mali doesn’t have a population wealthy enough to afford regular air travel – leading to a chicken-and-egg problem where the dearth of passengers means that airlines must charge more and offer fewer flights, and because of the high ticket prices most Malians are discouraged from air travel. And so Bamako-Senou airport needs only a single terminal with a deserted check-in area and lonely immigration officer manned the exit desk. The security line was non-existant and the customs officer who checked my bags had time to chat me up and remark on his surprise that an American had learned some French before wishing me bon journey and sending me on my way. I was almost surprised to find that the departures lounge had a café selling croissants and Heineken along with a poorly-stocked duty free concession; I was less surprised to find every chair filled by French soldiers finishing after their tour of duty in the north.
My flight on Air Côte d’Ivoire opened its gates for boarding an hour early, and it took that long for all the passengers to finally board. This would be their procedure at my connection in Abidjan, too – as would the unusual (in the first world) practice of spraying insecticide into the overhead baggage compartments before takeoff, a practice that the announcement assured me in French and English holds “no harm to you.” I was expecting a cramped seat with well-worn armrests and tired chair fabric, but the plane was surprisingly new and the stewardesses surprisingly mindful, down to admonishing me to turn off my Kindle during takeoff and landing where the staff on an Arab airline would have shrugged and moved on.
The plane landed in Abidjan after a long descent over the muddy waters of the Atlantic coast, and as the plane pulled into its gate I was reminded again of just how poor Mali was. Out the window I could see not one but three OTHER commercial aircraft on the tarmac, and the duty free actually sold … well, things. And on my arrival in Ghana I was greeted by advertisements assuring me that I could use my ATM card at numerous ATM locations in Accra (to date, I have seen only one place in Bamako – my travel agent’s – that accepts plastic). I passed through immigration and past several signs warning immigration officers against negotiating the visa on arrival fees with travellers and warning passengers against being “sexual deviants” and “pedophiles.” The duty free in arrivals was already closed at 8:30pm, as were both exchange kiosks. I exchanged $100 with a man on the street outside for a much better rate that I would have gotten at my hotel and then set off in a cab.
In Bangkok you can get a 5-star hotel experience in the heart of downtown for $130 a night. In Brussels I paid that much for a room at the Sheraton Four Points just off Avenue Louise. In Ghana, that money will buy you a night at the Asa Royal Hotel. It was new enough that Tripadvisor had only one sparse review, and it quickly became clear that it was run by someone without much hospitality training or attention to detail. The bathroom lacked any amenities – even soap – and the shower head did not attach to the wall at all. The hotel didn’t have any Wifi, although a friendly employee promised me that he would buy a SIM card and credit the next day. The bed was covered by thin linens that reminded of the industrial 2-ply toilet paper in the basement bathrooms at Northwestern. The TV showed Catholic masses and Ghanian soap operas that encompassed a confusing mixture of country living, hair braiding, and domestic violence. But the facilities were generally clean and the location was less than ten minutes by foot to La Palm Royal hotel, where I would have spent three times that much, so the hotel was more than adequate for my purposes.