seemed to be about as bad off as the rest of us — certainly
no less alive — when we eventually found our way to the outdoor
bar of a French-owned, jungle-style hotel in Ouaga where there was
red wine, warm goat cheese salad and pastis to keep things civilized.
We dined with a thirty-year-old, Doctors without Borders worker
who considered West Africa the premier region on the continent for
partying after long stints in war-torn countries like Burundi whence
he'd just arrived. A stopover on a flight to Paris had brought him
to Ouaga for a weekend of drinking and paid sex, after which he
would decompress at home for a week, pick up his surfboard and return
to West Africa for a new six-month mission in Liberia where the
surf is reputed to be some of the "most killer" in Africa. Although
he claimed the surf was what had ultimately drawn him into his sixth
mission for the organization, it was clear his drink was doing the
real talking. He stared far into space as he summoned the words
to explain how each time he finishes a stint he assumes will be
his last, someone in Paris calls and drops the name of yet another
war-ravaged African country in his ear. "It is like a disease, you
know." It was clear he was never going home again.
to Frenchboy, in Ouaga prostitutes cost 5,000 CFA, or around ten
dollars, for an entire night. This is, of course, best price, and
must be bargained for. His own companion for the evening was a tall
and urbane woman in an exceptionally fine red evening dress. She
looked strangely fitting at a table among the T-shirts and unshaven
faces of the male aid workers.
I had decided to retire for the night I remembered having about
seventy French francs in coin left from a stopover in Paris. Since
Frenchboy was returning to Paris for a week the following day, I
decided to give him the money. When I returned to the bar to offer
it to him, he protested loudly and began to cry. I stressed that
I would not be going back through Paris anytime soon and that he
should have some fun before returning to Liberia. His emotional
outpouring over a gift of what amounted to no more than twenty dollars
perhaps stemmed from the heavy stress of a life witnessing human
atrocities almost daily, dotted with sporadic urban pleasures like
the hotel in Ouaga. In a fit of inspiration his eyes brightened
and he asked me my plans for the evening. When I told him nothing
much and that I was ready for bed, he offered his woman to me. "It
will be my pleasure. We will drink and dance in the after-hours
clubs." I thanked him no, finished my pastis, and retreated to the
room where Balloonhat was snoring loudly, and the air smelled of
ninety percent DEET.
through this busy city to find the shortest way into Mali, the Balloonhat
found numerous obstacles, the only direct road being a sand track
through the long border zone, rendering any organized bus travel
impossible. A high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle was needed
because no one could vouch for the existence of a continuous road,
much less its traveling condition. There were now entire days devoted
to figuring out where to find such a vehicle and how to afford it,
and if it even remained possible to reach Timbuktu or any of the
other ancient trading towns along the delta in an ever-shrinking
window of time.
on the stoop of our hut almost a week after arrival, just when all
energies had given way to isolated frustration — Charlie immersed
in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Addi studying the vascular parts
of a rabbit from a stew he had decided not to eat — a random
connection suddenly panned out. A colleague of a friend of a cousin
of a man who had been amused by the balloon hats during a small
market performance found it in his heart to secure our passage into
Mali on a Mission Order with the Ouagadougou-based Association African
Solidarite. The mission's purpose: to travel unhindered by politics,
promoting AIDS awareness in the villages of the Niger River Delta
of Mali. Apparently the balloon hats had reminded the Association's
president enough of the potential festivity of condom use that he
agreed to provide a jacked-up sedan of otherwise questionable mechanical
condition for a trip through the Delta region and into the remote
villages on the way.
with the car came a twenty-year-old driver named Noufou who
seemed to owe some kind of favor to the Association. The trip
would be rough-going, and it was apparent from the outset
that Noufou would much rather have been sitting on a street
corner in Ouaga than driving his first trip ever out of his
country. In fact, Noufou turned out not to have any of the
proper papers for such a job, and Balloonhat, far from
being protected by the Mission Order from bribes and other
border SNAFUs, was continually hit up for various sums of
money because of Noufou's lack of credentials. And, in this
case, lack of credentials merely meant no experience with the
nuanced bribery of border crossings. Even at the first checkpoint
just outside Ouaga, our man with the badge decided to levy
a fine for all vehicles carrying hazardous materials such as
gas and oil on the district's roadways. It was either pay him
right then or be detained by romantic kerosene lamplight for
hours, or even days. So much for international cooperation.
In Africa, the American always travels with a large dollar
sign pasted to his forehead, and if the African guiding
him isn't savvy, all the extra money goes to the wrong man.
in the middle of the hot and dead border zone between Burkina and
Mali, Noufou's post-apocalyptic driving habits gave way to the first
blown-out tire of the journey. The sand track had suddenly become
passable only on camelback and our old sedan had bogged down in
the depth of a shifted dune. At the same moment, a young boy tending
a few goats far across the dry scrub ran shouting and waving at
the car, warning us of the danger we had already encountered. With
his guidance we were able to push the hobbled sedan up unto the
scrub and over to a small encampment where the car rolled to a stop
among a dozen huts and fast became surrounded by every inhabitant
of them, a well-kept young man wearing a clean white T-shirt, was
deferred to as liaison for the practical reason that he was the
only one present who could speak any French. Only up to ten percent
of Mali's population actually speak this official language, and
it is of course the citizens who've had the most contact with outsiders
who make up that ten percent.
the literal heat of the moment or some recent interaction in the
city was to blame, "White Shirt" fast became interested only in
what monetary advantage could be gained over the Balloonhat.
Noufou attempted to use a broken jack to raise the car, Addi decided
to tie his apron around his waist and blow up a few hats —
take his mind off the quickly worsening problem of a break down
in the middle of nowhere rather than panic his way through an afternoon.
Charlie had no such luxury as good portrait photos require a more
intimate connection to the subject in the viewfinder. Where Addi
can disarm the potential enemy with the magic in his hand, Charlie
must engage and win a person over through a sensitive and conciliatory
demeanor designed to dissolve the metal barrier of the camera.
cursing the broken jack and unaware of the rising tensions for money,
asked fifteen villagers to lift the car so he could change the tire.
White Shirt happened to be busy at the moment arguing angrily with
Charlie over the price of a photo. The other villagers had become
entranced by Addi's balloon-twisting and could not understand the
hard feelings being generated by such an amusing situation. But
White Shirt was relentless, bent on convincing the group not to
be entertained by such opportunists stealing images of Africans.
White Shirt's hostility toward the Balloonhat had fast come to the
point where a "Plan B - quick escape" needed consideration. Charlie,
simply by holding a camera, had become the embodiment of patronizing
Western arrogance, and was being surrounded by ever more villagers
as White Shirt continued his diatribe in the local language. At
that moment, Noufou was just finishing with the tire and suddenly
began to understand the urgency of the situation. He jumped behind
the wheel and summoned the Balloonhat to get in quickly.
to have an entire village fascinated by the absurd arrival of a
beige Toyota being pushed by men with balloons, only to have the
ad-hoc leader of the group take it for what it could only be in
any cynic's mind: a financial opportunity. Of course this is just
what the Balloonhat is banking on by traveling around the world
on its shoestring budget — the eventual book deal and its
potentially lucrative merchandising tie-ins. If only we could have
sipped these pure and sweet ironies of the road like water, there
would have been no need for the expensive Swiss filter, and no cause
for all the parasites we received anyway.
and Addi sat in the back seat of the old Toyota, wondering why they
had urged each other to come this far. The afternoon was already
half over, and no one yet knew where we would be able to stop for
the night. Noufou had effectively taken the project hostage and
spoke only when asking for another cigarette. Only the bouncing
of the ride could vent the rage toward him and all of Africa at
that moment, whether misplaced or not, for having caused the situation
at hand. A dark grey band of sky began to grow from the North looking
like heavy rains coming to turn the red sand of the track to impassable
mud. No one could have felt lower. Noufou gestured his head toward
the sky. I nodded and looked back to Balloonhat stewing in the back
seat and noticed that both Addi and Charlie had become transfixed
by something out the opposite side of the car. We had been traveling
now for an hour with the cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpment on
view out the right side. As the car approached the western end of
this two-hundred-foot red wall, the Balloonhat spied three Tuareg
shepherds walking their flock along the base of the ridge. They
looked at each other when Charlie let out the low, open-mouthed
laugh of amazement at what he was seeing, saying, "this is it,"
with only a smile opening his mouth even further. Noufou failed
to notice the flock, concentrating instead on the middle of his
cigarette and the holes of road ahead. After perhaps four attempts
at saying "stop" to get him out of his road trance, he awoke and
began to slow the car down.
why?" he asked, as Addi bounded out of the still-moving car and
ran across the red dust a hundred yards with the denim apron of
balloons in his hand. Charlie followed fast. Noufou sat at the wheel
shaking his head with disdain.
men are bearded men. It is not good. They do not want an intrusion.
Dangerous. They use their knives to chase your friends away."
was already in the middle of the first hat for the oldest in the
group, a small man dressed in the rich blue tunic of the Sahel,
when Noufou decided it was safe enough to get out of the car himself.
The shepherd was staring at the balloons with a half-smile, happy
to break up his day of herding with such a strange entertainment.
Now and then he and the others would glance ahead to their flock
receding in the distance, careful not to lose them from sight but
far too intrigued with these strange fools in the middle of nowhere
to leave the scene. No words were spoken between the two parties.
None were needed. A connection had been made and the Balloonhat
could not offer enough thanks to the shepherds for turning this
miserable day to ecstasy. With thanks by way of handshakes, the
shepherds took their leave, holding hands to hats as they ran to
catch up to the flock, now almost a half mile down the ridge.
thick grey wall in the sky was coming closer as the car climbed
up the switchbacks over the ridge. At the top was an encampment
of no more than five or six stone huts. This time Noufou stopped
the car without asking, and everybody piled out without discussion.
the bearded one — white skull cap, the elder. The grey wall
was almost to the bottom of the ridge, rolling in at gale force.
Not much time then, everyone could see — maybe time for one
or two more hats. With a glance to the horizon, the elder chose
the smallest boy, the only completely naked person in the group,
to receive the last hat. The little boy was dazed at the sight and
thought of what had just entered his life. And then for the test,
the all-important photo, he covered his penis with shrewd modesty,
only to be cajoled to uncover for the camera by the fifteen men
around him. He complied slowly, as everyone else let out hearty
laughs. And then the first gust arrived, setting us all on edge.
It turned out not to be rain, but dust — the harmattan from
the north come late for its season, and the storm was just beginning.
Running for shelter and the car, both groups had only enough time
then to wave. There was a truth in that moment though — a
simple, wordless connection between two disparate peoples and the
realization that all was suddenly and ultimately under nature's
the next hour, driving through the 100-foot-deep canyon that is
the roadbed to Somadougou, a Tuareg hitchhiker was squeezed into
the back seat with the Balloonhat. Charlie stared dumbfounded as
the nomad winked and lifted his long blue sleeve to reveal an identical
wristwatch to the one Charlie was wearing. Addi was also silent,
having just experienced the entire reason for leaving the comfort
of his room at home. Noufou, for the first time in his life, was
gaping at the major rock formations surrounding him. He had forgotten
he was driving and — with only the Tuareg's urgent yell as
warning — had barely managed to swerve the car around a place
where half the road had fallen away into the bottom of the canyon.
Nervous laughter was all the gall anyone could give him. It was
too close for anything else.
night under the stars on the roof of Sofara's mosque, a crescent
moon, the Pleiades, and Comet Hale-Bopp, arranged themselves in
a triangle. The comet seemed to shift from red to blue and back
to red again. The Balloonhat felt life, and sleep was very sweet
on old straw mattresses.
is not Bliss
feeling did not last long. The next afternoon, in Djenne, another
ancient trading town wrecked (I don't mean to generalize too much,
because there are a lot of PC efforts that have done good things,
in terms of whatever good we're talking about, but this is another
story) by a comprehensive Peace Corps effort, we sat half-comatose
in a hundred-ten-degree mud hut on another roof, wondering how much
worse the road conditions might get further into the desert. Our
jacked-up sedan had barely gotten us this far, and the only other
vehicles seen since the border had been donkeys, camels, and the
occasional fully-geared Land Rover.
of a short wave radio broadcast wafted up from the courtyard below
where Allaye, our host, boiled down the afternoon tea over his small
coal fire. Hearing the word "Timbuktu," Balloonhat stumbled down
the steps leading off the roof to catch the tail end of a report
that three French travelers had been shot by Tuareg separatists
on the track just outside the town. Noufou's initial fear of the
shepherds at the escarpment came to mind. Would the Tuaregs act
any differently toward Americans pulling balloons out of thin air?
We sat silent, hot, and wondering until the next morning when it
was decided that the decision could be put off even longer by embarking
on a short backtrack to visit one or two of the unmapped villages
we'd missed toward the end of the escarpment.
6 clicks back in on the red dirt track, the Toyota's already woefully-patched
radiator began steaming badly. A lift of the hood revealed that
the fan had also stopped working. We all stood around the engine
gaping at the pile of junk that had actually brought us this far.
Mechanical failure. Good thing too, because nobody here —
not even Noufou — could be blamed for this one. The lingering
question of the previous afternoon had ceased to matter. Balloonhat
would not reach the end of the earth. Any attempt to continue north
into the desert at this point would have proven beyond mere artistic
insanity full into the realm of stupidity.
to do next but send Noufou with the car back to the nearest town
for some jury-rigging to get us back to Ouagadougou. Agreeing to
meet him at a crossroads before sunset, Balloonhat decided to search
the track for a nearby settlement to visit — try to make some
sense of an afternoon that had brought the failure of an entire
trip down to bear on the collective conscience.
few steps around the first bend in the road, there was a stone wall.
Twenty steps later, a gaze through the slats of a closed wooden
gate in the wall revealed a village full of small dried mud huts
on piled stone foundations. The huts wound all the way up a steep,
rocky hillside cut with narrow switchback paths. No people were
this it? Where is everybody?" Charlie asked.
looks like the place, probably the only place around anyway," Addi
said, pulling out a pineapple he'd carried all the way from Ouaga.
sat down on the roadside and began cutting the pineapple into slices,
discouraged and wondering how to make balloon hats for an empty
village. Ten minutes later a lone figure became visible down the
road, and slowly enlarged to a small man on a donkey returning to
the village from some long errand. He stopped his ass in front of
us and stared down silently. Charlie offered him some pineapple
while Addi pulled out the balloons and started in on a hat. Within
another two minutes, fifteen villagers had appeared out of nowhere
to surround the Balloonhat just as Addi was crowning "Donkeyman."
The man seemed to take this as some kind of sign and immediately
ordered the gate opened for our entrance. No words were spoken and
there were no smiles forthcoming, so it was impossible to tell exactly
what his intentions might have been.
went first, as the hat can precede any explanation, and was quickly
swallowed up by a crowd of villagers ushering him up one of the
mazelike paths. There were now swarms of people around Charlie also,
curious to get a close-up look at a person with blond hair and blue
eyes. The camera had suddenly turned back on him in the form of
some fifty eyes, and he could only imagine what strangeness could
be held behind the gate. With mounting concern he passed through,
calling Addi's name while the crowd looked on, trying to decipher
his urgent entreaties.
no, I think they're beating him to death!" Charlie shouted, looking
up the hill to a group of villagers violently thrashing something
unseen on the ground with large wooden clubs.
it was most certainly a ritual we had seen in other villages in
the region, at the moment, anything did seem feasible in the sudden
chaos that had enveloped us. So we climbed fast up one of the paths
to get a better look, and continued shouting after Addi.
bemused expressions, the crowd ushered us ever further up
the paths past old women in the shade preparing food and young
men in the sun doing nothing, until we had reached the elders'
hut on top of the cliff with half the village in tow. Addi
appeared from another path followed by the rest of the village,
and the two crowds merged here to form one giant mob of elated,
spontaneous celebration. There was relative peace inside the
elders' hut where seven bearded men lay on goatskin rugs and
received us warmly with offers of tea and bread. It was only
a matter of minutes, though, before twenty villagers had forced
themselves into the room, beyond the bounds of village propriety,
with a single urgent demand for balloon hats. The chief continued
to be amused, but when the chaos had proven too much for the
small space, he ordered everyone outside with his big stick
and his highest voice.
celebration rose to new heights on the cliff where Charlie began
shooting a small boy in balloon hat performing a smallboy dance
for what had now become the entire village. Seeing the immense joy
Balloonhat had brought to his people, and realizing then that the
only way to avoid a large-scale riot would be to take the heat off
himself by pressing Balloonhat's hand, the chief spoke up smiling
and said, "Certainly you will sleep here with us, yes?"
villagers cheered in agreement.
er... we have to get back to our car in Somadougou before dark.
Our driver is fixing it there." Addi said, shifting his eyes back
and forth with what could only have been noted as... confusion.
The chief of course could not understand a word he was saying, so
he smiled some more as more balloons were pulled out in a futile
attempt to control some of the chaos. At that moment Addi looked
down at Charlie, content behind his camera, and around at the hundred
people clamoring for his attentions. Charlie turned then for no
known reason and shouted, "I think we accidentally took the brown
acid today!" before just as quickly returning to the boy in his
do we get out? Too chaotic, " Addi stuttered into the din of the
crowd. Charlie could not hear him.
stopped briefly then as Addi held a hand to his head, and it became
abundantly clear that with Donkeyman's invitation to pass through
the well-guarded gate of the village, Balloonhat had indeed passed
through a kind of shortcut portal to a another civilization, a place
without Coca-Cola, a culture that had held fast to its original
way by shunning the tourism that had invaded the rest of the region.
that moment Timbuktu had ceased to matter. After all the heat,
sickness, and dust of the road, the Balloon Hat Experience
was melding, albeit chaotically, with some imperial explorer's
idyllic vision of Africa, and the goods had been delivered.
Balloonhat could only hope that the laughter and unity it had
inspired here would be the only lasting effect of its visit
after all the balloon hats had popped or deflated. But, having
come back through many of the same towns on our way back to
the coast and hearing tales from other travelers about the
Balloonhat, one does wonder whether the next random traveler
who happens upon this place or any of the other unmapped
settlements off the track from Bandiagara to Somadougou will
be presented with a wilted crown of balloons to make whole
again, and what he will do in response. Rather like in the
continuing aftermath of the colonial presences in West Africa,
another one of the numerous aid groups appears to fill some
perceived vacuum of need with a specific mission of its own,
and instead finds itself being repeatedly asked for biscuits
or soccer balls.
even a Western-educated Ouagadougou professor asked us rhetorically:
"What could be good about some European standing on the side
of a road urging you to come have a needle put into your arm? We
are born in Africa, we live our entire lives in Africa, and we
will die here. What else matters?"
in Accra, Balloonhat sat under shade on a street corner, unshaven
and gaunt, eating fried plantains. A couple of white Europeans passed
by walking tall in the midday sun, carrying brand new daypacks and
water bottles on their hips. The Balloonhat looked at itself, shaking
heads and smiling. It might just as well have been looking in the
mirror five weeks before.