For once in my history of traveling, my arrival goes exactly according to plan. At 1:30 a.m. on Fri., May 23, I disembark into the Malian heat, stumble bleary-eyed through immigration, find my bag within minutes, and find, just outside the airport exit, Tiekoro Kone, the chauffeur Mali Health has sent for me, with my name on a sign marked with the Mali Health logo.
Various people had cautioned me that I would be “overwhelmed by all the people approaching you at the airport,” but only a small handful of men approach me trying to sell me something. They give up after one or two “non merci”s. I’m sure it’s more bustling and overwhelming when it’s not 1:30 in the morning, but after India, this is child’s play.
I thank Tiekoro for coming to get me so early and show him the directions to the house that I’ve been given. (I also have the address, but everyone has assured me that addresses without accompanying directions and landmarks are not useful pieces of information.) He glances at them and nods. Wordlessly—is he the silent type, or is my French just hideously incomprehensible?—he hands me an envelope with a welcome packet from Mali Health and a small box with my new cellphone, which already has several text messages from Mariam, la Directrice des Programmes (Program Director). Cellphone! Written directions to the office! This is going so smoothly, I’m half waiting for the other foot to drop.
At the house, we are greeted by Moussa, the night guard. Moussa is a tall man with a huge grin and an easy laugh. He’s cheery even at 2 am. “Bienvenue en Mali!” Behind him is a small fire over which he and a friend have been talking and poking a pot of tea. The friend greets me as well. “Merci beaucoup,” I offer, thinking, Right, French, only French. I knew this already, but somehow the reality of needing to communicate for three months exclusively in a language in which I am highly conversational but decidedly not fluent has not gripped me until this exact moment. (This gets worse when I later realize that actually, most Malians have a middling to fair grasp of French themselves and generally communicate with each other in Bambara, of which I know not a single word.)
I step through the gate into a small courtyard filled with well-groomed rows of plants and—what?—a small blue-tiled swimming pool. The front porch is set with a long bench, several lounging chairs, and a small table draped in a tablecloth. I am both awed by and uncomfortable with such luxury, a feeling that worsens in the days to follow.
My room allays my expat guilt a bit: a little closet of a chamber with bare yellow walls and, for furniture, a lone mattress tossed on the floor, wrapped in a sheet. A single yellow curtain hangs over a sliding window. An adequate fan hangs from the ceiling. It’s clean, simple, and sparse—perfect. I feel heartened.
One problem: I had requested a mosquito net, which I do not immediately see. This is one luxury on which I am going to insist, because malaria. And typhoid and dengue, etc. etc.
I notice a black plastic bag in the corner and investigate. Yes: it’s a mosquito net, and a few pieces of rope. But…I look around the room. Huh. How am I going to hang it?
I start by tying the first piece of rope to the top of the net and then attaching it to the window rod. Okay—that fixes the edge above the top of the bed. But what about the bottom?
I try to extend the remaining piece of rope all the way to the door handle, but no dice. I step outside to our spacious living room slash dining room, hoping for inspiration. Aha! I gank a kitchen chair and stuff it at the foot of my mattress to make a second post for my net. Perfect. It’s temporary, but it’ll do. I feel proud of having figured out how to do something on my own in a foreign place I do not yet understand.
This feeling evaporates when I wake up the next day (around 4 pm) and realize the list of things I do not understand is immense. I don’t even know where to find water I can drink. I lay in bed for a while, contemplating going back to sleep to avoid the long list of what feels like impossibilities.
Non, non. Get up, face the day, and get your life together, Rudman. Lèves-toi. I sit up and call Mariam to assure her I have arrived just fine. We have a short conversation in French that I do not understand. Merde. I am so screwed.
I pace around the house. I look inside the kitchen. We have a fridge, and a freezer. The guilty feeling returns. It’s replaced by delight when I open the fridge and see two large bottles of mineral water. I nick a cupful and return to my room. It’s hot as hell when I’m not sitting right under my fan.
I sit for a few minutes, feeling stuck. I don’t even know where to start.
Okay, how about I start by writing down a list? I love writing lists.
I open my journal and write down two headings on separate pages: “Questions about my life currently,” and “Questions about my life this summer.”
I start the first list:
“Where can I go to buy groceries?”
“What’s with the drums (currently)?”
“How do I put more money on my phone?”
“Where is anything?”
“Where can I buy beer?”
Fortunately, in the few hours that follow, our day guard Malik and my roommate Candice help me answer most of those questions. (Though I still don’t know about the drums, but I don’t have to. The answer is: someone was celebrating something, and of course then there needs to be music. I can tell this is going to be a recurring theme in Mali. I like the place already.)