Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year from the Tunisian coast where Keita and I took our last walk along the shore this morning. Tonight we return to Tunis to celebrate New Year in our old-fashioned and charming La Maison Doree with Foie Gras and champagne.

But soon,soon I will be back in Mali- and in Djenne the 4th January. Keita stays here another month for check-ups. Birgit has held the fort at the hotel and struggled on admirably in the face of some difficult guests recently it appears. Perhaps Djenne Djenno is a victim of its own success? We have had so many great reviews of the hotel over the last four years that people are expecting too much from us, and some now become disappointed and grumpy because we don't have wifi for instance! Four guests have complained about the lack of wifi in the last few days, Birgit moans. Wifi! If only it were possible, but alas, it is not as yet.

Some other guests have complained about the lack of choice of red wines. 'Is that all you have to offer?' Yes indeed it is! We only normally have a modest Beaujoulais and perhaps a bottle of reasonable claret. We also always keep a bottle of champagne, just in case. That is actually quite something in Djenne, where there is no alcohol available!

The thing is: We have never pretended to be anything but a very rustic hotel in the African bush! That is how people used to like us. Why suddenly people expect us to be five star or have wifi escapes me...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sunset over 2010… Ace and I gaze into the distance across the new hotel terrain. What will 2011 bring?

We were to build a great Djenne house in 2011 adding another 10 rooms to the hotel. These plans have had to be put on the shelf for the moment. Much more effort is required than anticipated to fill the land since the water rose so high this year- who knows where it will reach next rainy season? We will continue our efforts to fill our piece of land with earth to raise the level. But in stead of building we will only plant, biding our time. What a nuisance! I was full of beans and great ideas for the new hotel addition…Oh, well will have to concentrate on the garden- I want to grow a maze!

But it was not only the rains that were destructive this year: The rumours of war and Al-Quaida activity in Mali have taken an even higher toll, and everyone in the tourist business has been severely hit by the warnings not to travel to Mali. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs started this campaign with most other countries following like lemmings in their wake. Key tourist areas such as the Dogon country, Djenne and Mopti have been shown alternatively orange, red and orange again on the information sites according to the supposed threat to potential travellers.

There has never been an attack or even a threat of attack in any of the tourist areas of Mali, Timbuktu included. Yes, there have been people held in the far North of the country, but these people have not been tourists, and were kidnapped in the Niger and brought across the border in an area hundreds of miles from anywhere anyone visits on a tourist trip to Mali.

Meanwhile Al Quaida or similar organisations has been active elsewhere: in the last month there have been suicide bombers in Stockholm. There have been innumerable threats to France itself. The Greek Embassy has just been added as the latest in a series of embassies to be attacked in Rome.
There seems to be some foundation for claims of danger in these countries. Does the French Foreign Office suggest that tourists should avoid Sweden, itself or Italy? Of course not. Why not?????

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Murs lézardés?
Just a quick note in the interest of linguistic accuracy:
I am mopping up my tears and getting over the rotten egg Trip Advisor review (especially since there was a good one too waiting in the bag, just received from a kind English person. Thank you, if you read this!) but just wanted to say that murs lézardés does not mean walls with lizards on them as I erroneously suggested in my translation below! A French friend wrote me to say that it means in fact walls with cracks in them!
Ok.Indeed Djenne Djenno can oblige even in this respect. I throw my hands up and admit unreservedly that there are some cracks on some Djenne Djenno walls.... (like in all mud houses!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It has happened. It had to happen:
A bad Tripadvisor review. No, not bad: a stinking, slimy, rotten-egg-missile of a review, posted on the 11th of December in French. ‘Djenne Djenno Minable’ was the headline. That means Djenne Djenno pitiful, or terrible, or lamentable. Take your pick!

After four years of nothing but sweetness and love from our reviewers, this has been long overdue. Djenne Djenno is by a large margin the most reviewed hotel in Mali. We now finally join the ranks of distinguished hotels such as the glorious La Maison Rouge in Mopti or the equally splendid La Maison in Timbuktu, both of which have had their share or rotten egg missiles.

So what is so bad about Djenne Djenno?
I publish the whole review here in French:

‘Sous couvert d'autenticité on nous fait dormir dans des chambres sans eau chaude, aux sanitaires plus que minables, murs lézardés, coussins tachés, repas très médiocres, servis a la lueur d'une simple lampe au pétrole qui sent mauvais, bref, un très mauvais séjour, et un accueil trés mitigé, un personnel charmant, mais pas très propre ...’

‘Under the pretext of authenticity we were made to sleep in rooms without hot water, with more than deplorable sanitation, lizards on the walls …’

But my dear reviewer, we do not pretend to be authentic, we ARE authentic! That is real mud in those walls and nothing but Djenne mud! Yes, indeed lizards can sometimes be spotted on the walls- this is Africa and we therefore ask people to keep their doors closed. (The lizard, by the way, is regarded as sacred by the masons of Djenne, and should never be killed.)
I am sorry the reviewer found the bathroom fittings lacking: there is however a perfectly normally formed Western style water closet with a functioning seat and cover. The showers work, and there IS hot water, but it takes a little time to arrive only! The ceramic wash basins are made by a local potter and is one of the prides of the hotel. We have just had them overhauled, as followers of this blog will know.

Our French reviewer did not like dining in the garden under the stars in the light of a petrol lamp. But that is not compulsory. If only he/she would have let us know!
If guests prefers to dine in what is in fact our dining area with electric lights (see detail above)that is perfectly possible. But most people prefer the garden dining.

The guest also complained about mediocre food, and this is more serious. We are always making efforts to improve our food, and to add new recipes- sometimes we introduce Malian dishes which tourists may not get to try, and often we have Middle Eastern dishes. Fortunately most of our guests are complimentary about our food- and many people do not realize just what difficulties there are to serve ANY food in Djenne, which has absolutely no shops at all. That is part of the challenge which I relish in Djenne- we will NOT import food but will make do with what we grow or buy in the Djenne market.
One cannot of course please everyone. What is charming to one is ‘minable’ to another. Our unsatisfied reviewer was a business traveller, which is unusual in Djenne. I doubt that he/she would have been able to find a satisfactory hotel in Djenne- there are no Sheratons or Hiltons or even Travelodges. There are no trouser presses or teas maids within a thousand miles of Djenne!

Talking about thousands of miles from Djenne, I am writing this on a sunny Tunisian balcony with Keita sitting next to me- he has lost a lot of weight and is looking and feeling good. We eat, rest, read and take windswept walks along the empty beach looking for shells which I am going to use for my new bathroom walls in Djenne. It is low season here contrary to in Mali where Birgit is looking after the hotel. She keeps sending me SMS messages about hotel goings-on. She is also most insistent that I tell you that we are not wearing Venitian glass bead earrings but Bohemian glass earrings in the picture from last week!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All good school children remember of course that the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is regarded as the beginning of the Renaissance since Italy was subsequently overrun by Classical scholars escaping the Ottomans. This had the effect of waking the Italians from their medieval slumber and henceforth they started to draw a lot better for one thing.
Lesser known refugees from Constantinople included skilful bead makers who taught the Venetians in particular to make glass beads. And from Venice these beads travelled as trade beads into the furthest corners of Africa where they were exchanged for gold, slaves, palm oil and other commodities. Venetian glass beads are still found in the markets of Africa, but they are becoming expensive and rare. They are now migrating back to where they came from and are found in the markets and chic jewellery stores of Europe and America.

African trade beads and their peregrinations is a fascinating subject. An intimate knowledge of trade beads brings knowledge of history itself.
Birgit has such knowledge, although she modestly begs me to write that she is only a student of trade beads. She comes to Africa each winter and buys beads for her stall in Amsterdam market during the summer months. She does a lot of business with Kissiman above.

I love to hear her talk of individual beads. She holds up a bead and says: ‘This one is probably a pre-Islamic Roman glass bead’, or a stone bead: ‘this is an African Neolithic bead, which means it could be between four hundred and four thousand years old’. We are both wearing Venetian bead earrings on the picture above ( sold in the MaliMali shop)
I left Birgit in charge at the hotel and I am now in Bamako, leaving for Tunis and Keita tonight for three weeks.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

no pictures for this blog, and not much writing even, just to say that after over four years of writing this blog, I have just become aware that there are statistics that shows me how many people are reading my blog, and where they are.
I am therefore dumbfounded to realize that at this very moment there are two people reading my blog in NAMIBIA and one in SOUTH KOREA! Isn't that fantastic! I will never feel lonely again!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Much has happened:
Boubakar displayed hitherto undiscovered resources of heroism when he chased out an invasion of bees in the bar the other day; Keita has been allowed out of his sterile cell and back to the clinic in Tunis where he is doing well; my dear Dutch pal Birgit has arrived and we have our customary sunset cocktails on the roof overlooking the great mosque. The water has descended and soon we will once more see the familiar sight of footballers instead of fishermen in pirogues on the plain between the hotel and the town of Djenne.

Maobi is getting more and more difficult to handle. I am managing to stay on with difficulty during our late afternoon ‘promenades’ which are becoming more like battles everyday. We are pitting our wills against each other: Maobi wants to go hell for leather, I don’t.
There is simply no space to do a proper gallop on the neighbourhood streets with schoolchildren everywhere. Soon the water will have receded so we can return to our great rides around the ancient burial grounds of Djenne Djeno. In the meantime I have decided to take him off his high energy diet by reducing the millet.

The yearly wonder which is the crossing of the Fulani cattle herds at Diafarabe took place last Saturday- once more everyone who happened to be staying at the hotel decided to join our convoy which left the hotel at 4.30 am after a big communal breakfast in the garden in the light of a starry sky and kerosene lamps.
The road was long and difficult this year. Although Diafarabe is only about 50 k. west from Djenne as the crow flies we had to take an enormous detour south to Macina then north to Diafarabe because of the water which still stands high in places. But it was worth the hardships of the road (and there were quite a few, see above!)

Nothing can be more exotic than Diafarabe: a combination of sights and sounds unseen and unheard elsewhere presents a grandiose spectacle which never fails to move me to tears.
This year some incredible looking hunters added dark and pagan wood note both to the visual and the aural as their strange and mysterious music mingled with the Fulani flutes.

Young maidens adorned with gold and amber danced before the assembled dignitaries, bringing their calabashes of milk. And enveloping it all was the all-pervasive base note of the lowing of a thousand heads of cattle.

As usual we hired a canoe and had ourselves paddled out in the middle of the river amongst the herdsmen and their swimming cattle, helping along here and there by grabbing struggling cows by the ear and giving them a lift to rejoin their herds.

Finally, exhausted and happy Birgit and I crawled onto the back of the pick-up again, and installed ourselves for the long journey back. Once in Djenne we had seen both the sunrise and the sunset from the back of our pick up truck. We had been on the road for 11 hours in all.