We went out to change money from Euros or dollars to West African currency (called CFA). Immediately upon stepping outside the taxi we were surrounded by people selling SIM cards and belts and post cards, continuo as we navigated the throng, and there appeared two tall young men, one in a collared shirt and the other in a tie dyed t-shirt — colors not dead in Mali, by the way, the women especially here dress up to a phenomenal extent. Anyway, these two guys became our unofficial guides of the moment. Here comes the service economy. I used to object to such things, because I resent having people make contracts implicitly without ever negotiating the terms with you. You know that there’s going to be a fight at the end of the day when they finally unwrap the EULA agreement that they think you’ve signed, or (to take an even more absurd analogy from a contract nobody bothers to read) you conduct your divorce.

But there is an advantage to having a guide. Is it getting to where you want to go? You could do that with a map, if there were any; and they aren’t taking you there anyway, they are taking you to a carpet shop nearby. No, it’s that when you have a guide, the other guides, i.e. the population of the city you’re in, don’t hassle you to become your guide. It was the same outside the airport. This is worth the price of admission, until you find out what the price of admission is. We did get to the bank and the post office so those of you whose addresses we know can start getting postcards with fancy stamps. Let us know if any of them arrive.

Assou Sagara had already suggested to us what the going rate for guides per day was; so I didn’t feel so bad about sending these birds off with 5000 CFA (540 CFA = 1 US dollar) after a couple of hours even though they insisted that they deserved ten US dollars an hour each. They sent one of their friends out after us, whose part in this charade was to protest that he didn’t know them and they had stiffed him for a Coke at lunch and we therefore owed him 1000 CFA. Non. We didn’t buy any carpets either. The pickup guides hadn’t said anything when their bud sold us 10 postcards for what turned out to be almost three times the going rate; so what were we to think of the friend of his cousin’s friend’s batiks for 12500? They were nice. But it’s a trust issue. I still remember buying two artistic purple and white batiks in Dominica that turned out to be so water soluble that the first drop ruined them. Oh, who am I blaming? The Mona Lisa isn’t machine washable either. Actually it probably is.

But lunch was nice. A Senegalese goat stew over rice. We’ve just had a great dinner, with music, here at the Mandé Hotel, too; River Pike tajine and a lovely Malian variation on Molukkhiya followed by a mango tart. There’s a lot to be said for vacationing in ex-French colonies.

The Mandé Hotel has three stars; it’s more a quantum chimaera of a two star and a four star hotel. The rooms are basic but the location is fabulous, right on the Niger River, and the grounds almost look really great but — they are, le tired. They charged 3200 for 3 liters of water and 9000 for a minimal breakfast. The sausages were interesting but I don’t know what mefloquine moment Michael Palin was having on pronouncing it the best breakfast in the Sahara — or maybe we’ll find out why.

Assou even sent one of his boys around to change dollars for us at a better rate than we got at Ecobank. (The Euro rate can’t be beat: the CFA is tied to the Euro and nobody charges a commission.)

We enjoyed our last dinner in Bamako at the restaurant gallery “Santoro” on the north side of the railroad tracks. At least, I think we enjoyed it; I slept through most of dinner owing to the hypnotic music by the koro player. A koro is a harp that looks a little like a sitar. It has a lot of strings and can probably play a lot of notes more than the artist was choosing. When people talk about the African tradition in music they aren’t talking about his tradition. If his cultural ancestors had been sold into slavery — but they weren’t, they put the slavers into a trance — “50 Cent” would be recording on “Windham Hill”.

Adding to the lethargy was the traditional dose of African carbohydrates from a people who don’t obsess about them, at least not with the same parity that Westerners do: fried plantains, french fries … and for the centerpieces: Niger River Capitaine brochette which was just perfectly grilled and chicken in coconut sauce. I don’t know what Justin has against African food. last night’s tajine and tonight’s brochette were ideal performances.

And so to bed. Tomorrow morning a couple guys we haven’t met yet are showing up at 8 to drive us around Mali for two weeks. I hope they are nice.