After being thoroughly underwhelmed by Senegal, I desperately wanted to like Mali. I wanted it to amaze me on a daily basis; I wanted its landscapes to astound me; I wanted the culture to enthral me; in short, I wanted too much.
It's hard for me to be totally honest about what I thought of Mali, because a lot of my thoughts were affected by malaria pills or illness. My initially negative experience of the River Niger was probably more to do with the fact I was recovering from a nasty bout of bacteria than a reflection on the experience itself, and I'm convinced my black mood in the desert of Timbuktu was a direct effect of the Lariam; I can't think of any sane reason why I would feel miserable while camel trekking in such an evocative place. But I did feel miserable in Mali, and for a lot of the time, and I left the country after the lowest ebb of all, being ill in Dogon Country.
So most of my problems with Mali should be blamed on me, not the country. Mali promised some interesting places, and it delivered them. Timbuktu grew on me, and by the time I left I was thoroughly caught up in its myth and mystery; Djenné surprised me by being a delightfully friendly place, and the imposing mud mosque is even more beautiful in the flesh than it is in the countless tourist department posters you see splattered around the walls of Mali's hotels and travel agencies; the River Niger between Timbuktu and Gao is breathtaking, and the public ferry is a wonderful way to see it; and Dogon Country, even through the haze of Lariam-influenced depression and constant rushes to the ablutions, is an amazing place, steeped in culture and history.
But, as the barman said to the horse, why the long face? I guess the problem isn't with Mali, but a realisation that so far, West Africa hasn't been what I expected, and I expected more. None of the countries I have visited so far has shone in the way that, say, India, Australia or Malaysia shone for me on my previous trip, and I genuinely expected that two months into my African jaunt I'd be raving about at least one place. Incredibly, I'm not; instead I've visited a collection of pleasant enough places that I'm pleased I've seen, but I wouldn't necessarily bother to visit them again. I'd go back to India or Australia at the drop of a hat, but I won't be coming back here.
Perhaps I should blame the language barrier? People say that you visit West Africa for the people and East Africa for the animals, but so far the only people I've warmed to are the Gambians, and I only spent about a week there, so even that's pushing it. This could be down to the language barrier, as my French is easily good enough for ordering food, finding hotel rooms and getting the right bus, but stops way short of proper, involved conversation. It's therefore impossible for me to really get to know anyone who doesn't speak English, which restricts me to those in the tourist trade, idiotic touts, and the odd language expert – hardly a fair cross-section of the populace. So for me to say that I didn't particularly like the Malians or the Senegalese could just be another way of me saying that my French isn't good enough to jump the cultural barrier.
It's also possible that the Francophone countries inherited a fair amount of 'French-ness' about them while the English colonies inherited a fair amount of 'English-ness', which would make me feel much more at home and at ease in Anglophone countries. India was a prime example of the English influence putting me at my ease; I loved the way the language worked in the Gambia in the same way I loved the way the Indians speak English, I enjoyed seeing snippets of home appear in the strange cultural mishmash of Africa, and I loved talking to the locals, even in basic English. In Francophone countries, if a conversation goes astray, I instantly assume it's because of my French; if a conversation goes astray in an Anglophone country, it's either down to the other person's English, or it's down to a cultural difference, but whatever the reason, I understand what's going on. In French-speaking countries, I rarely do.
But I think my biggest disappointment in the Sahel countries has been the lack of anything stunning to discover; I have yet to be speechless at a building, a landscape, an event in the street or an aspect of the local culture. I'll be astounded if this doesn't happen in Africa, somewhere along the line. Too many people rave about this continent for it to be full of clones of Senegal and Mali; if it is, I'll just have to find another continent for my fix.
Mali, then, is a pleasant place, but for me it's nothing to shout about. I can't complain, because I have come away with some good memories and some good stories, but I'm still looking for that special something that makes all this illness, all this waiting, all this hassle and all this emotional wrangling worth the effort. Mali doesn't have that special something, but it's still a good place to visit, and no doubt the rose-tinted spectacles of history will help me warm to it; thankfully Lariam doesn't seem to affect my tendency to happy nostalgia.