Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Coumba and Tidiane's wedding

This weekend we had the honor of attending Coumba and Tidiane's beautiful, traditional Malian wedding.  There were several elements that actually reminded us of an Indian wedding, from the colorful clothing and high energy dancing to the number of outfit changes for the bride and groom!  But what stood out the most was the amazing, loving group of friends that Coumba and Tidiane have from around the world. We wish them a lifetime full of love and laughter together!!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Incredible Women

We’ve been very fortunate to meet some incredible women during our time here in Mali and wanted to share a little about some of them.

Coumba Toure – In addition to being our gracious host in Bamako, Coumba is the regional director for West Africa for Ashoka, responsible for selecting and supporting program fellows. She has been described as “an educator seeking alternatives in education, an activist struggling for radical social change and working for just and sustainable relations worldwide, and an artist who enjoys writing fiction and sharing music.” Truly an amazing woman, here is a link to a piece she wrote on The Institute for Popular Education in Mali (also the organization we are working with here.)

Maria Diarra (Keita) – We wrote a little bit about Maria in an earlier post, but wanted to share more about her amazing work. Maria spent over ten years doing development work with rural women in Mali, earned a Masters degree in education from Amherst University, and founded the Institute for Popular Education in Mali initially focused on adult education and now targeting the issue of childhood literacy and learning. She was elected as an Ashoka fellow in 1993 and has continued growing IEPs education programs and reach since then. Her passion for her work is palpable and incredibly inspiring. This profile gives a more in depth description.

Aminata Traore – We only spoke with Aminata briefly, but she has such gravitas and presence that we had to share her background as well. She is the former Minister of Culture of Mali, a former coordinator for the UNDP, an author and a political activist. Here is a brief bio.

This doesn’t even include any of the guests we met at Coumba’s wedding who are an incredibly distinguished group of people – from Ashoka fellows from across Africa to the founder of Justice in Nigeria Now, a truly amazing group.

Project IEP, Part II

A few people have asked and we wanted to write a bit more about our project with IEP (Institut pour L'Education Populaire). We had the opportunity to spend time both with the team that’s launching IEP’s Read, Learn & Lead program in 200+ schools across Mali this fall and with Maria Diarra (IEP's Founder) to understand the issues IEP is currently facing with respect to scaling the organization. Based on our discussions we outlined the types of challenges faced and best practices implemented by organizations experiencing high growth, and grouped our recommendations for IEP into five areas: shared vision and values, organization structure, management style, processes and tools, and human resources.

A lot of the ideas were relatively straightforward, such as screening for vision/values alignment during the interview process to ensure IEP recruits the right types of people or thinking about distributed decision making to avoid bottlenecks at the top of the organization. Other information we presented was very tactical, particularly around process development for areas like budgeting and reporting. Though we didn't present any "new" concepts, there were many points that Maria and her team hadn’t necessarily thought about or had time to focus on because of how quickly the organization has expanded.

In the end, we left Maria with our recommendations and a roadmap for IEP. She seemed very happy with our work, and even said that if they can find the funds she’d love to have us come back and train her leadership team. Kruti and I really enjoyed our work with IEP but wish we had more time to dig deeper. We were a bit ambitious in what we had hoped to achieve in less than two weeks but I think we left Maria and Coumba with some good documents as a starting point for an ongoing dialogue. It's difficult to have substantial impact in such a short time span and so we hope this is just the beginning of our work together.

Maria, Coumba and us

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dogon Country photos

Slummin’ it back to Bamako

After three days trekking in Dogon Country, our guide Ibrahim brought us back to the gateway town of Bandiagara, from where we had to get ourselves 800km back to Bamako. First, we had to get to Sévaré to the main Bamako-Gao highway. The issue is that there’s no fixed bus schedule in Bandiagara; buses depart only when there are enough passengers to fill them. And when there aren’t enough people to fill the 24-passenger minibus, the “bus” is actually a busted, rusted station wagon that must have been manufactured before we were born. Astonishingly, even the station wagon wouldn’t leave until it was full to capacity with NINE PASSENGERS, plus the driver. Ibrahim said if our luck is good there will be seven other passengers waiting at the bus stand when we arrive. Insha’Allah. When we got to the “bus stand” in Bandiagara, there was only one other passenger waiting. So much for God’s will.

Soon two women arrived with two kids, but the two kids were going to sit in the women’s laps so they didn’t count. An hour later another man arrived with five chickens. After waiting almost two hours we paid for the open seats and everyone loaded into the station wagon. The chicken man tied three of his birds to one side of the baggage rack on the roof and two birds to the other. So there we were: six adult passengers, two crying kids, one driver, five chickens flapping in the wind, and two more guys riding on the roof rack (apparently that’s free). We picked up one more passenger on the way before a guy on a motorcycle started yelling at us that we had a flat tire. A flat tire?!?!?!?!? You’ve got to be kidding me. It was 2pm and as we stood there roasting under the blazing Mali sun with less than half a liter of water left and one bar on my mobile phone, I thought, “We’re completely unprepared for this.”

I tried to meditate and just be in the present moment rather than worry about what may happen. Not so easy. Fourteen hours later, after stops in countless villages along the way and a protracted lightning storm, we finally rolled into our little Bamako B&B at 4am, completely exhausted but smiling as we thought about our crazy journey home.

Quote of the Day from Dogon Country

This one had me cracking up for a few minutes, but I think it was one of those had-to-be-there moments:

Ibrahim: “Dogon like fat women. Means husband is rich and has good food.”
Vipin: “Then Dogon must think I’m poor when they look at my wife.”
Ibrahim: “Noooo…Dogon know tourist no like fat women.”

The longest greeting ever

We asked our guide Ibrahim to teach us the famously long Dogon salutation, which is repeated in its entirety every time two Dogon people pass each other (usually needs to start when two people are still far apart and doesn’t finish until they’re yelling back over each other’s shoulders), regardless whether they know each other. Here’s the translation:

A: “Good morning/afternoon/evening”
B: Acknowledgement

A: “How are you?”
B: “Fine”

A: “How is your mother?”
B: “Fine”

A: “How is your father?”
B: “Fine”

A: “How is your family?”
B: “Fine”

A: “How is your…[wife, children, animals]?” (this can carry on indefinitely particularly if two people actually know each other)
B: “Fine, fine, fine…"

A: "Good"
B: "Good"

B: "How are you?”
A: “Fine”

B: “How is your mother?”
A: “Fine”

B: “How is your father?”
A: “Fine”

B: “How is your family?”
A: “Fine”

B: “How is your…?”
A: “Fine…”

The common thread

We've discovered a common thread that links us to people in all the places we've traveled so far. Bollywood. Yes, that's right, Bollywood. When our Dogon guide, Ibrahim, learned that we're Indian, he busted out singing "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, aaja" from the 1982 film Disco Dancer. Hard to believe, but true. Our video clip of Ibrahim and the original are below.

Dogon Country - Part II

The pace of life in Dogon country was slow and relaxing, in part because it was so hot. I picked up a new french phrase along the way -- Il fait chaud! (translation: It's hot!). We started hiking early in the mornings, stopped for lunch and a long siesta to avoid the noon sun, and continued on in the late afternoon heat to our next destination and the campments where we stayed overnight. Meals consisted of rice or pasta with a vegetable sauce (plus chicken at dinner for the non-vegetarians), and the campments provided mattresses on the roof to sleep on. The next morning we'd wake up at sunrise to a orchestra of roosters, goats and donkeys...

Along the way, we visited several Dogon villages, learned some interesting tidbits from our guide and made a few observations of our own:
  • Women are the backbone of Dogon society, like many others. The Dogon women were up at dawn carrying water from the wells to their homes (many with babies strapped to their backs), pounding grain under the hot sun, working in the fields and generally taking care of business. When we asked our guide about the responsibilities shouldered by Dogon men, he told us that they are primarily responsible for farming, but since the harvest was still a month away we wouldn't see too many men working in the fields. As far as we could tell, they were mostly napping!

  • Dogons maintain their ancient culture and animist religion, but simultaneously practice Islam or Christianity without conflict. They're polygamists as well.
  • Some Dogons believe Obama is a Dogon -- our guide told us that a man from one of the Dogon villages claims that Obama is actually his cousin.
  • Coca-cola distributes everywhere! The campments provided simple meals and showers, and not much else, but every campment we saw had Coke!
  • Apparently, Dogon people used to be afraid of tourists, but now you're accosted by children trying to hold your hand and calling out "ça va bien?" (everything good?) and asking for candy and water bottles. One little girl even offered me a massive cricket, to my great dismay.

Dogon Country

Dogon Country is the homeland of the fascinating cliff-dwelling Dogon people, known for “a culture that remains virtually un-mechanized and practices an arcane animist religion requiring elaborately costumed dances and blood sacrifices.” (NYTimes) We saw Dogon Country on foot, trekking and camping along the escarpment for three days and two nights. The landscape is absolutely stunning. It felt like we had reached the end of the earth. On the first day we descended from the village of Djiguibombo (pronounced jiggy-BUM-bo) to Kani-Kombolé and as we walked toward the edge of the escarpment, there emerged the sweeping expanse of plains below, with no sign of human life as far as our eyes could see. At first I couldn’t decide what movie I felt like we were cast in, but after hearing that everything we were looking at was once underwater and seeing the waterfall trickle from the top of the escarpment down to the village of Teli, I knew it was Ice Age.

Kruti and I are not big camping people but the night we spent camping in the village of Begnimato was outstanding. We slept on thick mats on the roof of a mud hut, wind whistling through the trees, temperature on the cool side of comfortable, a massive ten-story rock for scenery, and a mosquito net for romance. And the stars were magnificent. There’s no electricity in Dogon villages so the night was dark and the stars shined bright. I happened to wake up at 2am since we had slept at 8pm and just watched the sky for an hour or two.

Dogon Country was definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eid Mubarak

Celebrated Eid, the end of Ramadan, with a massive feast with Coumba’s extended family today. Everyone dressed up (except for us because we didn’t bring any fancy clothes), and the kids loved posing for the camera.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Meet Baby Barack

Today we met Baby Barack, named after US President, Barack Obama, and born on January 20th, 2009. President Obama is a celebrity in Mali as well. Maria and Coumba recounted the story of how the school children (in the IEP schools) were so excited to see our 44th President's inauguration that they had to get cable hooked up in the schools (at least for a day) so the kids could watch it on TV!

Music of Mali

Mali is known for its world-class music scene, and tonight we had the great fortune of seeing Toumani Diabate perform. Here's a link to his music on Myspace and a clip from NPR below.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Double Birthday

We found out last night that Coumba and I share the same birthday! Such a crazy coincidence. So tonight we had a double birthday celebration at Sukhothai, the best Thai restaurant in Bamako.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Project IEP

We started our first project today. We’re working with the Institut pour L’Education Populaire (IEP), an organization working to transform the education system in Mali and develop alternative frameworks of learning. IEP’s founder Maria is an Ashoka Fellow, an all-star activist, and an awe-inspiring person. We recorded a 15min video of Maria telling the story about how she started IEP in 1993 posted below. We’re helping Maria and IEP think about how to scale the organization because last year they received a large funding and a mandate to expand from working with a couple thousand students in a handful of schools to more than 20,000 students in 200 schools across Mali. And they’re experiencing some “growing pains.” Hopefully we can help!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Arrival in Mali

We didn’t know anything about Mali before we decided to come here. We met our friend Shilpa’s friend Coumba at one of Austin’s NYC shows in July. Coumba manages Ashoka’s programming in West Africa and just happened to be coming through NYC. We were telling her about our plans to do some purposeful travel and she grinned, “You should come to West Africa, and you could help some of our Ashoka Fellows.” And here we are.

So far I have resisted the impulse to compare the places we’re going to places we’ve been, but everywhere I look in Mali I can’t help but think of India. Not so much Bombay and Delhi but the next tier of cities. Everything from the streets, the markets, the vehicles, the houses, the tube lights, the family structures, the climate. I like it here. It feels like home.

Our hosts Coumba and Tidiane are extremely, extremely generous and gracious. We’ve turned up in Bamako two weeks before their wedding and they’ve shared their charming home, their delectable cooking, and their lovely extended family with us. We are very fortunate to be able to experience Mali this way.

Swine Flu Season in Africa

Though I don’t speak a word of French (ok, I can say bonjour and oui oui!), based on these signs at the Dakar (Senegal) and Bamako (Mali) airports I'm guessing that there is a new strain of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) that we should be worried about. I’ve been amazed at all of the materials around the airports providing information on the flu. There was an alert about H1N1 on the immigration forms we had to fill in for entry to Morocco as well as Senegal, and while waiting for our flight to Mali, I saw a video on how to prevent people from getting sick/getting others sick (washing hands, wearing masks, etc). Good thing we brought Tamiflu!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Small World, Part I

Our first small world incident. Our friend Anil connected us to his Clinton Foundation colleagues Elya and Catherine in Dakar. When we arrived at their flat we were greeted by their friend/neighbor Martin. Martin and I looked at each other with faint recognition. Turns out we were college classmates and had a great evening catching up over a few beers.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Madrid in Transit

We’re in transit from Morocco to Mali. The Spanish immigration officer inquired suspiciously, “You’re going up to go down?” Yes, we know. One night in Madrid. Plaza Mayor. Brings back great memories of my post-college trip with Anil and Jen.

Photos from Morocco

Here are our photos from our visit to Marrakech and the High Atlas mountains. Click on the slideshows below to see the full album.


Atlas Mountains

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Zee TV

On our second day trekking in the High Atlas Mountains we walked by a small Berber village that only got electricity five months ago. Remarkably, many of the houses already had satellite dishes on their roofs. And what do the Berbers like to watch? Arabic news, American films, and Zee TV! Bollywood zindabad. Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai are apparently local favorites.

Mohammed VI

We learned that the current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI (who ascended the throne in 1999), has been very good for Moroccan women’s rights. Under his leadership Moroccan women have been granted rights to divorce, custody, child support, and property ownership, and female literacy has been on the rise. Our trekking guide (also named Mohammed) mentioned that divorce used to be common in Morocco ten years ago (not sure how it compared to the 50% rate in the U.S.), but it’s no longer the case due to the new laws. Now the only conditions under which divorce is legal is if a couple doesn’t have any children and if both husband and wife mutually agree to divorce.

Interestingly, polygamy remains legal. We asked our guide Mohammed whether he saw any inconsistency with other reforms, and he explained that even the King of Morocco cannot change Islamic Law. For us, it was a question of interpretation, not dissimilar from the king’s interpretation of the legality of divorce. But our guide Mohammed clarified that anyway with respect to polygamy it’s better for a man to take a second (or a third or a fourth) wife than to fall in love with another woman and either divorce the first or have an affair. Mohammed didn’t see any contradictions. Perhaps it is us who are confused…

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quote of the Day from the Souk

"See, its a chameleon. Changes color, like Michael Jackson" -- boy at a spice stall in the souks

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Living from tagine to tagine

The colors and scents of the souqs (markets) are intoxicating, but it is the food that makes my head spin. Moroccan cuisine is deliciously, mouth-wateringly, flavorful. Before I finish one meal I'm already thinking about the next – when and where and what I should try next. I find myself living from tagine to tagine. My favorites: chicken tagine with onions, lemon, raisins and almonds at Chez Chegrouni, lamb tagine with orange at La Maison Arabe, and beef tagine with dates at Kasbah du Toubkal. Excited about the culinary tourism that will happen on this trip!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hip Hotel

We booked a great hotel in Morocco on TabletHotels. Love the story behind the site – the founder wanted to create a site that would be “the definitive destination for global nomads who seek to be inspired by every aspect of their experience in hotels.” Naturally, as aspiring global nomads, we've been using the site:) They have great “last minute” deals on hotels like the one we stayed at, Ryad Dyor.

Riads are traditional Moroccan houses set around garden courtyards, many of which have been restored and converted into stylish guesthouses in the medina. The fascinating thing about these riads is that they’re completely unmarked (no signs on the unassuming doors) and tucked away in hidden alleys. Impossible to find without someone to lead you right to the door, and still you’re not sure you’re in the right place until the door opens and you walk into an oasis. We thoroughly enjoyed the Ryad Dyor and its affable manager Yassir. Check out the photos by clicking on the album below.

Ryad Dyor

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What a difference a year makes

Our first interaction on this trip upon arriving in Marrakech was with the driver who transferred us from the airport to hotel. When he learned we’re from the U.S., he declared, “Obama, très bien,” grinning widely and giving a universal thumbs up. The driver talked about the way Obama speaks and his worldview, in contrast to Bush (thumbs down) “qui ne fait que la guerre” (who did nothing but make war). The interaction reminded me of when I was an exchange student in high school and other students learned that I was from Chicago. They would say, “Michael Jordan, windy city, Al Capone!” (who knew Al Capone was so infamous among French secondary schoolchildren). Today a Moroccan’s first association with the U.S. is “Obama,” and he was optimistic. Anti-American sentiment around the world surged during the Bush era. What a difference a year makes. We are looking forward to following this thread as we travel.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Round the world tickets and travel tips for other wannabe nomads

Preparation for the trip has been a bit of a whirlwind but there are a few key areas we spent time researching that are worth passing along.
  • Around the world tickets: After hours of research, I’m certain that the best, most underpriced deal in the airline industry is the OneWorld around-the world award (OneWorld is the alliance that includes American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, etc). Here are the details. Our ticket includes 16 separate flights and almost 35,000 miles of travel all for less than 200,000 frequent flyer miles each. Obviously you need to have the miles, but if you do, this is an amazing deal.
  • Communications: Skype. We plan to speak to family and friends primarily on video chat and use the VOIP service to make any other calls we need along the way. I put my mobile service on “temporary suspend” status for the duration of our trip but based on our experience so far, it seems worthwhile to pay for international data service. The mobile networks have been robust everywhere we’ve been (no matter how remote), and being able to make plans on the go via email has been invaluable.
  • Medical insurance: IMG Global company came highly recommended for international travel by multiple insurance experts, and a little bit of our own research backed that up. We chose the Patriot Travel Medical Insurance product.
  • Travel Insurance: We chose ProtectAssist from Travel Guard. Covers trip cancelation, interruption and delay; emergency medical evacuation; lost, stolen, or damaged baggage; and baggage delay. Premiums aren’t based on trip duration for NY residents so turned out to be extremely cheap travel insurance for our six-month trip.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mission Impossible

Trying to pack for six months of travel across continents, climates and activities into a standard 22” carry-on bag was far tougher than packing up the contents of our entire, admittedly small, NYC apartment. Though I am definitively NOT a light packer, the input of friends and family convinced us (me, really) that in order to enjoy this trip, we would have to travel light. Luckily, friends and family would be meeting up with us in the places we would need reinforcements most – for hiking Mount Kilmanjaro and for weddings in India. Ultimately, we managed to squeeze enough clothes for working, hiking, beach-bumming and general traveling into our carry ons plus a backpack each. The biggest offenders in the end were all of our electronics and chargers and our mobile pharmacy!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Our itinerary so far

September – West Africa
Morocco, Mali, Senegal

– East Africa
Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda

– Middle East & India
Egypt, Jordan, Dubai, Rajasthan

– India

– China

– Southeast Asia & South Pacific
Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand

– Back to the U.S.

Click here for a map with more detail on where we're going

All of this is definitely subject to change.... Hope to meet up with some of you on our travels eastward!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Off to great places!

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting so…Get on your way!” – Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Kruti: Vipin and I have talked about moving overseas or traveling around the world since we met, but it never seemed like the right time...but recently we decided that there was no time like the present...Carpe Diem! For me, after living in New York City for most of the last ten years, I was really itching for an adventure outside of the corporate rat race and urban jungle of Manhattan. And from a practical standpoint, we were both at transitional points in our careers and didn’t own much since we had been renting a tiny NYC apartment … so we’ve packed up our belongings, sold everything we could and moved the rest of the boxes to storage. We have managed to connect with friends-of-friends around the world and have even set up a few short consulting projects along the way. We’re excited to explore far-away new places, get a taste of other cultures (and foods!), be inspired by the people we meet and make new friends!

Vipin: My purposes were threefold:
1. To explore places we’ve never been (and are perhaps less likely to experience anytime soon once we have a family).
2. To “take off the blinders.” Professionally, I had been thinking about leaving Joost for some time and I definitely wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. But before I took the “next logical step” in my career, I wanted to break the cycle and see the amazing things people are doing in other parts of the world. I had also been brainstorming with a good friend about a few ideas of our own, one of which I think has serious potential. Some international investigation is required.
3. To fulfill Kruti’s wish for a travel adventure :-)