Happy New Year from Mali!  I hope that the holiday season was wonderful (and not too hectic) and that 2011 is treating you well, thus far.

The past few weeks in Mali have been spectacular.  I missed the comforts of home, as well as family and friends, very much during the holiday season.  Luckily I was surrounded by wonderful PCV friends, breathtaking landscapes and 90+ degree weather – it didn’t feel much like Christmas!

As mentioned in an earlier post, a group of friends and I headed north to Dogon Country for a 3-day hike right around Christmas.  Before setting out on our hike, we ventured to Djenne (click here to check out my photos), a city that boasts the largest mud-structure mosque in the world.  We hopped on a crowded taxi, caught the ferry across the river and arrived in Djenne early on market day.  The city was bustling and it was an interesting place to explore.  Because the transportation is quite infrequent in and out of the city, we stayed overnight there and headed back to Sevare, our central stopping post throughout the trip, the next morning.

On Christmas Eve we started our trek through Dogon Country.  The first evening was likely my favorite.  The first village we visited introduced us to the breathtaking sites we would be seeing throughout the hike.  In this village, we also saw a traditional mask dance, which was colorful and full of energy.  After the mask dance, we hiked a short 3 km to the village were we spent the night on the roof of a mud-structure house situated between two large cliffs.  The village was split into three religious sections – Muslim, Christian and Animist.  Because it was Christmas Eve, we spent the night in the Christian section of the village, feasting on grilled pork.  After dinner, we headed to the very small church in the village and celebrated midnight mass with the villagers.  This is a Christmas Eve I will certainly never forget.  The priest spoke Tomokan (a local dialect of the region), and the music was supported by drums, dancing and clapping.  The pews were simple mounds of mud on the ground.  It was so fascinating to see the mass that I am so used to celebrating, carried out in such a different, yet equally beautiful way.

Christmas morning we woke up early, had a quick breakfast and hit the trail.  Our Christmas-day hike was about 10 miles – certainly the most physical activity I have ever done on Christmas day – and consisted of rock scrabbling and walking through the sandy terrain.  We all felt really proud of ourselves for making the trek with our packs in tow, until we saw locals traversing the cliffs in flip flops with wood on their heads and babies strapped to their backs (!).

Christmas day also took us to the famed city of Teli, a village built into the side of the cliffs.  The pigmy peoples lived in these structures a couple of thousand years before Christ. I am still trying to figure out how people could have lived in these tiny structures and how they managed to get up into the cliffs, especially with water, food and other supplies in hand.

Late on Christmas Day, we stopped in a fellow PCV’s village to meet up with other PCVs hiking in the region.  After a delicious Malian dinner, a group of local aspiring actors put on a skit for us, which recounted the life of the king of the Malian Empire.  It was such a special treat and a testament to the hospitality of the Malian people.

Our last day of hiking took us to Djigiboombo (pronounced Jiggy Boom Bo, haha).  We were exhausted and glad that the last day was quite short.  A bush taxi came to pick us up in Djigiboombo, and we headed back to Bandgiagara for the evening.

After a day of resting in Sevare, we set out for Mopti (the so-called Venice of Mali).  Mopti is situated where the Bani and Niger Rivers meet and, just like in Venice, you are able to take a boat ride along the riverbanks.  We really enjoyed exploring Mopti and its artisan markets, but our sunset boat ride was certainly the highlight of the day.  It was the perfect day trip and a fantastic way to end our trip to the Dogon region.

If you ever make it to Mali, Dogon Country must be on your list of places to visit.  The landscapes are breathtaking, the culture is distinct and the people are warm and welcoming.  I hope you enjoy the photos, although they absolutely don’t capture the true magnificence of the region!

I’m heading back to site today, but hope to back within reach of the Internet later this month.

All the best in 2011 – cheers!