Should you find yourself planning a trip to Timbuktu, may I humbly suggest you reconsider. I say this as someone who is in Timbuktu, despite attempts to be otherwise.
Aside from its alluring name, there is little reason to come here. In fact, the allure of its name comes largely from it not being a place one is ever likely to find one’s self. In a 2006 poll, 34% of UK students did not believe the town exists. Of the remainder, most considered it “mythical” to some degree.
It is not mythical. I have found it, thus far, totally devoid of unicorns and rainbow bridges.
It’s a real place; a crossroads on the edge of the Sahara, linking it to the Niger River. It enabled trade between West Africa and the Berber and Arab populations to the north. It was also a center of Qur’anic thought, from which Islam was spread throughout the region.
In its day, Timbuktu was a place of great wealth; with gold, ivory, slaves, and salt passing through in vast quantities. It served as something of a port town, the camel caravans passing in and out of the desert like ships at sea. But they were hardly as fast or efficient, and when Portuguese traders appeared on the coast in their capacious vessels, Timbuktu began its decline.
By the early 1800s, Timbuktu remained undiscovered by Europeans, though tales of its former glory were common. Its legendary status grew like an African El Dorado until 1824, when a French explorer’s club offered a prize of 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to find it and report back with concrete information.
A Scotsman, Gordon Laing, reached Timbuktu in 1826, but was immediately killed by locals, fearful of European discovery. Their secret didn’t last long. Two years later, a Frenchman named René Caillié arrived alone, disguised as a Muslim, and returned home to claim the prize.
The Europeans did their usual thing, taking what was left and sharpening the town’s decline. Today, desertification has finished the job, leaving Timbuktu a scorching sandpit, barely worth inhabiting.
None of this I knew before arriving.
We flew into Bamako from Casablanca in the middle of the night. I don’t know why they schedule the flight to land at 2am. They just do.
As we took our seats, the plane appeared to be only half full, though the flight attendants insisted on packing us into the front. We soon discovered why, as a flood of young Malian men marched down the aisle, wafting an acrid body odor that seeps into your clothes and makes your eyes water.
I turned to Melissa, who was already gagging. I’d warned her about the body odor problem in sub-Saharan Africa, but there was really no point. You can’t imagine it until it creeps into your nose, and once that happens, there’s not much you can do anyway.
The men were in rough shape, some with freshly bandaged wounds that were still seeping blood. A handful of stern Moroccans hovered around them during the flight. Upon landing, the men were marched out onto the tarmac and met by a regiment of Malian soldiers.
The men, we deduced, were prisoners. They’d illegally crossed the border into Morocco and were being deported.
This did not bode well for our visit.
Passing through immigration, we watched groggy-eyed as a small fight broke out. A local man was trying to protect his luggage from a couple security guards. This triggered a quick mental transformation into Africa mode: head down, look like you know where you’re going, ignore everyone unless absolutely unavoidable.
When it was our turn to pass through the gates into the waiting throng, the reaction was palpable. Guys trying to carry our bags, get us in their cabs, take us to their hotels – the usual flurry of third-world hassle.
It’s been a while.
On Melissa’s insistence, we’d made arrangements in advance for our arrival. At 2am in an unfamiliar city with a bad reputation – a card with your name on it is a welcome site. The shuttle driver whisked us away to the Bamako Sofitel; the nicest hotel in Mali.
We checked into a pleasant room with all the business traveler accoutrements and slept three hours before waking for our connecting flight to Timbuktu.
You can’t pay for flights within Mali from outside the country. The airline hasn’t yet conquered that technology. I had to buy our tickets in cash at the check-in line while a small audience watched hungrily. As the bills were being counted, the pilot, a white South African, approached to berate our ticket agent for overloading the plane on the last flight.
“I swear to you, if thee luggage is one keelo over I’ll throw eet off thee plane!”
The ticket agent played dumb. Once the pilot had left, he turned to our money-watching audience and everyone had a good laugh at the silly white man and his silly concerns about airplane weight limits.
The dozen or so passengers on our small, prop-engine plane broke down into three categories: locals, Christian volunteers, and travelers. Of that third category, there were only two others besides us; a German woman named Ingrid and her coworker, James, from my home state of Connecticut. They both live in Kenya and work for an NGO (charity).
We paired up and dealt as one with the irritating negotiation process of getting into town. Everyone who approached us was either named Ali, Baba, Ali Baba, or Bob.
On the way in, we learned from James that there was a flight leaving Timbuktu the next day. We had planned to stay for four nights, as there are only two flights a week, but this discovery intrigued us both, with our growing suspicion that Timbuktu was not a place we’d want to stay for very long.
We checked into a rathole and slept through the sweltering afternoon heat. Around 4:30, we met up with Ingrid and James to wander until dark.
Here are some beleaguered donkeys.
In the center of town, we found a Tuareg festival in high gear. Everyone was colorfully dressed. There was some dancing going on within a perimeter of spectators that we felt too out of place to penetrate.
Not sure what it was all about. Possibly some kind of political rally.
Numerous Tuareg men galloped about on their camels.
The Tuareg are legitimately fascinating. They are bona fide desert nomads, living for months at a time amidst an endless expanse of sand. They’ve eschewed the easier modern lifestyle and stuck with unforgiving traditions that date back a millennium or more.
In the various places I’ve visited, I’ve been consistently saddened by the citifying of exotic cultures. The jungle tribes of Borneo, the sea gypsies of Burma, the bushmen of Botswana – all these people are giving up their ways and moving into ugly, readymade boxes of concrete and corrugated tin. They’re trading their dignity for discarded cell phones and carbonated sugar water.
Alls I’m saying is, it’s nice to see someone bucking the trend.
The Tuareg don’t live permanently in Timbuktu. They inhabit campsites on the outskirts of town.
They seem to coexist peaceably with the locals, with whom they share little in common, though there was some scuffle a few years back about independence.
They’re fairly reclusive people, being nomads and all, but they’re also traders and happy to interact when it involves selling. They make interesting jewelry, pipes and whatnot. Melissa bought some from Muhammad, a young Tuareg who spoke great English and introduced himself graciously.
Muhammad explained that his camel had died and he needed to buy a new one so he could go to his sister’s wedding in Zagora, which is across the border in Morocco and about 50 days away by camel. There were plenty of reasons to doubt his story, but it wasn’t worth making a fuss about and I was happy to learn what details I could about their lifestyle.
Unlike the Malians we encountered on the plane, Tuareg are tolerated by regional governments to the extent that they can cross borders at will without need of passports. They are citizens of no country, bound only by the perimeter of the Sahara. It’s a sensible solution to a border-policing situation that would be impractical to say the least, not to mention pointless.
Here’s the thing about Tuaregs: their eyes. They have desert eyes of blue and green, sometimes yellow.
But cool as the Tuareg are, we still had little interest in prolonging our visit.
Melissa and I grew tired of the festival and left Ingrid and James to watch it while we wandered the alleys in search of a dancing clip. If we could get a good clip before nightfall, our plan was to race to the airport first thing the next morning, try to get a seat on the plane, leave Timbuktu behind us, and add three days to the rest of our trip.
I took a lot of pictures of kids.
And some grown-ups too.
I did the dancing routine. The kids enjoyed watching themselves on the camera afterward.
But it left the same bad taste in Melissa’s mouth as the dancing clip in Morocco. It felt, to her, like we were taking something and not giving anything back.
I understand how she felt and was bothered by it too, but much less so.
The difficulty, and the frustration, is that it’s what we’re here to do. We are making a video, and the premise is dancing with other people, regardless of social or geographical barriers. If the person holding the camera doesn’t feel comfortable, however valid the concern, that puts me in somewhat of a pickle.
But it is a pickle to contend with another day.
As the sun went down, a herd of goats shot laser beams out of their eyes at us.
We found a soccer game and sat down to watch it. Catching a soccer game was one of Melissa’s to-dos in Africa. It didn’t last long. We were surrounded by kids asking for money. Took a few pictures and retreated to the hotel.
There are no restaurants in Timbuktu outside the three hotels. At dinner, we discovered another of Timbuktu’s charms: the prices. We ate canned vegetable soup, bread, and rice with sand in it. Actually, it was more like sand with rice in it. The meal cost $35.
Oh, and there are no ATMs. And you can’t use credit cards. There’s a bank, but it’s closed down.
There was some meat in the meal. It wasn’t edible. Here’s why:
The goats graze on filth. Our food was literally garbage-fed.
We fled back to the room for the solace of sleep, but even that was denied. Someone decided it’d be a good idea to have a dance party in the courtyard outside our room. Only about five people showed up for the overnight celebration, but that didn’t stop the DJ from blasting crappy music until the speakers blew out, and then continuing to blast popping, music-like static through what was left of the gear.
…I complain, but the truth is, I slept like a log while Melissa, James, and Ingrid stared at their ceilings all night.
In the morning, James threw a fit to the hotel manager and got him to waive the cost of our rooms for the previous night. We hopped in a cab and rode out to the airport, eager to put the whole thing behind us.
James and Ingrid got their tickets, but our hopes were quickly dashed. The flight was full. We were stuck in Timbuktu for what may be the longest three days of my life.
Once the passengers had boarded and we were alone in the terminal, we were descended upon by the Alis and the Babas and the Ali Babas and the Bobs. They all wanted to take us to Bamako in their cars. A mere 12 hour drive, they promised. And for us, since we’re American and they like Americans, they offered the bargain price of $600.
A kindly Australian geologist had already informed us that the drive is closer to 24 hours. And with the state of the vehicles on display, it was very likely we would break down in the desert.
I’m usually game for anything, especially if it gets me where I want to go, but I’ve been on drives like that and I had no interest in repeating the experience. I also had no interest in putting my fate and Melissa’s fate in the not-entirely-reliable hands of Ali or Baba or Ali Baba or Bob. What’s more, by the time we got through this hell-drive we were contemplating, we’d be only a day shy of when we’d get back if we simply waited for the plane – which, by the way, we’d already paid for and had little hope of getting refunded.
So we waited for the plane.
We switched to what was ostensibly a better hotel. It was once a Sofitel. As best as I could deduce, the owners gave up on it. With no one interested in buying, they just abandoned the place and left town. No one was going to bother tearing it down, so the former employees simply stuck around and they continue to take money from the occasional visitor in need of lodging.
It’s a ghost hotel.
But the portrait of Muammar Gaddafi behind the reception desk instilled in me some confidence that they are a respectable operation.
We barely left our room at all the next day. Melissa read. I did puzzles. We watched superhero cartoons. Neither of us felt much inclination to venture out into the heat and hassle.
Ah, yes. The heat. Here’s how they cook the mud-bricks they make houses out of.
What’s happening to those bricks there in the afternoon sun – that’s the same thing that happens to your skin.
That evening, in our failed search for any food that wasn’t canned vegetable soup, we discovered that the town actually comes to life once it’s dark. The temperature is mild, so people go about their daily tasks as if it was the middle of the day. Of course, with the scarce electricity, the streets are dark and no one can see anything, but it’s better than suffering through the heat.
It was also good for us, as we could wander around in our flagrant whiteness without causing a spectacle. No one could see us until we were a few feet away.
The following afternoon, we wandered out again to try and shoot a dancing clip.
We were led to some peace monument on the outskirts of town. It tastefully commemorates the end of that Tuareg uprising I mentioned.
Found the local jungle gym.
And Timbuktu’s most photographed spot, Sankore Mosque.
We got a few good dancing clips. Slept some more. Explored a bit the next day, but found rapidly diminishing returns in our scouring of the vicinity.
We had the option to ride some camels, but we’d just done that in Morocco and our asses hadn’t yet healed.
A guy offered to take us to see a hippo. Melissa raised an eyebrow, but I promised her hundreds of hippos once we get to Zambia. If Zambia doesn’t deliver on that, I vowed to fly us both back to Timbuktu so we can go see that hippo.
We’re both hoping that won’t be necessary.
This morning, at long last, we flew out of Timbuktu and are back in the Bamako Sofitel, enjoying the pool, the bed, the AC, the wi-fi, and substances that more closely approximate food.
Next up is Ethiopia, but we’re strongly considering skipping it given the current political situation and our diminished tolerances after the last several days. If we can swing it, we may just skip on ahead to Zanzibar.
I anticipate that some folks reading this are going to be disappointed by my reluctance to declare Timbuktu a place of beguiling mystery and enchantment. My complaining will register as arrogance, my criticisms as intolerance, and the fact that I’m American will surely figure in somehow.
All I can say is: I’m sorry I’m not who you think I am.
I’ve learned to live with it.