TIA has devoted a trio of posts to explorers who visited Timbuktu. It used to be that you could animate dinner party conversations with accounts of your travels there. No longer. It’s too easy to get to these days. In 2001 when Donanne and I were wandering along the Niger River, we stopped to have lunch in Mopti and saw a large canoe ready to take tourists who sought out authentic seeming adventures up the river to that fabled city. As I recall, travelers sat on benches without shade overhead and the rig’s only amenity was a toilet at the very back with privacy offered by woven mats. So much for authentic travel.
We found Timbuktu to be a one-visit destination so we did not return. We’d been there in 1970 – to the “old Timbuktu” when travel there was truly authentic. Here’s a portion of my report of that trip as it appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and the most striking photo I took of our visit there. The young lady carries a bottle on her head.
Timbuktu is still there for you to visit. You needn’t slog across desert wastes to reach it. And you won’t suffer the explorers’ hardships when you get there.
You’ll find it a dusty, baked-yellow town on the edge of the desert, a small place of broad vistas and narrow alleyways, a place which clings to its secrets, a place which is both the end of the world and the center of one. To reach it you’ll have flown over enormous sand-hued plains, an endless wasteland through which the broad, flat Niger inches slowly, like an unmotivated snake about to nap in the sun.
The sun will shine relentlessly. With seeming hammer blows it will chisel your dark shadow into the ground. Heat will thicken the air; you will move through it as if through endless layers of invisible curtain. They will part for you reluctantly.
You’ll find the hotel rude or luxurious, depending on your expectations, depending on your experience of Africa and where you’ve been before. Your room will be dark, the heat even thicker than outside, the walls of a rough-finished mud-cement. Your bed will be hard. Like the market in Bamako your pillow and towels will smell of spices; the scents may enthrall you or make you retch. With luck you will happen to get the electric fan. Its cord may still lack a plug. A little ingenuity will solve that problem, enabling you to sleep in a warm wind.
The bathroom through the open archway will be basic, but private. The toilet may need a seat. The shower will offer water at a single temperature: available. Best not to drink it.
When thirst hits, you’ll sit out on the terrace, under a sagging and ripped stretch of canvas and to try to slake the longing with tiny quarter-pint tins of chilled Algerian grapefruit juice. You quaff them in utter stillness. Your eyes will fall on the green oasis to the left, on the water hole to the right. Tuaregs will bring their camels to drink there, then shed their clothes and bathe.
At night a dark, diminished heat will surround you. You will dine on the terrace. Naked light bulbs will attract insects; these in turn will lure frogs up out of the oasis to feed. They will croak as music squeaks from a phonograph and, miraculously, the waiters will not step on them.
Your bread will taste of sand, your couscous will taste of sand, your pudding will taste of sand, your tea will taste of sand. You will never forgive yourself if you left your toothbrush behind.
During school vacations your companions will be Peace Corpsmen. They will complain about the cost of the lodging and drone an endless monotony of African tales. Like war stories in a barracks they will drive you from the hotel, out for a pre-bed stroll through the town.
In the marketplace the soccer games – sometimes played with oranges – will still be in progress. You will wander to the main square, stare at the stars, gaze at the Beau Geste fort, and return. You will not enter the tangle of alleyways; you might not find your way out.
By daylight you will wander through them, visit the covered market, see where Laing and Caillié stayed, sip mint tea with a qadi, and inspect the es-Saheli mosque designed by a Spanish architect of the mid-1300s.
Children will pester you for sweets, for coins, and attention. You will photograph them and notice that some are light-skinned and well-clothed while their playmates are black and naked. You will also remark that some people live in well-built houses of stone while others live in tents, that dark-skinned men trudge back and forth with animal skins full of water while light-skinned men talk business in the twilight.
You will wonder how these people relate to each other, ask yourself if slavery still exists here as it did ten years ago. You will see that Timbuktu really is a world of subtle, highly structured, and hidden relationships. And you will know that it will not yield up its secrets to a transient like you.
Even so, a certain moment will come. There will be no sound. Colors will sparkle with absolute clarity. The air will lay cool on your skin. Your nostrils will carry a memory of spices. In that moment you will watch some silent, age-old movement: women carrying water, Tuaregs leading camels, children playing. And in that moment Timbuktu will put its hold on you.
You will wonder: Was it worth the effort to come? Laing asked himself that. So did Caillié and Barth.
You will know how to answer when you’ve been there.
Besides crafting these accounts, the TIA guy has been prepping a memoir of his adventures, some nail-biting, in the early independent Congo. Cune Press says it will be published at mid-year. Here’s the cover:
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