GIVE AND TAKE ON THE ROAD TO TIMBUKTU

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PATRICK SMITH

THERE’S A ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON QUOTE that goes like this:  “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair is to move.”

The extent of which this odd spirit of restlessness plays in my own motivations for traveling I can’t say for certain, but I feel some empathy with it, if abstrusely.  It’s an extension of the old “getting there is half the fun.”  That, surely, I can identify with.  Looking forward to a trip — any trip — is sometimes the most exciting part.  Even packing is something I look forward to.

To another extent, maybe, it’s reminiscent of the spirit in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Nobody in that novel is particularly happy unless they are going somewhere.  The particular destinations, nothing more than idle breaks from the greater adventure, don’t much matter.

It’s a little of both, probably.  And if ever this sentiment needed a journey through which to validate itself, let it be in a modern-day journey to Timbuktu, the fabled city at the edge of the Sahara.  Once famous for its salt and Islamic intellectuals, Timbuktu is today synonymous with the middle of nowhere, a folkloric outpost deep in a country — Mali — that millions have never heard of.  For even as Stevenson spoke, the city was already five centuries removed from glory.  Here is a place of almost nothing, in the middle of almost nowhere, and which, whether because or in spite of its isolation, draws tens of thousands of visitors — a voyage equally profound and absurd.  Indeed, one irony of Timbuktu is that many people aren’t aware that it actually exists.  Stevenson with a twist:  One goes there not to go, but to have been.

Deplaning from the Air France A330 (in the old days you could arrive on Air Afrique or Sabena, but they are gone now) at the Bamako-Sekou International airport at midnight, the 210 passengers descend the drive-up stairs into the murky night.  The sky is aglow in the jaundiced cast of airport spotlights.  You are paraded solemnly around the perimeter of the aircraft, moving aft in a wide semicircle toward the arrivals lounge. There’s something ceremonial and ritualistic about it.  As you pass beneath the fifty-foot blue, and white tail of Air France, its hissing auxiliary turbines blowing exhaust into the humid air, it feels as if you’re saying goodbye  — a farewell to, if nothing else, punctuality and creature comforts.  This is West Africa now.  Through the bug-smeared glass doors you pass, digging out your visa and that yellow fever vaccination card that cost you $130 and which the immigration agents won’t bother asking for, and into the cauldron of Bamako.

A dusty, withering metropolis of more than a million people, Bamako is the capital of Mali, a French colony until 1960 and today is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Whether this city is rising from, or decaying into, the sahelian flatness upon which it’s built depends how you see it.  As a westerner walking Bamako’s streets, taking in its bizarre monuments (most of which seem to be devoted to football), you may be undecided on its charms or lack thereof, but what you know for certain is that you have never seen anything like this place — a tumbling mess of unpaved roads, donkeys, and stalls made from sticks and corrugated tin.

Your hotel, the Dakan, is along a rutted and seemingly unnamed street lined with open sewers and derelict machinery.  Your room looks like the cell in a Peruvian jail.

But you don’t come to places like this to savor the cities, heaven knows.  And just as it’s unfair to judge the USA by the trappings of East LA or some sweaty corner of the Bronx, we’re not inclined to equate Bamako with Mali in whole.

So what then is the essence of Mali?  Does it even have one?  You’re wondering about this while packed into the dust-covered Mercedes van with your five co-travelers — three Englands, a Canada, and a Hungarian doctor from Budapest.  Everyone is white.

Stopping for gas on the drive out of Bamako, a trip that seems something like an evacuation, a swarm of children and hawkers surround the vehicle, thrusting their hands through the open windows, and deftly jimmying those that are shut.  They want gifts.  Cadeau? Cadeau? Cadeau? If not money, then empty plastic water bottles.  Bouteille? Bouteille? Bouteille? Or pens.  Bic? Bic? Bic?)  Get used to it, for this plaintive melee will repeat itself hundreds of times during the next two weeks.  The call of Cadeau? will echo in your ears with no less persistence than the buzz of the irrepressible Malian flies.

You notice a small boy in rags next to the bus.  He is thrusting the oily metal hulk of an automobile alternator toward the window, hoping to make a sale.  It often feels as if half of the world’s commerce takes place at roadside bus stops in third world countries, but Mali carries this to a distressing extreme.

Your guide’s name is Belco, and he’s both a Bozo and a bozo (explanation later) from Mopti.  A native Malian, he also is a citizen of Holland.  When he’s not showing tourists his homeland, he’s a part-time meter maid in Amsterdam.

Heading eastbound toward the famous city of Djenne, more or less a two-day drive, already you’re keen to the staple impressions of Mali: the donkeys, the goats, the makeshift petrol stations selling gas from empty soda bottles, the roadside Foosball machines at every corner.  And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, the trampled red soil of Africa.

The only glimmers of home (or somewhere close to it) are, as often is the case in such places, the logos of the t-shirts worn by the men and children.  Nike.  Reebok.  Guinness.  Aix-en-Provence Bowling Team 1997.  One thing hard to miss, or to explain, is an odd prevalence of shirts from the Sebago shoe company of Westbrook, Maine.  For reasons unrevealed, Sebago’s livery will keep reappearing all the way north to the Sahara.

If the children of Mali are not wearing t-shirts, they are wearing former t-shirts, which is to say rags, or nothing at all.  Many of the kids, from a distance, seem to be strangely, whitely complexioned — almost albino — until on close inspection it’s revealed they are caked head to foot with dust and sand.  The women, on the other hand, are decked out in brightly patterned African scarves and dresses, a number of which are decorated with hilarious and charmingly random patterns: water faucets, hairdryers, fish, umbrellas, wine glasses.  And almost every woman — and many of the men too — are carrying some impossibly balanced stack of goods on their heads: baskets of food, cookware, clothes, and clay water pots that look heavy enough to drive a woman’s legs halfway into the ground.

The overarching drama of Mali is not one of history or art or culture per se, but of poverty.  It’s hard, if not impossible, to appreciate the smiling children and the eager welcomes of the women in their flowing boubous when at every village — they’re so misleadingly storybook from fifty meters out — you’re confronted with hacking tubercular coughs, noses and faces encrusted with snot.  But if there’s one saving grace to Mali’s poverty, it’s a rural poverty, free at least of the caustic urban oppressiveness of a Mumbai slum.  The country’s 12 million residents consist of various tribes living in a precarious countryside harmony — the Dogon (cultivators), the Bozo (fishermen), the Fela (herders), and the somewhat more ornery, Berber-descended Tuareg of the north.

Like much of the developing world, Mali is faced with severe environmental crises exacerbated by population growth.  Unchecked deforestation and irresponsible farming practices render the land ripe for desertification, and every year another piece of the country is annexed by the Sahara.  The Sahara Desert looms just to the north, its colossal undulating dunes poking through the gates of Timbuktu, fingers of sand reaching deeper into the town with each passing year.

And if there’s one thing more common in Mali than goats or unfed children or falling trees, it’s the millions of discarded plastic bags.  Everything in Mali seems to be sold in tiny plastic sachets, from drinking water to bread to peanuts — and they are jettisoned onto the ground after use.  There are so many of them, stretching to the horizon at times in a great endless sea of dirtied cellophane, that they appear almost organic.

Djenne:  This is the scene of Africa’s most colorful market, held every Monday.  It is also home of the world’s largest mud-built structure, the freakishly beautiful Djenne Mosque.

Walking the crooked streets of Djenne is, for all the traveling you’ve done, like stepping through another world.  On the first evening you take a stroll through the town center, which at 10 p.m. is alive with dust and voices.  In a scene straight out of a long-past century, two small boys are crouched beneath a dimly glowing street lamp.  In their hands are their wooden Koranic tablets, scripted in Arabic, from which they are reading aloud — singing, really — into the night.  There are no cars; people and families, many of them bundled in colorful robes and boubous, roll past in wooden-wheeled carts tugged along by donkeys.

The mud mosque is constructed of cappuccino-colored clay.  It’s a grand and otherworldly structure, but hardly a novelty in a nation where many, if not most rural dwellings are in fact rendered of mud.  The mud is dredged from pits and applied directly or dried in rectangular blocks (kids make their own version using empty sardine tins).  Thus entire towns and villages are reminiscent of the dribbled sandcastle cities made at the beach.  The architecture is at once obsessive and pragmatic, broken only by the occasional whimsy, such as the ostrich eggs adorning the minarets of the mosques.

Onward to Mopti: The kind of place you see on television and, while you revel from afar in its exotic sights and sounds, you think how happy you are not to actually live there.  It’s in Mopti where you’ll board your boat to Timbuktu, but first the group heads to the Bar Bozo, named in honor of the aforementioned Malian fisherfolk, for lunch.

The Mopti waterfront, along the edge of the pudding-colored Bani, which in turn will lead to the Niger proper, is similar to the ghats of Varanasi — not as teeming, but at least as chaotic and five times as filthy.  The riverbanks are alive with goats and children clawing their way over mounds of firewood and debris.  Slicks of congealed sewage wash against pilings and discarded automobile parts.

Just off the balcony, a gang of children are trying to sell the usual assortment of trinkets.  You slide the kids a plate of leftovers, and they gratefully shove sopping handfuls of rice into their faces.  Just a few meters beyond them, three young men are bathing, naked, in the polluted water.

While the porters load, you stand on the bank amidst virtually ineffable squalor, including dollops of human excrement baking in the 98 degree heat.  Through it all, children are running barefoot.

Your boat, or pinasse, crewed by Belco the Bozo and four local boatmen, is an oversized canoe about 15 meters long.  It is made entirely of wood and covered with arched tree branches and a roof of woven thatch.  At the back is a cooking area and toilet, which is really just a rickety enclosure with a hole cut through the bottom.  An outboard motor is shoved through another hole, just forward of the latrine.  The cruise to Timbuktu, 300 kilometers north of here, will take three days and two nights.  The Niger makes a great, sweeping, horseshoe northward into Mali, eventually bending southward again into Niger and toward the ocean.  Timbuktu is at the top of that horseshoe.  There are no lifejackets.

There are no true boats, either, at least as you know them, to be seen on the Niger.  Only canoes and pinasses.  You pass lots of them, most crammed with fish or firewood, and others overflowing ludicrously with colorfully garbed Malians enroute to Mopti or shuttling between villages.  Each pinasse is decorated bow and stern, with a brightly painted motif.  Many wear names, often that of the boat’s owner.  Yours is called the Rober Moyle Moha. To the left of this it says “2000,” as every pinasse also prominently displays its year of construction.  The pinasses look as though they could be dismantled by hand in five minutes, a fact underscored by the fact none of them seem to more than about three years old.

Almost immediately out of Mopti the scenery goes rural again.  Deep, African rural.  Just like that, it is beautiful.  There’s nothing in the world like a baobab tree, and there are thousands of them here, their branches, which seem to be clawing frantically at the heavens, frozen in suspended animation against the cobalt sky.

The first ports of call are various downriver villages, which the boatmen seem to be picking at random.  These are isolated pockets of life, linked only by the river to other people and places.  They fish, they farm, they live in their mud houses or huts made of straw and wood.  One village, Bia, features a stepped mosque, like a ziggurat, where a bearded muezzin is making the call to prayer the old-fashioned way, sans microphone.  There is no microphone because there is no electricity.  Two Songhai girls wearing multicolored wraps walk by with stacks of clay pots atop their heads.  They smile shyly and you ask Belco how old they are.  He speaks to them in Bambara, then responds, “They don’t know.”

In another village, Saba, there is a huge mud mosque with a somehow blue minaret.  Beneath it, shaded from the heat by a mud wall, a group of men in skullcaps sit cross-legged on prayer rugs, reading aloud from the Koran.  In a tiny shop just a few steps away is a guy wearing an Osama bin Laden shirt.  You ask to take his picture and he lets you, in exchange for the standard Bic. He is smiling up until the moment you engage the shutter, at which point he frowns ominously.  He asks where you’re from and you say, “New York.”  He shows his driftwood-colored teeth and exclaims, “Amerique!” giving you a big thumbs up.

The bin Laden shirts come and go, and for the sake of some odd historical posterity you will in fact buy three of them and carry them home.  One of them features a graphic of bin Laden brandishing a sword and riding a camel.  The shirts are vulgar, for certain, but in the context of Mali they carry a certain meaninglessness.  They are cartoons.  In a country where life is scratched from the hard red earth, two imploding skyscrapers in a far off fantasy land means very little.

The boatmen are navigating toward Timbuktu, a place that, to the rich white Westerners aboard the Rober Moyle, is no less a fantasy than the New York skyline is to the impoverished Africans.

Navigating, though, is a poor choice of words.  No more than a newly landed Haitian cabbie might “navigate” an obscure neighborhood of Queens, the men are simply feeling their way along, occasionally making U-turns to avoid reed-clogged channels.

The opaque, gray-green pallor of the Niger does not change, though occasionally you pass thickets of prehistoric-looking, wishbone-trunked palms, which together with the green swales of reeds, give the scenery a quasi-tropical dash.  Great brown termite mounds along the river occasionally rise higher than the trees, and are a definite inspiration for the mud-based architecture of the villages.

Beneath the boat, lurking unseen in the mustard-colored water and sinking fast toward extinction, is the Niger manatee.  It’s not so bad so for the hippos, though, as you spot a group of three, their ears protruding comically from the river.  Egrets, herons, and pied kingfishers flash everywhere, living along cuts in the riverbanks.  A kingfisher hovers, flits, does a sort of airborne pirouette and drops vertically into the water, only to emerge empty-billed.  It occurs to you that life is perhaps no easier here for the birds than for the riverside humans.

The boatmen are lazing about, sucking on oranges and surreptitiously scattering their garbage into the Moyle’s wake.  There are no oars, rigging or a sail, and you ask why the crew, with few apparent duties, is so large.  Claims Belco inexplicably, “In case the motor quits.”

To this point, much if not most of Belco’s commentary and explanation, has, in fact, between the inexplicable and incoherent.  You’d booked this crazy tour through a UK company called Guerba World Adventures.  Are they at all aware, you wonder, that they’ve left the fate of their clients in the hands of this utterly incompetent guide?

At 8 p.m., and now in total darkness, the boat is lost.  At first the men unconvincingly deny this, gesturing into the black and shouting at one another.  But it’s obvious.  You’re a mile from shore in the center of a wide and featureless expanse called Lake Debo, and nobody has any idea how to find the intended landing spot.  When you angrily inquire as to why in the world none of the boatmen has a flashlight, Belco deflects the question by feigning illness and begins to vomit theatrically over the side.  As he tells it, Belco is prone to potent and spontaneous bout of “the malaria.”  These malarial spells come and go dependent on the timing of his drinking binges, afternoon naps and moments of crisis like this one.

Lost on the open water, you’re eating a Power Bar and wondering if it empty water bottles tucked under the arms would make an adequate life preserver.  Why couldn’t this have happened after reaching Timbuktu, you say to yourself?  You’re less frightened than annoyed.  They very point of this trip is suddenly on the verge of falling through, and you’re embarrassed by the idea of being led to watery doom by a group of incompetent sailors and a hung-over Dutch meter maid.

At last the vessel is ashore in a nameless village, and you set up camp next to a cluster of straw stables and huts.  In the morning, as the muzzein sings his sunrise call, you notice a group of boys are playing in the very spot where you urinated in the dark before retiring to your tent.

Advancing northward, there’s a feeling of getting farther and farther from an already vanished notion of civilization: the boat is heading from nowhere to an even deeper nowhere, which is appropriate enough, in its own strange way, for a trip to Timbuktu.

You realize you have no idea what day it is — a common enough phenomenon during long trips, but one normally solvable after a minute’s ponder.  This time, even after half and hour, the you still can’t solve the puzzle.

Past a place called Niafounke the landscape turns eerie and Saharan.  The dunes and sky do not meet so much as blur together — a tapering belt of yellow dust smudging into blue.  Just the same, the contrasts seem sharper: the yellows more yellow, the greens greener.

Another village, another mosque, another gathering of kids looking to snag a cadeau from the boat and its weird cargo of white people.  A small boy takes you by the hand and leads you to his hut.  He opens the curtain and proudly points to his decorations.  It is strange, if not telling, to see how the developing world perceives America, latching on to strange and incongruous bits of Americana.  On the wall of this child’s mud shack in the middle of the Niger Delta, you find two poster-size cutouts of Sylvester Stallone, in aviator glasses and jungle camo, carrying an American flag and a rocket launcher.  Apart from his mattress and a wooden bowl, these look to be he boy’s only possessions.

Timbuktu.  Timbuktu; Timbuctu; Timbuctoo; Tombouctou — the spelling might vary but the idea is universal.  Yet it does not rise shimmeringly from the sand or emerge mysteriously around a twist in the river.  Ten kilometers inland from the Niger, it simply begins to appear, unceremoniously, one mud-block house at a time, till the effect carries no more impressionistic fanfare than a drive into any small Midwestern town.  But that, you are told, is part of Timbuktu’s schtick.  For despite being one of the most famous places in the world, there’s really nothing special about it.

Everything is doused with white sand.  From the Land Rover, the entire town looks to be covered uncannily in a three-inch snowfall.  Not until unloading the luggage amidst the searing heat and braying donkeys do things assume their proper, West African perspective.

But Timbuktu and its 25,000 residents (including the oustkirting Tuareg camps) offer at least a few intriguing ironies.  For one, it’s the first place since Charles de Gaulle airport where you’ve seen people wearing jeans or heard anybody speaking English.  It has a (semi) modern looking hospital, and an Internet cafe where the modems actually connect.  A man in sunglasses and a green sportcoat — he looks like an Idi Amin caricature — wants to sell you jewelry.

You’re staying in the Boctou, one of three small hotels.  It’s a two-story concrete building with tall arched ceilings and an empty, sand-strewn courtyard — it looks like a caravansary turned prison.  Still, the mosquito netting has no holes and there’s even an air conditioner.

If time hasn’t abandoned Timbuktu, Mother Nature surely has.  There’s a feeling of parched desolation as you look from the Boctou’s balcony into the brown, forsaken sahel — the great flat earth-kiln expanding into the desert.   Looking out at the Sahara is like looking off the edge of the world — the unending sameness of the earth’s largest natural wasteland reaching from here all the way to the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  These aren’t the sweeping ergs of the interior, but the isolation is nevertheless palpable.

From the hotel you can see the dunes, and later you’ll watch a hundred-camel caravan heading north for the 20-day trek to Taoudenni and the salt mines.

“Who digs out the salt?” you’ll ask Azeima, a local Tuareg guide who wears an indigo turban and speaks an almost aristocratic English. And he’ll reply, almost without hesitation, “Our slaves,” referring to the Bella people, a local West African tribe that has suffered under Tuareg conquest for many years.  The Tuareg, who wear brilliant blue robes and long turbans covering their heads and faces, are not black, for their lineage is traced to the North African Berbers.  The Bella are black.

In the morning you wake up to the usual sounds of Mali at dawn: babies crying, donkeys and roosters.  You’re alive with a giddy sense of ironic accomplishment, which becomes a kind of guilt as you think about it.  You made it to Timbuktu, but what have you given, or even taken, from this sad, desperate place?  You got your passport stamped, and sent your postcards marked “Tombouctou.” But what is the message in that for the Malians and their fly-covered babies?  A few francs and a happy memory for a malnourished eight year-old, who smiled like an American kid at Christmas when you handed him your empty plastic bouteille — the coolest, most sought-after toy in Mali.

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