An alluring journey to Timbuktu | SummitDaily.com
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An alluring journey to Timbuktu

BRIAN McQUADEspecial to the daily
Special to the Daily
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This past October, I traveled to Mali with my friend, Carolyn. When asked where I was going this mud season, I would tell people, “Mali” and they would invariably say “Bali, that will be awesome.” “No Mali, in West Africa,” I would say and anticipating the inevitable, “Why?” I would say, “You know … where Timbuktu is” and then I would get a quizzical look.We wanted to go to Timbuktu. Bamako is the main city in Mali, and from there we took an eight-hour bus ride to the city of Mopti to organize the trip. There really didn’t seem to be any other backpackers exploring Mali while we were there – mostly vans full of French package tourists. Upon arriving in Mopti, we were descended upon by the local touts trying to sell us just about anything. We found a decent hotel and immediately met a nice tour operator, Aly, who arranged a 4–by-4 to take us to Timbuktu the following day. It almost seemed a bit of an anticlimax, things having gone so smoothly. I mean, we were going to Timbuktu!The following morning we were picked up and stuffed into a Landcruiser filled with watermelons, random car parts and people. The ride was more or less uneventful as we passed through the desert lands known as the Sahel. Occasionally, we would stop in a one of the village encampments of the semi-nomadic Songhay or Puel tribes. The truck broke down and we had to spend some time in one of the villages as the driver fixed the problem with one of the car parts. The people were very friendly and hospitable in a sleepy sort of way. The heat of the sun is so overwhelming, people there just try not to move very much in the middle of the day. We passed many broken down trucks, their drivers huddled underneath the axles in the sand, hiding from the intense sun. A quick ride to TimbuktuThe Sahel is bleak and after nearly nine hours of passing scrubby argan and baobab trees, camels and sheep, we reached the end of the road. The road to Timbuktu ends on a strip of sand reaching out into the Niger River. An encampment of the Songhay were living on the thin strip of land. The children sat with Carolyn and I, wanting our empty water bottles to play with. The kids thought that I was a woman because of my hair and could not be convinced otherwise. “Madame, Madame,” they said, pointing at the designs they drew in the sand for us.The ferry arrived and we got on with a group of Tuareg nomads who wrestled a very displeased cow on to the deck. The ferry slowly passed by a mud village of Bozo tribesmen. Their voices and rhythms rang through the air as women sang while pounding millet, children screamed “ca va” to us waving and hoping that our arrival might mean bon bons and Bic pens. The mud villages have a beautiful simplicity, the smooth curves of the buildings reminiscent of adobe, some almost Dali-esque in their strange appearance.Timbuktu is a short ride from the ferry landing and the Bozo but the scenery dramatically changes as you approach the city. Timbuktu used to be the center of Islamic scholarship and enormous wealth in the 14th century. These were the glory days of the salt trade, when salt was as valuable as gold. Today the nomadic Tuaregs still endure the monthlong journey across the Sahara in order to transport raw slabs of salt to Timbuktu to ultimately be sold further up the Niger River in Mopti. The Tuaregs are a proud people known for their cobalt blue robes and their ability to live in the harsh climate of the Sahara. Today the price of raw salt has plummeted, leaving many of the Tuareg dependent on selling things to the few tourists who visit Timbuktu or taking them on camel safaris. We got a room at the Bouctou Hotel, and it was surprisingly nice compared to the depressing accommodations we stayed in Bamako and Mopti. The Bouctou is at the end of town and it has a nice courtyard that looks out on to the expanse of Sahel nothingness, the gateway to the Sahara and massive dunes all the way to Morocco or Mauritania. It would be a nice place to sit and relax, but the Tuareg emerge from the surrounding sands all with the same items for sale which they each lay methodically in front of you as you try and eat your piece of bread or drink your Coke. “Just looking,” they all say and then they stare at you waiting for any hint of interest in the items. This becomes monotonous. The first couple of times you see them, you are mildly interested, but then after a couple a dozen times of seeing the same things with the same spiel, it gets really old and you don’t want to hang around the courtyard anymore. You are forced to stare, your face devoid of emotion, trying to avoid eye contact with the Tuareg until he becomes discouraged and starts to pick up his items but then there is always another waiting in the wings. I ended up buying a cool knife.Into the desertWe did the obligatory camel safari out into the Sahel and stayed in a Tuareg encampment. I had actually done this before in Morocco several years ago, but there it was all about the massive dunes, while this was much more about the people. It proved to be a more rewarding experience. Riding a camel at dusk into the Sahel, the mind plays tricks on you, a tree looks like a person, what looks like a tree sometimes turns out to be a person. It is easy to see how the beliefs of the bedouins are filled with myths of magic and the djinn.

The ferry arrived and we got on with a group of Tuareg nomads who wrestled a very displeased cow on to the deck. The ferry slowly passed by a mud village of Bozo tribesmen. Their voices and rhythms rang through the air as women sang while pounding millet, children screamed “ca va” to us waving and hoping that our arrival might mean bon bons and Bic pens. The mud villages have a beautiful simplicity, the smooth curves of the buildings reminiscent of adobe, some almost Dali-esque in their strange appearance.Timbuktu is a short ride from the ferry landing and the Bozo but the scenery dramatically changes as you approach the city. Timbuktu used to be the center of Islamic scholarship and enormous wealth in the 14th century. These were the glory days of the salt trade, when salt was as valuable as gold. Today the nomadic Tuaregs still endure the monthlong journey across the Sahara in order to transport raw slabs of salt to Timbuktu to ultimately be sold further up the Niger River in Mopti. The Tuaregs are a proud people known for their cobalt blue robes and their ability to live in the harsh climate of the Sahara. Today the price of raw salt has plummeted, leaving many of the Tuareg dependent on selling things to the few tourists who visit Timbuktu or taking them on camel safaris. We got a room at the Bouctou Hotel, and it was surprisingly nice compared to the depressing accommodations we stayed in Bamako and Mopti. The Bouctou is at the end of town and it has a nice courtyard that looks out on to the expanse of Sahel nothingness, the gateway to the Sahara and massive dunes all the way to Morocco or Mauritania. It would be a nice place to sit and relax, but the Tuareg emerge from the surrounding sands all with the same items for sale which they each lay methodically in front of you as you try and eat your piece of bread or drink your Coke. “Just looking,” they all say and then they stare at you waiting for any hint of interest in the items. This becomes monotonous. The first couple of times you see them, you are mildly interested, but then after a couple a dozen times of seeing the same things with the same spiel, it gets really old and you don’t want to hang around the courtyard anymore. You are forced to stare, your face devoid of emotion, trying to avoid eye contact with the Tuareg until he becomes discouraged and starts to pick up his items but then there is always another waiting in the wings. I ended up buying a cool knife.Into the desertWe did the obligatory camel safari out into the Sahel and stayed in a Tuareg encampment. I had actually done this before in Morocco several years ago, but there it was all about the massive dunes, while this was much more about the people. It proved to be a more rewarding experience. Riding a camel at dusk into the Sahel, the mind plays tricks on you, a tree looks like a person, what looks like a tree sometimes turns out to be a person. It is easy to see how the beliefs of the bedouins are filled with myths of magic and the djinn.

When we reached the Tuareg encampment, it had grown dark. We sat on mats and heard the sounds of cooking, the bleating of a small sheep, children laughing and crying, all shadows in the bouncing light of a fire. We ate a sandy meal of rice and some kind of meat, a celebratory feast as we were nearing the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for the Islamic people. I tried to eat all of my food so as not to offend our shadowy hosts, but I simply could not finish the enormous plate they served me. I gave what was left of my plate over and the family gathered around and devoured it. We slept on a couple of mats on a small dune outside the encampment. The Milky Way spread before us and we lay there watching the frequent shooting stars listening to the winds and whistles of the desert. I didn’t sleep a wink but still felt rested the next day as we rode our camels back to Timbuktu.Inside the cityWe had not seen much of the small city we had traveled halfway around the world to visit. Timbuktu is a place that truly feels abandoned. The streets are dusty and often there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Carolyn and I wandered around the labyrinth of streets and came upon an old but impressive mud structure. The door was open and it appeared that the building had to be of importance at some point in the past. While I knew that somehow this was not right, we went in anyway. We climbed up a set of mud stairs to get a better vantage point of the city when an irate Malian man came running up the stairs – “What is this! What is this!” – he was enraged and was yelling for someone to get the police. We had apparently entered a mosque without permission and with our shoes on. I am usually very aware of not doing the wrong thing around a mosque and have traveled in Muslim countries before, but this place looked abandoned but also like a museum and the door was open. But, I knew we had screwed up. A couple of Tuaregs showed up and apparently tried to calm the man down. An older man who looked like the local imam appeared on the scene but was just nodding and smiling at us and the scene of chaos and rage that was surrounding us. We just started to walk away, but the Malian man was livid and seemed to get more angry as I tried to explain our ignorance and that we didn’t mean to offend anyone.

The Tuaregs spoke to the man, and soon got the man to go away as he presumably went off to get the cops … or something. The stroll around Timbuktu’s sweltering streets had become less than fun. Now we had the Tuareg with us, and he was intent on speaking to us in French and guiding us as we wandered around. He led us to the main marketplace and what I had visualized would be an eclectic array of animal hides, strange totems and apothecary was revealed to be a sad secondhand clothes souk with an assortment of plastic kitchenware. We ducked into a small restaurant in the marketplace complex and ordered a couple of Cokes trying to shake our new friend. Soon he started laying out the items, all the while speaking French to us even though we told him that we didn’t speak French – it did not matter to our Tuareg friend. We finished our Cokes and tried to make a run for it and as we were leaving the building and he gathered up his items. I realized that I left my hat and as I turned around to get it, the Tuareg appeared out of the building with my hat in hand and a scowl on his face. He said in surprisingly good English, “I helped you back there at the mosque, you should give me something.” I thought about it, he did help me and I felt ashamed and handed him over some of the local currency. We continued to wander around the streets and soon came to realize there simply was nothing really to see. Basically, the people are bored out of their minds, and it more or less kind of sucks in Timbuktu. It is a classic example of it being the journey and definitely not the destination. I suppose the appeal is that it is interesting to be in a place so distant as to be almost mythical. When we arrived, the local touts gathered around the vehicle and said, “Welcome to the middle of nowhere.”‘Was I going to jail?’

Back at the Bouctou Hotel, some touts were waiting for us and one of them told me that the police and the imam had already been there and there was “big trouble.” I now wasn’t sure what was happening – was I simply being scammed and scared into paying over some money or something, or had I really screwed up here? Soon, the original mad Malian came up and, barely able to contain himself, started in on the ranting, “First, I am a Muslim … First … Now listen to meeee. First I am a Muslim,” and so on. Soon two camps started to develop: There were the touts in their 50 Cent and Tupac T-shirts who were on the side of the mad Malian, and then there were the Tuaregs and some of the workers at the hotel who were clearly on my side. Everyone was arguing in the heat of the sun. I started to panic inside a little – was I going to a jail? A jail in Timbuktu would have to suck … our hotel room basically sucks. Soon, Aly, our guide, came up and being from Timbuktu and a legitimate tour operator he wields a lot of clout. His presence seemed to diffuse the situation a bit, but still the yelling continued and I took a gamble and suggested that we get the police back to settle this. The mad Malian, incredulous, said, “We never got no police – Why police, Why?” Now I was confident that I was being scammed. Clearly, the cops had not been there. It seemed the last thing these guys wanted was a tourist bringing the police into the mix. Aly said something that quickly dismissed the mad Malian and he went off without so much as a glance back. We had seen enough and spent the rest of the afternoon safe in our hotel room, emerging only for another dinner of overpriced spaghetti on the courtyard. In the evening, I felt more obliged to look at the items the Tuareg lay before me as they had stood up for me in my time of need. I can’t help but wonder what the fate of the Tuareg will be as the salt trade becomes a thing of the past and their identity becomes more and more entwined with that of the tourist trade, such as it is. The following day we set off for a three day trip up the Niger River back to Mopti, and further adventures in Mali.Brian McQuade is a freelance writer, avid traveler and owner of Space Cowboy in Breckenridge.


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