Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Road (or River, or Camel Track) to Timbuktu

We had wanted to go to Timbuktu, but we were going to Gao instead.

As a child in West Deal, New Jersey, I spent long days at the library, engrossed in all kinds of books, and just reading the word "Timbuktu" was evocative of the furthest place one could travel. It sounded good too, when I spoke it aloud, even though the library was a place where one was supposed to be quiet. I had no idea of Timbuktu's historical reality, let alone its current sociopolitical manifestation, or even where it was exactly. I did have an idea that it was an ancient desert crossroads, where camels and turbaned traders swirled in a cacophony of exchange.

In Mopti, I gazed at laborers unloading huge slabs of Timbuktu salt off pinasses moored on the Niger River. That was when I realized that Timbuktu was a real place, just a journey down the river from where I was standing. A tall, gentle Tuareg nomad named Mahmoud followed Kate and me around on the muddy streets. He wore an indigo turban wrapped around his head, and a long white robe. Mahmoud sold me a large silver pendant with hand-carved initials in the back. He kept fingering a very long, sharp, and beautifully-carved sword that seemed incongruous with his shy smile.

Mahmoud told us that he came to Mopti to sell goods, but he spent six months of the year in the desert near Timbuktu. A thrill went down my spine at the very mention of that once-far-away place. Of course, I had to go there.

I still have to.

The ride down the Niger sleeping on rice sacks sounded amazing, but today's Timbuktu, we heard, was a few mud mosques and sandy streets, no more a place where ivory, slaves, and gold traded hands. The population was now around ten thousand, not one hundred thousand scholars and merchants who lived there before the European sea trade diminished the Saharan trade routes. Timbuktu was at least a four-day boat trip down the Niger, and to see the Sahara of rolling dunes, mirages, and oases would be a few more days of camel trek.

It was all too desert-slow. We couldn't search for the last remaining tribe of desert elephants in Gao and also visit Timbuktu, this time.

I had to be back in Accra soon for my flight to New York. I had already extended my leave-of-absence from my job to travel in Mali and felt I couldn't extend it again. Timbuktu, ancient crossroads of the Sahara, where goods and ideas were exchanged between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, remained the remotest of places.


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1:40 AM  
Blogger Work in Progress said...

I feel the same way about "Timbuktu". It rolls off the tongue with promise of exotic adventure. I don't think I even knew it was real until I was a teen-ager; it always seemed some mythic far-away place, not an actual place with real people who worry about the day-to-day concerns we all deal with, such as how to use our financial resources, how growing children are forming, what to have for dinner. I almost wonder if I should avoid visiting there... perhaps I should leave it intact as my mind imagines it... Nah! Gotta go there.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Suse said...

Wow, a post about Timbuktu!

Fabulous! I am very envious.

Thanks for visiting my blog, by the way. I didn't know about the thinking/feeling word in Balinese. I like that a lot.

2:16 AM  

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