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Kurt Steinbach

Journey to Timbuktu

Kurt Steinbach

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Yes, Virginia, there really is a place called Timbuktu. You’ve probably used the name before as an expression without ever knowing that this legendary city does exist. It’s in Northern Mali (West Africa) sitting in the dunes of the Sahara desert, sleeping, slowly being buried in sand. And while stories describing the city’s streets as "paved with gold" were proved false by the first European explorers to reach Timbuktu, the name does aptly describe a place on the edge of civilization because even today, on the eve of the 21st century, reaching it is difficult.

It was near the end of my fourth extended visit to West Africa that I decided I had seen just about all there is to see in this region, been just about everywhere I was allowed to go, run from enough coups, and contracted enough parasites to last a lifetime. I knew I probably wouldn’t be coming back to the region again. I figured it would be a fitting grand finale to end my West Africa travels in that most fabled of cities: Timbuktu.

Most people who visit this city built on sand arrive via airplane. Yes, the city has an "airport" serviced a few times a week by the ever-dependable Air Mali. At least there are supposed to be a few flights a week. In reality, like every other form of transportation in Mali, you can easily end up waiting a few days or even weeks before getting a seat out of town. I heard from one group of travelers who had Air Mali tickets out of Timbuktu, but were bumped from their flight due to overbooking. A mere three weeks later they got a seat on a flight out. Even if you are lucky enough to get a seat on a flight, you may be in for a bit of a shock. I heard from a fellow traveler who once sat down on an Air Mali plane and found that his seatbelt was not bolted to the floor, but tied in a knot to his arm-rest, and the barf bag in front of his seat was already bulging full of crusty, old vomit. My travel partner and I immediately ruled out flying to Timbuktu.

After all the interesting, if not life threatening, forms of transportation we had endured over the course of our extensive travels in West Africa, it just didn’t seem fitting to arrive at that most proverbial of travel destinations in an airplane. We needed a form of transportation with a little more character. We were looking for that one final story to top all that we had been through so far. For instance, like the time we were travelling in Guinea in the back of a pick-up truck crammed with nineteen people. The driver ran over a possum-like creature in the road, and we pulled over for an hour and a half as the passengers and driver arduously fought over who got to take the road-kill home for dinner. Then there was the time we were riding in Burkina-Faso in probably the world’s oldest bus on probably the world’s worst road. The bus was loaded to about 200% capacity: two people to a seat, chickens running through the isle, goats and other livestock tied to the roof. We hit an Africa size pothole and the windshield completely fell off. The driver nonchalantly tossed it onto the roof of the bus, tied it down and kept going. By the end of the 15 hour bus ride we were covered in so much dirt that we looked like coal miners. Throughout the trip we entertained ourselves by writing with our fingers on the dust and grime accumulating on each other’s foreheads like one writes on a dirty car windshield.

After briefly going over all the options, we decided that there is one and only one way to arrive in Timbuktu in style: on camels. We caught a bus to Douentza, Mali, about 200 miles south of Timbuktu, where we arranged the trip. In the town market we asked around about any camels for hire and found a kid who lead us about three miles outside of town to a nomadic camp. We sat on the hard, dry ground in front of a tent fashioned from sticks and woven straw as we waited for its owner to return. At first the nomad said he presently had no camels to spare since it was the planting season - camels being the tractor of Northern Mali. We offered to pay him $20 for each day we used his camels (about what the typical Malian earns in a month) and not surprisingly, two camels suddenly became available. He told us what supplies we would need to buy in the market – mats, turbans, water jugs, rice, tea, blankets – then he said we would leave the next morning.

As we got up on our camels for the first time that next morning we weren’t sure just exactly what we were getting ourselves into. Although, it was a good omen that this was the first type of transportation we had ever taken in West Africa that actually left on time. It seemed that a trip like this should require more preparation than a ten-minute conversation with a nomadic farmer and a quick stop at the market. And, our luck so far on this trip had been anything but good. Before leaving for Timbuktu we had already run into two coups and plenty of trouble.

Our troubles on this trip began back in Senegal. We landed in Dakar, Senegal on the first day of June, 1998. After a week of exploring the arid coast of northern Senegal we crossed over the thin sliver of a country, The Gambia, and into southern Senegal. Known as the Casamance region, southern Senegal has experienced periods of political turbulence during the last decade as a result of a separatist movement. Rebels have attacked and killed scores of government officials as well as tourists in the recent past, so before heading into the region we made sure the situation was safe. We were told that the main road to Guinea-Bissau was safe, but not to venture too far off this route. Despite the assurances we received, we felt a little nervous during the night we had to spend in the Casamance’s main city, Ziguinchor. The next morning our fears were justified. We were leaving our hotel heading for the beach resort of Cap Skiring on the coast when the owner stopped us as we were walking out the door. He told us that the day before, separatists rebels had gained control of the road to Cap Skiring we were about to take and killed a car full of people just fives miles outside of Ziguinchor. Immediately, we decided to leave Senegal and head south to what we thought would be the serenity and safety of the undeveloped but beautiful archipelagos of Guinea-Bissau.

After crossing into Guinea-Bissau our first impression of the tiny, tropical country was that it had to be one of the most peaceful places on earth. We saw mud huts with thatched roofs interspersed under row after row of mango, coconut and cashew trees not far from the lazy, unspoiled, white-sand beaches and crystal-blue ocean. Everything about the country seemed so peaceful and relaxed. The country’s border with Senegal was nothing more than a string of used-car-lot flags strung across the road and a tiny, dilapidated, wooden shack housing a border guard stamping passports. The friendly but serious old guard studied our passports diligently as if to ensure that all of our papers were in order before he would let us enter. Of course he probably had no idea what was written on them because he was "reading" our passports upside down. Apparently, like a lot of border guards in West Africa he was illiterate. After handing back our passports the guard told us his dream has always been to visit the United States because he had heard that hotels in America are so big they have waterfalls inside them. While putting our passports away we joked that this country didn’t need border guards because it was simply too undeveloped to ever have a war.

It didn’t take long before we ate our words. We were just twenty miles outside of the capital, Bissau, trying to find a ride into the city. We couldn’t find any cars going into the capital, or anywhere at all, and we noticed hoards of people huddled around listening to the radio. We tried to ascertain what was going on, but we faced a sever language barrier since neither of us spoke Portuguese, the official language of Guinea-Bissau. Frustrated, we found a Nigerian who spoke a small amount of English. "There's a movement in the Capital. Many people dead. City unsafe," he told us. Our first reaction was disbelief. We had no idea just what was going on. We tried to find out more information, but surprisingly, only 20 miles from the capital no one really knew what was happening. After an hour of wandering around we ran into two Portuguese aid workers who had been living there for the last ten years. They weren't sure what was going on either, but they assured us that whatever it was it was not serious, and it would all blow over. "After all, this is Guinea-Bissau we're talking about," they reassured us insouciantly.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Two factions of the military had each decided to usurp power that day. The president was hiding out in the French embassy after each faction of the military announced their intent to kill him. The situation in the capital was complete chaos. The fighting in the streets was spreading. We had no idea any of this was going on at the time, but nonetheless we had a gut feeling that we should get out of the country. We got in a taxi and took it to the Senegal border. Later that day we found out that less than two hours after we crossed into Senegal, one of the military factions showed up at the border and decided to seal it. No one was allowed in or out of the country. Americans who were eventually evacuated lost everything they had with them.

By this time we were anxious to get to someplace where we didn't have to be constantly looking over our shoulders. We hastily backtracked up through Senegal then crossed overland through Mali to Burkina- Faso where we spent a week before heading down to the narrow country known as Benin. After spending ten days in Benin, the birthplace of voodoo, we prepared to enter into its neighbor to the West, Togo. Our plans abruptly changed, however, when we were 10 miles from the boarder, about to enter the country, and we got news of the political turmoil erupting there. At least this time we learned about that country's coup before we entered. After so much had gone wrong on the trip, we figured our luck had to turn at some point. That’s when we decided it was time to head for Timbuktu.

The camel trek to Timbuktu was exhausting; it seemed like we were constantly on the move. Every morning we rode from around 8 a.m. until 1 a.m., at which time it got too hot to ride (or do much of anything), so we would stop and set up camp under as much shade as we could find. During this time we drank tea, snacked on dried dates, and tried to nap before getting back on the camels around 3 p.m. We would then ride until nightfall, usually around 7 p.m. Every evening before stopping to set up camp for dinner we watched the desert sunset in awe. As the sun set over the desert the sand took on an eerie, reddish glow, as if it had suddenly become electrified. After dinner (which every night consisted of rice and tea) we rolled out mats on the desert floor and star-gazed before dozing off to sleep for a few hours until the moon rose around 1 a.m. We then rode by moonlight for five or six hours until dawn. At sunrise we would stop for tea and rest until starting the cycle again around 8 a.m.

At times, however, it was difficult to keep to this schedule. On the second night a fierce sandstorm hit us just after we had finished eating dinner. There was nothing we could do but lie down on our mats with our backs to the wind and blankets over our heads. The wind sounded like ocean waves breaking on a beach. After an hour or two of being pelted with sand I dozed off while the sandstorm was still raging. When I awoke to complete calmness the next morning sand was everywhere: stacked an inch high on my pillow; in my pockets; in my hair; in my mouth; and between my toes. As we picked up our mats that morning we found a family of scorpions that had taken refuge from the storm beneath us.

Other times the silent stillness of the desert allowed for hours of uninterrupted thought. Sometime near the middle of the trip to Timbuktu it occurred to me just how far away from civilization we were. If one of us got sick or there was an emergency we were a good two to three days by camel to the nearest city, and from there we would be still at least another twenty hours by bus from medical care. My thoughts jumped to all of the illnesses we had been afflicted with during our time in West Africa. What if one of us got sick again, right here, in the unforgiving desert, in the middle of nowhere? We had both already suffered through bouts of malaria, and it could easily happen again at any time. The 106 degree fevers, the bone-crushing headaches, the overall debilitation of a bout of malaria would be compounded out here. Even a not uncommon episode of diarrhea could be deadly out here since we were already partly dehydrated from the heat of the Sahara. But, you try hard not to think about such things. You just let your mind drift away as you take in the beautiful scenery.

Before the trip I had always envisioned the Sahara as a monotonous sea of barren sand. Actually, the landscape is quite fascinating and surprisingly full of variety. The first day we passed through jagged rock formations and colorful cliffs shooting up from the flat, desert floor. Another day we rode through sandy hills dotted with acacia trees and tumbleweed. Occasionally, we passed a desert oasis surrounded by small tracts of grass and shrub. Outside of Timbuktu we encountered dunes of loose, white sand.

While the desert scenery is full of variety, desert cuisine is not. Every meal we ate consisted of rice, dried dates and tea. It also goes without saying that every bite of food you take in the desert comes with at least a little bit of sand. It's unavoidable. Despite the stark menu, it was absolutely an unforgettable experience to sit on the desert floor under the stars eating rice out of a community bowl with your Tuareg guide. Then again, pretty much every meal I ate in West Africa had been an unforgettable experience.

I will never forget the first meal I had in a west African village. It was my first night in Kuncilla, Mali, a tiny village of about 200 people that was the Peace Corp site of my girlfriend. The village chief honored my visit by giving me a live chicken which was to be slaughtered for dinner that night. Up until then I had always thought that chicken came from the grocery store neatly packaged in cellophane wrapping. It turns out that chicken actually comes from a small, feathered animal that’s nearly impossible to catch once you let go of it and it falls down a well. I had never held a live chicken before, and when it fluttered its wings I lost my grip and it scampered down a well. When the villagers were done laughing at me for not being able to handle a chicken, the village chief ordered this young kid of maybe 8 years of age to climb down the well after it. Talk about guilt: in America we make dramatic TV mini-series about 8 year old kids who get stuck in wells and here was this innocent child being sent down a well just because I couldn’t hang on to a chicken for 10 seconds.

The chicken was eventually retrieved and the child was not harmed. We sat down for dinner, and since I was the guest of honor I was offered the "best" part of the chicken to eat. Having already been forewarned by my girlfriend that it is extremely rude and insulting to turn down an offer of food in Mali, I gave a labored smile as I accepted the two eyeballs handed to me. Then, the feeding frenzy began as everyone surrounded the community bowl and dug their fingers in grabbing handfuls of To (pronounced "toe," it is a staple made from millet having the consistency of congealed grits). I looked up from the community bowl after sheepishly grabbing my first wad of To and one of the women nonchalantly whipped out a boob and started breast feeding her baby right in the middle of dinner. And to think my mother considers it rude to put your elbows on the table.

Even less appetizing than desert cuisine was the water we ended up drinking. When we left Douentza we loaded up with as much water as we could carry, but it is impossible to bring along enough for the entire trip so you have to find sources en route. On the third day we ended up drinking muddy water from an oasis. It was darker than chocolate milk and tasted like a mouthful of dirt, but not drinking it was not an option since in the desert dehydration will kill you long before getting sick from dirty water will.

By the fifth day of the trek our spirits had hit rock-bottom. We were exhausted, filthy and hungry. All morning we had been riding through a blinding sandstorm that seemed like it would never end. We had no idea how much further we had to go, and the soreness on our rear-ends from being tossed around a hard, wooden saddle for ten hours a day was becoming unbearable. Shortly after noon that day, however, our spirits soared as we crested a dune and there before us we saw the Niger River cutting through the desert. Timbuktu was just on the other side.

After spending so much time in West Africa there was nothing extraordinary to see about the ancient city of mud mosques and sandy streets, although there was definitely something magical about arriving in Timbuktu on camels. Timbuktu for me was not really a destination but a journey; more precisely it was the end of a journey. After just two days in Timbuktu spent wandering the decaying streets and snacking on the city’s famous sandy bread, we knew we had reached the end of the road in West Africa. It was time to go home.

While trekking through the desert en route to Timbuktu, caught in a sandstorm, thirsty and exhausted, it seemed like the trip would never end, but before I knew it we were reclining back in our comfortable seats watching a movie on the flight back to America, anticipating that first heavenly bite of pizza. Somewhere over the Atlantic my thoughts drifted back to that time nearly three years ago when I first walked into a West Africa village. I remembered how surreal it all seemed: mud huts with conical, straw roofs; women with babies strapped to their backs, pounding millet with wooden poles; barefoot kids climbing mango trees; men returning from their fields on donkeys carrying crude wooden tools; the enormous, blue sky. It felt as if I had walked into a museum exhibit, like it somehow couldn’t all be real. I then thought about that first night I spent in the village with my girlfriend. We sat outside on the ground on straw mats stargazing. I didn’t even know where I was on the map. The nighttime sky was swollen with stars. The Southern Cross was hung above a gigantic mango tree at the edge of the village. The villagers couldn’t understand why we were staring up at the stars. We tried to explain to them that some of the slowly moving stars were actually satellites we had launched and that Americans have walked on the moon. They didn’t believe a single word we said. That excited me. It was then I knew that every step on the long journey to Timbuktu would be unforgettable.

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Comments? Email: Kurt Steinbach 


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