Timbuktu Or Bust

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, March 28, 2006 was originally posted on March 31, 2006.

DAY 12:  The name “Timbuktu” evokes images of a mythical city, a place impossible to attain like Shangri-La and El Dorado, a place where you are awarded with gold and riches if you could only just get there.

In reality, Timbuktu does exists in northern Mali; it is a city on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, originally a settlement of Tuareg nomads that was overtaken by Moroccans as it became a central market place along trade routes in the days of classic medieval Africa.  While Timbuktu is just another city in Mali that is less accessible than most, it doesn’t stop modern-day travelers from trying to attain it, the way the explorers of the early 19th century did.  A common way to get there during the rainy season is to take a 3-4 day boat up the Niger River, but in the dry season, Four Wheel Drives rule.

“Bien dormir?” (“Good sleep?”) asked the French-only speaking, but very friendly driver Richard (pronounced “ri-sharr…”), when he picked me up promptly before 6 a.m. that morning.

“Oui,” I told him.  I told him what many people had told me.  “[Everyone says you’re the best driver in the desert.]”

“Ah, merci!  Merci beaucoup!”

The hazy sun was already over the horizon as we made our way out of town and onto the paved road east bound towards the town of Douenza, where we’d get off the asphalt and onto The “Piste”, an off-road northbound trail that led towards Timbuktu.

“[At the piste,] le danse commense,” Richard said jovially.  He was probably excited to get a free lift on my dime since he was from Timbuktu and would go visit his family and bring them a box of mangoes.

JUST TWO HOURS on the asphalt listening to Malian music cassettes and we arrived in Douenza, a stop for some coffee and breakfast — I made some olive and cheese sandwiches while Richard had liver and onions.  Soon we were back at the Toyota Land Cruiser, where Richard changed from flip-flops to his shoes to better navigate the clutch and pedal on the off-road adventure ahead.

“[They are your dancing shoes,]” I told him.

There were a couple of villages during the first part of the Piste, some with checkpoints that would let us pass with proper documentation — unless the guard was busy eating and we had to wait for him.  The landscape gradually changed from rocky to desert brush.  There was a weird haze in the sky and I could see some odd rainbows — perhaps effects of the solar eclipse I had heard about from the comments of this Blog.

In just about two hours, we were in Bambara Maoude, a little village next to the last remaining reservoir from the rainy season that reminded me of Mos Eisley from Star Wars.  It was there that we let the car cool down while I downed an apple soda as curious villages gazed at me.

Soon we were back on the Piste (picture above), or rather on the side of the Piste; the actual Piste had been degraded and making newer tracks in the sand sometimes provided for a smoother ride.  Richard was an off-road driving master, getting us towards Timbuktu in record time, even after stopping briefly three times to see if some other stopped vehicles needed help.  One truck in particular had busted and a group of guys came over to see if I was willing to bring one of them into town so he could get a part to bring back.  I wasn’t so sure and played dumb like I didn’t understand.

“[But the car is the property of Youssef,]” I said.

“[But you are the boss of the car,]” Richard said.

Ha, if that was the case, I’d have the two slackpackers in the back seat, I thought.  Our conversation dragged and I was getting them nowhere.  Luckily two other cars stopped and they went to get help from them.  Richard drove on.

Another 4WD from a richer French tour company, was gunning it down the Piste, and I saw Richard get his game on, racing them for fun.  It was hard with all the swerving on the Piste, off into the sand — especially when we were blinded by dust clouds — but eventually Richard passed them in one slick Speed Racer move.

“[You are the champion of the desert!]” I told him.

“Merci beaucoup!”

JUST SEVEN HOURS since leaving Mopti, we were already at Korioumé, on the banks of the Niger, just 13 km. short of Timbuktu.  Seven hours was way better than the twelve Van had anticipated, and much much better than the twenty-four the NYU crew had to endure on the public transport that broke down thirty-one times.  I’m sure it was months better than the original European explorers looking for Timbuktu in the 19th century.

Richard washed the car with river water until a car ferry arrived to bring us and some other cars to the other side, where we were reunited with asphalt.  The single road simply led us into the city of Timbuktu by 1:30 p.m.

Immediately I saw the rumors I had heard were true; despite Timbuktu having a famous name, it was more or less a regular dusty city that just so happens to be on fringe of the Sahara.  I was hoping the sleepy city would come more alive when I was guided by Van’s guide friend Hama, who met me when Richard stopped the car by one of two cybercafés in town.

“I am Hama,” said the young man wearing a white Muslim galabiyya over a t-shirt and jeans.

“Bonjour, I’m Doug.”

My bags were unloaded and I bid Richard farewell for the time being.  Hama led me down the alleyway to his family’s house, the place I had arranged for a homestay so I might get a glimpse of Timbuktu Tuareg tribal life.  However, the family — Hama’s grandmother, sister and niece — were not really welcoming, mostly keeping to themselves and keeping me secluded in a big guest room.  There were four big chairs and mattress on the floor.

“This is where you will sleep,” Hama told me.  “Make it like it’s your house.”  Contrary to what I thought, it wasn’t where he lived anymore.

As welcoming as that sounded, Hama was no Van; there was no real rapport with him, even when I tried to break the ice with talk of American hip-hop.  We’d always end up right back to an uncomfortable silence.

His grandmother bought us a Malian dish called lahoy of rice, spices and okra, which broke the silence — until we were done and it was uncomfortably silent again.  Perhaps it was because, despite my “screen test” phone call I made with him and Van, Hama was not that well versed in English as I had thought — or was he just a man of little words?

That all changed when we did half of our Timbuktu tour that afternoon since Richard had gotten me there much earlier than anticipated.  I hopped in Hama’s little Opel car and cruised down the sand-filled streets of Timbuktu, cranking his hip-hop cassettes.

Why Hama had a car was a big shady mystery to me.  There were not many cars in Timbuktu at all perhaps only a couple of 4WDs run by big tour companies or cargo outfitters.  No one else had a car — they are relatively expensive after all — nor did it make sense to have one since the town of 25,000 was small enough to go on foot or motorbike.  How Hama acquired a car was the bigger mystery.  How could a 24-year-old that had dropped out of school at the age of ten to find money in guiding afford such a thing?  Contrary to Van’s claims, Hama did not work for an agency; Hama freely admitted he was just a guy who followed backpackers at the cheap hotel to get their business.  He was, a tout.

Immediately I was furious because I knew I had paid way more than a backpacker’s fee for the same shitty guidance.  I didn’t mind paying Van the extra because he was good and well-spoken, but Hama was turning out to be a rip-off.

When we toured around, driving from mosque to mosque L.A.-style (they were close enough that we could have walked), Hama gave me the rehearsed spiel on each of their histories, from the oldest Djingareiber Mosque, to the Sankoré Mosque, to the Sidi Yehai Mosque.  We saw the former houses of the original European explorers Gordon Lang and René Caillie.  Interesting, but not really.

HAMA THOUGHT IT WAS BEST we save the rest of the sights for the next day so we could watch the soccer match in town.  It was a bit exciting to me, knowing that in this “mythical” albeit regular city, a soccer league was there.  We stood on the sidelines watching the red team play the blue team, the latter being Hama’s team — until he got kicked off after fighting with the coach.  In the end, his former blue team lost 2-1, and it was an upset for half the crowd.

At the soccer game, I sort of figured out what kind of guy Hama was: a wannabe cool guy leaning on his car like he was the man, smoking his Dunhills, chatting with his friends and bullying them around like he was their boss, mostly likely from the ego boost of being the only young guy in town with a car.  After the game, we gave a ride down the block to his friends while blasting hip-hop sensation Akon, and then drove over to the backpacker Hotel Bouktou where all the touts hung out.

On the way we were called over by some big guy who spoke English, who started scolding Hama about something, like he owed him something.  Really shady situation, but shadier than that was when we went to the internet cafe and Hama asked me to read something for him in English — he probably couldn’t read since he was a school drop out — which was from a couple in the U.K. that was “sorry about your car, I hope the money we sent via Western Union was okay, it’s very expensive for us.”  I could only think that Hama had conned some Brits into giving him money for his metallic pride and joy.

The situation got shadier and shadier as the nighttime sky got darker and darker.  Over drinks on the Hotel Bouktou terrace overlooking the Sahara, Hama started asking me if I could deliver “Tuareg gifts” for him in the States, which I declined.  Hoping to find some peace, I asked Hama to call up Van on his cell phone.  It wasn’t a long conversation since Hama’s pre-paid minutes were almost up.

“Hi, Van.”

“Hey Doug, how is everything?”

“Okay.  How are you?  Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah, I went to the hospital and I got my injections.”

I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but then Van said the shadiest thing of the night.  “Someone took all my money, all my cards.”

I couldn’t really reply because the minutes went up.

My heart sank.  Was it possible that Van was too good to be true, and the whole past week was part of a long-term con for me to gain his confidence for something to be revealed later on?  Or was he still a good guy, legitimately robbed?  Everyone knew everyone, and perhaps everyone knew he had a wad load of cash, given to him by me?  Would he figure a way for me to get him a car?

Hama suggested we watch international soccer on the TV in the hotel bar.  I could barely stay awake even though it was only about 8:30.  I was so tired from the ride and the mind games, I just had him take me back to the house at the half.

I went to bed that night thinking many things, my head spinning with many thoughts of what I might have fallen into.  So far, the mythical city of Timbuktu had lost its mysticism and was a complete and utter bust.

Next entry: Tuareg To Tuareg

Previous entry: The Slackpackers

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Comments for “Timbuktu Or Bust”

  • fan of the old blog, thrilled to read about your new travels, Erik.

    too bad about the shady dealings… good luck the rest of the way.


    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/31  at  07:10 PM

  • GREETINGS FROM BAMAKO airport… long story short, I’m getting outta
    Mali. This airport is no JFK; i’m AMAZED i found a free wi-fi connection

    Looks like Mali is cut short, and I can’t get a flight back to JFK until
    Tuesday, so I’ll be chillin’ in Paris for a couple of days…


    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Geessh, I would have been afraid to sleep at night! Happy to hear
    your’re at the airport and will get outta there soon!

    Posted by Janice  on  03/31  at  07:44 PM

  • paris…sweet…

    “bring me back something french”

    Posted by markyt  on  03/31  at  08:59 PM

  • ah, paris in the springtime.

    Posted by Bill  on  03/31  at  10:59 PM

  • Pear-REEEE…. awesome. Have a baguette for me!

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marsha  on  04/01  at  06:38 AM

  • phew - marathon reading session smile Just read through the last six or
    seven entries. Glad you are getting out of there - it was starting to
    sound a little shady. Your instincts are better tuned than most I think,
    so listen to them.

    Ah, Paris is lovely in spring. Probably won’t be that much more
    expensive than a day in Mali - the tour prices kinda shocked me. I
    wouldn’t have guessed that they would be anywhere near that high.

    Posted by Liz  on  04/01  at  07:55 AM

  • GREETINGS from Ernest Hemingway’s old neighborhood, at the Young & Happy
    Hostel on the Rue Mouffetard in Paris! I’m not staying here though;
    perhaps I’m just too old or too tired to deal with the usual Parisien
    youth hostel daytime lock out periods—I’m staying at the quaint
    Comfort Inn a block away, just around the corner from E.H.‘s old
    apartment. I’m inspired. Anyway, I hope to get the next couple of
    entries up for the WHMMR…

    p.s. the flight from Bamako to Paris, I was upgraded to 1st class! yeah!

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Dang dude,

    I feel bad that I was out of touch with ya—one of my very good friends
    has been to Mali and lived in North and East Africa for several years—a
    chick from Queens (who now lives in the Domenican Republic). She
    could’ve pointed you in the right direction in terms of who to talk to
    and see in Mali, she knew peeps there! Oh well. She’ll be back in NYC in
    a few months and if you’re up for it I’ll introduce you to her.


    Posted by Anonymous  on  04/01  at  11:21 AM

  • Man! That was quite a dramatic end to the whole Mali thing! Well, it
    sounds like it was all a bit wierd anyway and you have to look after no.
    1. Hope the time in Paris is good and look forward to hearing more.

    Safe Travels

    Posted by Barney  on  04/01  at  03:14 PM

  • <http://www.blogger.com/profile/05087591227757317086>
    Glad you’re on the way back, and getting to spend a couple of days in
    one of my favorite cities. Sounds like this was truly an adventure. I
    hope that making it to Timbuktu was, in a sense, it’s own reward. It
    seems like the harder the trip, the better the memories (over time). At
    the very least, it’s fodder for good stories. Enjoy the break, and we’re
    all looking forward to the last few updates.

    Posted by Dave and Melody  on  04/01  at  03:59 PM

  • BUT THERE’S MORE! I should have another climatic entry up for Sunday
    night/Monday morning… then the dramatic conclusion the day after…

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Malian music, I wonder what that’s like.

    I’m so glad you went to Paris! I love the binge blog reading this morning…

    damn shady people! aarrgh

    It’s nice to see that all the old blog hogs are back. Like Liz, Noelle,
    Sebastian, etc. where’s tdot? And how come Moman didn’t write “word
    life” after his comment? I’m entertained by all these people I don’t
    know! haha

    Posted by sara  on  04/02  at  07:22 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Trippin' To Timbuktu" (originally hosted by Blogger.com), which chronicled a trip through the West African nation of Mali in March-April 2006.

Next entry:
Tuareg To Tuareg

Previous entry:
The Slackpackers


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

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The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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