Tuareg To Tuareg

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, March 29, 2006 was originally posted on April 02, 2006.

DAY 13:  There are two kinds of Tuareg people:  the nomadic ones that roam the Sahara and live off the few elements the desert has to offer, and the Tuareg people who had settled into cities and modernized and live off produced, material things.  Hama was definitely one of the latter with his modern clothes and questionably rightfully-acquired car.

Hama told me the night before he’d come and get me at “nine or ten o’clock” so we could get breakfast and finish our city tour.  Nine came and then did ten, and he was still a no-show.  Meanwhile, Robert my chauffeur dropped by, newly-shaven and dressed in African garb, to tell me that he’d spoken to Youssef on the phone and that there would be two additional passengers in the car on the way back to Mopti, quite possibly bringing my cost down.  I said that was fine, and hoped a deal had been made — although I wasn’t banking on it.

It wasn’t until 10:40 when Hama finally showed up.  “I’ve been waiting for you!” I scolded him.  I forgot that the disadvantage to homestays is being bound by other people’s schedules, especially when they don’t give you keys to the house — not that the front door of that house had a keyhole.  Hama apologized, blaming the overcast sky for making the sun not bright enough for him to think it was late yet.  Then, he presented to me a gift.

“This is a gift from Timbuktu,” he said handing me a tie-dye shirt that looked nothing I’d seen pertaining to the Tuareg people.  Inside, there was a washing label with a U.K. flag on it.

BREAKFAST AT THE RESTAURANT POULET D’OR was followed by the rest of our city tour.  Modern Tuareg Hama continued his cool guy playboy image, smoking his Dunhills, playing his rap music, and honking his horn and waving to everyone he knew (and he knew everyone with that car).  We rode not so far away to the Garden of Peace, a monument celebrating the Tuareg revolution against the French-supported Arabs.  Nearby, a caravan of many camels led by nomadic Tuaregs was resting after arriving from the salt mines far away.

The tour continued through town as Hama blasted the hip-hop stylings of Akon (on his cassette deck).  We went from the monument of martyrs(?) to the central market.  I continued to see that Timbuktu, although built in the sand, was still just another small functioning city — perhaps I’m still just very jaded — with stores, many mosques, a Catholic church, banks, and an upcoming library.  Hama drove us to the Municipal Museum and paid for our admission with the money I’d passed to him from Van in a sealed envelope.  I don’t know the translation of what the woman running the museum said to Hama, but it sounded as if she was scolding him for duping another gullible tourist.

She was probably onto something because Hama, whom I paid to be a guide like Van, barely guided me at the museum, simply pointing at a well, the supposed founding place of Tombouctou (older spelling), meaning the “tom” (well) of “Bouctou,” the name of the woman who discovered it.  As sketchy a history as that sounds, that information was actually confirmed by my Bradt guide as a possible origin of the city, but that was Hama’s only story to tell.  He just stood around looking bored while I went around the museum, checking out the old wares, pottery, and instruments of the Tuareg people, all labeled with French paragraphs.

“So these are all weapons?” I asked Hama, pointing to a display of rocks.

“Yes.”  The French writing nearby told me otherwise.

I’m really pissed, I thought to myself out loud.  I didn’t mind paying Van the extra money since he was well-versed, but I’m paying this asshole delinquent for this shit?

“That’s all of the tourist area,” Hama told me as we actually walked down a street that was too narrow for his car to pass.  “This is where the people live.”  We walked down the alleyways of sand and ran into a group of boys practicing soccer.

“Everybody likes football here,” I commented.

“Yeah, because it leads to money,” Hama told me.  I wept for the Tuareg future.

THE TIMBUKTU TOUR ended there, and with nothing to do, we cruised over to Hama’s friends’ house for tea.  A group of guys were just hanging out chatting on a mattress on the floor.

“[Go wash my car,]” Hama commanded, smoking his cig, throwing a 1000 CFA note on the floor.  Two younger guys jumped at the opportunity.

Like the night before, I felt like excess baggage when hanging out with his friends.  They all just chat it up while I just sat in the corner introducing myself to new people stopping in.  I could tell that one of the guys in the room was mentally-challenged or deaf or something.  Hama teased him like a younger brother.

“I think you are tired,” Hama said to me.  Yes, tired of it all.  “Do you want to go back to the house?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Another “L.A. walk” in his car later, I was back on my guest room mattress.

THREE THIRTY CAME and Hama picked me up to escort me to my desert guide who’d take me out to a desert camp for the night via a camel ride.  We first stopped off at the market to get some raw tobacco (a photo-opp peace offering for the nomads like the cola nuts of Dogon country) and a humble restaurant for lunch.  I had a bowl of couscous while Hama did impressions of Americans with southern accents trying to talk French, and I’ll admit it was pretty funny.  Then we picked up my bag and drove the quarter kilometer to my liaison, a true nomadic Tuareg of the desert.

His name was Alco, and he was a middle-aged distinguished looking man — although most men dressed in the powerful indigo attire and turbans almost always looked distinguished.  Normally tourists go out into the desert wearing said turban, but I didn’t feel right about it.  “Why don’t you wear a turban like the nomads?” Hama and another man egged me.

“I am not a Tuareg,” I answered.  “I don’t like it when tourists pretend to be locals.”  It was true to me; have you ever seen an out-of-place Westerner wear a sari in India?  Absolutely ridiculous.

I was introduced to my ride for the night, not a car but a camel named Aura, a groaning but docile one-humped creature that lifted me up when I sat in the saddle.  Into the Sahara we went, Alco, Aura and I.  Alco and I had a little small talk in French and at our side was another nomadic Tuareg, carrying a big sword.  I thought maybe he was my sentinel against the thieves of the desert (no kidding, they still exist) or perhaps the guy that was going to rob me that night at swordpoint.

The Sahara was dry, but not completely barren, with desert shrubs sporadically growing around us.  There were many ebbs and flows of dunes — the perfect playground for some kids — and with the dunes height we soon lost sight of Timbuktu entirely.  Another Tuareg joined us in our march into the desert, this one more Arabian looking.  He said he was from the caravan from the salt mines that had come in that morning.

“This is where all the tourists stop to take a photo of the desert,” he told me.  Aura sat down and I dismounted to take the obligatory photo.  I seized the opportunity to take photos of the three Tuaregs — the Three Kings if you will (picture above)—followed by photos with me with them, even if they weren’t always so good with my camera.  They were happy to oblige my photo requests — but not without a price.

Alco remained silent while the Arabian and the Sword Guy sat me down and then started laying out wares in the sand:  bracelets, necklaces, medallions, and weapons — the sword I thought might be a threat to me was actually for sale.  Trapped for a sale, I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere without buying something, especially with the Arabian running the show; Arabs are the most suave salespeople in the world, especially when they have you cornered (like this one time in Egypt).  I played along, saying there was nothing I really wanted, but that got me nowhere fast, literally.

One thing I thought might be significant to buy was a pendant they called the “Passport of the Desert.”  Ha, how funny, I thought.  I can’t go any farther into the desert without a passport.  I ended up getting that and a cheap-woven bracelet to appease the other guy, bargaining their original price down by half.  I’m sure it was still a rip-off, but at least I’d paid my “toll” and we were immediately on our way.  I never saw the Arabian or Sword Guy again.

It was just Alco, Aura and me again on the way to the nomadic Tuareg village, far away from Timbuktu, perhaps 10 km. out.  Alco looked at tracks in the sand to find his way.  I hoped he hadn’t gotten lost, but mostly I hoped he wasn’t leading me into a trap of any sorts.

When we arrived at the village camp, I saw that Alco was not that kind of a man at all.  He was after all a peaceful family man, husband, and father to a daughter and four young boys that I could not help but notice weren’t circumcized since they didn’t wear pants.  The children jumped for joy at their father’s arrival, while the two women of the camp (wife and mother) attended the fire to make dinner for the night.

Life at the nomadic Tuareg camp was anything but Hama and his wannabe gangster lifestyle.  The camp was simple with just a woven tent and a campfire behind a wall of brush to keep it from being blown out.  Surrounding us was nothing but desert sand dunes, where goats grazed on what they could and Aura rested in the distance.  There were other family encampments not too far away, but more or less, everyone had their space.  It was all simple and basic, and not without reason; they were nomads after all, and would need to move when the time was right.

Alco put a straw mat on the ground and called it my bed for the night.  He left me to unwind while he spent the remain hours of daylight to tend to the goats and bond with his children.  I saw out there in the middle of the desert that the bonds of family continued to be a universal theme in everywhere I’d seen in the world.

Alco prayed towards Mecca at nightfall and then, after a couple of traditional teas with me, I offered him the tobacco I got in town.  He was happy to receive it and lit his pipe.  We ate from the same plate that night, a simple meal of rice and a few pieces of mutton, just enough to get by — just like everything they had in their peaceful nomadic lifestyle.  I’d hoped that none of his sons grew up and ended up as materialistic as Hama back in town.

That night the weather got much colder, but I warmed up in my sleep sheet and fleece, something I almost forgot to bring but was thankful for putting in my bag.  I slept under the stars that night in the nomadic Tuareg camp, trying to gaze up at the stars — although the overcast skies remained that night.

“[Where are the stars?]” I called to Alco.

“Une,” he said, pointing up at a single one that peered through the clouds.  “Une étoile.”

Despite the lack of a starry night, the cold weather, and the creepy crackling sounds of scarab bugs walking across my sleeping mat, I have to say that one night in the nomadic Tuareg camp was a great moment for me — my greatest moment in Mali in fact.  It was definitely the climax of my trip, the farthest out I could go, a place I had finally found peace.  After all the mind games, touts, confusion, hot bus rides, and scams I’d encountered in Mali thus far, I realized it was all for this one moment, this nirvana way out in the Sahara Desert, away from the modern things of Man.

Next entry: Change of Heart, Change of Mind

Previous entry: Timbuktu Or Bust

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Tuareg To Tuareg”

  • Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of “Trippin’ To Timbuktu”...

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • the link “silent while the Arabian and the Sword Guy sat me down” goes
    to the hama teaser pic…fix it..

    Posted by markyt  on  04/02  at  04:36 AM

  • Ahh…peace in the desert. This episode made me recall a similar trip in
    Morocco, except we were a camel caravan of about 20 (including a bunch
    of hot Brazilian girls). We went out, spent the night in the desert on
    the camel blankets we rode out on, and ate couscous. The next day, I
    acquired one of my most prized travel souveniers, a Tuareg turban,
    traded for a bandana…I’d say I got the better deal (for once)!

    Posted by Dave  on  04/02  at  10:58 AM

  • The camp looks cool…. a “real” experience with normal people. Glad you
    had a tout-free experience.

    Hama looks like he is only 15. I was expecting some seedy-looking guy in
    his twenties.

    Posted by Liz  on  04/02  at  04:42 PM

  • Good to hear things got better once you left Hama. Did you have those
    scarab bugs crawling all over you that night?

    Posted by Dan 3  on  04/02  at  04:52 PM

  • The suspense is killing me…must have conclusion soon…..

    Posted by Tom  on  04/02  at  06:12 PM

  • so.. no star at all?
    I heard sahara dessert is the only place on earth that you can see
    shooting star every night. Not true?

    Posted by Chup  on  04/02  at  08:34 PM

  • I think that the lonely star in the sky was fitting for your private
    desert experience on that mat ~ if I may say, a moment of simultaneous
    singularity & unity….

    Posted by Elisa  on  04/02  at  10:18 PM

  • DAVE: Yah, I did a similar camel trek in morocco with a bunch of
    people… much different this time; in Morocco it was more or less a
    tourist camp; in Mali it was the real deal.

    LIZ: Looks can be deceiving in Mali.

    DAN3: re scarabs? possibly… but they’re harmless

    TOM: conclusion coming in a day…

    CHUP: no star that night; not everything you hear is true, much like
    Timbuktu being a mysterious mythical place, as you’ve read.

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • ELISA: Well said. smile

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Hey Erik-

    I’ve been on the global trip ( your blog that is wink, enjoyed it
    immensely. Man doesn’t it scare you to venture into places this shady ?
    Every person you’ve met so far seems to be a con and the place itself
    seems to be so damn unsafe.

    Posted by George  on  04/03  at  01:07 AM

  • That experience sounded good unfortunately the only postivie comment so
    far! Hope you are having a much better time in Paris!

    Posted by Rose  on  04/03  at  05:19 AM

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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:
Change of Heart, Change of Mind

Previous entry:
Timbuktu Or Bust


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