The End of the Road in Timbuktu: City of Mud, Sand, Goats, Donkeys, Doors, Ancient Manuscripts & Invisibility
Until recent years I wasn't sure Timbuktu existed. Timbuktu represented the mythical—a metaphor for the most improbable or absurd place imaginable. And I don't think I was alone in this thinking. In a recent poll, 1/3 of Brits weren't aware of the existence of Timbuktu. The other 2/3 thought it was a made-up place or some lost city in South America. Well I have news. Timbuktu is for real. If you take my word for it.
The first inkling I had of Timbuktu's true existence was when we were in southern Morocco a couple of years ago & I saw a signpost on the edge of the Sahara that said Timbuktu (or more likely Tombouctou), followed by some improbable number of kilometers. If I remember correctly, it was some 50 days by camel from there. It was only fitting, now, that Timbuktu would cap off a whirlwind year of travel, mostly in East Africa, that has led us across the U.S., to Nairobi, eastern Kenya, Italy, western Kenya, Thailand, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Malawi, Tsavo, Ethiopia & now here in Mali.
You can only travel for so long before places to start to blend into one another. But you definitely know when you're in Mali. For starters, it's hot & dry & sandy. The art, music, architecture & blend of culture are completely unique. This is our last hoorah, after this I go back to Nairobi for a week & then I have a one-way flight back to America to meet up with Jess again, who is going ahead via Paris & Amsterdam. Air nomads are we. But this is the here & now. And here is Timbuktu.
Ben Okri Astonishes the Gods Even
Ben Okri's Astonishing the Gods plays off this idea of a mythical place, so on the plane to Timbuktu was an appropriate enough place to read it. It is a departure from his other books that I've read, elevating his status beyond that of a great African writer to just a great writer, up there with Borges & Calvino & Garcia Marquez & Tutuola & a hybrid of these. The book came at the right time in my own journey:
The narrator is accompanied by a few "guides" that gives him vague sage advice, like "retain your bewilderment, your bewilderment will serve you well." Sometimes surreal, ethereal or mystical, though at other times bordering on preachy. The place in Astonishing the Gods deals is fictitious, a dystopian & otherworldly Xanadu or Timbuktu:
After a while though, the book starts to get repetitive & takes on a new-agey air. And nothing much happens, it's mostly descriptive with a lot of feel-good mumbo-jumbo... Okri perhaps loses his head in the clouds with this one.
Or maybe everything was too sub-real for me to relate & I couldn't rise to his airspace.
Timbuktu is Here
My original plan was to travel ahead by boat to meet Jess in Timbuktu, but yet again my heart of darkness boat trip scheme was foiled, this time because boats don't run during the dry season on the Niger. And traveling by road sounded like hell & not so safe. So I took the easy way out & flew with Jess & Rog from Bamako.
We seemed to mirror the course of the Niger, which is not always a continuous & defined snake of a river, but bifurcates & meanders & pinches off leaving amputated sections. Timbuktu lies on the northernmost bend of the Niger, as if the river started to head up into the Sahara, & then thought otherwise.
The town itself has seen better days. It's more the idea of it that matters. You have to imagine it as the first place people would see (or still do) after 40+ days crossing the Sahara in a caravan of salt-laden camels. Imagine what it would be like to come across the Niger & the cornucopia of activity at such a crossroads. Here's some pictures & video I took around Timbuktu (youtube blocked audio, so here's the video on facebook with Ali Farka):
Ahmed Baba Institute
Of course I made the pilgrimage to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which houses the largest collection Arabic & African texts in the world. There wasn't much to see, as far as what was on display, but the idea of it is worth the admission, not to mention the cause that it's going to.