TWO AGAINST TIMBUKTU
Not a big place by any standard -- 25,000 inhabitants perhaps. Sand so deep in the streets that walking in it is not unlike walking in certain kinds of snow, where one seems to slide back two steps for every step one moves ahead. The streets are surprisingly clean otherwise. No garbage, no dead leaves, no animal droppings. Whichever way one walks, it does not take long to reach the end of the town, where one finds oneself facing tall dunes. They overlook the town, they ring the town. The desert seems but to be biding its time. How long before it will swallow what is left?
Timbuktu -- Tombouctou, as the natives call it -- in the Republic of Mali, West Africa, was the southern gate to the Sahara a few centuries ago. It is now deep in the forever expanding Sahara itself. Important trading center for many centuries, where caravans from the north met the long, slender Niger pirogues from the south to trade salt, carpets, textiles and tobacco for gold, ivory and slaves, present-day Timbuktu is little more than a museum town. At the height of its glory, half a millennium ago, Timbuktu extended right down to the Niger River. Today, more than ten kilometers of sand separate city and river. Then Timbuktu was one of the most important centers of Islamic learning, boasting ten koranic universities at one time. Today, all that's left are a few impressive buildings. For a time Timbuktu was the political center of one of the great empires of all times, which controlled most of West Africa; now it is a dying town, most of what it once was buried under the inexorable sand.
There is only one hotel in town, not a very big one at that. If it has no vacancy, the traveller can choose between sleeping under the stars and moving on. Natives are not permitted to take outsiders into their homes.
I was lucky: there was room at the hotel. Would have been a pity if I had not seen it from inside. It must have been a mosque at one time. It has an inner courtyard like that of an old monastery. Walls more than a yard thick keep the rooms cool even through the white-hot afternoons of the hot season.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I haven't told you how I got to Timbuktu. Timbuktu was exciting, but getting there was exciting too. Let me give you the itinerary in case you should want to trace it on a map: Maiduguri in the Lake Chad Basin -- Kano, biggest city in northern Nigeria -- Katsina, last major place on the Nigerian side of the border -- Niamey, capital of Niger -- Gao, river port on the Niger -- Timbuktu, at the big bend where the Niger River reaches its northern-most point and turns to flow south again. The total distance is not more than 1,600 miles (some 2,600 km), but it took me thirteen days to get there. Of course a big part of the thirteen days went, not into travelling, but into waiting -- waiting for visas, waiting for buses, waiting for the river boat that plies the Niger between Gao and Timbuktu, waiting at borders, waiting at police check points.
The first half of the trip, from Maiduguri to Niamey, was easy and uneventful. I had a lift with a fellow Canadian who happened to be going that way by car. Relatively good roads all the way. No harassment by police or soldiery, no mishaps, no hardship.
The real adventure began at Niamey. About a dozen Canadians, all of them stationed at Maiduguri (11o northern latitude and 11o eastern longitude), all of them more or less determined to go to Timbuktu, met there. Eventually all but two of them dropped out. One of the two was Monica, a black Canadian; the other one was I. Since Monica is one of the two main characters of my story, I might as well introduce her briefly.
Originally from Jamaica, she went to Canada some 20 years ago. Like me, she had gone to Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, to each English. That's where we met.
She turned out the ideal travel companion. Hunger, thirst, infernal heat, bitter cold, eternal waits and whatever else of troubles we ran into, Monica never complained. When we arrived at Gao after an indescribable bus ride that had taken a day, a night and another day, we learned that the "campement" was a two-kilometer walk away at the other end of town, bags to carry, the heat of the day still lingering, we too tired to stand let alone walk. I looked at Monica questioningly but all she said was, "What are we waiting for. Let's get going. If you can take it, I can." The problem was that I was not sure I could take it.
What a team we were, the black and the white strangers. Monica is very dark, as dark as any of the natives. Yet somehow the natives knew at the first glance that she did not belong. Her clothes, the way she moved, the fact that she was in the company of a white man -- everything about her was different enough for them to know that she was not one of them. She became as much an object of curiosity as I, if not more. Several times native women decided to test her. One of them would move close to her, very casually, and then suddenly shoot a question at her in the local dialect hoping apparently that, if taken by surprise, Monica might drop the disguise and answer in the same tongue, thus revealing herself as one of them after all, jeans and her white companion notwithstanding. Curiously, to me she looked so much like the other black women that I had to look hard to find her if she moved among them.
I said above that the real adventure started at Niamey. I should have said that at Niamey the frustrations started. There were, to begin with, visa problems. We had acquired visas for Niger in Nigeria, but these visas, Immigration told us, were good for only one entry. If we should leave Niger to go into Mali, we would not be re-admitted on our way back.
With the Mali visa, the problem was that we could not find the Mali consulate. We had been led to believe that there was such a consulate at Niamey, as there should have been, Niamey being the capital of the most important neighbour country; but, if there was one, no-one knew where it was. The police, travel agencies, Air Mali, taxi drivers -- all of them made us believe that they knew but none of them did. We went on wild-goose chase after wild-goose chase, from one end of town to the other, and we were about to give up when we found an old taxi driver who swore that he knew. "Si nous ne le trouvons pas," he assured us, "vous ne payez pas." And he was as good as his promise. He took us to a little hole in a wall, far away from the business part of Niamey, and that hole proved to be the consulate we had been looking for.
And then there was the problem of transportation. There was, it seemed, a marginal link of land transportation between Niamey and Gao; but beyond Gao, for the last leg of our journey, there was no road transportation at all. The only link between Gao and Timbuktu was the Niger. There was, people told us, a river boat that went from Gao through Timbuktu and Mopti to Bamako, the capital of the country. What we could not find out was how often the boat made its runs. We cold not even find out reliably whether the boat was still in operation. It was getting close to the time of year when the water level of the river would drop so low that the boat would have to pack it in till the next rainy season.
After a few days at Niamey it began to look as though Monica and I would have to drop out of Project Timbuktu too. We had another go at Niger Immigration about our visas. Various people at travel agencies and in hotels had assured us that Immigration could extend or alter our visas if they chose to. But they were adamant: if we should exit to go into Mali, we would not be permitted to reenter on our way back. No way of getting our visas changed or getting new visas while we were in the country. That could be done only outside the country, in Mali perhaps. But Mali was out of the question. There is only one Niger consulate in Mali, at Bamako; and Bamako is so far west of where we were going that we could not possibly get there and back in time unless we flew. But flying was out too. We did not have nearly enough money with us to fly to Bamako. Inland flights are terribly expensive everywhere in Africa.
Then I had a hunch. I took a taxi to the airport to talk to Immigration there and I learned that, if we should fly back from Mali, reentry would be no problem at Niamey Airport as long as we had tickets to show that were in transit. The worst that could happen to us, should we miss our connecting flight to Nigeria -- we might be detained at the airport till the next flight out. A ray of hope! We carefully went over our financial reserves and -- yes, if there were no unexpected major expenses, we could afford to fly back from Timbuktu.
Something that really unnerved us was the fact that we could not get precise and reliable information anywhere. One uniformed official would tell us one thing; the next one would tell us the exact opposite. After a while we did not dare trust anyone or anything any more. So, though the information I had gleaned at the airport gave us enough courage to carry on, it did not fully reassure us. Somewhere in the fringes of consciousness we had visions of jail in Niger.
Let me backtrack a little. Let me go back to the point where we entered Niger. We got to the border after dark. The border post on the Niger side looked like a Bedouin camp, fires blazing. The police -- there were plenty of them -- were relatively civil and efficient, quite the surprise after Nigeria. Most of them spoke French reasonably well.
From the border we had about six miles to go to get to Maradi. the first major center of population in Niger. Even in the dark, the place looked civilized -- clean streets, real buildings, some of them impressive. And we found a real hotel. The next morning, when I went jogging around Maradi, that first impression held -- a clean and attractive little town.
We entered Maradi on the eve of Niger's Independence Day, just in time to see a torch parade meander through the dark streets. Those who had no torches, young people mostly, made do with sheets of newspaper. They rolled them up, lit them and held them as long as they could without singing their fingers. Then they tossed them up in the air. When the parade first appeared in the distance, we could see only the flaming torches, not the dark bodies that carried them. It looked eerily as though the flames were dancing in the air by some magic power of their own.
We reported to the police of Maradi. Anywhere one stops in Niger and in most other West African countries -- military democracies most of them -- one has to report to the police. If one wants to take pictures, one has to get a photo permit from the police. Big Brother wants to know what you are up to.
Wherever you go, there are police checks along the roads, usually both at the entrances and at the exits of towns and villages. If you travel in a private car, these checks are no big problem. Once in a while the cops want to have a look in the trunk. But usually all they do is glance at passports and vehicle permits, grin and wave you on. A few times my Niger visa almost got me into trouble. I had obtained it in Ottawa the previous summer. Issued in August, it was valid for two weeks from the day of entry. But we were travelling in December. Now, some of the cops could read the date, but they could not read the accompanying written part. So they concluded that my visa was old and that I was in Niger illegally. It took patience and tact and lots of silent cursing to point out their error without challenging their pride.
These police checks can try the patience of the most seasoned Africa traveller if he travels by bus. Usually all the passengers have to get off, to wait in the blazing sun till the police give them the nod to board again. It may mean only minutes of waiting, but it may also mean half an hour, an hour or more. I don't think the police seriously look for arms or hope to catch any big-time criminal at these checks. It's a game they play, almost a ritual. Searching a bus load of frightened people breaks the monotony of their routine, and it makes them feel big.
We almost got into trouble at several of these police check-points because we did not have a laissez-passer. Africans from neighboring countries don't need passports to get into Niger. All they need is a laissez-passer, a piece of stiff paper, very conspicuous by its bright orange color. An African gets his laissez-passer at the first police station he reports to. Now, the foreigner with a passport, who reports at a police station, does not get a laissez-passer. All he gets is a stamp in his passport and that stamp is his laissez-passer. Some of the cops along the roads of Niger didn't seem to know that. They insisted on seeing our orange slips of paper, the laissez-passer's which we did not have....
We arrived at Niamey on a Friday. It was Niger's Independence Day. Everything was closed. Public places, travel agencies, airline offices, stores -- everything closed. Nothing open except the local market, which never closes. We had to wait until Monday before we could even inquire about a bus to Gao.
As a city, Niamey was a pleasant surprise. Most of the Nigerian towns and cities we knew weren't any too clean -- litter everywhere, the open-sewer canals badly neglected, sewage stagnating or overflowing in many places. Niamey is unusually clean. Virtually no garbage, not even in the poorer quarters. Open sewers, yes, but well-maintained....
Niamey is a very attractive city. I liked its wide streets laid out according to a well-planned grid; its wide squares, where up to six streets converge; its very impressive architecture. Something exciting happening in architecture at Niamey: modern building techniques combining with traditional shapes to create big office buildings of singular beauty, which in their robust simplicity remind the viewer of the great desert mosques. Very attractive commercial buildings too. In color much like the ubiquitous sand, they blend in with their surroundings as though they had been camouflaged. Niamey would qualify as an attractive city anywhere. To us, coming from Nigeria, it seemed all but incredible.
There were other things about Niamey that appealed to me. It has, in addition to the traditional markets, real stores -- clothing stores, department stores, supermarkets of a sort that sell real cheese. There are real cinemas in Niamey and there are clean and affordable hotels. Traffic is remarkably disciplined, and cars don't have to compete with sheep and cattle that roam the streets as they do in most Nigerian towns. The only animal that is conspicuous in the streets of Niamey is the camel, but it is a well-integrated part of the traffic scene as a beast of burden.
We were at the bus depot early Monday morning. "Yes," we were told, "there are buses to Gao... twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays... yes, tomorrow... but no more reservations for tomorrow... none till Friday... if only we had come the night before... yes, several seats available for Friday...." Once again it looked as though we might have to cancel Project Timbuktu. We had already lost so much time that we could not wait till Friday, not financially not from the point of view of time itself.
Hunch again. I tore a piece of paper from my little note pad and wrote on it in simple French: "We promise you 2000 francs (about 8 dollars) if you get us reservations for tomorrow," and Monica slipped the note to the man who seemed in charge. It worked. He checked his passenger list once more. Someone it seemed had canceled, but it had slipped his mind. We were assured of reservations there and then.
Sigh of relief. We were going to get to Gao, half-way between Niamey and Timbuktu. Our morale was high. We felt suddenly confident that, once in Gao, we'd find a way of getting from there to Timbuktu as well. And one way or other we'd get back from there, when all was over.
We spent what was left of that Monday, our fourth day at Niamey, doing a little more sight-seeing. We went to the museum. Unique. Not one big complex of things like most museums, but a number of small buildings scattered through a park, within easy walking distance of one another. There were about a dozen of them, new and very attractive, each with a theme of its own; e.g., local dress, past and present... imperial history of the area... fauna and flora of the area... weapons of the area, past and present, etc. As we strolled from building to building, we suddenly became aware that the native huts scattered among the museum buildings were themselves part of the museum. They were mock-ups of the various styles of houses found in the area. So we amused ourselves for a while crawling into and out of some of those huts.
And then we became aware of a third dimension of the museum -- animals in pens interspersed here and there among the museum buildings and the mock-ups, a zoo. When we had stumbled on a pen with several hippos we had not connected yet. We thought they were merely a side attraction. But then we saw ostriches in another pen, heard lions roar in the distance, and gradually we realized that the museum was a zoo too, a real zoo. Marvelous way of integrating the past and the present. Have to hand it to you, Niamey: you were full of surprises, pleasant surprises....
We found the people of Niamey friendly, eager to establish contact with us strangers without being pushy. I had several long runs through the streets of Niamey. When i ran in Maiduguri, I was given to understand that the people there thought me cracked. Les Nigeriens de Niamey shouted things like Vive le sport, Du courage, Bonne arrivee, etc. And big friendly grins greeted me all the way.
Good eating at Niamey too. We found several Vietnamese restaurants, all of which served delicious food. Two of them were on the expensive side, but one was a real find -- the Hanoi. We could get a supper for two there -- soup, a big salad, a main dish such as an omelette and potatoes or spaghetti and meat sauce, more than enough to fill two hungry stomachs, and tasty -- for about three dollars.
Tuesday, the day we are to catch the bus, we are up early. We have breakfast at the hotel, we fill our water containers, we pack. At 7::30 we are at the bus depot. The man who had assured us the day before that we had reservations had told us to be there early. We don't understand why. The bus is not scheduled to leave till 11:00, and we have reservations. So why be there early? But we aren't going to take any chances. When we get there, there are already enough people there to fill two buses. What if someone should offer a bigger bribe than our 2,000 francs?
At 10:30 we get our tickets. Half an hour later, they start loading the luggage on the roof of the bus. It takes nearly two hours to get it all up. Just after 1:00 the passengers start to board. We are the first people to get on the bus. The man who got our reservations is there in person, and he himself escorts us to our seats -- the best two seats on the bus, the two front seats. That done, he gives the go-ahead for the rest of the passengers to board. Soon it is pandemonium -- women screaming, babies wailing. Behind us I count nine people in the space designed for four. It is getting hot. We sit and sweat. I think of the high-jack victims that spent days in a plane parked in the desert sun of some Arab country. At last we move. A breeze! Timbuktu, here we come!
We do not move far. No more than six or seven kilometers into our journey, we arrive at the first of many police check-points to come. A policeman steps on the bus to look us over. Monica and I, in the first seat, are the only obvious outsiders. He asks for and takes our passports and disappears. The first few times this happens, we are a little nervous about letting go of our passports. But we soon relax. However long it takes, we inevitably get them back. A few minutes later, the same policeman comes back and orders everyone off the bus. Several women head for the shade of a nearby stunted tree. They are obviously veterans who know that it may be a while before we will be moving again. No room for us in the little area of shade. It is filled long before we understand what is happening.
Some 45 minutes later we move again -- move for perhaps half an hour, the time it takes us to reach the next checkpoint. I catch myself thinking: "Fool, to get yourself into this kind of madness voluntarily! If this were war and you were thrown into it by forces beyond your control, you'd feel the number-one martyr of the universe...." I ask some of the people who have taken the trip before how long it will take us to get to Gao. "That depends," they tell me. "Depends on what?" I query. "On many things they tell me patiently; "on how long we have to wait at the border, how long we have to wait at police checkpoints, on whether the bus breaks down...." Only one thing to do -- relax. Try to sleep a little.
Towards 5:00 p.m. we approach the Niger side of the border. We stop at Customs first. I can't believe it! All the luggage has to come down from the roof to be searched. There are big and heavy pieces. At the bus terminal there was a ramp to load the stuff from. Here there is nothing for people to stand on, not even a rock.
About two hours later we are rolling again. We are still in Niger. Niger Immigration is still ahead of us. About 15 minutes to go, we are told. It is dark now.
When we reach Immigration, an official comes to collect passports and laissez-passer's. The bus driver locks the bus and disappears. People around us spread blankets on the ground. We are beginning to understand that we shall spend the night sleeping under the stars.
Monica and I have a bite of supper. Then we bed down too and try to sleep. We don't have much to bed down with -- a sheet and a blanket between the two of us. The sand is hard and cold. We try lying on the sheet first, using the blanket to cover us with. But the ground is too cold. So we switch -- blanket to lie on and sheet to cover us with. Doesn't make much difference.
Meanwhile a stiff and cold breeze has started to blow out of the north. Very reluctantly we get up once more to move ourselves and our inadequate bed into the wind shadow of a dune. At the same time we put on as much as we can of the clothes we have brought with us. Then we lie down again. And we are so tired that we actually drift off to sleep for a while.
Around 3:00 I wake shivering. It is bitterly cold. Must be close to, if not below, freezing. In vain I use every technique I know of relaxation and autosuggestion trying to get to sleep again. At 5:00, finally, I have had enough. I get up and start stumbling to and fro in the sand trying to jog myself warm.
It was a long and cold night, the coldest night I had ever spent, it seemed. Yet not all the memories of that night are bad. As I lay there shivering -- on my back most of the time because I found the ground too hard to lie on my side -- I could not help noticing how big, how bright and how numerous the stars were. During that long night I somehow understood why the desert people have always been great astronomers. I watched Orion rise in the north-east and towards morning I watched it go down in the south-western quadrant of the sky. I had never understood how anyone could see a hunter in that group of stars. But that cold morning in the desert, when the constellation leaned forward to sink below the horizon, I suddenly saw the hunter in it: prone, almost, like a sprinter just away form the blocks, the right arm holding the spear drawn back slightly and ready to let fly. I saw more shooting stars that night than in other night I can remember. At the break of dawn, just after I had slipped back once more between sheet and blanket, having jogged myself warm, the infinite silence of the desert suddenly shattered under the cry of the muezzin waking the faithful to pray. Across the river a chorus of roosters crowed in answer. I knew then that i was going to live.
Around 8:00, the Niger Immigration people start coming out of their hut. For the first time since we left Niamey, I feel real anger welling up in me: all the luggage has to come down again! Those Immigration bulls cannot do that to us when their own Customs men checked everything only a few kilometers back last night. And when we get across into Mali, every piece of luggage will probably have to come down again, at least once at Customs, possibly even before that at Immigration.
It did have to come down again on the Mali side -- twice. But we lived through it. We, that is Monica and I; for the natives it was routine.
Now we are in Mali, with less than a hundred kilometers to go. The road -- what there is of road -- is so bad that the bus is slowed to a pace slower than a brisk walk most of the time. Giraffes, big ones and little ones, are galloping in easy elegance off to the right, much faster than our bus at its fastest. There cannot be much traffic in Mali. Though we've been going for more than an hour, we have not met a single vehicle.
Gao at last. I must have slept through the last part of trip, for I remember nothing about it....
It was early evening when we finally rolled into Gao. We looked for and eventually found the Blackpool Cafe, which had been warmly recommended to us by people we had met on the road. There we learned that the campement, where we hoped to put up for the night, was two kilometers away. No taxi. The only way to get there is walk.
We walked. That much I remember. I don't remember anything about the walk itself. Must have been more asleep than awake.
At the campement we are given a room of sorts -- a little cubicle, with a length of a cotton sheet serving as a door to keep out the peeping-tom public eye. No furniture of any kind. No bed. The ground is bed enough for Africans. We talk le padron into giving us a mattress. Single mattress for the two of us. No matter. I don't know whether Monica has washed or brushed her teeth. I know I haven't. I hit the mattress and sleep.
The morning after, Dec. 24, Monica and I almost feel ourselves again. We take a stroll through Gao. No sign of Christmas anywhere. First impressions -- a clean town, this Gao, and a quiet town. Very little traffic; so little in fact, that the appearance of a motor vehicle still causes excitement among the people in the streets. Every now and then you hear the warning cry, Une voiture! Une voiture reverberate down the narrow streets. And marvelous architecture -- clean, lean desert architecture -- reminders of past grandeur.
I have a cold coming. Owe it to the night under the stars. Dampens the spirit, to be sure, but cannot kill the thrill of being only 500 kilometers from Timbuktu.
We inquire about ways to get to Timbuktu. Prospects are bleak. There is no land traffic between Gao and Timbuktu, not even truck traffic. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, we learn, can get through, but they take inordinately long to cover the 500 kilometers, and there are no regular runs. Only two ways to get to Timbuktu -- the river and the sky. The river boat is not expected till Saturday, and today is only Thursday. No flight till Sunday. Suddenly Timbuktu seems far away again.
Friday, Dec. 25. Though Christmas means nothing to the Muslims, everything is closed. French influence, we guess....
No news about the progress of the boat. Everyone we talk to expects it to arrive on Saturday, but no-one really knows. Trouble is that, even if it arrives on Saturday, and leaves again on Sunday, it will not get to Timbuktu till Tuesday afternoon or evening. That will give us little more than a day there; for we must leave again early Thursday morning. The Thursday flight -- there are only two flights a week -- is the one that connects with a flight to Nigeria at Niamey. If we don't make that connecting flight, we may be in trouble at Niamey Airport. Should the boat leave Gao later than Sunday, we might get to Timbuktu too late to catch that Thursday flight. In that case we would have to wait there till the following Thursday, something we could not afford either in time or money.
Late Saturday night. No sign yet of the boat. The likelihood of its leaving Sunday is dwindling.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. The boat has just pulled in. Hurrah! And everyone seems certain that it will depart again before evening.
New complication. There is no space available in first, second or third. Only fourth class has room. But fourth isn't really a class. It is steerage, that is out under the stars, and people packed so tight that one cannot even lie down. With my cold, which has meanwhile grown to full maturity, I cannot face another two nights out in the open. So I go over my finances and decide that I can afford -- just afford -- to fly. Unfortunately it is too late for the Sunday plane. Have to wait till Tuesday. Had I known all this a few hours earlier, I could have flown this morning and I would be in Timbuktu now, with almost four days to spend there. Consolation -- if I do get out on the Tuesday flight, I will gain a day on the boat people; Monica, that is, and a Canadian family of three, whom we got to know in Gao. They have decided to brave fourth class on the boat. One big incentive -- it is 1/5 of the cost of flying.
The boat does leave Sunday evening. I see my friends off. Then back to the "hotel" to rest and to nurse my cold.
The next morning I stroll through the parts of Gao I haven't seen. Gao, situated on the Niger River, has a real port. The vessels frequenting it are native pirogues, canoes large and small. The largest ones of them can carry up to a hundred people in addition to considerable cargo. They go to Timbuktu, and one can buy passage on them if -- that's the catch -- if time does not matter. They have no schedule. They stop at villages along the way. If anything exciting is going on at a port of call, they stay put till the excitement is over. I have been told that these pirogues can do the trip from Gao to Timbuktu in less than a week but it may also take them several weeks. It can even happen that the captain of a pirogue decides not to go on at all. The hapless traveller than has to wait till another pirogue calls.
Lunch at the Blackpool. Supper at the Blackpool. I have been eating there regularly, at least one meal a day, since the day of my arrival. It offers super food at incredible prices. I pay only about 50 cents for a big plate of macaroni with meat sauce. Le padron speaks an excellent French. He knows that I am leaving tomorrow morning and he has decided that what I consume on my last day is on the house. Won't let me pay for anything -- not for lunch, not for supper, not for the various extras he rolls up after supper. When I protest that he can ill afford to be so generous, he counters:
"You have been eating at my plays for several days. You have brought other people here with you and they have eaten here too. That's been good business. But you have done more. You have brought a breath of fresh air into the monotony of our day. Can't I give you something in return? And consider this. Sure i am in business to make money. But if there is no room for friendship in business, I'd better get out of it."
I can't argue with that.
Tuesday morning. The plane scheduled to leave at 6:00 a.m. is only half an hour late. On take off, I happen to look at the tire on my side. It is not merely bald: the lining is showing, and a couple of plies of that seem to have worn through. I hope the rest of the plane -- a small Russian craft seating fourteen -- is in better shape.
I expect the plane to fly to Timbuktu first and then to Mopti and on to Bamako. Seems I have another thought coming. Just after we touch down, I comment to the steward,
"So we are in Timbuktu already."
"Why, are you going to Timbuktu?" he questions and he seems to look
embarrassed. It turns out that I am the only Timbuktu passenger on board and and the people at Gao Airport had not told the crew about me. So I tighten my seat belt again and off we go, back to Timbuktu. Comparing this to a route at home -- say Halifax, Monctom, Toronto, Winnipeg -- it would be like flying from Halifax to Toronto first, then back to Moncton and then on to Winnipeg. Whatsoever, I have no quarrel with the plane. It got me to Timbuktu.
After a short taxi ride -- some six miles, about ten kilometers -- I enter Timbuktu. It is 8:40 a.m., Dec. 29, 1983, 13 days after I left Maiduguri. Thirteen days to cover the 1,600 miles! But, here I am at last. Can hardly believe it. A few lines from a Lorca poem come to my mind:
Cordoba, lejana y sola!
Aunque yo sepa los caminos,
Yo no llegare at Cordoba.
The boat carrying Monica and the rest of the crew is not expected to arrive till evening. So I have all of Tuesday to myself. I do a lot of walking that day. Can't get enough of it. There is a strange difficulty though. I have an excellent sense of orientation. I can go walking in any strange place and sort of know at any moment where I am in relation to my point of departure. Does not seem to work in Timbuktu. I keep getting lost. Something's out of joint but I can't put my finger on it. Later I learn that the planners of Timbuktu deliberately laid the place out like a maze so as to confuse hostile invaders. I feel better then....
By the time the others arrive, I can get around. No more walking in circles. I can even make it across Timbuktu in the dark. I spend much of the next day walking with Monica and the other three Canadians. They can't get over how well I know the place. We walk over ground that's familiar to me and discover new things. We go on a camel rid to a nearby Tuareg village. And we take lots of pictures.
There are many Arabs in Timbuktu, people as light-skinned as our Lebanese at home. Many Tuaregs too. The latter are very dark, a sort of charcoal matte, but stunningly beautiful of build and facial features, especially their women.
All of Mali is terribly poor. Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa, that is to say in the world. But poverty is particularly apparent in Timbuktu. In Nigeria, markets are teaming with goods. At the grand marche of Timbuktu, as well as at several lesser markets we have seen, there is not much of anything, not even the most basic staples such as rice and sorghum.
I don't know how the people of Timbuktu survive. There is no industry. A few of them try to sell local craft articles, but there is not much of a market for them. To my great disappointment, there aren't even postcards. And I was going to write so many postcards to so many people from there! Nor is there any evidence of agriculture. Desert every where. In the streets of Maiduguri one finds almost as many goats as one finds people. I don't think I saw a single goat in Timbuktu. No camels either. No horses. Not even dogs. No doubt people cannot afford to feed dogs, and there is no garbage for dogs to survive on.
If I close my eyes now to let memory project Timbuktu pictures on my inner screen, I see marvelous architecture, reminders of past grandeur -- stately houses, magnificent public buildings, magnificent mosques. I see a ring of tall dunes overlooking the town. I see beautiful people. And I see hunger -- hunger written in the eyes of young and old, hunger sculpted on limbs that are just skin and bones.
Among the memory pictures of Timbuktu that appear on my inner screen are tall figures noiselessly floating across the sand. They are the figures of men wearing heavy woolen burnouses that reach right to the ground. When the men are out walking on windy days -- in Timbuktu there are few windless days -- these burnouses puff up so that one cannot see the movement of feet or legs. Add to this the fact that the footsteps are silenced by the thick sand and the illusion of the figures eerily floating through the streets is complete.
Another memory -- the silence of Timbuktu. It is proverbial. The natives themselves refer to their city as la silencieuse. There is no noise of radio or television, no traffic noise. Human beings go about their business in silence, their very steps muffled by the sand. No dogs to bark, no sheep to bleat....
Time to wind down. The trip back took much less time than the trip out. We -- Monica and I -- flew all the way to Maiduguri. At Timbuktu, the plane scheduled to leave at 9:00 a.m. did not get off the ground till 4:00 p.m., which meant that we missed out connecting flight at Niamey. Had to wait two days for the next flight. But Niger Immigration was magnanimous. Though we had no valid visa for Niger, they did not detain us at the airport. They let us go downtown to sleep at a hotel. Two days later, we got to Kano. There we split up. Monica went straight "home" to Maiduguri; I spent a day with friends at Kano.
That night, at supper with my friends, a young man who had been introduced to me as David kept looking at me as though something about me were of special interest to him. I did not know him -- thought I did not know him. Of a sudden he exclaimed, "Ambros, Ambros... I know you from somewhere... just can't get it into focus." Turned out that he was David Johnston from Waverley, a pilot working for Kenting Mapping. He had taken his basic flying training at the Halifax Flying Club while I was a flying instructor there. I had, in fact, taken him up for his comprehensive flight review just before his private pilot check ride. Small world....
I am glad I went to Timbuktu. I am happy things worked out. Flying first from Gao to Timbuktu and later all the way from Timbuktu to Maiduguri was expensive. As I mentioned earlier, inland flights are very expensive in Africa. Flying really tore a hole in my budget. I had to skimp to make up, skimp even on food. I had my VISA card along, but Mali is not ready for that kind of monetary magic. I could buy very little of the local craft things. What a let-down it would have been if I had had to turn back at Gao for lack of funds.
I hope the sand won't swallow what's left of Timbuktu too quickly, for I want to go back there. I want to spend more time walking the maze of little streets and alleys. I want to stalk the ghosts of past grandeur that seem to be everywhere. I want to sit on one of the dunes overlooking the place, with closed eyes, the better to feel those ghosts flitting past me on their way into and out of Timbuktu. I want to reconfirm that Timbuktu is not just a figure of speech connoting the end of the world; reconfirm that Timbuktu IS....
What a fascinating travelogue!