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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Where In The Hell Is Timbuktu?

Links: UNESCO Link Provides Great Info On Timbuktu
           Goundam Mosque

Although this post does not directly relate to any of the hot spots we have been discussing lately, I've been thinking about Mali and decided to share the story of my first trip to Timbuktu (the correct spelling is Tombouctou, but this is one of the rare occasions when I will stick with what is most familiar).  When I was twenty-three years old and working in Southern Africa (1990), my employer instructed me to travel to Mali for a weekend-long African Union seminar.  I had read a book or two about Mali, and I assumed that French was the most common language.  I'd been anticipating a trip to Timbuktu since my eighth birthday when I had asked for and received a globe.  Between the globe and a well-used Rand McNally atlas, I spent many hours on a flying carpet in my mind's eye, traveling from one exotic location to the next.  Mali was a routine stop for me, only because it is home to Timbuktu.  I don't know how the town of Timbuktu became a part of the English language lexicon, but as a child I remember referring to anything that was very remote and/or unknown as "Timbuktu".  Also, at the age of nine, I read a story about the French Foreign Legion that included a description of Timbuktu.  It may have been remote, and it may have been mysterious, but it was real enough to end up on my globe.  So before I'd even hit puberty, a trip to Timbuktu was in my destiny.

I flew Air France into Bamako, and as we approached the runway, I had a view of the most amazing panorama.  It was a cloudless early afternoon, and the brown crease of the horizon separated the brilliant blue sky from the ground, which was made up of thousands of different shades of beige and brown.  It was my first real view of a desert, although Bamako itself hugs the Niger River, which allows for splashes of green around every corner.  it was early Spring, and although the temperature was consistently in triple digits, I did not find the heat overly oppressive.  Mali is one of many African countries that introduces itself when you first depart the plane with both a smell and a taste.  When the cabin door opened and I took my first full breath of "L'air Du Mali", I was immediately taken by the freshness and clear quality of the air (it reminded me of El Paso, Texas).  Senou International Airport did not have gangway service at that time, so the passengers departed the plane on the tarmac and walked the short distance to the terminal.  I took a taxi from the airport to the Sofitel Hotel, and after a boring seminar, I decided to take my rented Land Rover on a trek.  It wasn't a flying carpet, but the Land Rover would do just fine as I started my 1,000 kilometer (600mi) trek to Timbuktu.

The drive seemed interminably long, and the roads were abysmal. 
I saw many small cars negotiating potholes twice their size and three times as deep.  The one fortunate aspect of the drive, is I discovered the historic and ancient town of Goundam.  I actually stayed the first night in Goundam before driving on to Timbuktu, and I was lucky enough to find a small hotel which catered to French government and NGO types.  It was run by an older French couple from Limoges and the food and company were terrific (for the life of me I can't remember the name). Like Timbuktu, the buildings of Goundam all appear to be made of brown mud and brick. Goundam is home to the most breathtaking brown mud and brick mosque: Goundam-Tokossel Mosque.  Its similar to other structures of the same material in Mali, but the mosque is special.  It rises above all others that I've seen in craftsmanship and engineering.

When I arrived in Timbuktu I was a bit disappointed.  I saw plenty of evidence of what the French would call "pauvrete deluxe": lots of poor folks.  The town itself was comprised of very small corridors to walk through, and few larger roads for the odd SUV.  Visitors to Timbuktu are greeted at the entrance by a statue of two kissing camels whose necks stretch across the road.  I was surprised with the number of trees, especially compared to Goundam.  I had hoped to see structures and other evidence that would remind me of the French Foreign Legion visions of my youth, and on that note I wasn't disappointed.  Most of the buildings in Timbuktu are made of the same brown mud-brick composite, and it blends in quite naturally with the desert environment that almost surrounds the city.  Timbuktu is roughly 20 kilometers (12mi) north of the Niger River, which still directly impacts the economy of the locals.  What I discovered on my trip is the origin behind the European cultural use of "Timbuktu" as a synonym for any far-away, mysterious, and isolated destination. Sadly, I did not find enough in the actual Timbuktu to warrant staying a second day. In truth, I had found a clean hotel with running water and flushing toilets in Goundam, and it came with French cooking as well.  When you have spent as much time in Africa as I have, you never look a gift horse in the mouth. So I stayed the day in Timbuktu, drove back to Goundam for the night, and was back in Bamako late the next day.  I enjoyed Bamako very much;  the city had a reasonably sized French ex-pat community and for some reason at the time was full of French soldiers.  I got drunk and made some new friends, and nursed a hangover on my flight home, content that I had fulfilled a curiosity sparked over a decade before.

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