Timbuktu …. what a mysterious place name. I first heard about Timbuktu as a little boy (watching cartoons and hearing Bugs Bunny talk about it was all it took for me to pull out the globe and find it) and it has taken me until now to get here. The wait was worth it.

Picking up where we left off on the Niger, disembarking at the little port of Kabara , 8 miles from Timbuktu.

Tuesday afternoon, January, 10, 2012 through Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Eucalyptus trees lined the road into town. They are beautiful, but strange, if only because of my expectations. It was at the end of this grove, and the end of green, that I first glimpsed Timbuktu. “Of the Earth”. That’s about the best description I can come up with for this city. The mud architecture made from the surrounding earth, along with the pervasive and insidious sand and dust gives the place a monochromatic feel broken only the bright clothes of some of the people. Though the clothes are not as bright here as they are in Bamako or along the river, they are bright enough to bring contrast and relief to the eyes.

The town has approximately 50,000 inhabitants and at least that many goats and chickens. The people, mostly Tomashek are hospitable and friendly, a far cry from the environs. This is a level 10 town; hardship is a way of life and life itself seems to be in a precarious balance with the Sahara.

The town is named after Buktu’s well. “Well” in the Tomoshek language is Tim; hence the name Timbuktu.  Founded as a permanent settlement in the 12th century, the town flourished as the center of trade (gold, ivory, salt and slaves) and wealth until the 17th century when it began a decline still in evidence today.  The French took over in 1893 (hence the name Tomouctou on some maps) until Mali’s independence in 1960. It is currently the capital of the 6th administration region of Mali, it is dirt poor, and the Sahara’s advance is relentless. Centuries ago, the area was grassland and provided plenty of bounty for the populace; not so today.

During its glory years between the 12th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu also flourished as the center of book and scholarly letters trade. This was explained as being possible because of the many Islamic scholars living here and their links with trade to the North.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankore_Madrasah

This town is now a tourist destination and seems to rely 100% on out of town dollars for it sustenance. Because of the world economy and the trouble with terrorism in the area, however, tourism is down. Everyone is hoping this festival brings a bit of money into the local economy, but truth be told, reports are circulating that only 150 foreigners are here, down from almost 750 last year.

Our shelter while here is with the Deiy’s brother (a friend of Ibrahim’s). It is a house with a small compound flanked on the North and South sides with buildings each containing a few rooms. The room sizes vary, but are approximately 12 feet by 12 feet. This house is typical of the structures in the town; courtyard design, mud brick construction and austere by any standard. Unlike houses in other parts of Mali, it seems as if there is a lack of art and decoration throughout the city. The sand is everywhere and I finally know intimately the term desertification.

There are a lot of us here: Jess and Terry, Erin, Tyler, Mikey, Sarah, Ibrahim, Joyce, Larry, and myself. All but Sarah are from Portland. It is a fun group, and a musical group at that. Our second night in town, Ibrahim took us to a house to listen to local music. An elder man played the ‘Ngoni, accompanied by Ibrahim’s gourd. It was an amazing show of hospitality and musical talent. Walking home in the moonlight was a treat; moon shadows filled the streets and masked the general disrepair of the place. Even more so than during the day, in moonlight there is a monochromatic quality to this desert life. It is textural and glowing cool silver rather than warm brown. When looking down on this place from Google earth, it is hard to differentiate between the Sahara sand and this tiny outpost of humanity.

Food!Our first dinner was chicken with pommes frittes and onions; another dinner was fish with chips, onions, carrots, peas and plantains. Breakfast has been bread and jam and Alfinta, the Taureg version of Furu Furu described earlier in this blog.  One of the more interesting dishes was something I think they called Tucas. Steamed bread in a sauce of cinnamon, onion, tomatoes, palm oil (the sauce reminds me of mole, but lighter) with beef chunks, plantains and potatoes. The bread was served in the dish, covered in sauce. Light and fluffy, it was almost a meat doughnut. At one point, we even had what was described as being similar to scotch eggs. I say described, because that happened to be the time when I went down hard with a stomach/flu bug and eating was not high on my priority list.

I finally got a chance to ride a camel! His name was Ajua and he was a magnificent creature. A bit cantankerous and a stare that had spit crosshairs written all over it, but he didn’t try to kill me. Ajua was running in the camel races later that day (he came in second last year) and was part of the opening celebration of the festival.  He was festooned with blankets and ornaments (especially his nose piece) and looked quite regal. Riding him was unlike anything I’ve ridden before.  My old horse Joanie from college days was large, but I was another six feet higher in the air on this lumbering thing. And the gait! What a weird motion set up with his walking rhythm and the height of the seat (can’t say saddle … it is a wooden platform set above the camel’s hump;-)

We trekked from the outside of town and over a number of dunes towards the festival site. About halfway into our ride, we dismounted and climbed the dunes to the North. Within a few minutes I was looking into total emptiness. The dunes close to town were scrub covered, further to the North more bare sand than living foliage and in the distance, nothing but sand. Mounting our camels once again, we made our way slowly back to the tiny slice of civilization of the town.

We went to the festival in the mid afternoon of the first day to get our tickets and check in. We hung out on the dunes until early evening then came back to the house for some dinner. I laid down for a little nap and woke up feeling terrible.  Stomach pains and woozy, it was either the flu from my co-travels at the house, or a bit of bad food.  Skipping the first evening’s entertainment, it was a 12 hour nap for this boy.

Feeling better the next morning, I was able to walk the town and actually go to the festival. The music was great and I was back at the compound by 3am. To describe the festival would be to describe any multi-day concert.  What makes this place different is the location.

It was an unearthly walk back to the house from the festival site. The dust is thick, and constantly stirred up further by the hundreds of motorcycles and cars that make their way hourly to and from the festival grounds. The lights from the cars and bikes cast a moving gloom in front of them and the flashlights swinging from the tuobabs’ hands describe fuzzy orbits and bounces in the dark. The locals don’t often use flashlights, and it is only by the sand-muffled sounds that you know you are upon them, or they you. The glow for the festival grounds can be seen for miles, but is an indistinct glow, diffused by the sand and dust.

During the day I mostly and explored the town. At the cyber café I met the young man on duty. He was a likeable, chatty fellow, 22 years old (the same age as my son Nick) and his dad is an architect in Timbuktu. So he started calling me his “father” and we’ve been exchanging emails since.

It is cute, but it is also indicative of the culture here. The personal and societal space of these folks are, as we might expect, different from ours. Men hold hands with men, women with women, all walking arm in arm. They cuddle on the dunes not only for warmth, but in genuine affection. Conversations are held in a more intimate way than in the US; heads and faces held close. Laughter is prevalent and you see a lot of respect for elders.

I experienced this a lot on the dune for the last concert night. A few Tauregs have become acquainted with us over the past few days and we spend time on the dune huddled for warmth, talking as best we can and listening to the great music.

Normally, I would say “All too soon it was time to leave”. In this case though, it WAS time to leave the hardship. We packed up and left via the ferry at Kabara, bound for the other bank of the Niger and the jeep ride into the Sahara.

And what a jeep ride that was! That will be a special post all onto itself;-)