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Welcome to Timbuktu, in the middle of nowhere

Georgia Hanson
Sunset over the Sahara. (Georgia Hanson)
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Our adventure in the great African desert was triggered by an invitation extended from the Wheeler Opera House stage in fall 2004. Habib Koite, a Malian performer, spoke of the Festival of the Desert. He told of a drive into the Sahara landscape to hear the music of Mali and Africa, and a festival dedicated to peace and understanding through cultural exchange. Tales of recent kidnappings and visions of nomad warriors with swords racing across the desert on camels had me facing this trip with both trepidation and excitement. The mystery of Timbuktu was compelling, and my fear added an evocative excitement to the mix.There is only one flight a week from Paris to Mopti, in the Malian outback. The charter delivers a fresh load of Europeans and Americans every Monday about noon, and then gathers up travelers from the week before to take them back to Paris. A blast of heat on the tarmac as we deplaned foretold the sweltering desert days to come.

The first part of our Malian journey – to the Dogon escarpment – is told in a separate piece. Here I’ll skip ahead to the desert, where we were immersed in the culture of our guides, the Tuaregs, or “Blue People.”By the time we set out for Timbuktu, we were already very fond of Aly, our Tuareg driver and guide. We had not yet, however, witnessed his extraordinary skills in action.We faced our long, rough trek from Dogon country to Timbuktu with apprehension. Still, our destination was fabled Timbuktu, and our anticipation helped to diminish the building dread. With his finger, Aly traced our route – basically along the hypotenuse of a triangle where the other two sides were roads. Our route was devoid of all markings, nothing but blank semi-desert with no sign of civilization.There is a protocol for driving in “serious” sand. Stuffed into the car with baggage and supplies filling every nook, and with all the 2-liter water bottles under our feet, we followed tire tracks that made Colorado washboard roads seem like a feather bed. Unexpectedly, Aly would shoot off the main track to a presumably less jolting side track and then, just as suddenly, back onto the main drag. There were many sets of tracks to the left and right of the main set – so many that it was often difficult to discern any road at all.We traveled in a caravan. The rhythm of the three cars – each with a seasoned Tuareg driver behind the wheel – was hypnotic, like a dance across the desert. We would pass one of the other cars on a side road and then drop back or crisscross with another, grateful for one another’s company as the scenery grew more and more remote.

Suddenly, we arrived at river’s edge – the Niger. It just appeared out of nowhere. There was a line of cars and trucks (most old enough to be out of a Humphrey Bogart movie) waiting to board a ferry across the Niger to Timbuktu. Where did they all come from? The day went from nothing … to nothing … to nothing … to a sudden flurry of human activity.Crossing the Niger at a snail’s pace was a welcome relief from the high-octane rush of sand-driving. There were pirogues being poled up and down the river, babies being bathed, and onlookers from many countries soaking in the scene and basking in the relief of their safe arrival.

“Welcome to Timbuktu, in the middle of nowhere.” Everyone greeted us with this slogan, a sign of the burgeoning tourist industry. Did the Timbuktu Chamber coin the phrase?This once-bustling metropolis has aged into a sleepy vestige of what used to be. There is little to distinguish it from the surrounding desert, and everything has a sandy hue. Around 1100 A.D. the Tuaregs founded Timbuktu as a terminus for camel caravans from Morocco. In the Middle Ages it was a great seat of Islamic studies, boasting many famous scholars. Tuareg clans controlled traffic in the Sahara and thrived by charging caravans for “protection.”Touring “old town” is an amazing journey to another time. The oldest mosque, the museum and the library are resilient symbols of a rich and glorious past. And yet they “feel” tired and burdened by the centuries of blowing sand – like ruins still inhabited by families, busying back and forth, seemingly unaware of the treasured antiquities in their midst. The desert is moving into Timbuktu and literally has to be swept out. Streets are higher than interior floors, forcing people to step down over the threshold. The wealth and comfort of the golden years has been replaced by basic survival. Most residents seem to be focused on one thing – badgering every stranger into buying their goods. It is impossible to move without being surrounded by enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Only the ubiquitous poverty kept things in perspective. Only prayer time brought relief from the hustling.A full moon lit our path as we walked across what appeared to be a dry riverbed to a family home. As we waded ankle-deep in the fine sand, a radio blared music and news in a foreign language I could not identity. Alpha, a guide, told me the radio plays from a loudspeaker in the public square every night because no one can afford a radio of his or her own.We had been invited to experience a traditional Timbuktu meal served by a local family in the courtyard of their mud-stucco home. They seated all on magnificent carpets (with a mattress cushion for us tenderfoots) spread on the sand floor. Tuareg music filled the air. Another animal bit the dust as we were served an exquisite meal with the distinct, zesty and quite unidentifiable flavor.The goat meat was crisp and delicious. The bread was fresh and tasty. (One advantage of French colonialism was the sharing of baking skills; Timbuktu enjoys a reputation for terrific bakeries.) The men cooked but made a point of telling us that the meal requires a woman’s touch – the women hold the secrets to the spices. The sauce was African orange (a color I associate with palm-oil recipes) but with a blend of spices that – we were told – are peculiar to Timbuktu and without names.

Suddenly there was a hush and a Tuareg woman entered the courtyard, as if to punctuate the Tuareg men’s statement. She wore flowing robes of magnificent iridescent fabric that went up over her head but did not cover her face. She was, simply, the most beautiful woman we had ever seen. She carried all the mystery and courage and beauty of these people in her face. She went into the kitchen for a few moments and then left again without a word. I choose to think that she was adding secret ingredients for our Western tongues to enjoy. Tuareg tea, a staple in their daily diet, signaled the end of the feast. The Tuaregs find shade at every opportunity, many times each day, and make a very sweet and quite drinkable tea. There is a “no sipping” protocol for taking tea. You drink it like a shot and return the cup for the next person to use.After dinner the badgering and bartering started anew. The guides who we knew AND their relatives appeared out of nowhere to display their wares. I was grateful to Aly for intervening on several occasions when he felt I wasn’t being treated properly. I came to rely on him completely as time went by. I made several purchases and then inquired about the “purse” one gentleman had around his neck; many Tuaregs wear these glorious ornate fringed and decorated flat boxes that secretly open to hold money or a passport. My new friend replied “my grandmother made it for me but I might sell it to you.” I bartered and finally ended up buying it for $80 American, which made me very proud. When we all regrouped at camp, we discovered that everyone had “My Grandmother Made Its.” And we ALL had paid silly amounts of money ranging from $50 to $150 for our treasures, thinking we had scored a true piece of local handcrafting. To make matters worse, I just discovered “My Grandmother Made Its” on the Internet for $48! The population of Timbuktu is now about 15,000, down from 100,000 in the glory days. The town is a melting pot of Moors (Arab nomads), Songhay, Fulani (Peul) and Bambara people (all black tribes) as well as the Tuaregs. Everyone has a different shade of skin. Everyone speaks French. The French are responsible for confusion and the many spellings of both “Tuareg” and “Timbuktu.” Tombouktou and Touareg are Franco versions, mostly rejected by the native people.The Tuaregs are warriors and survivors. They are a Fourth World people who live as an unrepresented minority in many countries. They are hospitable and courteous and loyal to family and attentive to guests. They exude the power that comes from competency.

Now it was time to head into the desert and toward the music.Their Festival of the Desert began as a commitment to peace for Tuaregs and other sub-Saharan cultures to the exploration of shared values. The efforts of a handful of dedicated Malians have made this festival happen and allowed it to flourish for six years. Music is a universal balm.At the edge of town, almost immediately in front of us, were six or seven humongous sand dunes, looking utterly impassable. Peppered helter-skelter over the dunes were 15 SUVs in various stages of stuck. Drivers dug and passengers meandered, leaving the impression that there was no feasible route. Before we had a chance to speak, however, Aly hit the accelerator. We wove up and over and around all the obstacles, then bounced over the last ridge to see nothing but Saharan sand in front of us – flat, no more dunes. All three of our Tuareg drivers navigated the maze with great style, to our sheer panic and delight. “Bamako drivers are no good in the sand,” said a nonchalant Aly.

Several hours of high-pitched revving and continuous jolting delivered us to Essakane, an oasis (albeit not green) and a symbol for the Tuaregs. The actual village, a short camel ride past the festival site, was not visible but a new temporary village had bloomed in the desert. A large stage with lights and a serious sound system loomed in front of us. To the right was a small city of low-riding tents made of either canvas or camel hide. Scattered about were a multitude of fabulous camels carrying Tuareg men, all in their finest regalia, the desert version of dressage.Here it is necessary to describe Saharan mobility – or the lack thereof. Walking on a beach where the ocean has pounded the sand into some sort of consistency isn’t necessarily easy, but it is quite another to walk the fine dust of the Sahara. Every step is an effort and every destination is an up-and-down journey. On the way up, it feels like you are moving backward, while on the way down, the steepness forces you into a run, and the sand fills your shoes and makes anchors of them. All the while, you ponder the fact that this downward trip will only spawn another ascent on the return trip. Keep this description in mind as a “dune measure.” “One dune” from the performance stage was the tourist camping compound, a series of 30 tents awaiting guests. The tents are Tuareg-style with the backside to the ground and the front lifted by several poles, never more than 4 feet high. “Two dunes” behind the stage was the VIP area.The festival consisted of three days of music on two stages – one small tented area called “Scene Traditionnelle” and the “Grande Scene” described before. At the Scene Traditionnelle, Tuareg and other ethnic groups started in the late morning and stopped around sundown. On the larger stage, music started around 8 p.m. and continued until 2 a.m. When the live music stopped, the deejays kicked in, blasting what can best be described as “Tuareg Techno” until 4 a.m. Waking each day to yummy Timbuktu bread and not-so-yummy Sanka in lukewarm water, our next challenge was personal hygiene. There was no running water to use and bathroom choices were three: A three-dune walk to the (rank) toilets installed for Europeans, a short flat walk to the “local’s hole” surrounded by a cardboard box, or a trek across an indeterminate number of dunes in the hope of finding enough privacy to squat. For all choices, carrying your own roll of toilet paper was mandatory.

One day, in an effort to close the circle that began at the Wheeler Opera House, we found Habib Koite in his tent. We leaned under the flap and told him we had accepted the invitation he delivered in Aspen. The astonishment on his face was priceless. He invited us in, and four of us scrunched on the sand alongside Habib and his musicians. Habib is a Khassonke griot and political activist who performs and embraces Malian music. This was his third Festival of the Desert. He laughed and told us he promised his wife he would never return after the last one, but there he was again. Why? Because, he said, “cultural exchange is the answer for lasting peace. We need to have everyone come up here to see how they [the Tuaregs] live.” He continued, “I consider this a personal challenge because it is hard to be here, it is rough.” We shared stories, about the difficulties of navigating the dunes and about our fine Tuareg hosts. And we all found it humbling amid the splendor and expansiveness of the desert.Each morning there were wonderful forums on a vast array of subjects, including ethnic factions and social conflict, schools for nomadic cultures, strategies for the fight against HIV/AIDS, strategies for the fight against the proliferation of light arms. Light conversation to begin the day. The members of our group who understood found these meetings intriguing; alas, we missed out because of our limited French. Was it worth it? Absolutely. And we want to go back. We prepared for an adventure and adjusted our expectations before we left, but still it was hard. The difficulties enhanced the experience, but Mali is no place for wimps. Throughout it all, our friend and traveling companion Peter Helburn managed to keep his crisp Ralph Lauren image, but kept the “how” a secret. The rest of us did not fare so well, and were grateful not to have a mirror.We met interesting and gracious people in Mali and learned to love their art forms. Back at home, we listen to their music to take a return journey in our minds. If you want to join us, then you can order “Amassakoul” by Tinariwen and “Dimanche a Bamako” by Amadou & Miriam. You will be glad you did.


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