Somewhere in the world it’s Independence Day and the American in me is a little bit homesick for fireworks and festivities, barbecued chicken, hamburgers and hotdogs. Even the garish displays of patriotism that, in the US, make me more annoyed than anything else. So if for nothing else than to acknowledge that I am a man of many worlds I’ll throw a hearty U-S-A out for the peoples across the ocean.
So Timbuktu: It’s been an exhausting few days, getting here while sick, recuperating for a couple of days in Bamako and finally getting on a plane to come to Timbuktu. I was told before not to expect much –- that the two companies that fly to Timbuktu can be unreliable -– and they were, reliably unreliable. The plane came late and we boarded late but we got here in one piece. I have to say I was filled with a good dose of trepidation getting on this cramped twelve seater turbo-prop that looked like it was built sometime in the seventies. Unfortunately I’ve seen too many movies where planes like this go up and come down, but not where they’re supposed to.
My plane had a bunch of people on it – including a very suspicious character wearing a wonderfully tailored suit that I later found out was an Iranian security agent sent to scout out Timbuktu in preparation for the arrival of Ahmedinajad. I guess everybody wants to visit the middle of nowhere – the only question is what for? We made a short stop in Mopti – a town on the banks of the river Niger where we let off passangers and picked up a few others. On the Tarmac I spoke with Steve – one of the pilots, an American from Florida, who’s been flying this route for nine years and before that in Nigeria and Kenya. When I asked him how he found Mali he said “You know Africa. There’s a lot of graft. I don’t know why they don’t do anything for the people.” I bristled, but I’m beginning to wonder how much one can push back against the characterization when it’s so clear that a good majority of our leaders are not doing anything for the people and state money sits in Europe or Dubai or wherever. I hate to say it, but unless we do something here to hold people to account, there’s going to be very little we have to say to the Steves of this world. It hurts.
The first thing is the desert. As soon as I step out of the plane and onto the Tarmac I’m struck by a dry heat and the smell of burning. All around is sandy yellowness with sparse collections of shrubs or tall grass. L’Aeroport du Tombouctou is plastered on the brown building in front of me. This city will be home for the next ten days. Mohammed, a tall jovial man who is our guide for the next few days, meets me at the steps of the arrivals entrance, shakes my hand and says welcome. Immediately we are off in his Toyota Land Cruiser down a red road with desert on either side. I feel like I’ve landed in a movie. As we near the city young men on carts pulled by grey donkeys roll by, a stick poised to make the poor beast of burden take that next step. There are gas stations and sign after sign for this and that development project – EU sponsored, USAID sponsored, in conjunction with the government of Italy or Libya. If this is the end of the earth, you wouldn’t know it. Everyone who is anyone in development is here. Mohammed takes me on a quick tour of the city pointing out landmarks that fly by, or that I see through my sweat and fatigue-induced delerium. There is the mosque of Djingare Bell, this is the alley where a stampede occurred and twenty-six people were killed just last month. It is a narrow alley with a crumbled mud brick building (as is the style of architecture in the old city, some of the buildings dating back to the 13th century).
We pause for a moment in silence. This is the Maison du Marie and that is the army encampment – both beautiful buildings made of mud brick and a stone from the Niger. This is the Maison des Artes where the Touareg sell their crafts. We whip around the city’s narrow streets taking care to avoid the assortment of people and animals living life in the midday heat. I am amazed – not because I have seen so much normal life, but at my own stupidity and ignorance for thinking that somehow people here would look different and have a different agenda. I’m not a silly tourist, but sometimes when you don’t know a place at all, you can only imagine – and my imagination is very active.
Another day Mohammed took Lauren and me to the desert after another tour of the city. We bounced out onto the dunes in his SUV, sometimes dipping and rolling dangerously (at least to the inexperienced desert off roader) over dunes and small bushes, to a quiet spot amidst high dunes. In front of us was only open expanse with a hazy sun and still more dunes. Behind us, the city lies quietly, its buildings a shade darker than the sand, surrounded by the slight haze of life but otherwise still. We could hear children playing in the distance and could only just see them run and then dive, slide or roll down a dune, giggling and laughing the whole time. There are a lot of children here and they all seem to be in a healthy, constant state of play – running this way and that amidst the city buildings or out here on the desert plains. Lauren and I tried our hand at jumping off dunes and sliding down sandy inclines. It hurts much more than one thinks because the sand doesn’t give easily, and is, of course, rough. What is amazing is how much the sand looks like water when it shifts and slides in rivulets. The thought made us intensely thirsty.
I have to say that I’m in love with the quiet after a year of so much noise and so much heaviness. In the desert I can hear myself think my own thoughts as opposed to feelings of inadequacy and pathology after pathology after pathology. Here I have heard my discomfort and I have heard my relaxedness and I can now choose which to listen to. There is so much more to write, but that is it for initial impressions. There are pictures – and you know how the saying goes.