The road to Timbuktu
Ah, Mali. Gate to the mighty Sahara, keeper of Tuareg culture, home to the largest mud structure in the world. I'm not exactly sure why I wanted to go to a country whose greatest claim to fame was that it held the largest mud structure in the world, but heck, that's got to be a lot of mud, right? Everything I'd heard of Mali made it sound so empty and desolate, I had to investigate and see what was really there--which mostly turned out to be a lot of emptiness and desolation. But also all that other fun desert stuff, like camels and Tuaregs and magical nights under desert stars and even a few cactii. So even though my friend Lisa and I had just finished two satisfying but gruelling years in Senegal being deprived of modern conveniences, only to go to a country even more (WAY MORE) lacking in everything, we had a really fantastic time. Well, until she almost died. But that's another story.
Both of us were a little hesitant about going to Mali, since the embassy had sent us warnings not to go near Timbuktu due to rebel activity and highway banditry, and of course the only reason we were going to Mali was to say we'd been to Timbuktu. The thought of spending 10 days in this unknown, dusty, poor desert country without even going to Timbuktu wasn't so appealing, so we thought, well what the hell. We'll go anyway. Our trip began in the Dakar (capital of Senegal) airport, where we met 3 other Western travelers, and after a brief chat we were all quite relieved to know we weren't the only idiots out there going to Mali in the hottest of the hot season when all guidebooks say DON'T GO. Did I mention we were in an airport? This is because, given our options, Lisa and I decided to splurge and fly to Bamako (capital of Mali). Option 1 was taking a bus: a 5 day nightmare that usually ended in disaster somewhere near the border. Option 2 was the train: some German friends we met went to the train station to ask at what time the train was arriving, and the woman said, "oh I have no idea," and they said "but it's a train," and she said, "well it depends on if the train derails or not today." So, we flew.
Interestingly enough, this was a Muslim airline flying from one Muslim country to an even more Muslim country, and they served pork on the plane. And NO ONE KNEW! Lisa and I watched with slack jaws as the very devout but unsuspecting Muslim passengers shoveled the pork quiche in their previously untainted mouths.
Anyway, two of the Westerners we met in Dakar were Canadian, and we all wanted to see the same things in Mali, so we kept traveling together, and that way we could sort of pretend we were Canadian, too. Bamako was about the size of my high school football stadium, so we left town the next day. For the horrific bus trip that ensued, see entry "Mali and the Bus of Doom." It ended with us stranded in a bus station at 4am, exhausted, miserable, hungry, cramped, a day late, frightened, and quite, quite sure that if all transportation in Mali was like that, there wasn't a chance in hell we were going all the way to Timbuktu. But as chance had it, there just happened to be a guy in the bus station who had a car and driver for rent, and after two hours of negotiating, the car was ours! And even better, it was a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser, possibly even the Eddie Bauer edition. The four of us piled in and took the smoothest ride of our lives to the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Salt caravan coming from the Sahara
I don't think I've emphasized just how difficult it is to get there if you don't have our luck. Once you get to Africa, and get to Mali, and get to Bamako, and get to the base town Mopti, taking hell-buses or train wrecks the whole way, then the true difficulty begins. Since Timbuktu is so remote (and frankly uninteresting), hardly any public cars go there. So you have to wait days just to get a seat in a packed, ancient Land Rover (the terrain is too rough for anything but a Land Rover). We met a couple girls who had waited two days on the side of the road, and another group of Peace Corps volunteers whose trip had taken 17 hours from Mopti (ours took 6). And of course, they drive like hellions, so your chances of surviving the trip are slim at best. Not to mention the reputed bandits and rebels the whole way. But, you do have options...you can take a camel (at least six days of excruciating pain and boredom) or a boat (three days of having to poop over the edge and sleep on a rice sack).
What was Timbuktu like? Hundreds of years ago it was famed as a city of gold, a center of great learning and knowledge, an oasis of greatness in the middle of the desert. Today it is...not quite so impressive. But we still had a wonderful time. Lisa and I had carried a bottle of champagne from Senegal to toast our arrival if we ever made it. After our champagne toast we tried to walk around town, but the heat was so intense, we made it about 10 feet outside of the hotel before having to turn around and sleep three hours under a fan. Timbuktu is small, the streets are all thick sand, the buildings are old and crumbling, but there are several ancient mosques and sites, and there's certainly a feel of being in the last place on Earth. It's also about the least touristy place on Earth. We thought there'd be tons of restaurants and hotels and travelers, but nope. Just a lot of sand. We only spent one night there, but that night we sat out under the stars at the Tuareg encampment near our hotel, drinking tea with the nomads and listening to their tales of crossing the Sahara on camel. The one and only employee at the hotel cooked us a delicious bread and meat-sauce dish, and we fell asleep very, very contented.
Djenne mud mosque
We made it back to Mopti in one piece, and continued with the Canadians to Djenne, home of the UNESCO World Heritage site, the giant mud mosque. It's what is sounds like: a huge mosque made entirely of mud and re-mudded every year. In fact, the whole town was made of mud, and it was so old and un-modern that I think Jesus would have looked out of place there. It was incredible. You know how you always wonder what it would be like to go back in time and see how people really lived? Well, go to Djenne.
A Dogon cliff village
Our next adventure was a three-day trek in Dogon country. Mali is pretty much the flattest, most desert-like country you could imagine, but there is one giant, thousand foot cliff that runs about two hundred miles across the country. The Dogon people have made their homes in the cliff, and live today much as Fred Flintstone. We visited many of these villages on our trek (trekking up cliffs in 140 degree weather is not advised in the guidebook), and it was a shock how primitively the people lived, even to us seasoned Peace Corps volunteers (and Canadians). I mean, I thought MY village was primitive! If you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the past, and are magically transported to Djenne, then wish to go even further into the past, and you might end up in something like modern-day Dogon country. It was absolutely fascinating. The people were warm and friendly, shared their millet beer with us, and always offered us smiles. Each night we camped out on the roof of a basic hostel, because it was too hot to sleep indoors. My favorite memory was touring a village and finding some children having a blast using a slick rock face as their playground slide. Here's one of the Canadians trying it out:
Thus ended our Mali adventure. Oh wait...the near death part. How could I forget. (rest of story to come...)