The Road to Timbuktu

There are no direct flights to Mali, so the trip in in two stages. Buying separate tickets to Paris and then Bamako comes out $700 cheaper than buying a single ticket with the same routing. Go figure.

Stage 1 is on US Air. Nothing exceptional either good or bad. A 767 with 2/3/2 seating. Food palatable. Seated next to me is a student from Hanoi, the first North Vietnamese I had encountered in the U.S. Both his parents are party members.

Charles de Gaulle airport is both hideous and impractical. The two terminals are a 20-minute bus ride apart.

Stage 2 is on Air France. The African passengers are bringing home consumer electronics; the French are laden with food and wine. I get a pleasant surprise: an upgrade to first class. (It pays to dress neatly!) Electric seats, individual multi-channel video screens, champagne, multi-course meals. No complaints from me.

The inflight map shows a routing directly over Bordeaux, Biarritz, San Sebastian, and all the other places that I visited in October, but low clouds prevent my seeing anything. We also fly directly over Gibraltar, but The Rock is obscured.

Things clear up over the Sahara. It looks like we are flying over more clouds because I can't see anything, but the haze is the wrong color. A closer look reveals ridges -- it's sand all the way to the horizon.

At the immigration counter everyone crowding around elbowing one another. I conclude that the first thing this country needs is a queue culture. But that would put out of work the facilitators who are able to quickly obtain entry stamps for those who express their appreciation. Luckily, I am at the front of the line so I only have a long (as opposed to interminable) wait. Then a guy in a white coat checks our yellow fever inoculation certificates to be sure that we tourists are not bringing pestilence and disease into their little Eden.

The baggage claim is another zoo, with hoards of porters fighting over the few potential customers. Much of the luggage being offloaded consists of giant steel lockers with heavy padlocks. Maybe those people know something? My bags come through unscathed.

I engage a vehicle which purports to be a taxi. It looks like it was stripped and abandoned in Beirut. It has a steering wheel and a seat, but not much else. No ignition switch or dashboard instruments. But it is painted yellow.

It turns out that my arrival date coincides with a confab of the presidents of West African states. That's why Air Force Zero, the personal jetliner of the President of Nigeria, was on the ramp when we landed, and the army was out in force. Yesterday the airport was closed.

My intended hotel is full. So is my second choice. On the third try I find a place for $25. It's quite comfortable, but the TV is all in French. That is, the programs are from France -- all white faces living first world lives. For the locals, it must be as remote as watching The Jetsons. I find a chink in their francophone armor: the buttons on the television remote control are in English.

Bamako stradles the Niger, which flows through the semi-arid Sahel, the zone south of the Sahara. The city is a giant shantytown which is home to just over one million of Mali's ten million people. It is 12 north of the Ecuador, at 0 longitude, and hot, dry and dusty. The dust combines with the exhaust fumes and smoke from cooking fires to create a perpetual haze. I arrive in the evening. Like everywhere in the tropics, sundown brings on swift darkness. The streets look unsafe, and I do not venture out.

The next morning I emerge to find a herd of cattle being driven past the hotel. I have two days on my own before joining the tour group, so I start exploring.

It's tough walking around because I stick out like a sore thumb. As the only white man on foot, I am the target of every hustler, vendor, and beggar in sight. All have one goal: to get some money out of me. A white man walking surely must need a taxi, a tour guide, a Coke, a souvenir, or all of the above. Their logic is unassailable: other pedestrians might have wants but no money to satisfy them; I obviously have means, so all that they need do is create demand. As they can do nothing to solve the first problem, their attentions are all focused on the latter.

There is a prosperity of sorts: fleets of Mercedes Benz with diplo plates and squads of BMW motorcycle escorts. I have not doubt of the two principal items on the conference agenda: 1) how to stay in power forever; and 2) how to get more foreign aid.
There really isn't anything to see in town, but I spend the day wandering about. Come feeding time, it appears that the restaurants fall into two categories: French food (at Parisian prices) or African fare. Figuring I would be subjected to plenty of the latter in the coming two weeks, I go for the logical choice: Vietnamese.

The next day, Sunday, I'm not up to revisiting the same sites, so I hang around the very nicely manicured grounds of the hotel and its pool. That night the group is supposed to assemble. Only half of us are here. The other eight are in cancelled flight hell. (As it turns out, they won't be here for another 30 hours.) We are scheduled to depart at 6:30 a.m., and our tour leader decides not to wait. We will depart as scheduled, and they can catch up later.

We have a nice new 30 seat Toyota bus. It's a long drive, but the road is good. Correction: this road is good. Over the next day and a half we will traverse 50% of Mali's paved highway.

We stop to change money in Segou, a river-front colonial town. "Change" doesn't actually mean convert from one kind to another, it means getting smaller bills that you can actually spend. (No one has any change.) That takes an hour. The money is disgusting. The former French colonies have a common currency which is linked to the franc. The disadvantage of a stable currency in a desperately poor country is they never retire the banknotes. They can't afford to print new ones and there is no inflation to render the old currency valueless. Consequently, the money looks like it's been run through the dishwasher a few times then buried in a garbage dump for a year.

Lunch is at San. All French tourists stop at this place. A good sign. That means good food. Enroute, there are periodic obstructions placed across the road. These are purportedly check points for document inspection, but in reality are "toll booths," an opportunity to extort bribes. It is Explore's (our tour company) policy not to pay because it only raises the expectations (and the price) next time. So the game is to wait them out until they get tired of asking for more documents and just let us go. Very high minded, but the process, repeated several times, puts us behind schedule.

While the driver is negotiating with the "revenue officer," beggars and hawkers swarm about the bus. Our tour leader tells us of the Maribous, who are like religious Fagins. They take in orphans and teach them the Koran as well as to beg. The kids receive no education other than the Koran and get no other training except in begging.

We are supposed to arrive in Djenne in late afternoon in time to catch the weekly market. We don't make it. By the time we pull in the market is ending. Djenne is famed for its mud mosque, the largest mud building in Africa. (Q: on what other continent would you expect to find bigger mud buildings?) The whole city is built from mud bricks. UNESCO world heritage site, and all that.

Djenne may be scenic, but it is not low pressure. All the tourists go there, so its economic life revolves around hustling them. Not that the pickings are all that plentiful: aside from us, I don't think there are two dozen white people in town. The natives are Nilotic, the blackest of Africans, much darker than the Bantu who inhabit most of west, central, and southern Africa. The word for "white man" in Bambara, the principal local language, is toubab. Walking down the street little kids point and exclaim toubab. When approaching a checkpoint our driver would roll down the window and simply explain toubab.

Djenne is a small place ,and there's not much to see. Plus, you can't go inside the mosque. (It's mud on the inside, too.) Still, the local guide manages to stretch our city tour into all morning. In the afternoon, we take an excursion to Djenne-djeno, an archaeological site a bit down the river. It's within walking distance, but we take the scenic route via pirogue (canoe).

This part of the Niger is called the inland delta, where the river widens into many channels and marshes. In places, it is only ankle deep. The pirogues are propelled by poling. They ought to have channel markers or we ought to have more experienced boatmen, cause they keep getting stuck. When that happens, they just hop out and push.

When you hear the term "archaeological site," you think of the Pyramids, the Roman Forum, Macchu Piccu, right? Well, Djenne-djeno, the oldest archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa, is a gravel field. On closer examination, it's mostly not gravel, but millions of pottery shards. There are those, some eroded funerary urns, and a long explanation in the hot sand of what used to be here.

To most Malians, we and all other toubabs are unimaginably rich. According to our tour leader, they don't really have any concept of how we get our money. They think we make it, literally! They believe that we decide how much money we want and either print it or order it up. After all, we all have brand new bills (French Francs) of impossibly large denominations. And maybe some have seen or know someone who has seen ATM's depicted on TV -- you know, the machines that just spew money on request?

The next morning we depart for Dogon country. At Sevare we reach the end of the paved road, causing our rate of travel drops precipitously. And boy, it is dusty! Good thing we have air-conditioning. That afternoon we get to Sanga, from which we will begin our five-day trek.

The Dogon live on and along a 200 miles escarpment. They are sought of like our Indians on a reservation. Their language, religion, customs, architecture, art, and lifestyle differ radically from the rest of the country. They constitute about 3% of the population, and are animists (Mali is Muslim). They fled into the cliffs about 500 years ago to escape the Arab slavers. Their villages are scattered atop, amid, and at the base of the cliffs. They are extremely poor and primarily live on the onions they grow and through employment created by the tourist trade.

We are staying at the encampment in Sanga. It's like Fort Apache, with the Indians waiting outside. As soon as you exit the gate, you are besieged. These are the most tourist-savvy of the Dogon; they ask for everything: hats, sunglasses, shirts, pants, shoes. That's for us to give them; we are supposed to buy their stuff.

All the tourists stay here. It's the only place. It's vastly overpriced, but without competition.. We have electricity six hours a day and ensuite facilities (sort of). That's the last plumbing we're going to see for five days. As basic as it is, it's the only game in town. It was the same deal in Djenne: every place has exactly one lodging facility decent enough for Europeans.

The next morning, we start our trek, heading out across the plateau. The line snakes out with our guide in the lead followed by the toubabs, then our tour leader, then our 16 porters carrying our luggage and camp. We cover 9km in four hours. Not because the going is tough, but because it's an easy stroll with plenty of stops. Also, because it takes ten minutes to say "hello" in Dogon. Every passerby must greet and be greeted in a formalistic series of questions and answers: "How are you? How is your wife? How is your family? How are your goats? etc.. etc, etc." The response, "fine," is cero. The result is a dual chant of cero, cero, cero. Multiple greetees answer in chorus.

Towards noon we break until about 3:00 for lunch and to avoid the mid-day heat. The other half of our group first caught up with us in Djenne. Considering their ordeal, they are in surprisingly good spirits. Stiff upper lip and all that, I guess. They decided to stay a day, rest, and see the city. During our first midday break on the trek, they join us for good, having driven directly from Djenne.

We are 16: 9 Brits, 3 Canadians, 2 Americans, 1 German and 1 Dane. A fairly superannuated crowd; I am about in the middle of the age range. Usual crowd of leftists, socialists, statists, and eco-wackos. I half expect them to start singing The Internationale at dinner. Friendly enough, though.

We climb down the escarpment to the plain and our camp. Everyone else goes to the mask dance dance/photo op. As part of my worldwide boycott of folk dances put on for tourists, I eschew same. (I later get the report that it was relatively painless -- the dances only lasted about a minute or so each. In my view, that's about the correct length of a folk dance.)

Camping is not too rough. The porters set up our tents and have brought mattresses and pillows, along with tables and chairs and the kitchen.

On day 2 we continue our trek. The itinerary consists of walking from one village to another at the base of or amid the cliffs. The villages are similar, but there are minor differences. In Amani there is a sacred pool in which the crocodiles who are the totems of the village reside. They are so sacred that they cannot be photographed. Unless, that is, you pay 1000CFA (= $1.25). At least we get the group rate. In another village, we get to look at the sacred tortoise for free.

Each village also has a hogan, a gazebo in which the men meet to discuss and resolve any problems. They have low ceilings to prevent someone from standing up in anger -- he must remain seated and keep talking. They are gaily and colorfully decorated with all sorts of symbols. They, too, are sacred and can't be photographed without a donation.

When we pass through a village the little kids run up to greet us. They really want candy, but always want to shake hands. The problem is that these kids are walking disease incubators. After hand contact, you must remember to disinfect before touching food or your face. "Gee kid, I would like to have a cross-cultural bonding experience, but I'm running low on hand sanitizer."

Did you ever wonder where used clothing you donate to charity goes? In a word, Africa. One country or another. Americans won't wear used clothing, but Africans are delighted to do so. It's sold by U.S. charities to brokers who then sell it in the markets throughout the continent. Everywhere you see children and adults in the most improbable clothing, particularly T-shirts. Especially amusing are the modestly clad women whose ensemble includes T-shirts with crude slogans. Speaking of T-shirts, this is the first place I've been that is so untouristed that there are no souvenir T-shirts for sale!

Having been advised before I left, I brought along school supplies to donate to the village schools, In one, we locate the teacher and I give him some notebooks and paper and pens for the students who don't have any (which is all of them). I also have brought along calculators ($1 at Wal-Mart) for the teacher to award to the best student. He asked if he could keep it to use it for the whole school since the school did not have a calculator. I give him another.

These people are poor! The kids even scramble for our empty plastic water bottles. They use them as toys as well as to hold liquids. In the markets, all sorts of disposable metal, plastic, and glass containers are offered for resale.

I feel like Dr. Livingston. As we come into a village the kids run up to display their open sores and bleeding wounds and ask for treatment. They want and need band-aids, aspirin, antibiotics, anything. At one stop our tour leader is requested to ask us, "Does anybody have any medicine to cure blindness?" I have brought worn out shoes to give away. A kid with a foot wound got a pair of Nikes.

Day 3 is similar to day 2. I have brought along a Polaroid i-Zone, a compact camera that produces instant pictures about the size of a postage stamp. A real ice-breaker. They go nuts over them. At one village we are halted as the tour leader has been called to take a picture of a dying women who wants a photograph to leave her grandchildren.

Day 4 brings a different route: up the cliff and back down the other side. There is no place to stop for lunch so we have to cross the burning sand in the mid-day heat for 1 1/2 hours. Just when we are about to expire, we get a surprise: it's back up up the cliff again. We are dying. There is serious talk of mutiny. When we finally reach our lunch and camping spot, I collapse. The porters considerately bring the mattresses over to us. I plop down and don't move for 2 1/2 hours.

It's Christmas Eve so we purchase a goat, slaughter it, and put it on the spit. By suppertime, there is a large crowd from the village gathered to watch us eat. They are really waiting for the leftovers. (In this case, the "leftovers" was the whole thing; there is a reason there aren't goat restaurants in the gastronomic capitals of the world.) We also purchased 40 liters of homemade millet beer. I don't think we collectively consumed one pint. (That was probably the idea.) Fueled by goat meat and 39.5 liters of beer, the villagers put on a genuine dance show for us, not some cheesy tourist revue. Long after we retire the party goes on. By morning, they are picking those goat bones clean!

On day 5 we trudge back to Sanga. Our nice, new, airconditioned Toyota bus has disappeared. Supposedly, while waiting for us, it "broke down" and had to go back to Bamako. (Later on, we spot it in Mopti carrying another group.) Instead, we get a couple of beat up old vans. For hours, we bounce along in the choking red dust. We are heading to Mali's second largest city, Mopti, and two nights in a hotel. With airconditioning, and plumbing!

Mopti is tourist central. Because it is Christmas, our hotel is jammed full. They all are. Must be better than 100 toubabs in town.

There's not much to see in Mopti. Its principal attraction is the river and its port. Giant slabs of salt from mines in the Sahara, having been carried by camel caravan to Timbuktu then shipped by river to Mopti, are being unloaded for resale and transshipment. Plenty of fishing canoes for photo backdrop. On the banks, people are washing their clothes, themselves, their bicycles, their motorcycles, and their goats. The natives are a bunch of Bozos. Really. That is the name of the local tribe. There are Bozo villages, Bozo art, and Bozo food. I take care of my souvenir shopping. Walking around the market in the silly hat and loud shirt I bought turns ME into the blue light special for the vendors.

We will be travelling to Timbuktu on a pinasse, sort of a giant canoe with a woven straw canopy and powered by an outboard motor. It's a three-day journey. We bring along our cook and his aide. Breakfast and lunch are served on the boat en route. At night we camp on the riverbank.

We pass assorted villages along the way. The people are very friendly; everybody waves, the kids so enthusiastically that it looks like they are looking to be rescued from a desert island. Sometimes we stop. These people haven't been spoiled by tourists. It is a holiday, the end of Ramadan, and everyone is all dressed up. Polaroid diplomacy works wonders.

We chug along at a steady 10mph. The river widens into a lake. Looks like the Everglades. Lots of water fowl. Still , it is apparent that we are progressing further into the Sahara. On the left bank are sand dunes; on the right bank, marshland. There is a pleasant breeze so long as we are moving, but when we stop and go out into the sun it is like walking into a furnace.

After camping two more nights, on the third day we arrive at the port. Timbuktu is 10 miles inland at what was once an oasis. At its height in the 16th century it had a population exceeding 100,000. Now, it is less than one-fifth that. Timbuktu has been almost entirely consumed by the desert. It is a place where the streets are paved with sand, loose, shifting sand. There is sand everywhere and in everything. Even the bread has sand in it. (Gives new meaning to a meal of "soup and sand.")

We are staying in the fanciest digs in town. Our hotel was completed last year. Because maintenance has been lacking for only one year, not quite everything is broken yet.

Timbuktu was once a great center of Islamic scholarship. These days, the city survives on tourism. Mostly Americans, I think. (I guess there is no corresponding French expression of remoteness. We are 4977 miles east of Stately Bergwerk Manor, bearing 86, per my trusty GPS.) The population is a mixture of black africans and Tuaregs, a nomadic tribe of Berbers, who were at war with the government until just a few years. They are historically slave owners and traders, although supposedly have stopped. Beyond the city, conditions are still unsafe. At the entrance to our restaurant on the edge of the desert sits a a guard with an AK-47. The strife has driven many of the blacks into tent encampments within the city.

The Tuaregs come in from the desert to buy sugar, tea, etc. For that they need money, and the only place to get it is from us. A general rule for Timbuktu: if someone is dressed up in a costume, he is trying to sell you something. And they won't give up or leave you alone. (They must have learned from their Moroccan brothers.) But the offerings are terrible. And at absurd prices. Come on, $40 for a bottle opener? They need to spend less time on marketing and more time on product R&D. They also keep trying to trade their worthless junk for our hi-tech stuff. A letter opener knife for a walkman? One guy tried to get a laser pointer in exchange for a lump of salt!

Another trick they've learned from the Moroccans: be nowhere in sight when baggage needs to be unloaded, then after you have toted your own luggage, turn up to demand a tip. (This is after they have already been paid by the tour leader for porter service.)

We are scheduled to fly back from Timbuktu to Bamako. For a while it looked like Explore is going to have to charter a plane since Air Mali, aka Air Maybe, had stopped flying. We heard that the Russian crew had gone home because they weren't being paid. Anyway, they are back, or are supposed to be back. The airline has such a sterling reputation that US government personnel are prohibited from flying on it.

Timbuktu airport is surprisingly modern. (I wonder which donor country paid for it?) There are no flights, though. I think the deal is that Air Mali sells tickets, gauges the demand, then, like a taxi dispatcher, (maybe) sends a plane. Our flight is is supposed to leave at 10:00 a.m. We learn that the plane is in Mopti but there is no money for fuel. At noon, it is still in Mopti. Eventually, the problem is sorted out and, at 1:00 p.m. an unmarked plane with a Russian flag on its tail shows up. On board with us is a large antelope. I couldn't tell whether it is a zoo exhibit, a pet, or dinner. Speaking of dinner, instead of giving one last shot at flogging crap souvenirs in the airport, somebody should try selling some food in the terminal. He would clean up. (But then it wouldn't be Africa.)

We get back to Bamako in the afternoon on New Year's Eve. Our flight to Paris is supposed to be that night, but the buzz around the airport is that both Air France and Air Afrique have cancelled. Of course, there is nobody at the airport to ask. No one answers the phone in the city ticket office either; they can't be bothered to come to work. I return to the airport in the evening expecting, at the minimum, to be given a hotel voucher. The place is deserted. No one there. So, I go to a hotel on my own. I don't get checked in till midnight. By that time, I was the only toubab in sight and the last hope for the yet-unengaged prostitutes. I fight them off all the way to the elevator.

The next morning, New Year's Day, there is still no sign of life at Air France. The Air Afrique flight is supposed to leave that morning. I return to the airport to a scene of typical third world chaos in front of the counters and complete inaction behind them. The flight is grossly oversold, and huge arguments are taking place. People who had not reconfirmed have been cancelled even though they had tried to reconfirm but could not get through. Nonetheless, after much hassle and much waiting, I am able to exchange my Air France flight coupon for a first class ticket on Air Afrique to Paris. Satorial apartheid is alive and well on Air Afrique: neatly-dressed whites in bwana class; nicely-dressed africans in business class; while tourists in T-shirts and blue jeans ride in the back with the masses

At Chuck DeGaulle's Aeropuerto, it's like the Mexican border: eight cops are at the end of the jetway looking at visas and asking questions about where are you staying, how long are you staying, how much money do you have? Correction: those of color are asked. Many are pulled aside. Even more are detained at passport control. Half of the checked luggage coming off the carousel consists of gunny sacks.

By then I have missed my connecting flight to U.S. I spend the night in Paris at the airport Sheraton. VERY nice, EXCELLENT food. prices to match. I come back a day late, narrowly missing an upgrade to biz. At least the flight was catered in Paris, so the food is good even in steerage.

My life is now dedicated to obtaining recompense from Air France for having ruined my life.

Postscript: It took the threat of a class action, but Air France finally reimbursed me in full for the hotel rooms.

Trip date: December 2000