Friday, January 04, 2008

Timbuktu

Most people have heard of it, but how many could actually find it on a map. As Shean commented before, everyone seems to have been threatened with being sent to Timbuktu at some point and it is synonymous with the middle of nowhere but it seems to be a surprise to most people that this semi-mythical place is actually real. Oddly enough it wasn't always the middle of nowhere but an important center of Islamic learning in the kingdom in Mali involved in the trade of gold, salt and slaves. It was in the middle of nowhere as it was an oasis and full of camel caravans. The caravans continue to this day as it is somehow cheaper and easier to maintain the traditional methods of a one-month round trip caravan to the salt mines north of Timbuktu than to just send trucks through the sand. We didn't see the caravans but there are lots of camel rides in the desert on offer.... It was at it's peak 500 years ago and up until about 100 years ago foreigners were not allowed into the city, adding further to it's isolation and mystique. Nowadays the tourists come in large groups, spend a day or two, head out into the desert on a camel, get a Timbuktu stamp in their passport, walk the sandy and decaying streets for a little while and then leave and brag to all of their friends.
We ended up staying in Timbuktu for 5 days though I was disappointed and wanted to leave after the first 10 minutes. It's just the name after all. Djenne had a much nicer feel and look to it with all it's mud brick buildings. Timbuktu has more cinder block mixed in and seems a little too run down and graffitied for such a major tourist town in this country. The reason of course is political. They don't hate us, but the government hates the Tuareg people living in the north of the country (including Timbuktu) so very little federal funding makes it up that way. The Tuareg are more related to the Arabs and were historically the oppressors and slave traders so I guess now the rest are taking their revenge. It is a common theme in Africa and all of the countries around here seem to be doing it. There have been Tuareg rebellions and disturbances over the last few decades and there is currently one going on in the north of Niger as we speak. There is a decent amount of hassle but the people were nice enough if you talked to them. You'd think that with a place as famous as Timbuktu there would be a million souvenir shops selling all sorts of tacky stuff and T-shirts but we had a hard time finding the one guy that runs around with a few T-shirts he made in a backpack. Everyone else is selling Tuareg jewelry and spears and such. Sky bought a spear, big surprise. I don't want to sound mean but I think most of the tourists are up there because of the name of the town, not out of interest in anything Tuareg or because the town itself is of any interest. They might actually make more money out of T-shirts and tacky souvenirs.
More interesting than Timbuktu itself was the journey there. We took (after a major fiasco involving the police and a very enlightening look at local party politics, started, but not to be elaborated upon, by me) public transport out of Djenne to Mopti, perhaps the most tourist hassly town in Mali. It's a hassle because there are tons of touts all offering guiding services and boat tours and everything else because Mopti is the jump off point for all the major tourist attractions in Mali, including Dogon Country, boat rides on the Niger river and transport to Timbuktu. I can't believe I'll say this but we found a nice and useful tout that ended up helping us out a bit (though it would've been at our expense had he had his way). Apparently the rains have been good this year so the Niger river has been higher than normal and the main Comanav ferry was still running it's route downstream to Timbuktu and beyond. Outside of that option are the much smaller pinasse boats, often carrying cargo and tourists at a much higher price. Normally the ferry would've finished its route a month earlier but we got on the last sailing of the season. I guess nobody else knew that because we were almost the only ones on the boat for the 41 hour ride. Good thing for us because we went deck class and ended up setting up our tents and just hanging out peacefully. It was definitely an unorthodox Christmas but we enjoyed it anyway. The boat has 3 levels, with the bottom deck being full of cargo; in our case a lot of watermelons, guavas, drying fish, chickens, a few goats and a huge stack of timber all making for an interesting smell. The river is a large delta in this region with a lot of small villages of fishermen on the banks. Often these are no more than a dozen little mud and straw huts that look ready to wash away with the next rains. A lot of the scenery reminded us of the Everglades in Florida. There are tons of fish in the river and everywhere we go in the country it seems to be all they eat. Just rice and fish. Really, without the Niger river travelling in a big loop through half the country the whole thing would be nothing but desert like Mauritania. It makes a huge difference and the only way to truly appreciate it is to travel along it for a while. The bird life was amazing and we were very surprised to find that the port is only 8km from Timbuktu so it really isn't as lost and deserty as people think. We enjoyed the ride (and the price) so much that we decided to wait in Timbuktu for the boat to make it's return journey back to Mali. By that time it was New Year's Eve and we were camped out on the ferry deck again. I think I was asleep by 10pm to be honest. There were even fewer people on the ride back and we saw two hippos too! First major wildlife sighting in Africa!
We are back in Bamako again preparing to head into Senegal within the next couple days. Gotta get a little cleaned up first before venturing back out into the unknown again :)
Ammon

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