.. when I was in Timbuktu .....

Trip Start Feb 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 09, 2010

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Where I stayed
In the desert
Hotel Boctou

Flag of Mali  ,
Monday, March 29, 2010

I spent the first evening in the desert with a Tuareg family. The Tuaregs used to be nomads of the Sahara. They still live in the desert these days and run trade caravans 4-6 months every year. The rest of the year they stay put in their villages and earn their living work as guides for tourists.

I was picked up at the hotel around 4 p.m. from where I rode a camel all the way into the Sahara to a small Tuareg compound. The ride into the desert, through the monotonous landscape with the sun setting in the backdrop, was just what I needed after the grueling 5 days of travel I had had. My white camel camouflaged in the white desert sand. After a 2 hour ride, we arrived at the family compound. The compound comprised of 3 traditional tents – one for the husband, his wife and the children; one for the husband's parents; and the 3rd for tourists (like me). The tents were huge, low roof seko huts, in the shape of a dome. The tourist tent was more like a tarp to provide basic shelter (against the sun).

I dropped off my bags in my tent and went off for a walk into the surrounding area. The children (7 years of age and below) from the neighboring compounds spotted me and ran up to me to play. We sat and try to communicate. They loved getting their pictures taken. At that moment, I realized how genuine an interaction I was having with these toddlers. Everyone (with few exceptions) I had met so far during my trip, seemed to have had a hidden agenda – may it be money or association. These kids just wanted to play and that was that.

We returned to the compound just before dark. The brightness lost due to the sun set was offset to some degree by the crystalline moonlight. After saying my prayers, the whole family sat in a circle, with the husband preparing the meal in the middle. The sand was smooth with the odd scarab beetle crawling up our mats. We didn’t talk much. The only sound I could hear was the burning fire and the crackling of the pots.

The meal was a delicious one – rice with some beef this time. This was followed by the three cups of tea – death, life and love. We sat around a bit more before taking off for the night. I dragged my sleeping mat from the tent out into the open to sleep under the stars. I slept like a baby.

The next morning, 3 Tuareg gentlemen visited our compound to exhibit traditional handicrafts. I was quoted exorbitant prices for everything I expressed interest in. This was before I understood the Tuareg rules of negotiation. The Tuareg way of negotiating starts with the two parties quoting their ideal prices (regardless of how ridiculously low/high they are); and then converging to a mutually agreeable price in three steps. Hence the key was to quote an initial price half of what I was willing to pay. The vendors couldn’t believe it but it worked like a charm. I managed to bargain items initially quoted at 25,000 CFA all the way down to 5,000 CFA.

After the mini shopping spree we headed back to Timbuktu. The ride back was a bit challenging due to the raging sun over our heads. Luckily I had my turban on – which my Tuareg guide had patiently taught me how to tie.

Once in Timbuktu, I hired another guide to show me around Timbuktu. We decided to start our tour a bit later in the day when the sun was a bit less extreme. The desert sun was merciless. You would feel the sting while it burnt through an uncovered spot of skin. Half sleeves were definitely not a good idea. I spent the rest of the day tracking down a meal of brochettes and spending time on the internet.

The name Timbuktu actually is made up of two separate Tuareg words – Tim meaning well; and Buktu (or Boctou) being the name of the lady who was the caretaker of the well. Back in the day, caravans would pass by the area of present day Timbuktu to extract water from the well there. Since there were caravans form different ethnics groups passing by and utilizing the well, it was decided to assign Boctou, an honest lady of the time, as its caretaker. Hence the name evolved around that. Hence, the well is the central point of the town.

Timbuktu was similar to Djenne in some respects. Firstly, the architecture was similar (if not the same style); and secondly, both towns were centered/based around something – Djenne around the grand mosque and Timbuktu around a well.

We walked around the old quarters (the modern town surrounds them). The houses, like Djenne, were round mud brick houses, some in poor condition. There was electricity there. The town is popular for its three mud mosques. The first mosque (also the most significant) was under renovation, and as a result off limits to tourists. But there were prayers still being offered inside, so me being a Muslim came in handy. The inside had tall mud pillars with Moroccan style carvings on them. There was one small light bulb which illuminated the interior. The ground was sand. I befriended the Imam of the mosque and he asked me to take a picture of him with me. Soon after that he asked me to buy him a bag of sugar. I took that as my queue to move on.

We next visited the Biblioteque, where the ancient manuscripts on science and arts are stored. It was interesting to see a thick manuscript on the rights of women in Islam – I wondered if anyone had taken the time to read itJ

We then moved over to the 2nd mosque that was built by a Moroccan. This seemed a bit more modern. Interestingly enough, I befriended the Imam here as well. He was so happy to see me that he offered to take me down to the tomb of their saint – I accepted. The people of Timbuktu (all muslims) believe in 333 saints. This tomb was of the most important one. I was told this was a big honor as only special personalities (like the president) get to visit this tomb. I was flattered. The tomb was access through a small tunnel through the main wall of the mosque. We crawled through it till we reached a grove with a small pot in it. The Imam prayed and then spit on my hands (his way of blessing) and asked me to put something in the pot there as a gift for the saint. Embarrassingly I had no money on me. All I could spare was some candy that I had bought for the street children. I explained my circumstance and was exempted from the gifting.

We then walked further through the old town, walking past the ancient houses of the three western explorers who had come there to learn more about this mystical town. This was at a time when Timbuktu was the hub of knowledge; and when non-Muslims were not allowed to enter. Hence, when the true motives and religious affiliations of these explorers were discovered, some were made to leave and the less fortunate ones were executed. We also saw the house of the famous Muslim explorer Ibn Batuta.

The tour ended by us visiting the 3rd mosque. This mosque was initially constructed as a university but a year later was converted to a mosque by an Algerian widow. The mosque was similar to the first one in style and grandeur. I prayed the evening prayers there.

The last visit that day for me was a hotel named Hendrina Khan. The story went that it was built by a Pakistani businessman, traveling around the area, as a gift to his guide. The hotel was given the Pakistani’s wife’s name. When I heard this story, I naturally felt proud. I was recommended by everyone to visit it if I could – especially given I was a Pakistani. This was supposed to be the best hotel in town – the president stayed there when he visited. I decided to dine there that night. All the hype was cast away when I reached there. It was pretty ordinary, especially for the exorbitant prices they charged for meals. I, nevertheless, dined there and chatted with the manager into the evening. That was the end of the pleasant little pause I had in Timbuktu. What lied ahead was another bout with the time and the crazy Malian transport system – I had to get from Timbuktu to Ghana within 2 days! I had to exit Mali, cross through Burkina and enter Ghana from North to reach a small town called Navrongo.

Upon my return to my hotel, I gathered my documents and prepared myself for the last stretch out of Mali. I rested well that night – I knew I would need it.

Cameroun situation: SO far I had struggled getting around in Mali and hadn’t had a chance to think about what I was to do about my Cameroonian visa. I had the following 2 options:

-          Go to the Cameroonian embassy in either Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria) or Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) – this was difficult as Senegal was far, Cote d’Ivoire was in the middle of a civil war and Nigeria … well I had already gotten a sour flavor of it;

-          Leave Africa from Ghana instead of returning to Cameroon and ask my NGO to ship my luggage directly to Canada.

I was scared it might come down to the second option and I would miss my rendezvous. It then occurred to me that may be my NGO can arrange something from within Cameroon for me. I called them up and explained my situation. They said that they can help but the visa probably will not come till the 14th of April – which might be too late for me (10th was the date and I wasn’t sure how long she could stay before return). I told them to go ahead and see what happens.
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