2013
07.13

39-4 Buktu Hotel-View from Roof 1024x743SYNOPSIS:  A devilish Ride to Timbuktu.  The Buktu Hotel.   My new Guide.

Just like the last two mornings in Niafunke, the screeching sounds of the short-wave radio, which just could not get a clear enough signal to make anything sound pleasant, cut through the dark dawn hour.  It was 5 AM and it was the mission’s local expert’s radio.  He just had to be the first one up and walking around with this.  And he had to turn the radio up so loud that the whole neighborhood could wake up with him.   Zero consideration!  I hated him for disturbing what could have been a most peaceful and pleasant morning after a not so restful night but then, he was my ride and I had to bear it.

By 6 AM we were all up and ready, but nothing happened.   We waited for breakfast to be delivered from the chief’s home and it came around 7 AM in the form of some freshly fried rice patties and a fatty sauce with five pieces of fish.   We dunked our patties into the sauce and what I would have called lunch or dinner was definitely an eatable, tasty breakfast.

Pack, pile and roll.  Off to the first stop of the mission, the community center in Tonka where more elders had to be familiarized with the mission’s procedure.  It went fast (under an hour).

Pack, pile and roll.  Off to the second stop of the mission, the town of Gundaram on the way to Timbuktu.  Because of me, I was told, the meeting would be kept short, also.  Everyone seemed to be eager to get me to Timbuktu.  It helped too, that half of the mission crew was from Timbuktu and for them this meant a return to home after a long time on the road.

Pack pile and roll one final time.   We were now on the final stretch to Timbuktu.  A 2-foot piste –  I don’t want to quite call it a road – of coarse, red, packed sand had been piled up in the mainly fine, yellow sand of the Sahel.  In most parts, it clearly indicated the route of the road.  In other parts, it still seemed to be under construction and you were free to follow somebody else’s tire marks or leave your own.  In yet other parts, it had already eroded back to the level of the Sahelian sand and left huge trenches which could swallow any car’s tires.   On rare occasions these gorges on the left and the right had formed across from each other, leaving a dangerously narrow strip of “road” to get through.   There was no traffic to speak of.  Twice we saw an oncoming NGO vehicle just like ours, once there was a motorbike and once we passed three women.   Where had they come from? For 100+ km there seemed to be nothing much.

Our driver took this as an invitation to go at full speed.   At the most dangerous times, maneuvering between trenches, puddles, broken parts of the road, indents, and rocks, that meant 60-80km/hour; at other times it meant the hair-raising speed of 120km/hour.  Are we on the Autobahn, or what?!  We in the back got thrown around, up to the ceiling, into each other and into our luggage.  The doctor and the local expert in the front did not seem to care.  We left a huge dustbowl behind us, enveloping the motorcyclist and the three walking women in the worst way.  4WDs are only cars!  Don’t they break down, too, when treated like this?  I prayed to St. Christopher.   We could not afford a broken axle or a flat tire.  It was hot and mid-day was approaching.  Miraculously we made it without incident.  What was the hurry?!

I imagined the early travelers who had approached Timbuktu on camelback.  They had no red line in the sand to guide them.  Somehow they made it.  What a moment it must have been for them to arrive!

Vacation is about destination.  Travel is as much about the process: it could have taken me 6-8 hours to get here with a 4WD from Mopti.  Instead, after 3 nights and 3 days on the river, 3 more nights and days on the road, lots of unexpected expenses, some interesting insights into the realities of African life, and as always, some miraculous manifestations, I finally made it.

If there is one thing I can say for sure: I gave Timbuktu the honor to live up to its reputation!

The police check was nothing – my papers were not even asked for as I came in an NGO car familiar to the army.   A white woman in an NGO vehicle seemed nothing out of the ordinary and nothing of the sort the army was after.   Speaking of profiling, which we are so very afraid of in the U.S: in certain circumstances and used within limits, it makes perfect sense.

Timbuktu looks like any other Sahelian town I had seen so far: mud-brick homes, dirt roads, and colorful people.  A few more checkpoints than in other towns, a few more police and army vehicles, many more NGO vehicles, and a much deeper level of poverty – those were the defining characteristics.   But as always, I came to find out that you have to know where to look if you want to find the wounds of the recent 1-year occupation by the Islamists.   Otherwise you might easily miss the signs.  On the surface, things seem normal.

I am staying at the Buktu Hotel near the center of town.  Aside from a Malian businesswoman, I am the only guest.   I was given room #1 right next to the reception, a dark room with a tiny high-up window.   Of course, there is no electricity in Timbuktu, at least not until 8 PM and then for four scheduled hours, at the most.  This room seemed like a dungeon.  I asked if there was possibly a room with more light, a window perhaps to make use of the daylight?

Ishmael scrambled and squirmed a bit and then promised such a room in a few hours.   The Buktu Hotel consists of an older part with about 10 rooms lining a long corridor facing a once thriving restaurant terrace overlooking a big field of sand – the former port of Timbuktu!  Now it is a favorite spot for afternoon soccer games.  I could not picture it, but an older man insisted that this was the spot where a channel connected Timbuktu with the Niger about 15 km inland.  It was in operation for a few years and then dried up.  A blow to Timbuktu’s economic life.

The hotel also has a nearby annex in the form of a caravanserai:  It’s a really desert-like looking beautiful 2-storied stone building with rooms lining around a courtyard.  Traditional doors and windows and an arched colonnade give it an oriental flair.   Great!  There were rooms with windows. Ishmael got one ready for me.

Upon inspection of my new quarters, I could see why it had taken him so long and why he was hesitant at first.  Of the 12 rooms upstairs and the 10 rooms downstairs, only about three were in near-usable state.  All others were completely falling apart with broken ceilings, broken furniture, missing accessories, broken toilets, missing fixtures, ripped outlets!  Was anything in this annex still functioning?  Was there going to be water and electricity?   Somehow, those three rooms (one occupied by the Malian lady, one now mine and one still within reach of fixing) actually were operational.  The toilet flushed, the switch still turned on a light (when there was electricity) and the bed posts were holding.  I am now definitely living far away from anyone and anything.  It’s really spooky!

I inspected all the rooms around me and collected more useful furniture which I dusted off as best as I could.  I now have a “patio” with my breakfast and computer nook right outside in the arched colonnade furnished with a coffee table and a chair.  I have additional side tables and chairs and a mat which I can take up on the roof or just outside my room into the corridor for the night, should my room be too stuffy – and I have been here long enough to know that it will be.   I found the ramshackle half-broken staircase leading up to the rooftop – it seems to hold.  I found an old aluminum tin bowl in which I could do laundry, and even a bucket.  All set for household chores!

My clothes line ripped three times, plunging my freshly washed clothes in the dust three times.  After rewashing three times, I had enough – some of my clothes are fresh, but dirty, if that makes sense.  The red dust permanently embedded itself into the fabric of some of my white clothes…  That’s life.

I have already been harassed by two jewelers, a T-shirt maker, a ‘helper’ of some sort, and my new guide.  Well, in his case, harassed is not the word.  Since Bamako I have been in loose contact with Banja, a knowledgeable, English-speaking local guide.  The last he knew of me was that I had left Mopti on a pinasse.    But as the great network of gossip and information works here, when he did not hear from me in the expected time, he contacted the boat people and found out that I had left.  He then called a friend in Niafunke who confirmed that a “tubabum” had been spotted.   He knew where I was when I had not quite figured it out yet.  Banja will be with me for the next two days introducing me to some victims of the occupation, searching out some of the destroyed sacred shrines, and visiting a couple of the famous libraries in town.

Three days is all I have left.  Then, I’d better get some reliable transportation back to Mopti and Bamako in time to make my flight from Bamako.  No more dicking around!

The electricity kicked in even before the scheduled 8th hour and I hurried to make good use of it!  I had kept old-fashioned notes to write the blogs, loads of images were on backlog and batteries had to be charged.  Since Ishmael could not get a small fan to work, he even allowed the AC to be turned on for a while.   Miraculously, it worked.  But when the electricity was turned off at midnight, I was in a sweltering oven and as expected, pulled out the mat which I had secured earlier heading for the rooftop.

I have to say that I felt much safer surrounded by strangers on the roof in Djenne than being here all by myself.  Not that I was scared, I just felt more vulnerable.   I was almost relieved when an hour later two dark silhouettes of two unknown men appeared on the roof.   Friends or foes?!  When they saw my mat, in the typical discreet Malian fashion, they turned the other way to find a different corner on the roof:  Friends.   Now I am OK.

Good night.  Timbuktu, I am here!

2013
07.13

NOTE FROM ET

Images are here!  I apologize for the delay.  It is still a challenge to process and post images, but it looks like I am caught up now.  Enjoy.  THANKS for your comments!  I have answered a few briefly.   ET