The Road to Tombouctou
And it goes on and on and on and on some more.
Back when I was a kid, I read about Timbuktu. I don’t recall exactly where, but I do remember having the impression that is was a grand place with lush green surroundings and majestic buildings.
Maybe, once long ago, that was Timbuktu. Now it’s not so lush or so grand. It can be very interesting for a bit, as the Sahara Desert meets the Niger River and the peoples from these two regions coexists.
More than that, Timbuktu even now has a mystery and in American English at least, signifies all that is distant and foreign. I used to conjure up images of long slogs through deep jungle and then punishing treks though endless desert. Do you still?
I can now tell you that it is not so distant or so foreign, for yours truly just went overland from Bamako, the capitol of Mali, to its most famous city, Timbucktu or Tombouctou as the locals call it now. I even went overland in style.
My Geekcorps program in Mali needed to check out the community radio station situation in several Malian cities, including Tombouctou, and so Ian, our Project Coordinator, and I combined both this work need and our own travel desires to make a trans-Mali expedition.
Starting the capitol of Bamako, we drove over two thousand kilometers (about thirteen hundred miles) in two, two-day, one hundred and twenty kilometers and hour, cross-country sprints on either side of two days in Tombouctou. Now that’s a lot of twos!
Mopti, an island city in the middle of the Niger River and the Venice of Mali – check! Segou, Mali’s second largest city and a main road junction – check! Duwanza, the gateway to the ass-busting drive to Tombouctou – check!
All those roads were actually quite nice by African standards. We had good pavement relatively free of potholes, plenty of road signs where needed, and only one police checkpoint stop. Even then they were stopping everyone to let the Prime Minister of Burkina Faso pass unencumbered.
Once we turned off to Tombouctou, the scene changed a bit. We traded pavement for dirt and dust. Never-ending dirt and dust that coated everything instantly and stuck to us the entire 400 kilometer round trip to Tombouctou from the pavement and back.
Yet I was almost disappointed in that stretch of dirt road. In a new Toyota SUV, Issa races us at high speeds (one hundred kilometers and hour!) across one of the most well maintained dirt roads I’ve ever seen. Hell, it’s even better than the dirt roads in my Mom’s Florida neighborhood. Compared to the road to Angor Wat, the road to Tombouctou is a superhighway!
And that’s not the only superhighway to Tombouctou. Sitting in a cyber cafe, I’m updating my website on the information superhighway which stretches to space and back from here.
A superhighway using the twenty-two satellite dishes I counted poking from rooftops across town while standing on the Grand Marche roof. A roof that I will visit again shortly for a sunset drink, as the great orb descends into the desert yet again, casting a not so distant Tombouctou into a modern night.
So the next time you hear someone say ‘Tombouctou’ to mean somewhere exotic and far, know that he or she is a little mistaken. It isn’t so distant or foreign anymore for you, as now you can say ‘Tombouctou, yeah, a friend of mine emailed me from there’. And that friend would be me.