Like many people, I a) wasn’t sure if Timbuktu was a real place or a mythical one, and b) had no idea what country it was in. So, let's establish right off that yes, it's an actual city, and it's in central Mali which is in western Africa. It feels like northern Mali, because it's as far north as you can go before you're in the Sahara desert, where no one really lives, although there are nomads with cattle and salt miners passing through.
Timbuktu has achieved a remote and mysterious glamour, but here's the thing. There's really nothing there but sand streets and mud brick houses. That’s it. It’s monochrome tan. One travel guide described it as disheveled, which about sums it up.
A co-worker read an article in National Geographic twenty years ago that said in another 20 years, only one of two things would be true. One was that there was something to see there, and the other was that it would be difficult to get to. Sure enough. The first one is gone, and it’s still difficult to get there.
We got to the other side of the Niger on the ferry and sloshed off. Within a few kilometers, we had a flat tire. (Nothing new there.) Then we headed into Timbuktu. And there we were. In nowheresville. Sand blows into everything. Every crack in a house. Into the food. The wind picks up and threatens rain.
It’s too stuffy to sleep inside, so the mattress was dragged onto the roof. A mosquito net is rigged up over it. And the sky is packed with stars. I looked up at the stars and fell into a very sound sleep.
It is in Timbuktu that I learn the phrase, “if it pleases Allah.” I am told this phrase follows every plan, and, my translator says with a smile, that Allah usually isn’t pleased by meetings happening on time or people showing up when they’re supposed to. It's a convenient excuse.
Timbuktu is just a stop on the way. My destination was a smaller village several hours outside of Timbuktu. I headed there for work, to meet with an artisans association in the Tuareg village of Gargando. I'll write about Gargando sometime soon.