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WAY OUT THERE IN TIMBUKTU
Larry Thompson
'For the traveler who likes his pleasures lonely and his comforts few,
the Sahara is hard to beat'.


Timbuktu is a real place. It’s a city of 50,000 people located at the southern edge of the Sahara in the African country of Mali. You can reach the city by lazy riverboat in three days from the capital city of Bamako. Two very long days - the second over a track through a sandy waste - will get you to Timbuktu by four-wheel drive vehicle. Three times a week an internal airline calls at Timbuktu, although not always on the day it is scheduled.


Timbuktu and Gao in Mali and Agadez in neighboring Niger are the only three places which could be called cities in an area about twice the size of Texas. We’re talking big country here.
Agadez surpasses Timbuktu in everything but name recognition. Gao is not likely to be on anyone’s list of garden spots. There are few real roads in this vast country, only sandy tracks, and, when you travel in an ancient Toyota LandCruiser, you often find yourself a few hundred miles from the nearest hostelry when the sun goes down. Then, one takes advantage of the hospitality of the Tuareg nomads. In the gathering darkness, the custom is to blink the lights of your vehicle and wait for a response. Sometimes, there is none, and you drive another mile or two and blink the lights again, on and off, on and off. Eventually, you’ll get an answer. A flashlight beam or a burning brand in the distance will answer your blink with one of its own. You are being offered the hospitality of a Tuareg encampment.

Nomads around the world are famous for their hospitality, and the blue-turbaned Tuaregs are no different. Tuareg bandits might rob you out on the road, but once accepted into their camp you are perfectly safe.

Tea drinking is the inevitable ritual of interaction with Tuareg men. The women stay in their tents and rarely show themselves - although they don’t cover their faces the way most Muslim women do.
No wine connoisseur is choosier than the Tuaregs are with their tea. They brew a heady mixture of Chinese green tea and lots of sugar in tiny pots over small fires, sample it, taste it, smell it, and debate its quality. Finally satisfied, they hold the pot two feet above a small shot glass and expertly pour the tea back and forth from pot to glass several times to create a head of foam before they serve the tea -- hot, sweet, and strong enough to pucker your mouth. When the first pot is drained, the process is repeated using the same tea leaves, but adding sugar. Then it’s done a third time. Tea is always brewed thrice. It’s a ritual as rigid and formal as a Japanese tea ceremony.

The Tuareg men are handsome -- tall, willowy, almost elegant in their manner. Called the “blue men” they wear denim-colored robes and cover their heads and faces with turbans, showing only dark eyes and strong, aquiline noses. Although said to have quick, murderous tempers, they are good-natured and jolly as one sits around the fire with them drinking tea. No self-respecting Tuareg man allows his wife to work. On a continent where the women do 85 percent of the labor this is a rarity. The Tuareg men do the herding, load the pack camels, and brew the tea. Dinner is a large baking dish full of millet - which tastes a little bit like overcooked rice - mixed with goat fat and chunks of goat meat. The centerpiece of the meal is a large, goat liver. There are no plates. Silverware is a large spoon. We dig away with spoons at our corner of the dish. How much each of us eat is evident by the size of the hole we make in the millet and goat mixture. Each of the Tuaregs makes a large hole; I make a small hole -- a dimple.

A big bowl of camel milk is passed around for refreshment. Warm camel milk tastes like cow’s milk and it’s fresh! A complaining camel is tethered only a few feet away. The Tuareg chieftain catches me trying to stir my goat/millet mixture around so that a bigger dimple appears in front of me. And I am suspected of only pretending to drink the camel milk. General mirth ensues at the antics of the foreigner. A last brewing of tea and the Tuaregs retire to their tents for the night and leave me to my bed on the sand. The Sahara is a furnace during the day, but it is cold at night in November. I bundle up and lie on the sand under the biggest sky in the world watching a multitude of shooting stars. My boy scout skills don’t come in handy here. The North Star cannot be found. But when I wake up early I discover that it lies low on the horizon in these tropical latitudes and is only visible part of the night. So much for finding my way out of the desert if I get lost!

All night long I are assailed by the pitiful cries of three baby goats tied to a small bush a few feet away. The next morning I learn that the crying of the baby goats keeps the rest of the herd from wandering. Camels are hobbled when not being used and can only stagger around stiff-legged.

The next morning I am on our way, leaving behind tea and sugar as hospitality gifts for my Tuareg hosts - and, also, some polaroid photographs which excite all, men and women. They have never seen a picture of themselves. The desert is full of life. I see an ostrich, three jackals, a gazelle, innumerable brightly colored birds, long-eared rabbits, a fox, an owl, and many hawks.

I learn about the desert as the days roll on. It seems improbable, but in many places the nomads find water only four or feet under the sands. They dig a hole which fills up with enough water to scoop it out by in plastic buckets and give it to their animals. These shallow holes dot the desert. How do they know where to find water just below the surface? The Tuaregs have lived here for a thousand years. They are experts at finding water. At other places are hand-dug wells, a hundred feet deep. Ragged, dark-skinned Bella women pull the water out one goat-skin bucket at a time and sell it to the nomads who bring their flocks to the well. A camel who hasn’t drunk in a week or two consumes gallons and gallons of water. You can tell how dry a camel is by his hump. A big upstanding hump and he’s full; when a camel is dry the hump practically disappears.

The Sahara was torn by conflict for years, but it’s becoming more peaceful. Big trucks cross the desert, hauling dates from Algeria. It’s still a hazardous trip. Several months ago, two Europeans died of thirst when their vehicle broke down -- along a main route near Timbuktu!

Agadez in Niger is having a bit of a tourist boom. I fly there. The plane is an antique Russian Yak-40, of ill repute and dangerous reputation, and the pilots are Russians — lost souls at the end of the earth, speaking neither French nor English nor any local dialect. But there is talk of flights from Paris directly to this small city in the Sahara. Half a dozen travel agencies lead excursions to the desert and Europeans seem to be everywhere -- a dozen or more of them in town at the same time.

Agadez offers tolerable hotels, good salads—made with locally grown vegetables—couscous, and an Italian restaurant. The mosque is said to be the tallest mud structure in the world - about 90 feet. The vendors are only moderately obnoxious. After the desert, a hot shower on a cool evening in Agadez is luxury, but, for the first time in the trip, the mosquitoes attack me in force. Malaria in this part of Africa is deadly. I’ll worry about getting it for the next four weeks. I am not taking malaria preventive medicine. I end my trip by flying the Yak from Agadez back to the capital city of Niamey and catching a flight to Paris. For the traveler who likes his pleasures lonely and his comforts few, the Sahara is hard to beat. It’s pretty basic when your only worry is when and where the next water hole is.


© Larry Thompson 2002
email: Smallchief@aol.com

This is Larry's fisrt piece for Hackwriters. He is a writer from Oklahoma.
His second piece a wonderful story Hotel Tajikistan

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