Back in the 1990s, a group of us and Morrison went to Timbuktu to fill up a couple tanks of water and return to our neighboring town in Malian. Our destination was a ritual known as Upa-Boulaye, in which pilgrims would ride on wooden miniatures on their way to see a Catholic monk. What actually took place is generally a little more nuanced, and truly disappointing.
After an 18-hour travel time to reach Timbuktu, we pulled our tiny truck out of the parking lot of Timbuktu’s National Museum. However, instead of driving down a well-trodden path directly to our starting point, we cut through the deserted, rundown, tree-lined streets. The French flag still flew over the museum but the visit was made even more disturbing when we approached one of the Museum’s highest white-painted walls. This was where we watched as the smell of poverty wafted from the corridors and bins. We had packed the miniatures to bring with us to the village of Diabaly. Rather than collecting our bearings, it was perhaps the longest, least suspenseful walk of our lives.
When we were informed by a uniformed butts in a Kota Derani passenger car that we could travel home without paying tax and that the trip would cost no more than $15 per person, we jumped in and went. It was a mutual decision, because after all, we were not travelling in an Alitalia commercial jetliner and it was a truly cheap travel experience. We traversed the country for only two hours and then made the 20-minute dash across the most-proudly splintered-leaved of Sierra Leone’s many swollen streams to cross into Gambia, Sudan, and Chad. We sold our belongings and headed to our lodging at the Casa Diamant, where we enjoyed a solid dinner with other locals.
The worst part of the trip? We did not realize we had driven nearly 400 miles from Mali’s capital to take a train from Gambia to the capital of Bossangoa, traveling only in cars meant for cargo. As it turned out, our journey north was not all that arduous, despite the uneasy feeling we had at the possibility of actually being bombarded. Then again, it was no secret, a rarity in Africa at the time, that that area, near the border with Mali, was indeed the home of Al Qaeda militants, whom we heard were prepared to wage war against the West for continued intervention in the region.
My destination for the duration of my trip was the historic town of Timbuktu, on the Niger River and surrounded by lush green mountains and sprawling land. It was a place few had ever truly explored before, at least inside a car. After finally settling in to the dormitories in the historic town of Timbuktu, the first thing I did was unload a few cases of water (300 bottles, worth in excess of $100) from my car, order breakfast, and go to pick up a large pile of merchandise (I have never seen such a bun) for the hostel.
When I saw my fellow travelers and Morrison toss bags filled with plastic bags, pouches, and the plastic bags of their bottled water into the back of our five-ton rubber truck, I got up close to the quantity of merchandise that was our responsibility. I’d never heard of so much detritus in my life — including cartons of rotting, black and orange plastic bottles. We proceeded to set our charge bags of cola in front of the door of the hostel, then hastily stacked and stacked them along the top of the door with a few bottles in the other side of the bucket. We then moved them onto the lawn, where they sat with the rest of the detritus we’d brought.
In a way, the arrested carts of cans of empty soda bottles is an ongoing ritual in which entire villages all over Africa, not least Timbuktu, conduct themselves on a routine basis. This week, when we walk through Timbuktu, when we talk to our hosts, we’ll discuss the pathetic lack of hygiene within one of the most beautiful places on earth. And we’ll joke about the ever-present tendency for indignity and for its price, such as the time we stepped outside our hostel for a shower in a strange community and had to wait for the others to take our turn first. (Timbuktu has no recycling center.)