Arrival in Timbuktu

Getting off the boat in “Korioume” was like getting a stay of execution. We had been taken advantage in every way imaginable. I knew that my imagination didn’t match those of the river rats when it came to taking advantage of a situation. That left me with several days to ponder what was next, I wasn’t expecting Colombian neck ties or physical harm of any kind, but I thought that opportunities would arise and we would suffer for them. When we got to “Korioume” I was confused that we really didn’t have any real problems.

One of the boat boys led us to auberge and told us to stay there. We said “no”. We are going to catch a ride to Timbuktu. “No, no” said our little friend. “No one is going to Timbuktu tonight and this is the only place in town”. We’d heard that before, but we asked the price before we walked away. “yes, yes, you come with me” said the hotel clerk, we were standing out in a road of sand. “No, no, you tell us the price”, said one of us. “No, you come with me” answered our hotel clerk. We said “no”, some choice curse words, and then walked away listening to their shouts telling us there was nothing else. Obviously there was another Auberge, otherwise they would let us get sick of searching and come back. Of course that was after our boat boy wouldn’t turn loose our hand-woven reed mats that we were forced to buy for the boat trip, but hey, we didn’t want to carry them around anyway.

We did find one other Auberge, but they also would not give us the price. Being the obstinate bullheads that we were, we decided we would sleep outside on the shores of the river. Matt suggested we try to walk or hitchhike to Timbuktu, it was only around 20 km after all and it was night, a perfect time to be in the desert. It seemed like a good idea to me, but Andrew was hesitant. We looked for a comfortable place on the shores of the Niger river where we stood a chance of not getting mugged within 15 minutes but of course it didn’t take long for us to get chased off, citing a city ordained “no white people are to not to pay for lodging” ordinance.

We moved on and walked through the edge of town and found something to sit on. Out of the night came a person rolling down the sand shoulder of the road in a wheel chair along with another invalid. “We have a place you can stay, we just have to make sure it is ok with the boss”, said the two, “he will be back soon”. By now it had been dark for quite some time, we didn’t know where we were going, and we couldn’t say what the people looked like that were leading us through the night. We were happy to finally have gotten some hospitality. We walked the short distance and came to an enclosed, mud walled, courtyard and within minutes, the boss arrived. “Yes, you can sleep here on the ground”, said he. He offered us food, but we didn’t take the offer, knowing that any favors you accept result in a vulnerability that might be taken as an advantage. We gave them some of our expensive tea leaves, which for some reason they put into a cup and set it on the ground. Though our hosts didn’t seem to appreciate our tea, but the courtyard goats certainly did. There went a third of our precious gift tea right there.

That night we would get one thing we had not had for a while, we’d have all the room we could stand and not a grain sack in sight. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. In this case we would trade the v-notch between two grain sacks for a mud floor, and not any mud floor, but one that had soaked up the sun of the Sahara for 12 hours prior to taking the weight of our bodies. I lay down and college physics drifted up from the bottom most reaches of my mind. As I lay sweating on one side of my body and chilling on the top side, the words thermal inertia fluttered through my brain like a deranged butterfly.

Before the sweat but after the goat came the matter of paying. “It will be quatre mille (4,000) cfa, to stay here” the boss man said in French after a goat had eaten all the expensive tea leaves we had given them as a present. Andrew looked at me and I said, “yeah ok, 4,000 cfa is a lot but I just want to get this over with”. “Not 4,000” said Andrew, “quarante mille (40,000) cfa!”. “So he wants us to pay him $100 U.S. to sleep on the mud floor of his patio, with no mattress, no blankets, no bathroom, with the free roaming chickens and goats?”. “Yes” said Andrew. “Well tell him no” I said. Andrew told the man that it was too expensive, too which his reply was “well this is an expensive town”, with a straight face no less. There was always justification for these sorts of situations, no matter how ridiculous, there was always an excuse. He told us “ok, how much you want to pay” and we told him 10,000 which was way too much, but the amount we had agreed upon before getting into this jam. We finally settled on 20,000 cfa with mattresses, but we still had to contend with the goats and chickens and the heat radiating from the sun soaked mud floor.

Only Andrew felt like sleeping in, the chickens were driving me and Matt nuts and the sun was starting to get warm, it was 4:30 am and the floor and the air were reaching thermal equilibrium. We were off to find a man by the name of Yung, who we had met the following evening. Everyone in town that we asked said Yung, Yung goes to Timbuktu. As luck would have it, we did find Yung and he was willing to take us to Timbuktu that night for the sum of 100,000 cfa. I think we had planned to spend 1,500 cfa to get to Timbuktu from Korioume, so 100,000 cfa was out of the question. Instead, he said he would take us for 2,000 cfa in the morning at 7:30 A.M. We wandered over to Yung’s place and waited. It was a desolate place soft sandy paths between mud buildings and not a single foreigner. We thought surely there would be more transport to Timbuktu since this was the main thoroughfare. We spent the hours searching for food and found some excellent soup with meat and bread. By this time we were so used to having so little one bowl of soup between three of us left us stuffed. The greasy meat was heavenly and the bread came straight out of a wood fired oven built against one of the mud houses. Mangos were also abundant and surprisingly cheap and I spent the rest of my money (25 cents) on two big delicious mangoes, which we all shared back at Yung’s place. It was getting hot and sitting around in the street was becoming unpleasant. I was getting thirsty and of the three wells I found only one worked and it had a line. I kept losing my place in line because I couldn’t stand waiting in the exposed sun while women slowly filled their buckets of water. So, no water for me, though we were able to buy some later on.

Aside from basic sanitary practices, I think significant digits should be taught directly afterward. If you don’t know what significant digits are, look it up, I’m sure there is an exhaustive explanation on Wikipedia. The intent of significant digits is to match the precision of your reporting figures with the amount of error in your figure. What does this have to do with Mali, well I’ll tell you. When some says we leave at 7:30, that means that you’re error should be +/- 5 minutes. A more accurate method, and honest for that matter, would be to say we leave tomorrow, maybe. Yung had no intention of leaving at 7:30 and I was getting hot and thirsty. Andrew asked when we’d be leaving since 7:30 had come and gone, “oh we’ll leave at 10 o’clock”, said Yung. In the meantime we tried to find someone else, we asked Yung. Yung said, “I am a business man” meaning he wasn’t going to tell us. We were getting impatient, but I had found a place that sold frozen baggies of gingembre. Though the antidote only lasted a couple of minutes, it was akin to what I imagine injecting heroin is like. I went back many times borrowing the 25 cfa for my fix, promising that I would “have the money’ and that “I just needed a little time”.

Occasionally we would go on a scouting mission but no one else was going to Timbuktu. There were supposed to be 4x4s leaving here, but there was nothing. We asked and asked, but Yung was it. Yung noticed we were getting desperate, so he said “we could leave right now, but it was going to cost 60,000 cfa”. It was Friday, and we had to get to the bank before it closed, so were getting more and more anxious by the second. We were 20 km from Timbuktu, why couldn’t we find anyone who was going there, I kept asking myself. Then something else came to mind. Why don’t any of the store fronts mention Korioume? I had noticed this before, but hadn’t concentrated on it until now. I decided to walk around and look more closely at the signs. The word Korioume was nowhere to be found, but I did see a pattern emerging. The word Dire was conspicuously present, huh. I mulled this over for a couple of milliseconds and then the answer hit me so hard it almost knocked me down. Those bastards dropped us off on time, but in the wrong town. How wrong, I had no idea, but I flipped to the map in our guide book that covered all of Africa to confirm. Sure enough, on a map of Mali, there was Dire. I estimated we were about 120 km from Timbuktu, but in reality it was probably 70 km as the crow flies. I was happy we hadn’t tried to walk/hitch hike. That clarified why we were losing this game so badly. Once again, they had us by the short hairs and knew it. We knew we were in check but hadn’t realized that checkmate was unavoidable, Yung did, and now we did too.

In the early afternoon, we got Yung talked down to 30,000 cfa and three children pushed our van until it came to life. The van had 24 seats and we bought out 20 of them so I made sure that I had plenty of space. At this point in the trip, equality was no longer something I strived for. I was not going to be cramped in that van at mid day in the Sahara after buying out most of it. I made sure my backpack had a seat, my water bottle had its own seat, and I stretched my legs across the aisle so that no one could take the seat across from me, courtesy be damned.

It wasn’t long until I realized that Dire was not on the beaten path and if we had tried to walk and hitchhike that route we’d probably be dead. We busted out into the Sahara sans road and boy howdy how Yung could drive. We followed two tracks across the desert which split apart, rejoined, and often wandered off into the great unknown. There was no set path and we basically just zoomed around in the desert crossing irrigation ditches, passing camels, at 60 km/h. 60 km/h may not seem fast, but if you ever driven cross country on camel trails, you’ll understand. In fact, we’d regularly bottom out the suspension which invariably disengaged the rear door latches. While we were getting knocked around, the back doors would open and people on sitting on the ends of the benches that were designed for ease of entry and exit scrambled to get control of the wildly flapping doors while trying not to fall out. Yung either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the door situation and I doubt he would have bothered to stop in the event that someone really did fall out. I was also in the mood where I really didn’t care either, as long as I made it to the bank on time.

We all know that the Sahara is dry and sandy, but it is also very dusty. Riding with the windows down in the van kept us in a constant dust storm. When the rear doors parted it was like opening flood gates. Dirt and dust rolling onto and over us and I could almost feel the impact. Andrew had a bandana and wrapped it over his face bandito style, I followed suit. Matt, well he was asleep which I thought was a bit odd. By the time we hit a paved road, there was measurable depths of dust on us and we stopped in Korioume to clean up. Yung didn’t slow down on the pavement and we flew into town, a big Coca Cola sign welcoming us to Timbuktu (yes, really). We saw the bank on the way into town and it was just before 3 p.m. and we booked it back down the exposed street to the bank. Unfortunately for us, the bank closed at 11 am, but to our surprise the they had just installed an ATM. Even better, the ATM was in an air conditioned with a beautiful tiled floor which was ruined when our tears turned to mud as they rolled down our dusty cheeks. We quickly realized that we once again out of luck. The ATM was inoperable, the bank was closed, the Western Union was in the bank, and we had 20,000 cfa (50 USD) left, so much for catching a break. Oh and by the way, it would cost us 60,000 to get the closest ATM – if it worked.