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September 22, 2005

Return to Timbuktu by Camel, Part 2

by Clifford A. Wright
It’s strange to think of Timbuktu, this town at the end of the earth, as cosmopolitan but in a curious way it is because the potpourri of people there mirrors the rest of Mali, a country with more than thirty different ethnic groups and languages.  But the population of Timbuktu is predominantly Songhay and Touareg.  In the fourteenth century Timbuktu was one of the leading scholarly centers of the world and even today it’s rapidly deteriorating private libraries hold thousands of priceless manuscripts of history, linguistics, geography, astronomy, and other sciences from the early Islamic period.  You can read more about this at Libraries of Timbuktu.
    When I was researching my new book Some Like it Hot:  Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones, forthcoming in October 2005, I had come across a famous Songhay dish called tuvasu (also called tukasu).  Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly famous, but it was the only Songhay dish I had heard about.  And all I had heard about making it was that it was a “recette difficile mais succulente!”  I didn’t know much about it as I didn’t know much about the Songhay, who live mostly in Niger, but it sounded intriguing and I knew that it was not a dish we would encounter unless I made arrangements.  During one of our little pow-wows to plot our daily affairs with Youssouf, our Bambara guide who accompanied us throughout Mali and Haliss, our Touareg guide here in Timbuktu, I inquired about tuvasu.  They both knew I was a food writer and Youssouf was already impressed with the fact that I ate local food, as he called it, without ever a cringe of the nose, as opposed to expecting tourist food as is most common among Western travelers.  Haliss said he would have to arrange it, since no local restaurant served it, and restaurants are entirely for tourists in Mali as people are too poor to be eating out.  In any case, it’s a dish prepared for special occasions and wouldn’t have appeared on a menu anyway.

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September 15, 2005

"Return to Timbuktu by Camel"

“Return to Timbuktu by Camel”
by Clifford A. Wright

The itinerary composed by our Touareg guide actually said “return to Timbuktu by camel.”  Couldn’t get more exotic than that, I thought.  Americans have been familiar with the expression “off to Timbuktu” for generations as meaning going to the ends of the earth.  I learned as an adult that Timbuktu was actually in the Saharan country of Mali.  I had been fascinated with Mali and the possibility of going to Timbuktu ever since researching my book A Mediterranean Feast  and reading the fourteenth-century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta’s account of the foods he ate there.  I was also fascinated with the Touareg, a nomadic Berber people who also live in Algeria, Mauretania, and are sprinkled in some other Saharan and North African countries, and who were important in the medieval trans-Saharan trade that found its terminus in towns on the coast of Algeria and Tunisia.
    Along with my two buddies, we had a very long drive to Timbuktu from Mopti futher south.  Getting to Douentza, the dusty village where one picks up the dirt track that leads north to Timbuktu was two-and-a-half hours away from Mopti.  Once on the dirt track it was another 225 kilometers, driving at about sixty kilometers an hour in our Land Cruiser, before we reached the ferry landing that takes one over the Niger River to Timbuktu.  In Douentza, we stopped to get drinks and something to eat.  While waiting I watched a Songhay guy prepare a barbecue pit where he was going to roast goat.  The wood fire was built, using long logs in the cement firepit.  He brushed some old paper cement bags with water and oil and put it on top of the grilling grate and then the meat on top of the oiled cement bags, flies attacking the meat, but being pushed away by smoke and heat.  We had to leave but my guess was that the meat wouldn’t be tender for three hours, and knowing these Malian goats, maybe never.  The goat meat was covered with a filthy sheet of tin to capture the heat.  It smell great and looked terrifying.
    The landscape was dusty sand yellow punctuated by shrubs, stunted trees for as far as the eye can see.  As desolate as this landscape was, every mile or so one would still run into a guy on a camel or walking in the middle of nowhere.  We finally arrived at the ferry and waited about an hour watching the pirogues go up and down dropping people off by the river bank.  The ferry landing consisted of nothing but a camel-skin tent where some Songhay and Touareg men were making tea and cooking food.  The Niger is wide here and the banks of sand on the other side turned out to be the sand of an island in the river.  Our creaky blue four-car ferry came and it took the ferry forty minutes to cross the river.  From there the ride into Timbuktu was only ten kilometers on a beautiful tree-lined road with rice paddies on one side.  We arrived and went to our hotel, the Hendrina Khan on the edge of town.  There are few people walking around and Timbuktu does have a feeling of being nowhere.  Later, a kid who spoke a little English actually said to us “welcome to the middle of nowhere.”
    Although the hotel was billed as the best hotel in Timbuktu, it was like a crummy motel in Yuma, but adequate given where we were.  Haliss, our Touareg guide, informed us that a local notables’ son was getting married and we were invited to the reception out in the desert on the outskirts of town.  First, we were just too curious about the town and wanted to take a quick tour.  Timbuktu has no paved roads and the whole city is brown, dusty, and looks like the desert is about to take over.  The Grand market sold the usual household stuff and was built just like a sixteenth-century caravanserai with a loge surrounding the market for offices, warehousing, and hostel.  A kid tagging along with us practicing his English told us the building was new but as every where in the Third World it looked a hundred years old.
    Haliss came back to get us and we all went out to the wedding as the sun was setting.  I was wondering if the whole thing was staged for tourists since it seemed to good to be true.  But no, there were no tourists other than us and it was the real thing and just amazing.  The blue, turquoise, aqua, lavender, white, black, and gold colors of the Touareg headdress and robes were gorgeous.  I now understood why they are known as the “blue men of the desert.”  A huge group, several hundred people, formed a circle and watched women dance inside the circle while on the outside people clapped or sang or ululated.   Then came a camel charge and frankly I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as magnificent as these blue men of the desert galloping on a camel, twirling their riding whisks and sabers and looking utterly fearsome. 
    There were a hundred little kids fascinated with us and they attached themselves to us like barnacles to a ship.  The men were extraordinarily handsome and noble looking in their colorful robes.  There was one tall guy, about six foot three, in a flowing lavender robe and black headdress with the caramel skin typical of the Touaregs and a short black beard and sharp features.  And there he was on his cell phone!  Too much!  At one point Haliss was saying as he was using his cell phone “I don’t know how we lived without it.”  Which we found hysterical because these people still live in tents in the desert!
    We were hungry too........

To be continued

Timbuktucamel_charge_3
Touareg camel rider

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