Reply to: Timbuktou, attached and here
Here is the tale of Timbuktou
-Timbuktu or Bust!!!
by Paul & Gigi Dever
We had three RPCV friends come visit us and we (Paul, Carol, and Gigi)
decided to take them to Timbuktu with us. We made the reservations with
Air Mali. We stopped in Mopti to off load and on load passengers. While
there, people took smoke breaks and also did some shopping. Luckily the
vendors were able to talk some of us into buying blankets (Don't pay more
than eight grand.).
We arrived in Timbuktu around 12:05PM, and Africare people were there
waiting for us. Note: We had made reservations to stay at the Africare
guest house since the hotels were said to be of not great quality, but of
large price. We paid 5,000 FCFA ($9.00) each, rather than 17,500 FCFA
($31) at the hotel.
They dropped us off at the rest house, and we made arrangements to
contract the driver for the weekend, and we also found a guide at the
airport. It is a bit hard sell, but look for a guy named Lyme (pronounced
Leem). We got off our feet, and then went to check in/register at the
police station. Carol and I met with the Commandant who expressed his
sincere gratitude for the visit from the CODEL. We ran to the post office
to drop off the 100+ postcards we had among us. The Chef de Brigade was
not available at the barracks, so we told the man we would come back at
After the police business, we then had the driver take us to Artisan
center and checked out the goods. We stopped to get a soda, and by chance
I tried my Hassaniya on the people. It was entirely possible that there
would be Hassaniya speakers in this area since many of the people are
nomads and learn the neighboring languages. As luck would have it, a
woman spoke the language and we chatted. She was a woman of Moorish
descent. We arranged to have her make us lunch the next day, camel with
rice if possible. We left her with money and she said she would return.
I had never seen this woman, did not know her name (I think she told me
Djenaba) nor did I get a receipt for the $25 I gave her. We then went to
the different stalls, and happened to sit down in one. The guy, named
Ibrahim dit Halla Ag Bollahi (Ag meaning "Son of", so his name was Ibrahim
called Halla, son of Bollahi. He is called Halla because there are quite
a few Ibrahim Ag Bollahi.), was very accommodating, and we chatted again
in Hassaniya. They knew what Peace Corps was but they had never seen one
who spoke Hassaniya. They were tickled pink, or a bluish-pink since we
were dealing with the "Blue men of the Sahara" We arranged to have the
lunch served in his store the following day. He broke out the tea set and
we drank two of the obligatory three glasses.
New Year's Eve Dinner was to be at the only restaurant in town. We had a
selection for dinner: soup or green salad or hard-boiled eggs with
mayonnaise as an entree, then a choice of Plat de Resistance: Brochettes
(shish kebobs), mutton stew, spaghetti, fried steak, fish or chicken.
Dessert was either flan or crepes. We chose soup, brochettes and crepe,
with one flan. The soup was probably leftovers cooked in tomato sauce
because the main spice was black pepper. The brochettes which were
supposed to be filet, turned out to be rump steak or something since we
could smell and taste the vinegar used to tenderize it. The crepes were
really good. The owner told us there would be dancing later, but we
decided to explore. We didn't find any parties. Unfortunately, we
realized that Timbuktu is a dead place by night, particularly during
Ramadan. I hear they will have a big celebration for Timbuk2000.
We called it a night, and went back to the house to drink champagne in
time to welcome the new year 1999(we had been slightly prepared after
all). We all went to sleep.
Day 2: We had arranged for the guide to meet us at the house, and we
waited for him. The guide showed up and we went to see the mosques. There
are slides and pictures galore of all this and we are sending it stateside
for developing. The big mosques are: Djigere Berry (Big Mosque in
Tamachek, the language of the Touaregs), Sidi Yahya, named after a
benefactor of the mosque, who is also buried in it, and the Sankore
mosque. It is said that there are some sure ways of going to heaven: by
building a mosque is one. Some woman named Sankore had a bit of spare cash
and built a mosque, back in the 1300s.
Since it was time to get back for lunch, we stopped after seeing only the
first mosque. There was FCFA 2500 fee to go in. Carol Gigi and I paid
it. We were not allowed to wear our shoes inside, so we left them at the
door. Amazingly enough, there was a shoe guard.
We had to hurry since it was closing in on prayer time. We had to double
time it, but we got a thorough look at the mosque. Inside were prayer
mats neatly lined up and impressively clean. It is really interesting
that they built these mosques without cement or anything else but mud. We
left for lunch.
We were beginning to worry since she was not on time (after all it was
1PM, and African time dictates never on time, but shortly after) We went
to the other shops while waiting, and then we settled in when the woman
showed up. She managed to get some roast chicken, rice and beef stew.
The beef stew had almost a curry flavor, but she said that it was a date
sauce. The Touareg who served us tea the day before let us set up the
lunch in his shop. It is good to know that the profit motive had not
corrupted all of Africa. This guy was surely losing business while we
since no one came in to buy, but then it is not everyday that you get a
foreigner who speaks one of your languages. I honestly think that my
ability to speak Hassaniya had a large bearing on the level of our
enjoyment during our sejour in Timbuktu.
He invited us to his house for an authentic Touareg meal for the following
evening. We said that we would let him know. We ended up getting some
turbans and he put them on us. Gigi and Carol got green ones, and I got
the Indigo bleeding one so I could become a Blue Man of the Sahara. Around
4PM, we drove over behind the Azalai Hotel and found a bunch of camels
waiting for us. We each climbed on a camel, and got pictures taken while
not falling off. We then rode off into the desert leaving
civilization behind. I started speaking Hassaniya again and almost all of
the Touaregs joined in with me. We stopped after 45 minutes and got off
to wander over to a well sitting all by itself. After a photo op, we
continued on foot to a little village where sat a few Touaregs and their
trinkets. Amazing there was a village on the path of the camel ride, and
even more amazing that they had tea ready for you and all you
had to do was lie down and listen to their spiel : "Let me tell you about
Of course we ended up buying some things, and they got a kick out of
bargaining with me in Hassaniya. We would go back and forth and then we
would finally agree on a price. I got the better part of the bargain,
because I actually got what I wanted and I got a great picture out of it
also. We returned on the camels, with a slight change. They had sent one
of the camels back by mistake so there were five camels for six riders.
Janell being a great horseback rider got on the camel behind the hump and
enjoyed the ride back more than the ride out.
We returned home and tried to decide what to eat for dinner. We planned
to go to the hotels and see their choices and then choose who had the
better menu. You know you have the town locked up when the two hotels in
town have the same exact fixed menu: salad, couscous and meat and crepes.
We decided to return to the Only Restaurant in Town and get a bite. We
found that they too were serving couscous. We took it.
We went home to sleep. We went through the same routine for breakfast
again: Gigi and I rose early and got the worm. After breakfast, we went to
continue our tour.
We saw some more mosques, and we went to the museum. Visions of a great
building with colorful artwork and other niceties were quickly cast out
the window. We were told there was a price to enter the museum, and asked
how much. They asked us to pay eighty-five cents to see their museum. It
was a good price.
Our guide and we parted company. It cost us $9 apiece for his two day
leisurely tour. We had the driver take us to the port so we could see the
Niger River and its activities. A couple of us took a boat ride, and the
others went into the small market area. I found a rotisserie (half of a
barrel with goat meat cooking on a grill.) I bargained three nice pieces
of meat for $4, and we split it up among us. We also ate a donut type
things called beignet. Good grease.
After the boat ride we returned to town and reconfirmed our dinner date
with the Touareg. Gigi and I decided we would go and eat with him. The
driver took us there, then returned to the house to drop the others
elsewhere, and returned to the house to eat with us.
At Ibrahim's house there was an old man waiting for us. He was a White
Moor who had never seen Mauritania. He had a brother in Nouakchott
though. We chatted a bit and again he got a real kick out of the fact
that I could speak his language. Gigi and I had brought some trinkets of
our own to give to the Touareg who opened his house to us. I sacrificed
my Nu-Way baseball cap and Gigi gave up her sunglasses. The guy finally
showed up and profusely apologized. He then started the meal.
We began with a tajine (an hor d'oeuvre) made of the same type meat we got
at the rotisserie earlier that day. Then came the plat de resistance: the
Authentic Touareg Meal. It was meat that had been boiled, then boiled,
again and then boiled again. Then it was put into a mortar and pestled to
death (or put into a pestle and mortared to
death) In effect what you ended up with was a paste with some meat fibers
in it. This was spread over a bed (King-size) of rice and then had
clarified butter (fresh this time) poured over it. It was actually very
tasty. Gigi ate two small handfuls politely and I ate much more than my
share. I let Halla think I was finished by licking my hand. He pulled
the dish away, and I castigated him for being in a rush. This started
another wave of mild insults which really cracked up the old man. The
driver was also laughing so hard he managed to miss a few handfuls of food.
We then began the tea process. The old man made the tea while we
exchanged addresses. Halla went into his room and got out a few things.
He gave Gigi an ebony ring with silver and brass inlay. He also gave us
two pictures of him. One with him on his camel, richly decorated for the
camel races, the other with him mounted on a horse during one of the
celebrations of the peace treaty. We then gave him the hat and sunglasses.
We got a few laughs from him wearing the sunglasses and all.
We left and stopped by his shop. He gave me a nice keyring with the
traditional turquoise dyed leather for which the Touaregs are known. He
said that he would meet us at the airport the next day (at 5AM???) and
have a last tea ceremony for us. He ended up joining us for a drink at
the restaurant where we met up with the others. We laughed and joked for
a bit and then he left.
We went to sleep early so we could get to the airport in good time. Sure
enough, Abdoulaye came running up to us, and told us to come with him. We
went to a tent about a hundred yards from the airport and sure enough,
there was a tea set. Our friend, Janell hand a headlight, sort of like a
miner's lamp that she brought for reading at night. She let Halla use it
since he forgot his flashlight. It was hilarious, and he couldn't realize
why people turned away when he looked at them, so we reminded him each
time that he was blinding us. It was a perfect ending to our trip. Tea
at sunrise. We were a bit worried that we would lose our seats on the
airplane despite the fact that we had reconfirmed them thrice. The Malign
Administrator for Africare came out (at 5AM) to make sure our trip ended
smoothly. He did his job well.
Make sure to look for the following people for a memorable trip in
Good Guide and Camel Ride Arranger: Lyme Oumar at the Hotel Boctou
Good Artisan: Ibrahim dit Halla Ag Bollahi, Maison des Artisans, 92-13-60