Saturday, May 7, 2011


A word of warning in advance - if you’d like to retain that intangible sense of romance and mystery which has been attached, for whatever reason, to the name ‘Timbuktu’, STOP READING NOW. If you don’t give a shit, let’s get down to the business of myth busting. I’d started to doubt its very existence myself due to various difficulties getting here, but finally, after 48 hours of strife and a lifetime’s supply of dust for my lungs I made it. Timbuktu as a name is certainly one of the more romantically evocative - suggesting an historic, far-flung, remote Saharan outpost, an Atlantis on land as it were - but allow me to take a sledgehammer to the myth; Timbuktu, the reality, is to romance what George W Bush is to Mensa. Bless its sandy little socks but, remoteness apart - and it is an oasis of sorts amongst the sand dunes which surround it - as cities go it lacks anything of note. Historically the oldest building here dates back to about the 14th century but even that’s been rebuilt several times since. No, the romance of Timbuktu exists solely in your mind and if you haven’t read this far, there it shall remain. Lucky you. For me Timbuktu was more about coming here than actually being here.
So, what’s it like then? First of all Timbuktu’s big in the sense that it sprawls over a wide area but there’s no discernible centre so you wander randomly through streets which are entirely under sand from the surrounding desert seeing the same shabby one and two-storey buildings throughout. There’s a palpable air of disinterest and apathy throughout though it’s probably the heat which, by midday, is insufferable for all. There’s a sign in the city which says (in French) ‘Welcome to Timbuktu, city of the 333 saints’ - to be sure, a number picked to give Irish people everywhere a difficult time of it. The other side of that is that I think that you’d have to be a saint to even consider living here which is why the number is so disproportionately high. Probably. I’m trying to think of something interesting to say about Timbuktu, damn it I’m trying to make things up about Timbuktu but it’s beyond me. If you ever happen to be in Mali and think ’Wow, Timbuktu, I’ll have to check that out.’ Don’t bother. I meet one other tourist here whose lifetime ambition it was to visit Timbuktu but he has that haunted look of a man who’s thinking ‘This can’t be it’. Be careful what you wish for.
Eating here is certainly a novel experience. Word is that there’s a secret spice used in all dishes served here in Timbuktu which certainly adds a bit of bite to your dish - it’s called sand. It’s in every single meal that I eat so it’s just a case of grit and bear it. If you learn nothing else from this post then at least you’ll know how Timbuktu got its name (if you already know this you have my respect and my pity - clearly you need to get out more). The city was originally established as a temporary encampment for nomadic Tuaregs and an old woman called Boctou was put in charge of it. Boctou means ‘large navel’ and the ‘Tim’ part simply means ‘well’ and when you put the two together you have ‘Timboctou’ which is ‘the well of the woman with the large navel’. The official local spelling is ‘Tomboctou’ which further complicates things but that’s the history. How big can a navel be?

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