To Tombouctou and Back

by Joanna Galbraith

After a journey through Mali to Tombouctou, a feverish traveler experiences the desert city through her hotel window.

“Don’t travel there,” Abeo pleaded, placing his limp hand in mine. “You might not make it back.”

I gazed down at him in his oversized t-shirt, tinged ochre-red by dirt, and noticed that his usually burnished eyes seemed a little sad. I wanted to ask him what he meant, but the ferry was heckling its human cargo onboard, and my partner D was in no mood for us to miss it. We hadn’t known each other long, Abeo and I, but days felt like weeks out here in the Malian Sahel.

Half an hour later, just as the twilight stars began pinpricking the ember sky, I watched as little Abeo receded into the dusk. He was munching on a croissant I had bought earlier from the Patisserie du Dogon. Looking at the silhouette of his fledgling limbs waving about like a wild baobab tree, I wondered who would buy him one tomorrow. It made me cry a little, but I was used to this by now. Mali had a way of wringing salt water from your bones.

D and I had been traveling through West Africa for almost two months and were about to embark on a voyage to the enigmatic Tombouctou, a 300-kilometer trip through the sloping shallows of the Inner Niger Delta. We had chosen the public ferry over one of the smaller pinasses — despite the former having a hull seemingly woven together with red mud and rust — because we had just finished a blistering three-day hike along the Bandiagara Escarpment and fancied a bed instead of corrugated iron. But watching these colorful, motorized canoes weaving languidly through the marshes, gliding amongst the reed cormorants and great white egrets, interacting with the Bozo fishermen who ply the river with their trade, I wondered if we had made the right choice. The ferry boat was over-crowded, the life jackets insufficient.   

Our second-class passage came with a west-facing cabin that became insufferably hot in the afternoon, like being in a patisserie oven without the croissants. I wasn’t fussed, though. I could feel myself coming down with my third cold in six weeks, so any discomfort I felt surely came from within. Below us was third-class where the real Mali lay, bulging with people sprawled amongst watermelons, bullet-hard oranges, fire pitches, and bleating goats. The stench of drying fish hummed in the air. A woman in a hammock caught my eye as I passed through. She gave me a sympathetic smile. Ghostly pale and nostrils dripping, I must have looked a sorry sight.

The Inner Niger Delta is an enormous expanse of water as large as a small European nation. The view is mostly flat: lush green along the earthy shores, quietly punctuated with little villages and intricate mud-and-pole mosques. Behind them lies endless scrubland, making it easy to understand why the Niger River is called the region’s life blood — a fact reinforced every time the ferry pulled into a port and a frenetic exchange of wares (rice, petrol, plantains, fabrics, etc) and banter immediately ensued. I would have liked to join in, but feeling unwell, I mostly sat alone on a deckchair, except one afternoon when a Dutch doctor came and sat down beside me.

“Teeming with bilharzia,” he said, pointing to the serene, brown flow.

I had heard about these parasitic, burrowing worms that could swim through your blood but hadn’t really thought about them in the way he clearly had. I told him about Abeo’s parting words, because he seemed the listening sort.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry,” he answered comfortingly. “The boy probably said it because the wet season just ended. I believe this will be the last ferry for the year. Don’t worry, though; you will get back. They have roads there, you know. And to be honest,” he added ominously, “I’m more worried about the current river level.”

“Really?”

“Well, if it gets too much lower, we’ll all have to push.”

I looked down at the silted swirl now turning olive in the dusky light. If we entered the water, then the worms would enter us in turn. It was their God-given right if we entered their home first.

travel Tombouctou Mali

We arrived at Korioumé, the nearest port to Tombouctou, at four in the morning before traveling the last 15 kilometers in an open truck, our bags pushed roughly beneath a row of strung-out chickens. Everybody was silent, but I could see a Dogon man in his tell-tale conical hat staring unblinkingly at my flushed, unwell skin. At the town’s gate, we were unloaded where the iridescent haze of Tombouctou beckoned us inside. Occasionally, men in sleeved tunics with long, flowing pants came out of the shadows to offer us rooms. Some tugged at our backpacks or grabbed aggressively at our arms, but, mercifully, out of the darkness came the sweet song of the Fajr. Rising from the earth — a low, melodic warbling — it caused all the men to scatter like scarab beetles into the sand.

Tombouctou is one of the few places on earth that can instantly conjure up far-flung romanticism just by hearing its name. Begun as a temporary outpost on the trans-Saharan trade route, it found permanence in the 1300s before later becoming a hub of great Islamic scholarship. The desert is very much a resident of the town, and trudging through her dusty, unmade streets during my first day, I could feel the history of a thousand feet passing between my open toes. At the northern end, we met a Tuareg named Ebenez. The Tuareg are semi-nomadic people, known as the blue men of the desert because of their striking indigo robes, and Ebenez, with his blue-tinged skin and darkened coin slots for eyes, did not disappoint. He offered us the customary three pourings of mint tea and described how his home was a five-day journey into the desert if you followed the North Star. Later, he opened his indigo shroud to entice us with silver, inlaid daggers, and intricate jewelry while promising to take us out to the salt caravans. D said he would go, but I could feel myself worsening rapidly.

And I was right.

Later that night the wind blew in a fever that woke me from my sleep. It felt like my nose was becoming encased in Tuareg silver and that with every breath I took, the silver encroached even further. Delirious and overheated, my mind cast back to Abeo, and I wondered if this was what he had really meant. Soon, all I could do was lie under my mosquito net and shiver in the heat. A local doctor carted in antibiotics the size of Lego pieces while the hotel owner watched on, arms folded, at the entrance. He didn’t like my illness, but he liked how we paid him daily.

I was disappointed in those days that my only experience of this fabled place would be through the criss-cross bars of my bedroom window. The blinding whiteness of the desert hurt my eyes, but once they adjusted, I began using this portal to observe what I could. The revolving door of canvas tents being pitched just below me. Men in black turbans lying on woven mats, sharing tea, and eating bread — a whirring feast of black flies. In the distant haze, I watched a camel train sailing between the dunes. I winced with a German tourist who received a local shave from a gleaming blade. I followed the Tuareg as they strolled out amongst the vines of watermelons that looked just like splayed veins of blue water, though I knew that was impossible. This would be my Tombouctou. 

During one of my early fever storms, I heard a soft knock at my door. It was a hotel worker, dressed in khaki, peering through the keyhole.

“Laundry, Madame Blanc?” he asked with sympathetic eyes.

“No, merci,” I wheezed. All my clothes were soaking in a travel bucket of bruised water.

travel Tombouctou Mali

I heard him asking other people and then later a guest calling him to rake the sand from their room. The desert was to be admired, it seemed, but not to be understood. Whenever he saw me, he would shout “ça va, Madame Blanc?” And I would shout back “ça va,” even when I was not. Now, when I think of him, I regret never learning his name. I was only ever Madame Blanc; he was only ever the Laundry Man.

Finally, after a week, my fever disappeared, and D insisted we move on. He had seen enough of Tombouctou in his never-ending bid to help me heal and was struggling to find transport out. Ebenez had tried three times to arrange 4WD passage, each time falling through with three glasses of mint tea. This time, though, he was certain, and I felt a little melancholy. The only Tombouctou I knew was what I had seen through the window. “It’s mostly sand anyway,” said D. “Sand and lots of goats.” I decided to collect some for myself from the desert’s rim as a keepsake, but it wasn’t the golden grains I had imagined it would be. It was rather like beige grit.

But this would have to do. This would be my Tombuctou. 

Later, as I was packing, the Laundry Man returned, his hands overflowing with sand he had harvested out on the real dunes, shimmering like golden pinpricks against the night of his skin.

“This is the real desert,” he smiled, pouring the sand into my hands. “Take it with you now.”

And for the first time, I believed I might just make it home.

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