Nan Metashvili on the road to Timbuktu
'Allo, mes amis;
In the harsh, metalic heat-sheen of a long afternoon along the Niger River, the graceful mating dance of some cranes provided a moment of beauty. They rose in the air, flapping their wings like Japanese geishas, dancing, chasing, flirting.
My pinasse trip up the river to Tombouktou could have been considered monotonous by some, but I LOVED it. Hour after hour of motoring along with nothing special to see, just the cliff like river banks (low water, remember?) beyond which, I knew, stretched arid desert. Little events like the dancing cranes were a welcome embellishment on the simplicity of such perfect tranquility.
We went through a lot of empty river bank, with occasional fishing villages strung out in a series of huts each facing the river. Extreme poverty. Children playing in the river, in the dust, women washing clothes in the river... The much rarer actual villages were quite a different matter. I found them extremely beautiful, with their organic vernacular architecture of intertwining mud houses and zany little bespired mosques—a sort of pre-Raphaelite Arabian Nights stage set, with special effects by Gaudi. Shaded under invaluable stands of trees, both villages and settlements seemed pretty free of plastic litter—the joys of off road life!
Our pinasse was a little floating world of its own; I was the only foreigner, but it was a tourist boat, en route to Timbuktou to pick up the last group of the season. Therefore, very comfortable; uncrowded; 3 crew, a couple of other passengers.
Quiet and calm up at dawn rice and fish and cabbage twice a day no one else but little fishing boats beign poled along by men, children or more rarely, women. A few boats going the other way, funky sails cobbled together from old grain bags
'Monotony' occasionally relieved by a herd of goats or a couple of camels cows grazing on an island one dusk it was a pod of hippos, quite exciting for me, alas the only ones we saw
The assistant was constantly bailing the passengers only infrequently stirring themselves to pray—one guy knelt in the boat by his seat, the other climbed onto the roof. Both facing different directions
where the heck IS Mecca?
But your directional options are rather limited in such a narrow craft, eh?
As night came on I too would climb onto the roof of the boat (nicely weathered reed mats) and lie there in the cool absolute bliss wathcing the stars come out or at dawn I'd watch the sun rise. The soft susserations of the passengers conversation was broken by their periodic falsetto exclamations- a Malian thing? VERY amusing, normal deep male voices wombolo goro blablabloa eeeeeeeeeeh inichewomboloblabla aaaaaaaaaaah in high pitched girly glissandos!!
Like any good river trip, I definately didn't want it to end! but eventually we came to Tombouktou.
I liked it.
A nice quiet town in the middle of nowhere. No tourists, salt caravans finished for the season (but plenty of slabs of salt for sale in the markets) wide streets of sand, a total architectural integrity- no McDonalds and no buildings of anything but mud or the Tuareg reed mat tents.
From my roof the maze of the old village ( and it was ALL old village) was beautiful beyond words. I could see the encircling desert beyond the last houses, endless with its deadly heat; 2 or 3 Gaudi mud pie mosques stood above the humble homes.... The streets are filled with graceful romantic looking Tuaregs floating around in their blue robes, but they do get to be a pain, endlessly importuning one to look at their jewelry.
eventually I screwed up my courage and hopped in a death trap oven of a vehicle and headed south again
3 days to Ouaga
Sweltering heat, and brutal bumping in the back of a pickup truck. I thought the worst danger was to my kidneys and my poor boney bum, but as we started to decend the last bit of escarpment out of the Dogon country to the Burkinabe border we all sort of noticed the brakes were locked and doing nothing! Down we careened, the driver barely keeping control on the switchbacks, women and infants thrown about, the urchins on the back hanging on tightly til the driver spotted an 'emergency escape route' opportunity, and shot up it! the urchins hopped nimbly off and quickly wedged rocks behind the tires, the passengers nonchalontly climbed out and started walking downhill... at the bottom, as we rested in the shade and waited for the truck, I noticed a road sign warning 'route dangereuse' and a cheerful little drawing of a truck plunging over the edge.
ça roule ma poule
Love, Ferenji Naan
PS Then I finally made it to Ouagadougou and got mugged my first night there....
I'm definately ready to head back North!