Ticket to Timbuktu

Remember the faraway places you read about as a child, and the sense of wonder you felt at their mention?

One such place for me was Zanzibar. I’m not sure exactly where I got my information, but it might well have been a story from Arabian Nights. I’d lie in bed long after my mother had declared it a night and closed the book she was reading aloud from, and I’d imagine colorful people in turbans, exotic scents wafting from their hookah pipes, bustling about in a busy marketplace bargaining for wares.

When we lived in Africa and had the chance for some extended travel, both Noisette and I knew exactly where we wanted to go to fulfill a childhood dream: Zanzibar. You can read about our exploits there here and here and also here.

Another such place exerting an equally fascinating pull on us was Timbuktu. It has that same exotic ring to it, a place nearly at the end of the world that’s very hard to reach and fabled to contain riches beyond belief for those who should be so fortunate to reach it. But alas we never made it there.

When I recently came across a copy of Ticket to Timbuktu by Joe Lindsay, I jumped. The next best thing besides traveling to a place is visiting it by proxy when reading a compelling travel memoir.

I was not disappointed. Ticket to Timbuktu is nothing fancy, nothing overly dramatic, but a very honest account of one man’s trip from his home in Scotland to Timbuktu and back. Going there had been a childhood dream, and when his wife gave him the trip for his 60th birthday he overcame his misgivings and plunged right in, braving the overland route from Dakar much like the early explorers might have done.

I was much reminded of Paul Theroux’s writing in Dark Star Safari, another excellent African travel memoir. Traveling overland in Africa always seems a particular adventure, much more so than doing the same in Europe for instance, and Lindsay’s story did not disappoint. From border crossings to almost-arrests for illegal, if innocent, photography to having to share a mattress with a self-proclaimed policeman, he paints wonderful scenes of his trip through Senegal and Mali that are so vivid that you believe you’re right there with him. What I particularly like is his approach to dealing with the locals: wary at first, which in truth we all would be when confronted with the constant hustling and unknown customs, but always open-minded to observe and learn, and by the end of his trip savvy enough to get by even when confronted with an extreme shortage of money.

street market scene in Stone Town, Zanzibar
Yes, I’m aware of the fact that this is neither Dakar nor Timbuktu nor anywhere in between. I took this picture in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and it is a street scene I imagine to be as close to what Joe Lindsay saw on his overland trip as described in Ticket to Timbuktu as I can produce. Just imagine desert instead of lush tropical foliage, and it’s probably very close.

Here are some examples of the descriptions I found charming:

“The streets are filled with people walking. If it was Scotland, you would think there must be a football match on somewhere, but here, it was simply life.” 

To anyone who has ever lived or extensively traveled in Africa, this rings very true and brings a smile to your face. If there is one thing I miss about Africa, it is the crowded streets teeming with life.

Or this:

“Now, I was in a pickle. My passport was being held by a rural African policeman. The Chief of Police was no doubt going to accuse me of spying, and I hadn’t reported in to control [Joe’s wife] for two days. I had also involved Michael [a fellow traveler on one stretch], and he had a bag of drugs.”

It is matter-of-fact statements such as this that made this story so funny at times, without even trying.

Or this:

“I taught a little boy how to make a paper aeroplane. We flew it all over the cabin, then out into the big grey river. Children are fun, no matter where you are.” 

Is there a better observation of humankind than that?

And also this:

“He nodded, and said something completely unintelligible, which I interpreted as “Aye, ok.” In retrospect, he may have said “Yes, and if you do, you’ll probably be shot.”

It is this simple prose and humble telling of a story that made this an enjoyable read for me. If there was one thing I might have liked to learn about that wasn’t present in the book, it is the history of Mali and Timbuktu. Lindsay is such a good storyteller, he could have easily gotten me to learn a bunch of new facts about that part of Africa that I didn’t know, without even having to try. But with or without history, this is a nice travel memoir, and if you’re at all planning to travel to Timbuktu via the overland route, or for that matter anywhere in Africa by road, this is a must-read for you.

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