Timbuktu, a Place Lost in Time

Forty-seven years ago almost to the day, just before New Years, I was traveling West Africa on vacation from my Peace Corps assignment in Liberia. The iconic Timbuktu was one imperative stop on my route. Following are excerpts from my book of this journey and proof this place really exists.

Part VI: Chapter; Planes, Trains, Boats, Buses, and Taxis

Timbuktu held a reputation in the Western culture as not really a city or town, but an expression for a distant or outlandish place. Timbuktu was not only a real city, it possessed a rich past as a regional trade center on the trans-Saharan caravan route in the 12th century, flourishing with its commerce of gold, salt, ivory, and slaves.During that prosperous time, its population grew to an estimated 100,000. I had to see this place called Timbuktu.

Once I arrived by taxi and riverboat here is what my three new tourist friends and I found. Expert from Chapter; Timbuktu, a Place Lost in Time.

At midmorning, Timbuktu was nearly devoid of people or animals. I didn’t see one green thing, not one blade of grass, and only spindly leafless trees dotted the horizon. We walked the sand-covered streets, which reminded me of snowdrifts on the Nebraska farm. At least our snowstorms and blizzards were seasonal; in the Sahara, people dealt with sand and wind every day. Timbuktu became a white-out of sand. The sand blended with the homes, the homes melded with the streets, the streets blurred with the sky as it swirled with sand that fell back to the earth again. A few women and children swept the drifted sand away from their front doors, hoping to prevent the Sahara Desert from claiming another victim. With a population of under 2,000, Timbuktu was no longer a thriving hub of trade and literature, but instead a seemingly impoverished village gradually being consumed by the Sahara.

We walked the streets and came upon a mesmerizing door guarding an adobe home. I imagined the once flourishing life in the beauty of that intricately carved solid-wood door with bold hand-casted hinges, a rounded door knocker, and multiple inlaid silver decorations. Those wooden planks may have traveled hundreds and even a thousand miles from the rainforest to beautify and safeguard their home. As I proudly stood next to that magnificent door, wearing my handmade African print bellbottoms with my newly purchased goatskin bag from Bamako slung over my shoulder, Marshall snapped my photo. Timbuktu was real. But behind that majestic door I sensed something so different from 600 years ago. I was overcome with sadness. Perhaps that was why Westerners refer to Timbuktu as a “distant place.” Maybe, a place lost in time.

I hoped to mail my brother, Bob, and his family, a postcard from this iconic town. Barb asked, “Who wouldn’t want mail from Timbuktu?” In Bamako I had purchased a stamped postcard of a boy fishing on the Niger River and completed a narrative of my journey in Mali thus far.

We roamed the streets looking for the lone Timbuktu post office and finally came upon an adobe structure with an “envelope” symbol on the door. Barb confirmed it to be a post office and I handed my postcard to a white-robed gentleman at the desk. The mail travels down river by boat to Gao, backtracks by plane to Bamako, on to Dakar, and then to its final U.S. destination via Europe. It should take a month or two to reach Nebraska.

Five months later I completed my service in Liberia and visited my brother Bob and his wife and children back in Nebraska. Here is an excerpt from Part VIII: Back to the Farm, Chapter; The Power of Shame.

I drove six miles down the country roads to Bob and Joan’s house. I held their two children for the first time. Jennifer was dressed in the Liberian shirt I sent her after her birth and Stephanie wore the boots I had knitted in Liberia. They welcomed me with open arms and smiles all around, and gladly accepted my special African gifts. Joan said, “Look at this.” Proudly she held up my postcard they received from Timbuktu—only about two months after I mailed it. We laughed, but it became crystal clear how remote Africa really was.

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