Mali 2008

...We all drive into Tombouctou and gather for lunch, which features the local specialty of toucassou, a thick ball of fancy white bread, like a giant dumpling, in a spicy sauce with big hunks of beef. It is the first meal I have eaten with my hand. You must use only the right, because the left is reserved for more 'delicate' matters. I read in a list of common Bambara (Mali's national language) phrases that the words for Left (nouman bolofé) and Right (kini bolofé) are literally translated as "nose-picking hand" and "rice-eating hand," respectively.

to view a short movie I took from the 4x4 as we arrived in Tombouctou.

After lunch we are led on a walking tour by a young man in a powder blue boubou named Mohammed. He speaks French and English, plus Bambara, Tamachek and probably another couple of African tongues. All the Malians seem to have this ability for languages. He gives us a nice tour - the usual tourist stuff, mosques, the old university buildings, etc. What was really nice was going inside a couple of homes set up as "museums." Just as Toronto's Black Creek Pioneer Village is an hommage to the early North American settlers, so these houses honour the ways - basically unchanged - of the inhabitants of Tombouctou.

A street winds through Tombouctou. Those are rain spouts protruding from the tops of the buildings.

Goats being herded through the streets.

Mohammed, the tour guide, addresses Mike and Allison, a British couple, and Raissa and yours truly. Unbeknownst to me, 3 days later, I will ride Mohammed's camel, Aura, at the Festival. She and I will fall deeply in love and live happily in the Kidal region of the Sahara for many years.

Click here to play.

Hear Mohammed describe how Tombouctou was the centre of learning for the Arabic world.

One of 3 mosques in Tombouctou, a city of about 35,000 and falling, depending on the season. We asked Mohammed about the poles sticking out the sides. His response, if I misunderstood correctly, was that in the years before loudspeakers, the Imam would climb up to lead his people in the 4 times daily prayers. They also provided a handy ladder for repairs. The buildings are made of earth, after all, and I'm guessing that in the rainy season a fair bit of damage can occur on a regular basis. If anyone knows a better answer, please drop me an email.

The Doors of Tombouctou:

According to our guide, Mohammed, there is one family who, for many generations, has been making the doors of Tombouctou.

Archways inside the Dyingery Ber Mosque, the largest in Tombouctou.

After the tour we walk across a long dusty field to a Tuareg tent in which sits a woman in her 40s making pillow covers out of camel skin. There is another, very old woman wrapped up asleep on the ground, her incredibly wrinkled toes poking out from under the blanket. As we all enter we take our shoes off, and Mohammed comes in with an elderly Tuareg man who makes us some tea. Their tea is very strong and unlike anything I've ever tasted. I don't know what it's made from but it gives a good hit of energy. And it is everywhere. Kids were walking around the Festival selling shots of tea. On the bus ride I took later, there was a steward making tea and passing it around. You would see teapots and burners hanging from the camels at the Festival. They're as bad as the tea-sipping Brits.

In front of this tea-brewing man are two small blankets strewn with beautiful items for sale. Daggers, swords, earrings, camelskin bags... o.k. I admit it. It's a set-up, like the gift-shop at the exit of the museum, but it's a pretty cool one.

The man on the right tells us he has just finished traveling for 3 days on camel to get here. I ask him how many kilometers? He says, I don't know kilometers, just days. The money we pay for the handicrafts is to go to help their village of Arawane (about 250km north).

One good thing - besides the items themselves - it's lesson #1 in negotiating; a very necessary skill in Mali. I buy a few things, write a few post cards (I wanted that Tombouctou postmark!) and ask Mohammed to mail them for me. He promises he will.

The "road" out of Tombouctou.

Flamme de la Paix (Flame of Peace) on the edge of Tombouctou. This monument celebrates the ceremonial burning of 3,000 weapons by the Tuareg at the end of the rebellion in the 1990s. Speaking of the Tuareg, if you haven't heard the band Tinariwen yet, hop in your Hummer and go directly to the mall and buy "Aman Iman" (Water is Life). You won't regret it. And then watch videos about them on YouTube. They have quite the story. (see journalroll for some links)

By 1:30, we are all ready to leave for Essakane and the Festival au Desert, the whole reason I am on this trip in the first place.

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