Timbuktu, Mali Trapped in Timbuktu

Should you find yourself planning a trip to Timbuktu, may I humbly suggest you reconsider. I say this as someone who is in Timbuktu, despite attempts to be otherwise.

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Aside from its alluring name, there is little reason to come here. In fact, the allure of its name comes largely from it not being a place one is ever likely to find one’s self. In a 2006 poll, 34% of UK students did not believe the town exists. Of the remainder, most considered it “mythical” to some degree.

It is not mythical. I have found it, thus far, totally devoid of unicorns and rainbow bridges.

It’s a real place; a crossroads on the edge of the Sahara, linking it to the Niger River. It enabled trade between West Africa and the Berber and Arab populations to the north. It was also a center of Qur’anic thought, from which Islam was spread throughout the region.

In its day, Timbuktu was a place of great wealth; with gold, ivory, slaves, and salt passing through in vast quantities. It served as something of a port town, the camel caravans passing in and out of the desert like ships at sea. But they were hardly as fast or efficient, and when Portuguese traders appeared on the coast in their capacious vessels, Timbuktu began its decline.

By the early 1800s, Timbuktu remained undiscovered by Europeans, though tales of its former glory were common. Its legendary status grew like an African El Dorado until 1824, when a French explorer’s club offered a prize of 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to find it and report back with concrete information.

A Scotsman, Gordon Laing, reached Timbuktu in 1826, but was immediately killed by locals, fearful of European discovery. Their secret didn’t last long. Two years later, a Frenchman named René Caillié arrived alone, disguised as a Muslim, and returned home to claim the prize.

The Europeans did their usual thing, taking what was left and sharpening the town’s decline. Today, desertification has finished the job, leaving Timbuktu a scorching sandpit, barely worth inhabiting.

None of this I knew before arriving.

We flew into Bamako from Casablanca in the middle of the night. I don’t know why they schedule the flight to land at 2am. They just do.

As we took our seats, the plane appeared to be only half full, though the flight attendants insisted on packing us into the front. We soon discovered why, as a flood of young Malian men marched down the aisle, wafting an acrid body odor that seeps into your clothes and makes your eyes water.

I turned to Melissa, who was already gagging. I’d warned her about the body odor problem in sub-Saharan Africa, but there was really no point. You can’t imagine it until it creeps into your nose, and once that happens, there’s not much you can do anyway.

The men were in rough shape, some with freshly bandaged wounds that were still seeping blood. A handful of stern Moroccans hovered around them during the flight. Upon landing, the men were marched out onto the tarmac and met by a regiment of Malian soldiers.

The men, we deduced, were prisoners. They’d illegally crossed the border into Morocco and were being deported.

This did not bode well for our visit.

Passing through immigration, we watched groggy-eyed as a small fight broke out. A local man was trying to protect his luggage from a couple security guards. This triggered a quick mental transformation into Africa mode: head down, look like you know where you’re going, ignore everyone unless absolutely unavoidable.

When it was our turn to pass through the gates into the waiting throng, the reaction was palpable. Guys trying to carry our bags, get us in their cabs, take us to their hotels – the usual flurry of third-world hassle.

It’s been a while.

On Melissa’s insistence, we’d made arrangements in advance for our arrival. At 2am in an unfamiliar city with a bad reputation – a card with your name on it is a welcome site. The shuttle driver whisked us away to the Bamako Sofitel; the nicest hotel in Mali.

We checked into a pleasant room with all the business traveler accoutrements and slept three hours before waking for our connecting flight to Timbuktu.

You can’t pay for flights within Mali from outside the country. The airline hasn’t yet conquered that technology. I had to buy our tickets in cash at the check-in line while a small audience watched hungrily. As the bills were being counted, the pilot, a white South African, approached to berate our ticket agent for overloading the plane on the last flight.

“I swear to you, if thee luggage is one keelo over I’ll throw eet off thee plane!”

The ticket agent played dumb. Once the pilot had left, he turned to our money-watching audience and everyone had a good laugh at the silly white man and his silly concerns about airplane weight limits.

The dozen or so passengers on our small, prop-engine plane broke down into three categories: locals, Christian volunteers, and travelers. Of that third category, there were only two others besides us; a German woman named Ingrid and her coworker, James, from my home state of Connecticut. They both live in Kenya and work for an NGO (charity).

We paired up and dealt as one with the irritating negotiation process of getting into town. Everyone who approached us was either named Ali, Baba, Ali Baba, or Bob.

On the way in, we learned from James that there was a flight leaving Timbuktu the next day. We had planned to stay for four nights, as there are only two flights a week, but this discovery intrigued us both, with our growing suspicion that Timbuktu was not a place we’d want to stay for very long.

We checked into a rathole and slept through the sweltering afternoon heat. Around 4:30, we met up with Ingrid and James to wander until dark.

Here are some beleaguered donkeys.

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In the center of town, we found a Tuareg festival in high gear. Everyone was colorfully dressed. There was some dancing going on within a perimeter of spectators that we felt too out of place to penetrate.

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Not sure what it was all about. Possibly some kind of political rally.

Numerous Tuareg men galloped about on their camels.

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The Tuareg are legitimately fascinating. They are bona fide desert nomads, living for months at a time amidst an endless expanse of sand. They’ve eschewed the easier modern lifestyle and stuck with unforgiving traditions that date back a millennium or more.

In the various places I’ve visited, I’ve been consistently saddened by the citifying of exotic cultures. The jungle tribes of Borneo, the sea gypsies of Burma, the bushmen of Botswana – all these people are giving up their ways and moving into ugly, readymade boxes of concrete and corrugated tin. They’re trading their dignity for discarded cell phones and carbonated sugar water.

Alls I’m saying is, it’s nice to see someone bucking the trend.

The Tuareg don’t live permanently in Timbuktu. They inhabit campsites on the outskirts of town.

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They seem to coexist peaceably with the locals, with whom they share little in common, though there was some scuffle a few years back about independence.

They’re fairly reclusive people, being nomads and all, but they’re also traders and happy to interact when it involves selling. They make interesting jewelry, pipes and whatnot. Melissa bought some from Muhammad, a young Tuareg who spoke great English and introduced himself graciously.

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Muhammad explained that his camel had died and he needed to buy a new one so he could go to his sister’s wedding in Zagora, which is across the border in Morocco and about 50 days away by camel. There were plenty of reasons to doubt his story, but it wasn’t worth making a fuss about and I was happy to learn what details I could about their lifestyle.

Unlike the Malians we encountered on the plane, Tuareg are tolerated by regional governments to the extent that they can cross borders at will without need of passports. They are citizens of no country, bound only by the perimeter of the Sahara. It’s a sensible solution to a border-policing situation that would be impractical to say the least, not to mention pointless.

Here’s the thing about Tuaregs: their eyes. They have desert eyes of blue and green, sometimes yellow.

But cool as the Tuareg are, we still had little interest in prolonging our visit.

Melissa and I grew tired of the festival and left Ingrid and James to watch it while we wandered the alleys in search of a dancing clip. If we could get a good clip before nightfall, our plan was to race to the airport first thing the next morning, try to get a seat on the plane, leave Timbuktu behind us, and add three days to the rest of our trip.

I took a lot of pictures of kids.

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And some grown-ups too.

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I did the dancing routine. The kids enjoyed watching themselves on the camera afterward.

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But it left the same bad taste in Melissa’s mouth as the dancing clip in Morocco. It felt, to her, like we were taking something and not giving anything back.

I understand how she felt and was bothered by it too, but much less so.

The difficulty, and the frustration, is that it’s what we’re here to do. We are making a video, and the premise is dancing with other people, regardless of social or geographical barriers. If the person holding the camera doesn’t feel comfortable, however valid the concern, that puts me in somewhat of a pickle.

But it is a pickle to contend with another day.

As the sun went down, a herd of goats shot laser beams out of their eyes at us.

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We found a soccer game and sat down to watch it. Catching a soccer game was one of Melissa’s to-dos in Africa. It didn’t last long. We were surrounded by kids asking for money. Took a few pictures and retreated to the hotel.

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There are no restaurants in Timbuktu outside the three hotels. At dinner, we discovered another of Timbuktu’s charms: the prices. We ate canned vegetable soup, bread, and rice with sand in it. Actually, it was more like sand with rice in it. The meal cost $35.

Oh, and there are no ATMs. And you can’t use credit cards. There’s a bank, but it’s closed down.

There was some meat in the meal. It wasn’t edible. Here’s why:

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The goats graze on filth. Our food was literally garbage-fed.

We fled back to the room for the solace of sleep, but even that was denied. Someone decided it’d be a good idea to have a dance party in the courtyard outside our room. Only about five people showed up for the overnight celebration, but that didn’t stop the DJ from blasting crappy music until the speakers blew out, and then continuing to blast popping, music-like static through what was left of the gear.

…I complain, but the truth is, I slept like a log while Melissa, James, and Ingrid stared at their ceilings all night.

In the morning, James threw a fit to the hotel manager and got him to waive the cost of our rooms for the previous night. We hopped in a cab and rode out to the airport, eager to put the whole thing behind us.

James and Ingrid got their tickets, but our hopes were quickly dashed. The flight was full. We were stuck in Timbuktu for what may be the longest three days of my life.

Once the passengers had boarded and we were alone in the terminal, we were descended upon by the Alis and the Babas and the Ali Babas and the Bobs. They all wanted to take us to Bamako in their cars. A mere 12 hour drive, they promised. And for us, since we’re American and they like Americans, they offered the bargain price of $600.

A kindly Australian geologist had already informed us that the drive is closer to 24 hours. And with the state of the vehicles on display, it was very likely we would break down in the desert.

I’m usually game for anything, especially if it gets me where I want to go, but I’ve been on drives like that and I had no interest in repeating the experience. I also had no interest in putting my fate and Melissa’s fate in the not-entirely-reliable hands of Ali or Baba or Ali Baba or Bob. What’s more, by the time we got through this hell-drive we were contemplating, we’d be only a day shy of when we’d get back if we simply waited for the plane – which, by the way, we’d already paid for and had little hope of getting refunded.

So we waited for the plane.

We switched to what was ostensibly a better hotel. It was once a Sofitel. As best as I could deduce, the owners gave up on it. With no one interested in buying, they just abandoned the place and left town. No one was going to bother tearing it down, so the former employees simply stuck around and they continue to take money from the occasional visitor in need of lodging.

It’s a ghost hotel.

But the portrait of Muammar Gaddafi behind the reception desk instilled in me some confidence that they are a respectable operation.

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We barely left our room at all the next day. Melissa read. I did puzzles. We watched superhero cartoons. Neither of us felt much inclination to venture out into the heat and hassle.

Ah, yes. The heat. Here’s how they cook the mud-bricks they make houses out of.

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What’s happening to those bricks there in the afternoon sun – that’s the same thing that happens to your skin.

That evening, in our failed search for any food that wasn’t canned vegetable soup, we discovered that the town actually comes to life once it’s dark. The temperature is mild, so people go about their daily tasks as if it was the middle of the day. Of course, with the scarce electricity, the streets are dark and no one can see anything, but it’s better than suffering through the heat.

It was also good for us, as we could wander around in our flagrant whiteness without causing a spectacle. No one could see us until we were a few feet away.

The following afternoon, we wandered out again to try and shoot a dancing clip.

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We were led to some peace monument on the outskirts of town. It tastefully commemorates the end of that Tuareg uprising I mentioned.

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Found the local jungle gym.

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And Timbuktu’s most photographed spot, Sankore Mosque.

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Whoop-dee-doo.

We got a few good dancing clips. Slept some more. Explored a bit the next day, but found rapidly diminishing returns in our scouring of the vicinity.

We had the option to ride some camels, but we’d just done that in Morocco and our asses hadn’t yet healed.

A guy offered to take us to see a hippo. Melissa raised an eyebrow, but I promised her hundreds of hippos once we get to Zambia. If Zambia doesn’t deliver on that, I vowed to fly us both back to Timbuktu so we can go see that hippo.

We’re both hoping that won’t be necessary.

This morning, at long last, we flew out of Timbuktu and are back in the Bamako Sofitel, enjoying the pool, the bed, the AC, the wi-fi, and substances that more closely approximate food.

Next up is Ethiopia, but we’re strongly considering skipping it given the current political situation and our diminished tolerances after the last several days. If we can swing it, we may just skip on ahead to Zanzibar.

I anticipate that some folks reading this are going to be disappointed by my reluctance to declare Timbuktu a place of beguiling mystery and enchantment. My complaining will register as arrogance, my criticisms as intolerance, and the fact that I’m American will surely figure in somehow.

All I can say is: I’m sorry I’m not who you think I am.

I’ve learned to live with it.

35 Responses to Timbuktu, Mali Trapped in Timbuktu

  1. Dennis

    Needless to say, it’s another experience to tack on. Question, with all the places you’ve been and experiences you’ve had doing this, does the feeling of having that new experience fade at all? Like to me, seeing your photos, reading your story on Timbuktu, I can still say, “Man, It would be great to go there!” However, I now realize that rather than being a decline in a perceived magic of your experiences and more a lack of international experiences for me to go by at all.

    I went to Cozumel, Mexico once, and it sucked. Then again, I couldn’t get too far away from the relative familiarity of the dock my cruise ship was in.

  2. Catherine

    I caught maybe three episodes of Michael Palin’s “Sahara with Michael Palin”, and one of them was his visit to Timbuktu. I seem to remember that he was… underwhelmed. (Though his description does seem to confirm the existence of the elusive hippo: link to palinstravels.co.uk)

    Michael’s high praise for Timbuktu: “A city that seems almost determined to be decrepit still has some beautiful buildings.”

  3. Rob

    Another fine travelogue, and though it may lack immediacy, that shortcoming is leavened by the knowledge that you’re safely home and playing Xbox.

    Even though you’ve traveled the world as extensively as just about anybody, your observations still have a great American “Innocents Abroad” quality. Don’t ever lose it, and don’t feel bad about living with it. As Kermit so sagely says at the end of “Being Green,” “I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful, and I think it’s what I want to be.”

  4. Victoria

    Your description makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s San Lorenzo. Creepily so. The peace memorial is like the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy.

  5. The great Timbuktu reduced to this? That gives me a sort of cynical hope for a few cities I know in the US.

    Great reporting.

    I would have liked to have seen photos of the green and yellow eyes of which you spoke…and I also wondered about the building behind the goats and the garbage. What was it?

  6. Susanna

    I think what you are doing is great and you have nothing to feel guilty about. You are bringing awareness of a people and place that most would not have the courage, gumption and/or interest in experiencing. You are doing your part.

    Of course, if you are really feeling bad about it, you can talk Stride into funding an adoption. If it is good enough for Angelina and Madonna…

  7. Thanks for the great read about Timbuktu. Makes me sad that such a great place is in horrible decline, especially when those pictures show a lovely group of people.

  8. Mark in NY

    Being in the poor quarters of Africa sounds much like, if you’ve ever played an MMORPG, being a high level player-character and going back to the newbie starting area; every young buck comes up to you and begs you for gold, armor, weapons, what-have-you, and you usually just ignore them and their terrible grammar: “plz gld thx”. Permit the nerdy metaphor.

  9. I don’t know if it’s too late, but I’d strongly encourage you *not* to skip Ethiopia. It’s an incredible country, and the people are unbelievable. Kind and joyful. My only recommendation is to see Addis, but then get out and see some of the rest of the country. The north has the historical route (lalibella, gondar, axum) but the south has more wildlife and culture. I’m curious to see your take.

    best
    j

  10. Renee

    Hopefully this is just a reminder that most of the world have it way worse than the readers of this blog. Regardless of how you felt being there, or how I feel reading about it, or how any other readers feel, when travelers respect their destinations and the people who live there (and all the diversity inherent in locales) then somehow something about each trip should be worthwhile.

    I’ve unfortunately witnessed some horrible arrogance from some travelers in my experiences abroad, always making me wonder what they heck they’re doing there. It just reinforces my attempts at being civil and open minded, which you are obviously doing quite successfully.

    Anyway, enough preaching, lalala, can’t wait to hear about your Zanzibar trip, I missed out on an opportunity awhile ago and have no idea if I will be able to go in the future. I live vicariously through your blog!

  11. Phil

    I, too, hope you elect to not skip Ethiopia…fascinating country, amazing people. You will, however, see a few things that will hit home. AIDS has divided a people into “Positives” and “Negatives,” with the value, as it were, reversed.

    Still, a glorious place…home to the Queen of Sheba, and maybe even the Arc of the Covenant, if you go to the right places.

  12. Joanne

    Thanks for sharing the details of your trip. You are so lucky to be able to travel all over the world!

  13. And speaking of kurt your selected quote a few blogs back: “Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.”
    Might explain (IMHO): “In the various places I’ve visited, I’ve been consistently saddened by the citifying of exotic cultures. The jungle tribes of Borneo, the sea gypsies of Burma, the bushmen of Botswana – all these people are giving up their ways and moving into ugly, readymade boxes of concrete and corrugated tin. They’re trading their dignity for discarded cell phones and carbonated sugar water.”

    But ask these people how dignified is it to die for want of basic western medicine or simple things like indoor plumbing?
    I believe we’re supposed to advance and evolve. Apologies if I’m reading too much into this.

  14. Matt

    Well, Brian, the folks I’m talking about don’t have western medicine or indoor plumbing. They have discarded cell phones and carbonated sugar water. They’re getting the short end of the modernity stick.

    Once cultures are exposed to the outside world, then yes, they have no choice but to move forward. Education and infrastructure become urgent necessities. But I’m not going to say they’re better off than they were before.

  15. Rich

    Not a lot of humor in this blog entry, but I did get a couple good chuckles. I think it’s great that you tell us the truth of what *your* experience was. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just your take. The people who complain are not worth listening to. I’m glad that you’ve decided not to please all the people all the time.

    That place certainly sounds awful. I know what you mean about the people swarming you and I’ve only been to medium swarming places like mexico and the Carribbean. Throw danger of getting robbed into the equation and it’s got to be much worse.

    Rich

  16. Malki

    I’m touched by your honesty in all your posts. I’m from the Caribbean but I’ve also had similar experiences when I was in Morocco (where you retreated to a comfort zone of sorts). It’s like the goldfish in a bowl – we aren’t aware of the medium we’re accustomed to until we’re out of it.

  17. Hi I arrived here from youtube and I am really disappointed. Although I am sure this was very tiring and hassling and you have a right to demand the comforts that you can allow yourself, this is such a letdown after the dancing clips, it really sheds a different light on you. I don’t even have the energy to try to explain to you why. I used to tarvel a lot, and I planned my next destination to be Timboktu, but then I became very ill, so that will have to wait {here I edited myself from carrying on further)

  18. Sean Sean the Leprechaun

    Great read – loved the ending and have to agree fully with your own comment. You did come accross as somewhat high handed – but then again, you had the experience and I did not so I nor any other reader have any right to judge. I appreciate your honesty about your feelings for the various locations you visit – I’ve read enough about Africa to know it’s not always what we would wish to believe it is, or can be. And there are already far too many published glorifications of locations that really….aren’t that glorious after all.

  19. i like the sincerity you showed here. Timbuktu may not be a good place to visit but you decided to stay for a while. It’s an experience worth remembering not because of the attractions and festivities, but it managed to touch your heart and u wrote an entry that touched the hearts of others as well. thanks for sharing this with us.

  20. Mystic

    Hi Matt!
    I love all the video clips of you dancing and I can appreciate the disappointment of your trip to Timbuktu. The plane in with the prisoners on it set the stage and I’m sure the whole trip had an omenous feel to it. Traveling is exhausting sometimes and I can’t blame you for feeling disappointed.

    People who want every destination to be mysteriously magical are idealistic and probably haven’t hopped from remote destination to remote destination for extended periods of time. The clothing of the Tuareg were beautiful and they themselves are probably worth a good deal of attention if that’s what you’re there for.

    So for all who say “arrogant” or “why weren’t you the happy guy, dancing through the dust in the video” I have to say, get real.

  21. Jenny

    Hey,

    Hi, how you doing. I’m a first-time poster (and reader) of your stuff. I just wanted to let you know that your video really cheered a friend of mine up today; he’s having a bit of a tough time with the world, and I just wanted to say thanks to you for explaining to him in film what I couldn’t quite explain in words – that you have to grab your own life and make it what you want.. you can’t sit around and wait for it to pass or change.

    So.. hope to see more horrible dancing in more places, and I also hope you come to Norway again. I promise you we have safer locations to dance in.

    :)

  22. Tina

    Hi there,

    Wanted to say hello and thank you for your endlessly entertaining journal entries. I came across your page from Elizabeth Gilbert’s homepage (the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love). I am about to embark on a journey to Central America in a few weeks, the first of its kind for me. I am nervous, excited. Funny, people’s reactions as I prepare to leave…some are actually taking personal offense. (How am I supposed to know what I will do when I return? Why is it so weird that I’m quitting my oppressive job?) When I get overly anxious about the unknowns, I look up some random country you have been to and remember why I am about to do this. Here’s to hoping the guidebooks and blogs are kidding about the size of the spiders down there.

  23. Aylin

    Give Mali another chance! I concede that Timbuktu is difficult, boring and not at all worth visiting. But other parts of the country are just lovely. I’m sorry you had such an unpleasant experience this time but I really hope you make it back there to explore a bit more. Oh and in case it is not too late – definitely try to make it to Zanzibar!

  24. Adam

    That’s a really good recount Matt. You are an inspiration, just keep on dancin. The map is a really good idea, I’ve been watching it religiously. :-)

  25. Diana

    Hey Matt,

    If you do make it to Zambia, make sure you hang out near the Zambezi River, you’ll find pleanty of Hippos there. So many you’ll probably get sick of them making thier noises at night. Note that you won’t find too many near the falls, you’ll have to go to the valley.

    Watch your gear if you go to Lusaka. Especially if you take the busses. The theives are pretty smart. Drop me a line if you need any pointers, Zambia is beautiful but not an easy place for tourists. I grew up there, and it’s where my family and heart still are.

    cheers on the rest of your travels!

  26. James

    Dude. Thank you for keeping it real. I very much enjoy your witty and fascinating travelogues!

    Word to your mother!

  27. hey man, don’t be shy about going to a country degraded by wars and politics and hunger and not liking THAT much. I come from a country that still amazes people but some places are not far from horrible, and I wouldn’t be mad if you happen to say so, it’s just life.
    I got off with your journey to Timbuktu and would still want to know first hand what youl talking about.
    you don’t have to like all places, and it’s ok.
    have a good trip to Europe, brother

  28. Neil

    Nope, pretty much jives with what I’ve heard from others who’ve been to Timbuktu. No one seems much impressed.

    Of course, I have heard that it’s a good spot to head further into the desert from, which you may have missed out on.

  29. Helen

    Matt… I can’t tell you how much your videos make me smile. They bring back so many awesome memories of my travels and make me so jealous i’m not still out there with you! Thanks for the invite to dance with you in London. Unfortunately I cannot make it but I hope it goes well and I look forward to seeing the video with it on!

    Keep up the VERY good work – you rock!!

    Helen.x

  30. Though it wasn’t exactly paradise, thanks for sharing it with us, and for keeping it real. Until now Timbuktu was just a name that I knew nothing about it. I especially enjoyed the photos. Wish I could reach out and help a couple of those kids. It must be hard to see that, and then leave, and leave them there.

  31. Liseann

    You met Mohammad too! What a great fellow. Showed us around, took us for tea a few umpteen times, chased away the swarms of kids.
    I agree with a few others, give TB2 another try!

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