I can honestly say I have no desire to visit the West African nation of Mali but the travel narrative To Timbuktu for a Haircut by Rick Antonson played no role in my decision. I have one African country I would love to visit (South Africa) simply because it is the most developed (not to say the country doesn’t have its own share of internal problems, I’m not that naive); and then there are the exotic African countries I would also like to see if I ever had the chance (Botswana, Namibia, and Senegal). However, Mali, a landlocked nation that is literally in the middle of the Sahara desert, no desire. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fascinating to read about.
Antonson, a middle-aged Canadian, travels to Mali for something “different” and different Mali certainly is. He had wanted to make a solo journey for a while but being a professional in the travel industry, somewhere as “boring” as China or France would simply not do. Antonson credits his wife with giving him the idea to travel to Timbuktu. Although it seems as if she had mentioned it in jest (which I think most people would do when talking about traveling to Timbuktu), he took it and “ran with it.” For most people, Timbuktu conjures up images of the ends of the earth, sheer remoteness, a place so exotic it must be fake which is why in English it’s popular to reference Timbuktu when exaggerating a statement. But Antonson and a select number of travelers who I would describe as being both brave and utterly reckless, have made it there.
In many ways Antonson’s experiences in West Africa (he actually starts his journey in Senegal and takes the Dakar-Bamako train, a ride of almost 1300 miles) reminded me of Mexico and Central America, parts of the world where I have spent considerable periods of time, particularly when off the “tourist path.”. For example, the passages detailing the cooking being done on the side of the road, baguettes in French speaking Africa just taking the place of freshly made tortillas. Not to mention the “ill-efficiency” of travel in such places where the mentality of mañana or peut–être is the norm:
“Does a train run from Dakar to Bamako?”
“He says maybe Wednesday…Me, I don’t think there’s a train anymore.”
Ironically enough Antonson doesn’t spend that much time in Timbuktu, which was one of the most important cities in the world when the European continent was only just emerging from the depths of the Dark Ages. It grew in wealth and importance due to the role it played in the trade of salt, gold, ivory and slaves. It also served as a center of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries during the era of the Mali Empire. Today travelers visit Timbuktu for bragging purposes and to visit its historic center which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Throughout his travels in West Africa, both during his train ride from Senegal and in Mali itself, Antonson encounters many individuals, all of whom leave their mark and memory on him. It was most touching to read of his connection to his guide who, even though Antonson would get annoyed with him at times due to the cultural differences between them, he really developed a fondness for. Sadly, when civil war broke out in the country in 2012, the many people whom Antonson had met were certainly affected in one way or another by the fighting (click here for more background information on the conflict). In the second edition of the book, Antonson not only provides a detailed account of the events taking place in the country but also updates the lives of his Malian friends. This is definitely a personal touch that as a traveler I greatly appreciated. There are individuals you may meet during your travels that you will probably never see again but it doesn’t mean you ever stop thinking about them.
At times the book could be slow. The content was fascinating, since, as I mentioned there are not many travel narratives of West Africa out there. However, in order to provide the reader with a better understanding of the history of this West African nation, there is a lot of background. Good, but obviously it’s not going to be as fast a read as the travel narrative entitled “There’s sand in my bra.”
Antonson goes on a journey the majority of travelers will never take, even those who are extremely well-traveled. But that’s what makes the book all the more enjoyable, experiencing the craziness of West African train travel, the sheer frustration of trying to make arrangements with someone whose cultural values are the complete opposite of yours, the trying to not get sick from road side cooking-it’s all there for you.
While what takes place in the book may seem unbelievable at times, trust me, as a traveler to numerous developing countries, I’m sure it happened.