Being in Timbuktu was our best chance to organise a trip to see something of the desert. Of course it wasn't hard to find people offering camel trips; they came to us. While I was suffering from some predictable bout of illness, Jo and Hannah planned a trek with a guide who spoke English. Apparently, you can't go more than about 7 km outside of Timbuktu because of the risk of kidnappings associated with the Touareg rebellion.* But we could go on a sort of circuit for a day or so. We managed to arrange a guide who could speak English and tell us about the area we visited so we might have the chance to learn something about the Touareg lifestyle.
We set off the next morning. It was only a few days until Tabaski,** so everyone was trading sheep. The first bit of desert we passed through was positively crowded, which seemed a bit bizarre. Everyone was wearing characteristic blue Touareg robes and leading sheep around the place.
Not long after we left the town, our guide Mohammed ("M1") went to run an errand and left us with his cousin Mohammed ("M2"), who spoke French well but not English. Once we had left the sheep markets behind, we arrived at a small "village" made up of a small number of widely dispersed nomad tents.
While sitting around under a tree, which (it goes without saying) is the thing to do in these situations, we had really interesting conversations with an old man who explained what it was like to be a nomad, and how he was staying near Timbuktu because he had to go in to town to get treatment for his medical problems. This was one of those rare ephemeral moments where, because the man was engaging and sincere, we felt like we gained a real insight into what it was like to live a life totally removed from our own experience. This was of course a setting with maximum romantic appeal: the Touaregs living with their rich and mysterious culture in the inhospitable Sahara. This conversation was immensely inspiring and reassuring, and later we hurriedly tried to remember what had been said, which was in itself an interesting exercise in historical reconstruction, based as it was on my translation of our conversation.
The old man had two particular pieces of wisdom. First, a proverb about the things a nomad needs to be happy, all of which are provided by being surrounded by nature in the form of the desert. Second, the two kinds of true wealth in the world: interior wealth which is being fit and whole in yourself, and wealth of the mind which is learning and understanding. I agreed with him that travelling is good for both of these things, as it strengthens the body through adjusting to different environments, and it strengthens the mind through sharing ideas with many different people. Nothing, he said, grows stronger without being tested.
Moments after this conversation, we returned to the rather more testing world of artificial desert tourism. Some men mysteriously appeared and entered into a long transaction to sell us some jewellery, which we ended up buying although their behaviour in bargaining was plainly unreasonable. Then we had lunch and we were highly suspicious that our food, which was supposed to be vegetarian, was exactly the same as the rice and goat that was being eaten by the family on the other side of the tent. Everyone insisted it wasn't, but in the absence of any actual reasoning they weren't able to convince us.
A bit later, M1 appeared with many apologies with a surprising story about his father arriving unexpectedly by plane from Morocco. He said he was sorry he hadn't been able to talk to us more and help us with the annoying jewellery salesmen. But then after lunch he disappeared again.
That night we settled in another village. As we adjusted to the cold wind under the enormous sky, we had to confront the reality of poor nomadic life in the desert: a meal of rice and milk. This was a despairingly unsatisfying thing to eat; the rice was heavy and stodgy and not enjoyable at all. But it seems that, despite any careless representations that might have been made when we were planning the trip, this is how people eat here. There's nothing growing around here except melons, and these people apparently don't have the money to buy things from Timbuktu, except the rice, which possibly comes from Thailand.
During the evening, M1 was present for a brief interval which generated no confidence whatsoever that he was planning to do his job during the rest of the trek. He tried to placate us by offering a breakfast of bread and Nescafe and vache qui rit, which isn't a bad breakfast, although we didn't go trekking in the desert to eat industrial cheese. In fact, the highlight of the morning ended up being the very hard dates (I wonder if they came across the desert from Algeria on a caravan...), which were basically like toffee.
Before leaving the village we visited the local school, where some children were enthusiastically learning French from the single book that was available in each classroom. The head teacher showed us the two classrooms and explained that they were hoping to have a third year class the following year, but to do that they would need to get a teacher, and fix the building which was falling down because of the rain. They had piled up thorns outside the door of the third classroom so the children wouldn't go in there and hurt themselves.
On the way back to Timbuktu we enjoyed a brief but amusing attempt at riding our own camels free from the ropes linking us to our plodding guide, and found that they weren't as unco-operative as I would have expected. But the situation was overshadowed by the knowledge that we would have to have a big argument with M1 when we got back.
Actually, M2 was quite a good guide and he spoke good French. We felt bad from him because he probably wouldn't get paid when we refused to pay the other half of our agreed price. But we told him several times that he had done his job well. When we met him, M1 tried to argue, and told us an increasingly unbelievable story about why he hadn't been there (his mother had been in hospital, etc.), but we weren't interested in negotiating and eventually he gave up and we walked off and he left angrily.
I think what actually happened was that there was a completely standard trip which is what we were signing up for, and then everything else we asked for he agreed to without any intention of doing it (most noticeably, him being present).
This affair left a rather sour taste in the mouth, and a rather bad impression of the way business is done in West Africa. The only positive side of the story is that the guy in the hotel back in Timbuktu who had introduced us to M1 was very upset to hear what had happened, and he apparently went to see him and talked about it and M1 was regretful. It seems that many problems here can be resolved in this way: someone else is always friends with the person in question and can go and address a situation quietly and tactfully. By that stage though, we weren't interested in any further involvement in the situation.
*We learned later that someone was actually kidnapped near Gao (in the east) within days of us being in Timbuktu. We had no idea about this at the time. (20 December)
**Tabaski: a Muslim festival of which the most obvious feature is that every family sacrifices a sheep.