To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey through West Africa

To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey through West Africa

by Rick Antonson


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Timbuktu: the African city known to legend as a land of scholars, splendor and mystery, a golden age in the Sahara Desert. But to many it is a vaguely recognizable name – a flippant tag for “the most remote place on earth.” With this fabled city as his goal, author Rick Antonson began a month-long trek. His initial plan? To get a haircut.

Aided by an adventuresome spirit, Rick endures a forty-five hour train ride, a swindling travel agent, “Third World, three-lane” roads, rivers, and a flat deck ferry boat before finally reaching Timbuktu. Rick narrates the history of this elusive destination through the teachings of his Malian guide Zak, and encounters with stranded tourists, a camel owner, a riverboat captain, and the people who call Timbuktu home.

Antonson’s eloquence and quiet wit highlight the city’s myths—the centuries old capital and traveler’s dream—as well as its realities: A city gripped by poverty, where historic treasures lie close to the sands of destruction. Indeed, some 700,000 ancient manuscripts remain there, endangered. Both a travelogue and a history of a place long forgotten, To Timbuktu for a Haircut emerges as a plea to preserve the past and open cultural dialogues on a global scale.

The second edition of this important book outlines the volatile political situations in Timbuktu following the spring 2012 military coup in Mali and the subsequent capture of the city by Islamic extremists. Literally, it is a race against time to save the city’s irreplaceable artifacts, mosques, and monuments, and to understand why Timbuktu’s past is essential to the future of Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620875674
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rick Antonson is the president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, and past chair of the board for Destination Marketing Association International, based in Washington, D.C. Rick is the author of the widely acclaimed To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey Through West Africa, coauthor of Slumach’s Gold: In Search of a Legend, and The Fraser Valley.

Read an Excerpt


Scarcely Visited Places

Derek, a fellow I'D once worked with, serendipitously showed up at the office two months before my intended departure. Our talk turned quickly to his travels in West Africa three years earlier.

"Were you in Mali?" I asked.

"Yes, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal."

"Did you go to Timbuktu?" I probed immediately, already sensing that my travels to Africa, even maybe Timbuktu, might lose the novelty I coveted.

"No. It's inconvenient, and in West Africa that means expensive travel."

Derek, with the shaggy locks of a part-time drummer hanging to his collar, and his fellow traveller, Chris, short, entrepreneurial, invigorating, agreed to meet me later at the pub and share their photos and travel savvy.

"Chris was mugged," Derek said before the beer arrived.

"Lost my money," Chris added, shifting off a suit jacket. "It's a good idea to carry an old wallet filled with cards you don't need and a little currency. Give it up right away. The robber will leave." "And what if you're mugged a second time?" I asked.

"That'd be a problem."

"Moneybelt's best," said Derek. "And slip your leg through the pack strap when you sleep. Take postal tape so you can wrap your parcel if you leave anything in a safety deposit box — it's the hotel staff that steal. Take your own lock for the room doors." Derek took a long pull on the beer as soon as it was set before us and honed his stare directly into mine. "West Africa is a place to keep one eye open when you sleep."

I gave him a long wink to demonstrate my understanding.

"But Burkina Faso was wonderful. Felt welcome," said Derek.

Chris countered. "I'd say the Dogon was the most special. Never felt in danger." I'd read of this area only recently, its astonishing history and two-hundred-kilometre stone escarpment, and worked it into my rough itinerary.

Noticing my enthusiasm, Derek cautioned: "Travels in Mali, however romanticized, are rugged."

When they urged me to spend a day at the Slave Trade Fort in Dakar, I finally made a formal declaration that my trip was about Mali.

"Mali is one of the world's throwaway countries," Derek declared. "Ignored. It's like Mali gets second seating at UN banquets."

"But," said Chris, harking back to Dakar, "you will be in Senegal, right?" I nodded. He continued: "Once, there was a train running from Dakar to Bamako. Doesn't run anymore."

My heart sank. My silence remaining unexplained, they jumped to provide another advisory.

"They may have a smattering of English," Chris observed. "I hope your French is good. Be prepared, theirs is different. Doesn't sound like ours."

Mali is a francophone country. The guidebooks were emphatic that knowledge of French is essential, especially in the remote regions. Derek said, "Often in Mali, the people don't speak either French or English. The country has more than thirty indigenous languages. All you need to do is learn Bambara, or Bamana, the most common one." He grinned wickedly.

For anyone who travels, not to have a second language is a social hangnail. Now it would prove even more problematic. Pursing my lips for vowels and gurgling consonants unsettled me, but I did not want to be a unilingual wanderer among "uneducated" people who were nevertheless conversant in four languages. I must brush up on my high school French.

"Pack small," advised the already compact Chris. It was a comment that led Derek to say, "Take breathable pants. And polypro sox. Shirts, too. You're going to be a sweaty bastard, and you'll want that damp off."

"And Malian officials check your passport and your yellow fever certificate with equal interest," warned Chris. "Lacking either means denied entry."

I jotted everything down. "What did you wish you'd taken?"

"Well, we were better prepared than that Scot," began Chris.

"Park ... something Park," said Derek, finding it funny. "About two hundred years ago."

"Mungo Park," I said. The irascible Scot was much on my mind: explorer extraordinaire, he twice failed to reach Timbuktu.

"That's him. Provisioned with beads to barter, a thermometer and an umbrella," claimed Derek.

"And the other Scot, the British major," prodded Chris. "A bit odd, too."

"Laing?" I asked, knowing it must be. Many British explorers attempted to find Timbuktu in the early nineteenth century, but he stood out. "Alexander Gordon Laing?"

"That's him," Chris replied. "Prepped for a year and left England without his medicine chest or writing quills." They both looked at me. "You know these guys?"

The months since I'd returned from Prague had been consumed with research. Park, Laing, and a host of others had become intimates, but I'll get to that. "Now, you two — what did you forget to take?"

"Safety pins. Ziploc bag to keep my passport dry. A Petzl," Derek said, mimicking the forehead lamp that coal miners wear for the convenience of keeping their hands free while having a flashlight that moves wherever their head looks.

"Food is iffy," said Chris. "Take pâtÃ(c) in a can, maybe Tabasco to liven up the rice. And powdered spices. They're easy to pack."

"Ah, and a large towel. I'd have loved that," Derek added.

They launched me on repeated trips to Mountain Equipment Coop, Three Vets outlets, and The Travel Bug Store. Their most instructive talk was about attitude: "You get by, you just do. It all works out."

We each have horizons. I had to ask, "Weren't you tempted to try to reach Timbuktu?"

"It seemed impossible," Chris said, as though offering a business evaluation.

"Just too far from everything else," Derek explained.

I heaved a sigh of relief. My dream was safe.

It was true, I had little idea where Timbuktu was. Janice and I left Prague two days after her late-night admonition. Flying home to Vancouver, still leery of thwarting the travel gods by discussing my newfound destiny, I searched the in-flight magazine's map of the world. No Timbuktu there. Transiting Heathrow homebound, I ducked into a W.H. Smith bookstore. No Guide to Timbuktu there. Perhaps an atlas would help. The index got me to a page showing West Africa. I found Timbuktu, Mali. Mali? Africa, in that part of the continent, was often still referred to as French West Africa. Post-colonial name changes had translated French Sudan to Mali. This had occurred ten years after I was born; I just wasn't paying attention.

Entering "Timbuktu" into the bookstore's computer identified fewer than a dozen books, most of them out of print. Some had the word in the title but no relevance to the place; an eye-catching marketing game, a dog's name, a fictional concept, and other misuses hampered my search. I purchased the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa and fondled the pages referring to the elusive country of Mali. There I found a useful reference to a once-central place reduced to a geographic curiosity.

Back home, I scoured my bookshelves, pulling out every book on Africa and thumbing its index. They showed my now-favourite place in an unfavourable light, unworthy of the hard travel it would take to get there. But it was there, it had once been grander than words could tell, and it seemed to say, "Find me if you can."

Timbuktu would be dismissed today if it weren't for the symbolism of its name. In the fourteenth century, the fabled city was a commercial hub that encouraged scientific and religious scholarship above all else. The cribbed history: salt from the north was traded for gold from the south; tobacco came too, then slaves. Timbuktu was the "Rome of the Sudan" and the "Athens of Africa," more prosperous in its heyday than Paris or London. Then began the myths of "streets paved with gold," the cornerstone of a legend that European explorers would one day lay bare. No sense of that legendary past remains in time-worn Timbuktu.

Travelling to Timbuktu had become my obsession. When one's work commands sixty hours every week, there is an imbalance apparent to all but the culprit. Henry David Thoreau, pondering this issue in Life Without Principle, piqued my guilt: "There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." It had become "the job that ate my life." That was not how I wished to see myself, not how I yearned to grow old. Every day seemed to be about other people, and I wanted to leave that behind, even if only temporarily.

Flying a hundred thousand kilometres each year for two decades, travel for me meant air, not ground. A term as chair of an international travel association doubled those travels from Bali to Liverpool, from Quebec City to Sydney. I often gave speeches about the world of travel, and moved in a style distanced from the rigours of a traveller's self-reliance. My visits were hurried and tinged with regret. My memories were trifling. In Cuba to deliver a lecture on travel, I was greeted by a crawling Mercedes and an English professor as guide each time I stepped outside Havana's National Hotel. That could only distort my expectations. Checking into the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel to chair a travel conference, I was shown to the five-hundred-square-metre President's Suite. Travelling in this way skews priorities and shaves principles. I watched harried colleagues become "oft travelled" rather than "well travelled." For all my moving around, I was a travel amateur.

Trips had begun to blur, which saddened me. When trips move quickly — a hazard when many are adjuncts to business obligations — one anticipated the fun of reflecting almost as much as the being there (something sad in that line, but let it be). Postponed reflection left many a trip taken without closure. What had happened to the tingly feelings that had once been brought on by strange places? And the insecurities? And anxieties? What would I amount to — a transient with an asterisk?

I dreaded the thought of an unfinished life. What was more, it had been too long since I'd trudged up mountains in Nepal, snorkeled with fairy penguins in the Galapagos, driven a dogsled in the Yukon, or ridden horseback with a herdsman to his village in Mongolia. My train travels, which had happily included the hardships of the Trans-Siberian railway, were now as easy as a recent, smooth Amtrak ride from New York to San Francisco. Yet I was convinced that in one's rocking-chair years, travels will count as much as friends, only a little less than family and much more than money.

Being past mid-ocean in my life's crossing, I felt there was only a limited time left to do what I wanted. Ernest Hemingway wrote, "There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man's life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave." You die with regrets, not from them. Others might brood in your nursing-home years, but I would not. Timbuktu and the re-education of a traveller had begun.

On the History Channel's web page I came upon a link to the feature "Threats to the Survival of Timbuktu." The most precious legacy of Timbuktu, it said, was the city's centuries-old manuscripts, which were under threat. "In closets and chests throughout the southern Sahara, thousands of books from Timbuktu's ancient libraries are hidden, their disintegration delayed by the dry desert air yet threatened by insects and the annual humidity of rainy seasons."

Their words became dust, their pages crumbled, and their bindings turned to powder. Finding out about these manuscripts set my pace and became a motivation for my journey. My itinerary now included researching the perilous state of these books and manuscripts, and the efforts underway to protect them. My journey now had the aura of a treasure hunt.

I decided to go in search of the Timbuktu manuscripts.

The wanderer in me was ready, brimming with anticipation. Paul Theroux's Sunrise with Seamonsters said it well: "It is a ridiculous conceit to think that this enormous world has been exhausted of interest. There are still scarcely visited places and there are exhilarating ways of reaching them ... It is every traveller's wish to see his route as pure, unique and impossible for anyone else to recover ... The going is still good." That was me and Timbuktu.

In Cape Town, South Africa, a few months earlier, I'd found a book tucked away in a travel supply store. Ross Velton's Mali: The Bradt Travel Guide fuelled my desire. Jealousy sprang to the fore when I encountered Michael Palin's newly released Sahara in the Johannesburg airport. I flipped nervously through its pages. Palin had been there, with the BBC in tow, as part of a year's venturing back and forth throughout the Sahara.

As I'd hoped, my reading broadened my knowledge. In medieval times, Timbuktu had been central to African trade. The benevolent leaders of the Malian Empire endowed the city's universities. Under the Songhais, books were plentiful and knowledge was a source of wealth and pride. Timbuktu was Africa's capital in all things spiritual, commercial, and intellectual. It was this image of an imagined utopia that glued itself on European minds through rogue, hearsay reports and rumours that reached willing believers. The Timbuktu of the fourteenth century lived on in the dreams of Europeans for centuries. It was a fascination distorted by distance.

It was September, four months before my departure, when latenight fears first crept beneath my sheets to plague me. "Hyenas and wild cats are widespread," I'd read that day. The thought of lingering on a dark, lonely road, struck with the bad luck of missed transport, progressed to a vision of a black-backed jackal, fangs bared, staring me down.

Tales of atrocities emanating from sub-Saharan Africa did nothing to quell my fears. ("They let the man free in the jungle, as he asked; but not before hacking off his arms and legs.") I rationalized that I would be in Saharan Africa, but then a guidebook warned about the danger of being left alone in the desert unless you were willing to pay surcharges demanded by the (about to disappear) guide. Now, like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble," but "reasonable" was beginning to seem like a concept I couldn't take for granted.

Health issues and travel are inextricable. The travel industry facilitates the worldwide spread of communicable diseases. Twisted together, perpetrated by tourism, are SARS, AIDS, West Nile virus, Norwalk, and a host of other unwanted experiences.

Medical clinics specializing in travel health and safety have the deserved "first-stop" reputation when strange lands beckon. Safety and precaution are the only methods to defeat worry.

"You're going to the armpit of Africa," the prim doctor said, as I rolled up my sleeve for the first injection. "We can only do so much for you." She was as thorough as she was adamant. Whether one is concerned about sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis by a less say-able term) or other insect-carried diseases, avoiding insect bites is key. "Take a mesh to drop over your hat when walking, and wear light porg shirts and pants sprayed with DEET." Her non-medical prescriptions included advice on taking a mosquito net for my tent, spraying it with permethrin before I left the country, and carrying ample repellant and bite salve. They added weight to the packing list.

Her succinct warnings abounded: "Swim only in the ocean or your bathtub." Best simply not to submerge in stagnant water; stick with hot showers.

I looked into the eyes that cautioned with more sincerity than her words did.

"But stay out of fresh water," she stated. "You court a parasitic infection that will ruin your trip and live in your body for months afterwards."

She worked through a series of health issues, and for each item she passed me a pamphlet or prescribed medicine: malaria is preventable (though it can be fatal) — begin doxycycline two days before departure and take it daily on your journey, plus every day for a week post-trip; stay away from fruit. Bacteria and viruses often lead to what she called "traveller's tummy," a euphemism that makes it none the more pleasant a volcanic experience — begin taking Dukoral two weeks prior to departure, and repeat one week before.

"And in case that gets worse, I've something that will bung you up," she offered. And so it was that I packed blockage pills (ciprofloxacin), mindful of her advice: "If you have to use them, you should probably seek medical attention."

The ability of Hepatitis A and B to damage your liver lengthened my list of concerns. The specialist reviewed the "meningitis map" on the wall of her windowless office, showing clearly that West African travels take you there.

She continued with clinical efficiency. Typhoid. Boosters for measles and tetanus-diphtheria. And she took the time to ensure that I'd had a one-time polio vaccine, as most westerners have had as a child.


Excerpted from "To Timbuktu for a Haircut"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Rick Antonson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Professor Geoffrey Liftman xiii

Preface xix

Introduction Touch a Map of the World 1

1 Scarcely Visited Places 5

2 The Origin of Myths 25

3 The Quest for Timbuktu 43

4 From Here to Timbuktu 61

5 Among the Tuareg 107

6 The Forbidden City 135

7 The Strong Brown God 167

8 African Lanterns 203

9 A Good Night for West Africa 255

Epilogue A Gentle Harshness 265

Afterword Now is the Needed Time 267

Chronology 287

Acknowledgements 291

About the Author 295

Sources and Recommended Reading 297

Illustration and Photography Credits 301

A Plea to Preserve the Past 303

Index 305

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