Thursday, 4 November 2010

Day 4, October 29: To Timbuktu

The ride from Douentza to Timbuktu was one of the most euphoric moments of my life. The XR650 was made for that road, and I was made to ride it. Minutes after taking the road we were driving by two enormous towers of rock. I mean enormous. The harmatton had brought dust in and the sun rising behind those megaliths was amazingly beautiful. After about 20k the packed road turned to pretty crazy washboard. I tried to hang back with the BMW but lets just say I was about to lose teeth. Driving on washboard means driving fast so that your wheels skim over the tops. So at 30mph my fender was banging the wheel but at 60mph it was like driving on silk. Doubling JJ's speed meant that in order to keep the mutual understanding of "sticking together" I needed to wait for him to catch up every couple minutes. For every 5 miles I went, I was almost 3 miles ahead so I had lots of time to stop and enjoy the scenery. About half way we stopped at a small town called Bambara Maounde. When I pulled up people started clapping and congratulating me for being first in from the Rally. They asked how far back the other riders were. I thought "wow, word really got around that we were coming." It turns out that the next week a rally was coming through and because I came flying in on my big bike they just assumed they had the dates wrong! Really nice folks there though, had a great time showing them the bike and talking to them about the trip we'd made. I bought two liters of gas sold in glass bottles...and a hot coke for $1.50. JJ caught up after 5 minutes or so and we took a break, happy to be half way there. Apparently in January-Feburary elephants come there to find water in the ponds surrounding the city. Right after being told that they didn't come until January a guy tried to get me to hire him as a guide to go see the elephants...some how I don't think that would have worked out to my favor. This was our first encounter with people on the Timbuktu road, which everyone warned us would be the "bandit road." Everyone was absolutely pleasant. We asked about risks North of there and everyone said that there were no problems. Driving past water in Northern Mali is like entering an air conditioned room. It was 100 degrees in the shade, really, so out in the sun, on the roads, on the bikes, with jackets on was super hot. Driving beside water usually meant driving by trees which meant shade, humidity, and what felt like a 10 degree temperature drop. It was nice while it lasted! Pretty quickly though the road turned to washboard and pockets of sand, big pockets of sand. I learned this by accident, swallowing my tongue as I hit one on the down side of a hill going 60mph. To my surprise, I just shot right over it. Even deep, 8 inch pockets, brought some steering wobble, but as long as I got to my feet the bike just dug in and shot right through it. I was having the ride of my life. The rythmn of driving 5 miles and stopping was pretty tiring, and to be honest, frustrating, but I had the fresh memory of almost having my ankle snapped off from the day before to remind me to wait. I had the timing pretty worked out, so I knew if he didn't top a hill in a couple minutes I needed to double back. I was learning a big lesson about patience and the need to let people do things at their own pace. I think JJ did great. A few times I stopped in Tuareg villages, bought biscuits from roadside shacks and shared them with men there, one time finding some amazing tasting caramels at a little hut. I stopped once to watch camels kissing, which is pretty funny and at other times just to enjoy the vastness of the place. I think I stopped over 30 times that day. After about 100 miles the road turned into a causeway, surrounded by the water of the Niger river, I was so blown away at arriving that I almost slid into the river at a hard 90 degree sand that had big banks of sand. No worries though, I had it down by then. Break hard before you hit it and throttle hard once you're in it! The causeway was about 1/2 mile in length before dead ending at the ferry junction. There were tons of tuareg houses there, some women frying fish, some others selling "cookies", and one with a freezer hooked up to a solar panel! I'll take a cold coke for $2 and a bottle of water for $2! I sat under a makeshift shaded place with a group of guys in a CAT owned Hilux and talked to them about the trip. I had some fun with them earlier on the road, racing them a bit through some deep sand, and got thumbs up and claps before stopping to wait on JJ. They had arrived about an hour earlier and were waiting for more vehicles so the ferry would be loaded before going across. They bought Malian tea and shared a glass as we waiting 45 minutes together before two cars finally arrived. The ferry ride should have costed $4 but instead we got taken for $9 since our bikes were "heavy." Despite the fact that huge, overloaded, Landcruisers were paying only $15. He had no respect for our "rally" I guess. There was enough room for us to park our bikes beside cars on the ferry, but just barely. I sat in the shade created by a landcruiser next to JJ and we admired the dust we'd collected on our boots from the ride. There's an old Jewish saying that says "you're blessed by the dust on your feet from following your rabbi." I thought about the things God had been teaching me leading up to and on this trip about my self and felt really blessed by the dust on my feet. I pulled the pack of biscuit/cookies I'd bought down the road and offered them to a group of Tuaregs on my left (an older arab looking man, a young arab looking 20 year old, and a black Tuareg 20 year old). The young guys took one each and slowly ate at the crumbly cookies. I could tell them didn't eat things like that very often. I turned to my right and offered one to JJ and then an African lady sitting on the other side of him. She accepted with a smile. I ate my puffy, powdery, sugarless cookie and offered more to everyone else, who maybe out of politeness said they'd had enough. I pushed them a little forward at the younger arab boy who was pretty skinny, and with a smile he accepted. That young guy had asked for a ride on my bike into Timbuktu, I say he asked, he jested and I understood :). I jested back that I was fat and there wasn't room and told him sorry with sincerity. It was nice to at least give him some cookies. They ended up catching a ride in one of the trucks later. The older Tuareg man after a few minutes asked me, with jests and French words, if I had any medicine for an open wound on his ankle. I could tell he'd treated it traditionally, which means putting crushed leaves into it, and it was pretty swollen. My first reaction, shamefully, was to say no. I'm not sure why, I just did. About a second later my senses kicked in and I said "actually, I do have something that could help." I got up and dug out some packs of handi-wipes and gave it to him, telling him to clean it with these in the morning and evening. I had half a tube of neosporin, but I was hoarding it to put on the burns on my thigh. Looking back I probably should have given that to him too. That's all part of the trip I guess. Sitting there I felt like i'd just been an ambassador for whites in a tense world where whites are usually the ones exploiting or disrespecting Tuareg and/or Muslim culture. "Whatever you do to the least of these" rang in my mind and I was reminded that I had been desensitized by living in Togo for the last two years. "Small acts with great love" seemed to be truer than ever. JJ caught my attention and I stood up to go see what he was photographing, which were villages scattered beside the river, which the boat wound through, and wooden boats of fisherman. It was a beautiful place. Soon we were insight of the other shore and people began cranking their cars, so I geared up, said goodbye to my new friends and started the bike. Finding where to go off the ferry just meant following the other cars and soon enough we were on asphalt. It was paved all the way into Timbuktu and i'm not going to lie, felt nice. We stopped at a Total station, gassed up, and headed into town. We were staying at Sahara Passion, ran by Miranda Dodd and her husband Shindook, a Tuareg salt trader. I had called her before boarding the ferry to ask about the price and to doublecheck that we had a place to stay. She was very kind on the phone and had helped a lot with planning the "to Timbuktu" leg of our trip from Dogonland, warning us about over fatigue from trying to make it in one day from Sevare/Mopti. The directions to Sahara Passion were pretty straightforward, even if Timbuktu's roads weren't, take a left at the first roundpoint, stay straight on pavement only until it dead ends (which meant driving over a downed powerline!), then right at the monument "Flamme de la paix". I called her from the monument and Shindook quickly went up to the third story overlook, waving at me in his bright blue Tuareg robe, signaling where to go. It's about 1/4 mile of deep sand, which I at first drove to slow in, wobbled a lot, but made it. I pulled the bike inside their compound but the kickstand sunk straight into the sand, which was abundant in their yard, so Abraham, a young black Tuareg, dug out a big hole and placed a rock for me to put my kickstand on. Inside their compound there is a traditional Tuareg home/shack where Shindooks family stays while in town and their house has a dormatory, individual rooms, and an upstairs where you can tent camp. We knew tourism had been awful that year so we opted for the more expensive dormatory to help them with some cash. Even then, the cost was only $12 a piece for a bed and shower, a place to secure our things, and a light for after hours. Conversations started with Miranda quickly and Shindook motioned for us to eat some rice they'd prepared for us. We sat at the table together in the courtyard and before we knew it were talking religion, politics, and how Miranda had transitioned from Peace Corps in Mauritania to married life in Timbuktu. They are a delightful family. JJ and I decided to go out onto one of the dunes near Sahara Passion and were accompanied by the two young guys who frequent their place. On top of the dune was beautiful, overlooking Tuareg tents back toward the city, camels coming in from the desert, and the sun dipping low over the vast, Sahara horizon. We headed back at sunset, discussed the next days plans and Timbuktu map with Miranda before heading to bed. It was hot in the room so we left the door and windows open to cool the place off, which it did. There was a pretty constant breeze coming from the North. I had a hard time sleeping because of the noise the dung beetles, which are huge, were making. They crawled up and over the threshold, got into everything, and made horrific noise scraping around trying to get back out of whatever they'd fallen into. They are harmless but gross. Around midnight mosquitos came in the room abundantly. I put my 100% deet bug spray on my head, neck, and sides of my face (since the rest of me was under the sheet) and put my earphones in. The good vibes of my favorite playlist helped sooth me from an intense day and I rested well until the morning.


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