"How far to Timbuktu?" I ask the driver. He is hauling bags onto the roof of a battered 4WD while a two women bargain loudly for a place inside. I've given up on my dream of floating down the Niger River to Timbuktu. I am running of out time so I pay a princely sum for a spot in a bombed out 4WD and brace myself for a long drive into the Sahara.
"Oh...a few hours," he replies in a breezy, non-commital way.
"But how many?" I ask his companion.
"Eight," he says.
"Ten," insists another man, winding a length of gauzy cotton cloth around his head and over his mouth.
"At least thirteen," says the woman next to me.
"Thirteen?" I protest. There must be some mistake. How can this be? It's looks so close on the map. The woman tells me the road is very bad and that there are "many troubles" along the way.
Troubles? What troubles?
Perhaps she is referring to THE GIGANTIC RIFLE the driver is stashing under his seat. Or maybe it's the al-Qaeda cells lurking in Northern Mali, not far from where I'm headed. I decide to look on the bright side: it's far better to be in the car with the gigantic elephant-killing gun than in the car without it.
After ten days, I am finally reunited with my bag - the bag which is strapped to the roof of a Land Rover that is now speeding off into the distance without me. The thought of my expensive moisturizer falling into the hands of Tuareg bandits and al-Qaeda operatives almost makes me weep. Will I ever know pristine underwear again? As I watch the road dust settle, it seems increasingly unlikely.
The road: it's fucked. We break down once, twice, three times.
We wait. For a spare part. For a mechanic. For four hours. There are eleven of us in a car that seats seven - nine Malians, a Belgian and me. The Malian family picnics, luxuriating in the shade provided by the Land Rover. In typical fashion, they make the best of things, smoking, chatting, stretching out for a nap. I seethe and poke at my Blackberry. To my amazement, I get better reception on a Malian savannah than I do on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Belgian has monopolized more than his fair share of our vehicle with his enormous Belgian girth and his pasty Belgian legs. I have already spent several hours in the trunk hating the back of his neck while trying to extract my knees from my tonsils. Seeing the rest of him has not improved my mood.
I pace, shaking my tiny fists in disbelief at the cars that pass us without stopping to help. "They are afraid of kidnappers," sniffs the reclining Belgian, whose fleshy whiteness creeps across the sand like pancake batter on a hot griddle.
SHUT THE FUCK UP, I say with my inside voice, which, mercifully, does not speak French.
FUCK THIS FUCKING ROAD, I add for good measure. I make a mental list of other things I want to go to hell, namely: the car, the Sahara Desert, bandits, al-Qaeda, missing spare tires, ferry timetables, my shitty French, dust.
Miraculously, the tire arrives. The car starts just as the light gives out and we gingerly make our way along the pitted road. Two of my companions become spectacularly car sick, urping so vigorously that we stop to make sure they haven't lost any internal organs. I wash their faces with my precious stash of Wet Ones and tell them how dainty they look even after puking their guts out down the side of the Land Rover.
After sixteen hours, we arrive at the dock where a ferry will take us across the Niger River to Timbuktu. It is several minutes before I understand that the ferryman has gone home for the evening, that we are stranded on the wrong side of the river until morning. The realization is so depressing that I wander off to the river bank to cry in frustration.
"TAAAAAAAATAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" someone calls. I turn around and see a set of white teeth coming toward me in the darkness.
I throw my arms around him. "My black brother from another mother!" We laugh at our inside joke. I have never been so happy to see anyone in my life.
"What are you doing here? Are you going to the festival?" I ask, still hugging him.
"Yes," he said. "I waited and waited for hours for your car - and no Tata! I was worried. And now there is no ferry." I am overwhelmed by Rasta's kindness - gobsmacked that he waited in the dark, missing the ferry to make sure I hadn't been eaten by jackals. I thank him again and again in a state of disbelief. It's like a scene from a movie, only fatter and less Desert Casual.
And as is almost always the case with Rasta, solutions suddenly emerge from nowhere. He convinces a private pinasse to take us across the Niger, and within minutes we are loading our bags into the boat and tucking into a communal bowl of fish and rice.
We are crossing the mighty Niger - the river that swallowed up Mungo Park and inspired countless other adventurers to explore its meandering path. I have been anticipating this moment for years, building it up in my mind with layer upon layer of romance and mystery.