When we arrived at the hostel at 1a.m., there was no room at the inn. Rasta was also looking for a place to stay, and apparently the last room in all of Timbuktu - my room, to be exact - had been given to a group of smug Canadian backpackers. The flustered hostel owner was a former Canadian backpacker (do I smell favoritism?) who married a much older Tuareg man from Timbuktu. One look at the squalid living quarters suggested that she was a long way from Quebec.
Rasta and I stood by the campfire watching the room stealers smoke weed and eye us for Backpacker Authenticity. Having left New York without my dreadlocks, hemp drawstring pants and hacky sack, I fell short in their estimation. Rasta, on the other hand, was a Real Deal Rastafarian and also A Real Live Malian, so he merited a greeting.
"Jah love," said the most vocal of the group, bumping fists with Rasta. This simple act marked the beginning of the end of my fortitude and magnanimity. If there is one thing I hate, it's a white Rastafarian backpacker who steals my room in the middle of the night and leaves me homeless in the fucking Sahara desert. I waited for a fist bump, fantasizing that my own fist would "accidentally" bump his punchable face, but it never came. I still feel sad about that.
"I'm so sorry about the mix-up," said the hostel owner in French. "But we have a room for you in the annex." Mr. Punchable seized the opportunity to translate for me, assuming - correctly - that my French wasn't so hot.
"IUNDERSTANDWHATSHESAIDTHANKS," I snapped. Rasta looked taken aback as my Nice Person facade crumbled into a pile of rubble at my feet.
The annex was as ominous as it sounded. I stumbled over a sleeping backpacker camped out in the sandy courtyard, and peeked through a thin corrugated metal door. The room was a bed roll on a dirt floor covered with a ripped sheet. The walls hadn't seen a paint job in at least 20 years and were smeared with unidentifiable grime. The pièce de résistance, however, was the communal bathroom - a foul-smelling mud brick cave with two holes in the ground over which a nozzle hovered (because, let's face it, everyone likes to shower while standing barefoot in someone else's waste). I said a silent prayer of thanks that my GI tract had ceased to function in silent protest of challenging bathroom conditions.
I sat on the bedroll and stared out unto the night in utter disbelief.
First thought: I am too old for this.Second thought: This fucking sucks assballz. Third thought: Gee, this room looks a lot like the Thai prison cell in Brokedown Palace.
Then I cried.
I cried because I was lonesome and flea-bitten and supposed to be Having a Good Time on My Vacation. So far, I'd battled snow storms and slept in airports, lost my bag and stolen a stranger's deodorant, washed my only outfit in a bucket for ten days, developed a rash on my left ass cheek, gotten pissed on, yelled at, chased, dunked and kidnapped. OK, not kidnapped - but it seemed like the only logical next step. Was I having a Good Time on My Vacation? Hell no. I knew it wouldn't get good until I was long, long gone. Paul Theroux, whose hair-raising travel history make my trips look like spa retreats in New Mexico, recently wrote:
The next morning I woke up to a room flooded with light. Two rats scurried across my bed roll and out through a crack in the metal door. I stumbled out into the courtyard, where a Dutch family sat eating unleavened bread coated in a fine layer of sand. "Timbuktu seasoning," joked a blonde Dutch boy with one arm. He offered me a piece while his little sister set about braiding my tangled hair as though we had known each other for years.
Lurking nearby was an American dude with Pocahontas braids, a leather hunting vest, and a harmonica. In other words, my worst nightmare following me all the way to Mali.
"Where are you from?" I asked, testing a theory I had been forming in my head for several minutes.
"Greenwich, Connecticut," he drawled. "But in my heart I'm from New Orleans."
There is a special place in my gallbladder reserved for preppy white dudes who cop a Southern soulman/musician vibe. Under normal circumstances (i.e., in my natural habitat of New York), my first thought after hearing such an appalling display of douchebaggery would be, "PUNCHABLE" followed by several minutes of gargling my own bile. But drinking my first cup of coffee of the day and turning my attention to our Tuareg host, I felt a sudden rush of happiness. Timbuktu stretched out before me, undiscovered. I had my backpack, a little money in my pocket, and the promise of music in the desert.
Next up: Lots of pictures and much less complaining. The Mali Magillah is almost at its end.
Image: Timbuktu fabric via Fiona Bailey. I wish I knew who designed this...