African Queen

Custer, a former Peace Corps volunteer, now lives in San Francisco

Just how long does it take to get from here to Timbuktu? Three hours by plane, or five days by riverboat is what Marcella and I were told, here being Bamako, Mali. "Maybe one week by boat if there are difficulties," said the Malian travel agent.

Difficulties? He refused to elaborate, but other survivors told us their own nautical horror stories. "I was sure I was going to die from an acute attack of malaria," recounted friend Tim. "For three days I sat on a porous reed mat next to an overflowing toilet, hounded by bleating sheep and squawking chickens. Death seemed preferable to continuing the voyage." A Frenchman rambled on about drinking brackish river water while marooned on a sandbar. A local Peace Corps volunteer whispered scenes of engine failure, wading through leech-infested pools, and cruise souvenirs of bacterial infections and intestinal parasites.

Despite these daunting travel tales, we obsessed over having Timbuktu, or "Tombouctou" as they say in Mali, stamped into our passports. Ultimately what lured us to the harbor instead of the airport was the incomprehensible image of sailing to the Sahara, since Timbuktu literally sits a few miles from the edge of the desert.

And so we found ourselves on board the 37-year-old river boat Gen. A. Soumare for a seven-day voyage. Starting in the factory town of Koulikoro, the Soumare was to follow the Niger River until the desert crossroads town of Gao, about 850 miles downstream. Scheduled stops ranged from tiny, off-the-map villages to the ancient cities of Mopti, Dire and Timbuktu.

"C'est vraiment luxe, non?" said the chief steward as he flung open the rusting steel door to our "deluxe" cabin on the Soumare. Marcella quickly scanned the buckled linoleum floor for cockroaches and rats, flipping lumpy mattresses for signs of bed bugs and fleas. I snapped on electrical switches, bringing to life an emphysemic air conditioner and sputtering refrigerator big enough for one bottle of beer. "Checks out in here," I yelled, twisting corroded spigots in the bathroom. "OK in here too," she replied, then said to the bewildered steward, "Yes, this room is definitely deluxe." Mali is a desperately poor West African country--half grassland and half desert--covering 500,000 square miles. And despite the Soumare's broken chairs, torn curtains and insect-encrusted windows, we appreciated the relative extravagance offered.

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Once installed, we made last-minute purchases from dockside merchants who peered over mountains of enamel dishware while polishing tea trays made from Nescafe cans. Smiling cigarette boys weaved through with Marlboros, roasted peanuts and homemade ginger and eucalyptus candies. Temporary food stalls served steaming plates of rice topped with spicy peanut sauce or flaky chunks of fried fish. "You need to eat here," called one vendor. "There's no food on the ship," she laughed. Spooked by her joshing, I lined my pockets with extra packets of stale cookies.

Porters performed a strenuous loading ballet, tossing 40-pound bags of cement and U.S.-aid cornmeal down a chorus line leading to the boat's belly. The kitchen crew stowed bamboo hampers of potatoes and yams, and filled the lifeboats with plump watermelons. Bloody sheep carcasses were dumped onto the galley floor, live goats and chickens shooed into a temporary pen, destined to make culinary appearances later in the week.

The purple twilight faded as the last passengers scrambled to claim empty deck space, designating territory with prayer mats and woolen blankets. Suddenly embarrassed at my relatively plush digs, I realized this was not a pleasure cruise for Malians. This was a working commercial boat, many of its passengers spending the next two weeks slogging out a living by selling and trading at ports.

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A blast of the boat whistle caused a ripple of farewell handshakes and embraces through the crowd. The engines heaved into motion and the ship glided into the inky night water.

That first night set the pattern of a disruptive nocturnal existence. Once under the mosquito net, we were lulled into a deep sleep by the drone of the engines--a sleep regularly interrupted by the bump and grind of ship hull meeting mooring. Twenty-four hours a day the Soumare was a revolving door for passengers and cargo.

"Come look, Marcella," I said on the first morning, hearing the playful sound of people splashing. "The crew is out having a swim." I then realized that the boat was motionless in the middle of the river, stuck on a sandbar. For three hours the crew pried at the ship's frame with bamboo poles, finally freeing the Soumare from its watery trap.

We quizzed the captain about getting back on schedule. "Of course," he said, then paused, adding "God willing." Visits to the wheelhouse didn't reduce my worry about becoming stranded on sandbars. "The river is constantly shifting," explained the pilot. "We know some of the channels well, but usually we just hope that Allah lets us pass, especially at night."

We fell into a relaxed daily routine of watching as each bend of the Niger presented a different scene from a grand river-drama of tightly choreographed vignettes. Highlighted performances were the delicate fluidity of a fisherman tossing nets while perched on a canoe bow, of blue herons frozen at attention on sandy isles or dancing gray shore pipers taunting the boat's wake. Kingfishers plucked squirming fish from eddy and pool, and hippos tried to hide their enormous heads behind the slender clumps of shoreline grasses. Occasionally within the stunning vastness a solitary herder sat under a lone acacia tree, a river Buddha in repose.

Many passengers were on a pilgrimage to their villages of birth, having fled the hard Saharan life for jobs elsewhere. They reverently spoke of grandparents remaining at these outposts, to whom they were bringing sheep and sacks of grain. One young man was making a 600-mile voyage to spend only two days with his family. "I must let them know that the capital hasn't swallowed me up," he explained.

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Three times a day the thunderous ringing of a brass bell signaled the boat's transformation into a floating restaurant. Breakfasts were rock-hard bread served with muddy coffee, lunches rice with vegetables and goat meat, dinners creative interpretations of European dishes, such as spaghetti topped with palm oil.

The regal Mme. Kone orchestrated the meals. She swept through the dining room in flowing robes and gold bangles, barking commands at fumbling waiters, then pirouetting with a broad smile to inquire about the saltiness of the gravy. High praises for her cuisine spilled from our mouths. It was miraculous that anything edible came from her primitive kitchen, and none of us fell ill from the dishes cooked with water from arguably the largest open sewer in West Africa.

Mealtimes brought passengers and crew together for gossip and travel stories. First-class diners enjoyed the ambience of Kung Fu movies blaring from a television with no vertical hold, and plastic plates atop French linen tablecloths. Second- and third-class passengers ate from communal bowls underneath a sparkling disco ball while Bob Marley wailed 120 decibels strong from a single distorted speaker. Those on outside decks bought fried yams, grilled fish and bean-flour doughnuts from the freelance cooks lording over vats of boiling oil and bowls of tongue-deadening hot peppers.

Greeting the Soumare at ports every two to three hours was a chaotic avalanche of humans and cargo as disembarking passengers and vendors vied for access to shore and ship. Once on board panicky passengers squared off to fight for open cabins or deck space, and departing passengers were swarmed by waiting relatives and picked clean of their sacks of booty.

Next the port quickly transformed into a frantic market. Vendors from the boat threw open wooden chests full of sugar, tea and flour. Villagers converged on sandy riverbanks hawking live chickens, boiled eggs, sour milk, rancid butter or intricately woven reed prayer mats. Haggling and transactions were done within seconds because nobody knew how long it would be until the Soumare pulled away.

A fleet of animal-laden canoes created a floating livestock auction. Mme. Kone commanded the resupply of the kitchen, buying mammoth fleshy carp, buckets of frothy goat milk or bushels of water spinach. The boat's horn signaled imminent departure. Often a village seller stayed on board to make one last sale, then had to swim for shore with a gourd of yogurt or bolt of cloth atop her head.

Village merchants usually sold the same local specialty to the passengers and crew: juicy mangoes, brightly colored fans, itchy sheep-wool blankets. These goods were snatched up by all, later causing surreal scenes of 150 people simultaneously munching on corncobs or a mass display of ridiculously colored circus hats at dinner time.

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The Soumare attracted a plethora of eccentric passengers. There was the Dutch professor peddling around Mali on a 30-year-old bicycle; a German who was kept in his cabin by a gaggle of teens trying to teach him French; and the ship's majestic elderly Brazilian couple, whom everyone called Ma and Pa Brazil.

The ship's entertainment director, Mr. Koulibali, coordinated the nightly Hong Kong videos and occasional dance parties. He was perpetually grumpy and hung over. He dealt with a momentary lull in the festivities with a thrust of his cane at the crowd while bellowing, "What's wrong with you? Enjoy yourselves!" We always smiled in his presence and left his events only when his back was turned.

As we sailed farther north, the pictures of desert landscapes from our guidebook began to match the world outside. Distances between villages lengthened, trees and grass became rare sights and the rocky shoreline was frequently interrupted by towering sand dunes. We knew Timbuktu was nearby.

Arriving there at 5:30 a.m., 20 of us crammed into the back of a pickup and started the bone-jarring 10-mile trip to the city center. The sun burst from the horizon, illuminating giant thorn bushes and piles of bleached camel bones. The truck lurched to a stop in the center of an abandoned town square. We piled out and scanned the surrounding desolate streets. Expectant glances flitted between us, as if we were waiting for a hidden brass band to strike up a welcoming tune. "Bienvenue to Tombouctou," said Marcella, finally breaking the silence.

Then Pa Brazil pulled me aside, "Where do you think I can get a big American breakfast?" he asked. I looked around at the crumbling mud walls and herds of goats and shook my head. "We will find it," he proclaimed, dragging his Samsonite and Ma Brazil down the sandy alleyway to a hotel, having decided to stay a few days. "I sure will miss them," I said to Marcella, feeling suddenly alone and wishing for the company of obnoxious jewelry salesmen or pesky children begging for pens.

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Finally, Cidi, a university student we befriended on the boat, arrived to give a brief tour. First stop was the 800-year-old grand mosque, its minaret providing a sweeping vista of the city and of the nothingness beyond. Later, at the Tombouctou museum, the curator seemed more interested in selling than displaying objects. "That is valuable," he said, pointing to a mask on the wall. "Fifty dollars and it's yours." We politely declined, understanding why the museum was practically empty.

The market provided further evidence of the difficult life here. Most shops carried the same items: expired Chinese batteries, rusting tins of Moroccan sardines, teeth-shattering dried dates and piles of moldy onions. The biggest section of the market was devoted to yard-long blocks of salt brought 500 miles by camel caravan from Taoudenni, deep in the heart of the desert. I asked a moody salt trader if it wasn't easier to have salt shipped on the boat instead. "Yes, it is," he scowled, "but then I wouldn't have any work here. There is nothing in Tombouctou but salt, sand and tourists."

Finally, we rendezvoused with the keeper of the coveted immigration stamp. The bemused chief of police carefully inked the rubber seal, then daintily rolled the words "Tombouctou" across a page of our passports. Proof of our visit in hand, we dashed back to our cozy floating home, knowing that missing its departure would mean spending an entire week here.

We shared cool drinks with Mme. Kone and recounted our tour, while Mr. Koulibali threw verbal knives at the bartender. Suddenly Ma and Pa Brazil burst through the door. "I thought you people were staying in town," growled Mr. Koulibali. "Well, the hotel was completely empty," said Ma Brazil, "then we walked around and realized how lonely we felt. We'd rather be on the boat with our friends," she said. "Plus we could only find bread mixed with dirt for breakfast," winked Pa Brazil.

Soon the ship pushed off from the dock and we were back into the flow of the wide river, eagerly looking forward to sharing our next meal with the Soumare's laughing passengers.

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GUIDEBOOK

River Running

Getting there: Americans must have a visa to visit Mali. To get a visa application, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Mali Embassy, 2130 R St., NW Washington, DC 20008, telephone (202) 332-2249. You can fly on British Airways or Air France from LAX, with connections, to Mali for about $3,000 round-trip.

River trips: The country code for Mali is 223. French is the primary language. Companie Malienne de Navigation (tel. 011-223-26-20-95) operates three boats on the Niger River: Gen. A. Soumare, Tombouctou and Kankan Moussa. For a six- or seven-day trip from Koulikoro to Gao, deluxe cabins cost about $725 and sleep two, with private bath, air conditioner and refrigerator. First class is about $175, with two bunks, a sink and shared outside bath. Second class is four bunks and shared outside bath for about $125. Cabin guests are provided three meals a day. You also can board the boat at any port along the way. Many tourists opt for a two- or three-day trip from Mopti to Timbuktu, then fly out of Timbuktu.

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