Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To go or not to go (to Timbuktu, that is)

Ever since I started doing research for my upcoming year's adventure, I have been fascinated with the idea of going to Timbuktu. Some of the appeal, I admit, is just for the bragging rights -- how many people can say they've been to Timbuktu? -- but mostly it's the mystique of Timbuktu itself.

It's not much to look at now, I gather, as it's a small dusty town surrounded by lots and lots of nothingness. But it has an incredible history: it used to be the pre-eminent city in Africa, in the 12th century or so, as it sat at the crossroads of important trading routes through the desert. It even reached a population of 100,000 people, which surely would have made it one of the largest urban centres of the day.

It's still there, in the middle of the desert, with the harsh Saharan sun beating down on its mud mosques and gritty sand blowing down the unpaved streets. And I really want to go.

Trouble is, there have been a spate of kidnappings in this part of the world, and numbers are on the rise. Canada, Britain, and the U.S. (among other Western nations) have all issued travel advisories about that part of Mali, with very strong suggestions that travellers stay away unless it's essential. AQIM (the acronym for Al Qaeda here) operates in northern Mali, and uses the area as a location to hold hostages. There is also, apparently, very real risks of violence from drug traffickers and from Tuareg dissidents.

Hmmm. Getting kidnapped by al-Qaeda and held for ransom in the middle of the desert, or caught in the crossfire of drug wars, would really put a damper on my year off.

I might have to go back to the drawing board for the first part of the year ... planned West Africa jaunt might now become a more traditional African safari in the south. I'll keep you posted.

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