To Timbuktu for a Haircut is a splendid combination of adventure, memoir and history. Not knowing a lot about, or having a particular interest in, Timbuktu or Mali, I wouldn’t have normally picked up this book. However, the author’s publicist sent me a copy and I found that once I started reading, I literally could not put it down.
Author Rick Antonson journeys through West Africa. Destination? Timbuktu. He had always been fascinated by this elusive city because his dad would often say when leaving the house that he was going to Timbuktu for a Haircut. That sort of a statement is of course going to stick with any person inflicted with the slightest interest in travel. And so it did with the author.
Rick has a really keen insight into the Malian people, himself as well as other travelers he meets along the way. Though conditions are less than comfortable, he makes the best of his journey and weaves a tale of adventure laced with wit.
After reading To Timbuktu for a Haircut, I was really eager to chat with Rick. Without giving away too many details of the book (because this is a MUST read), here’s a short Q&A:
Q. The heat and sand must have been nearly unbearable, yet you barely mention the heat and you never actually complain about the sand — only mentioning its presence in your food or elsewhere. Does this say more about your writing style or your travel style? In other words, were these things really unbearably annoying while you traveled but you chose not to harp on them or are you such a seasoned traveler that you could let them roll of your back, so to speak?
A. My travel style is ‘accepting’ and I don’t find complaining to be worth the effort. I’ve travelled with wingers and whiners on ocassion and shorten such experiences as quickly as I can. They usually miss many things worth absorbing because they’re cranky or unhappy. Besides, I became fascinated with researching the early explorers and would have felt ridiculous complaining of minor inconveniences in light of severe travel hardships which they endured. In Mali, and West Africa, millions of people live each day with circumstances which for me were temporary. They didn’t complain about heat and sand – why should I, their guest?
Q. The same is true of the train ride. It must have been incredibly hot and uncomfortable, yet you speak of the beauty of sharing your food with your cabin-mates and of the people. Not of the heat or cramped conditions. Of all your travels, where does this fall in terms of difficult travel?
A. I’m an outdoor, wilderness camper from way back, and early on noticed how quickly one’s unfamiliar circumstances (damp fire pit, uneven tent setting, distant water source, etcetera) become ‘familiar’ and are simply reflective where you are. When an unsettling setting shows little inclination to adapt to the traveller, the traveller has precious few options – one is to take it as it is.
I think difficult travel is about blisters or traveller’s tummy, as those make for discomfort. As to other difficult situations, in the past, they were all of a temporary nature as well – altitude sickness in mountains, flopping-about planes in turbulence, border crossing hassles, mystery meat for meals…
Q. When you’re on that train ride, you mention picking instant coffee up off the floor in order to have a cup of coffee in the morning. This is a long way from the Four Seasons and your business-life. Did it seem incongruous to you or were you able to really easily slip into that lifestyle?
A. First – the resulting coffee that morning tasted really good! Sometimes the contrast of container and contents heightens one’s appreciation and senses. Secondly, as to ‘incongruous’, like many travellers, I compartamentalize ‘life-style’ and simply forget about home comforts in exchange for accepting whatever happens along during a trip. It may be the only way to be ‘in the moment’ without constantly making comparisons with what might have been.
As a writer about travel, I realize that a story comes alive through incident and anecdote, not through normal passage – and in that way, relish the oddities.
Q. The tour operator, Mohammad, who made many of the arrangements for your trip, was less than honest. Sometimes a bad experience with one (or more) such people can color the way you experience or perceive a trip. Do you feel like this cast any sort of a cloud either while you were there or after you returned? Why or why not?
A. Travelling should be like reading a great novel, one filled with characters you may not wish to live next door to, and perhaps not wish to spend too much time with, but those who non-the-less sparkle into your journey with distractions and contradictions. Mohammed provided me with a wonderful counterbalance, keeping me mindful of my own naivete. When all was over, I realized I was fortunate to have had him as he added to my misadventures and provoked my thinking while not putting me in harms way.
Q. You also made some wonderful friends during the trip. Would you say that these bonds were closer than other trips you’ve taken? Can you explain?
A. These travellers were remarkably independent, and that made them very interesting to me – their thoughts, perceptions, their willingness to admit errors and oversights and how they discarded prejudices about me. And the Malians who accepted me with such a gracious style, put me at ease. The rogue Mohammed provided a narrative thread showing my own inept planning and his savvy business approach, thus no friendship; yet it contrasted so well with young Zak who befriended me, understanding my angst better that did I myself. His insights (into me; to his land) intrigued me because much of what he shared, I’d have missed on my own. That bond was unusual, which is likely why he and I still email one another every month or so when he is away from his Dogon village and has computer access
Q. Is this the sort of trip you’d recommend for a woman traveling on her own?
A. My wife Janice is seasoned with travelling on her own for business and on personal trips, as is my daughter-in-law Hilary and yet I would suggest the two of them go on this particular trip together since companionship is important as is an extra set of eyes to look over your shoulder while the other looks over the horizon. Recently I met with two women (again, experienced travellers) who phoned me because they were planning such a trip and had read my book. Together, they were perfect for such a journey. Then, two weeks later (recently) their trip was cancelled because of unrest in the area. That had nothing to do with female/male travellers, just a prudent sense of avoiding unnecessary dangers. There were many experiences on my trip I’d have loved to share with Janice or with my two grown sons; though the experiences that lead to the book needed to happen ‘alone.’
Q. For that matter, is this the sort of trip you’d recommend for anyone?
A. No, it is not for the faint hearted, nor for anyone who wishes to grumble about circumstances, as there is plenty to grumble about and grumblers are the worst of travel folks to be around. The trip is only good for someone who says at the start, ‘whatever happens, happens; I accept.’ It is not a trip for judgmental people.
Q. What 2 pieces of advice would you give someone who would like to do a similar trip through Mali?
1. Think about medical supplies, vitamin supplements, and liquids in advance…+ think safety at every step.
2. Make arrangements in advance (or take your time interviewing guides upon arrival) to ensure you are with someone who knows the route(s), considers that your eating well = energy for your enjoyment, and talks with you about their amazing culture, country and people.
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