The Last Boat to Timbuktu

Timbuktu; Mali; Feb. 21, 2009.

Pain.  Excruciating pain. The most intense pain I have experienced in my life.  We are on a cargo boat about halfway between Mopti and Timbuktu. The boat is approximately 30 feet long with a thatch roof and a cargo of sacks of millet, sacks of rice, sacks of coal, about twenty people and a whole bunch of mattresses. We have arranged the mattresses on the roof into a comfortable terrace. It’s a glorious journey up the Niger River with amazing sights all along the way. The only problem is my foot. When we left Mopti, it seemed fine. But on the morning of the second day, it took a turn for the worse. Now it is the morning of the third day and it is a disaster. Swollen up….oozing large quantities of pus in unearthly colors. Alberto is holding my leg tight, dumping alcohol and iodine on the wound and picking away the infection with a pair of tweezers he sterilized with a lighter. Goddamn it hurts. I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to bite a fucking bullet. Is it really worth it to make it to Timbuktu if I lose my foot in the process….

It’s my own damn fault. Like usual, I did everything wrong. On the morning of our first day in Mopti, my foot feels fine. I am healed…. no problem. I feel so good in fact that I will even stop taking the antibiotic (stupid). I tell Alberto we should wait a day or so to rest the injury but the Niger river dries up in mid February and the cargo boats stop running and it’s already the 11th of February so if we want to go by boat, we better leave soon.  In one of the more idiotic decisions of my life, we take a walk into town to find information. The info is good; the boats are still running for another week or so and we have a shitty meal at a restaurant but by the time we get back to the hotel, my foot hurts again. No matter, I’ll take another antibiotic and take it easy tomorrow relaxing by the pool at the hotel.

The place we are staying is kind of fancy with a swimming pool and nice terrace restaurant. Alberto only paid for the nice rooms the first night and after that we moved to the roof where we could camp for a mere 4000 cfas. For the next several days we experience the fairly common phenomena of travelers’ delay of game. First it’s my foot and then Alberto gets sick….. vomiting and diarrhea. By the fifth day of waiting, I am going crazy and I am ready to move on. My foot still hurts some but Alberto is better so we plan to leave the very next day. That’s when we meet the angry Canadian. He has just come back from a failed attempt to go to Timbuktu by cargo boat and he sits down at our table in the restaurant to tell us all about it. Apparently, he paid 30,000 cfas for a ticket and then discovered the normal local price is only 10,000 cfas. Then he had no place to sit on the boat and the boat kept getting stuck in the sand. After 36 hours they had only gone three kilometers so he gave up. He had to argue like hell to get his money back but he got off the boat and took a taxi back to Mopti. In short, he advises us strongly not to go.

Nevertheless, the next morning we set out on our journey. We take a taxi down to the port area and find boatman. He tells us it will cost 25,000 cfas to go to Timbuktu by cargo boat. I know the price is high but I don’t want to walk up and down the port arguing to get the right price. Besides, 50 bucks for a three to four day boat journey is not exactly a rip off. We agree to the price and Alberto and the boatman go to the market to buy some supplies while I stay with our backpacks by the port.  In their absence, I have a very strange sensation that is kind of hard to describe.   I feel sort of like the protagonist of a morality play that is about to make a wrong move.    Back at the hotel, Alberto was feeling funny about carrying all his money around in his underwear.    For reasons I don’t quite understand, he decided that his big wad of money would be safer in my small daypack than it would be on his person.   Accordingly, he gave it to me to hold on to.   So, here I am, sitting in a crowd of people, surrounded by poverty, with a mountain of money on my person. No one can tell though, I look like a bum with a bad foot.   Little do the market goers realize that my dingy backpack contains the equivalent of two or three years’ wages for any of them.

Alberto and the boatman return and we head to the shoreline but are too late. The boat is already out in the river and heading upstream.   The boatman flags down a taxi which takes us a few kilometers up the road to head off the boat.  The cargo boat sees us waving and pulls in close enough so that we can wade out to it. But no way; I am not walking in the Niger River with an infected foot.  I’m not that stupid. So they find a small canoe to ferry me over.   I must say that it is quite a precarious maneuver.   My foot always held in the air, I manage to scramble into the canoe and then from the canoe on board the cargo boat. Then, just as we are pulling away, the boatman informs us that this boat is not going to Timbuktu. We will have to change boats tomorrow morning at a village up ahead. But not to worry, our ticket is paid all the way to Timbuktu.

This first day on the boat is one of my best travel days ever. We are stretched out on sacks of millet with a thatch roof to shade us from the sun. We have oranges, bananas and papaya to eat and plenty of marijuana to smoke. The scenery is just plain incredible. A winding river through a desert landscape….. Bozo fishing villages with mud and reed huts; cargo boats and small fishing boats; some with sails and some with just poles; birds….. lots of them and more fish jumping in the water than I ever thought was possible. We get stuck a few times in the sand but young men from the crew jump into the water and push and pull on us until we are free.   Around sunset, the river opens up into a lake and wetland.   We are making slow and steady progress towards Timbuktu. Shortly after dark; we stop for the night. Our boat lines up next to a couple others along the shore.  I arrange my mosquito net and go to sleep with a smile on my face.

I awake before dawn with a throbbing pain in my foot. Damn, I was going to change the bandage before sleeping but I forgot. I should get up and change it now. But it will be difficult to change in the dark; it’s almost morning so I should wait. As the light slowly grows in the sky, the pain intensifies in my foot and I debate the issue in my head.  I should change the bandage now.  I should wait until more light.  No, I should change it now.  No, wait for more light.   I am frozen to inaction by the force of indecision.  And then suddenly, there is a commotion on the boat; flashlights beaming, people talking, boats shifting positions.  Alberto and I are now informed that it is time to switch boats. In the dim light, our belongings are shifted between boats and we scramble across to the neighboring boat. It’s like some kind of nightmare. The new boat is packed full of cargo. So full we can’t see ahead to the front or behind to the back of the boat. The place reserved for us to sit is on a small wooden platform directly behind the engine. We are inundated with fumes, my foot throbs and there is only a small opening to look outside at the river. In short, we are passengers on the cargo boat from hell.

We try to make the best of it but my foot is killing me. Alberto unwraps the bandage to have a look. It’s a disaster. The swollen wound oozes pus of white, yellow, green and brown. It’s bad…. real bad. Alberto dumps alcohol and betadyne on it and then bandages it up again. This is not a good place to be with a foot infection. Actually, it’s not a good place to be under any circumstances. After a little while, sickened by fumes, I can’t stand it anymore. I squeeze my way through the opening and stand on the outer edge of the boat holding the thatch roof with my hands. The roof is piled high with mattresses. I have an idea and wonder if it is possible. But no, probably not. I balance precariously on the edge and make my way towards the back. There’s no place to sit in the back except on a sack of coal. But at least the fumes aren’t so bad and I can see the river scenery.

As I’m sitting there on the bag of coal with my wounded foot propped up, a guy from the engine room comes back to join me. He asks in French about my foot. I shrug and say its okay. He asks if I have time because it will take three more days to reach Timbuktu. Yeah sure, I have plenty of time. And then he tells me that the river is going dry so this is the last cargo boat to Timbuktu for the season. How about that? The last boat to Timbuktu….  now that’s a good title for a travelogue.

After a while, the crewman leaves and Alberto exits the hellhole to come join me on the back. As we are sitting there on a sack of coal discussing the discomfort of the coming journey we are surprised by the appearance of the Polish Leprechaun. No, he’s not a real Leprechaun, he just looks like one. His name is Peter and he’s a five foot five inch tall Polish backpacker with a fluffy blonde/red beard and a psychotic twinkle in his eye. He scrambles across the mattresses on the roof and plops down next to us.   In broken English with a heavy accent he tells us we are crazy to ride in the back with the fumes and invites us to his “palace.” We follow him across the mattresses towards the front of the boat where he and another backpacker named Jared from Austria have arranged some of the mattresses into a fortress. We move a few more mattresses to make room for Alberto and I and suddenly the cargo boat from hell transforms into a luxury cruise.

Could there be a better way to travel? The Niger River and a pile of mattresses. Mattresses shade us from the sun and cushion our bodies. Peter has a cook stove so we have coffee and tea. There’s plenty of marijuana not to mention bananas and papayas. And the scenery is incomparable. A winding river through a desert landscape. We don’t see any crocodiles but we do see hippos.   The birds are abundant and so are the fish. But most impressive of all are the many small villages. Simple huts of mud or thatch. Wooden boats with poles and sometimes makeshift sails. People living off the resources of the Niger River. They don’t have a penny but somehow they live. We stop at a few of the larger villages to load and unload cargo but most of them we pass on by. Our boat gets stuck a few times and guys from the crew jump in the water to push and pull us free. Peter, that crazy Leprechaun, takes the opportunity when we’re stuck to go swimming in the Niger.

My foot still hurts but I try not to think about it. Thankfully, Jared has some real European antibiotics (Cipro) and he gives me some to replace the cheap shit African antibiotics I have been taking. Maybe that will help. I sleep that night on a mattress beneath the stars slowly winding my way upstream on the Niger River.

The next morning, despite the Cipro, my wound is a disaster. When Alberto unwraps the bandage and we look, I become frightened. It looks fucking scary. The center is oozing green, yellow and white puss through the seams of a partial scab. And surrounding the whole thing is a dark red ring that seems to grow before my eyes. This is bad. People die from infections. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? Alberto decides we need to operate. He cooks the tweezers with a lighter, dumps on the alcohol and starts to pick away at the infection. I won’t describe the pain again. I’d rather not think about it.

The day is a strange one; a regular roller coaster of emotions. On the one hand, it is incredible; an idyllic journey through another world…..the Niger River World. On the other hand, I’m terrified of losing my foot or possibly dying from infection. Should I be loving this or hating it…… I don’t really know.

In the late afternoon, we arrive at a very large village; almost a town. The crew from the boat informs us that it is only six more hours to Timbuktu but they are not leaving this village until tomorrow afternoon because they are waiting for cargo. We can stay in the village or on the boat until they continue or switch to a different boat that is leaving this evening. I need a hospital as soon as possible so I want to switch. Everyone agrees to come along. So we load our belongings onto a small boat and get ferried to shore (no easy trick with my foot). Once on the sandy, garbage strewn shore, we are immediately surrounded by a bunch of villagers. Fifteen or twenty half naked, dirty, snot-nosed kids are stomping in the sand all around my infected foot. And then, the problem arises. They want us to pay 10,000 cfas a person for the new boat even though we already paid for passage to Timbuktu.  I’m willing to pay because I’m desperate but no one else wants to get ripped off. An argument ensues…..a long argument; all the while I’m standing in the center of a maelstrom of bacteria and germs. Eventually they let us on the boat and we don’t have to pay. But just as we board, they inform us that this boat isn’t leaving until first thing in the morning. We will have to spend the night on the boat. Oh great…. just fucking great; another whole night for my foot to change colors.

This next boat doesn’t have mattresses but it’s not too bad. There are sacks of millet and rice to stretch out on and a thatch roof above our heads. As soon as we make ourselves comfortable, Alberto unwraps my bandage and the group gathers around to look. Jared says, “oh my god, you need a hospital.” Peter suggests cutting half the foot off with a knife and cauterizing it with fire like Rambo. Alberto thinks we should rip off the scab and clean the infection out from underneath it.   As we are sitting in our consultation, we are approached by an older African man from the front of the boat. He indicates that he wants to help. Witchdoctor, voodoo, traditional medicine or crazy old man, I don’t know. But he wants to help and I need help so I let him examine the injury. He holds his hand an inch or so above the wound and mumbles incomprehensible words. Strangely, I feel intense heat rising from my foot. After a minute or so of this, he stops, indicates for us to wait and scrambles up to the front of the boat. He comes back a minute or so later with a small container of engine oil. He wants to smear it on my foot…… No fucking way. I’m not that crazy. Don’t put engine oil on my open wound.   He tells me to calm down and then unwraps a cloth from his own foot to show me something. He has a huge gash covered with dried engine oil scabbed over and healing nicely. So I let him go ahead with his procedure. I know it’s crazy but I’m in pain and afraid and willing to try anything. But he doesn’t smear the oil directly on the wound. Instead, he has Alberto dump alcohol on the oozing pus in the center and only smears the oil on the dark red ring that surrounds the opening. Then he tears off part of his turban (very unsanitary) and uses it to wrap the wound. He wraps it in such a way that the wound is protected but the cloth is not actually touching it. Afterwards, he tells me not to worry and then he goes away.

I wish I could say that the witchdoctor magically cures my foot, but no, that’s not what happens. But when we unwrap the cloth in the morning and wash the oil off with alcohol, the injury does look rather different. The center of it is erupting with a veritable volcano of pus, but the dark red ring surrounding it has faded to a light pink. I don’t know, but it seems as if the engine oil has somehow pushed all the infection into the center. Nevertheless, I still need a hospital as soon as possible

The boat doesn’t leave first thing in the morning. We wait and we wait and we wait.   About mid-morning, someone from the boat informs us that they too are waiting for more cargo and they don’t know when it will arrive. We are welcome to stay and wait as well but there is also a 4X4 available that will take us all the last 120 kilometers to Timbuktu for 3000 cfas a piece. Yeah sure, I want to arrive in Timbuktu by river boat, but my foot cannot wait. I’m going by 4X4. Alberto, Peter and Jared agree to come with me.

The only problem is getting off the boat. We are anchored slightly off shore. The boarding plank leads to within three feet of the shore but the last bit requires wading through water. I stand on the edge of the plank with my wounded foot and look at the dirty water with terror. All of a sudden, a big man from the village strolls out into the water and throws me over his shoulder. He carries my sorry ass through the water and across the sand to deposit me in the back of the 4X4. The crowd from the village that has gathered around erupts into cheers. Two hours later, we arrive in Timbuktu and I go directly to the medical center to see a doctor…..

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