Confessions of an Agoraphobic Adventuress

Click here for a slide show. TIMBUKTU, Mali—The “Lonely Planet” guide that directed me to a bed-bugged brothel in Bamako is the first thing to go. Essakane has stripped away a lot of illusions, and it’s time to lighten my physical burden as well. The first rule of travel is “Always bring a book.” I’ve lugged Gravity’s Rainbow 6,000 miles, hoping that after 10 years of trying, I’ll make it past the first 200 pages. Tuareg children circle the tent as I pack, waiting for leftovers. I hand Pynchon’s masterpiece to a boy of about 10. He sees there are no pictures and drops it to the sand. I leave it fluttering in the dunes. There’s my epitaph: “Never Finished Gravity’s Rainbow.” It’s time for Timbuktu.

Like most visitors to Mali, Timbuktu is really why I’m here. The magazine editors who commission my pieces on five-star resorts and luxury yachting destinations are not interested in this landlocked corner of West Africa. The music festival didn’t tempt Rolling Stone to even return my calls. And as for the book I’m working on, another blonde from Columbia, Mo., beat me months ago.

It’s a clichéd journey. Five minutes with Google will inform any traveler that the place is a hustler’s hellhole. The fabled city in the sands fell from grace half a millennium ago, when Moroccans sacked the center of trade and Islamic scholarship. I know all this. The name’s still mythical: Shangri-La. Zanzibar. Timbuktu. But I’m here for another reason.

Five years ago, I couldn’t manage a two-hour trip to St. Louis. I sobbed on interstates, panicked on planes, was fearful anywhere beyond my rapidly shrinking circle of safety. “General anxiety disorder” was the diagnosis, Paxil the recommended coping mechanism. I got a passport instead.

My family travels differently. We are not Peace Corps, Fulbright, junior-year-abroad people. A few of us made the Delta-to-Detroit migration, becoming steelworkers instead of sharecroppers. We go overseas with dog tags instead of passports. Our souvenirs are not the kind you want to show. Syphilis. Suicidal tendencies.

“That is a lie,” my mother will tell you. “That boy just fell.”

Maybe. But I fell for the name “Timbuktu” long ago, before my own terrors and before Sept. 11 ushered in America’s collective agoraphobia. Now I’m finally in the dusty city that prompted no less an Afrophile than Bob Geldof to wonder, “Is this it?”

Timbuktu is a sad place, dispirited and angry. The most visible signs of its faded glory are the ugly sheets of corrugated metal that adorn most doorways. The doors here were legend, massive wooden portals with ornate silver workings. Tourists have bought them off the hinges. In 10 years, there won’t be a door in Timbuktu.

The harmattan wind keeps a constant layer of silt in the air, a light-diffusing mist that softens the squalor. Camels—who for some reason always remind me of Mick Jagger—blink contentedly in the shade of sparse trees. A mud-brick wall is tagged with graffiti. “Masta Wu Tang.”

I am here. This is it.

Tombouctou La Mystérieuse is also known as the City of 333 Saints. I only meet one, a cook named Khalifa. Khalifa is working at the Restaurant Amanar, next to my hotel, when I wander in for a beer. Five schoolgirls sit giggling at the bar. They follow me out onto the terrace and arrange themselves opposite, faces bright with curiosity.

I answer their questions and ask some of my own. The girls show me their exercise books (math and chemistry, way beyond my level), and I pass out postcards of Missouri and family photos. They marvel at my age. “You are very old.” Forty and feeling every day of it, darlings. A week in the Sahara will do that to you.

The patio at the Amanar is clean and attractive, but what the rest of the town needs is my mother. I imagine her standing in the sand-swept streets, broom in hand. “You, put on some pants and pick up that garbage. You, bring me some bleach. And for God’s sake, someone bury that cat.”

Khalifa walks me to an Internet cafe. Timbuktu is a maze of similar-looking unmarked streets, and I’ve been known to get turned around in my own hometown. The landmarks are impermanent. “Turn left at the open sewer just past the second dead cat” only works if nothing drags off the cat.

He will accept no money for his services, but Khalifa does allow me to buy him an (inexpensive) lunch. This is in contrast to the town’s touts and hawkers, who descend at every opportunity. “I want to marry a white woman,” one announces by way of introduction.

“You shouldn’t,” I warn. “We’re mean, and we’d make you work all the time.” This isn’t what he wants to hear, and eventually he goes away.

As a topic of conversation, my marital availability is second only to extollations on the benefits of cheap silver jewelry. A Brit I met in Essakane informs me that my potential value has been under discussion and could go as high as 20 camels. (Apparently my poor French is a plus, suggesting a desirably silent disposition.) “But,” he observes, “They have no idea you’re as old as you are.”

Coping strategies for these less-than-amorous assaults include constantly announcing that my husband is meeting me “next week” and an ever-increasing brood of imaginary children. I don’t want shoddy souvenirs or an extra husband, but I’d give my nonexistent firstborn for a packet of tissue, some waterless hand cleanser, and a nail brush. None of these are available.

When I get to the Grand Mosque, a teenager in a Michael Jordan jersey is charging admission.

“Michael Jordan,” I point at his shirt. “Très bon.”

His eyes light up. “Oui,” he grins. “Charles Barkley. Shaquille O’Neal.”

“Dennis Rodman.” We trade names of NBA players for five or 10 minutes, wandering through the smooth dark corridors. He points me in the direction of the library, which is air-conditioned and has an Internet connection. The youth of Timbuktu are clustered around the terminals. They are looking at horoscopes, David Beckham Web sites, and porn.

Aside from seeing the mosque and avoiding bigamy, my primary goal in Timbuktu becomes getting my passport stamped. The stamp will be a talisman, a reminder to the woman who huddled in her Missouri house. After three trips to the police station, it’s accomplished. I get into a Toyota four-wheel drive with 13 other people and a goat, and Timbuktu recedes into the haze.