The land fades out from medieval maps, and the borders are filled with drawings of dragons and mermaids. Later, English mapmakers would often write ‘Here be dragons’ to indicate uncharted and therefore dangerous territory. Now, the dragons have been slain with Google map, and any mermaids have fled to deeper waters. The idea of a truly remote place doesn’t exist anymore. Travel can enrich and enlighten us, but with the accessibility of travel comes the unraveling of the mystery. I have been fortunate to have travelled widely, but now no longer feel the excitement of exploring exotic destinations. Too often I catch myself trying to diligently go through the recommended checklist of ‘ the top ten things to do’ in a country.
In Mali, I was suddenly confronted by a place that had become truly inaccessible. Extreme Islamists groups had taken over the north of the country, and now a couple of months later after they have been driven out, northern Mali is not a place for casual travel, or even work. Timbuktu, the place that used to describe the furthest edge of the imagination, has once again become fictional. It felt strange to be leaving Mali, without having visited the north. The images of men in blue robes, the mud mosques, would not translate into reality for me. I found that I had been so conditioned to what I should be seeing by guidebooks, that I had the nagging sense that I was missing out on the essence of the country without having seen these celebrated sites. But, of course, beyond the security and narrow definition of a guidebook, Mali exists. It exists in the goats running down the dirt roads in the city, in the mango sellers in chaotic markets, in the children that chant ‘Toubabou” (stranger) when they follow me. Beyond my guidebook, I have been opened to a place that is infinite and unknowable.
And in my mind, I can also travel to Timbuktu: I take a boat up the Niger River, feel the white light beat down on me, and watch the hippos rear their heads. As a child I used to travel like this, and I now rediscover the pleasure of travel. I read about how the city flourished from the trade of gold, salt, and slaves in the 15th Century. I would probably not be reading these stories if I could walk around the mosque, see the sand dunes. My list of things to do in Mali is unchecked. But, contrary to a culture that prioritizes experience over imagination, I find am enriched in a different way.
As the long winter months draw near, I am collecting a pile of books by my bedside. I will re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and a nonfiction biography of the three sister novelists living in a lonely parsonage. I will look at pictures of West Yorkshire, and be content to imagine long walks through moors that for me are always wild and windy, and unlit by the sun. Sebastiao Salgado’s photography from his book ‘Genesis’ also is part of the pile. It will make cold-averse-me dream of the Artic circle, and the migration of the Nenet reindeer herders, traveling hundreds of kilometers over deep frozen rivers and glittering snow.
Gabi Menezes is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She has worked for various news organizations, and consults for the United Nations. After years of traveling the world from Sierra Leone to France, Gabi has made her base in London. She blogs about the challenges for a nomad to feel at home on http://cureforhomesickness.com/