Sunday, July 31, 2011


The taxi sped down a narrow tarred road, its edges lacy with white drifting sand. Ahead was the first line of houses, straw-grey in the sun. We entered a wide sandy boulevard, and continued on until it narrowed and snaked about in the old part of town. Carrying on between shuttered alleys of mud and stone houses, we came to a low, tree-studded hill on the far side and a modern hotel built in the Sudanese style. The grounds were leafy, and there was a central courtyard bordered with flowers and crowned with a towering ghost gum tree.
Timbuktu began humbly around 1,000 years ago as a Tuareg seasonal camp - its name taken from the slave woman the tribes left in charge whenever they went back into the desert. At its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a thriving city of 100,000 people, its universities, libraries, judges and doctors famed across the Islamic world. All this came to an abrupt end in 1591 with the arrival of a Moroccan expeditionary force and the establishment of the sea trade routes down the west African coast. Many of the European explorers who attempted to reach it paid with their lives but, by then, the mystique of Timbuktu had gripped the European imagination.
We wandered down the empty, dun-coloured streets in the sun, past cracked old mosques and clustered houses that looked like sets from a cowboy movie but for their carved, Moroccan-style, studded wooden doors. I had half-expected a harsh and unwelcoming atmosphere in this frontier town, but there was no paranoia, no sense of tight security or of watching eyes. The pan-Malian harmony abided and there was a welcome absence of street hustlers and the eternal "ca va cent francs?" begging children. The town felt organic, cellular: it was like strolling inside a spiral seashell. But there was a palpable presence here too, an uncompromising one. Timbuktu retained its power and its secrets, its desert Torah, but this was not revealed, certainly not to the casual visitor anyway. We sleepwalked through the sandy maze while Timbuktu brooded within a hard shell of mud.
We were obliged to register at the police station, where our passports were impressed with the prized "Tombouctou" stamp. Returning to the hotel in the late afternoon, a blue-robed and turbaned Tuareg stood at the bar soliciting camel rides out into the sunset. He was a lean, sun-dried man, and he bargained very hard. 
We went with him to the line of sandhills outside the hotel, climbed on the camels, and set off with his two sons leading. Along the way, Mr Ibrahim mentioned how poor the Tuareg people were now, how bad the seasons had been and low the goat numbers, and suggested that for an extra payment the women of the village would sing for us. We negotiated as the camels plodded over the rosy-white Saharan sands, hanging on gamely, our feet cross-braced on the camels' necks.
After a half-hour or so we saw the first signs of a camp up ahead. Boys ranged through the dunes while slender women in blue-black robes carried firewood towards a scattering of tents. Dismounting from the camels - mine bellowing profanities, resolutely refusing to release me - Mr Ibrahim directed us past a dark tent where a woman of 20 or so breastfed a baby, to a semi-enclosure of desert thorns, and invited us to sit on a pair of worn mats in the sand.
While one of his sons prepared us mint tea in a tin pot, the women drifted up - three ancient withered ones, the indigo drained from their robes by age to a flat grey, the younger ones supple, bright-eyed, lashes long, noses aquiline, teeth perfect. Lastly came the young woman who had been breastfeeding, and I realised she was Mr Ibrahim's wife. He himself must have been at least 50.
As the last rays of the sun slanted across the dunes and the moonlight was affirmed, the women silently arranged themselves in a semi-circle. I sipped my tea. The evening was sublimely serene, and the desert felt a wondrous place to be, clean and hospitable.
While Mr Ibrahim refilled our cups, his wife took out a single-stringed instrument and began playing it with a tiny bow, and the Tuareg women clapped in time - but bored, very bored. Subdued, almost embarrassed chanting followed, killing time rather than keeping it. Soon the chanting wavered and started to die away, voice by voice. After all, the rice was on the cooking coals back at their tents, they had children to feed and men to deal with, and they wondered how much longer it would be until they were released from this nightly tourist chore. Even here, in the sands outside Timbuktu, one felt the dead hand of tourism, of culture as fleeting display, heritage as floorshow. 
After we went back to the hotel, I wondered how long the Tuareg would be able to go on like this, living in camps on the edge of town, scraping together what they could. I could not work out what was more disturbing - a people whose home is the wide Sahara considering they are "poor" in comparison to the junk-fed worker bees of the industrial world, or the warrior founders of Timbuktu reduced to beggary at its verge.

From my book, The Blue Man (Lonely Planet Journeys)

Monday, July 25, 2011


I was robbed two days after we arrived in Senegal. We were in Dakar, crossing the Place d'Independence, a wide and desolate square of battered colonnades, when we were approached by two young men hawking the kind of brass and copper bracelets sold in public spaces the world over. When we responded with "non merci", they pursued us between a pair of parked cars, jostling us as we walked. It was only when we sat down for lunch and I felt for the prescription spectacles in my day-pack that I realised the rear zippered compartment was open, and my glasses were gone. As acts of theft go, it was very petty, and utterly futile. Fitted with lenses crucial to me but useless to anyone else, the only thing the thieves could do was smash out the glass and sell the frames for whatever small amount they might fetch. But it left me with only my sunglasses with my day prescription, and my reading glasses, which were useless beyond two or three metres. Worse, I realised that to claim on my travel insurance I would have to report the incident to the police, and theirs is a rock beneath which one does not readily place one's hand.

Police headquarters was a morose yellow colonial building in a street near the Place. Entering, we were challenged by a tall man in a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, a baseball cap informing us that he loved New York, tight blue jeans and white Reebox. It turned out that he was a senior detective. I explained my problem, and he directed us towards an office upstairs. 'After that you will come back to my office,' he said, 'and give me telephone numbers for girls in Australia.'
The main detective office was crowded and chaotic. Ten teenage boys stood handcuffed together in front of a table covered with official papers, with a heavy black baton as a paperweight. An ample, surly man sat behind the desk, barking orders into a black bakelite telephone. The boys were plainly afraid of him, and cowered in a corner while other detectives in jeans, baseball caps and gym shoes, swaggered about joking and laughing. A dozen car tyres were piled incongruously a corner: I deduced the teenagers were accused of stealing them.
We were told to sit down while the senior officer conducted a fast, angry interrogation of the boys. Their only response was to hang their heads and not dare look up. When his cold eyes jerked my way, I tried to outline the theft as briefly I could, but found myself in difficulty as his questions came rapid-fire in heavily-accented French that stretched my own scratchy French to the limit. All the while the boys shifted about uncomfortably in a clanking of chains. This only heightened the bristling irritation in the big man. After barely a minute listening to me, he wiped his brow, picked up his telephone and started shouting angrily down it. To complicate matters further, three young blond dreadlocked Germans walked in declaring they had been robbed of everything - money, passports, travellers cheques - at machete-point by a gang down on the seafront. The policeman sighed testily, looked at me and the boys in chains, sighed again and said something to one of his junior detectives, who conducted us out into another office.
Here a young man in a short-sleeved business shirt worked with enormous concentration on an old Facit typewriter. He was typing an account being dictated by a woman in a matronly dress and headscarf of the theft of her handbag. It too had been snatched out in the Place, the equivalent of $100 US taken - avery large sum for the average Senegalese. The clerk laboured on conscientiously, stopping every now and with a pained mutter to white out a typographical error. All the while the woman struggled to maintain her composure, the occasional tear escaping nonetheless.
'Excusez-moi,' I said. The clerk looked up and nodded curtly towards a spare seat. I suggested to my girlfriend that she go back to the hotel on the off chance the glasses had been handed in there, while I waited here to give my details. One of the denim detectives watched her go, all the way down the corridor. Then he twirled his baton in the air, and thwacked it hard into his palm before opening a door and disappearing into a side-room. It appeared he was about to interrogate the ten boys further. 
The reading glasses I now wore gave proximate things a bizarre, microscopically detailed quality, while all else faded into a background blur. While the woman continued with her account, I peered through bug eyes around the room, at a pair of desks where older men sat. One of them was reading the Koran, mouthing the words. When he finished, he opened a desk drawer, put the book away and promptly took out a disposable razor which he dragged across his face in short, rapid strokes. This completed, he picked up the big office blotter from his desk, flexed it into a funnel, and deposited his shavings in a fine soot-like deposit beneath his desk. Then he lowered his head to his desktop and instantly fell asleep, snoring gently.
The man at the other desk sat engrossed in a French romance novel, oblivious to the angry shouts which now could be clearly heard coming from the adjoining interrogation room. Heavy fist-slapping sounds and pained cries followed.
A trim, neat man in an olive green safari suit and black suede Hush Puppies wandered in and glanced bored around the office. He had one hand behind his back: the other held a cigarette in a studied pose. Seeing the sleeping man, he complained to the one reading the French novel, who appeared to ignore him. The Hush Puppy man drifted on then, trailing a white curl of cigarette smoke.
The moment he had gone, the reader urgently woke the sleeper, and the pair of them quit the room and returned with a pair of beaten-up Facit typewriters. It was then I realised that they, like the young man still labouring over the woman's account in his typewriter carriage, were clerks - only they, perhaps because of seniority, had not until this moment needed to work. Now they rummaged in a rusted filing cabinet for paper and carbons and sat down at their machines, ready to re-type piles of handwritten reports. But they had not got in a single keystroke before two officers in uniform khaki marched in and commandeered both machines and left without a word. The response of the two clerks to this turn of events was for the sleepy one to go back to sleep, and the reader to his French novel. 

I was well aware that I was privileged to be witnessing bureaucracy at its finest, and so engrossed had I become in it, that it came as a surprise that I had lost contact with my left leg. As I stamped around to restore circulation, the young clerk peered up apologetically from his page and promised he would be onto my case "within minutes". I decided on a stretch my legs with a stroll.
Out in the corridor, straining my eyes, I could just make out a watchhouse of dark cells below. The barred windows were tiny, and I imagined what it must be like for the men huddled in there, with the rats and roaches. Then my eye was drawn to something on the prison roof, a soft blur of red. Removing my reading glasses and squinting, I could just make out a red child's tricycle, broken and on its side, wheels gone. How had it got up there, I wondered? To whom had it belonged? Had someone tossed it up there in a fit of anger? But my thoughts were interrupted by more shouts, frightened cries, thumps and groans, and realised I was standing right outside the room where the interrogation was going on. The door opened and one of the young cops strode importantly away down the corridor. Not long after, the ten teenage boys emerged, heads down, shackled together two-by-two, a uniformed cop prodding them on with his nightstick. The boys went downstairs, and disappeared into the cells beneath the broken red tricycle. Only a few years before, they might have been riding one like them themselves.
Then, astoundingly, the young clerk was standing before me, announcing that it was time for me to come and detail the account of the crime to which I had been victim. Such a tiny thing, in the scheme of things, that had left me unable to see properly, yet witness so much.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


'The African women, yes, the African women are good.  They are very good. Make no bones about it. In screwing they have no peer. Queens of all Creation!'
Eddie the septuagenarian Indian, native of Goa, a functionary of some sort in this commercial travellers rest hotel in East Africa, the gaunt, bespectacled man with the rapid, loping gait that made him resemble no-one more closely than Groucho Marx - Eddie allowed his rheumy brown eyes to wander from our chessboard to his bed, and move slowly over the body of the teenage African girl in the pale blue cotton shift who lay there.
A uniformed waiter appeared in the open doorway and asked something in Swahili. Eddie uttered a sharp response, and the young man was gone.
'The African women,' he continued, 'they know what a man wants. They know it. In their bloody bones they know it. They are trained to it. They learn it in the jungle. The lips, so big, the breasts, behinds, the powerful legs, and the way they can move their hips, the way they can screw, I tell you it is very heaven.'
He was often tempted to play an early queen, especially when he was behind the white pieces, and this night was no exception. My response was almost automatic. I brought out my queen's knight. He looked at it with dismay.  'Oh, oh, oh, oh,' he muttered, 'always, always, always.'
 In the background, a taped voice droned on, its high churchy tone both hollowed and hallowed by the inner expanse of the cathedral in which it had been recorded.  'Oh, now this is the very best part,' Eddie smiled gleefully. 'When she gets the words wrong. It's... perfect.'
He breathed the last word out, in a soft, satisfied hush. The girl on the bed, whom I had not seen before, and whose name I did not know, shifted slightly but otherwise seemed happy to lie there while Eddie played chess and listened to the tape he played at this time every evening, of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in Saint Paul's Cathedral. A small female voice was heard on the tape again, and Eddie threw his head back and laughed as Diana stumbled through Charles's name. 'It's wonderful ! Wonderful!' he exclaimed, eyes glistening.
The waiter reappeared with tea on a tray, and we took a cup each. There was a chilled Sprite for the girl. Eddie withdrew his impulsive queen a square. I pushed a pawn, renewing the threat. 'You always do that! Why do I never learn! You just move out the knight, then the pawn, then the other pawn!' With a flick of his craggy hand he dropped the queen back into the white ranks. 'There, now do your worst.'
We were entering the mid-game. With the queen gambit almost inevitably gone awry, White was undeveloped. I had a good opportunity to take control of the centre with my bishops, but first I brought out the other knight.
 'Ah yes, caution, caution, always caution, safety first,' he mocked. He sipped his tea. 'Will you be wanting to accompany me to the temple again tomorrow?'
I paused, recalling our first visit there together a few days previously. The Hindu temple was on the far side of town, and for some reason we went there in the heat of the afternoon, rushing down crowded streets, Eddie agitated, intense, impulsively sweeping stray strands of his yet thick and dark hair back from his damp brow as he strode and Mandy and I battled to keep up. 
At the temple other devotees sweltered under a corrugated iron roof, but Eddie dashed around, putting what looked like fast-talking propositions to his favourite deities, and stuffing banknotes in the multi-coloured shrines. It was as if he had half a day in LA to close a movie deal. We stayed perhaps five minutes, then scurried through the afternoon sun back to the hotel. Over chess that night I had asked him what he had asked for at the temple, but his eyes merely sparkled, and a smile suggested itself on his lips.
 'So, will you be coming tomorrow?' he repeated now, as my eyes stayed fixed on the board.
'Perhaps I'll see how I feel tomorrow,  if you don't mind.'
'Of course. Now where was I? Oh yes, the African women. But let me tell you about the Indian women. The Indian women are the most beautiful women in the world. More beautiful than any women from France or Italy, or America.'
 'More beautiful than English women?' I enquired.
'They as well,' he said emphatically, with a small Indian wobble of his head.

 'Even more than Princess Diana?' I asked.
His reply came without a beat. 'Oh, well, now, she is the exception. She is the exception because she is the most beautiful woman on earth. She is all softness, all loveliness, perfection, utter perfection. But she is only one woman. There are so many ugly women in England that they pull down the average. If all women were like her, all the men in the world would flock to be in England. So it is just as well that they are not. That would be a disaster, I tell you. Because the only thing the British ever did was invent the one way road system. And ruin India. They are parasites.'
'Then how can you lavish so much adoration on a member of their royal family, the biggest parasites of all?'
'Ssshh,' he hissed. 'She is not a parasite. She is not even a Briton. She is a queen!'  He touched the white queen, then looked up into my eyes with a child's mischief in his eyes, seized the piece and triumphantly planted it back in the centre of the board. 'There!'
'Eddie, I'll just have to chase you back with pawns again, or pin you with a bishop, or fork you with a knight.'
He shrugged. 'I know, I know. But I cannot resist it. It is my... what do you call it... fatal flaw.'
The tape ended and the machine clicked itself off as the girl on the bed noisily sucked up the last of the Sprite through her straw.
'Eddie...' she said yawned.
'Go to sleep a little while,' he said. 'I won't be too long now.' He looked up at me and grinned. 'After all, I'm about to lose my queen.' The girl obediently closed her eyes. 
'Where did you meet her ?' I asked.
'Up country. Her father asked me to bring her to the city and find her a job, as a favour.'
'Does he know she's living with you in your room?'
 'Of course, where else would she be living ? But let me tell you about Indian women.'
I pushed another pawn. He stared down at it, but his mind was elsewhere now. He sat back in his seat, stared up at the ceiling and opened his arms wide, as if surrendering to the Muses. 
'Indian women are beautiful. So beautiful. Delicate, like flowers. Their eyes are gentle, the loveliest things in the all the world. Their voices are like music, and they know how to speak to a man, to say all the soft things a man wants to hear. And their kisses! Oh, their kisses! Sweet! Their bodies are elegant, and they dress like queens of all creation. I tell you, each and every one is a princess. If you ever get the chance to marry an Indian girl, an Indian girl from a good family, do it! And cook ! What concoctions they can make out in the kitchen! But there is one thing you must remember one thing about Indian women. They are not cock-suckers. An Indian woman will not suck a man's cock.'
'But, what about the Karma Sutra?' I asked.
'There is no cock-sucking in the Karma Sutra,' he declared.
'But I'm sure there is. And what about Indian erotic art, doesn't that depict fellatio?'
'That is all Chinese! And Japanese! No, an Indian woman will never suck a man's cock! Believe me, I know.'
'So you've been with all the women in India,' I said.
Then Eddie grinned again. 'Only the beautiful ones.'
He retreated his queen. She was down to two squares now, with no chance of being screened by pawns or a bishop. Surveying the board, we both realised the truth. Then his voice was sombre, no longer mocking or provoking, drained of its exuberance. 'Go on now, trap me again. Trap an old man,' he said. 'Do it.'
I advanced a pawn. Again he retreated the white queen, to the last safe square.
 'You're just so impulsive Eddie,' I said softly.
 'And you're so old,' he said. 'I'm forty years older than you, and you're old. Older than me.'  He turned and took in the black girl on the bed, sleeping now. 'Look at her,' he said. 'Their hips, the way they move their bodies, I cannot tell you of the ecstasies I have felt, the visions I have seen, in the embrace of such women.'
 'I take it that means she's willing to suck your cock Eddie.'
'Perfectly! Oh, she does it so perfectly! You know, the way some women know what you are feeling and just what to do! She brings me such pleasure, I cannot tell you! And it is a two way thing. That is why she loves me. I bring her  ecstasy too. '
'And because you feed her.'
'Goan cuisine. The best in the world. I cook for her, yes. The very best. She is lucky.'
He watched as I placed my fingers on my black squares bishop.
The African girl stirred. Eddie?' she murmured.
My bishop slid up to the white queen, and I picked it up from the board. The wooden piece seemed heavy in my hand. Eddie gazed mournfully upon it. 
'Coming my queen', he said. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2011


                                     THOU DUST

        In the gastropodic grip
        Of an aged hand to a cane,
    And the gargantuan gnaw
      Of an infant gum on rusk,
In the hangdog homes
 Humdrumming in the rain,
         Tempus fugit: attic to attic 
        Dusk to dusk.

 - Larry Buttrose