To Timbuktu for a Haircut by Rick Antonson ~ 2008. This edition: Dundurn, 2008. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55002-805-8. 256 pages.
My rating: 6/10.
Uneven. The cover blurb references Bill Bryson and Michael Palin, and Antonson himself refers to Paul Theroux an awful lot, but he’s not anywhere in their league. Travel lit lite. The navel gazing equals Theroux’s, but is not nearly as interesting to this reader as Paul’s deep and/or often twisted musings. Antonson is no Bryson, and he really is no Theroux.
Rick Antonson, CEO of Tourism Vancouver, is absolutely exhausted by his grueling efforts working on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics bid. Desiring to get away from it all, he mulls over where he can escape to for a month or so. His wife Janice rather flippantly suggests Timbuktu, in reference to Rick’s childhood curiosity about the place his father often joked about. Apparently Antonson Senior, when questioned by his offspring as to where he was going each day, would retort: “I’m going to Timbuktu to get my hair cut!” So there you have it – a destination for the trip and a catchy title all rolled up in one neat package.
Doing his research as a good traveller should, Rick loads up on guide books and bones up on Mali and on West African history, in particular the history recorded by the early European explorers. He makes internet contact with a Malian travel service owner, one Mohammed, and arrangements are put in place for a fairly modest itinerary, with Timbuktu as the ultimate destination, with perhaps a bit of local exploring.
To condense the saga, Rick makes it to Mali, finds out that Mohammed is a bit of a shady character, eventually makes it to Timbuktu despite being annoyed by other pesky Caucasian tourists sharing his space and treading on his dreams of solitary travel. He stays there all of ONE WHOLE DAY and then goes hiking in the Dogon region for another week or so, accompanied by a mini entourage of local guide and personal cook. Everything costs way more than he has anticipated, and he goes on at great length about how Mohammed has ripped him off, and paradoxically, how darned generous he is being to the locals, scattering selective largesse as his whims take him.
If this sounds like I didn’t much care for Rick Antonson’s tone, you’re right. Something about him just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe the word I’m looking for is “smug”? And his writing style is all over the map. Sometimes it was very readable, especially in the descriptive passages about present-day Mali, and when he discusses the explorers’ experiences. When he focusses on his personal thoughts and feelings he writes like a cross between Hemingway and Bryson – monosyllabic sentences and witty asides mingled in a mish-mash of would-be literary exposition.
All of this panning aside, To Timbuktu is not exactly a bad book. I learned quite a lot about both present-day and historical Mali. Rick’s travelling adventures were entertaining, and he is general reasonably kind in his evaluations of his fellow travellers; he did look for – and often found – the best qualities of both the Europeans and the Africans whom he encountered and spent time with. He is very willing to give credit to the Malians for their good-natured tolerance of the tourists in their country, and, obviously because of his involvement in the tourism industry himself, has pragmatic and very sensible views on how the tourist trade affects the local way of life. He puts forth some observations on how an already mutually beneficial two-way traffic might be improved.
Rick does stay pretty hung up on the perfidy of Mohammed, though, which I thought was something of an over reaction from someone with, as he boasts several times, only one blank page remaining in his passport. Rick’s irritation was quite blatantly personal – he was never actually left high and dry – the promised arrangements were always more or less in place, though they ended up costing more than first negotiated.
There is something of a greater purpose to the book, which Rick claims was inspired by his desire to help save a large collection of native Malian munuscripts, and a portion of the book sales are dedicated to the conservation effort, but it felt like this was more of a manufactured excuse for the visit than a true passion for the project.
I soldiered on to the end of this self-congratulatory effort, enjoying it in a mild way between moments of wanting to howl in annoyance. I relieved my ambiguous feelings somewhat by reading the most obnoxious bits out loud, like the bit where Rick tells of how wonderfully choosy his wife Janice is – she apparently goes ftrom table to table when dining out to ensure she has the best seat in the house, and examines multiple hotel rooms to ensure hers has the best features – bet she’s a real treat to serve!
This one’s going in the giveway box. An okay effort, but for this reader, once through was enough.