Travel literature review: To Timbuktu

To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka & Steven Weinberg

Rating:  4 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

When I last passed through Tombouctou, <cough> several decades ago, there was sand in the bread, sand in the rice, sand in the coffee and sand in the beer. It was not an easy place to reach, and the rigours of the journey far surpassed any dubious delights attained on arrival. Refreshingly, in this world of constant change, it appears some things remain the same.

Like all good travel yarns, To Timbuktu reaches it goal somewhat obliquely, and we meet Casey and Steven, our two young, soon-to-be-love-struck, American language students, in a cafe in Morocco. Love blossoms and within a few pages they're living the traveller dream, teaching English in Beijing. What follows is a fascinating first-hand account of the highs, lows and sometimes just plain weirdness of being foreign teachers inside the Chinese school system in one of the world's most dynamically changing cities.

But as the title suggests, China isn’t their end destination, so with a short segue through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, our intrepid duo find themselves in the rather more serious backstreets of Bamako, the capital of one of the world’s poorest countries, Mali. The contrast between the momentum of Asia and the languidness of the sun-lashed, sand-lathered sub-Sahara could not be more extreme.

To Timbuktu is a breath of fresh air from a sometimes contrived, bloated genre. While not a graphic travel memoir in the truest sense of the word (eg, The Photographer), Weinberg’s charcoal illustrations perfectly complement Scieszka’s caught-in-the-headlights style prose. Her constant use of dialogue and innovative ways of introducing facts without being boring (the 'TV Late Show' interview with Laos is wonderful) make for an easy and entertaining read. That’s not to say it’s all froth and bubble. Scieszka constantly reviews her emotions and has a knack of raising poignant questions not only about her own work and motivations, but about those of the wider community, the roles of NGOs, and the impact of poverty, education, religion and tourism. Her insights into Mali, from an outsider-trying-to-be-insider (can you ever be anything else?), are both revealing and sobering.

This should be a must-read for any bright-eyed Gen X or Y (especially couples!) thinking of living and working in a non-Western environment.

Steve Waters works in LP’s Melbourne office, celebrated his last birthday in Beijing, and once rode to Tombouctou on the roof of the postal Land Rover with a goat.

Read more travel literature reviews here.