Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
Trust Locally Travel SafelyÂ from here to Timbuktu
This is our new mission statement.
What do we mean?
In a nutshell we mean that by trusting to your own intuition AND trusting the local perspective of your guide you can travel safely anywhere in the world.Â
Travel is the human being's raison d'etre - we are the success we are today because we left forest to travel the plains across the globe to discover our planet. And we still, despite all our technology, nomads. We travel everyday - be it to the shop or work or to see a friend down the road or across the world. We travel every day because we trust in our innate ability to move through our environment and to seek local knowledge when we need it. We've been doing it since time began!
But travelling can be dangerous, especially to Africa!
Yes. There are cars and lorries, people on bycycles, children playing, donkeys and goats and dogs and geese all the way, so keep your eyes on the road.
If you go to on Safari to Tanzania there are lions. If you go looking for whales in the dep blue sea there are sharks. There are also the risks you face every day, but you are an expert at dodging death, you've been doing it since the day you were born!
Let's be silly
Let's take an extreme example. We would never advise anyone to go stumbling into an active conflict zone for obvious reasons, what's the point? Â But wars don't just happen, there is a long build up. But let's say you have to go to a war zone. Say it is your job. You are a war correspondent. You are sent to Afghanistan with a mission to get an interview with the Taliban leader.
How would you go about this? Would you arrive in Kabul, get a bus or taxi to Talibanland and walk in saying "Hi I'm looking for your leader" and hope for the best? Of course not. Would you go in with the military? Probably wouldn't work, if they could get you to him they might not be fighting him. A guide book? Out of date. Would you get your editor back home to plan your route on Google Earth or consult the Foreign Office website? What good are pictures from space and we know what the Foreign Office will say.
You don't know what you are going to do. You decide to fly to Kabal and see how the ground lies. Then a colleague who has been before gives you the contact for a reliable guide. You meet up at your hotel and you tell him your mission and ask if it is possible. He might say no, but he will start to think, he'll know someone who knows someone else who can check things out.
A lead comes through, a door can be opened, your guide negotiates the cost and in his negotiations judges his contact's sincerity and credibility, like he and you do every day. If he is happy and sure of your way forward he will guide you through. If not, he will advise you to go home.
Ah but how can you be sure he will guide you in good faith you say!
Because you are his guest, his employer, his family's liveilhood. He is responsible for you. If anything happens to you he is at fault. How would you treat your livelihood?
So now you are on your way to Taliban land to get your interview. Your guide has helped you arrange all the formalities you need to pass through whatever authorities are guarding the route. What if something happens on the road ahead? Well the most likely thing is an accident on the road, that can happen anywhere at anytime, beyond that there are the random wrong place wrong time risks of the road, but you are travelling fully aware of the risks, you are a war correspondent. If something serious happens ahead you will find out before you get there. A villager will have heard the news, a check point will block your way, an authority will tell you to wait until they know the way is clear. You are not in enemy territory.
And when you arrive in Taliban land? You are expected, you are still a guest, both you and your guide, they have invited you in, you are messengers from the outside world, you are no threat to them, why would they cause you harm? You are more useful as a messenger for them too. Your witness staement is trust worthy - you have seen them with your own eyes.
Now replace Afghanistan with somewhere not in active conflict. Jordan? Mali? Iran? Senegal? Morocco? There's nothing holding you back you see, except the same risks you face every day - the road and the random. But you are a pro!
The From Here 2 Timbuktu Story that led to our new mission statement
On the road occasionally things happen, that's life. On our journeys to Timbuktu over the past decade occasionally a vehicle broke down, occasionally a passport was lost, occassionally someone got ill and our journey had to change direction.
When a world financial crisis happened, we had to adapt our prices to a poorer world; when a war took place in Libya that had repercussions in our back yard in Mali we had to adapt our itineraries. Once, in 100,000s of miles over four decades of traveling the continent, we found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, we had to adapt our journey when our guides told us to.
Then one day political crisis hit - Mali had a coup d'etat, our Tuareg friends became refugees. Politics kept the tourists away so we adapted to our new reality. went into exile with our guides, waited for times to change and then drove our nomad guides back to Timbuktu guided by travellers who had just been there and seen it was safe.
We were always safe on the road, we always reached Timbuktu, and from Timbuktu we all always whether as nomads, travellers, guides or refugees, returned home.
We were always "safe" because we always had two essential guides to rely upon - our own intuition and our local guides' understanding and perspective of our road and our destination.
Trust Locally Travel Safely
Trust your local perspective,Â keep your eyes on the road ahead,Â and you can travel safely anywhere your heart desires.Â
Safety is in your hands, in your driver's and guide's hands. Safety is not in the politician's hands, nor is it in the big wide world's hands. Seize your own day! You are master of your universe.
Trump's Muslim travel ban is non-sensical but western travellers have been listening to nonsense politics and banning themselves from Muslim countries for years. It is time for travellers to realise their power to change the world.
The US must be at a very high security risk for its President to be banning people from entering the country on the basis of nationality or creed. There must be high grade intelligence, 'noise' on the airwaves, someone somewhere must know something.
Of course assumptions of a correlation between policy and reality are naive in our brave new alternative fact world of Trump and Brexit. Trump's travel ban on some Muslim countries (forgetting the 9/11 Saudis) is similar to the Brexit demand to curb free movement. Both are really about political expediency rather than the issue they seek to address: security in the case of Trump, jobs in the case of Brexit. The travel ban will not prevent a terrorist attack, curbing free movement will not create one job. Indeed in both cases the opposite of what is intended is likely to happen, the travel ban will fuel resentment from the Muslim world and curbing free movement will reduce jobs.
In the case of Trump's travel ban, what is the difference between banning Muslims coming in to western lands and the west warning their citizens from visiting Muslim lands? In both instances the act of travelling is deemed the risk, the creed or nationality of people deemed the problem, prevent the traveller going to certain places and you will kill the risk of terrorism, it is assumed. One problem: terrorism does not respect borders, visas or advice.
Some of us have been watching the west build these walls of nonsense around travel for a long time. For years now western governments have been advising, alerting, and warning their citizens from travelling to Muslim lands. Imaginary walls have been erected across Africa, Arabia and Persia.
But there is one crucial difference. Here it is not just the politicians who are to blame. It is mainly you, the western traveller. You have been Trumping yourselves because unlike Muslims travelling to the US, you were not banned.
You banned yourselves. You stayed away, you went elsewhere, you took some other plane, perhaps to Paris or Brussels or South Africa instead, somewhere you felt safer. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in Africa and yet no one thinks twice about travelling there BECAUSE it is not a Muslim country.
Since 2008, travel alerts were placed on Mali because of the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism. Malians were bemused. At this point, to most people in Mali, terrorism was something that happened in the west. The first "terror" incident against tourists within Mali's borders was in November 2011 when 3 tourists were kidnapped. This was far more to do with the the fact that a month earlier Colonel Gaddafi had been murdered and half his army had fled across the Sahara to Mali than to general internal insecurity.
What was the reality of the risk to you the traveller in the 4 years between alerts and event?
Well, in the Sahara region, an area the size of the USA, about twenty five Europeans were kidnapped, of whom a handful were tourists and one was killed. Most hostages were NGOs or 'expat' workers as their movements are much more easily tracked than tourists'.
In the same period that the Sahara had 6 tourists kidnapped, America lost about 50,000 people to gun crime on its own streets.
You might feel I am not comparing like for like. So let's look at this differently.
America has a population of 300 million. Mali about 15 million. Mali is 5% the size of America in terms of population. In an average year America loses about 12,000 people to gun crime on its streets. At 5% of 12,000, if Mali was as risky as America, it would lose on average 600 people to guns.
In January 2012, following events in Libya, Mali fell into a crisis that went from a rebellion to a coup d'etat, to a rebel take over of half the country followed by an Al Qaeda invasion to usurp the rebels, and finally a French military intervention to liberate the north. In all this under 400 lives were lost, the vast majority were military combatants of one type or another. Even in Mali's year of total crisis when it had no government and Al Qaeda occupied half the country an American, or any tourist for that matter, was safer wandering around Bamako than New York.
Like Trump's ban and Brexit, these alerts had the opposite effect from that intended which was presumably to secure the traveller. In turning yourselves away from Mali you travellers created the vacuum that sucked in the terrorists. They were not here when you were here. But once you left our guides, hotels, travel operators, artisans, cooks, waiters, drivers, beggars and shopkeepers had nothing to do, less income, nothing to look forward to. They got poorer, desperate and angry and the resentment divided the country along the very line where tourist could and could not go. Perhaps, as angry people do, Malians listened more attentively to the crazy man at the lectern spouting nonsense for "votes" and pointing to you as the source of their problems, just like Trump and the Leave campaign did. The migrant traveller is always to blame! When four tourists who could see beyond the scaremongering arrived in Timbuktu in November 2011 they were more visible, more noticed and the natural instinct inherent in all communities to protect the stranger and their own economic interests was diminished, because the tourist income had gone, the few that were there were small fry.
The whole Saharan and West African regions, and Mali in particular, are on their knees still today, not because there is insecurity but because there are no tourists. Manny Ansar, the director of the Festival In The Desert, once said to me "When there are no tourists it is like you are blind. You cannot see yourself and forget what you look like." As we have seen in Mali, the effects of blindness and communities wandering in the dark are devastating.
Travel alerts do not protect tourism, they kill it. If you kill tourism you create the conditions of insecurity that you are warning against - exactly what terrorism wants. In the internet age, the notion that you can protect people physically from an idea or an event that is by nature borderless and unpredictable is frankly ludicrous.
As Manny Ansar pointed to, the traveller is a mirror to us all of our common humanity, a great force for communication and understanding in our divided world.
For those of us not affected by the ban we'll carry on going to America. We know that despite Trump's fear mongering America is a pretty safe travelling bet. We know that despite the ban, Americans will continue picking up guns and walking into their schools, or blowing people away in the streets and that the gunman we are extremely unlikely to meet is much more likely to be white and Christian than black or Muslim, but we also know that despite all of this, the chances are we'll have a ball, even if the airport is a hassle and awash with Robo Cop security.
The traveller is the best ambassador for peace that the world has. Rise above the fear, resist the politics and travel to save the world. Despite all the noise we are living in the quietest and safest of times for travel.
Warnings coming out of the desert and out of the blue
Back at the flat on The Caledonian Road, the night before Bamako morning, Petra and I wander over to Africa in our discussion on the war.
From 2004 to 2007 I travelled west Africa and eventually left behind my life as an actor to set up From Here 2 Timbuktu. I wanted to show travellers the kaleidoscope of random places and communities I had discovered over a lifetime of travelling in Africa. My first official group trip was to The Festival In The Desert, in Timbuktu in January 2008.
After trekking along the Dogon Escarpment and a delicious journey up the river Niger by traditional "pinasse" we arrived in Timbuktu for the festival when I received a message from a travel industry colleague telling me the British Foreign Office had put a travel alert on the Festival. She gave me the personal number of the British Consulate representative in Mali. I called and left a message saying I was taking 14 tourists, predominantly British, to the festival and needed more information. I found an email address and another telephone number and communicated the same. I got no reply.
"If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war."
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Romantically, our stroll up the Cally Road through war and peace the night before Bamako morning began in Paris.
Vive La Revolution! Bastille, January 1990.
A new decade a new world for us both. Petra was getting used to being a teenager in Czechoslovakia with a broken Berlin Wall, natioanl identity crisis and French literature, films and art flooding east into Petra's bedroom in the mountains of Moravia. I was getting used to a post-Thatcher Britain as a student abroad in Paris, living between two of the scenes of the recent attacks, Place de la Republique and Place de la Bastille.
Ah Petra! Those crazy youthful peace marching days!
It really is impossible not to love Mali. However bad things seem to get here on the uber political level where acronyms play charades on CNN and BBC, talking of AQMI, MUJAO and UNHCR, things on the ground remain reassuringly human business as usual.