To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa

  • Nina Sovich
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by J. Grigsby Crawford
  • July 19, 2013

In a journey to regain a sense of excitement in her life, a young traveler strikes a satisfying balance between adventure and musing.

Some people travel to run away from something; others hit the open road to run toward something else. Some wander to find hidden truths that can’t be attained in the bland workaday world; others set off to regain something they lost on the road to adulthood. And still others march out into the great unknown for the simple adventure of, as Joseph Conrad would say, filling in the blank spaces on a map.

For writer Nina Sovich, the answer is all of the above, as this American in Paris sets off on a trek through Western Sahara, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in her debut travel memoir, To the Moon and Timbuktu.

Those wary of this “what-does-it-all-mean” travel subgenre, after it was almost single-handedly destroyed by Eat, Pray, Love, can rest assured: Sovich succeeds at delivering a thoughtful travelogue full of strong, crisp prose that eloquently weaves together her journey and the personal reasons that led her to it.

Timbuktu takes us to a part of the world that is hardly ever looked at, let alone understood. It’s a place where you’ll find desert landscapes so sprawling and beautiful and treacherous that they’re almost characters unto themselves. You’ll also find tribes where only the plumpest women are considered sexy; you’ll see men wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts (!); you’ll witness international aid at its best and worst (mostly worst); you’ll discover colonial history that still wreaks havoc on political systems; and you’ll encounter characters who are heartbreaking, scary and bizarre — sometimes all at once (though, ironically, the silliest run-in of them all takes place with a French doctor in Paris).

At age 34, Sovich, a former wire reporter who moved to Paris to live with her French husband, is fed up with the quotidian boredom of adult married life. She finds France sad, gray and aloof, and pines for the freedom she once felt as a young traveler in the Middle East. She wants to press life’s reset button (or find out if there is such a thing).

It is against this backdrop that she travels, sans époux, through the heart of the Sahara, with its rugged land, people and conditions. Inspired by her Swedish mother, who traveled the world to escape the housewife blahs of suburban 1980s America, as well as the West African writings of 19th-century British ethnographer/bad-ass Mary Kingsley, Sovich wants to test herself — to see if she can “come home a tougher, kinder, and more patient woman.”

The writing in Timbuktu has a tactile quality that makes the reader feel the inescapable heat and gritty sand in the hair, not to mention the other sights, sounds and smells. (Those who’ve ever gotten off a plane in West Africa or experienced the Harmattan winds know that these aren’t ancillary details; the smell and weight of that air can consume you.) Sovich, a seasoned traveler who’s no stranger to “nowhere places,” provides the perfect balance of thoroughly researched history, local lore, geographic tidbits and personal connections that make for solid travel writing.

But it’s the last of these that permeates Timbuktu. Yes, she comes across bandits, breathtaking landscapes and rivers of raw sewage, but it’s Sovich’s internal journey — her need to fall back in love with her husband and rescue a marriage on the brink of despair — that drives the narrative here. In other words, yes, it’s more about the journey than the destination (don’t expect any Lawrence-storming-the-gates-of-Aqaba levels of triumph when she finally reaches the fabled Timbuktu).

Is it, perhaps, asking a bit much? Or is it realistic to expect answers to life’s questions from merely making oneself a stranger in a strange land?

Why not? After all, she’s not the first human to wander across a desert in search of epiphany.

The real lesson of Sovich’s sojourn is that human connection and love eventually trump the virtues of solitude, but sometimes one needs to experience deep loneliness to learn this.

In a world of thousands of travel blogs, with blank spaces on the map that have been mostly filled in, Sovich proves that the question is not whether the travel genre has already been done but if it can still be done well. In Timbuktu, she does it well — and gets some answers along the way.

J. Grigsby Crawford is the author of The Gringo. He grew up in the Great American West and resides in Washington, D.C.

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