A Little Happier: Where Is Timbuktu?

Last year, I went to Iceland to serve as a featured author for the Iceland Writers Retreat, a terrific program where one of my fellow authors was the novelist and memoirist Aminatta Forna.

When I know I’m going to meet a writer, I like to read something they’ve written, so before I headed to Iceland, I read her outstanding collection of essays, The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion (Amazon, Bookshop).

Aminatta Forna is a frequent, enthusiastic, and adventuresome traveler, and many of these essays are about travel. The essay “In Timbuktu” is short—it’s just three paragraphs long—but although it’s so short, it has really stuck in my mind.

Here it is:

In Timbuktu I stopped a man to ask him the way to the post office. The man had a question of his own that he wanted answered first. “Is it true,” he said, “that in Britain people have a thing about Timbuktu?”

“Yes,” I said. “People think it is far away, like the farthest place on earth.”

At this the man laughed for a long time. Then he gave me directions to the post office.

This story reminds me of a beautiful observation made by writer G. K. Chesterton in his book Twelve Types (Amazon, Bookshop). Here’s a lightly edited version:

There are no chains of houses; there are no crowds of men…Each of these men is supremely solitary and supremely important to himself. Each of these houses stands in the centre of the world. There is no single house of all those millions which has not seemed to someone at some time the heart of all things and the end of travel.

And the essay also reminds of an old story: A traveler is standing on the side of a river, and he’s in a big hurry to get across. He sees a man standing on the far bank, and shouts, “Quick, tell me, how do I cross to the other side of the river?” The man pauses and looks puzzled by the question. So the traveler yells again, “Please, tell me, how do I get to the other side of the river?” And the man answers, “Mister, you are on the other side of the river.”

Aminatta Forna’s story about Timbuktu is a reminder that no place is far away.




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