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


Nina Sovich had always yearned for adventures in faraway places; she imagined herself leading the life of a solitary traveler. Yet at the age of thirty-four, she found herself married and contemplating motherhood. Catching her reflection in a window spotted with Paris rain, she no longer saw the fearless woman who spent her youth travelling in Cairo, Lahore, and the West Bank staring back at her. Unwittingly, she had followed life’s script, and now she needed to cast it out.


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Nina Sovich had always yearned for adventures in faraway places; she imagined herself leading the life of a solitary traveler. Yet at the age of thirty-four, she found herself married and contemplating motherhood. Catching her reflection in a window spotted with Paris rain, she no longer saw the fearless woman who spent her youth travelling in Cairo, Lahore, and the West Bank staring back at her. Unwittingly, she had followed life’s script, and now she needed to cast it out.

Inspired by female explorers like Mary Kingsley, who explored Gabon’s jungle in the 1890s, and Karen Blixen, who ran a farm in Kenya during World War I, Sovich packed her bags and hopped on the next plane to Africa in search of adventure.

To the Moon and Timbuktu takes readers on a fast-paced trek through Western Sahara, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, bringing their textures and flavors into vivid relief. On Sovich’s travels, she encounters rough-and-tumble Chinese sailors, a Venezuelan doctor working himself to death in Chinguetti, indifferent French pensioners RVing along the coast, and a close-knit circle of Nigerien women who adopt her into their fold, showing her the promise of Africa’s future.

This lyrical memoir will transport you to the breathtaking landscapes of West Africa, whose stark beauties will instill wonder in even the most experienced traveler. Sovich’s journey reveals that sometimes we must pursue that distant glimmer on the horizon in order to find the things we value most.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Discouraged with her domestic life in Paris and career as a reporter, Sovich embarks on an overland journey across West Africa. From her Swedish mother, who felt trapped by suburban life, Sovich inherited an escapist conception of travel: "The overriding lesson of my childhood was that travel was the only thing that could ever make a woman happy." Laced with her piquant observations, Sovich's memoir embodies the persistent longing for adventure her middle class upbringing inspired. As she traverses the harsh landscape from Morocco to Niger, Sovich finds company in the stories of female Victorian travelers, especially Englishwoman Mary Kingsley whom she describes as a "swashbuckler first, scientist second." Rejecting creature comforts, Sovich dives headlong into the desert. "I enjoy my depravation, even feel superior about it. In paring down my life like this I want to remind myself how little we actually need. There is also, however, a tinge of vanity to what I do." What she emerges with is a deeply personal journey into an incredibly remote region. Sovich casts her polished journalistic eye on the anguish and sublime beauty she encounters while unflinchingly narrating her own intensely intimate journey. (July)
Library Journal
After years of traveling the globe as a reporter, Sovich settles down to marriage and domesticity in Paris but soon realizes that her desire for travel and exploration has never really gone away. So after trying miserably to be happy in Paris, Sovich decides to travel to Timbuktu, inspired by female explorers of the past such as Mary Kingsley and Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, as well as her own mother, who loved to travel to Africa. The trip is not what Sovich expects, but after a bad start in Morocco and Western Sahara and a retreat back to Paris, she starts again and eventually reaches her destination, the legendary city of Timbuktu in Mali, via Mauritania. The story does not end with the goal of Timbuktu attained, for after Timbuktu and the Malian city of Gao, Sovich returns to Paris, becomes pregnant, and then goes to Niger. VERDICT A feisty American trying to adjust to her domestic life breaks free and goes on an adventure to Timbuktu to save her soul and search for a better life. Lovers of travel literature will adore this book.—Melissa Aho, Univ. of Minnesota Bio-Medical Lib., Minneapolis
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Sovich's first book details her travels to Africa in search of adventure. The author's story--though not the book--begins with her childhood with a mother who traveled, Sovich believed, to escape her suburban Connecticut life. When the author found herself living in Paris with her husband, working a hated job and uncomfortable with her role, she decided to follow in her mother's footsteps. Instead of a short getaway, her trip to Africa was a desperate attempt to reconnect to her youth and be transformed into someone else. That trip was the first of three that make up this memoir. While spending as little money as possible and traveling rapidly, she often put herself in significant danger and missed what she went to experience. When Sovich decided to fly home midjourney, her husband labeled her travel style perfectly: martyrdom. He also told her to return to Africa and make her trip to Timbuktu the right way, and she listened. With experience to guide her, Sovich set out to experience the road to Timbuktu in an open, engaged way. Her descriptions of the West African countries she visited are engrossing. She captures a welcoming and friendly attitude she missed on her first trip and paints a picture of immersing herself in the lives of the people around her. Unfortunately, many of the lessons Sovich claimed to have learned don't stick during the second trip, making her sound somewhat immature. The third trip feels confusing and unnecessary, with little to add to the narrative. Her aha-moment, supposedly reached with new insight from her travels, is described in so little detail that it seems incongruous and ill-considered rather than inspired and enlightened. While her stories are moving and the scenery is as beautifully caught as with a camera, Sovich reaches for spiritual life lessons that fail to ring true.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544025950
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/9/2013
  • Pages: 308
  • Sales rank: 940,232
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Hotel in Dakhla

THE CABDRIVER ASSURES me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.
   “It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”
   He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.
   My cabdriver is, however, right on one count. There are women. Lots of them — standing in windows and doorways all down the street, lit from behind by candles and kerosene lamps into spectral figures of muslin cloth and cloying scent. Their bodies are round and their faces hard, but they beckon me with soft laughter and hennaed hands. I suppose a client is a client to a working girl — or after two weeks of travel through the Western Sahara, I have become sufficiently androgynous to enjoy their attention.
   I’ve been nowhere places before — the northern reaches of Azerbaijan, the desert in Western Egypt, Sweden with its endless pine forests — but the Western Sahara doesn’t even exist. At least not in a political sense. It’s a land claimed both by the native Sahrawi population and the Moroccan government, which has occupied the country since the 1970s. Dakhla, its most southern city, would like to think of itself as a resort town, but as it is home to Morocco’s commercial fishing fleet, its real allure lies in loose women and a sheltered port. I’ve landed in West Africa’s version of Tijuana, a place purposefully kept lawless so soldiers and sailors can blow off steam.
   Salima is indeed very nice, but highly suspicious. She pulls aside the night watchman and they speak in furtive, rushed Arabic, gesturing toward my black backpack. Under a green neon light that lends an aura of unreality, I paw through the contents to show her there’s nothing inside but clothes and books. She asks for payment up front anyway and scribbles down every detail in my passport. When she finally hands over the key, her mood is dark.
   “Look. The Chinese will come back tonight. You don’t want any part of that,” she tells me in weirdly idiomatic English. “I suggest you go upstairs and bolt the door. Don’t come out until morning.”
   “What happens if I come out before morning?” I ask. It’s an awkward question but I’m curious.
   “Well,” she says slowly. “Not good things.”
   “Not good things is vague.” But she stares hard at me and frowns, until, finally unsure what else to do, I frown too. “I’m going,” I say, and head toward my room.
   “Best,” she says.
   There is a particular queasiness that comes from being warned by the proprietor of a hotel to avoid the public spaces in that same hotel, but the room, as far as seven-dollar-a-night rooms go, isn’t half bad. The full moon shoots light through acrylic curtains, bathing the walls in a red glow that suggests a dark, almost Victorian velvet. There’s a television, though it’s bolted to the wall and covered in wire mesh, and in the corner is a broken wooden chair. It could be worse. I’ve stayed in worse, but I jam a chair under the door handle anyway and lie down on the bed without taking off my clothes.
   Over the past few weeks, I have skirted down the fertile rump of Morocco into arid Western Sahara, rarely staying in a town more than a day or two and often catching taxis south before knowing my destination. I’ve eaten sheep brain sandwiches and hitched rides with soldiers and stayed in hotels almost as bad as this one. In order to cover half a continent in less than six months, I have moved quickly and cheaply. Now I’ve reached the edge of the world, or at least the edge of the Sahara, and it feels a little as though I’m paying a price for my hubris and an old, temporary exuberance.
   At three p.m. the bordellos close for the night, and the street outside my window fills with fishermen from all over the world who have come to work the fertile waters off the western coast of Africa. Under flickering streetlamps, a group of Russian sailors tighten their brown leather belts and pass a bottle of vodka. Across the street, Chinese fishermen in thin beige Mao suits smoke clove cigarettes, while two Moroccan soldiers start a swordfight with pool cues.
   My floor becomes noisy with drunk fishermen looking for their rooms. Someone retches and someone else tries my door handle. Men cluster around the pay phone down the hall, calling home with prepaid phone cards in fifteen-minute increments. They shout and laugh in Mandarin and Russian over thousands of miles of broken phone lines. I lie in my little bed looking at the ceiling and count the hours to sunrise in conversations that I don’t understand.
   At daybreak I say good-bye to Salima, who gives me a knowing smile and a slight pat on the shoulder. A small and rare moment of female solidarity. Then I make the long walk back to the center of Dakhla. At a café by the ocean, I order espresso and bread and try to defend myself against the frantic sunlight bouncing between the water and the desert. Through squinted eyes, I watch children walk to school in green-and-white uniforms and the sea throw up spray onto the boardwalk. I close my eyes, drink my coffee, and when no one is looking, rub butter on the dry skin around my nostrils.
   For a moment I succumb to fatigue and allow myself to think about home. Thousands of miles north, in a warm and quiet Parisian apartment, my husband is sleeping under a down duvet with a pillow over his head. In an hour he’ll wake up, pick out a dark suit, and shave while listening to Europe 1 radio. Then he’ll spend twenty minutes looking for his keys and leave in a rush. If I caught a flight now, I could sleep tonight with his hand on my hip.
   Instead, I ask the waiter about transport south to Mauritania. He tells me that bush taxis leave from the outskirts of Dakhla, but warns me that the road is rough — no hotels, no gas stations, no cell phone reception, no natural sources of water. Sometimes the track is so thick with sand that the old Peugeots drive on the beach by the Atlantic instead — a beach, he warns, that is mined. He adds that his cousin is bringing fishermen across the border in two days, and I could join them for a reasonable fee.
   I think about all the women who have made similar trips in the Middle East and Africa. Mary Kingsley, who walked through Gabon’s jungle in the 1890s in black wool skirts, surviving hippo attacks and surging rapids. Alexandrine Tinné, who rode a camel across Libya in 1869 in a gallant, if foolish attempt to be the first European woman to cross the Sahara. Gertrude Bell, who counseled kings and prime ministers on the creation of Jordan and Iraq and climbed daunting Swiss mountains in her spare time. I see a photo of my mother, resplendent in mid-80s Banana Republic safari gear, grinning up at the big green sign that marks the equator’s passage through Kenya. None of these women would have turned back.
   Then again, none of these women traveled absolutely alone as I do. I heave out a great sigh and consider what lies ahead for me. Spotty transport, cheap hotel rooms, bad food, worse water. Searing heat during the day, freezing temperatures at night. A thousand more miles before I reach Dakar, Senegal, where the only person I know in West Africa lives. Every night I’ll arrange new lodging, every day new transport south. Every evening I’ll eat alone; every night I’ll jam a chair under my door handle. Throughout it all, this relentless light will follow me, haunt me, and hound me into dark cafés and shadowy bus stations where no respectable woman should go.
   I smile and shudder and try to suppress the gnawing realization that I have pushed myself too hard in the past couple of weeks, am too dazed and tired and lost, metaphorically and perhaps even literally, to keep going. I should return to France, where life is sad and gray but solid and predictable. I should go home to my very good husband and our quiet, ordered house; I should start up as a reporter again. I should have babies.
   But even in my shattered, scattered fatigue, the idea of going home brings on a wave of despair so intense I feel momentarily nauseated. I turn my face up to the brilliance rising off the ocean. It blinds me behind my eyelids and the world turns to white light, crashing waves, and the cry of children. Their laughter tugs at my heart a little, but it’s the sun that makes my eyes water. Tears mixed with rancid butter fall down my cheeks and disappear into the wool of my sweater. I beckon the waiter.
   “Tell me your cousin’s name.”

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Table of Contents

    I. The Escape
1. Hotel in Dakhla 3
2. Connecticut Childhood 8
3. First Freedom 15
4. Oak Tree 20
5. Breadcrumbs in Paris 22
6. A Victorian Traveler 27
7. Nowhere 33
8. My Fishes 39

9. Coffee in Casablanca 45
10. The Cold Atlantic 51
11. The Bleak Desert 60
12. The Love of Home 65
13. Trumping Comfort 70
14. Slow Fear 75
15. Hitchhiking at the Border 83
16. Death and Dying 88

17. A Boy from Bordeaux 97
18. Mood on the Streets 103
19. Nouakchott 107
20. Slate Mountains 112
21. The Lothario of Chinguetti 118
22. Fortune Tellers 126
23. The Good Doctor 134
24. The Good Doctor — Part II 147
25. Gnostic Life 156

      IV. MALI
26. Bamako 163
27. Boubous 177
28. Campari by the River 184
29. The Talisman 192
30. Patience 197
31. Tyranny and the Mosque 201
32. The Road to Timbuktu 206
33. What’s in a Name? 212
34. Faking Devotion 220
35. Dogon Country 227
36. Madness and Cocoa Butter 236

      V. PARIS
37. The Quiet 243
38. A French Doctor 250
39. Panic 256

      VI. NIGER
40. Niamey 263
41. Women of the Book 271
42. Fashion Show 283
43. Free from Love 294
44. Home 299

      Acknowledgments 305
      Bibliography 307
      About the Author 309

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