A Postcard from Timbuktu

A postcard I received from Ali

One place I would love to travel to is Timbuktu (and in case you’re one of the people—there are a lot—who didn’t think it was a real place, it is). A sand-coloured maze of streets and mud brick houses and temples, Timbuktu was the centre of the trade across the Sahara in the middle ages, and became a great centre of learning, an Islamic university town, in the sixteenth century.

Its remoteness, roughly in the centre of Mali, and being a walled city, puts it in the same enticing, mysterious league as my other longed-for destination, Lo Manthang, Nepal, which I achieved in 2015. But, long before Covid rendered us all homebound, Timbuktu became off-limits when Islamic jihadists captured the city in 2012. It was recaptured by French and Malian forces in 2013, but in 2021 the Malian military staged a successful coup and now control the government. This year they ousted the French and welcomed Russian mercenary group Wagner, and that’s going about as well as you can guess.

So Timbuktu is not going to be listed on Tripadvisor any time soon. 

However, even if you can’t visit Timbuktu, you can pretend you’ve been there. After the rebel invasion, when tourism ceased in Timbuktu, those employed in the industry were left with no income. To help them out, Phil Paoletta, along with his friend Ali, set up Postcards From Timbuktu. Phil, an American fan of West African music, first travelled to Timbuktu for the famous Festival au Désert. He fell in love and still lives there with his wife and two children. He runs a small lodge and restaurant in Bamako, and (at least before Covid and a couple of military coups) runs motorbike tours in West Africa

For $10 (US) you can choose a postcard and the message you want written on it, and have it sent anywhere in the world. Taking time off work? Confuse your colleagues by sending them a postcard: 

“Hi everyone, having a great time here in the Sahara desert. Visited this fabulous mosque in Timbuktu today.” 

Is there someone you’re avoiding? 

“Hi, sorry I haven’t been in touch. Unfortunately, I’m stuck here in Timbuktu.”

Or freak your mum out:

“Hi Mum, sorry I haven’t called for a while.”

August 21st, 2009: The Airport Building of Timbuktu with waiting and arriving people.

Unfortunately, while your postcard is almost guaranteed to reach its destination, there is no predicting how long it may take. Be patient.

After it is hand-written in Timbuktu, (and the post office hasn’t run out of stamps) it is sent by whatever means available from there to the capital, Bamako. This can be either via a United Nations flight, bus, truck, or even by boat down the Niger river. Once it gets to Bamako, it will fly to France and then on to its final destination.  

You can also send salt mined in the Sahara desert, jewellery, bags, and any word or name of your choosing rendered in Islamic calligraphy by Boubacar Sadek, Timbuktu’s last master calligrapher.

So if you’d like to go on a pretend trip to Timbuktu, quit your job in a creative way, or just mess with someone’s head, or send a truly unique gift, check out Postcards From Timbuktu and help support former tourism workers.