To Timbuktu, A Young Couple's Honest Portrayal of Travel

May 12, 2011 in Literary Traveler Book Reviews, travel books, travel to Africa

Courtsey of Gina Gagliano, First Second Books

When I picked up To Timbuktu, written by Casey Scieszka and illustrations by Steven Weinberg, I wasn’t so sure.  I mean, I can be a bit of a literary snob … yet at the same time, I like fun books with a unique twist.  Sometimes it’s good to relax your brain.  But what To Timbuktu offered was a book with heart, comedy and some pretty cool cartooning.  Definitely not the brain relaxer I had set myself up for–don’t let the accompanying cartoons fool you.  Instead, I was transported into my past as a young woman who studied abroad in the Caribbean and as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Europe.  I kept saying to myself throughout the whole book, “They have it right!”

Allow me to explain.  The premise of To Timbuktu is the author and artist, Casey and Steven, are a young couple in a budding relationship.  Fresh out of prestigious colleges, they decide to explore nine countries throughout Asia and Africa together–even though they’ve been involved in an opposite coast, long distance relationship (she in California and he in Maine).  Yet they take the risk.  They teach in China.  They travel throughout Southeast Asia.  They live in Mali–all the while, finding themselves as individuals and as a couple.

The part that drew me in was the honest portrayal of living abroad in second and third world countries.  No, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  You certainly can’t change most things, as much as you want and as much as it makes sense.  And for your sanity, you do need to take a break from your surroundings once in a while.  Casey and Steven accurately depict what it is to be a first world foreigner amongst the natives, especially when they live in Mali for a year for Casey’s Fulbright Scholarship.

It throws us back into our ever-returning identity dilemma–are we long-term tourists?  Temporary residents?  Honorary locals?

Yes, what are they?  Casey and Steven leave that up to the reader to decide.  There’s also an element of could you survive this experience?  The couple comes across as VERY patient, even braving the obnoxious behavior of fellow American Chris, who invites himself on their vacation.  China seems like a cakewalk compared to Mali where they are taunted and viewed as “human ATMs.”

Despite all the brutal honesty, their story is fun and funny.  I thought it brilliant how Casey “interviews” each country and how Steven seems loved by all for his tall, skinny whiteness wherever he goes.  The couple shows a sense of humor too–from collecting Chinese Ethnic Minority Trading Cards to letting their students give themselves American names such as “Dad” and “Mummy Vista.”  And you come to love the people who love Casey and Steven, who coincidentally all have names that start with the letter M … Mabo, Moussa, Maria.  What’s up with that?

Steven’s artistry only adds to the words as I had a clear picture in my head of what these places were actually like.  And when I looked up what Casey and Steven actually look like, the cartoons depict them accurately.

To Timbuktu is a powerful mixture of soul and sincerity combined with a topping of humor.  For anyone who has been the first world traveler in a foreign land, this book will speak to you.

To read more about and/or purchase To Timbuktu, please click here.



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