Book Review- 'To Timbuktu'

I was waiting in San Francisco International Airport, home bound after nine months of traveling abroad. Nervousness had driven me there over three hours early and as I paced the International terminal, I wished I was still wandering aimlessly around Market Street. Ignoring the knots in my stomach, borne from the unknown of home, I decided to kill some time in Hudson Booksellers. After an hour of flipping through ‘National Geographic’ and browsing the non- fiction section,  I walked out with Lonely Planet’s, ‘A House Somewhere: Tales Of Life Abroad.’ As the name suggests, the book is a collection of stories about living abroad and in hindsight, was probably not the best thing to read as my own adventure was coming to a close.

We often do things to appease our appetite for travel when we’re not actually traveling. For some, it is learning to salsa in a seedy Latin bar while others may eat at every Italian restaurant in search of their favorite Florentine soup. For me, it is all about books.

I was first recommended, ‘To Timbuktu,’ by an eccentric American couple, Louise and Joe,* who I met while interning in Nicaragua. They are the kind of people I couldn’t make up if I tried; Louise would tell me how Joe wooed her by translating Latin love poetry and in the next instance, Joe would be playing an acoustic, ukulele cover of Ke$ha and segue into a rendition of ‘Land Down Under.’

From my time spent with them, I knew I had to read this book.

‘To Timbuktu,’ written by Casey Scieszka and illustrated by Steven Weinberg is, at its core, about the couple’s first two years out of University; living, working and adventuring abroad. Spanning nine countries and dozens of cities and towns, they venture from Morocco to China and eventually, all the way to Timbuktu. It is a funny and endearing look at the reality of living and working in a non- Western environment and a fresh take on a genre that can be contrived and overdone.

Scieszka’s writing is simple but thoughtful, making incisive observations about cultural differences, the tourist industry and the challenges of living abroad, without losing the overall light- hearted tone of the book.The narrative progresses from the initial honeymoon days of long- term travel, to the harder, final months when the dust and the differences begin to take their toll. Most people who have lived, worked or studied abroad are familiar with this feeling of frustration and doubt that, on a bad day, can linger, forcing you to question what you’re actually doing. It is this balance achieved between the joy of travel and its more sobering days, that sets the book in its reality and is insightful without being overtly reflective.

While I am a travel photography fiend, Weinberg’s drawings are a welcomed change from the rolling hills and orange- hued sunsets that inundate this field and are perhaps, the most fitting way of illustrating their often kooky lives. There’s a consistency between his drawings that is reminiscent of a comic strip but not at all repetitive. Instead, Weinberg’s artistry creates the feeling that each image was sketched on a whim and in doing so, helps keep the images alive.

But what makes this book so unique is the way in which the pictures and text are seamlessly intertwined and in doing so, allows both to dictate the pace of the narrative. For example, landscapes and maps act as chapter breaks while single character sketches serve as interesting eye candy in the middle of a double page of text. It is perhaps the perfect way of telling a story that is centered around two people and their encounters with interesting people in far away places and Scieszka and Weinberg do it with humor, creativity and honesty.

There was something strangely comforting about this book; perhaps because I’m a recent graduate, a writer, a traveler or currently in a cross- continent relationship but there is an underlying idea that if you are motivated and passionate enough about something (or even someone) you will make things work. And it serves as a reminder that sometimes, a little frivolity, can go a long way.

The website is also really great; check out the interactive map.

* Not their real names