Timbuktu tech

In remotest West Africa, an Internet cafe seamlessly blends with the desert lifestyle.

North Wind Picture Archives / AP
Rene-Auguste Caillie, 1828

I was in Timbuktu, one of the most remote cities on earth and a place whose very existence is questioned by many people. Just for the record, it is in Mali, West Africa.

It is a city straight out of the Bible, with rows of mud houses lining sand-filled streets. Men in dark turbans ride tiny donkeys while berobed desert wanderers prod their camels on the way to market. I had taken three flights and a one-hour ride in a 30-year-old Land Rover to reach it, going back centuries in time.

The constantly blowing sand coats everything with a fine yellow haze and threatens to swallow the town should people ever stop moving for a few moments. If you fly over it, you may miss it because it is the same uniform brown as the surrounding desert, with only the outline of its drab buildings to break the skyline.

There is not much in the way of advertising in the city, and most services get by with a handwritten sign over the door. Sometimes the only way you know what is in a building is to poke your head inside for a look.

At one place that had an actual wooden hitching post with a camel attached to it, I was intrigued by a sign that read “cofe N ciber,” and just had to stop. It was a dim, smoke-filled room with a sandy floor and several tiny tables all occupied by turbaned men sipping coffee who appeared to have just walked out of the desert, almost like the cantina scene in Star Wars.

Fortunately, because of the eclectic collection of travelers who make it to this barren spot, no one really looks out of place or attracts much attention.

I stepped inside, the only Westerner in sight, drawn to a glow from the back of the room and was dumbfounded to see a man sitting at a computer screen. He was a giant Berber with sweeping gray beard and a long dagger stuck in the sash of his robes. His head was wrapped in a dark blue turban and his feet wore sandals of goatskin. This man was a desert warrior straight out of central casting who looked as if he should be leading a caravan, and the last person I would expect to see pecking away at a computer keyboard.

In my surprise I muttered something under my breath, but obviously loud enough for him to hear as he turned to face me. He looked me up and down and got up slowly, towering over me.

I took a step backward, thinking I might have offended him when he said in perfect English, “Yahoo [the computer’s lone browser] is having problems. Would you happen to have a BlackBerry?”

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