For a time, when I was very young, my father drove my sister and I to school. We lived in East Vancouver, and at a certain left turn, my father would wave his hand toward the windshield, shake his index finger at a small, rising hill and say, “Never cross that bridge. That bridge leads to Timbuktu.”
“What is Tim buck two?” I asked.
“It’s Timbuktu,” he said.
My father, emperor of the joke-recyclers, always pronounced these words whenever we came to this dangerous intersection: “East Hastings and Clark Drive. Timbuktu!” he would say, as if we were hapless tourists. “I hope we don’t cross it by accident!”
I held on, fearful I would be sucked in without my realizing; the bridge would dislodge itself and mutter away like a powerboat, detaching me from Vancouver, familiarity, family, and food.
Timbuktu, I later realized, was used by my father in the same way that French settlers once imagined China: the far side of the Island of Montreal, in other words, Lachine. The point where an intrepid explorer might trip off the edge of the world and find himself surrounded by silk, eunuchs and dynamite. A dreamer named Robert de La Salle attempted to map a passage to China through the rivers of the Canadian north, and he and his band of inland wanderers were nicknamed les chinois. Timbuktu, a city in Mali, was as mysterious as the Borneo my father, himself, came from, and maybe the Timbuktu of his daily punchline was in fact the exit ramp from North America, a ship that would carry one home, and maybe the joke was on us, imagining there was a way back from the other end of the world.
I never even walked on the same side of the street as my father’s bridge to Timbuktu. I approached it as one would
approach the edge of a roof, lightened by the irrational feeling that if I stepped too close, I might be all too pleased to step right over, as if the sky itself exerted a magnetic force. In fact, the bridge wasn’t a bridge, it was only an elevated road that led cars down into the labyrinth of the Vancouver docks. Still, my father would signal far in advance, and then turn, both hands gripping the wheel, as if the old Buick might have ideas of its own, as if every object jumps toward freedom and the open sea if given half the chance.
In 2006, a British survey found that sixty-six percent of young people believed that Timbuktu did not exist, that it was a myth, hoax, or poetic turn of phrase; an outlandish idea. “For some people,” said the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, “when you say ‘Timbuktu’ it is like the end . . . but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you that we are right at the heart of the world.”
Despite having traveled, many times, to distant shores, I have never crossed my father’s bridge. Maybe the familiar road is the most difficult to traverse: the mythical, outlandish, true place that exists right here. Maybe the other side of the world is a place that, rather than being a flyover that bypasses the noise of life, is the road we pass everyday and elaborate with our fears, projections and fantasies. If only we drove straight, and stopped ourselves from turning away, we would reach it.