Upon glimpsing the cover of the travel memoir TO TIMBUKTU, one feels compelled to immediately flip through the pages to discover what the book is about. Don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging anyone to spoil an amazing story. I'm just saying it's impossible not to glance at the incredible artwork before you read. The caption on the cover says it all: "WORDS: Casey Sciezska ART: Steven Weinberg." Words and art: what a way to show the simple beauty of a travel story created by artists.
The author of TO TIMBUKTU, you'll find, is the daughter of famous children's author Jon Scieszka, and she's quite good. Illustrator Steven Weinberg (her boyfriend) has filled their memoir with charcoal drawings --- classic cartoon art after my own heart, similar to "Calvin and Hobbes." Needless to say, he is an illustrator with substantial gifts, and because the two are a real-life couple, they've managed to pair their writing and drawings perfectly, matching every scene with a picture that illuminates and gives the story life. The word-art combinations are laugh-out-loud funny and make the book one you'll want to buy and keep.
After meeting in Morocco, these two twenty-somethings decide to go one step further and explore the world together while getting used to each other. Not inclined to cut things short or delay their relationship for years, they endeavor to see the world before deciding what to do with their careers and their hearts. After finalizing collegiate experiences, they pursue foreign exchange, a program typically managed by means of a government grant. Grantors require something substantial of their American "ambassadors," so Scieszka and Weinberg submit individual goals and expectations and then receive approval, followed by a voyage to the Far East and then into undeveloped Africa.
Their first stop is China --- one place Scieszka has already seen --- and so, with little knowledge of the native dialects and cross-cultural expectations, they accept teaching jobs, becoming instant instructors to a large number of Chinese children of varying ages. After an overwhelmingly positive experience, they next venture to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Morocco --- and, of course, make a special stop at Timbuktu. (As long as you're going third-world, why not go all the way?)
The couple's combined experiences take them to strange and desolate places, making the expedition difficult in unanticipated ways. Africa proves a more challenging place to live than the Far East, yet they express little surprise in discovering how natural it feels to be a Westerner in remote parts of the world.
Needless to say, Scieszka and Weinberg are both adventurous people with an admirable approach. They are fearless, multi-lingual, get-out-and-go types, each with considerable drive and determination to tackle experiences with enthusiasm and a positive outlook. They also show limited bias in adapting to different regions that are dissimilar in dialect and cultural expectations. The food, described in much detail, is equally dissimilar wherever they go. Contrary to popular belief, Scieszka reports, the Far East has limited areas where there are actually hanging dog carcasses in the markets --- but there are some.
Of greatest concern are the difficult religious and social expectations of certain people, and also the dangers posed to foreigners, particularly to Americans. The couple must work through obstacles to stay their planned time. Living as locals, they encounter language barriers, mysterious illnesses, shocking hygiene standards, delectable and sickening foods, seedy black markets, hazardous mopeds, serious scares, and --- yes --- the unfortunate, very frightening experience of being forcibly taken into custody by the African police.
Overall, their expedition is impressive and continually comical, an experience that screams "go out and find your own adventure". This is a bright story about appreciating different people and places. The writing and art are impressive, making it possible for the reader to be transported. I was also happy to discover that the government-funded venture was not a waste of money. With worthy goals and an idealistic approach, two humanitarians set off to leave each place better than they found it, and this they did. Since returning to the States, Scieszka and Weinberg have dedicated themselves to aiding third-world countries and all of the bright, kind-hearted folks they got to know around the world.
Whatever your politics or preconceived notions, you're sure to love TO TIMBUKTU. Thus far, it is my favorite book of the year.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 1, 2011
To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story