A woman finds herself unhappy in marriage, crying in the supermarket; she decides to travel, to get to know herself as an individual, not as a wife, daughter or mother. This is the set-up for the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love and also for Nina Sovich’s memoir To the Moon and Timbuktu. But the comparisons stop the minute Sovich lands in West Africa. Her travels are uncomfortable, often frightening, always illuminating and so beautifully conveyed that the reader feels present, as if she herself is watching a sunrise over the Nile.

Sovich learns early in life that “the bitter sweetness of travel fills me up and makes me feel whole,” and she spends her 20s as a reporter in the West Bank and Pakistan, experiencing new cultures. After Sovich meets her French husband Florent, she finds herself living a bourgeois life in Paris and wondering why she is unhappy. Inspired by Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley, she decides to spend six months traveling in West Africa with the legendary city of Timbuktu as her goal.

Sovich’s journeys are page-turning and suspenseful. In a cheap hotel in the Sahara, surrounded by drunken sailors, she blocks her door with a chair under the handle. Riding across the desert with four men who grow increasingly menacing, she distracts them by telling stories. Sovich finds that the best way to protect herself—and a good secret for all female travelers—is to seek out the company of other women.

Sitting in the women’s section of a market in Mali with a baby in her lap, Sovich encounters a sense of perfect peace. By the time she reaches Timbuktu, she wears a traditional boubou and walks in bare feet. Traveling has transformed her heart and mind, turned her toward the beautiful, glittering world and finally allows her to return home.

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