We’ve all heard the idiom “From Timbuktu to Kalamazoo”; it’s the phrase to denote the expanse of world travel, using two similar and exotic-sounding places to represent the remote ends of the globe. Having been to both places myself, I’d like to report that despite their fantastical names, Timbuktu and Kalamazoo do actually exist. However, they may not exactly be as remote as one would think.
First off, Kalamazoo isn’t that exotic at all, unless you consider a small Midwestern city exotic. Kalamazoo — or “K-Zoo” as I’ve heard colloquially — is in the state of Michigan, about 140 miles directly west of Detroit along interstate I-94, almost the midway point between Detroit and Chicago. With a population of around 74,000, it is a small and humble city and college town — home of Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University — with many characteristics and events to make it your ordinary all-American city. There are a few museums and an arts institute, plus food festivals, beer and wine tours, and a county fair. Kalamazoo’s funny name comes from an old Native American word, which is also the namesake of Kalamazoo County and the Kalamazoo River.
Timbuktu is actually a bit more remote, although perhaps not the pinnacle of the excitement in terms of high adventure travel. It too is a small city typical for its region — on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert in the western African country of Mali — where day to day life can seem rather ordinary; adults work to make a living while kids play soccer in its sandy streets and alleyways. There are several mud-built houses, stores, mosques, and tour offices for those wanting to go out into the desert, but otherwise, it’s a pretty sleepy and anti-climactic town.
Timbuktu’s mythical name perhaps conjures up images of its glorious past; it was once a capital of trade in the Sahara, where nomadic Tuaregs would buy and sell salt and other goods with grand caravans of camels. Over the decades, Timbuktu has been on a decline, but the Tuaregs and caravans still exist and trade there — however if you’re looking for grand bazaars, try Morocco and other countries bordering the Sahara instead. The big draw of Timbuktu these days is actually a musical one; each January it’s the outpost town to the Festival of the Desert, a three-day international music festival in the Sahara. Of course, the other appeal is the bragging rights of having been there — although when it comes to both Timbuktu and Kalamazoo, most of that brag-worthy exotic allure is merely in their names.