English MATTERS — SPRING 2011

Sally Mussetter

I’ve jumped out of the box twice since I retired. I spent two months in a library in Timbuktu (yes, it really exists). And I learned how to scuba dive.

When I read in a magazine that an NGO was trying to save the thousands of manuscripts buried in the sands since the closing of the great medieval universities of Timbuktu, I had to volunteer. Since I’m not a trained archivist, I couldn’t actually work on the manuscripts; and since I don’t read Arabic, I wouldn’t have been much use anyway. So what I did for my two months was translate all their modern French documents into English so that the project could qualify for international support. The little adobe house we worked in was higher tech than anything I’ve ever been close to—wires everywhere, flood lights, a huge digital camera on stilts, a computer storage bank with who knows how many GBs, and a satellite dish which sent our data to the University of Chicago every night at 1 a.m. On the other side of the reinforced steel door, you slog through soft sand up to your ankles. Garbage piles everywhere, raggedy kids begging for “cadeaux,” boney sheep on their way to somebody’s kebab lunch, Tuaregs on motorbikes with their blue robes flying out behind, tents, mosques, Mali music, a caravan of salt trucks (no more camels), a Mormon missionary farm, and some Chinese surveyors getting ready to tar the main road.

Scuba diving is a lot quieter. Every time I plan a trip, I tell myself old ladies shouldn’t be doing this. The gear makes my suitcase heavy. Getting it all on and checked out is a serious chore. And between the time I jump off the boat and hit the water, my whole life of crazy ideas flashes through my head like a bad movie. But when I let the air out of my BCD and start to sink into blue, I’m glad I’m crazy.

I’ve done some more old-lady-conventional things, too. I went round the world on a freighter (four and a half months) and exchanged houses with a couple from Brisbane (five months). I bicycled across the Ile de France and down almost half of the Danube, took a bus across the Al-Can highway, rode the Trans-Siberian train across Russia, and hiked a couple of weeks along the coast of Croatia. When I found out how much cheaper round-the-world tickets are than the usual round-trip ones, I bought three of those. I’m planning a trip to visit some of the pilgrimage cathedrals of southern France this spring.

When I’m home, I play in my wood shop. Anyone need a nice salad bowl???

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