When Martin Dockery touched down in Dakar, Senegal, on his way to Timbuktu, Mali, his luggage was gone. The traveler from New York City had nothing but his passport, his Lonely Planet guidebook and a copy of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. He didn’t speak any local languages, he didn’t have a change of clothes, and he didn’t know anyone there. “I had these two books and I was stepping into the chaos that is the area outside any airport in the world, but all the more so in Senegal,” he recalls.
The first night, he roomed with a Japanese traveler from the same flight. Later, they went out to eat and returned to find their room had been burgled. They headed to the police station, the Japanese man speaking Japanese, Dockery speaking English and the Senegalese police officer speaking French as well as his native tongue. It was a strangely functional conversation between three people in at least four mutually unintelligible languages, and it set the tone for the entire trip. “It’s amazing how you figure out how to communicate with people beyond language,” Dockery says. “You look into someone’s eyes and you know exactly how they’re feeling and thinkin, and they know likewise with you.”
Wanderlust, a one-man show based on Dockery’s travels, comes to the Diana Wortham Theatre Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 22-24. Before his Africa trip, Dockery had been temping at the New York Stock Exchange. His method was to find temp work someplace for a while, save money, travel and repeat. Post-Timbuktu and tired of temp work, Dockery put his MFA in playwriting to use and became a professional storyteller. He went to West Africa seeking a revelation, and his autobiographical production tells of his frequent stumbles and occasional insights along the way.
It was the sheer connotations of the name, Timbuktu — its Saturday morning cartoon shorthand for the other side of the world — that drew Dockery in. When he saw a photo of a mosque built of mud and learned it was in Timbuktu (and that Timbuktu was real), he knew he had to go. “What happens when I go to Timbuktu? Will the skies open up and a moment of grand epiphany reveal to me the secret of life?” he wondered at the time. “It seems something like that should happen at a place that’s as far away from where you live as you can get.”
It’s heady material. But, while he’s had some fascinating experiences, Dockery says, “Everybody’s life is interesting. My show is about going off to Africa and the Sahara and Timbuktu, but those are just words that sound exotic.” More importantly, Wanderlust is about self-consciously journeying to another continent with idealized expectations.
Dockery feels owning his mistakes is essential to the art of storytelling. He wants it to be clear when he’s not the smartest person in the room, or when he’s made a mistake or missed something obvious. “In those moments, in the lowering of one’s status, it gives audiences a chance to get into the stories and sympathize and empathize, having been in those moments themselves,” he says.
So Dockery brings the audience to that moment of being alone in a distant land, his luggage missing and his room robbed. And then he tells about finding a place by the sea, on a desolate-looking beach crowded with concrete buildings where he made some English-speaking Senegalese friends. This is when he started to let his guard down and appreciate the familiar warmth of human interactions. And when his luggage did eventually surface, part of him wondered if he wasn’t better off with just his Lonely Planet and Life of Pi.
“The book is about a kid surviving out in the middle of nowhere on a boat with a tiger,” he says. “I looked to that book for a bit of perspective.”
WHAT: Martin Dockery’s Wanderlust: From Here to Timbuktu
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 22-24, 8 p.m. $28/$23 students/$15 children