Once, in Texas, I met a man from Timbuktu, and mentioned that I had been discussing his native country a few days prior. I explained that at least here in the USA, "Timbuktu" is a sort of a symbol of a place that is very faraway - a place difficult to get to. "The 'ends of the earth'" a mutual friend paraphrased. "And very exotic." Timbuktu guy seemed shocked to find this out.
I had conversed about this very subject with Henry, a Texan, and Frederic, from France, who said that Timbuktu was no big deal; he traveled near there a lot and had once driven through it on a motorcycle. So we had asked him, well, Fred, what do they say in France to generically represent the faraway place? "Texas. We say it is as far away as Texas."
I got the idea he sort of thought we should have known this! After all, this all occurred IN Texas. But just like the African I was to meet, we Americans in Texas had not known this, and were all greatly amused. And so when the subject arose with Timbuktu guy, I added this nugget of recently acquired knowledge: Texas is France's Timbuktu.
In answer to my recent queries about this idea, a friend from Brunei has stated the following: "Some people, especially the literary types, borrow 'Timbuktu.' In the local context, our 'Timbuktu' is a place called 'Temburong' which is a Brunei county. The place is actually not that far away. It feels far because one has to take a long windy road, cross into a neighbouring country, and then ride on a ferry to get there. The ferry ride is very short. It takes maybe 2 minutes to walk across the river if you could walk on water. It takes a couple of hours to get there by land and by boat it's probably 1.5 hrs."
Another friend from Venezuela just shrugged when I asked him, and said Timbuktu as a metaphor was used the same way there. By the way, the man from Timbuktu could think of no comparable expression from his native locale, so we came to a dead end. I guess we were hoping he would say something on the order of, "Siberia is Timbuktu's Timbuktu!"
(A story of Timbuktu)