Published: September 21st 2009September 21st 2009
'We buy all kinds of crap,' Seth is telling me, 'Actually, it's you - you buy all kinds of crap.'
We're in our new flat unpacking boxes and he's holding up a solar powered plastic chicken which shakes its head from side to side. I bought it in South Korea last year and it makes me smile whenever i look at it. Ok, so it may have no actual function, but i glance at it and i am back in Seoul, which is kind of brilliant. What both of us are discovering right now, as we sift through the life we put on hold for six months, is that we have managed to bring nothing (material) back with us from Africa. Nothing that will provide that same sense of transportation, however brief. Six months, twenty four countries, and all we have to show for it are: an assortment of unusual stones/some newspaper pages that made me laugh ('Animals Rule Our Town!', 'Dead Man Tells His Story')/an empty bottle of Tembo beer from the DRC, because its old and has 'Zaire' printed on the label/a couple of Nigerian movies and the hysterical song, celebrating fraud, 'I Go Chop Your Dollar!'/a stash of my favourite strawberry Lux soap from South Africa, and one - ONE- genuine souvenir; an applique showing the animal symbols of the Dahomey kings, from Benin. Other than those, what i pull out of my rucksack are clothes damaged beyond repair, old tickets, leaflets and bottle tops, books that look like they've been buried in the Sahara and notes, barely legible. It is a bit like sifting through the belongings of a madman. Outside the sun is shining and Oxford is its usual self. Very soon, both of us will be back at work, and i will begin in my free time to write up the manuscript describing the journey we have just taken - a journey that ended just 48 hours back but already feels insanely remote and distant.
'We say we brought nothing back,' says Seth, 'but there's always the trinkets.' He's right. As on the Asian Alphabet, for each alphabet town we visited, we always bought or sought out a little trophy, as a kind of proof of having been there. The alphabet trinkets we brought back from Asia varied from tourist crap to rather cool, and made a fabulous team, gathering dust on our shelves and inspiring strange looks from friends (the ceramic alsation from Xi'an, nicknamed Stevo, was always my favourite. Seth liked the volcanic goat.) In Africa, the towns we visited often had only one shop, and sometimes no shops. Even in market towns, alarmingly, hardly anything that had actually been made in Africa could be found on sale. This is why it felt like we'd brought 'nothing' back. Now we are looking at our African Alphabet trinkets, and realising that the little bits and bobs we are now holding in our hands tell us more about our journey than any classy souvenirs could.
The trinkets: Agadir - a small amazig symbol, meaning 'free people' to the Berber
Berrem - an eraser with a picture of a doll wearing a headscarf on it
Chinguetti - some face cream called 'I Love Garlic'
Dakar - a Gazelle Beer bottle top
Essau - a tub of strange yellow balm
Farafenni - a box of Mauritanian tea
Gao - a brass stork
Hombori - a Songhai necklace
Imasgo - a plastic flashlight in the shape of a pig (i do take responsibilty for this)
Jukwa - a tub of hair relaxing cream
Kouma-Konda - a stone Seth found in a waterfall
Lome - our two juju telephone fetishes, which may have protected us on our journey
Mamfe - a creditcard holder with a picture of Cameroon on it
Nyos - a stone - the only thing i could find
Oyem - a packet of plastic (glow in the dark?) fingernails
Point-Noire- an eight-ball keychain
Quilenges - a sachet of whisky
Rehoboth - the wick of a kerosene lamp
Seronga - a cowbell
Tsumeb - a sew-on patch with the town's crest on it
Uis - a wire and bead parrot
Victoria Falls - a copy of the 'Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare' from a strange bookshop
West Nicholson - a packet of Zimbabwean tea
Xai-Xai - a box of matches
York - we were given a glass dolphin and an ornamental box by a kind family in a shop
Zagazig - a tacky plastic bust of Tutankamen
The feeling when we reached Zagazig was hard to pinpoint. In principle, travelling by alphabet sounds like a rather arbitrary idea, plucked from the sky as a kind of travel writing hook, which i suppose - in the beginning when we first thought it up (2004) - it was. In practise though, it takes you to so many places where tourism doesn't exist, and with the right intentions, it is intense and very rewarding. By right intentions, i really mean travelling to discover the people and places of the world, and to treat them with respect and an open mind. I read a lot of travel literature and the worst of it is written by people who are insecure with themselves, and judgemental of others. The best stuff is written by modest, genuinely interesting people with curiosity in their blood. We've met a ton of fellow travellers, too, and in Africa almost every one of them fitted that description. They were gentle souls, adventurers, people with tales to tell, people who didn't gab but who had really lived. (It was therefore a bit of a shock to suddenly merge with the gap year trail, in Namibia/Zambia/South Africa, and then the package holday crowds in Egypt. Nice people, doing their thing, having their own versions of an adventure (that sounds patronising but I'm keeping it in! come on, you know our adventure was better! i'm allowed to be a little cocky at this point!) but who, to us, seemed to have landed from another planet because we hadn't encountered such souls for months. Tour groups do smell lovely with all that coconuty suncream on, though. And i have been a gap year traveller so i know where i came from... you've got to start somewhere!)
We never really dared at any stage of the journey to presume we could complete it. This is a mentality i was already familiar with from walking the 88 temple pilgrimage last year; you can't plan far ahead, you can only plan as far as your next destination, because seeing the bigger picture makes the task seem too daunting. We had six months, and twenty six letters to collect, in order. Some countries didn't have certain letters so we had to sit down with an atlas, the gps, the internet and any michelin maps we could find along the way, and check to make sure certain routes were possible. But it was not one smooth six month stint, point to point. It was a great journey punctuated by a collection of obstacles, each to be faced one at a time and not really thought beyond. To my mind, it went something like this (Seth's version would be a bit different because we worry about different things):
1. Can we get thru Western Sahara without written permission from Moroccan government?
2. Getting through Mauritania - dangerous - al-qaeda - fco advises against all but essential travel there
3. Gambia - Is Essau really a town or just a suburb of Barra?
4. Mali - Any way we can find an 'I' that isn't in touristy Dogon Country?
5. The Nigerian Visa - big one this one - if we couldn't get it, we would be very stuck, as travelling around it, via Niger, Chad and dangerous north Cameroon not an option. Mission diverted to Ghana.
6. How to cross Nigeria quickly without entering delta region (failed.)
7. Can we get a visa for Gabon?
8. Can we get a visa for DRC?
9. If we get a visa for DRC, does that make us clinically insane?
10. Our passports are with the DRC embassy. We are definitely insane.
11. Gabon - hope country remains stable after death of the president
12. Congo - can we just show up at the border without a visa?
13. Congo - is there any transport in this country?
14. Congo - election results seem to have been rigged. hope it stays calm.
15. Congo - biggest obstacle of trip - Ninja rebels block our path to Brazzaville. We have to make 'The Decision' - the only one we can really make - and fly, breaking our overland mission. Numbing and depressing.
16. DRC. enough said.
17. the Angola transit visa - almost impossible to get - both of us worried about it for weeks. only town where it is issued is Matadi, DRC, a mountain port town on Congo river.
18. Angola. enough said.
19. How the hell do we get out of this country when our visas have expired and they have the right to charge us 150 US dollars per day, and how do we pick up our rare 'Q' along the way when we have no time left?
20. The ethics of hiring a car on a trip we have done almost entirely on public transport (without a hire car, you can see next to nothing in Namibia.)
21. Zimbabwe - will it be safe?
22. Zimbabwe excellent, people excellent, but there is no access to cash because of huge mess country is in economically (and otherwise). atms? no luck, travellers checks? no luck. must leave much earlier than desired.
23. South Africa - does York, our Y, really exist? The people of Pietermaritzburg live only 30km away from it but have never heard of it... worrying...
24. Egypt - with all these police escorts and tourist convoys we are forced to participate in, can we ditch the protection and get to unknown, untouristy Zagazig?
So, you see, after 24 there was a sudden moment of 'huh! no more obstacles! Oh my God, we did it!' it sounds kind of negative, but it wasn't - it was just really hard work, not at all like a holiday (although there were occasional moments when it felt a bit like one, like visiting Vic Falls, Etosha National Park and the Okavango Delta - and we actually felt quite guilty on those occasions !?!)
So we find ourselves trying to look on the journey, for the first time, as a whole. Its very hard to do when you have trained your mind not to. We find we are able to start out best by constructing lists - our favourite places, least favourite places, the best and worst meals we had, the scariest moments, the most beautiful scenes - that kind of thing. I'm pretty sure, though, that the only way for me to solidify all this is to write the book. And so i will.
A final note to thank the people who read these blogs. There are so many thousands of people who share their lives on the internet. My travel blog is one floating in a world of millions. The thing i always love about writing them is that i know i am sharing them with people who actually want to be reading them. I hate sending 'group emails' about travel, i never do it, because even your closest friends may not want to be constantly subjected to your travel tales. By keeping a blog online, i know my friends and family can see it, if and when they want to, and when they do, i have the pleasure of knowing they do it because they want to rather than because they feel they have to. I'm really honored that so many of you do this, thank you very much. I'm also honored by the people who don't know me personally but who read my blogs because of their keen interest in travel. To be honest, i do not try very hard stylistically and grammatically on these blogs, because i want to share the moment rather than choke myself with constant rewrites, but i do put a good few hours preparation into each one. As some of you know, i'm half way through my second manuscript - a book on my pilgrimage of last year - and when i finish it, i plan to write up the African Alphabet, and attempt to get both published. I'm given hope because both trips were so awesome, even a guppy could write a half-decent book about them, and it seems to me a lot lesser stuff gets published. Ultimately, you pursue what you love. If you want something, you need to be able to ask for it, work for it, give it all you've got. Whether i get to see my writing in book form remains to be seen, but i'll enjoy trying, and I've promised myself I'm going to work even harder this time. Bring it on!
I'm not going to write any sweeping gushing statements about Africa, or its problems, its beauties, generalising about its people, etc. because that is a temptation that needs resisting. We may have just journeyed to 24 countries but one thing i can say is that coming to this continent for the first time and travelling through so many parts of it, it is really my ignorance that has been revealed to me - that i have been living my life without knowing about these places, or meeting these people, even really fully understanding that it all exists. I feel lucky that a light has been thrown on this part of the world for me, and i look forward to trying to understand it better, and to keeping up with its news and developments. Wherever we travelled, the less 'touristy' a place was, the easier it was to meet the local people and talk with them. My favourite times were always on minibuses, a gang of you thrown together, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence, sharing peanuts and music and watching the wide/potholed/dusty road roll ahead and behind us. Or riding three to a motorbike, over the hills and through the jungles of Central Africa. It was a set of places, a set of people, a specific route, a select six months in time, and there are not many conclusions that should be leapt to from so individual an experience. However, seth will want me to put this point across: we were not murdered, raped, held at knife or gunpoint, intimidated, seriously conned or deceived. It sounds dramatic, but many people were seriously worried about our safety on this trip. We, too, knew the risks involved in travel through parts of Africa. To be honest, i thought there was some chance of not returning. And you hear the horror stories - and some of them are true. The temptation is to say we got lucky. What we like to think is that it was not so much 'luck', as a real, tried-and-tested sign that travel through Africa is not as dangerous as people imagine. That there are always many, many more good people than bad. When the worst thing that's happened to you on a six month trip is getting pickpocketed for £8, you start thinking the streets of England pose more problems...
Africa 2009 - a few lists
1. Charged by hippo in Okavango Delta. And, when they dive under water, damned if you can see where they are, you only know they are coming.
2. Fight on our bus in Nigeria, crazy guy grabbing wheel through window, bus driven into ditch.
3. Angola bus ride on which all three drivers and most of passengers were drunk all day and all night
4. Thief apprehended in Bamako market beaten up by members of crowd, blood flying.
5. Crossing the Congo River, because i was nervous as hell about Kinshasa on the other side
Most Beautiful Scenes
1. Smooth Saharan dunes, Mauritania
2. The Grassfields region of Cameroon
3. Rural Egypt, along the Nile
4. Sani Pass, up the Drakensberg
5. Pink blossom on trees in Lesotho valleys
1. Romeo, driving us from Swaziland border to Durban and taking us on a safari
2. Louie and Louie, who helped us two ragged looking hitchers reach Big Bend
3. The Akandes, for showing us Ibadan and homely hospitality
4. Vincent, who let us ride with him from Mali to Burkina, and was as sweet as anything
5. Now that i've started this list, i realise there are so many...
Songs I Never Want to Hear Again in My Life
1. The Power of Love - Celine Dion
2. I wanna make love right now - AKON ... ugh....
3. My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion... ugh...
4. When a Man Loves a Woman - Michael Bolton... oof...
5. Unbreak My Heart - Toni Braxton... ugh...
Next time! - if we ever go back -
1. Ride that jungle train to Reserve de la Lope, Gabon
2. More time in Lesotho, learn to become a shepherd, wrap up in a blanket and put on a wicker hat
3. Timbuktu. Can't believe we missed it. It is currently considered unsafe, but then so's half of Africa.
4. Pack air rifle to keep pretty much everyone associated with the Egyptian tourism industry at bay
5. Leave two empty seats on the flight home