And now let’s go over to Nobby in the box for the halftime report…
I’m now exactly halfway through my long-awaited sabbatical, although thanks to extended interruptions in Patagonia, Antarctica and Uganda I’m far from half way through West Africa. From here on it’s all very straightforward – I persevere overland in a crooked line from country to country, apparently always alone, until I run out of time.
Vultures at dawn (Guinea-Bissau)
I knew from the beginning that identifiable highlights would be few and far between around here and I was okay with that, but I wasn’t so keen on going solo. However, my mission is to visit all the regions of the world and so I undertook this journey on the gamble that I would meet up with likeminded travellers. Their company would save me from my own, which I can generally cope with during the day but which can be found lacking after 10 hours or so.
The gamble has so far not paid off. I’ve met only a handful of other backpackers in 6 weeks and none of them were remotely entertaining. The closest was a Russian guy in Mauritania but he seemed to be actively trying to antagonise the locals. “Why is the visa so expensive?” he asked our gracious host one night, “€55 for just desert full of rubbish.” Hardly a tactful question. Anyway, maybe more than any trip I’ve ever been on, here I have to derive pleasure from the act of travelling itself, and so I do.
In West Africa this usually means the ‘sept-place’, the nickname for the 7-seater Peugeot 504 used as a shared taxi between major destinations. At the town bus station there’s always a choice between this disreputable vehicle and a proper bus, which is more comfortable and cheaper but takes longer to fill up with people and hence, unless you are win-the-lottery lucky, demands a much lengthier wait. (No vehicle leaves until every seat is filled.) Although that’s not to say I haven’t waited hours for a sept-place too.
Why stop there? Where did those chickens come from? (Senegal)
Usually dilapidated beyond belief and held together only by the most recent coat of paint, being crammed into the back row of one of these for 8 hours with two other bodies is liable to result in permanent limb damage. However, it is still possible to derive pleasant travel memories from such journeys. After about 4 hours or so, or maybe the first break (not counting police roadblocks, prayer stops or breakdowns) passengers begin to loosen up. When someone buys nuts or bananas through the window, they offer them around. Maybe a couple of words are exchanged. It’s still wholly uncomfortable but one can gaze out of the window watching the drifts of plastic litter pass by and be almost content.
In Gambia, where sept-places are less popular, I caught a couple of buses. These provided much more scope for people watching, especially rewarding at the weekend when the ladies wear their gloriously colourful dresses and matching headscarves. Unfortunately, I was too much of a wimp to take any photographs of them, either discretely or just by asking. Bodies are still close when the aisle fills up but there is nothing like the overcrowding I experienced in Ethiopia or Tanzania, and it’s easier to have a conversation with someone when you don’t have 80% of your flesh pressed against theirs.
It’s here I met Amadou, a young nurse in Gambia’s interior heading back to his home village near the Senegalese border for a week’s leave. He invited me to stay with him and his family in their small village. I imagined a series of family enclosures with thatched roof huts, like the ones we’d passed frequently throughout the journey. He gave me his Whatsapp number (the whole of Africa runs on Whatsapp nowadays) and village name before he disembarked while I continued to Banjul.
I thought about going there on my way to Senegal, I really did. It would have been cool, remote, unique, but I managed to dissuade myself. Well, I did message Amadou the night before I was going to be passing by to ask if it was okay to stay, but he didn’t reply before I left wifi, so I used that as justification not to go, despite the fact he’d already invited me and I had the name of the village and could easily have found it. My real reason? Loneliness breeds introversion.
The slave fort from which Kunta Kinte was shipped to the US, very significant if you've read Roots by Alex Haley (The Gambia)
You see, while I manage to persuade myself in transit that I am enjoying myself, and that this is what I came here for and this is what makes me feel alive and what I am meant to be doing with my life, those feelings go away when I reach my destination. In whatever grotty room I manage to find, I am alone. I do some writing (fortunately I have been very busy so far and still have commissions to fill), or watch something on my laptop, sort photos, listen to music. This is when the doubts start to creep in. All this is stuff I can do at home; it isn’t worth the emotional turmoil of being separated from poor Gerda!
So why aren’t I doing something more, I dunno, African? Something related to my environment, that I can’t do at home? There’s usually only really one option. Have you ever been out to a bar in an African city where you’re the only white person? Drunk men come and talk to you, and it gets old, fast. They’re friendly for sure, but not great conversationalists. Most people aren’t even when sober, I find.
What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that I’m lonely. For instance, as I type this I am overlooking a beautiful beach, clean and wide and mostly hassle-free, facing the sun setting into the Atlantic Ocean. Of the few beaches I’ve seen on this trip this is the first where I’ve wanted to linger, so I set aside a whole day to enjoy it. I’ve walked up and down, been for a swim, even tried to take the edge off my pasty, white skin. It’s probably the nicest place I’ve been since the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, but something is missing. More accurately someone. Ideally that would be Gerda but really any company would do! There are other tourists around, mostly old and fat, French or German, but I’ve never been good at approaching strangers to make friends, and now that I’m a scary-looking, middle-aged, backpacking weirdo, it’s even harder. Anyway, this isn’t about that.
Devoid of meaningful company, the only solution is to keep moving, to spend as much time on those buses and cramped death-traps as possible, chasing that ephemeral sensation of travel satisfaction, grasping at its tail as it draws further and further out of reach, until it becomes just a spot in the distance to remind me why I once started this journey. I could attempt to travel all the way to Cape Town without once stopping anywhere for the night, bus after bus after bus until I’m done and can go home. I can’t very well stop here though. The line has begun, my pen is affixed to the paper. To withdraw it now would be to leave an ugly blotch, both on the map and in my life. A task begun and aborted, a failed holiday, a tainted full stop to my world travelling career. I can only hope that I find some company soon and this trip begins to resemble so many others that I have had, a parade of fun that I have written about before and is probably quite boring to read about.
This may not be appropriate material for a blog. Maybe I’m revealing too much of myself. No-one wants to read about me wasting this incredible travel opportunity in self-pity, but the words have escaped now, through my fingers and into the keyboard; I can’t suck them back so into the blog they must go.
And now, I might as well have a beer.
Update: I spent my Saturday night drinking cheap Portuguese wine from the box, sitting next to a lady who had built a fire on the pavement and was steaming tiny portions of couscous and selling them for the equivalent of 6c a pop. It tasted remarkably like polystyrene. We shared no common tongue but still managed to have a bit of a laugh, and I was sad when she packed up and left at 9pm.