03 June 2012

What a life! True life is elsewhere. We are not in the world.

Here's a story I wrote about some impulsive traveling in Africa. Intersection published it this month. I didn't take a lot of pictures, as I was too busy riding thousands of miles on dirt roads, keeping maggots out of festering wounds and carrying feverish malarial Kat around and whatnot.
It doesn't help that I'm a real fucking amateur writer and wrote it at 4am in a couple hours the night before going to press, but here it is:
(command + click to go big and text below images)

"The Nigerian Ambassador General to Benin in
Cotonou asked us where we were headed. We said
South Africa but we really had no plans, just to keep
moving. It was about a 2 months since, out of boredom,
I decided to leave the UK. I told my girlfriend that I was
sick of London and had no desire for anything there
and was going to “ride around Africa”, to which she
replied, “not without me! … I’m quitting my job and
coming with you!” So, already late in the evening, we
took a look at the gumtree classifieds and went and
bought a dirtcheap old Honda dirtbike, (1985, the same
vintage as me!) from some friendly lads on a council
estate. Without registration, tax or insurance, we rode it
straight to the ferry in Portsmouth that same night, my
girlfriend on the back with a notebook and our passports
and a couple cameras inside a little backpack strapped
to the back. It felt like we were doing a practice run
from a pursuing police homicide squad or apocalyptic
tidal wave, only stopping for gasoline, food, and rolls
in the hay.

If you want to, you can ride straight from London to
Africa in one day and three hours, including the two
ferries, which is what we did, stopping to climb into a
castle to do grown-up stuff and then again to buy a new
rear tire and a surplus army tarp and a sleeping bag.
This is however not the most common way for people to
travel over-land to and around Africa, which is to spend
months or years planning and bucketloads of cash to
buy an expensive, heavy, German bike and pile loads of
extraneous crap onto it (like they believe its impossible
to buy a motorcycle tire/kitchen sink outside of
England/Wherever) and then Ewan Mcgregoring their
way around sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Most people just buy all the gear and never actually
take the trip.

Our budget mandated that we bought a lightweight old
dirtbike but I’m pretty glad we did, for a lot of reasons.
First of all, motorcycles are most fun when they are
light enough to throw around and don’t sink into sand
- all of these obese over the top accessorized adventure
bikes are actually about as useful for going off-road as
tits on a bull. Secondly, generally, nobody wants to rob
you when you’re riding a beat-up old Honda (this might
have also had something to do with only having one set
of clothes a piece). And lastly, unlike todays complex
computerized crap, they are easy to work on, and work
on ours I did. This wasn’t my first roadtrip partaken on
an attention-seeking vehicle, and this time, as in the
past I’ve found that whenever I’ve had to stop to work
on the bike or needed a part, it’s been a great way to
make friends and open doors to worlds that one would
normally ride right on by.

Riding our Rocinante off the ferry in Tangier was not as
much of a culture shock as one might expect, but that
is why traveling on land is more interesting than by
air - you can literally connect the dots between distant
places. The Moors conquered the Spanish peninsula in
711 and ruled there for 750 years, and on either side of
the straits of Gibraltar it’s sort of a gradient gray zone
between cultures.

It was a disappointment to feel so comfortable in
Morocco I admit. Sure, it was different, but this wasn’t
really the Hollywood image of ‘Africa’ that I thought I’d
encounter. Aren’t there supposed to be lions and orphans
being adopted by movie stars and Bono and AK47’s
and ladies with plates of bananas on their heads? We
rode around pretty much all of Morocco, staying in the
super cheap pensions, camping, swimming underneath
waterfalls, learning how to say useful phrases such as
“no I don’t want it, thank you, go away now please”,
drinking opium tea, having a grand old time, making
friends even; but Africa is a brobdignagian continent
and we needed to keep exploring and so we got some
visas and parted ways with our pals and rode south
for ‘black Africa’ via the disputed territory of Western
Sahara and Mauritania.

Western Sahara is populated by dromedars, landmines
and 165,000 Saharawis, the native folk that have lived in
refugee camps since Spain ‘gave’ their colony, Western
Sahara, to Morocco in 1975. I was very tempted to
romp around on my bike in the white sand dunes
but refrained, remembering reading the news about a
traveler who had strayed from the road there a month
before and died when his car ran over a landmine which
blew him up. The roaming dromedars help to set off the
landmines but there are still a lot of the five
million left there by Morocco in the early 80s. There
were hours and hours of open desert broken up by the
occasional shanty fishing village and more frequently,
military checkpoints, where they asked for, ’ze papers
please’. Less common than the military checkpoint, in
Western Sahara, is the gas station, which was a little bit
of a problem for our small gas tank, so we picked two
empty five liter oil bottles out of the trash and sewed
up little tank bags to hold them in and doubled our
fuel capacity.

With little to do in Western Sahara but look at countless
dromedarys and wonder about them being blown up
by landmines, we hauled ass down to the border with
Mauritania, where there was a kind of oasis in the
desert, a rather oversized motel with a fountain and
garden. We checked in for the night, so we could get an
early start at the Mauritanian border the next morning
and using the motels wifi on my phone, I checked my
emails, finding an email from Kat’s Norwegian father
titled “DON’T GO TO MAURITANIA!!!”. Citing the fact
that Mauritania is literally a lawless country, Al Quaeda
operates there, kidnappings are frequent, there is
slavery and human trafficking, her father forbade me
from taking his 20-year-old daughter to Mauritania,
which pleased Kat to no end but gave me nightmares
of being attacked by a tall surly Viking.

In spite of the warning, early the next morning we
filled up our gas tanks and left Western Sahara and
rode across the three kilometers of no-mans land,
along a trail zigzagging through burnt out and blown
up vehicles and landmines, and arrived in Mauritania.
After going through the border formalities (no helpers
thank you) we set off into the desert for the capital
Nouakchott 300 miles away. I was a little scared at this
point, imagining us being enslaved by a goat herder
or kidnapped by Al Quaeda, and to make matters
worse, the new chain I had just bought for our bike
in Morocco was already wearing out at an alarming
rate, despite me lubing it up every day. Our first stop
was a checkpoint just south of the border where a
soldier asked me for ‘un cadeau’, (they speak French in
Mauritania), to which I replied with a lie, ‘sure, where is
the nearest ATM - I don’t have cash’? He sadly pointed
out that it was 300 miles away in the capital and let us
go on our way. Haha.

We rode South through the flat empty desert
occasionally being passed by cars flying by us that
were either bought cheap or stolen in Europe to sell in
Nigeria and other countries where there is a shortage,
and one can sell a used car for several times what
they cost in Europe. As dusk approached we neared
Nouakchott and I stopped to re-tension and inspect
the chain for the fifth time that day. It was bad - the
chain was about to come apart. I told Kat that if the
chain did break, we would quite likely lock the back
wheel up and go skidding out of control, possibly into
the oncoming lane, and I advised her to hold tight to
me and try to ride it out – not very comforting words.
We would definitely not have made it the 60 miles to
Nouakchott so I was more or less forced to stop and
ask for help when we came upon a Bedouin tent and a
couple cars parked in the sand.

I should have been scared I guess but actually I was
more excited to to meet some dreaded Mauritanians.
As we rode up, I realized these were the goat herders
of my nightmares, and that it might have been a deadly
mistake to stop here. A man dressed in a boubou came
out of the tent and looked at us with hungry eyes.
He said that parking there overnight would cost 200
dollars. It was worrying - if he was capable of extortion,
what else could he be capable of? A couple more locals
came out to talk to us and one, an older looking gray
haired guy, said he was driving to the capital and offered
us a lift. I wasn’t ready to leave the bike behind, parked
in the middle of the desert, but Kat sensibly pointed out
that if the bike wasn’t going to be safe there, neither
would we, so we hesitantly got in the old guys car and
set off into the night. As it turned out, our driver, named
Baba turned out to be a very friendly and wonderful guy,
who invited us over to have dinner with his family and
we ended up staying with them for a few days, while I
looked for parts and fixed a couple things on the bike.
Baba told us about the lawlessness of his country and
the ineffective governments that have always come to
power by coup and basically confirmed all of the things
that Kat’s father had warned me about. With this in
mind we set off for Rosso, the Senegalese border town
where we were denied entry because they no longer
issued visas at the border. We stayed at the border town
that night and Kat suffered a bout of Malaria, then
the next day we piled into a shared taxi and headed
hundreds of miles back to the capital to go to the
Senegalese embassy where they told us to “come back
in a week”, and laughed when we said we needed to
plead with the Ambassador because we didn’t want to
stay in scary Mauritania. I explained that the Senegalese
consulate in Morocco had erroneously assured us that
they issued visas at the border, and he replied “do you
think a black man in your country would be shown any
special treatment”? A good point he had, but like mama
said, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and I waited
and waited out front until someone decided they could
help me and we were allowed to get our visas issued the
next day. With all this time in Nouakchott we had come
to discover some nice parts of the city and bumped into
a couple Frenchies that were driving a car down to Mali
to sell it and they introduced us to some local friends
of theirs and we ended up seeing a well hidden side of
Mauritania that was pretty cool.

We eventually made it to Senegal, black Africa at
last, across the river boat and amazingly different to
Mauritania. The colors were different and the way
people held themselves was different and there was
music in the air. People were jazzy in every way and it
felt like a far happier, freer place.

We rode down to Dakar, splitting lanes between the
gridlocked trucks and explored the city, staying in a
sailing boat club, CVD, resting our butts and working on
the bike some more, and then rode east to Mali, staying
in villages along the way. I wanted to travel to Timbuktu,
to see the oldest Quran in the world and also just to be
able to know what people where talking about when
they said “from here to Timbuktu”, but Kat vetoed the
idea, which might have saved our lives: some friends of
friends that we were traveling with went - two of them
were kidnapped and one executed when he resisted, in
a restaurant in the town square.

Instead we rode to Bamako, the capital of Mali,
an extremely smoggy city, the fastest-growing in Africa,
where Malick Sidibé has a studio, and there we applied
for visas to Burkina Faso. I should note that, so far we
had not had any major trouble getting visas or paid any
taxes on our bike the whole way, which is something I
had read we would need to buy a ‘carnet de douane’
bond to cover.

The cost of all of these visas was adding up so we
bought a transit visa for Burkina Faso and rode right
through to Ghana, where a friend of a friend Carsten
Holler had invited us to come to his house. For the first
time, we had issues at customs, they wanted us to leave
a cash security equal to the value of the bike which they
would assure us would be reimbursed upon leaving the
country, an offer which we rejected. We slept on the
floor of the office til the next morning when the officer
in charge came in and happily gave us permission to
carry on, sans payment.

At first Ghana seemed very similar to Senegal, Mali, and
Burkina Faso but the locals all spoke English instead of
French because it was an ex-English colony. The corner
stores all sold tea and, most disturbingly, there were
churches all over the place and more signs of Christian
Rich White Ladies than in the ex-French colonies. There
were ‘Save the Wretched African Children Christian
Centers’ and the ‘Redeemer’s Victory Church’ and the
like, and many of the shops used biblical references
in their names ‘Jesus Saves Bank’, ‘Jesus Loves You
Internet CafĂ©’ and so on. It almost made me miss the
call to prayer of Morocco and Mauritania.

The roads we were traveling at this point were either
all dirt, or asphalt with huge craters that made drivers
drive on the wrong side of the road by default, perhaps
because both sides of the road were always terrible
but maybe the grass appeared greener on the other
side. Since Senegal, things had been looking decidedly
more ‘Lion King’: we saw tribes of monkeys, vultures,
and other typical African animals, and lots of naked
Africans bathing in rivers. We got a lot more attention
too - in villages, children would gather around us and
laugh and play. Unfortunately another thing that we
noticed more and more of was noise from our motor,
specifically the tope end. We had a burned exhaust
valve, and it was making a racket. We adjusted the
valves, we changed our oil and oil filter every couple
of days, but it kept getting worse, but we soldiered
on. Carsten was only going to be in Ghana for a few
days and I had heard his house was super fun so we
hooned along the dusty bumpy dirt roads South from
the Ghana/Burkina border, making really good time. I
was pushing the bike, thinking about slides and sensory
deprivation tanks and all the fun things Carsten would
have at his house, and it happened, while going about
60 miles an hour along a road in Northern Ghana, the
engine blew up. I pulled the clutch in immediately, and
coasted to a stop. Kat got off and asked me, “so how
long will it take you to fix this time”. I looked at her and
smiled, “I can’t fix it here baby, our engine just blew up,
it’s done, we need to find a new engine or at least a new
top-end, it’s going to take a while”. More entertained
than dismayed, we vowed to give our little Rocinante a
new heart, by hook or by crook, and with nothing else
to do we thumbed down the next passing truck and
they helped me toss the bike in the back and refusing
payment, they gave us a lift to their destination, the
next small town, Wenchi, where we found a corner of
the market to lock our bike up where our friends with
the truck assured us it would be looked after.

We thought, wow, this is a great opportunity to get some
rest from riding and instead travel by bus. Boy, were
we wrong! Traveling by bus in Africa is a harrowing
experience. Going from one town to another one a
hundred miles away takes an entire day, because buses
don’t leave until they are completely crammed full of
people, which takes hours, and the roads are terrible
so the going is slow and deadly. Another thing, the
buses have the worst suspension on the planet and are
constantly bouncing into potholes. Nothing made me
appreciate the bike more than traveling by bus. They
say that not much is easy or efficient in Africa and it’s
not a lie. Anyway, so we got on the bus down to Cape
Coast and hung out with Carsten for a few days and
had a lovely time, fishing on the beach in front of his
house and going out and getting pissed with him. It was
a nice break from our transportation woes. The time
came for him to go though and it came time for us to
find the parts we needed for our bike. We spent the day
waiting on and then riding the bus to the capital, Accra,
to search the junkyards for parts. Now had we been in
Dakar, it would have been a piece of piss to find the
parts we needed, as frenchies have been riding there
and selling or leaving their large-bore bikes there after
completing official or unofficial Paris-Dakar rallies, but
in Accra it is very uncommon to see a big dual-sport
bike. We made some friends in Accra that worked on
helicopters and planes used by the oil companies but
after spending 3 weeks scouring the city’s junkyards
for the right motor parts, we came up empty handed.

So, we went to the second largest city in Ghana and
went about searching the junkyards there and came
up empty -handed again. I was determined to bring our
bike back to life, I felt like it was part of me, I couldn’t
let it die, it was only as old as I was so surely it could
keep going? If it couldn’t then what did that say about
me. The second largest city turned up empty, as did the
third largest, and the fourth largest and the fifth largest.
We had spent almost a month looking for parts, busing
around the entire country and, stopping any person on
a large cc motorcycle to ask about junkyards or people
with dirtbikes, and still NOTHING so we decided to
return to the small town in Northern Ghana and see
if the bike was still there and see if we could sell it for
parts or if not, make a funeral pyre and set her ablaze.

Upon returning to the town we were exhausted from
the bus trip and found a little motel to crash at. It was
the next day, as I was walking down a dirt road to a
communal bathroom near where the market where
we had stored the bike, when I saw a policeman, AK47
in hand, sitting next to the very same model as mine,
except with a crappy chinese motor where the normal
motor should have been. I asked him what happened
and explained that our motor had blown up and we
had spent a month traveling around Ghana looking for
motor parts and he laughed and said, “I didn’t like to
kickstart the other motor, so I had a fitter put in this
one with electric start. I have the old one at my house,
you can have it, I don’t want it. Meet me here tomorrow
and I’ll bring it to you”. I was flabbergasted. I had to
pinch myself to believe what I was hearing. I offered
him money but he said it was no big deal and he didn’t
want any money, he was just happy to help. I’m not sure
why that happened, but I was grateful. We rebuilt the
motor using parts from his bike and boogied on outta
there, motor running stronger than ever. Fuck yeah
1985! We only stopped to visit the Mole national park
on the way to Togo we were so sick of Ghana.
While riding in some very fine sand (silt really) on the
Togolese-Ghana border, my bike got vacuum locked
down on my leg with Kat on top of it. The hot exhaust
headers melted through my pants and my flesh. I
screamed at Kat to get off but it took a several long
seconds before I was able to get the burning metal off
of my skin. It looked gross but I figured that at least the
wound was cauterized, and it didn’t hurt much, so we
just got back on the bike and kept battling through the
sand, eventually making it to Lome. After a couple days
the burn cracked open and got sort of oozey so I went
to the pharmacy and bought some Neosporin and they
told me to leave it uncovered so it would dry out I guess,
but as I walked around Lome, and later Cotonou, flies
kept trying to turn my oozey war wound into their baby
nursery. Which brings me back to the start of this whole
story, we were meeting with the Nigerian Ambassador
General to Benin in Cotonou discussing our trip when I
felt a little pressure on the inside of my skin, next where
my wound was, and as I smiled at the Ambassador I
glanced down and saw a little maggot bulging under my
skin burst through it like a white popping pimple. What
a fantastic thing to experience I thought. I reached
down, pulled it out, put it in a little plastic bag, which
then went into my pocket, and then kept smiling, and
went back to getting about our visas.

Nigerian Visas in hand, we decided to visit the voodoo
python temple in Ouidah where goats and birds are
sacrificed. Nobody was there so we wandered around
the town, looking for the market we came across a
swarm of people all packed into an alley watching
some sort of commotion. There were drums beating
and above their heads we could see swinging sticks and
all of a sudden people started screaming and running
away from the sticks and Kat starts bolting away also,
but I just watched, having heard Carsten describe the
Voodoo ceremony he’d witnessed as pretty similar.
The people stopped sprinting up the alley and turned
around and went back towards the commotion. A man
came up to us and said it was dangerous for us to be
there and that we should leave, but another woman
said we could go with her and watch what was going
on from the roof of her house, so we followed through
the crowd behind her and up onto her house with the
full moon above us and incredible voodoo ceremony
below us. As Carsten described it, the ritual involves
white straw ‘ghosts’, that run around the village, the
mythology being that whomever the ghost touches,
dies within a year. He said that the villagers chase
and beat the ghosts with sticks and that a scientist
he knew that had witnessed the ceremony swore that
when the white straw ghosts were beaten, the fell
apart and there was nobody inside! Here the ghosts
were colorful and had round whirling dhirvish skirts
that they spun around, and it looked fucking amazing.
I took out my super 8 camera to film the ceremony but
it was completely dead, as if hexed, so I went for my
Nikon slr, but by that time we were getting a lot
of negative attention from all the villagers (there
was not a single foreigner there), and the master of
the ceremony stared into Kats eyes screamed some
words at her and then did some hand gestures. We
had a hairy time getting out of there but eventually
made it back to Cotonou.

Cotonou was slightly seedy, and we were almost
robbed there, buying all of the visas on our trip
had drained us of our money and we decided to
regroup another time and continue our journey
around Africa in more than one trip so we decided
to sell the bike to buy plane tickets home. We made
posters and hung around for a while. People kept
calling, wanting us to take the bike out to them,
in the ghetto, but they would refuse to come
see it in the city. Someone came to see the bike,
and we negotiated and agreed on the price, and
went to the douanes to transfer the title but he
was being sketchy and I thought he was nervous
about holding money on himself because he
was fidgeting with something in his pocket, but
afterwards I found out he was holding a knife or
something, because he told someone that he was
going to try to rob me. Another time someone was
interested in the bike, but when he said he wanted
to buy it and showed up to see me with a friend
I had made there, a local gangster and boxer, he
started sweating bullets. I made another friend in
Cotonou, but a short lived one - he was a soldier
from Sierra Leone who had gone to Libya to be a
mercenary for Gaddaffi and was now unable to
return to Sierra Leone after deserting. He had some
interesting stories but I decided to stop talking to
him when he professed his love for killing people. “I
love to kill people, Cameron. I love it. I am a killer”.
Officially defriended. We also met a Singaporean
lady who had been living in Cotonou for 14 years
after losing her passport or missing her plane back
to Singapore. She told us about the three times that
voodoo witch doctors had flown through the night
sky to try to murder her. She was finally about to
fly home, and so were we.

We ended up selling the bike to a Nigerian guy,
successfully importing/exporting it without any
taxes or registration. The bike was gone, but our trip
was far from over. Going home via Nigeria was hell,
in so many ways, I don’t even want to get into it.
It was a flight of fancy, a spontaneous spurious trip
that crushed a lot of myths about a mysterious
continent and shed light on a lot of things that
are never discussed in the news. I was envious
of my friends in Ghana working on planes and
the desire to be less useless and deficient really
smacked me to the core. Maybe I’ll move there and
start a business one day. Definitely seeing such
raw places was fascinating, it was much easier
to see a countries dirty laundry in its entirety.
We came back and people really were surprised
that we had made such a trip, but we had done
so without any preparation whatsoever, and it was
fun and challenging and beautiful and definitely
worthwhile and highly recommended."