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In the end, it was nothing special

I saw a lion today. In eight months in Africa, I’d yet to see a single lion. Now I can go home.

I’m writing my final “Around Africa” column from inside a tent in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where I’m on a three-day safari, the sole purpose of which, from my point of view, is to see lions in the wild. I’d resolved not to leave Africa until I’d done so, and today it happened: a rather skinny lioness, mouth agape, lazily stalking a mother buffalo and her calf until she decided it was too much bother and she’d rather lie down and enjoy the sunset. Frankly, she looked a lot like they do on the Discovery Channel.

Reflecting on the past eight months, I come back to a quotation from Shunryo Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master: “As a Chinese poem says, ‘I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.’ People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.”

Make no mistake. Africa is full of wonder and amazement. Suzuki uses “nothing special” as a metaphor for a state of mind said to be achieved by daily practice of a certain type of zazen meditation, but it applies quite literally to the traveler seeking extraordinary experiences. Before you achieve it, you think it must be something amazing, but once you have it, you see that it’s nothing more than what was right in front of you the entire time.

The unnamed Chinese poet isn’t let down by what he sees, no more than I was by Africa. The mountains and lakes are as beautiful as he’s heard. But if he came seeking an inner transformation, something that changes the way he perceives and interprets the world, the poet realizes he’s been scratching at the wrong itch.

SOMETHING BIG. When I set out to travel around Africa overland in October 2010, I wanted to push myself to do something big. The overland route down the west coast of Africa isn’t a well-trod path like Cairo to Cape Town or Istanbul to Kathmandu. I’d taken long overland trips before, but never such a distance: tens of thousands of kilometers through 21 countries, traveling almost entirely by bus, train, taxi and boat, never going anywhere near an airport check-in desk from Madrid down to Cape Town and up again to Dar es Salaam. In sections of this route, the logistics of public transport are undocumented by any guidebook. Yes, I admit it: I felt special doing it.

Traveling overland yields a view of the landscape, both cultural and geographic, that I would have missed flying city to city. From Morocco, a land whose tiled courtyards, fountains and riads seem to have stepped out of a Taschen coffee-table book, the route crosses the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara, hitting the noise and color of sub-Saharan Africa at the Senegal River. The red dust of the Sahel then gives way to rainforest overgrowth in central Ghana, and from there southward, around the great bend in the African coast, the jungle grows in great patches interspersed with savannah and grasslands. The track becomes rough, and with tourists few and far between, the conversations become warmer and less geared towards trying to sell you something.

At the Congo River, the geographic progression reverses itself: baobabs make their reappearance midway through Angola, the land becoming drier, culminating in the twisting red lines of the Namib desert dunes, until finally, in the Cape’s monied winelands, you’re back again in style-book territory.

AFRICA ON THE MOVE. But if the journey itself was extraordinary, most of what I found along the way was more striking for being so commonplace. You already know the visual clichés: cackling child soldiers, baring white teeth and waving AK47s, shaking you down for bribes; the Congo described as a “river of blood,” a wound that never stops bleeding. Some people come looking for the opposite, like a dimpled orphan that opens their eyes to the precious beauty of all humanity. But in the end, it’s just you. Plain old you again, the same nervous ticks you had before, the same songs stuck in your head.

Granted, there were a lot of cute children. None of them had guns. No blood, save for a few scrapes of my own. Almost no bribes. I did, however, find a continent on the move. Most Africans hardly think twice about sitting 10 hours crammed into a bush taxi to visit relatives. I rode countless vehicles packed with housewives carrying sacks of onions and bundles of plantains from town to town, small-scale merchants commuting to sell electronic goods, and some who spend a entire day getting to a nearby village only to attend a work colleague’s mother’s funeral. Through a sustained experience of the unglamorous, it’s easier to go beneath the surface strangeness, to see that even in the most seemingly alien parts of the world, people have the same basic needs, loves and foibles as anywhere.

There’s your Chinese poet’s epiphany. Somewhere along the way the strange became approachable. In Africa, as anywhere, bread gets moldy and milk goes bad, mothers die and babies giggle and hearts are shattered into a million pieces and, yes, some wounds heal and some don’t, and it’s wonderful, it’s horrible — but most of all, it’s nothing special.

This is the 31st and final installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

 

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Comforts of the New World in southern Africa

I crossed the Senegal River last October under a darkened sky, the weight of luggage pushing the creaking motorboat so deep into the inky water that the river lapped at the lip of the wooden hull. Something more than skin color was different on the other side. Mauritania marks the final frontier of the Arab world, while across the border in Senegal, African rhythms crackle from unseen speakers even as the hour approaches midnight. You are now sub-Saharan.

That music was infectious at first, the chaos and dirt and noise all sweet like sugary tea. Months have flown by since. The squiggle on the map extends south, and lines become fuzzier along the way. It’s hard to say when, but at some point we cross another divide, and the noise of Africa dissipates into a familiar flatness. Some say the true boundary is the cattle fence that runs across northern Namibia, but it’s not until the end of a 20-hour bus ride from Windhoek to Cape Town, the final stretch of a six-month overland route from Madrid, that I realize how different this world has become.

Time was, I’d be horrified at the thought of spending 20 hours on a bus, but no longer. The engine hums along the pavement at a sleep-inducing frequency. The operators have seen fit, remarkably, to assign no more than one person per seat, and there’s fresh coffee and packaged goodies available at rest stops along the way. Approaching Cape Town, we pass through the suburbs of Paarl and Stellenbosch, the heart of Cape wine country, where sycamores line the streets. For the average tourist, such are the comforts of South Africa that those arriving overland from the north imagine it’s like coming back to Europe.

ARRIVAL IN CAPE TOWN. But on my first visit to South Africa, I look out the window and I see something else. It’s in the street signs, the pavements, the parallel parking, the churches, the squat one- and two-story brick buildings, the dry cleaners and Chinese takeaways. It all resembles suburban New England, where I grew up, more than any Europe I’ve ever known. I even spot a white picket fence.

It makes perfect sense, for this was once, in a manner of speaking, part of the New World. The 17th-century white settlers of Cape Colony saw themselves praying at the altar of progress, in contrast to the natives who still worshiped their ancestors. People don’t see things that way anymore, thankfully – or if they do, they tend not to say it too loudly – but one still gets the sense that those who laid these towns’ first cobblestones weren’t just building roads, but were creating a new society from scratch.

And a different society it still is. In Cape Town, Luke and I crash at a friend’s flat on the north slope of Table Mountain, the rock that dominates the Cape Town skyline, where the doorstep affords a view of a cruise ship in the harbor. Quietly exuberant, we descend to the city center and cross it by foot to Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a redeveloped tourist area where soft-serve ice cream drips onto the boardwalks.

My first impression of the city – that it’s surprisingly quiet and small – belies the fact that 3.5 million people call Cape Town home. Many still live in townships built by the apartheid government in areas designated for non-whites, far from the center. Some of these districts, though by no means all, are still shanty towns, crowding right up to the highway that runs down the surf-battered coast of Cape Peninsula.

JOURNEY’S END? Our other friends from the road soon catch up. After spending so much time on the move, we decide the comforts of Cape Town are worth a good investment of time, so we rent a two-bedroom apartment in one of the posher new residential developments for one month, splitting the costs five ways – a savings over a hostel. Whoever sleeps on the sofa is still living several notches up from most of the accommodation we’ve had in Africa.

Every day this month, we wake up in that apartment and look up at the face of Table Mountain. We talk about climbing it, then resolve to continue the discussion later after enjoying the pool and Cape Town’s nightlife. Rob, the biker of the bunch, promises that one of these days, provided I find myself a motorcycle helmet, he’ll drive me on the back of his bike down to the Cape of Good Hope, where I intend to toss some special objects into the sea to mark the end of my journey. I’ve yet to take him up on that, and I’m not sure if it’s due to sheer lassitude or the fact that I don’t know where to shop for a helmet. More likely than both, it’s my resistance to drawing the curtain on this journey.

This is the 26th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Out of Angola, into Namibia: Tempers, a wallet and a traveling companion lost
–> NEXT IN THE SERIES: Keeping it real in the township — or mere “poorism”?

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Daylight robbery in Dakar

p>Dakar's a village in some respects — or at least it feels that way during my stay. People look at me oddly when I say this. The Senegalese capital sprawls across the westernmost cape of Africa with 2.5 million people in its metropolitan area, each of them, more often than not, covered with a fine layer of urban dust blown about constantly by the Atlantic breeze.

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It gets “claustrophobic” during the summer when the air comes to a standstill, says Peter Kahler, a Liberian expat and the general manager of West Africa Democracy Radio. We're going for a stroll around the vehicle-free Gorée Island, a former slave depot and one of Dakar's main tourist sites. “This is the place people come to escape,” says Peter.

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Peter leaves me on the island in the afternoon to enjoy a local music and dance festival. Following a group of Cape Verdean dancers shaking themselves in frenetic Brazilian style, I run into Florence, from the French island of Réunion, whom I'd met at an expat party the night before. We try to stick together in the crowd but a man in a clean-pressed shirt keeps cutting his

way between us.

“That man was being strange and creepy,” I tell Florence after I've forced my way between him and his friend to catch up. I stop short to feel my pockets. “He also just stole my wallet.”

ROUGH JUSTICE. Breaking free from the crowd, I look around for the man and his friend, but of course he's gone, along with both my bank cards and a hoard of cash. I try not to freak out but, needless to say, this is mighty inconvenient. Perhaps it's some ancestral karma for the white man's role in the slave trade.

Although it seems a pointless formality, we report the theft at the nearby police station. “Did you see what he looked like?” asks an officer.

I reply, with Florence translating into French, that I recall a well-dressed man in a dark, buttoned-up short-sleeve shirt with vertical stripes. The picture is hazy at best. The chief and I head out into the crowd in a vain attempt to spot a man whose face I don't remember and who has obviously changed his shirt by now. We give up after less than 10 minutes.

On the way back to the station house, we find the first officer dragging a rough-looking man with one arm.In the other hand he held something small, black and made of leather. I can barely get the words out. “My wallet!”

The officer handcuffs the suspect, shoves him towards the station and lays an audible blow to his back with his truncheon. Inside, the other officers take turns beating him.
Amazingly, the cash and bank cards are still in my wallet. The officers, meanwhile, go through a bag they've found on the men – there were three suspects w

orking together, apparently – and find a dark, button-up short-sleeve shirt with vertical stripes.

Another round of beating commences. Truth be told, I have no deep feelings about this rough justice. I murmur to Florence at one point, in English, that they can stop beating the criminals now, but honestly, she isn't meant to translate it, and she doesn't.

NEXT STOP, MALI. It's a lucky break, and I have a good story that night when I meet up with a separate crowd of European expats. They invite me to sleep at the house they've rented for the night on the island; one of them, a UN lawyer, also invites me to stay for a few nights in the spare room in her flat. It's a haven of calm with a huge terrace within a stone's toss from the Atlantic waves – a boon for the weary traveler after my 66-hour journey from Marrakech.

Something about this entire episode sums up my 10-day Dakar experience. An oasis of political stability and freedom in West Africa – there's a reason Peter's radio station is based here, for instance, and not Monrovia – Dakar is eminently livable. Its night life is legendary, especially if you find a good live performance, although I did not; yet there's also an undercurrent of aggression that residents told me you don't find elsewhere in the region. The Senegalese are famously tough negotiators, for instance, and simply agreeing on cab fare can be a taxing experience. It's not a gentle place.

In fairness, my next encounter with African law enforcement takes place over the border in Mali, and it doesn't go as well for me. At midnight on the road to Bamako, the police try to shake me down for relieving myself next to the official police latrine. I holler loud enough that the bus driver and his assistant come to rescue me. The cops let me off with a US$6 “fine”.

My fellow passengers laugh uproariously at the story. Briefly shaken, I feel safe and sound once more, and more importantly, I'm back on the road again, Bamako-bound.

This is the seventh installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

–> NEXT IN THE SERIES: Waiting for Salif Keita in Bamako

<-- PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Sleepless in Western Sahara

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Sleepless in Western Sahara

It's late at night, and we're driving through the darkness of the Western Sahara in a rattly old Mercedes towards the border of Mauritania when I smell gas.

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“Are you making tea down there?” I ask Amady. He's riding shotgun, and I notice he's fiddling with a propane burner on the floor in front of his seat. “That's crazy.”

“I think it's strange, too,” Amady says. “But the driver asked me to do it.” He balances a small tray on his lap, pouring tea from one cup to another and then back into the pot to cool it off.

I met Amady, a young Senegalese musician, earlier in the day at a sun-baked, fly-infested rest stop on the second day of a 26-hour bus ride from Marrakech to Dakhla, the furthest point south reachable by Moroccan buses.

In Africa, I soon learn, it's typical to spend 48 hours or more on the road. Amady is returning home to Dakar after a visit to Morocco that lasted just four days – less time than it takes to get there and back.

THE IMPERIOUS MOOR. We pass the tea around the car. I've had tea in the Sahara before, but never quite like this.

I've noticed something about our driver: he's rather imperious for a man who drives a jalopy for hire. Perhaps it's an impression created by the neatly trimmed mustache and his gold-framed glasses, or the regal desert dress of his native Mauritania – a dishdasha with sweeping sleeves, armholes big enough to step through and a wide swath of gold brocade around the neck. But he's got the look of a man not accustomed to people telling him what to do. A man who makes his passengers serve him tea.

It's a long, straight road through the Western Saharan wastelands, and I start to worry that the driver might doze off. He stops the car repeatedly to stretch. Finally, we pull into a petrol station. He walks into an empty room and, without much explanation, falls asleep on a dirty mattress.

Come again? I knew we'd be spending the night on this side of the border, but I wasn't expecting this. There are no spare mattresses for Amady and me.

I'm too livid to sleep, even though it's my second consecutive night without a bed. I prop myself against the wall in the corner and weigh my options. I could kick the driver, but that wouldn't help; he does, after all, need the rest more than I do, for the sake of us all.

I start to calm down. Next thing I know, I'm asleep on the dirty carpet, a condition that persists for a few precious hours.

DODGING LANDMINES. We queue at the border before dawn and cross into Mauritania at nine, going off road for several kilometers into an undulating no

-man's-land riddled with mines and wrecked vehicles – travelers who didn't manage to follow the tire tracks of previous cars' have been blown to smithereens in recent years. It's a landscape that's been compared, correctly, to Mad Max.

Time was when Mauritania was not, in fact, the end of the world. It would be nice to tell the grandchildren I saw Chinguetti,

for instance, the country's main tourist draw, about 500 kilometers inland. The Sahara is slowly swallowing the former caravan hub, once a beacon for poets and scholars. But I've decided to go straight through to Dakar, and I see little of Mauritania except a desolate coast.

Amid a chorus of shouting in Hassaniya (Mauritania's language, an Arabic dialect indecipherable to most Arabic speakers), Wolof (the language of Senegal) and French (the lingua franca), we change cars in dusty Nouakchott, the capital, and reach Rosso, the border town, after dark.

We bribe our way through the border, which is officially closed, paying off a gang of Wolof-speaking miscreants who hang around outside the immigration office. I thought I'd be in good hands with a local, but the ordeal nearly brings Amady to tears.

INTO THE SOUTH. Beneath an inky sky, a barely buoyant skiff brings us across the Senegal River, a geo-cultural divide. There's music coming out of the speakers in the town on the other side of the river, with not an Arab note to be heard; nor is sweetened tea served at all hours. We're out of the desert now and into black Africa.

But the journey's far from over. I spend a third consecutive night without a bed when the car gets a flat about 4am. We stop outside a tire shop on the side of road and wait for dawn amid the high-pitched screech of mosquitoes.

I reach Dakar at 10am, 66 hours after leaving Marrakech, and find a guest house facing the Atlantic. The ocean is restless, endlessly crashing against the fine sands, but for the first time in days, I sleep soundly. In a bed.

This is the sixth installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

–> NEXT IN THE SERIES: Daylight robbery in Dakar

<-- PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Winging it from Marrakech to Mauritania

–> “AROUND AFRICA” INDEX <--

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Looks like I’m trying to draw something, but I don’t know what

I've updated the Google Map that tracks my overland journey through Africa. I'm now in Mali, waiting for visas to materialize, en route to Timbuktu; after that, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, maybe Gabon, little Congo, big Congo, and then I don't know. Continue reading Looks like I’m trying to draw something, but I don’t know what

No, I don't think they hit their heads with wooden boards

Who knows when I'll be connected to the web again, and since I didn't want to leave the photo of the Thai Nazis at the top of this blog all weekend, it's worth mentioning my upcoming visit to Keur Moussa, a Benedictine monastery about 50 kilometers from Dakar. The monks here are known for their Gregorian chants (in the Wolof language) combined with traditional Senegalese instrumentation, such as drumming and the kora (a West African harp lute). Hopefully they'll let me stay there for a few days. Go below the fold for a video on the monks. Continue reading No, I don't think they hit their heads with wooden boards

What is it with ducks?

You know what I love? First and foremost, that through the kindness of people who were strangers but a week ago, I'm able to crash for a few days in a spare room in a spacious flat with a terrace within teacup's toss of the Atlantic

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ean in Dakar; but also the fact that below the terrace, in the few paces between the house and the surf crashing against the rocks, six web-footed friends are minding their own business in a duck coop. I just hope somebody doesn't eat them.

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