I walked into the breakfast area of Maison D’accueil, a Catholic Mission in the centre of Conakry, Guinea to be greeted by Victor from Venezuela. As I introduced myself, he replied with, ‘Ah, Eric the Wreck.’ I did not think I was looking that bad and asked him to repeat the phrase. Of course he had said ‘Eric The Red,’ referring to the first century Norse explorer. I knew I was due a rest and had been wanting to stop for a while but it just never seemed the right time. Now, on day one hundred and twelve of the trip having travelled through twelve countries and covered approximately 5000 miles, I have three enforced rest days before I can collect my Sierra Leone visa – the Liberian one is happily occupying page nineteen of my passport. Having already slept for two nights at the side of a Total petrol station in a suburb of the city close to the two embassies I needed to shuttle between, I decided to treat myself to a few days indoors to sleep, repair my belongings and to reflect on my myriad moments of adventure. Here are a few, long overdue but short selected snippets.
Bordering On The Ridiculous!
Fruit sellers, fraudsters, money exchangers, opportunists, rogues and rascals are the usual assortment of fractious folk who mercilessly hound and harass you through the narrow and inescapable channel that represents a border crossing. Add grumpy guards, inefficient systems, often with triplicate or even quadruple checking and a good ration of rudeness then even an experienced traveller can be stretched to the limit, as people surround you closer than cling film. However, the crossing from Western Sahara to Mauritania presented a different challenge – 2 miles of no man’s land but apparently every man’s tip! Trucks, tyres, televisions, trash of all types including plastic bottles, soft drink cans and rotting food lay strewn all over the sand – the only thing missing was tarmac! So pushing and pulling the bike I huffed and puffed my way in the searing mid day sun, watching as vehicles cautiously picked their route, with varying degrees of success over the rocks, rubble and rubbish!
I felt a tinge of sadness leaving Western Sahara as it had been a magnificent experience to cycle through such a vast and uncompromising but truly beautiful landscape. After my public declaration of love I now realise it had only been toying with me in preparation for what lay ahead, the desert wanting to test the extent of my commitment.
Mauritania presented much of the same in the respect that the sand stretched out for another 450 miles. However, instead of the sweeping golden dunes of the Sahara the terrain became more rugged, the sand seeming to lose a little of its sheen, which is hardly surprising as the temperature reached a frying 55 degrees celsius – my previous highest had been ten days of 48 degrees whilst cycling to Calcutta.
I had started to use my four litre black water bladder which supplemented my standard seven litres but I was now guzzling about twelve litres of water a day, which was spewing out of every possible pore, covering my cycling top in a crusty layer of salt. Fortunately, I had managed to procure numerous packets of electrolytes, rehydration salts, after somehow persuading a pharmacist to show me half the stock of his shop as I lamented my lack of language skills. I also popped a daily vitamin pill to cope with the added physical demands of pedalling through a furnace. I zipped up my top, pulled down my bandana and slapped sun screen over my naked nose, lips and legs finding humour in the fact that the temperature was now higher than the 50 plus protection I was applying. When I was lucky enough to find shade I had to climb into my silk sleeping bag liner to prevent the blow torch wind from scorching my legs. Despite all this, I was in my element and relishing the challenge that such conditions provide. I wish I could say the same of my equipment. I burned my lips sipping water from the now boiling black bladder and I could not touch the naked part of my handle bars for fear of losing my finger tips. For some time I had been thinking of discarding the bike computer – I am often guilty of mile munching and wanted to be free of the self imposed straitjacket of covering a certain distance each day. Nature helped me out by melting it … it has not been replaced. The lens of my camera would only show face after two hefty whacks which presumably dislodged the lurking grains of sand. My mobile phone gave up the ghost, with the screen now as faint as one. To complete the cycle my miniature MP3 player decided it had endured enough torture from my soaking wet torso and downed tools too! You could say the honeymoon period of the ‘mirage’ had passed and it was now down to the simple nuts and bolts of biking … just how I like it!
The Senegalese are incredibly courteous and kind with a genuine natural warmth and giving nature. On many occasions I have been offered water, food, shade, a paper fan or a flattened cardboard box to lie on. I was invited to the home of a lovely family in St Louise and have slept in the grounds of a Mosque where I was offered someone’s bed but opted to sleep outside under the stars, inadvertently lying next to the communal water pipe where the masses and the mosquitos congregated. I have been allowed to use staff showers at petrol stations and share soldiers food at security points. Strangely, these acts of generosity are all forgotten when it comes to buying bread. I stopped at a wee village in Geol about 100 miles from Dakar to buy some baguettes and could not believe my eyes. There was a large bakery dispensing hundreds of baguettes into various vehicles … trucks, cars, carts, bicycles, bins, wheel barrows and boxes. However, Joe Public had to join the mayhem and madness that was scrambling for the attention of a frazzled and agitated assistant who made fleeting appearances in a small adjacent entrance, to toss a few pan into the pandemonium! I watched for a few minutes thinking that it may calm down but if I wanted bread then I was going to have to abandon my bike, roll up my sleeves, as I could see that elbows played an integral part in purchasing pan and dive in. I started tentatively not wanting to offend or upset anyone but I was getting no where. People were holding crumpled notes in their hands which were raised above their heads but just far enough so that the all important elbows remained functioning. The heat was intense as more bodies kept joining the throng. After my desert training the temperature was not an issue, the tiny, old, frail looking lady who kept clouting me on the ear, was! The noise was deafening as voices screamed out their preferred number of pan. I did not even know the exact price as having white skin means the price can fluctuate from village to village. To be fair though, after Morocco most places have been reasonable … about every second shop in Morocco tried and quite often managed to double the price. After fifteen minutes and just as I got to the front of the queue they inexplicably decided to stop selling at the counter and started handing them out at the wholesale point. I had had my fun and started to freewheel, breadless through the village only to be overtaken by a young lad laden down with baguettes shouting, ‘Mister, Mister, I got bread!’ I now understand why one of the international distress signals is called ‘pan-pan’!
When travelling I rarely pine for things which are readily available back home, preferring to focus on all the new experiences which stimulate me on a daily basis. However, after weeks of bumbling through and having to communicate like the village idiot it was a joy to enter The Gambia and nourish my eyes on all the English road directions and shop signs. I stood for ages at a street corner feasting and gorging on simple sentences I had been unable to comprehend in French. I was able to request the price of things and also enquire what it was, without having to revert to amateur dramatics … this can be fun too but it can get a little tiresome. I stopped at a roadside stall and bought some rice and beans from Akos, a bonny lass from Ghana who’s smile lit up the whole street. She had moved to The Gambia to take over her mothers business. It was a simple affair which required a lot of work but did provide her and her son with a guaranteed small daily income, which is more than most have. I doubled up my portion which set me back about fifty dolares, just under one euro.
I started chatting to Lauretta, a devout Christian who was the head of a nearby compound and also dabbled in some petty trading. I spent the evening laughing and joking with her and Akos but also getting fed lots of information on The Gambia and Ghana. I slept the night on Lauretta’s veranda and was then persuaded to stay another two nights where I was completely spoiled. She baked traditional rice bread for breakfast then followed this up with a bean stew on a charcoal fire depositing the red remnants of coal in an open iron to press the bed sheets. I was also plied with platefuls of delicious rice and ground nut pudding. Lauretta was a well educated woman, did charity work helping orphaned kids and received a continuous stream of daily visitors requesting various forms of help, invariably financial. She used to give a lot but now stressed that times were hard. A year past she had been involved in a serious car accident and broke a collar bone, damaged her hip and lost some teeth. She was a lovely, proud, generous lady but I could see she was totally exhausted and struggling to regain some of her former zest. I was happy to teach a little yoga and gave daily healing to try to alleviate the pain in her shoulder and hip. She was amazed that the healing allowed her to regain some movement in her joint. I then spent the next couple of days massaging and treating a few of her friends. Her son James, who had opted for the Muslim faith had a problem too and after giving him a short massage, we chatted till 3.30 in the morning as he expressed his sorrow at the malnutrition, corruption and lack of hope faced by many in Africa. I saw poverty in Morocco but every country since, the sheer scale of the problem has intensified and I have struggled to make sense of some of the things I have seen. The depth of squalor is utterly heartbreaking and I have only respect for many of the wonderful people I am meeting who have to continually endure such appalling conditions. I am a tourist on a bike who is trying to just observe but not judge … at the moment this is proving to be my greatest challenge! The morning I left Lauretta’s house she insisted on sending me on my way with a heartfelt but protracted prayer. I had no problem accepting as she had been so open to receive the things I believe in.
A Matter Of Perspective
You can generally ignore what you read online regarding visa applications for Africa as the information is either out of date, completely misleading or just untrue. I researched every coastal African country prior to pedalling but it seems the rules change with such regularity that you just have to turn up and deal with what is demanded at the time.
I walked into one embassy clad in my cycling gear having just arrived in the city. I was dirty and unshaven but was greeted by a lovely cheery woman who spoke a little English and was excited to hear I was on a cycling trip. She could not do enough for me and not only extended my visa by fifteen days at no additional charge, to allow me time to reach the country (many visas start ticking the minute they are issued) but also got it issued immediately, saving me the hassle of coming back on my bike to pick it up. When I left, she held my hand warmly and wished me all the best. The whole procedure which included me dashing to a cash dispensing machine to obtain the local currency, took less than thirty minutes! What a wonderfully, uplifting and pleasurable experience!
Feeling quite jubilant I decided to nip around the corner to another embassy. My original intention had been to just obtain information on what the requirements were so that I could turn up fresh faced and armed with the necessary documents the next day.
I was shown into a darkened room where I was introduced to a woman who went completely apoplectic and started ranting, ‘Pantalon! Pantalon! Pantalon!’ I apologised and spluttered out that I was on a ‘velo’ (bicycle). One of her assistants expressed the same sentiments but there was no reasoning with her. I was unceremoniously marched out of the building and escorted to my bike. It was blistering hot but I rummaged through a bag and pulled out my three quarter length trousers, the only pair I possess. I carelessly threw away the final quarter zip on legging section in Malta, as it was a different colour from the now faded trousers. I hurriedly hauled them over my cycling shorts, whilst simultaneously pulling them down as far as possible hoping that she would find my ‘builders bum’ less offensive than my naked legs. As I re-entered the lions den her assistant gesticulated the obvious … that I was still wearing shorts! This was not going well at all!
I was taken into a different room where two men hovered nervously … their energy was terrible! Neither spoke a word of English but one eventually sat down and started typing on the google translator ‘What do you want?’ appeared on the screen! ‘I want to apply for a visa, please!’ I typed back, as confidently as possible having regained a little composure. Another sentence appeared stating they did not issue visas – it was an embassy, of course they issued visas! The next line informed me that I needed a special document to apply for a visa. I asked where I might obtain such a document. The google translator replied with the word, ‘Here!’ ‘Can I please have one then?’ I asked, optimistically! They flashed in front of my face a special letter that I needed to enable me to get the special document to apply for the visa. This was getting silly and I was also extremely hot and uncomfortable in my two pairs of shorts and fed up with the interminable pattern of the discussion. Exasperated I typed, simply ‘What do you need?’ Their voices lowered to a whisper, the office door was closed and after a few furtive glances through the glass paned wall, the word ‘Money,’ was mentioned … no need for the translator with the ‘M’ word. There was also no need for photographs, photocopies, form filling or even the all important vaccination card!
Three figures appeared on the screen … I think the lowest one was just for show. Whilst shrugging my shoulders and opening my palms I told them I did not have the money for the top price. They were odious little creatures but softened enough to accept the still inflated middle one. I returned later in the afternoon to pick up my treasured but soiled visa. In their joy and excitement with their ill gotten gains they had even managed to get the dates wrong. I did not notice at the time because the passport was returned to me in yet another darkened room. I was tempted to suggest that they use some of the money to buy a few light bulbs but thought better of it.
Thanks so much for the comments on the blog and the emails of support and concern. I do value them all so please keep them coming. Unfortunately many of the places I have been travelling through do not even have regular electricity or mains water, let alone internet access. When I do find it then it is often slow or malfunctioning. Wi Fi is a rare treat but normally I have to sign onto a mainframe computer which then blocks my Hotmail as it thinks I am being hacked. Last week the browser I was using in Conakry even blocked my web page as it took exception to the word, ‘sexy’ as in my beloved Sahara!
I am still in Conakry waiting to pick up my visa for Sierra Leone … it was supposed to be today but everyone is still busy praying, celebrating the main Ramadan Festival which started on Friday evening. Having already left my haven at Maison D’accueil in anticipation of cycling on today it looks like I will book back into Hotel Total tonight!