A gentle Sunday afternoon spent wondering the streets of Inhambane, the sleepy little Mozambican coastal town.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about travelling is the liquorice allsorts of people I find myself rubbing elbows with. As a camp manager, where tourists came to look at the animals, I was often lodge-bound and ever so slightly crazy with cabin fever, so the variety of human life that passed through my patch provided no end of entertainment (I’m conscious that this little revelation is likely to spark mass paranoia amongst the holiday-makers, but really, look around...what d’you expect?). I’ve had high-flying New York types that tripped out of helicopters for a dirty weekend and recoiled from the visitor’s book in case they incriminated themselves (small world that it is). There have been mummy’s little darlings who refused anything to eat but fanta and bread, buried toothpicks in the sofas, and were rather light-fingered in the gift shop. Other camp managers tell stories of a “goth” woman who insisted on seeing her orange juice squeezed in front of her and required mineral water to wash her hair...and this on a remote beach in East Africa. I remember scratching my head over the menu for a diabetic, lactose and gluten-intolerant raw foodist, with an allergy to monosodium glutamate (sigh). You get my point.
The locals can be a strange bunch too. On a trip through Malawi, our 1958 Land Rover ground to an agonising, clunking halt, as only a Land Rover can, in a mosquito-ridden swamp called Kazilizili. From behind a dark bush materialised a man wearing a broad hat fashioned from black bin bags and fishing line, strumming a jaunty tune on a homemade banjo. He was joined by another rural type, clad in a fashionable, though grubby, Burberry trench coat, who brought a Tipex bottle to his nostrils, declaring in the Queen’s own English: “Where’s my snuff? Where’s my snuff?” It’s not something that you easily forget, and inhabitants (or should I say inmates?) of Kazilizili still appear to me in disturbed moments.
And then there are the nomads of the world. While working in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a visit to market day in a Maasai village yielded a pair of handsome sun-burnished French folk, wearing what looked like school uniform, carrying a small backpack each. They were in the process of walking from Cape Town to Jerusalem (as you do), trusting only in the generosity of people along the way, and a film has since been made about them. We spent hours listening to their tales of soaking in the hot-tubs of South African millionaires, and of sharing meals with warlords in countries that you only hear about for all the wrong reasons.
Incidentally, this week I bought an apple pie from a lady dressed as a fairy standing at a Harare traffic light. Apparently the apple pie, in addition to a good thing to have with a cup of tea, was also the secret to eternal life. I’ll let you know how that pans out.
As the saying goes; “there’s nought stranger than folk”.
Amongst other things, social media has sanctioned the voyeuristic tendencies within many of us. Consequently it’s now okay to keep a much beadier eye on the doings of others than previously acceptable, without being considered even a little weird. Therefore, I am unashamed to admit that I get regular feeds on a few individuals through whom I vicariously enjoy adventures when reluctantly tethered to my desk, and therefore incapable of having any of my own.
Within a few weeks, a couple of these souls have embarked/are about to embark on pretty incredible personal journeys and every few days I read with a mixture of awe and envy of their latest exploits, bug-bears and conquests. One of my Facebook friends, Julian Monroe Fisher, will shortly begin walking across the belly of Africa, from the coast of Mozambique to the Atlantic in Angola. The second person is someone I regard with the same curious incomprehension as a fax machine: I have no idea what makes it tick but think it is quite marvellous in any case. Well-known ocean rower, Roz Savage, is a few days into her mammoth 4000 mile solo row across the Indian Ocean.
The blogs relate a repertoire of interesting happenings thrown across their paths (Roz seems to be frequently pelted by flying squid), and describes the very human afflictions which make life on the explorer’s pedestal sometimes less than comfy. From painful blisters to sunburn, annoying insects to homesickness... hurrah, they are mere mortals after all. I find myself searching for what motivates these people to take up the mantle of extraordinary endeavour. Much like my great grandfather, who set off from Scotland in the early 19 hundreds to carve a new life for himself in East Africa, I imagine that much of the reward comes from stepping off the well-trodden path and relishing the unexpected.
Whatever it is that galvanises such people, the interesting thing is that the inspiration they provide can come in many forms and you can take what you will from it. Whether it means choosing a different country to visit next year or throwing in a tedious job to do something on your own, pushing your physical and mental limits in running that marathon, or reading a controversial author...the message for me is that boundaries are there to be pushed and only in doing so do we make room to grow (or, less philosophically, experience the novelty of being hit in the face by air-borne seafood).
I have a friend to whom the idea of sleeping in a tent is as close to purgatory as one could get without actually shuffling off any mortal coils. Conspicuously sporting an intense dislike of adventure, dust and insects, her preferred accommodation will come complete with wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning and 24-hour satellite TV, preferably including Oprah. If no alternative exists, then camping is undertaken, grudgingly, with a convoy of vehicles loaded with chemical toilets, feather duvets, the latest in portable kitchen-sinks and only barely stopping short of a liveried butler.
Said person once made the point that there was really no need for her to visit the Masai Mara when she could view the migration perfectly well on satellite TV, edited for the action without having to hang around waiting for the wildebeest to eventually summon up the courage to take a dip with the crocodiles. Perhaps she has a point.
Recently I’ve been reading interesting stuff about the role that technology will play in the future of travel and it got me thinking. The gadgets and gizmos that are now part of everyday life have done much to bring us into closer proximity to the world’s wondrous environments, wild animals and diverse people. For someone who still hasn’t figured out how the now-obsolete fax machine works, I find it remarkable that, from the couch, I can watch a leopard hunting baboons in the Okavango Delta, or learn about the colourful tribes of Papua New Guinea. I can spectate as the intrepid presenters of Top Gear try hard to kill a Land Cruiser (and themselves) in the Arctic or watch the often excruciating experiences of the likes of Bruce Parry as he surrenders to the manhood initiations of people in South America (incidentally, how many initiations does one need before one feels secure in one’s manhood?).
So I got to thinking, while sitting warm, comfortable and within easy reach of the salted peanuts and a cold beer, why bother leaving the couch at all?
When getting ready to meet our maker, no one ever says “I wish I’d watched more TV”. TVs, Laptops, Smartphones, iPads etc., are amazing for finding out what’s out there, sharing it with your mates and planning your adventures...there’s an app for that, but this is not the same thing as actually “living it”. And therein lies the rub: casting yourself into the 3-D reality of the migration, actually being there and experiencing it, is incomparable in every way to the unmemorable event of observing it on a flat-screen. Out There is where you hear, taste, feel, smell AND see it happening, leaving sensations and emotions deeply and indelibly branded on your psyche.
While life becomes faster, more complicated, more stressful, increasingly artificial, I yearn more and more for simple pleasures such as the delicious sensation of rinsing the days’ adventures off my skin in the balmy evening air under a bucket suspended from the branch of a tree...and there ain’t no app. for that.
Quite a long time ago (keeping specifics out of it), my parents made the mistake of trying to surprise me with a holiday at the beach. Their benign conspiracy was met with 6 year old histrionics as I mistakenly assumed that the suitcases being hauled out of the boot at the airport meant that I was being packed off to some far off place for having relentlessly hunted down my still-to-be-wrapped Christmas presents hidden in the cupboard. I’ve never been one to take surprises well.
Of course, now I’m a grown-up (sort of), I take enormous pleasure in planning my next adventure and relishing the anticipation for months before it happens. There’s the thinking about how soon after my last holiday I can tactfully abscond from my responsibilities on the next one. Then there’s the endless studying of maps, enjoying the strange-sounding names and beautiful pictures of places I might visit. Once an approximate plan has been hatched, the reality begins to dawn as I start scheming about how to make it all fit together. Then I get to bore my friends for weeks about where I’m off to next (with the promise of making them jealous with the photos on my return). In fact, I get almost as much pleasure in looking forward to the thing as actually doing it. Now that Christmas is behind us, the shops are spending a small fortune on endlessly repetitive adverts with irritating jingles and fake-smiley people trying to get us excited about spending our own small fortune on a sofa at 70% off. Now forgive me for bursting the bubble here but just how excited can you get about a sofa? And even if you do manage to summon up the energy to wade through the throngs between the freezing grey streets and the overheated fug of department stores to blow some cash on discounted goods that you quite possibly don’t need, just how long is that feel-good factor going to last? My poorly disguised point here (if you’ve not walked in with the bowling), is that instead of opting for the all too easy instant gratification of a new sofa, why not start planning your next great escape? It’ll give you hours of pleasure in anticipation, butterflies in your tummy, and make the next few long winter months pass more quickly...and it will leave you with memories that will be more beautiful and last so much longer than a new sofa, guaranteed. (The above image is of an innovative road-side curio shop...everything's on sales if you barter hard enough).