Saturday, 23 April 2011

Happy clappy claptrap

Nairobi to Johannesburg, via Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana
I’ve always thought of happiness as something that is alighted upon in retrospect; a flickering remembrance, an epiphany of nostalgia, the isolation of a moment that was not, and could not, be planned for or expected, and could certainly never be engineered.   The instruction to ‘don’t worry, be happy’ has, to me, always had an air of mild menace about it.  Have you ever, for example, been cheered up by someone instructing you to cheer up? No? Me neither.  But being cheerful, being ‘happy’, is surely a worthwhile ideal and perhaps those with sunnier dispositions are those who can isolate and process these moments quicker, recognise them for what they are, enjoy them immediately, and store the memory of them for longer.
The reason for this little reflection on happiness is that yesterday, as the sun pounded like a strobe light into my eyes and the truck bounced, dipped, slipped and slid over the rough road, a thought popped into my mind, as clear and as bright as the sun scorching my retinas; ‘I’m happy’.  Aided by my mature self’s drug of choice – music –I wanted to do a little jig inside the bouncing truck, perhaps have a tumble dryer dance-off with my travelling companions, all of us collapsing eventually and inevitably into crumpled, giggling heaps.  I didn’t do any of this, of course; I’m not a complete prick.  Christ only knows what the all-female contingent (my wife, two English girls, and three Argentinian girls) would make of a sweaty, unkempt, wild eyed solitary male’s instruction for them to dance.  There’s only one end to that situation, and with the exception of me learning the Spanish for ‘I’m scared’, it’s not a good one.  Mind you, on reflection, just give me a moment…
Back now! Just had a short break to, er, have a little think about possible alternative endings to that daydream.
Anyway, to the point.  This isn’t a post about happiness, there’s quite enough of that nonsense floating about the web, most of it starting with the words ‘God is coming’ (look busy).No, this is about overlanding – what I think it is, what I think it’s not, and why it’s making me happy. I’m inspired to write about this mainly in riposte to an article (suggest you read it before continuing) written by Matthew Parris in the January 2010 edition of the Spectator magazine in which he lazily criticises those who go on overland trips, such as the one we are on, for giving off an “aura of inwardness”. 
The article had been ripped out and left in a see-through plastic envelope in the restaurant at the Kande Beach campground, on the shores of Lake Malawi.  I like Parris’ writing – he writes with authority, with charm, and with humour – but this article annoyed me. It annoyed me with its lazy generalisations, its smugness and tone of condescension, and for the fact that the affluent, right-leaning, and middle aged readership demographic (in which I include Parris himself) of the Spectator are those least likely to go on an overland trip, but who are being encouraged to sneer at those who do. 
In the article, and in a failed attempt to be generous and less judgemental, he writes that “these are the young people who didn’t choose a package holiday to Ibiza, who wanted to do something more real”.  Leaving aside the laziness of using the meaningless cliché of ‘more real’, I’d like to know what exactly is wrong with choosing a package holiday to Ibiza?  It’s such an unbearably smug throwaway line, one which he knows his readership demographic won’t question, one that makes so many assumptions about youth, class, the correct form of hedonism, and the relative merits of booking a package holiday vis-à-vis packing up the Saab and taking Harriet and Toby to a gite in the south of France.  Everyone has to write for an audience, mine is you nutjobs, but making assumptions about what this audience thinks and feels is dangerous, and insulting, territory. 
He concludes his article by benevolently offering some advice to us overlanders, suggesting that one way to overcome our “aura of inwardness” would be to venture outside the campsites and visit local schools, where we would, apparently, be welcome.  Really Matthew?  Have you thought this through? Let’s test your logic with a simple yes/no quiz shall we?
  • Would you welcome groups of tourists into British schools so they could gawp at the poor conditions but get some cracking ‘Real Britain’ holiday snaps surrounded by excitable children?
  • If you were a teacher yourself, with a class size of 80 plus, would you appreciate your lessons being disrupted, and then having to calm the children down once the visitors swan off?
  • Are you aware that corruption is just as bad in schools as it is in other government functions in parts of Africa, and that maybe the teachers who do welcome this intrusion and disruption are those who directly pocket the small ‘donation’ made?
  • Do you think it actually benefits the children’s education, which is after all the purpose of schooling, to have a group of mzungus turn up out of the blue whilst they should be concentrating? 
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions then it’s a bloody good job you packed up politics to become a journalist.  Mind you, if you answered ‘no’ to these questions then you’ve just admitted to writing something ill thought through and poorly researched.  Lazy, lazy, lazy.Continuing with the school theme: must do better, C minus.
Overlanding, in my experience of doing it thus far in Africa, simply isn’t a cultural experience in the way that Parris hopes for and recommends.  It can’t be – it’s all about onward momentum, about seeing beautiful places, and about picking up a snippet here and there of the culture which, yes, sometimes you do need to work for by stepping outside of the truck, the group, the campsite.  If you’re reading this as a prospective overlander with the hope that booking a trip will immerse you in the ‘Real Africa’ then I’m sorry to disappoint.  But it can be done – go and live with Africans as a volunteer, give yourself enough time to make friends with your hosts, stay away from the tourist route, ask questions.  Then go on an overland trip to see more of this incredible, often infuriating, but always awe inspiring continent. Just make sure you pack the following: realistic expectations, a hangover remedy, a willingness to put the group before yourself, and always carry with you the maxim of ‘how would this make me feel’ before blundering into a random school or sticking your camera into the home of an elaborately and beautifully dressed Masai family.
And if you need any more help in preparing here’s a list of do’s and don’ts, garnered mainly from the stories our brilliant Tour Leader Tim has told us from his seven years on the road (he’ll be so pissed off I pinched his best stories, but this is the abridged version so there’s still room for his book…):
· Accept the fact that the Tour Leader is, de facto, alpha male or female and therefore has first refusal  in the primal mating game that a group of (mainly but not exclusively) young people will inevitably descend into at some point
· Drink in the bar at the campgrounds, be sociable with other people (unless they are taking notes and looking smug), and buy the driver a beer after a long drive
· Take personal responsibility and understand that it is you, and only you, who is responsible for your actions.  Don’t get so drunk that you are admitted to hospital then sue your tour operator because you felt under pressure to drink
· Listen to the advice of people with experience, and if a sign reads ‘inside campsite = safe, outside campsite = not safe, this is not a joke’ don’t go for a little wander down the beach and then act surprised when you are forcibly relieved of all your possessions
· Be nice to your Tour Leader as despite it looking like the best job in the world, it’s bloody hard work
·      Respond to your group health briefing about the importance of safe sex by saying that ‘yeh, I went to chlamydia once, it’s just off Majorca isn’t it?’
·      Buy your driver a beer before he exits the truck after a long drive, thank him for keeping you safe, then report him after the trip for being an alcoholic in a bid to claw back your holiday costs through compensation.  Yes, this really happened, and yes I hope the two blokes who did this get run over by a real drink-driver
·      Go on safari and ask either ‘what do elephants hunt?’ or ‘will we see tigers?’
·      Crawl out of your tent after a heavy night, start moaning that you’d been promised there would be elephants roaming free in the camp but hadn’t seen any, and then realise your right arm is elbow deep in elephant dung
·      Read smug articles about overlanding by otherwise excellent journalists and decide it’s not for you
And if that’s not enough, how about this to close: overlanding - it makes me happy, and it could make you happy too.  Now how about that dance my dear, snarf snarf. 

Video: A very short video of the correct way, in my opinion, to welcome a new passengers onto the truck...

Monday, 18 April 2011

Entitlement and expectation

Tanzania – Meserani, near Arusha

‘Give me pen, give me book, give me sweets, give me money’ the little boys chanted as we jumped off the truck to re-fuel. In yet another example of how you can’t leave your self behind my reaction was ‘give me a break’. I’m not immune to nor naïve of the reasons behind the steady flow of children begging, and within me there is an element of sympathy, albeit detached sympathy. What I don’t have is any desire to hand out freebies; to further embed the sense of entitlement and expectation that fuels these requests. The same sense of entitlement and expectation that results in the little boys pointing at us and drawing their forefinger across their throats as we drive away, our pens, books, sweets and money still safely inside the truck. 

At some point in the past other tourists must have acquiesced to these requests, figuring ‘what’s the worst handing out some sweets can do’? And maybe they’re right, and I’m a misanthropic scumbag. Or maybe they’re idiots – well-intentioned idiots, but idiots all the same, leaving a legacy of entitlement and expectation in their wake for the next mzungu to deal with. By throwing a passion fruit skin at the head of the death threat making child and then being severely rebuked by their more compassionate wife, as an entirely fictional example. Or to give a real example, and following our theme of entitlement and expectation to its logical conclusion, the gift of £15 million the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, gave to the Malawian premier, Bingu wa Mutharaika. Which Bingu promptly spent on a private jet. Rather than on, say, hospitals or schools or infrastructure in a nation where 40% (!) of the national budget is from foreign aid. Think about that the next time you painfully glance across the tax entries on your pay slip, and then write a very simple letter to Alex Salmond which reads: You IDIOT!

The good news is that we found an absolutely splendid way to contribute to the local people who, joking aside, are extending their hospitality to us as guests in their country. And what is this method of contributing directly to a local school and clinic that is free for the Masai people of Meserani in northern Tanzania? Drink as much as you possibly can. Needless to say, we took our benevolent responsibilities very seriously, with the suitable lack of sobriety such a task such demands. The Meserani Snake Park camp ground is a regular and favourite haunt for the overland trucks that plough the well-trodden eastern Africa route, situated as it is near to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngogoro Crater. Owned by a quite delightful older couple, known affectionately as Ma and BJ, they decided long ago to say a firm ‘no’ to the requests for bribes running a business in Africa often demands, and invested a portion of their profits instead in a clinic and school that is free for the local people. And where do these profits come from? The bar, of course, populated as it is by thirsty and carefree overlanders who are more than happy to roll off a truck and straight into a friendly bar where they can literally drink for charity. On occasion a penny-pinching tourist complains that the beer is 500 shillings (20 pence) more expensive than other campgrounds and Ma, smiling serenely, replies ‘you’re quite right, but that beer you’re drinking might cure a child from malaria’ before continuing to playfully tell the overland tour leaders off for drinking and smoking too much. The overlanders love Ma and BJ because they serve up cold beer with big smiles, and the Masai people love Ma and BJ because they serve up free education and health care with big hearts. 

I love Ma and BJ because they made us feel so welcome, because they have cultivated a feeling of home in a place where so many are so far from home, and because they have found a way to be both well-intentioned and impactful. And because they gave me a t-shirt. The other campgrounds better do the same now or there’ll be trouble.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

I predict a riot

Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Masai Mara
We went to the Masai Mara and saw lions and elephants and giraffes and hippos and blah blah blah.  Who really wants to read about game driving? Well tough, I don’t want to write about it, watch a David Attenborough documentary.  Wild life trumps wildlife every time in my book so I shall tell you of how we escaped from a riot. 
I should clarify my terms somewhat.  When I say ‘riot’ I mean ‘protest going on riot’, but there’s never been a catchy song title of ‘I predict a protest going on riot’ (not even by the nice young men in Coldplay), so you’ll excuse the hyperbole. When I say ‘escape’ I mean ‘bribe an enterprising mob so we could gun the Land Cruiser across a swollen river bed, up the mud bank on the other side, and not get rocks hurled through our windows, dragged out of the truck, beaten and robbed’.  Given this context I’m comfortable with using the term ‘escape’ without guilt.
We were on our way back from the Masai Mara (big sky, majestic plains, flagrant violation of animal-vehicle distance rules by the local drivers) after the aforementioned game driving, halfway back to Lake Naivasha (hippos, camping), our base for this little jolly around south west Kenya.  As we drew close to Narok, a small town supporting the tourist industry along the only westbound thoroughfare to the Masai Mara, traffic was backing up, with coaches and trucks parked up by the side of the road.  One of the many advantages of being in a Land Cruiser is the ability to use the laissez faire attitude to lane control in Africa and as we weaved our way past the stationary vehicles and down into the centre of Narok we discovered that no, this wasn’t rush hour, this was a protest.  It transpired that the heavy rains had flooded the town the previous night, washing away buildings and (according to unsubstantiated reports) a baby.  This was a protest to the local council about the lack of adequate drainage, with a rhetoric of anti-corruption layered on top, obviously. 
I turned to James Bond’s harder sister Helen to check she was okay and could tell that she’d already mentally scribbled one word across her internal risk assessment form: whatever.  ‘I’m hungry’ she said.  So as she and our two delightful travelling companions, Fran and Anna, got busy behind the heavily tinted rear windows making an impromptu lunch, Tim (more of whom later) and I turned to each other in the front seats with raised eyebrows.  ‘The drunk guys will be about soon’ he said.  ‘Yep’, I replied, insightfully.  Clearly our own mental risk assessments forms had been similar.  Mine read: angry people + booze + ineffectual army presence x mzungus = trouble. I was surprised to see a troupe of young Italians in matching t-shirts dive out of nearby minivans and head directly into the throng, followed by several camera crews.  I figure they were teams on some kind of gap year yoof reality TV show.  Never saw them again.  I reckon that if you’re after some high-end shoulder mounted camera equipment then Narok market might be a good place to grab a bargain.  They might even throw in an only-slightly-soiled t-shirt. 
The army started to move in on a truck, only to be rocked into retreat by the protestors, whilst the riot police were sheltering in a nearby café with looks that said ‘we’re not paid enough to deal with this shit’.  Then the protestors started to burn the road. Yes, that’s right; they dug the road up, covered it in petrol and set it alight.  It was at this moment I realised that if I had to write a job spec for the ideal Africa overland tour leader it would read: Needed – a well-educated ex Royal Marine and biker gang member to lead overland trips through Africa, must be experienced in unpredictable conditions, erudite, diplomatic and great company. A quiet but indisputable ability to handle both oneself and booze preferred.  Tim fits this bill. ‘Let’s get the fuck out of dodge’ he said.
Weaving our way back up the hill and out of town we were flagged down by two chancers urgently pointing over to a field.  Through the crack in the lowered window they explained to Tim that we could cross the river bed and use the back road to pass the town.  Now, chaotic as these situations may be, there will always be someone smart enough to capitalise on the chaos and profit from providing a solution.  If you want to make gazillions, have no scruples, don’t mind living in a gated and heavily guarded compound, and have an ambivalent attitude to how your neck is connected to your head get into ‘reconstruction’.  Or if you live in a small African town that’s gridlocked by a protest and full of mzungus in 4x4s wanting to get home, get a group of your mates together, stand on either side of a swollen river, and charge an illicit toll for safe passage.  My immediate reaction to this shameless shake-down was ‘screw you’.  And that’s why I’d be dead if I lived in Africa, because my 0.01% reactions would simply not fly here.  Fortunately, Tim is not an idiot like me and immediately figured out that not paying the bribe on one side of the river would lead to the other side being blocked as we crossed, punctuated by a rock through the windscreen.  One needed only to see the tourist minivan fishtailing on the muddy bank, spewing black smoke as the clutch gradually burnt out, and with the faces of scared witless tourists peering helplessly out of the windows to know that getting stuck was no fun.  Tim’s reaction; ‘that driver’s a fucking knobhead’.  He and I get on. (Illustrative aside: Tim, Helen and I were sitting around a dinner table near another large group of overlanders from a different company.  Their tour leader, an utterly unlikeable Afrikaans woman, asked them to each introduce themselves and share with the group their favourite animal, which they dutifully and dully did.  I turned to Tim and said ‘just so you know, if you ever ask me to do that I will kill you’.  Tim’s reply: ‘if I ever ask you to do that I’ll kill myself’.  Like I say, we get on).  
Anyway, back to the great escape…Bribe paid, tourist minibus temporarily out of the way, and the diff lock on the Land Cruiser engaged  Tim revved the engine and gently suggested we might want to hold on to something.  It lasted no more than five seconds, it was relatively un-dramatic, it involved only one brief fishtail, and it was, without question, the most exciting thing I’ve done since stepping off the plane in Nairobi two months ago.  Three quarters of the way up the opposite bank I involuntarily let out a guttural ‘GO ON TIM!’   And go on he did. With just the tiniest trace of air as we popped over the upper rim of the river bank he gunned the truck away from the vigilante with the rock who hadn’t got the message that we’d already paid for safe passage, and pausing only to switch the diff lock off, we had indeed got the fuck out of Dodge. 
Read the news media version of events here.  I prefer my version.  They weren't there man, THEY WEREN'T THERE!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Opt in

Kenya, near Makuyu, 60km from Nairobi
Every person you ever meet, every situation you ever experience, every act of love, and every act of hate leaves its mark on you, like a tiny piece of mental DNA slotting onto a chromosome.  And you, in turn, always make small marks on others’ mental DNA.   So in my lighter moments I resolve to make it count, make an impact, make it matter – and if I can, to make it better than yesterday and even better tomorrow.  One must opt in to the web of the human condition because opting out is no real option. I figure that making a small difference means big differences will take care of themselves.
Reflecting back on our time working at Watoto Wa Baraka makes me wonder what small differences we made, however marginal and temporary they may be.  We collected water, we mucked in to make each day that tiny bit easier for the staff and the children, and we set them up with professional documentation that will, I hope, be read and acted upon by people who have the means to make a bigger difference than we did.  I wrote a blog post that explained how easy it is to make a child’s tomorrow better than their yesterday, and some of you responded by saying why the hell not and just doing it.  Thank you – it is you who has made a difference, and maybe reading the below will take you that little bit closer to understanding just how you’ve done that.
On our penultimate day before ending our time with Watoto Wa Baraka we bumped our way back to the orphanage in Mithini to visit a child called Joseph who lived nearby and whose situation had swirled around our minds for the two weeks since we met him and his seriously ill mother.  So applying the tried and tested logic of ‘if not now then when’ we decided that today was the day that their life would become just a little better.  Joseph is ten years old, he has three younger siblings, his father is long gone, and his mother is sick a lot.  When she is well enough she works as a casual labourer at local farms, earning less than one pound a day.  She told us she has typhoid, I think she has AIDS.  She had only just been discharged from hospital when we visited.  They live in their grandmother’s small home, scraping a living from the land, and often foregoing meals which has caused Joseph to have that cruel little joke of a pot belly indicating malnourishment. We learnt from the charming deputy headmistress at his school that his school lunches payment was in arrears so he was not guaranteed a lunch.  To fix this, and pay in advance for the whole next term cost us 90 Kenyan shillings – about 75p. Next!
We went a little bit nuts in the local general store spending every shilling we had on us on food and household provisions – never have I enjoyed food shopping so much.  Dumping the loot on their table his mother, too sick to stand, burst into tears.  Most days are shit for this woman, today not so much so.
With Ziporah translating we explained that we would be sponsoring Joseph, and by extension the whole family.  Each month Watoto Wa Baraka would use the sponsorship money to provide them with food and whatever assistance Joseph needed to continue his studies.  To a bashful looking Joseph we explained that sponsorship is contingent on him working hard at school, and in response to our question he explained that his ambition was to become a pilot.  Maybe he will achieve this ambition, and maybe he won’t.  Frankly I don’t care, I just don’t want him to die of malnutrition or leave school early to work in order to support his siblings.  It’s up to him now to break the cycle so that when he grows up his family have a better life than he had.
So with this last real, and most important, job done it was with a sense of sadness which I hadn’t expected that we said goodbye to the children and staff at Watoto Wa Baraka.  Heading to Nairobi to begin our six week overland adventure to Johannesburg, the children’s shouted goodbyes dimming as we drove out of the compound, I pulled out a small piece of paper on which James, one of the older orphans, had drawn a map of East Africa.  On it he had written ‘a drawing by James Irungu I am giving to Ian like a present’. 
And maybe that’s what I really want to say with this post – give someone something ‘like a present’, and do it today.  Say thank you, say sorry to heal a rift, tell someone you love that you love them. Opt in today.       

To the left - James and I sharing a high five. 'Playing with the boys' from Top Gun was on the radio in the background.
To the right - goodbye group shot.  Helen got widdled on in the excitement. Tee-hee!

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