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...


  1. The prospect of you dancing makes me worried. The prospect of you writing more makes me happy.

  2. Hi Ian. We met briefly in Chitimba... Steve and Nyomi (us), Dave and Belinda (our bicycles). Really enjoyed reading your blog. Here's mine...
    Enjoy your trip. All the best. Steve

  3. Seems Google is not reconising me on my own blog, anyway from Ian:

    Trust me Olivier, the prospect of me dancing makes a LOT of people worried. Thanks for your continued reading mate.

    Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by. To the other readers - Steve is doing a mental bike ride across 6, yes 6, continents. His blog is really very good so I encourage you to take a look.
    Hi to Nyomi, Dave and Belinda. Keep safe, and keep peddling mate.

  4. Hi guys, Ian here (google is not recognising my sign in, weirdly).

    Olivier - trust me, the prospect of me dancing makes a lot of people worried. Thanks for continuing to read, glad you're enjoying it.

    Steve - greetings, hope the big trip is still going well. To the other readers - Steve is doing a mental cycle ride across 6, yes 6, continents. His blog is excellent, I urge you to read it. Hi to Nyomi, and of course to Dave and Belinda. Keep peddling buddy.