JACOB'S EMAILS FROM AFRICA
EMAILS FROM AFRICA [part 2]
A Dark Journey
Friday, 25 Mar 2005
My journey began in Lamu, Kenya, where I had been recovering from a bout of malaria that it took me precisely eight days in Africa to pick up.
I had been relaxing on the island for nine days and it was time to move on. The long trek did not start auspiciously. Within hours my first bus had not only got itself a puncture but sheared off its wheel bolts in the progress.
Not to be thwarted so easily I flagged down another bus and continued.
In Mombassa I got straight on the night bus to Nairobi, which promptly got stuck in a two hour traffic jam with no apparent cause.
Little did I know that this was the least of the trials that was to afflict me on this journey.
In Nairobi I intended to spend the night, and there determine whether to fly the next section of the journey or take the bus.
However, fate led me to meet two people - an American guy and a German girl - who were about to do my route by road, so I left Nairobi in their company within hours of arriving.
The bus took us as far as a hideous small town which inspired fear in us all - the adults refuse to give straight answers and the kids all had glue on their breath.
From here, we eventually learned, there was no bus northward - only a truck, which would take us to our destination 350km away within about 14 hours.
It would leave any time between 12 midnight and 4am. We retired from the menacing streets to a hotel, tipping a man to call us when the truck arrived.
Unfortunately the American, who suffered from recurrent malaria, was beginning to show symptoms again and started nervously eating pills. I went to bed, where noise prevented me from sleeping.
At 1am I was roused by our attendant and told that the truck had arrived.
The green hills of Uganda
I emerged from the room to discover that my two companions had abandoned their room and set up a tent in the hotel courtyard, having found the enormous cockroaches resident in their room to be somewhat bad company.
The American was by now thoroughly in the grip of malaria and was going nowhere.
I went out to look at the truck. It was a high-sided freight truck with, supposedly, room for passengers on top.
I had no intention of doing the journey alone but dreaded spending even a day in that evil town, so when a backpacking Korean appeared, all ready to go, I agreed, after some hesitation, to accompany him.
It would have been good to finish the journey with the couple I had started it with but they had proved too weak for the Africa road - it was time to abandon them to their fate.
Clambering up the side of the lorry, I was directed down into the belly of the beast, under the canvas roofing. All I could see was a black pit from which a few human noises could be heard.
"That's where I'm meant to go?" I said, to no one in particular, since no one spoke good enough English to understand.
Shoving my bag ahead of me I burrowed into the darkness, trampling on people and losing a sandal (which I never again found) in the process.
The Korean was already lodged in a corner and said hi as I kicked him. I finally settled myself next to him on top of bags of onions and some surprisingly uncomfortable bales of cloth.
There was about a foot of space between my nose and the ceiling when lying down. I realised I wasn't going to sleep a wink that night.
Even after I had dug my torch out of my bag and we had rearranged the bags it was hopelessly uncomfortable. My LED torch that never runs out became a stalwart friend as the journey continued.
The truck began its slow crawl northward. The sun rose. The truck got a puncture.
Two hours later we continued. We seemed to be averaging about 10k an hour. By the second puncture it had dawned on the Korean and I that the estimate of 14 hours on the truck had been a ludicrous lie.
A woman roasts the coffee for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony
We'd be lucky to do it in 24. This also turned out to be an underestimate.
At the fourth puncture it was sunset.
This part of the country was renowned for bandits (we had an armed guard on board by this time) so passing trucks stopped to keep us company.
The tortuous positions my body had been forced into combined with the feeling that the journey was truly never-ending had caused me to begin developing new philosophies of life that I explained to the unfortunate Korean.
The only way to survive, I decided, was to give up all thought of the destination.
In fact, abandon all thought of the future, or even of the past. This uncomfortable pit of a freight truck was our world - our current dwelling place on earth. Everything else was irrelevant.
The moment must be appreciated for what it contained, not where it led to.
The Korean, who spoke good english, was the type of person to sulk every time something went wrong, which meant he'd been silent and bad company for most of the journey. I therefore felt no guilt about inflicting this gibberish on him - it could only improve his mind.
I watched the sun set over the empty landscape - scrub desert with a few stunted acacia trees scattered along the horizon - and reflected that all over remote parts of Africa where the sun was setting or about to set, there were trucks and buses on unpaved roads like this, stranded in the middle of nowhere with flat tires and hours still to go to their destinations, and like the people on our truck, the passengers and crew were dealing with it as just another inevitable part of life.
That night, though sleepless again and my third on the road, was somehow more bearable than the one before. Even the fifth puncture (the sixth of this trip), which necessitated getting off the truck so it could be jacked up, and trying to sleep on a concrete porch for an hour, didn't seem too bad any more.
Dawn came - again - and I knew we would reach our destination that day; but it felt by then as though it wouldn't have mattered if we didn't.
Finally, after thirty and a half hours on the back of the truck, we arrived at our destination: Abyssinia, a beautiful and pleasant land, where there are 13 months instead of 12 and the women are all well-endowed.
Here the year is 1997 and it is 6 o'clock at midday. The farmers live in houses uncannily similar to Iron Age huts in Britain and everyone is promiscuous.
I had survived, nay conquered, three days and three nights of travel hell, my mind emptied by sleeplessness, my body no longer even protesting. The people of that land hailed my achievement - despite the layer of filth under which I was disguised - with cries of joy.
Children flocked to me in the streets and fathers offered me their daughters**. Signs and wonders were demanded of me and I granted a few, but for most my mere presence seemed enough to make people cheer.
I sat by the roadside and drank tea, not even bothered that I had two days more on the road before I reached Addis Ababa.
Meanwhile in the wider world my great triumph went largely unnoticed.
**Sadly - some would say inexplicably - this is the only part of the story that isn't true at all.