• Show me the money January 30th, 2012

    I just missed him apparently. Back in 2006,  somewhere within Kathmandu’s narrow maze of streets, I met a Romanian cyclist called Cornell. Nepal’s capital is, or at least was then, something of a hub for touring cyclists in the Indian subcontinent. Some like me had crossed the border from Tibet, whilst others had entered from India or Bangladesh. Well there had been a group of us exchanging tales and I remember him telling me he would be cycling Cairo-Cape Town in the future. He left me with his e-mail address, but never replied when I later contacted him.

    Fast forward some years later and here he was, or just had been, in Lilongwe. “He go yesterday”. “We cycle together”, said Tokuru, a  tiny Japanese man about to pedal off somewhere into the city. “I need to find new tyre”, he said showing me the ripped rubber on the walls of his front tyre.

    I later thought back to my time in Kathmandu. That Romanian cyclist, who I was never going to forget on account of the fact that he spent his week in Kathmandu having a trailor made to transport an enormous wooden scuplture,  had given me a spare tyre. For the last 15,000km in Africa I’ve been carrying two!

    I returned the following day and gave Tokuru one of two Schwalbe XR folding tyres. “Sugoi desu” ’ (It’s amazing) came the reply. Well I hope the tyres I’m running and the one remaining are enough to take me the 5000+ kilometres that I estimate to be left on this journey.

    Japanese cyclist in Lilongwe

    The plan from Lilongwe had been to head towards Zambia, but for several reasons I’m now in possession of a Mozambican transit visa and about to return there en-route to Zimbabwe.

    One reason is that the Mozambican visa, short as it is, (3 days) was cheaper and could be paid for in Kwatcha and picked up the same day from the embassy in Lilongwe (Zambian visas reportedly have to be paid for in US $, which I don’t, or didn’t at the time possess). The second reason was that the mosquito net distribution using nets funded by people supporting the Against Malaria Foundation through the Big Africa Cycle, was taking place south of Lilongwe on the way towards the Mozambique border. I had also heard from other cyclists that the road I into Zambia was pretty dull to cycle.

    I didn’t see Tokuru again. We weren’t staying at the same place and he hadn’t made his mind up about which way he was going, although told me he knew of seven Japanese cyclists touring Africa, including Hiromu.

    For the first time since passing through Kampala I visited an International School in Lilongwe. The welcome and reception were tremendous. Over 400 Primary School children came specially dressed in colours representing the Malawian national flag to hear me talk about The Big Africa Cycle. Two days later I returned to speak to the Senior School and was given a generous bundle of Kwatcha, which had been fundraised by the School for the Against Malaria Foundation.

    Centre of the flag

    Talking at Bishop Mackenzie School Lilongwe

    Unfortunately Malawian Kwatcha is not one of Africa’s strongest currencies. Outside of Malawi the only person who’d take it off you might be a Malawian, and even within Malawi changing it into a hard currency like US $ or South African Rands is near impossible. Following the departure of the British Ambassador last year there is far less foreign aid coming into Malawi (the UK made up most of the foreign aid coming to Malawi). This subsequently means far less foreign currency, which in turn explains the lack of fuel. This is my understanding anyhow. Everyone wants $ so no-one is really willing to sell them. Banks will only change the money if you have an account with them. I only discovered this latter part on the morning I was leaving Lilongwe with the uncomfortably think wad of notes in my front pannier.

    They stayed there, with the pannier never far from sight, for the next two days as I followed the main road south from Lilongwe. “If only the roads were as clear as the network”, read a billboard advertising one of Malawi’s mobile telecommunication companies on the way out of Lilongwe. Not sure Airtel had Malawi in mind when they thought this one up. The road was typically free of motorised traffic and as well-paved and scenic to cycle as most of the others in Malawi.

    Main road in Lilongwe

    Road to Ntcheu

    Green green Malawi

    In Ntcheu I found the Concern Universal Office and spent the following two days helping to distribute a fraction of the 250,000 mosquito nets which are being handed out here. During the rainy season malaria is particularly prevalent with the surface water that provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Over 1500 of these nets had been funded by people who’ve donated to the Against Malaria Foundation through this website, so being involved in the distribution was important for me.

    Bed-net distribution

    The logistics of distributing such a vast sum of nets requires a great deal of time and labour. Each village and every household had been registered in a census by district health officials with the number of sleeping spaces in each household determining how many bed-nets were given out. People assembled at a designated distribution point and waited for their names to be called out, before coming forward and placing a thumb-print next to their name when they had received a net. Even with over one thousand nets being given out to several villages at a time I found the name lists and the number of nets almost matched exactly with those who were present to receive them. In order to prevent anyone from re-packaging and possibly selling the nets the plastic wrappers were collected and burnt at the end of the distribution – not great for the environment, but it seemed the best solution.

    Bed-net queue

    Opening the bales

    Recording the distribution

    In 6 months time district health officials will conduct a post-distribution follow-up to see how these nets are being used, and review the incidence rate of malaria as recorded at district health clinics since the distribution.

    This is the third and possibly last bed-net distribution I will be involved with, but your continued support for the Against Malaria Foundation is much appreciated. I’d like to hit £20,000 as a fundraising total, so there is some way to go.

    Fortunately I managed to dispense with the bundle of kwatcha in Ntcheu by handing it over to Concern Universal. They will pay it into the local bank from where the $700+ will be transferred to Against Malaria in the coming weeks.

    Tomorrow I will cross back into Mozambique, albeit very briefly. There is a about 200km separating me from the border with Zimbabwe. South Africa is getting closer…

  • Lost in translation February 20th, 2011

    Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would say ‘when I grow up I will go there’. (Joseph Conrad)

    My entry into the Congo has been delayed by a Japanese construction company here in Bangui.  They’re helping to build schools – eleven of them I think. One week down with the job and another to go.

    I almost quit on day 1, and again on day 2. Well it’s not particularly interesting to hold a metal pole for most of the day whilst a Japanese man signals with his left or right arm for you to move it to the correct position. He is looking through a computerised instrument that gives him numbers, which he then yells out in Japanese as a distance.

    To observe this man at work is interesting. How he manages to ignore the children that invade his personal space, the litter, the smell, and scenes of daily life that are a world away from his home surroundings in Japan is quite remarkable. Inscrutable is the word that fits the bill.

    To work with this man is both frustrating and hilarious. Communication is not one of his strong points. I’m reminded how it was to live in Japan and work in a Japanese school, which I did for two years. I don’t think I could do it again.

    Were it not for the free lodging, food and probability of a bit of cash after two weeks I might have pushed on alone to DRC and left Hiromu to reconnect with his fellow countrymen and culture. But I’ve decided to stick it out. The Congo is one country I really want to do with company.

    On the job

  • Journal entries from the Central African Republic February 12th, 2011

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    ” A traveller who has just arrived in a new country where everything is new to him is held up by the difficulty of making up his mind” (Andre Gide: Travels in the Congo)

    I continue to keep a hand-written journal of my journey and may include a few more of these excerpts as blog posts over the coming months. Here are several entries from the last 10 days.

    02/02/11: Distance cycled 44km.

    Location Godeambole:   04°04.274N  016° 05.157E

    Don’t get moving till after midday on account of Hiromu disappearing to buy a new shirt. Someone stole his green Cameroon football shirt from the clothes line outside the hotel last night. I made sure to bring my washed clothes inside before going to bed – dry or not. Could tell the place wasn’t 100% secure.  Management unable to do much, but surprisingly they pay or half pay for another. More than an hour before Hiromu returns with a new outfit – red short-sleeved top and matching sweat pants with the Central Africa Repub flag and colours on. I use the time that he’s away to read more of the hardback I’ve been lugging from Limbe and trying to finish – Congo Journey.

    We now have a clearer route for Bangui planned out. Spoke with the British Consul  in Bangui on the phone last night. He seems to know the minor road I’m looking at on the map and gives good advice. There is a much shorter way to Bangui – 450km rather than 600km.

    Buy a few more supplies before leaving – maggi stock cubes and sugar. Wanted to get pepper, but unavailable. Very little to buy here.Take lunch of maize couscous and groundnut sauce before leaving Berberati. Also have CAR flag painted onto the bike – pretty amateur looking, but somehow original. Like this flag – distinctive from the usual red, green, yellow striped ones from west/central Africa.

    Young kid follows us barefoot for several  kms out of the town – determined that we give money. I have no small change, but find a 25CFA coin – only because he follows us for so long that I give in – quite sad.

    Short way out of town comes first check post – passports and vaccination cards and a call for 5000CFA. Again we manage to get away without paying – me saying something to the effect of our visas costing 50,000CFA and Hiromu being his usual clueless self.

    There is no traffic on this laterite track, just locals transporting wood in push carts back towards Berberati. All look very poor and I feel CAR displays more signs and a sense of poverty than any other country to date on this trip.

    We continue to pass many small villages which line the road – all identical palm-thatched huts in front of which people sit. Most peoplelfull of smiles and waves. Incredibly friendly and curious. Somehow the smiles make me feel more sympathy and sorrow. They have nothing and I’m just passing by pretty much carefree.

    Another check post down the road has a large officer in green combat trousers and a vest top that reads ‘Certified Muff Diver’ with a picture of a man going down on a woman. Well that just sets the tone. I can’t take what might be another 5000CFA demand seriously and we’re on our way again.

    Hard to spot a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I sight a football pitch behind a row of huts. Soon have permission from chief and set up camp with usual crowd of onlookers. Lightening breaking in the sky above as I write this – rains not far away. Still not completely sure when rainy season is here?

    Painting the flag

    03/02/11 Distance cycled: 59km

    Location: Wodo: 03° 49.551N 016° 26.860E

    Rain comes during the night. All that lightening being followed by rolls of thunder then a steady rain that stops and starts all night. No downpour as I feared and tent holds out  water well. Makes the night cooler and when I wake the sky is still overcast. As expected Hiromu has the idea that he will dry all his gear before we leave, which is ridiculous as there is too much moisture in the air. He is always so methodical, meticulous and slow when it comes to packing up and loading the bike, taking twice as long most of the time. I use this ‘Hiromu time’ in the morning to read and write journal. Eventually he decides to pack his stuff away wet like me (easier to bring it out to dry when sun is stronger later). Children and few elders come to watch us pack up, including the chief, whom we greeted last night. Sense there is an expectation for a gift, which we don’t have. Nothing said. Must remember to buy Kola nuts when I see them.

    After the rains the roadside vegetation is refreshingly green – dust having been washed from the leaves. Track also without dust, but there is hardly any traffic anyhow. After 10km we arrive in Bania, which is on the map. There is a small market here, but practically no food. I buy a plate of boiled manioc, having already eaten bread and last of laughing cow cheese earlier. Hiromu takes rice, which has clearly been cooked the previous day and looks as appetising as he says it is. Cafe owner seems to regard us with distain. I sense it is Hiromu’s tone of ordering stuff – the “donnez moi l’eau” sounding harsher than “avez vous”.  I say nothing.

    On we go, descending from this small town and crossing a large river (Mambere) with a bridge showing it to have been constructed by a German engineering company – no date. On the map this is but another mere tributary of the Ubangui. It is massive at 100m plus in breadth.

    The track continues to pass some small stunted huts, often strung out on the road for several kms before the bush returns. Early in the afternoon we reach a junction where the road heads left towards Bangui, although it is still another 370km. There is a large check post here although to begin with none of the surly looking army fatigued guys sitting on the wooden veranda do anything. This is the 9th check post I’ve counted since entering CAR – we passed another this morning on way into Bania, but surprisingly no problems – hard to predict. Try to find water at this junction but there is no pump – hasn’t been all day and none ahead as far as I can tell. I sense this will be a problem as we head into DRC.  People use river water, which is fine for washing and cooking, but have to be more careful regards drinking.

    I take coffee and avocado puree in a small shack here. The coffee actually very good and from CAR. Avocado is mixed with a maggi stock cube – odd combination – people use it here for everything – discovered it actually makes good soup. Manage to get a little water here, also I’m able to break a 5000CFA note across the road from buying just 100CFA of groundnuts. Finding small change has been almost impossible – now that I have it the idea is to hold onto it as long as possible – breaking 1000CFA notes first before the coins are used. Impossible to get change from a bunch of bananas in a village – these though are about the only things being sold along the road, along with plantain and manioc.

    Once we pedal off on what is a smoother sand track heading east the jungle starts to assert itself more distinctly. Butterflies are everywhere – many different colours. They settle on the sand then fly up as I pedal past. And lots of small black birds dart across road in late afternoon. There is also occasionally a very strong scent of a flower – not sure what. Later in afternoon we pass pygmy camps – tiny little huts for tiny little people. Expect to see more in DRC too.

    Sight of 2 fresh papayas on roadside brings me to a stop. Buy both for 100CFA and Hiromu goes off with my 10Litre water bladder to fill it – water source is some distance and a local goes with him. I sit alongside an elder (drunk?) with a map of the Congo. At some point in the conversation, which I do well to follow with his French being comprehensible, I explain that the papaya I just bought from him for 50CFA would cost upwards of 1000CFA in England, but that tomatoes and veg are cheaper there than here. Later I hear him relaying this info to other locals– probably wishing he had charged me closer to the UK price.

    When Hiromu returns it’s not far off sunset, so we arrange to camp by the school, a few hundred metres away. I enjoy these camps, but sometimes feel that we’re distancing ourselves from the people by doing so. On the other hand I know that interesting as the local company would be, it would also be anything but relaxing and relaxation is what I yearn for at end of the day. There would also be an added onus/expectation of gifts/payment. Now in my tent I realise I’ve pitched it over termites – they’re vibrating under me. Too much hassle to move now.

    12/02/11:  Location: Bangui: 04 ° 22.124 N 018 ° 34.709E

    Things are changing here. When we arrived 4 days ago I planned to be ready to leave CAR by this stage  – pirogue across the river to Zongo, DRC. All the kit is washed, collected DHL parcel (containing spare tubes, pump, Blood River book, packet soups, multi vitamins, maps of Kenya, Tan and Uganda) updated website and feel well rested. But yesterday Hiromu returns from an outing to find a Japanese NGO in the city to say he has been offered work – not with NGO, but a Japanese construction company – wtf! He was keen to leave earlier than me and now he has the idea to stay 2 weeks until the end of our CAR visa to gain what he calls ‘experience’. He was a travel agent before starting his journey. This Jap company are bulding a number of schools in Bangui and require an assistant/translator (Hiromu barely speaks any French). He claims it to be a rare offer and that they will employ me too. That was yesterday. Today I spent 4 hours standing with a hard hat on and holding a tape measure as some Jap guy who speaks zero English or French goes about taking measurements. This was after re-entering Japanese officialdom by sitting in an office in Bangui. Those silent 30 minutes in a room of 7 male Jap  employees took me all the way back to that staff room in Japan where nobody spoke but sat staring at screens – so formal and utterly surreal here in chaotic CAR. Hiromu instantly becomes Japanese again – sitting like someone has shoved a poker up his arse and telling me to not sit cross-legged or use my mobile phone. This transformation is shocking – he left his culture and country nearly 2 years ago but switches straight back into it with a Jap company around him. There I was thinking that he had started to reject the system. Annoys me as he later agrees that this atmosphere is stressful.

    Plan is to move from Giovanni’s pad (Italian EU guy I got put in contact with for a place to stay) tomorrow. This Jap company supposedly going to arrange accommodation for us. I told Hiromu this evening that me staying and waiting in Bangui for 2 weeks is 90% so that we head to DRC together, which was the plan. In two minds about whether I want to be taken on by the company, which will involve wearing a stupid boiler suit uniform and a hard-hat (the latter totally unnecessary).  I suggested the option of helping on an irregular/part-time basis – but this is totally un-Japanese – it is all or nothing – one cannot be part of the team one day and not the next. I find this conformity suffocating. Whether they pay money at the end of two weeks or not (Hiromu won’t ask as it is rude to according to him) is not particularly important (although if I knew it would be a lot there would be some incentive).

    Other stuff that happened this week: Met the Brit honorary consul for drinks here. Been in the country since 1978 –  said he got bitten by the mosquito and ended up with a black magic woman. Director of a diamond company now. Worked with a mission when he was first here – coffee export for some years after that. Man with stories to tell I’m sure – few secrets in there too. First real social connection with UK diplomat on this trip.

    Last night ended up dancing till 2am in a club full of prostitutes – well they all are in Africa. Went with several MSF peeps – their working regulations seem strict as well – curfews often in place – what I’m doing must break every rule in the book. Had been put in contact with this English guy by various people on facebook – he used to work in DRC and gave me some good advice, particularly regards the check-posts. Will be big advantage to have an ordre d’mission letter – something more specific to state what I’m doing and where I’m travelling between. He disappears early and leaves me on dance floor with a woman whose hands are all over me. Don’t mind at first – then the demands for drinks come and when I move to dance with another girl I’d spotted earlier she comes over and gives me some abuse.

    Tonight I’d been invited to a party by a woman from World Bank, but after last night as well as stress from day and mixed head about whether to work here or push on alone to DRC  I decide to stay in.

    Bike junk

  • Surf’s up: Talioune-Tamraght January 2nd, 2010

    Running out of money and eating sardine sandwiches was not how I envisaged spending Christmas day, but I left Talioune thankful that the familiar blue skies had returned. The mountains that had been shrouded in clouds for the last week were now visible with a fresh layer of snow on the higher peaks.  It might be the last snow I’ll see in a long time. A different story back home I’ve been reading.

    The Souss Valley is one of Morocco’s most fertile regions. It was half waterlogged as I free-wheeled passed fields of olive, orange and argan trees. And there was I thinking that water shortage was an issue in Morocco .

    I arrived in Taroudande in record time, having cycled 107km in just over 4 hours.  Impressive average I thought, but then I had descended 800 metres in altitude. Only a camera-shy tortoise that appeared to be sleeping in the middle of the road provided cause for a serious stop.

    Road block

    Inside the red-walled medina the  bustle of traffic and people came as a small shock after the previous several weeks in the mountains. I soon found the central hub and checked into a hotel that seemed to be run by two old women. They spent the entire time cleaning and were quick to point out that I would not be taking my bike into the room. Several hours later another cyclist arrived. He appeared to have trouble understanding  where he should put his bike so I attempted to translate, in Japanese.

    View from the hotel in Taroudante

    I’d already heard about Jimbo, or Hiromu-san as I called him, from Ian. Having quit his job as a travel agent he started his journey in Istanbul last  May. The plan is to cycle around the World for 5 years.  It was pure chance that we met. His route is also to head south through western Africa. There is no website,  just a bike and heavily-laden panniers with the words ‘Running with Emily’ written across them.

    Surly Long Haul trucker

    Emily, (Emire I think) it turns out is Hiromu-san’s  girlfriend.  How kawaii I remarked. Leave your girlfriend for 5 years to cycle around the World and dedicate the name of the trip to her. I haven’t spoken Japanese in over a year, but the words came back to me surprisingly quickly. Hiromu-san’s English is typically Japanese (he’s studied it for years but needs much conversational practice)  so I feel less embarrassed  in making lots of mistakes and it’s much easier, if far less useful at the moment, than French.

    It was interesting to see Hiromu-san’s ‘Plan of the World Round Journey’ – an ambitious list of about 70 countries enclosed with a letter to explain his  purpose. All very Japanese. I suggested he join me on the road south, although he already had a Mauritanian visa and I still needed to journey up to Rabat and visit the embassy.

    Before all that however my focus was on reaching the coast.  About a month ago I was contacted by someone who runs a surfing hostel. “We have a friend who follows your website. If you’re passing through come and stay”. Why not I thought.

    Tamraght is to surfers what Toubkal is to trekkers. The locals call it Banana village for the surrounding plantations. It’s not a pretty town. Unfinished breeze-block buildings sprawl over the rocky slopes that rise inland from the sea. It’s prime real estate land though. The coast north of Agadir has some of the best surf in Morocco. Most of the foreigners who come to this part of Morocco live for just that.

    Tamraght surf

    Surf's up

    The swell here can be strong. I spent most of  my first attempt at trying to surf by fighting the current, whilst kids of about 12 were happily paddling beyond the 3 metre breakers. Jalal, who runs the hostel gave me some instruction so I tried again the next day and was marginally better. On the third attempt I was nursing a hangover from the night before. Not a bad way to spend New Years Day,  but my ribs were hurting from lying on the board. My German/Arabic companions on New Year’s Eve were ready to sleep long before midnight.

    New Years's Eve nosh

    Hiromu-san had by this stage departed, but I’m hoping we’ll meet further south in Morocco or Mauritania. I recorded these videos as he was leaving.