…. Well to title this post as ‘Kenya’ is a little misleading, but easier to insert into the blog. A ‘Tour of Lake Turkana’ would be more accurate; as we only saw a very small part of northern Kenya which I gather is also quite different to the rest of the ‘developed’ Kenya. In all we only drove on about 20 km of tarmac road, otherwise on some of the worst kept pistes in Africa, potholes, mud and corrugation, in part compensated by the extremely colourful and bizarre tribes and strange landscapes. ..but I’m going ahead of myself. This strange itinerary that we undertook was inspired by a series of impulses. A chance conversation with a fellow traveller talking of an Italian travelling around Ethiopia in his truck, a phone call and discovery of common friends. Although they have never met, Luca and Walter talk enthusiastically about a remote piste running along the west side of the Omo river, down past Jimma, Bonga and Maji, travelling through Omo National park reaching the ‘beautiful long necked women of Lake Turkana’ on the Kenyan boarder near Lodowar…As a young boy Luca was inspired by a book written by Nino Cirani recounting a tour of Africa from Tunisi to South Africa and back up to Cairo that he and his companion Vittorio Parigi undertook in the mid 60’s in a land rover… the most vivid images firing Luca’s young mind were the photos of precisely this piste, where the two intrepid travellers slid through thick mud, thin invisible pistes in high grass at impossible angles and met strange wild tribes with exotic body tattoos and lip plates.
It’s soon Lucas birthday and this seems a fitting present, another little piece in the strange jigsaw of dreams to be fulfilled. We hope we will also be able to show the children some of the wild Africa with elephants, lions and crocodiles…. it will probably be a long time before we return to this part of Africa in the truck….
This little ’holiday’ was also to be a break from filming and taking photographs. We knew that the strange tribes populating this remote area are not keen on being filmed…and despite the huge temptation we didn’t want to spoil the experience. We have come away without a single photo of tribes people…but with many beautiful and strange images imprinted in our minds!
After a long stay at ‘Wims Holland House’ in Addis organising the trip and relaxing in the easy company of the staff, we set off behind Walters’ compact Unimog .The start of our route took us along a surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) well-surfaced ‘Chinese’ road with the usual muddy road works in between. We climb up through mountains into high forests and through huge tea plantations and picturesque villages. As we proceed the huts along the roadside start to be painted, people are shedding their t-shirts preferring colourfully draped cloths and now carry spears instead of sticks. Children bathe naked in the rain (I shiver for them at almost 3000m) and there is somehow a tribal feeling to everything. Faces too have changed….blood-shot eyes, blue- black complexions and hard proud stares, funny wormy hairstyles and robust muscular bodies. The women now show their breasts, their hair at times decorated with red mud and their skin covered with tribal scars, they carry their infants in leather pouches on their backs.
The area is suddenly scarcely populated and no one comes to our camp in the evening. I somehow expect to see a hyena or wildcat…the sounds are African with strange birds, crickets and other unknown noises.
When we finally reach Maji, it is a particularly insignificant little village that serves good hot spicy tea. We lunch on bread and goat soup, and then set of on a tiny track that is the start of the adventure we had imagined before leaving. Our pace is slow and hesitant, it is evident that we won’t meet any other vehicles along the way, and will have to clear the road of fallen trees and land slides. The rocky surface gives way to black mud, high trees and grass even taller than our truck. The path is so narrow that there is no room to get out of the truck…when I finally manage I feel somehow bare and exposed, expecting something to poke out of the grass any minute. The men we have occasionally met walking in small groups along the path are all armed with Kalashnikovs and wild faces…. they too would make me jump if they appeared (as they often do) silently and suddenly from the thick foliage emerging from invisible paths!
We are mostly driving on a narrow ridge on the top of a mountain; the land drops dramatically on both sides at times enshrouded in mist that works its magic on our imagination. As suddenly as the forest sucked us in, it expels us into a high plain with cultivated fields. We stop for the night in a clearing, greeted by a delighted group of women smelling of palm wine. They are friendly and suitably amused and hilarious at our presence…. they are also the only people who insist on being photographed. It is refreshing, and although they wear ragged t-shirts and aren’t the tribes typically photographed in this area, their faces are open and their eyes full of light…people who rarely see their own reflection and have no face to present you except their own. To my surprise an old man asks in Italian ‘dove andate?’ …I imagine him asking the same question 40 years earlier to a young Cirani in a very different, but similar world. In the morning we are given two huge sticks of sugarcane, I appreciate the gesture and return the hospitality with a cup of Italian ‘bunna’ (coffee) this too is appreciated.
The next day is perhaps the most memorable and bizarre of the entire trip. As we descend the mountain the scenery again changes dramatically giving way to yellow grass and scattered acacia trees. As we advance small figures shoot in and out of the high grass, some totally nude with white tinted hair, others clad with strange ornaments, dimpled scars all over their bodies and huge wooden earrings as large as coffee cups. The children are too scared to succumb to curiosity and scuttle away, whist the older boys excitedly running along side our truck screaming strange words with their spears raised. I feel my adrenalin flowing and am glad that I know them to be friendly…in this remote context their expressions can be disturbing, until they inevitably break into their wide smile.
I spot a young girl with a huge ceramic lip-plate inserted in her lower lip, and am suitably impressed, its a strange shocking sight but one I have seen in many documentaries and photos…. what I have never seen and what shocked me more was when we stopped on a high ridge to absorb the scene…. to be met by a women without her lip plate!! Her bottom teeth have been removed and her bottom lip sags down to her breasts. She dries it with a cloth and starts stretching it to an incredible length. Then she holds out her hand to greet us. I can’t help smiling as little Giulio obediently holds out his hand…he normally hates greeting people, evidently he thinks it’s a bad idea to refuse!
Omo National park brings mud, rain, and animal droppings, but no animals. The scenery and smells are of elephant territory, but we have no luck apart from two stray ostriches. We struggle through the deep muddy tracks that spray up to our windscreen. The tracks are so deep that when you have to change direction it takes a good ten minutes of ploughing the ground with your tyres before they are released, a bit like driving on a railway track .The savannah gives way again to low acacia trees and young herders with their goats, as we loose any hope of seeing animals. When we arrive finally at the Kenyan boarder, we are informed that there is no boarder here and that we’ll have to cross the river in a hollowed tree trunk to do the formalities in Omorate on the other side of the Omo River. My eyes are now accustomed to the strange variety of tribes populating the area, but the concentration in this village makes me smile … old men resting on their carved wooden ‘cushions’ with large pieces of wood in their chin (chin?!!), leather in their hair and large earrings and metal bangles and bracelets just about everywhere, two month old babies being carried confidently by snotty three year olds clad in decorated leather skirts and other unusual paraphernalia…’C’est l’Afrique!! Since there is no customs or even any type of rubber stamp, we cross the boarder in no time and lazily chat to the Kenyan authorities (Your welcome into Kenya) We soon arrive on the shores of Lake Turkana, red in colour and full of flamingos but evidently no crocodiles as people bathe without hesitation. Lusira and Giulio go with the men to a colourful boat not far from our camp to try and buy some fish. A group of men in the mean time come to our truck to find out our mission. Strangely out of ten men only one has a complete set of eyes. An old man sits on one of our chairs and unceremoniously orders a cup of coffee…I try to placate him and light a small fire on which to boil the water only to discover that he’s totally drunk and also wants us to give him money to stay here for the night… he is sent away by Luca again without ceremony, but the incident somehow marks the start of a down note in our trip…
The next morning Walter wakes with a white strained face. He’s been sick all night and has a light fever, we proceed along the sandy and bumpy piste only to discover that Giulio too has a temperature, he is strangely listless and sleeps all afternoon. We head for Lodowar to change money and rest in a cosy campsite cum lodge…. I feel uneasy. Although we have given the kids ‘Malarone’ a prophylaxis against malaria for this short dip in to the lowlands, and have been careful to dress them before sunset and spraying them with huge quantities of insect-repellent, (I think Giulio only had three bites in all!) a fever with no other symptoms seemed ominous. The next day I take Giulio to do a blood test surprising myself with my apprehension, but my worries were well founded and the test is positive…we started a treatment with ‘Co-Artem’ immediately. The effect of the medicine is dramatic, by evening Giulio is running around excitedly, but the cure will take three days and we decide to choose an itinerary that takes us closer to ‘civilization’ rather than the planned piste around the lake. We are told the piste going towards Maralal is decent, going east we can also visit some game parks WITH animals.
Our route takes us through different tribal areas…it seems like a competition as to who can look the strangest and do the strangest things to their bodies. Groups of exotically clad people pop out from the fields in large colourful groups and it feels like a day of festivities, but I discover this is how they always dress. In a particularly isolated spot we come across a village with a roadblock at its entrance…. they have strewn acacia branches across the path in preparation for an expected ‘raid’ from a nearby tribe. They originally come from Lake Turkana but have moved further south because of lack of rain, the local tribes see this as an invasion of their territory. They shift the branches to let us pass, leaving me with an uneasy feeling and unanswered questions milling in my mind…there isn’t any village in the range of at least 50 km, will they march all this way with their spears, or will it be a surprise attack with Kalashnikovs like in other areas in the north?? I try to imagine living with a similar insecurity, and again my ‘European’ life seems light years away, I feel again somehow exposed and out of my element, realising that everything and anything can happen in these strange lands…what am I doing in the middle of all this??
In the evening we find ourselves in an enchanted forest with white delicate flowers covering the ground…. but I can’t enjoy the scene, my worst fears have come true and Giulio has a fever again…tomorrow we will take him straight to the hospital in Maralal. A lady with feathers on her head and beads down to her waist is cross when she hears the news and shouts angrily at the malaria spirits…she apologises to me, and I feel moved…I doubt they have any medicine to treat their own sick children or any means of reaching a hospital if they really needed to…
The next day is filled with dread and anxiety, as we approach the town I soon realise that it’s not at all what I was hoping for. The terrible potholes on the road leading to Maralal are ominous and a tangible testimony to my fears. When we arrive we find a lazy backwater village with very little amenities…. just the sort of place I would normally enjoy, but not today. The hospital looks big from the outside, but it takes us 15 minutes to find a doctor, I wait unhappily outside with Giulio on my lap contemplating the old ambulance parked in the courtyard with four flat tyres and long grass and moss growing around it…I keep reminding myself that it’s the people that make a hospital, not the buildings. It’s soon apparent that Giulio will have to be put on a drip of quinine for 24 hours. To my relief the doctor very kindly consents us to treat him in our truck…we can park outside the ward and the doctors will come to check him at regular intervals during the night. A glimpse into the ward makes me even more grateful… there are two patients per bed, head to foot, food being cooked on little stoves on the floor along with the cockroaches and no separate ward for children who are treated along with women old and young with all types of illnesses, from typhoid fever, to who knows what else…. Giulio looks wide eyed as an in-patient with a shaved head, layers of heavy colourful beads and long ears walks out of the ward…’I want the truck’ he says adamantly.
After the initial discomfort Giulio settles down with a Mickey Mouse video, a leaving gift from his uncle Massimiliano (thank-you!) This and the reassuring presence of Lusira (who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about) soon calmed him enough for him to fall fast asleep. After a sleepless night with moments of panic where Giulios’ fever shot up to 40 degrees despite the drip, by morning he seemed much better…he was responding well to the treatment and we would be able to leave the hospital in the afternoon, the nightmare was over!!!
Our time in Kenya was running out, we wouldn’t have time to see any parks or animals, and decided to take the ‘dreaded’ Moyale road back north (dreaded for its terrible corrugations and occasional bandits) It wasn’t what you’d call a good piste, but the terrible roads we had experienced so far in Kenya somehow made it more bearable, and we even saw a few gazelles on the way. I admit it was with a sigh of relief that we entered our ‘beloved Ethiopia’…not because Kenya has less to offer, but the trip had in the end been trying and strenuous, I felt like I was coming home.
The last two weeks have past blissfully (with Giulio fully recovered) in the company of a Dutch couple Paul and Maya met on the Kenyan boarder. They have been travelling for more than two years crossing west and South Africa with a Mercedes van, having sold all their possessions in Holland and taking every day as it comes. Chatting we soon discover that they spent some time with our French friends ‘Chamaco’ a travelling family of five who visited us on their way to Africa last year. We added our handprints to ‘Wobble’ along side those of our friends…. nice to feel part of an itinerant community. To appease Lusiras’ frustration at not seeing any animals we bravely affronted the muddy tracks around Lake…. and were rewarded with crocodiles, hippos, baboons and a curious visit of a lion family in the night. After hearing disturbingly load roar like sounds in the night, I confessed that I had forgotten how similar hippos grunts could be to lions, only to find lion footprints close to the truck in the morning…we weren’t even aware there were any in the park and had been very happy drinking sundowners outside by the fire at night!)
What next you may ask??…Well tomorrow we will be heading east to Djibouti where the various shipping companies will hopefully reveal our destiny. We have had no luck whatsoever with e- mails and numerous telephone calls, and will have to discover prices and sailing schedules at the port…our options are Oman or India, lets see.
Ethiopia….. well I feel a bit stupid saying (again) ‘well what a surprise and revelation’…maybe I’m just surprised too easily, but it has for me, certainly proven to be one of the most curious and unexpected countries we have visited so far. After the barren horizons of Sudan and the unbearable 46 degrees (that now seems light years away) the small and rather typical boarder town of Metema offered a stark contrast. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of people on the road, the wheeling and dealing, the noise the movement, the attraction and overexcited attention aroused by our presence. I wasn’t expecting it, and at first coiled up in my traveller’s shell. Then the next shock, after months of desert the green, green, greenery, cool air, muddy dwellings and ornately dressed women, animals and small children everywhere. It wasn’t going to be easy to find a quiet spot to stop for the night, but we eventually found a quiet field (that is, as quiet as a not so small group of little shepard boys can be, whispering and giggling around the truck.) Waking up was early as the little shepards were impatient for us to get up…to both Lusira and Giulios’ surprise and amusement the truck was surrounded. They played theatre through our little windows to an eager and excited crowd. Giulio tried strange faces, which got him several laughs, and Lusira more boldly put her hand out of the window with a peg for the children to reach only to be withdrawn at the last moment. They had made contact and could safely go out and explore. A scene to be repeated frequently during our stay. The rainy season dreaded by many travellers hasn’t been a problem so far. The small pistes are surprisingly well maintained and only occasionally do you have to wait for overflowing rivers to subside. Our first stop at Lake Tana in a beautiful campsite on the northern shore, gave us the chance to unwind and catch up on normal living matters (washing, reading, drawing, walking…etc) Lusira much to her dismay, got her hair platted by a little over-zealous village girl (lots of hair pulling and unknotting) but then very courageously encouraged by her new little friend, washed in the rather cold lake, and decided that from now on she was going to do her own washing ‘like the Africans’ a promise she has diligently kept.
Our travels north have been characterised by chance encounters, spontaneous whims and generally letting events guide us. We stubbornly pursued a tiny little piste through the majestic Simian Mountains, only to find it slowly but surely petering out into a donkey trail, but the experience was gratifying and turning back after 3 days was of no consequence. In these ancient landscapes where all is done manually, from ploughing the fields to grinding flour and making butter, there is a tangible feeling of being in another era….as we drive through tiny meticulously tidy villages made of stone and mud, I study the faces that are studying me and wonder if I can possibly imagine what is passing through their mind in that moment, yes we have common desires and emotions (love, hate, passion, boredom etc) but I feel the very fibre of our being is separated not by a different culture but by centuries…. As I try to sleep in my super- technological truck, I can hear the mosquitoes and bugs through the nets on the windows, the hyenas make their strange noise and the rain pounds down drenching all that are returning from their fields…. I have warmth, dry clothes, a soft mattress, no bugs in the night, running water, gas at a touch, not to mention fridge, gps, ipod, computers, satellite phone etc….The old man who sold us a perfectly plucked chicken last night is patiently waiting outside and when we descend after breakfast utters a shocked scream when he sees Lusiras’ little black Fransisca doll, he thought it was a real baby and after had a delighted half hour shocking his friends with the mysterious object. We spend the morning in simple communications and jokes, and finally get to see the inside of one of the walled dwellings, we receive a gourd of fresh milk and in return give a little amulet for a small baby, I feel honoured to be able to get this small glimpse into their so different life.
At Axum we have a very different experience and get to know some university professors coming for student graduations here. They invite us to see their University at Mekele and after not too much thought we again changed our plans…travelling is about people, not just monuments. We spent four happy days parked inside Mekele University. Goitom explained some of Ethiopia’s technological developments and introduced us to his poet, songwriter and journalist friend Ghrmai . A friendship was immediately born as he interviewed us for his radio (VOA!)
We spent the afternoon together exchanging music tastes, philosophy and anecdotal stories. Later we invited him and his striking fiancée Feven to have an Italian coffee in our truck. The invitation was enthusiastically returned the next day and we lunched together at his house where we were also honoured with the traditional coffee ceremony, so typical of this country (amongst other things, grass and popcorn are scattered around the room, and Luca not realising, diligently picked them all up and put them back in the bowl only for them to be merrily scattered around the room again.)
It was with some trepidation that we headed towards Lalibela, perhaps the most visited town in Ethiopia. After so much time away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist track we weren’t really in the mood. We needn’t have been worried; Lalibela is so unique that its potent atmosphere transpires no matter what. At almost 3000m it has that same festive high mountain town atmosphere similar to say Namche bazaar in Nepal. The low clouds envelop the streets only to reveal spectacular valleys below when a spark of sun fights its way through. The famous rock-hewn churches are stunning and left me wondering for weeks after. The idea that all is carved out of solid rock, from the vision of one man in such a short time (26 years) is inconceivable. The churches themselves are entirely functional and this adds greatly to their appeal. Early in the morning it is possible to witness exorcisms and other rituals foreign to our idea of Christianity. The symbolism of each church and its surroundings makes walking around the whole complex a truly unique experience, for me greater than any sight I have seen so far.
We are now sitting in Addis Ababa doing various burocratic tasks and feeling unusually at home. We will be heading south in a week’s time to the tribal areas around Lake Turkana…Sorry if my ramblings have gone on a little too long this time, but enthusiasm fired me on!
Sudan…well Sudan didn’t really get our full attention, by this time we were in a kind of heat frenzy , thinking only of surviving the day, to be then further tormented at night twisting and turning on a sticky hot matrass untill dawn, only to be woken an hour later by yet more heat. We had obsessive dreams of cool Ethiopia…from 46 degrees to twenty six fantastically cool degrees, it was soon obvious we would be doing a transfer not a trip.In this short time the relaxed character of the Sudanese was immediately apparent, but we didn’t have time to explore, and so i can make very little comment.
The period was perhaps characterised most by the ship, sailing through Nile and lake Nasser to reach Wadi Halfa. We had been dreading the trip, first because we had to leave the truck on a little barge that would take much longer to arrive, and secondly because the ship ,made for a small quantity of passengers, was rumoured to be overcrowded with Sudanese refugees from Libia. The cabins were ten in all and sold five minutes after the ticket office opened…our quest was therefore to get a place outside under the lifeboats where there would be a breeze and the minimum of shade…inside, very eloquently named ‘ the Hole’ (the hall) although airconditioned was definately not a good option for western noses and for that matter western eyes, unused to such a mix of liquids and smells . Getting on to the boat was a long and rather nerve wrecking experience with hours of boring waiting punctuated with mad rushes and outrageous pushing almost to the standards of getingt into a Rolling stones concert (in the 70’s of course)….but we made it and triumphantly occupied our life boat. From here on things were calm, clammy but also enjoyable. The chance to absorb the scenes of endless loading (we left 8 hours after boarding) and to exchange a few words here and there with other passengers… always with an eye to defending ones territory from late comers. The night was long and hard for my bony hips, but i was somehow content and feeling dreamy under the warm stary sky imagining large Nile crocodiles in the folds of the water beside the ship, ….my biggest concern, the children had managed wonderfully with the whole ordeal, once again teaching me that their limits are more than anything dictated by my limits. They never once complained about the heat and saw it all as an adventure, sleeping soundly on our little Tunisian carpets….we had even managed an improvised hammoc under the lifeboats that kept the atmosphere festive. Travelling with children is not only possible, but highly rewarding , full of unexpected fun and moments of great satisfaction and contentment !!
Our obsessive dreams of Ethiopia have come true and i am happily writing from Lake Tana wearing…yes a little jumper….Sudan will hopefully be revisited at a future date in the right season , our short trip certainly didn’t do it justice!!
Egypt…so after three weeks i finally met someone else with a mac able to help me retrieve my photos. At a small petrol station along the sizzling roads of Sudan…a landrover and a nissan with two couples heading back north after two years of travelling. We chatt and exchange news like sheep huddled into the shape of the metre square of shade provided by the back wheels of our truck.They agree kindly to loose a sweaty hour in our truck…So thank you Andrew and Kristina (www.sandlover.org)
Before reaching Egypt i had a strange incomplete and totaly contradictary image of the country. People seemed to either love it or love to hate it…I am decisively part of the first group and ‘inshallah’ we would certainly like to come back to explore more. We were here for six weekes and in the end were defeated by rising temperatures.
The recent revolution gave our visit a different feel, on the one hand you could still feel some underlying tensions and unresolved questions,but on the other hand people seemed to make a special effort welcoming us and sharing their vision of change and optimism for the future. Tourism unfortunately has still not recuperated, but people are being patient.
We were able to see highly touristic places in a more relaxed and pleasing way, without the usual bus loads of people. The monastry of Santa Caterina was empty when we visited it and we had the natural park of Ras Mohammed , 15 minutes from Sharm el Sheik all to ourselves…apart from a few very welcomed intrusions (of course we were the intruders) from local families that made us feel even more at home. We got to know the truly mixed community of ‘Sharm where the children spoke freely in at least four different languages;a photographer specialised in underwater photography,an ex-captain of ships now with his own business, a journalist telling us intriguing storiesof political coups in other times and African countries and a beautiful half Egyptian and half Danish/ Swiss family that invited us into their home and to Lusiras joy lent her a snowwhite costume for the week-end, which she religiously put on after the temperatures cooled down below the fourties!!
Cairo chaiotic and calm at the same time. Too bloody hot to explore in depth but promising something attractive and intangible. We rented a plush boat with disco lights and (extremely) load music on request for an evening trip down the Nile with a family we got to know at the campsite…the small one year old baby was one of the witnesses to demonstrations in the central square his mother proudly tells…she is a school teacher and feels passionate about change…i wish them all the best.
The pyramids are.. the pyramids, inspiring awe and disappointment at the same time.Like seeing a film so quoted by the critics that it could never really satisfy your expectations. The Giza pyramids are somehow belittled by the mass of Cairo surrounding it, and i had to keep reminding myself of the lack of tools and technology in the ancient times of their construction. The’ bent’ pyramid was perhaps my favorite, the context is more suggestive and whilst approaching it i enjoyed contemplating the engineers dilemna when he finally after years of work must have realised that it wasn’t going to work, how to make ammends?? Would his family suffer for his error..how many sleepless nights.
The white desert..chalk, dust and magnificent sculptures. A suprising landscape of modern art with the benefit of millions of years of erosion. The seed of our origins and the seccrets of our change. Shapes that appeal to the modern eye for their fresh lines and brilliant white. Our special feelings for deserts was truly satisfied
Our trip in Egypt ended in Assuan that for me remains a special place almost making me forget the stiffling heat (and that’s saying alot!) The city is of course characterised by the Nile and all activity around it and we were lucky enough to spend most of our time on the west banks with its distinctive blue Nubian villages and terracotta amforas in the shade of the trees offering fresh water to any who pasess . We( again) had to repair a tyre rim and got to know Mohammed, who guided us around his village and took us for a sailing trip on his Faluka…from here the nightmare boat to Sudan, along with hundreds of other Sudanese refugees fleeing from Libya in inadequate spaces, truly inadequate hygenic standards for extortionate prices, but then thats another story! This is the only way at present out of Egypt…We hope the road will soon be open to foreigners.
Well, as my friend Peter is so fond of saying….”shit happens” There i was happy after my days work, ready to update the blog, when my screen was suddenly covered by a pattern of little green worms and a loud little harikiri shriek signalled the end of my computer….I have no longer been able to get it started and alas all my images are on a hard disk formatted for macs!! So sorry friends, if i come across a traveller with a mac i will try and make amends but if not …no Egypt for the moment, except this photo expressing quite eloquently my mood…..grrrrrrr….and rusmfusmrusmfusm.
I will of course ( re)write impressions as it would be unfair to leave such a beautiful country without paying a little homage. So when my mood has improved and other technical issues have been sorted i will update.
Jordan, a haven for travellers, and destination for holidaymakers, offering a mixture of spectacular landscapes, historical sites and coral reefs, good cheap food lots of hospitality and no hassle. The Jordanians are particularly friendly and i feel strangely truly ‘on holiday’. It has been the perfect place to relax and get our bearings back. After two days of solitude and reflection in the stony north eastern desert, flying kites, exorcising our bad feelings, and celebrating Easter, we went to visit Asraq, a small town with a large fort chosen by us mostly for its remote situation. We stopped to get fresh fruit and vegetables and to give Giulio his first haircut at a barbers shop. I somehow felt the need to refresh and renew, but being a mother and wife am no longer free to go and shave my hair short, everyone would hate me and it would have provoked a family tragedy…so i sublimed through Giulio. It was a good idea (apart from the haircut that lasted one week before being remodelled with Lucas electric shaver) After chatting and small talk we were informed that the haircut was on the house and then we were kindly invited for lunch by two young students in the ceremonial house of their Bedouin clan.
The following day, we faced the Pakistani embassy in Amman with reticence, and our presentiments were well founded. We were courteously invited to sit down and soon after just as courteously refused our visa (again…)
In a state of confusion we were led to a communal park on the outskirts of Amman by a taxi driver who didn’t really understand our request for a camping. Hmm… Stuck again, but no, after just ten minutes a young man approaches our truck, he has been sent by his mother to invite us to his house just a little further on in the countryside. We ended up staying four beautiful days with the Abadi family. The children were delighted to learn that there were no less than two newborn babies in the house, tiny tiny premature newborns that were joyfully thrust into their arms. Giulio looks very mature and says ‘me good daddy’ but is soon distracted by a watermelon, Lusira needless to say spends the rest of her time assisting the women. Outside there are fruit trees, olive trees, goats and chickens in a landscape that could easily be Umbria. In the morning the Dead Sea is just visible, whist at night we see the lights of Gaza. Luca brushes up his Arabic and discusses politics with the family and guests called in for their English skills, whilst i learn to fold vine leaves and prepare ‘diwali’ with the beautiful matriarch Miriam.
The Dead Sea is at times surreal and at times beautiful. The various parkings are crowded with families grilling meat, men covered in mud and women bathing fully dressed amongst plastic bottles and other rubbish, all to the sound of an ice cream van that plays haunting, Fellinian music…..Further on going south we see a clean spot with enticing emerald water. I float for a few minutes, but the kids aren’t convinced. Lusira is petrified because a German gentleman told us that small children can die if they inhale the water because of its high salt content and Giulio cries for twenty minutes ‘culo,culo’ he has a few scratches and the salt burns admittedly like hell! Petra is of course beautiful, despite the hoards of tourists and exorbitant prices. Here we meet Frank, on the road since two years and the first of many travellers we will meet going south. A lone women motorcyclists with years of travel through various continents , a young Dutch couple in a beautiful old VW van bought in Namibia, freshly qualified students, business men, and other assorted vehicles, including an old Citroen AMI 8. Aqaba is a sort of junction and meeting point for travellers from all directions. We swap stories and information, exchange maps and plan routes. Computers are now part of almost every travellers baggage…and the wi-fi connection means that all can be seen dutifully updating web sites and blogs…not without difficulty. It is now 40 °C and the sea, the shade and doing nothing is a much more attractive option.
Tomorrow we leave for Egypt on the night boat. I hesitate to write this (our plans are so easily destroyed and revised) but here goes, after Egypt our plans are to go through Sudan and Ethiopia to then ship our truck from Djibouti to India…lets see if it will happen!
..Yes ,well i didn’t really know how to write this part, so perhaps it should be said that in retrospect i’m not too proud of the risk we took crossing Syria, but on the otherhand I am at the same time very happy to be where we are now…
So how does it happen that you find yourself crossing a country in turmoil you vowed you would avoid with your two young children? My analysis is a process similar to the ‘catastrophe effect’ the consequence of a butterfly beating its wings and all that.
In our case many small unrelated factors all pushing inthe same direction…a visa refused, a comment months before describing the beauties of Jordan in spring, the meeting of a group of twelve dutch campers heading for Jordan (well if these old pensioners are going, surley…) Our little radio crackles and gives snippets of information, but Syria isn’t the main headlines, it is Libia that’s under the spotlights. It’s cold and rainy, Lusira wants to see the pyramids. We’ll just take the small pistes in the east and cross as swiftly as possible.
There is no excuse really, but that’s how it happened. Infact the first day in the east was very beautifull and peaceful, but unluckily the small pistes on our Russian maps can’t be used as boarder crossings, and all other roads lead to Damascus. We came out unbruised but shaken (there were angry men on all street corners as our truck hurtled by…the kids were fortunately sleeping in the back, oblivious)
A lesson learnt , not to be repeated…. promise!!
(And no, to all our friends making sly comments..we don’t work for the CIA or any other organisation, and no we won’t be raising the masses as we pass!!)
My first impressions after Greece was grey overpopulated, over industrialised and dirty. An impression accentuated by our troubled first night where there was outrageously load music and drunks in a small port outside Istanbul…it is perhaps for this that the next day, Istanbul surprised me with its exoticness, cleanliness, and unusual mix of old and new. It seemed to me surprisingly ‘Turkish’ – yes touristy (as all capitals) but pulsing with its own strong identity … tulips and outdoor exercise machines, tea drank at every street corner, cartons collected by young boys in huge bags on wheels and silent colourful side roads just a step away from the main arteries with underground workshops producing shoes, dresses and anything and everything else.
Our highlights were..getting to know our stable neighbours in the central parking where we spent 10 days (two Spanish students Ester and Toni living in camper for 6 months on an Erasmus course, and Memdu our other stable Turkish neighbour and dedicated owner of a pet shop looking for a simpler existence) and of course, taking Lusira to the ‘blue Mosque’ and a fifteenth century old Turkish bath on her birthday, where she solemnly washed and foamed me with soap in a perfect imitation of her larger Turkish colleges.
The lowlights were loosing Giulio for 3 to 4 horrible minutes before we found him heading for the park alone, and taking (again Giulio) to the city hospital after he was knocked out by a swing (again) in the park.
After our prolonged and pleasant stay in the capital, we headed east on small tracks into central Turkey heading for Cappodocia. Unluckily it was again the weather that dictated our rhythm and movements, but between the showers, we saw unexpected glimpses of small traditional villages with grass roofed houses, small cultivated fields, shepherds and. dung collected and dried in the fields for the bitter winters. In the morning we were bought fresh milk in a plastic soapbox still warm from the cows udders… But all is not always so bucolic and idyllic. After the enthusiastic reception of the previous evening, we become more forward and decide to ask directly if we can stay the night in someone’s field….we are unexpectedly and very rudely shooed away by a droopy faced woman in high orange wellies who clenched her fist in angry gestures much to Lusira’s indignation…the world is beautiful because it is varied!!
We reached Cappodocia under a grey sky and were again later rewarded with dramatically surreal landscapes when the sun finally graced us with its presence. The vastness of the area allowed us to choose some quiet sites where we freely roamed undisturbed to try and imagine ancient landscapes and to enjoy the change in colours and styles of the various caves . When the time came to leave, we felt a little cheated. It would have been nice to spend more time roaming the area…but i think at some time, everyone travelling overland has these dilemmas…it’s raining, we have been refused our Pakistani visas in Italy, Istanbul and Ankara due to a policy change…Friday is in a few days and we feel our only chance to go east is in fact to go west first….Syria?
….I’m updating in the next few days, but didn’t want anyone to worry, so just to say that we are safely in Jordan and enjoying great weather and Jordanian hospitality…new pictures and full story in the next few days .
….a little update
Well , I feel a little guilty for moaning about being in Greece in the last post…I think in retrospect it wasn’t only the break in our travels that took the wind out of our sails, but also the unhappy sequence of events in Libia, culminating now in a full scale war, it has made our happy memories of less than a month ago seem rather surreal and out of place..
Ironically it is since we have stopped for a week in a lazy village south of Thessaloniki that we have again found our travelling feet . The spot is not the most picturesque that Greece has to offer, but here we have found an openess and warmth that is now hard to find in other parts of Europe. The children are again on a chocolate binge, we are parked near a kiosk on the sea front and every day chocolates are offered by the various passers by. We on the otherhand have made friends with Georgo, a bar owner who has offered us his hospitality and stories and with whom we have spent many pleasant afternoons discussing all and nothing.( Luca in his enthusiasm, has even lent his hand to serving drinks on the lawn to bewildered Greek clients) Here we have also found a haven to repair (arghhhh!!) our tyres. Yes after making the wise decision to switch to tubless tyres, we made the (unwise) decision of using leaky rims, which is the equivalento of having tyres with old inner tubes…nevermind i’m beginning to think this tyre business is part of our travelling ‘karma’ We always seem to meet nice people in the process of repairing them.
So after this refreshing interlude it is time to move east to Turkey to get the various visas…and find a nice spot to celebrate Lusiras birthday (I slipped into my 44th year with extreme ease at the Kentri bar,with ouzo and wine) I have just added a few more photos to keep up to date.
P:S: Sorry about the e mails I haven’t replied too, I will eventually, but am having a hard time finding internet connections, other than stolen moments on other peoples computers.
A quick note to inform that we have in fact left Italy and are ‘on the road again’ in Greece. The pace is slow and uncertain…finding the right pattern in time and space for our wanderings is proving harder than we imagined. Somehow our imagination and expectations seem to have been left suspended in North Africa, with the sound of the moazin, the slight tang in the food , the long robes and dust in the air. Much as they are beautiful i can’t seem to find a logical place in my mind for the snow capped mountains and ever -so-blue sea of Greece. The interruption has somehow taken the harmony out of our travels, and we will have to work a little to get it back…I suspect that if only we stopped trying so hard ,it will slide back into place unnoticed, by itself.
On the positive side we have had some interesting encounters with other travelers and non. Much to the childrens’ delight, we met up on a white pebbled beach, with Angelica and Peter with whom we travelled together in Libya ( they are now on the way to Mongolia) We met a very modest and courageous young man from Tuscany who hopes to cycle to India (i don’t know why but somehow i think we will meet again). We met a Brazilian aspirant photographer alone in his mitsubishi van on his way back from Turkey, and of course our good friend Nikos, with whom we have spent the last few days in and around Loutraki.
Sorry only a few photos, but i’m working on getting more.
The route for now is: Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan…(Kashmere??) we’ll see!!
Just to say that i have finally got my act and internet connection together for a little video, for my not-so-interactive blog, so check it out under video or just click here (http://vimeo.com/20370642 ) Tomorrow we will be putting the new engine in the truck and hopefully in a weeks time we will be on the road again, direction Greece, Turkey….and then decide with an eye or more likely ear (sw radio) on the latest news. Since the recent events in Libya I have had many unhappy messages, please don’t worry, i do love my children, husband not to mention myself, so won’t be taking any risks. Our love and solidarity to any of our Libyan friends reading the blog…phoning isn’t easy, but we are thinking of you .
I thought about writing a descriptive account with high and low points of our trip back to Italy..(yes, alas we had to come back) but then realised that this would probably be very tedious and have opted for a much more healthy ‘NO COMMENT’ on the mechanical side…..or lets say a much shorter comment. In brief, after the second broken head cylinder gasket (after about 700km) the truck was first pulled then loaded on to two different trucks (on occasion with somewhat unorthodox systems of loading and unloading) it was pulled on to the boat and driven/pulled off, to finally find its resting place in a small woodwork factory near Civitavecchia, where the engine (with CHUNKS !? of metal missing from its engine block) was taken out to be replaced hopefully in a weeks time by a another newly reconditioned engine. During the whole process, the children were deliciously oblivious to our difficulties, and thought it was all great fun travelling on a truck without a driver.
Passing through Tunisia was strangely peaceful. There was an air of optimism on the streets and the military presence seemed relaxed and friendly, with soldiers giving kisses to little Giulio and Lusira, although (understandably) less happy with me photographing their tanks. There was still a curfew with cars rushing urgently to their destinations followed by a strange unnatural silence after 10 o’clock, making me think about the many other areas of the world where this limitation has become the unhappy norm. (there was talk of removing it the week after) The biggest most noticeable change in the landscape was the total disappearance of the billboards portraying Ben Ali, that for 24 years dominated the cities and every public space. In the small roadside restaurants I had fun spotting the tell tale nail holes and clean squares where the president once stood, in some cases covered by the Tunisian lemonade ‘Boga’ adverts, or just simply removed from its frame, standing empty waiting for the next ruler. The massive 10-metre billboards were still illuminated with nothing inside; on occasion little signs of burning were perceivable, making his exile truly and irremediably complete. My best and sincere wishes for a better future to this country that I have grown to love.
..And us, where too next, today news from Egypt is hopeful…maybe we’ll see the pyramids after all, probably via Greece and Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
Libya, a country that is better seen than described. Small population, vast landscapes and thousands of kilometres of sand dunes, rocks, high plains, oasis … all the best that the desert can offer. All this beauty, my sons’ second birthday, evenings spent by the fire and new friendships clenched…have in the end been overshadowed by strange events..
After 3 weeks immersed deep in the desert the unthinkable has happened. Something i have always been aware of but have actively shifted to the furthest part of my conciousness…a serious engine problem in the middle of the high dunes, off any piste and in an area where only a 50 ton bulldozer could drag you back to civilization.
As we approached a small dune we suddenly felt the power slip away from the engine, and worrying big puffs of black smoke appear, accompanied by a strange whistling noise. We are forced to stop for the night, there is silence and a few hours of light to try and analyse and quantify the damage.
In front of us there are 50km of dunes that separate us from a small village and a tarmac road. I try not to let my gaze rest on the particularly beautiful but high dunes infront of us…
By night we still haven’t established the exact damage, instinctively we think of broken or bent valves, we have opened the head but can’t establish precisely which valve could be damaged, the sand in the air makes any operation on the engine very uncomfortable, try as you might mini particles are everywhere…Time for sleep (hmmmm) I think of the book i am reading to help me put things into perspective…it describes much more dramatic situations during the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda and the wave of violence that accompanied it….Much as i would be devastated at having to leave my truck in the cradle of a dune to be slowly and surely swallowed by the sand (as many i have seen and photographed in awe) shed of its sybolism it is after all only something material. Dreams are nevertheless surreal and vivid….and we lie with our eyes open in the darkness for much of the night.
The next day we wake early. I leave Luca, Stefan and Peter to try and figure out which valve is broken, and to cut of any diesel to it and go with our guides Ali and Belgasm to try and find the easiest and most direct way to escape from this maize of dunes. The truck runs surprisingly well on 5 cylinders, but as we proceed white smoke mixes with the black puffs. It takes us 6 hours to reach the campsite, and by now the power has almost completely seeped away from the engine, there is so much white smoke we no longer dare to speak. A phone call to our mechanic confirms our recent doubts, the head cylinder gasket is broken, not the valves. We can no longer move the truck and will have to open the engine here and hope to find the spare parts to repair it.
Many years of travel in various situations has taught us not to rush any decisions and let time wash away anxieties and make way for reason. The calm always follows a storm and every drama has its special reason and mysterious momentum. Whichever direction it leads us, there will be new encounters, and most importantly, a little personal reflection and growth. The uneasiness will inevitably give way to that precious feeling of difficulty overcome
The campsite is unusually empty, and we discover that whilst we were obliviously immersed in contemplating nature, the rest of North Africa has been thrown in to turmoil. Popular uprisings have taken hold first of Tunisia and then Egypt. The long ruling (24 years) Ben Ali has fled from his country after the dramatic deaths of 100 civilians during a protest march. Unrest has stirred many neighbouring countries with similar synarious. Tourists are scarce, and come only by air.
Which way to go, east or west? Egypt.. or Tunisia and then back to Italy to repair the truck and study a new itinerary over Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordania….The engine is more damaged than we thought, a scratch in one cylinder….we have repaired the head cylinder gasket with a hand made one, tailor made by a friendly Egyptian and the truck sounds good, but we have to drive at least 1000km to evaluate the situation (oil consumption etc.) Only time will tell..
Which ever way we go, I will miss the easy smiles and strong tea and the children will miss the gentle company and constant stream of biscuits and sweet things, that are a fundamental part of Arabic hospitality.
….Well that was a 10 days ago (only?!!) . Time has in fact told on both scores… the situation in Egypt has escalated and there are tanks and violent encounters on the street, the president doesn’t want to leave, unlike Tunisia things are unlikely to resolve themselves in a short time. Meanwhile the test run on our engine has been disastrous, we’re using more than one and a half litres of water every 100 km, the only sensible decision is to go west…. and that’s another story. Read on in a few days, when i will be able to reveal the rest of the story.
Just a quick update while it’s possible..
Three weeks into the trip and it seems more like three months. Time has that wonderfull elastic effect, and we seem to be gaining back the time we missed in the last month of preparations. The step over from house to truck has come about with extreme ease (maybe even to much!) and our new routine is as natural as our previous one. The desert has had that liberating effect on all of us…free movements and thoughts, and we are generally ‘a very happy family’ at the moment.
Christmas too has come and gone without too much fuss (incredible!!) Simple , easy and calm….and yes Father Christmas did it again, all that way with his tired reindeers through the icy dunes, just for his two favorite little children.
We are now in Douz, parked under the Moazin at our friend Abdallah’s house ,ready for our ‘non’ celebration of the New Year (experience has told me that we will never make it to twelve o’clock, but we will turn our watches back three hours and drink a good glass of wine to everybodies health) At the moment the days are punctuated by the call for prayers and as ever the warm hospitality from Abdallahs family…cous cous (hot, hot….says Giulio) home made bread and tea religiously made on hot wood embers and not gas. Here certain rituals have been brushed aside, but not all, and the family is always ready to pack up a few provisions and take the goats and themselves out to the desert for a bit of ‘calm’
In a few days we will be heading for Libya and another full immersion into the Sahara with our German friends in their two trucks, so no internet until next month,so a big hello and HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and thank you for the many messages…i must finish as I have just been solemnly invited for a ceremonial tea by Lusira who has just married Giulio (bouquet and all).. Yes the impossible has happened, and so much time spent together has made them an inseperable pair.